Saturday, 8 March 2014

Military Madness

I'm in the middle of reading some of the religious works Leo Tolstoy wrote at the end of his life.  I'll tell you all about it some other time.  In the meantime, here's something he says in The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894.

The basis of authority is bodily violence.  The possibility of applying bodily violence to people is provided above all by by an organisation of armed men, trained to act in unison in submission to one will.  These bands of armed men, submissive to a single will, are what constitute the army.  The army has always been and still is the basis of power.  Power is always in the hands of those who control the army, and all men in power - from the Roman Caesars to the Russian and German Emperors - take more interest in their army than in anything, and court popularity in the army, knowing that if that is on their side their power is secure.

In Australia over the century or so since federation we have been extremely fortunate that our army has had a very low profile in public life.  Aside from the two World Wars, where we had large numbers of soldiers actively engaged in warfare, our military has generally steered clear of public life, playing a very narrow role in defence and military cooperation with allies.


You don't have to watch many news bulletins, even here in insular Australia, to see how unusual this is in global terms.  In our own region a number of countries, including Fiji and Burma/Myanmar, are openly ruled by their armies.  In Indonesia, our closest neighbour, it's only in the last 15 years that the role of the military has been downgraded in political life, and even then the outgoing president is a former general.  In Cambodia Hun Sen became president despite Prince Norodom Ranariddh gaining the majority vote, by the simple expedient of calling out the army and forcing his rival into a power-sharing arrangement.

Once you look further afield, the power of the military is even more obvious.  In Egypt, the military has intervened twice, once to get rid of Hosni Mubarak and again to depose his elected successor Mohammed Morsi.  Whoever ends up president will only retain power by courting the generals and bowing to their will.  In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has retained power for over 30 years by granting special favours to the military and police and then letting them loose to intimidate voters during elections.  In Russia Vladimir Putin has subverted the early promise of democracy in the post-Soviet state by using the military and police apparatus to shut down dissent.  Even in the USA, which likes to see itself as the bastion of liberal democracy, the military has a powerful background role in politics underlined by the frequency with which the President is referred to as the "Commander-in-Chief".

So perhaps you will be able to understand why, having read Tolstoy and reflected on the global situation, I have this little niggling worry about Australia.  I don't think we are about to become a military dictatorship - not in the near future, anyway - but I have noticed over the past 10 or 15 years that the military is gradually extending its fingers into areas of public life it never touched before.

Some of these areas are quite benign and even helpful.  Military personnel were very visible in the flood cleanups around Queensland over the past few years and communities were delighted to have them involved.  They have also played ceremonial roles in various key sports events recently which seems unnecessary but not especially harmful.

On the other hand, I'm perplexed by the recent trend of appointing high-ranking officers as State Governors and Commonwealth Governors-General.  Of course these positions are largely ceremonial and have little real power, but they are officially the highest office of state, and in times of constitutional crisis (hung parliaments and so forth) they play a key role in brokering governance arrangements.  Over the history of Australia since feneration these roles have been almost exclusively reserved for senior judges or lawyers and retired politicians - in other words, people with a intimate understanding of the workings of our constitution.  Yet in recent years both Queensland and the Commonwealth have appointed high ranking military officers to these posts.  General Peter Cosgrove, probably Australia's most recognisable military figure, is about to take up a five year term as Governor-General.

Of course it will come as no surprise to you that I am even more concerned at the way our current government has turned the implementation of asylum seeker policy over to the military.  This is not just because they are doing such a terrible job (or perhaps implementing a terrible policy very well) but because we have basically taken an area of civil responsibility - a key aspect of immigration law - and handed it over to the military.  This is equivalent to declaring war on asylum seekers and subjecting them to a military operation, where what is required is an administrative and legal process.

All this worries me for two reasons.  One is that I don't like the idea of our military becoming prominent in civil affairs, given the record of military organisations around the world.  You never see a military intervention in civilian affairs that results in greater freedom and democracy, but you see plenty that result in the installation of repressive authoritarian regimes.  This is how the military works - the people at the top give the orders, the rest carry them out.  Good for waging war, disastrous for anything else.

My second worry is that the military are simply not trained for these civilian roles, and tend not to do them very well.  We saw this in East Timor, the engagement which did more to rehabilitate the public image of the Australian military than any other.  As the Indonesian military withdrew from East Timor, the Australian SAS came in and secured the country against the rag-tag militia the Indonesians had left behind to make trouble.  However, once this had been achieved they found their role increasingly became about law and order as violence and crime spiralled in the vacuum left by the departing Indonesians.  They were out of their depth.  They knew nothing about investigating and responding to crime.  The Australian Government seconded a number of police officers to the operation, since this is what police do well, and the response immediately improved.

If you bring the military into anything, they will act as a military.  They will operate in any situation as if it were a war.  When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.  If we don't want more and more things in our society to become war-like, then we need to keep the military out of them.

So despite my recent harsh words about Graham Nash, here's a little song to reinforce the point.


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