Taught to forget


 Humphrey McQueen

 If any question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied.
Rudyard Kipling (1919).

Did Melbourne’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix allege, early in 1917, that the Great War was ‘simply a sordid trade war’, or did he but repeat as ‘a truism that the war was a trade war’? His enemies seized on the ‘sordid’. Well before the Cold War, his acolytes were uneasy with a ‘truism’ which sounded like a snippet from the godless Lenin’s Imperialism (1916). Belief in the commercial motives behind war has endured, fitfully, with certain unexpected endorsements, its advocates following two lines of inquiry: the first documents a general economic impetus, perhaps highlighting oil and high finance; the second focuses on armaments.

This essay sketches the actualities of a Mannix-Leninist approach to show how, since the eighteenth century, European Australia’s place at the intersection of empires connects us to a brace of 100-year wars and several world wars. Threaded through this conspectus will be some of the means by which the sordidness is marginalised by the erasure of contexts.

A third 100-years war

The Great War of 1914 to 1919 could not be called the First World War until there had been a second. Their interlock of causes and aftermaths encourages commentators to picture the twentieth century as a new 100-Years War, picking up the 1860s coinage for the conflicts between 1337 and 1453 over English claims to the throne of France.      

The next 100-year war occurred when England engaged in world-wide conflicts as often as not between its invasion by the Protestant Army of William of Orange in 1688 and Waterloo in 1815. Scholars ground the prosperity of Eighteenth-century England in its ‘military-fiscal state’. The tag of ‘sordid trade war’ is irrefragable for the Eighteenth century, as British prime minister to be Pitt the Elder declaimed in 1739: ‘When trade is at stake … you must defend it, or perish.’ Those were the days when the moneyed power had fewer reasons to fear speaking the truth since its agents and the electors could all fit into each other’s pockets.


One enduring legacy from the second 100-Years War was Britain’s 1788 invasion of New Holland. Hugo Grotius in Mare Librum (1609) had discerned the hand of god on the ocean waves and his breath in the winds for all who trade. The Dutch East India Company enforced this Protestant Ethic in its archipelagic waters. By 1780, Britain’s alliances with the Dutch had broken down again. Unsure of safe passage through the Netherlands East Indies, the Admiralty began, from 1787, to transfer convicts from dredging the Thames to establish a trading post at Botany Bay en route to the China tea trade to benefit the East India Company. University of Sydney professor of History, G. Arnold Wood, observed in 1922 that the petty thieves ended up out here while the master criminals stayed in London to direct the empire.

The re-opening of a canal through Suez in 1869 shifted Empire trade routes from around the Capes, and underwrote the despatch of NSW forces to the Sudan in 1885. In keeping with the commercial motives behind the invasion of Botany Bay, its colonial government sent a gunboat to China to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, thereby prolonging the concessions had had been secured for the East India Company by the Opium Wars of the 1840s.

After Geoffrey Blainey picked up this commercial context from the Tasmanian Marxist K.M. Dallas. The latter’s insight became contorted into a tyranny of cliché about distance as the determining fact of European Australia, its foundation amid inter-mercantilist conflicts finding no place in the ‘Three Cheers’ view of our past.

The oil road

With the survival of Soviet power after 1917, Lenin’s ‘popular outline’ of imperialism acquired textbook status in explaining war as the outcome of inter-imperialist rivalries, a proposition embraced by Japanese militarists and Gandhi’s passive resisters. Perhaps as a consequence of this broad acceptance, the ‘Imperialism’ of Lenin’s title has led critics and comrades alike to assume that it deals with latter-day colonialism when its crux is the transformation of the metropolitan states for the era of monopolising capitals. Financiers, such as J.P. Morgan, drew together every kind of capital, whether armament manufacturers or the resources sector.

Few case studies illuminate Lenin’s analysis more starkly than does the genesis of Anglo-Persian oil, now BP. Between 1901 and 1908, Australia’s richest man, London resident William Knox D’Arcy, poured profits from Queensland’s Mt Morgan gold and copper mine into drilling across today’s Iran. Three aspects of his endeavours put them at the heart of Lenin’s account of the newest stage of capitalism in which oligopolies compete for resources. The first came in 1905 when, running low on funds, D’Arcy did a deal with the Admiralty not to sell to the French Rothschilds but to join with Burmah Oil. Secondly, out of an instance of what Lenin called the cartelisation of the world, the U.S. Amalgamated Copper Company inadvertently saved D’Arcy’s day by imposing a monopoly price during 1906-7 which pushed up his earnings from Mt Morgan so that he could keep exploring in Persia until his team hit black gold in 1908. Step three in 1912 takes us back to Whitehall where First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill and First Sea Lord Fisher decided to switch from coal to oil for the Royal Navy. These interlocks of global investors with the backing of an imperial navy, confirmed everything Lenin could patch together from Zurich libraries during 1915.

