Think Piece: When is a war not a war?

Source: WGCDR Bob Macintosh AFC, OAM, published Thursday 2 February, 2017.

Bob MacintoshFor that matter what is the difference between a war, a police action, peace making, or peace keeping?

When I came home from the Korean War, the RSL told me I was not eligible to join because Korea was just a police action and not a war. And yet nearly 2 million people died in the 3 years of the Korean War: about 1 million civilians and the rest from the military services of the participants. It has been called “The Forgotten War” and was largely ignored by the Australian press at the time. This, I believe was because the nation wanted to forget World War 2 and any other conflicts and just get on with the recovery. Ironically, the expenditure on the war kick-started the economy and the 1950s became a time of expansion and prosperity.

I was a Sergeant pilot with 77 Squadron in Korea and we lost 39 pilots in the 37 months of the war, a casualty rate of about 30%. 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, the heroes of Kapyong and Maryang San, suffered almost 30% casualties in the 12 months they were in Korea. By any sane definition it was a war and is now recognised as such. But the casualty rate is not what makes a disturbance a war. A war is a political act. Governments commit their troops to war. One argument against the Korean conflict being recognised as a war was that war was never formally declared, even by the United Nations. It is a weak argument but it held sway for a time. These days, wars are seldom formally declared, they just happen.

I was involved in two other conflicts in which doubts were raised as to whether they were wars. The first was against insurgents on the Thai/Malay border. I was a helicopter pilot with No 5 Squadron. Our primary task was search and rescue for the fighter Squadrons based at Butterworth but we were often tasked to carry troops into the areas infested by Communist guerrillas. We also supported the Australian troops in sorties against the Indonesian “confrontation” activities. It wasn’t very dangerous but it counted as “qualifying service” for the Veterans Entitlement Act. Nevertheless, it could be seen as a security operation within Malaya and not a ‘real” war. Certainly the RSL saw it that way when we returned.

The other conflict was the Vietnam War. I was a helicopter pilot with No 9 Squadron based in Vung Tau in support of the Australian Task Force based in Nui Dat (about 15 minutes by air north of Vung Tau). We carried troops, supported SAS patrols and extracted casualties from the battlefield. We were often fired on and it could get a bit exciting at times. There was never any doubt that it was a war but it was so unpopular at home that it was not a war the RSL wanted to have any part of. And yet our Government continued to send troops to it and were reelected twice during the war. I would hope that the way Australian servicemen returning from the war were treated by the public will never be repeated. The government did not help. We were even ordered not to wear uniform when leaving the base and to just go straight home. Whilst the welcome home parade went some way towards healing the hurt, it was far too long in coming.

I have not really answered the question I posed at the beginning of this piece so let me give you my opinion. I think that when the government sends military forces into harm’s way it is sending them to war. A police action involves police and not the military. Peace making is a term that describes sending troops into a conflict with the purpose of stopping the disturbance. If it works, well and good. Otherwise it is just another name for a war. Peace keeping is not a war until the first angry shot is fired. That’s what I think.


Bob Macintosh AFC, OAM spent 27 years in the RAAF and retired in 1978 with the rank of Wing Commander. He then trained for the Uniting Church ministry and in 1985 was sent to Meekatharra Western Australia as a “Flying Padre” with Frontier Services. He and his wife Jenny flew the church Cessna C182 serving an area of more than 450,000 square kilometres, or nearly half the size of South Australia. Bob retired (again) in 1994 and settled in Adelaide. Amongst other things, Bob is a member of the Veterans Advisory Council and Vice President of the RAAF Association SA Division.