The Bismarck Sea: A battle-worn and weary warning …

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, by Michael Veitch, Hachette

Difficult to think, from 80 years distance, just what a terrifying threat Japan once was to Australia. These days, it’s a nation more renowned for its sophistication, high-tech and extraordinary good manners.

Mind you, it does upset some quarters with its whaling operations. Which might not be flash but it’s a far cry from the horrific catalogue of terror it had under its belt in the years immediately prior to and into World War Two. Think wholesale rape, murder and atrocities visited on the Chinese – thousands of bayonet rapes, killing contests ­– the murder of unarmed prisoners and civilians in Malaya and Rabaul, the execution of nurses, nuns, Dutch and other colonial girls, women and men, abominations on Papuans, prisoners of war, beheadings, tortures, mutilations, starvation, deliberate hunting of Red Cross vessels … evil incarnate stuff.

Humans being what they are, it’s understandable that a seething vengefulness – over and above normal protective urges – might infect those armed forces up against Japan as the Nippon military descended on New Guinea in early 1943 with Australia square in its sights.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, the one-sided rout by Australian and American air forces of a heavily-escorted Japanese troops and supply convoy heading for Lae, is arguably the most significant engagement in starting the repulsion of Japanese military ambitions on Australia. It was a slaughter the US saw as payback for Pearl Harbour as much as anything else. Australia’s part in the attack was absolutely key. It wouldn’t have happened without Aussie-designed skip bombing.

When it comes to war crimes, which we hear so much of today, it’s intriguing how the deliberate slaughter, next day, of Japanese survivors in the water and in rescue vessels was viewed as a rational and necessary action against aggressors who would otherwise simply return to the field as soon as they were patched up. They undoubtedly would have been so ordered and so ‘Every Japanese killed is an Australian saved’ was basically the Allied catchcry. The slaughter didn’t sit well with some, but not many. Sympathy for the brutal Japanese wasn’t running high.

As Michael Veitch writes in The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, even under overwhelming attack, the Japanese “bizarre cruelty was on full display”.

“Contrary even to the most basic military logic, professional Japanese fighter pilots broke off an attack on an enemy bomber to slaughter men bailing out in parachutes whose fate was almost certainly already sealed,” he writes. “By early 1943, few Allied servicemen still tried to understand their enemy’s motives, or come to grips with the levels of diabolical cruelty to which they seemed to so easily, and quickly, descend. In the absence of understanding, only cold, hard anger was left.”

Veitch’s account is car-crash compelling. You just can’t look away. The cast of players seems almost fictional, and the displays of hubris and ignorance unbelievable yet so familiar, especially in contemporary times. Counter balanced, however, with rebels, genius-like misfits and ridiculously courageous characters, the outcome seems almost fated.

It’s ironic that Australia’s sovereignty today might seem equally or moreso at risk. You only have to glance over commentary by the likes of Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith to get a fair idea. Military build-ups are one thing; for starters, you can easily see them coming. Economic warfare is easily recognisable too, cyber-attacks perhaps not so readily but they’re commonplace and biological assaults seem an inevitability. Nukes in the hands of hostile or terrorist actors is another unnerving thought.

Any combination of these get free reign and the Rape of Nanking – twisted, mediaeval and expansive as it was – could look small potatoes. Then again, when you have monsters like Mao, who killed 60 odd million of his own people, it is small potatoes. Be that as it may, Veitch’s Bismarck is a timely reminder of how easily even those we regard as the good guys can all too easily morph into monsters when in the employ of fear, anger and retribution.

You’d be naive to think, especially with the US in a humiliating Afghan retreat, the drums of wars aren’t beating loud. Ironic, too, that Australia’s best defences right now might lie in a coalition with, among others, those it annihilated in the Bismarck Sea.