This past Friday, Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester urged us to pause and reflect on the anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. Many did.
Chester's doing his job, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there's no real meaning in genuflecting towards sacrifice unless we're prepared to do something to avoid the same thing happening tomorrow. So let's take Chester at his word and ask ourselves: what does Darwin's bombing 79 years ago reveal about how we need to think about the challenges facing Australia today?
This moment came as a sudden shock to a country that until then had remained isolated from the horror of war. Perhaps that's a good place to start. While it was certainly tragic that more than 250 people (including many civilians) died, and 19 ships were sunk or damaged, put that in context. It was nothing compared to the ruin, killing and devastation occurring daily elsewhere in Asia and Europe. In the past, Australia's geography has always been its protection, from both war and pandemics. That won't be the case in future.
Even conventional weapons are vastly more lethal and precise than previously, and it's no longer possible to quarantine destruction to offshore. Perhaps the independent politicians are right. Perhaps the first lesson we need to draw from what happened in Darwin is that we need to be hugely concerned about the ease with which any prime minister can, with a word, decide to commit this country to war.
Then there's the successive military failures; the incompetence that compounded the destruction. These had their origins in ignorance, complacency, and bureaucracy. Lethargy dominated both the broader strategy leading to disaster, and the specific detail that resulted in the town (Darwin had just over 5000 residents at that time) being overwhelmed that Thursday morning.
According to the popular narrative, in 1942 Australia was on the brink of invasion. It's sometimes suggested the bombing was a prelude for a landing. It wasn't. Although one (AIF) division had just surrendered in Singapore, two more were returning in vulnerable convoys from the Middle East, and another remained in Egypt. The "invasion" story ignores how many soldiers remained at home. One armoured, two motorised and a further six infantry divisions were still ready to defend the country.
So although south-east Asia was conquered by just three Japanese divisions in a matter of months, the impetus of this thrust had been exhausted. Nothing "saved" Australia, because there was never any chance the country would be invaded. This bombing was nothing more than a carefully targeted raid to destroy US ships in Darwin's harbour, not a prelude to invasion or terror bombing of civilians.
Australia got off very lightly in World War II, and it doesn't make any sense to pretend otherwise.
Another issue worth reflecting on is the ignorance in which the country was wreathed at that time. In the 1920s, for example, the army decided it didn't need to know about Japan and removed its liaison officer from Tokyo. Instead of engaging with and understanding our region, the military decided to concentrate on being prepared, again, to fight in the Middle East. Australia was prepared for war - just with the wrong adversary. The country didn't understand its location in the world. Perhaps we still don't.
When the war began, Australia fielded two divisions of magnificent light horse cavalry. Looked brilliant. Never used, of course, because machine guns and tanks had made them completely irrelevant - but the point is Australia was ready to fight (just with the wrong forces). Our force structure today risks becoming similarly inappropriate, with the new Joint Strike Fighters threatening to become obsolete before they are even in the air. The trajectory of progress is moving faster and faster.
Then there's the human dimension. Radio warnings were sent to Darwin that bombers were headed that way. These were ignored. Nobody thought about bomb shelters or preparing for raids. The real surprise is that the destruction wasn't greater. The organisational failure is so breathtaking one wonders how it could have happened. Then consider how ill-prepared we are for any similar disaster or emergency today. Make that your takeaway from the bombing: the need to urgently improve civil defence, whether against bombing or bushfires.
Darwin was bombed in February, but still the generals did nothing. That's why, at the end of July, when the Japanese finally began an assault over the Kokoda Track, they were faced by just one company (about 150) of young conscripts. It was only after an enemy thrust forced its way almost to Port Moresby that reinforcements finally allowed the diggers to slog their way back through the jungle.
Australia's war dragged on for another three years of gruelling jungle warfare in New Guinea and Borneo - all completely irrelevant to the ultimate outcome. The US Navy commanded the waves, and so the Japanese forces in the islands had become totally isolated from Tokyo. They were, effectively, in self-supporting prisoner-of-war camps, and at the time many soldiers believed the campaigns to reduce these garrisons were little more than make-work schemes for the generals.
So when you're remembering this bombing, don't get confused. Even when it comes to an apparently simple event, it's worth widening your focus to consider the full picture rather than immersing yourself in detail.
Darren Chester was himself a journalist: he knows there's much more to be written than can possibly be squeezed into the limited space available. Everything depends on framing. We prize emotional content, and that's why our reporting concentrates on human drama - but that doesn't mean we are excused from the requirement to think about what we're reading or hearing.
When you reflect on the bombing of Darwin, don't give the politicians, or the generals, or the society of those days, a free pass. Their inaction was responsible for the disaster. Don't allow ours to be responsible for the next one.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.