Written by Dr. Binoy Kampmark.
Those madly titillated by conflict have become bolder of late in the corridors of the isolated Australian capital. In such spaces, insanity can be nurtured with a sickening attention to detail, much of it fictitious. One of the most powerful bureaucrats of the Australian Public Service has made a contribution to a war dance he regards as virtually unavoidable. Mike Pezzullo, Home Affairs Secretary, is keen to shed some blood in combating the China Menace if needed.
The outcome of this wish is always vicarious: others die so that bureaucrats may shuffle papers, consult minutes and scoff the scotch. This is then justified on the basis that sacrifices are necessary to defend that indefinable property called freedom.
The Secretary’s ANZAC Day message to his staff was stocked with the usual rhetorical trinkets of the barely closeted warmonger. “Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war”.
War is never caused by these “free nations”; it is provoked by those nasty unfree ones who go around stirring trouble. Resorting to war “might well be folly, but the greater folly is to wish away the curse by refusing to give it thought and attention, as if in so doing, war might leave us be, forgetting us perhaps.”
In wishing to summon the dogs of war, Pezzullo drew upon a person who was, for all his faults, a formidable general who knew a thing or two about combat. US Army General Douglas MacArthur, in his address to the West Point Military academy in 1962, explained to cadets that “their mission was to train to fight and, when called upon, to win their nation’s wars – all is entrusted to others”. One imagines Pezzullo, flushed with pride in using lines best reserved for a military veteran rather than a fantasising civilian.
The bureaucrat’s poor use of history was much in evidence. Having pinched from MacArthur, he duly did the same to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower who, in 1953, “rallied his fellow Americans to the danger posed by the amassing of Soviet military power, and the new risks of military aggression”. (He forgets that the same president also warned of the paranoia and dangers associated with the Military-Industrial complex.) Eisenhower was a good egg, having taken to instilling in “free nations the conviction that as long as there persists tyranny’s threat to freedom they must remain armed, strong and ready for war, even as they lament the course of war.” The blood-readied formula for Pezzullo: “In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat – sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer.”
When MacArthur found himself relieved by US President Harry S. Truman, a statement of priorities was made. The General had been keen to expand the Korean conflict with the use of atomic weaponry, there being no credible substitute for victory. In fairness to him, Truman had also given him ideas, wishing to threaten the potential use of atomic-capable B-29s should the need arise. MacArthur saw that need, claiming that 30 to 50 tactical atomic bombs would have done the trick; Truman did not, preferring the bluff. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison might do well to consider a similar option regarding Pezzullo, who is making his far from negligible contribution to incitement.
In the context of Australian history, few military engagements have been necessary for existentially sound reasons. There have been no marauding armies of Huns, Mongols or Tartars to threaten the country, laying waste to villages and towns, and initiating hearty pogroms. (The same cannot be said for the Indigenous populace, doomed the moment European settlement became a sanguinary reality of massacre, disease and dispossession.)
A pity it is that a more mature constellation of thinkers have not impressed themselves in the field of Australian strategic thinking. Instead, Australian soldiers have been fighting and dying in a range of operations in profound ignorance of their geography and history. These recruits supply the needless cannon fodder for empires not their own, placating the officialdom of foreign capitals.
The Australia-China policy, and the insistence on placing Australia on the warpath, is a suicidal wish linked to Washington and based on an alliance that is dangerously unconditional and misplaced. Unfortunately for Australia’s military and defence establishment, all such alliances, however friendly, remain putatively conditional. Matters of strategy, resources, and realities, will intrude.
The fall of Singapore to the forces of Imperial Japan in February 1942 was one such jarring reality. The guarantees of security made by Britain to Australia, assumed since the late eighteenth century, were shredded by a stunningly bold campaign waged by soldiers who had been woefully underestimated. British naval power was blunted as Japanese prowess grew. The reassurances of the Empire were dashed by surrender. “This was a quintessential failure of an alliance,” wrote academic strategist Hugh White in 2017, “and of a strategic policy based on alliances.”
White, far more sensible than Pezzullo on this score, speaks of the Singapore disaster as a telling lesson for Australian strategists. It was a failure that revealed “an inability to recognise and accept fundamental shifts in the distribution of wealth and power which were transforming both the globe and the regional strategic orders, and undercutting Britain’s place in them.”
The parallels with the US are all too clear. From 1996 to the mid-2000s, bipartisan politics seemed to accept that Australian security could well be left in the broad, clasping hands of Washington. But be wary of the shifting patterns of power, warns White, for “America is weaker economically, diplomatically and military than it has been since World War Two, and yet we rely on it more.”
Another factor also lubricates such slavish refusals to accept the changed order of things. Ignorance is the less than golden raw material that precedes misconceptions. In time, these misconceptions become policy platforms. The Australian Public Service (APS) is sorely lacking in much expertise that might sharpen a coherent focus towards the Indo-Pacific. In 2019, an “independent review” of the APS characteristically tooted that, “The ongoing shift in global economic weight to Asia presents tremendous opportunities for Australia, along with risks and significant challenges.”
Tritely, the review, titled Public Service Our Future, notes that the APS needed to “deepen its experience in, and knowledge of, Asia.” Those behind making policy required “a more sophisticated understanding of the region, as well as Asian language proficiency.”
For almost a decade now, there has been much chatter about needing to beef up the stock of knowledge of that most complex of continents. The 2012 Asian Century White Paper was almost banal in stating that Australia was essentially flying blind in the region; there was a pressing need to “broaden and deepen our understanding of Asian cultures and language, to become more Asia literate.” But the APS review found something quite different: “Coordinated and sustained action to deepen Asia-relevant capabilities was not taken then, and it remains a skills gap across the APS.” Pezzullo’s barking remarks suggest that illiteracy regarding Asia has become intellectually fashionable and monumentally dangerous.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com
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