Lenin’s access to primary sources expanded after the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and opened the archives on the 1916 Sykes-Picot-Sazanov Agreement to divide the Ottoman Empire among four of the Allied powers. Exposure of that piece of secret diplomacy provides the context for why – from Beersheba to Damascus – the Light Horse was part of the million-plus troops that Britain kept in that theatre. The original agreement collapsed with Czardom but the victors continued to draw lines across Ottoman lands. (Field-Marshall) Wavell foresaw that the diplomats were creating ‘a peace to end all peace.’ Under the Treaty signed at San Remo on 27 April 1920, Britain and France divided Iraqi oil. The U.S. later secured rights there but backed British control as the only way to keep the tribes under control – which Churchill did in 1920 by obliterating Kurdish villages.

Throughout the post-1945 years of Britain’s dollar shortages, BP delivered almost half of its mother country’s overseas investment income. To keep democracy safe for big oil, popularly-elected governments, such as Iran’s during 1953, had to be overthrown by CIA-MI6 coups – one of the good intentions that paved the road to the Fundamentalist revolution in 1979. In March 1952, the Menzies government sent an R.A.A.F. fighter wing to Malta to defend Suez. Four years later, Menzies backed the British-French-Israeli conspiracy to seize control of the canal back from Soviet-supported Egyptian nationalists.

Australian politicians returned for the first Gulf War to stop Saddam from redrawing the post-1918 borders by incorporating Kuwaiti oil fields. The Howard government signed on to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in 2003, one outcome of which is that the Islamists now look forward to erasing Anglo-French cartography by restoring the Caliphate. How prophetic a junior minister at the Foreign Office, Anthony Nutting, had been when he explained his resignation from Eden’s government in protest over Suez in a book titled No End of a Lesson (1967), a phrase from Kipling’s reaction to the Boer War.

Merchants of death

A second line of inquiry into the commercial interests behind wars tracks the armaments trade. Out of revulsion at the slaughterhouse of 1914-18 came exposes of the ‘Merchants of Death’, personified by the Anatolian armaments dealer Basil Zaharoff, recipient of honorary knighthoods (GBE and GBC) in 1918-19 for his services to the war to end wars. He had already merited a place in Lenin’s analysis by organising the Vickers-Maxim-Nordenfeld cartel.

Fears of a new global war after 1933 brought forth books on the arms industry, buttressed by U.K. and U.S. inquiries into its influence. In the U.S. of A., the obvious focus for investigation was the du Pont corporation, founded in 1802 on explosives, going on to dominate the U.S. gunpowder-and-dynamite cartel by 1900, while expanding into chemicals and then into General Motors from 1918. In 1953, GM chairman Charles E. Wilson, on seeking consent to serve as Eisenhower’s Defence Secretary, reassured the Senate: ‘For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country.’ GM found a novel way to express that common national interest by claiming compensation for bomb damage from the U.S.A.F. to its Opel plants in Nazi Germany. German investigators had detailed the role of the Krupps in both world wars and in inter-war politics. Joachim Fest’s 1977 documentary, Hitler a career, shows the Nazi leader promising to make Germany as ‘strong as Krupp Steel’; the sub-titled translation deletes ‘Krupp’.

Ever more complex

The 1936 Report of Senator Gerald Nye’s Special Committee on Investigations of the Munitions Industry informed President General Eisenhower’s farewell broadcast on 17 January 1961 when he warned ‘against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.’ So as not to infringe the separation of powers, Eisenhower had deleted reference to members of congress in the grip of the arms and aircraft manufacturers but he had his sights set on a legislative-military-industrial complex. His original coupling revived with the prominence of Halliburton in the second Gulf war.

What Eisenhower had called ‘the disastrous rise of misplaced power’ found endorsement when the Wall Street Journal editorialised on 6 July 1989 that Washington’s intransigence towards Iran stemmed from the losses suffered by Bechtel, ‘the corporation that engineered the world’ through its provision of oil-industry infrastructure. If this explanation is far too one-dimensional to be Leninist, it cannot be denied that Steve Betchel powered California’s New Right’s takeover of the Republican Party behind Nixon and Reagan from the 1960s. Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz and Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger had been senior Betchel executives, as were two Directors of the CIA, William McCone and Richard Helms.

