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What should Julia read?

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8 April 2011 13:56

Julia Gillard heads to China this month representing Australia in the Giants' Playground.The image is lifted from the new book by Cameron Forbes, 'The Korean War: Australia in the Giants' Playground'

I'm nominating this excellent book for a game all readers of The Interpreter are invited to join:

What should the Prime Minister read on the plane to China on 25 April'

After she has gone through the briefing papers one last time, what should she turn to get a wider perspective of the stakes involved' The first visit to China matches Gillard's trip to the US last month, and the two efforts will be compared. 

Just as interesting will be how it is measured against her predecessor's efforts. As John Garnaut comments: 'Whereas Kevin Rudd felt he needed to show that he was not too close to China, Gillard needs to be firm and not make mistakes'.

History will help the PM, and Forbes offers up geopolitics, diplomacy and war as a rattling good yarn. And, what it meant for Australia to join the US in what, against all expert predictions, became a war against China. 

In Washington, Gillard celebrated the 60th anniversary of the creation of the ANZUS alliance. Forbes shows how the alliance was forged out of the ashes of WW2 and the furnace of Korea. The alliance was the 'grand strategic pay-off', but the 'diggers would pay a blood price' in Korea. The sentiment may be familiar to a Prime Minister who has so firmly committed to stay in Afghanistan.

Forbes has the fine journalist's understanding that nothing involving the comedy and tragedy of humanity needs to be boring in the telling: his eye for the key detail is matched by a feel for the flings and follies of leaders. He places Australia's role in the war in the broader context of what the giants were doing on the world stage. 

The big actors perform: Mao, MacArthur, Stalin and Truman. And the 'great, blundering miscalculations' of the 20th Century's nastiest little war are retold. 

An Australian Prime Minister talking to the US and China could reflect on this story of initial triumph and then overreach by both sides; how the US completely misread the signals Beijing sent before entering the war. As Forbes remarks, from Korea to Iraq, 'many defeats and disasters can be attributed to flaws in intelligence gathering or faulty interpretations or wishful conclusions or wilful misrepresentations'.

He judges MacArthur's intelligence chief guilty of a cardinal intelligence sin, 'mirror imaging': 'The belief that one's enemy has the same basic thought processes, values and military intelligence as oneself, despite the fact that [the enemy] was clearly from a different culture'.

'Mirroring' reminded me of Hugh White's description of various discussions with the high-and-mighty in China and the US; from both directions he received confident assertions that the other side would never push the relationship to the brink because their economic interests were too deeply engaged. (Add Hugh's Quarterly Essay on Australia's future between Washington and Beijing to the reading list, plus The Interpreter debate.)  

Forbes' account of the problems the Australians in Korea had in coming to terms with the US military mindset, is a reminder that differences between allies can niggle in ways more intimate than the attacks of enemies.

The 'jealousy of unequals' (a Brit phrase to describe Australia and New Zealand) also applies to the relationship between the Commonwealth forces and the US in Korea.

Alliance differences in national argot and character can further complicate the fog of war. Forbes quotes a classic example from Max Hastings in one of the benchmark histories. At the battle of Imjin where the Gloucestershire Regiment was overrun by Chinese forces, the Brit commander informed US Corps HQ that the position was 'a bit sticky'. The US officers didn't grasp until too late that in British Army parlance, 'a bit sticky' translates as 'desperate'.

That reminded me of my favourite bit from Hastings on the jostling between the US military and their 'infinitely junior' coalition partners: 'An American unit in the Commonwealth Division area posted a sign over its camp entrance, proclaiming itself 'SECOND TO NONE'. The Australian radio relay station a few hundred yards further down posted a sign proclaiming itself 'NONE'.

Forbes offers up the individual Australian stories from Korea, illustrating anew that at the base of grand strategy stand the soldiers who have to do the job, yard by yard. That too, might strike a chord with a Prime Minister who has to attend the funerals of the soldiers she sends to Afghanistan. 

Cameron Forbes stands tall in a long line stretching back to Banjo Patterson at the Boer War — Oz hacks who mined history to frame Australia's memory and military understanding.

Photo by Flickr user Horia Varlan.

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