Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 34

David Stevens & John Reeve (eds), Southern trident: strategy, history and the rise of Australian naval power, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001, xix + 303 pp., illustrations, maps, notes, index, soft cover, rrp A$50.00

Reviewed by: ROBERT HYSLOP, ISO, Canberra

I have attended countless conferences over the years and have subsequently noted a great range in the effectiveness of their outcomes. A really successful conference results in a heightened understanding of its subject matter for those who attended the conference or read the published papers. Many conferences fail to achieve this positive result, however the King-Hall naval history conference in Canberra in July 1999 certainly proved to be a great success.

The papers given at the conference, published here, re-examine some important episodes of naval history, offer new ideas on maritime strategy, and provide thoughts on issues of contemporary naval defence in Australia. The book underlines the editors' belief in the "fundamental links between history and strategy". At the same time there is due acknowledgment of the unpredictability of war and in particular of the importance in war of the human factor.

There are some revaluations of several areas of naval history, notably the influence of the Japanese defeat of the Russian Fleet in 1905 and the significance of the visit to Australia of the United States "Great White Fleet" in 1908. As well, Dr Peter Overlack's chapter on Australian maritime defence concerns before 1914 tells convincingly how defence thinking in the Australian colonies, and then in the Commonwealth, was dominated by fear of foreign penetration of the "self-declared Australasian sphere of influence in the Pacific".

The book illustrates the value of sea power as "the great enabling instrument of strategy", with its flexibility and adaptability to technological and tactical change. The chapter by Professor Colin Gray of the University of Reading gives a clarion call to doubters; he says the "reason why naval power is so preferred is because it offers prudent policymakers optimum flexibility". He declares that it is not a sensible criticism of sea power to note that it functions strategically only slowly, because that is its strategic nature. Nor does he see any "debate of interest anywhere on the proposition that naval power narrowly, let alone sea power writ large, is being sidelined by the course of history". I especially warm to the conclusion to his chapter, where he asserts "the dual conservative and radical prediction that navies will remain in the new century much as they have done in the previous one, only with different equipment. No revolution in political affairs, strategic affairs, or technology, is going to leave sea power or naval power irrelevantly on the beach".

Dr Michael Evans, of the Land Warfare Studies Centre, Duntroon, contributes a chapter that gives cogency to two important notions in navalism. He spells out the concept of "strategic culture" and its relationship to a "way in warfare". The term strategic culture, he writes, first emerged in the 1970s with the basic assumption "that there exists in a nation-state a distinctive and lasting set of beliefs, values and habits regarding the threat and the use of force, which have their roots in such fundamental influences as geographical setting, history, ideology and political culture". He believes "Australians are a coastal people with a continental outlook, an island nation with an inward focus", and he quotes a previous Minister for Defence, Kim Beazley, as stating (with some frustration) that "despite a host of good reasons for the contrary, Australia is not a maritime nation and its people do not sustain much of an interest in maritime strategy".

In a perceptive examination of Australia's relations with Japan and the United States, Dr James Reckner, of the Texas Tech University, tells of staff planning in the United States in 1905 which saw "a global environment in which Great Britain and its Dominions could not be excluded as potential enemies [of the USA]". He also writes: "The 1905 renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, with a new clause which required the signatories to provide each other with full military assistance in the event either signatory became involved in a war with any other power, further complicated the situation [with the USA]".

In the book's concluding chapter, Captain James Goldrick writes that a fleet alone does not constitute a navy. He makes the important point that the decision of 1909 to create a fleet unit was just that. His perception is that the Royal Australian Navy since 1911 has been primarily dependent on the Royal Navy and lacked in-depth support of the Australian electorate and of sophisticated industrial and human processes in Australia. He points out this lack and its effects on the inherent conflict in Australian naval defence, namely that between the protection of worldwide commerce and a preoccupation with the needs of national territorial defence.

Part of what makes this book of conference papers important is that there is a refreshingly new attitude expressed by naval officers towards the writing of naval history by non-service historians. The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral David Shackleton, writes that "the increased levels of understanding of our naval history and of maritime strategic issues in general will bear fruit in the years ahead". This welcome view, in advance of that evinced by some other senior naval officers over the years, is further underlined by his writing: "The Australian Navy has made its share of mistakes over the last hundred years and we need to recognise and understand them". In my experience of writing naval administrative history, this enlightened attitude has not always been present and indeed there has been too often a dreary certitude that only a person who had "been there" was qualified to write history and that somewhere there was a "true" history that would end all uncertainty and make superfluous all calls for debate.

The Defence Force Journal for July/August 2001 has a transcript of the Blamey Oration given on 16 May 2001 by the Minister for Defence, Peter Reith. Here the minister speaks tellingly of Australia's strategic situation in terms that to my mind owe not a little to some of the important thoughts in the book under review. For example, Mr Reith sets out his thinking "on the historical context of our new Defence White Paper" which, he then says "also reflects and draws upon deep continuities in our national strategic history. These continuities spring from the enduring fundamentals of our strategic geography, and from the inherent characteristics of our society". In both of these quotations I believe one can hear echoes of statements to be found in these conference papers.

The editors have done well in the presentation of the book. There are appropriate illustrations, adequate references and a good index. I found the book easy to read. It stands up well as a unified work in spite of its component parts having been written by different authors. It warrants being read by all who have an interest in the defence of Australia and more especially by those who have any hand in the devising and implementing of naval policy, whether by way of political control, professional command, or shore-based support.