 Five years after Eisenhower’s warning that government contracts were replacing imagination in U.S. universities, Noam Chomsky inscribed ‘the New Mandarins of American Power’ into an academic-legislative-military-industrial complex. There was nothing new about the large and small attachments of academics and scientists to the war machine. In 1913, the Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Fritz Haber, identified an iron catalyst for the production of the ammonia essential for explosives and fertilisers, a breakthrough which allowed Germany to contemplate war if cut off from supplies of Chile saltpeter, and a discovery which attracted a Nobel Prize in 1918. Haber also pioneered the application of chemistry to gas warfare in 1915. Meanwhile, the lecturer in English at the University of Queensland, J.J. Stable, did his bit as Chief Censor by leading a raid on the State Government Printer to stop the publication of anti-conscription speeches in Hansard. During the Cold War, the Vice-Chancellor at the Australian National University, Sir John Crawford, kept in contact with ASIO about his staff. In 1974, students at Flinders University liberated files from the office of their Vice-Chancellor, Roger Russell, to reveal his U.S. Army contracts for psych-ops against the peoples of Indo-China.

Nor did the world have to wait until the 2003 embedding of journalists for the corporate media to take its place in a media-academic-industrial-legislative-military cabal. William Randolph Hearst’s tabloids turned an accidental explosion in Havana in 1898 as an excuse for the U.S. to seize control of Cuba and the Philippines before waging genocidal war in the latter. The Hearst approach is summed up by the promise he allegedly made to his man in Havana: ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’

Shortly afterwards in the hope of overcoming distortions and inventions by a sensationalist and partisan press, progressive journalists adopted the word-perfect reporting of whatever a politician says, no matter how false they and their editors know it to be. This method has ended up with stenographers of power being drip-fed by government and corporate press releases. It is rare for any media outlet to juxtapose what someone said yesterday with what they are saying today – a role reserved for Private Eye. The hard-fact version of the News appeared just as the current 100-year war got under way and casualty lists boosted the circulation of metropolitan dailies. The discovery of the NEWS became the prime source of distraction and distortion as ‘Stop Press’ appeared in the early 1920s, hourly wireless bulletins from the 1930s, and now isolated flashes, thirty-second doorstops, or 126-character tweets. Because the NEWS-bite must exclude context, its ‘objectivity’ is more pernicious than Mass Murdoch’s most flagrant propaganda, inducing stupefaction and keeping us more ignorant than nature intended. To provide the context of commercial trade wars is to be biased, political and ideological. To serve up data devoid of meaning is to be objective.

Best they forget

The speciousness that ignores the trade component in war-making is exemplified in a 1962 essay, ‘The Spirit of ANZAC’, by now retired Colonel Arthur Burke, OAM, President of Queensland’s ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee. Burke tells school children that ‘New Zealand’s Maori wars in the early 1860s saw volunteers from the separate colonies of Australia assisting their Kiwi mates to establish independence in another developing country.’ This farrago must be a contender for the Peter Reith medal of how many falsehoods one can squeeze into a single sentence. Yet Burke’s tripe turns up in entries for the Simpson Prize Essay funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which hands wads of money to cash-strapped schools if they string along with its Play School version of conquest, plunder and slaughter. The Melbourne Herald had told the truth in August 1861 when it reported that British troops and 2,500 volunteers were being ferried across the Tasman to shoot ‘down the New Zealanders as savages because they won’t sell their land to the Government for an old song.’ God Save the Queen? The volunteers got grants of land in exchange for killing Maori.

Far more contemptible than Col. Burke on the Maori Wars is the push for a Boer War memorial along Canberra’s Anzac Parade. Its urgers propose to erect four life-size horsemen to represent an Australian patrol on the Veldt. What this country needs is a Boer War memorial with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to mourn the 25,000 Boer women and children and at least 15,000 black Africans who died in British concentration camps. Around its base should be the 1902 words of Britain’s Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, prime minister from 1905-08: ‘When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by the methods of barbarism, as it is in South Africa.’ The execution of ‘Breaker’ Morant distracts from a strategy of atrocities and war crimes, just as Lt Calley and My Lai did for the ecocide waged against the Indo-Chinese. In 2001, the Memorial asked visitors to vote whether they thought Morant should have been shot. The question should have been whether the British cabinet and generals should have been hanged. The War Memorial does have the decency to record the top-level conspiracy behind the 1895 Jameson Raid to seize the Transvaal for the gold discovered at Witwatersrand nine years before. The concentration camps are mentioned but no death toll is given.

The older the displays at the Memorial, the more likely they are to broach uncomfortable truths by providing some context. Boeing’s sponsorship of the aircraft gallery weighs against any more shaming the devil.

