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Why Darwin must have something to say

Darwin bucked the trend at the turn of last century in the way Asian settlers underpinned whatever successes the tiny frontier town could claim, potentially becoming a model for a non-Eurocentric form of belonging to this continent. Unfortunately this prospect so alarmed the whiskered white men in power down south that the White Australia Policy was crafted instead.

This is a guest post by Darwin author Tess Lea.

I’ll have the rare pleasure of launching her new book – from which this piece is extracted – at the Darwin Railway Club (just around the corner from where this marvellous photo was taken post Cyclone Tracy) in early May.

Preparing for my new book on Darwin,[i] I confronted a puzzle. Why was Darwin rebuilt after each of its four destructions, given its clear vulnerability?

One answer is that it was the best of a limited range of options. Four earlier attempts at settlement along different parts of the northern coastline had cruelly foundered. Another answer lies in symbolism.

Like a guard dog warning on a gate, Darwin announced to other would-be-invaders that its still new colonists were capable of occupying the entire continent, however madly or badly.

And part of this posturing was about defence. Darwin’s strategic location has since come into greater prominence.

The city now serves as a military hub for both the Australian Defence Force and the United States Armed Forces, which affords it a central position in both Australian defence policy and as a core geostrategic component of the American ‘pivot to Asia.’[ii]

But while Darwin has become a ‘lily pad’ (an American euphemism for their new style of technologically-agile military positioning worldwide[iii]), local and national debate around Australia’s sovereign interests and foreign policy concerns is deflected.

There are many ways that this happens. In Darwin, it is hard to pay attention to much given the distracting sideshow called Northern Territory parliamentary politics.[iv]

More importantly, the available terms for having any kind of discussion are narrowed before talk starts. One is immediately sucked into an historical vortex, with pre-framed accounts of past warfare, foreign policy pacts and treaties, Australia’s puny defence capabilities, regional threats and arsenals, and, uniting it all, a base fear model of today’s brown and yellow perils, where China (or Indonesia or asylum seekers or…) remain potential enemies.

The ordaining of Australia’s posture as grateful ally (given its large estate, small population and even smaller armed forces) is culturally reinforced at every turn. Take the hyper-visibility given to some aspects of Australia’s military history over others.

The Darwin Military Museum powerfully evokes the drama and danger of the Japanese bombings in 1942 but, like the National War Memorial in Canberra, makes no mention of Australia’s frontier wars[v]—even though we can thank the pastoral land-grabs and cattle bulldozers of yesteryear for the large swathes of real estate that makes the Northern Territory such a useful foreign policy asset today.[vi]

And if the killing times of settlement cannot be acknowledged; Australian war history before Captain Cook is simply inconceivable. The concept of Australia as a country that had been defended, successfully, against other intruders, by Aboriginal fighters, is simply not the kind of blood debt that can be acknowledged.

Arguably, Australia’s ongoing refusal to remember why the country was not settled two centuries before the British or its own wars of dispossession is inevitable—settler amnesia marks the power of the victor to rewrite events. But attempts to assert other histories to combat dominant accounts also tumble into the historical vortex where we can’t step outside the naturalism of Euro-centric thought.

Debate gets bogged within a field of moral absolutes.

Back at the Darwin War Museum, as simulated Japanese fighter planes drop bombs and spray bullets at the audience, patrons learn that more Americans than Australians died during the Japanese air raids, many in unmarked sea graves.

American soldiers stayed to defend the town and restore key infrastructure in the long months of live action following. And, so the story goes, a warm and mutually beneficial alliance was reaffirmed.

Since at least 1969, the Americans have (not unreasonably) made it clear that they expect their allies to assume more of the cost of their own home defence and that they have some alliance demands of their own. Australia has tried to comply, first by picking up more of the tab for its own military capacity (albeit in fits-and-starts and via armoury investments more convenient for American military manufacturing than home defence).

And now, as America seeks to elide the costs of its ongoing military build-up from its own budget scrutineers[vii], by donating valuable assets in kind: primarily, land and air estate.

As anthropologist David Vines writes, a ‘global cavalry’ of lily-pad bases “have become a critical part of an evolving Washington military strategy aimed at maintaining U.S. global dominance by doing far more with less in an increasingly competitive, ever more multi-polar world.”[viii] The north of Australia adds to an expanding logistics network as America extends to more countries and more sites than ever before.[ix]

Even better—and thanks partly to the blood-debt that can’t be named—the air above Darwin and the land in its hinterland is handily free from civilian and other traffic.