The Memorial’s redecorated World War I Gallery perpetrates its lies by not so much as hinting at von Clausewitz’s recognition that ‘War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.’ The wall-panels fail to link the Allied assaults on Kanakkale (Dardanelles) to the British Empire’s need to prop up Czardom by breaking through the straits to secure a warm-water port to supply Russian armies and to take out grain to feed the Allies. First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill also feared that the Russian autocrats would face revolution as they had after defeat by Britain’s ally, Japan, in 1904-5.[*]

Much of the context behind the tactical details of the Gelilolu (Gallipoli) landing have been forgotten, or were never known to more than a scattering of specialists. The A.N.Z.A.C Commemoration Committee remains loath to allocate any of its $150m. to the recall of the Russian strategy. The version that endures services the inventing of tradition.


Against this black-out, tiny points can spotlight significant legacies. Take the example of the ‘I.’ in A.I.F., which stands for ‘Imperial’, not Infantry, indicating the subordinate position of Australia within the Empire, a relationship confirmed in official images. In 1935, the postage stamp for the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Turkey depicted the Cenotaph in London, a reminder of those whose interests the A.I.F. had died to uphold. The following year, the stamp for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reign of George V had the King-Emperor mounted on a steed named ‘ANZAC’, a further illustration of how British interests sat astride the Australians and New Zealanders.

Although trade follows flag, neither James Cook nor Arthur Phillip sailed under the current Union Jack which did not exist until after the forced march of Ireland into the Union in 1801; the Crosses of St George and St Andrew had been joined after London bribed the Scottish Parliament into Union in 1707. Thus, no Cronulla rioter could have had a grandfather who fought under the current Australian flag, unless he served in the Royal Australian Navy, because that design, based on the blue ensign, did not become the national flag until 1954. The ANZACs went ashore beneath the Union Jack as the A.I.F. did in North Africa, on the Western Front, and later in the Pacific.

One fine day

Curators at Darwin’s new ‘Bombing’ Memorial had a struggle to be allowed to include any context for the town’s ‘One Day of the War’, the air-raids on 19 February 1942. Nonetheless, their panels distort the rise of Japan by starting from 1868 with the Meiji Restoration and not with the 1853-4 assault under U.S. Commodore Perry, followed up in 1862 when the U.S. came back with the British and Dutch fleets to bombard the Shimonoseki Straits for trade treaties. Japan’s new rulers learnt that they could avoid being sliced up like the Chinese melon only if they behaved like their attackers in the scramble for resources and territories. The Japanese at Darwin were not repeating what the Europeans had done ninety years before in softening Japan up for an commercial invasion. The Japanese raids here were never more than interdiction to stop the Western Powers reclaiming colonies seized early in 1942.

If the West remembers its invasion of Japan, it is courtesy of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, its anti-imperialist theme floating on the Star-Spangled Banner as the leitmotif for Lt Pinkerton who sings ‘The whole world over, on business or pleasure the Yankee travels’. The critic for the New York Herald, Gustave Kobbe, in his still popular Opera Book (1922- ) called on his fellow Americans to object to this use of their national anthem. Instead of rescoring the aria, most productions drown the politics of the U.S. takeover during 1898 of Cuba and its annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines in sentimentality and Nipponoiserie. Pinkerton’s ‘marriage’ to the child sex-slave Cio-Cio-san trades cash for gratification, a miniature of the European expectation of violating the whole country. Puccini softened the ending between its La Scala premiere early in 1904 and 1906 by excising scenes in which Pinkerton voices his racism and offers lucre as compensation for deserting his ‘wife’ and child.

Control the Past

If only George Santayana’s 1908 maxim that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ were the worst we had to worry about. Rather, the obverse prevails with those who cling to invented traditions feeling compelled to re-enact them symbolically, for example, around ANZAC Day, as a prelude to reliving their distortions by sending further generations off to kill and be killed.

Kipling’s ‘Recessional’ (1897), with its refrain ‘Lest We Forget’, draws on Old Testament injunctions against hubris: ‘Lo, all our pomp of Yesterday, Is one with Ninevah and Tyre.’ The phrase’s transfer to respect for heroism and to honour sacrifice, notably, by underwriting Legacy’s support for the dependents of the dead and the mutilated, has taught us to forget its author’s apprehension that the mighty cannot endure. Two minutes silence in remembrance is nothing compared to a century of silencing the truism of a sordid trade war. Our liberties depend on our being eternally vigilant against mendacity and censorship.

Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?
Kipling (1919).

[*] In 1919-21, he backed intervention forces to help restore the old order – and hoped to do so again in July 1945 in ‘Operation Unthinkable’ by joining up with the Wehrmacht until his generals warned that his attack on the Soviets would provoke mutiny. Next year, he launched the Cold War with his Fulton address on an Iron Curtain descending across Europe.


HUMPHREY McQUEEN is a Canberra-based activist and writer whose seventeen books include Gallipoli to Petrov, Arguing with Australian History (1984) and Japan to the Rescue, Australian Security around the Indonesian Archipelago during the American Century (1991).