These are some of the reasons Darwin is now host to some of Australia’s most significant defence machinations since World War Two. Of course, another reason is its location. Not as a place to defend Australia but as a place to project sea-air defence into the region’s major trade and energy chokepoints. This might raise some questions for the hosting community, but curiously has not.

I recently wrote an article[x] which tried to work through the spectacular developments happening in full view in Darwin, yet without equally vibrant debate, by likening it all to a form of dazzle camouflage.

Dazzle camouflage combines spectacle with dull appearance to disrupt perception.

Think of the Monarch butterfly. Its bold black stripes against golden brown make it appear as if it is not hiding anything. Back in the shadows and the insect’s shape blurs; the stripes and browns assume less discrete form. The introduction of US Marines into Darwin on permanent rotation is like this. Loudly announced and widely hailed, the Marines are on full display. Yet what they are part of and what they connect Australia into is not as conspicuous.

The increasingly common sight of defence personnel wearing their soft fatigues in Darwin’s public places is also a part of the city’s dazzle camouflage.

The olive, mustard and earthy tones of military cammies are meant for blending into dappled foliage or hiding the contours of matter out-of-place. Out and about, they are stark against the crisp white of supermarket freezers. Military concealment comes less from inconspicuousness than banality.

We stop seeing trained fighters. They’re just ordinary people doing mundane things: dropping toddlers off to crèche, dumping palm fronds at the tip, living down the corridor or up the road.

A simulated, celebrated military imaginary is set up that deters us from thinking about the real militarisation and our responsibilities as citizens to be more knowledgeable about the issues at stake.

To be clear, I am not saying ‘Americans are bad and they should leave’. Nor am I saying we don’t need our own defence capabilities. I have no expertise on how little or how much the ADF needs to do what it is being asked to do[xi], or what I would like it to do (protecting Australia’s dwindling marine life from polluters and raiders for a start).

What I am saying is that there’s an undiscussed consensus on the Marine presence and that beneath the old tropes of the alliance and brotherhood in arms there is a total lack of definition of what the alliance actually commits Australia to—and makes us complicit with.

My concern is that we have gone so far down the road of accepting extractive economic development routed by international shipping and protected by warships and drones as the only pathway for sustained national prosperity that we cannot think through the (ecological, socio-political and imperial) implications or costs. I worry too about the inability to have an informed national discussion beyond the thrall of foreign policy pragmatism or circumscribed modes of displaying patriotism.

The issues are too important to be foreshortened like this.

Darwin bucked the trend at the turn of last century in the way Asian settlers underpinned whatever successes the tiny frontier town could claim, potentially becoming a model for a non-Eurocentric form of belonging to this continent. Unfortunately this prospect so alarmed the whiskered white men in power down south that the White Australia Policy was crafted instead.

Darwin is still a melting pot that could make important contributions to discussions about our (lack of) defence sovereignty. It would be astonishing and wonderful if Darwinites could step up to the plate and lead national thinking on what kind of a country we now aspire to be. It would mean elevating above the farcical antics of the current crop of political representatives to look at whose guns are being held to whose heads with a slightly larger frame of reference.


[i]  https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/darwin/

[ii] http://www.nationalstrategy.com/Portals/0/documents/Spring%202013%20NSFR/The%20US%20Pivot%20and%20Australia%20Being%20in%20the%20Middle%20-%20Tyler%20and%20Feng.pdf

[iii] http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0810/p06s02-wosc.html

[iv] http://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2014/03/31/nt-politics-why-the-gang-of-three-was-right-almost/; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/01/indigenous-mps-accuse-nt-ruling-party-colleagues-of-racial-harassment

[vi] http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2009/november/1330478364/tony-roberts/brutal-truth; http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/first-nation-teen-told-not-to-wear-got-land-shirt-at-school-1.2497009

[vii] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/24/us-usa-defense-budget-idUSBREA1N1IO20140224

[viii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-vine/us-military-bases_b_1676006.html

[ix] Lutz, Catherine, ed. The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009.

[xi] But see http://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/fixing-australias-incredible-defence-policy

Photo courtesy of the wonderful “Old Darwin” Facebook site

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