James Brown, Quarterly Essay 62: Firing Line: Australia’s path to war (Black Inc 2016)
This Quarterly Essay could easily be read as an grim expansion on David Kilkullen’s quote from Trotsky in QE No 59: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ James Brown, former Australian Army officer who has been on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, laments the lack of serious attention in Australia to possible scenarios for war, writing that we have been seriously unwilling to learn the lessons of the invasion of Iraq and so are very likely to make the same mistakes again:
Our military colleges are not yet universities for the study of war and our universities still view war as a morally tainted activity. (p 57)
But, I hear you cry (or is that just me?), war is of its nature a morally tainted activity. It involves the systematic killing of large numbers of people, and in our times those people inevitably include noncombatants. There’s nothing much more morally tainted than killing lots of children. To be fair to the author, it may be the study of war rather than war itself whose moral taint he questions: a few pages later he says, ‘to fight the cancer of war, we must know it, discuss it, think the malady through to its worst outcomes, understand and chart the darkest of possibilities’. The main burden of the essay is that this is not happening:
Australia’s oversight of national security is underdone and weak: one joint standing committee covers foreign affairs, defence and trade in toto. … It is extraordinary that so little infrastructure is dedicated to parsing the issues of war. The national Disability Insurance Scheme, on which the government spends $15 billion each year, has an entire committee dedicated to its oversight. The national security apparatus, which accounts for more than 100 000 commonwealth employees and will soon absorb more than $45 billion each year, is entirely underscrutinised, and it shows. (p 57)
What this means, among other things:
The danger of the current system is that the main checks on the power of the prime minister to take Australia to war are his or her own intellect and character. (p 49)
Mercifully, that word ‘main’ carries a lot of weight here. Without even hinting that Tony Abbott is lacking in intellect and character, Brown lists a number of cases where Abbott was gung-ho for military action but was talked down by military advisers and others. But the essay argues convincingly for the establishment of a formal national security adviser. Without it, we will continue to respond to threats and challenges in a reactive way, or simply follow the US lead into war (Brown is too young for Harold Holt’s formulation ‘All the way with LBJ’ to spring to his typing fingers – I’m not).
Meanwhile, in the absence of scrutiny or study, or public debate in this country, tensions between China and the US are building. The probability of war is small, but it exists and, Brown argues, its implications should be thought through. Instead, a string of governments have taken initiatives – the US forces stationed in Darwin, the expanded submarine fleet – without any serious attempt to tell the rest of us what broader strategic thinking, if any, underpins them.
In the halls of the defence headquarters clustered by Canberra’s lake Burley Griffin, on bases spread from Perth to Puckapunyal, amid the Gold Coast hinterland, in shipyards and on the high seas, and in the clean rooms of advanced factories in northern Adelaide, a new ADF [Australian Defence Force] is being built. Across the Commonwealth the effort is consuming the attentions of more than 100 000 employees; it is exercising Australia’s diplomatic corps, stretching the decision-making capabilities of the federal government, vexing the most senior leaders in Canberra …
The build-up of the Australian Defence Force is well under way; the government has backed up its judgment that war could be a possibility within the next two decades with many billions of dollars. But Australians have barely begun to think through the consequences of all this, nor thought seriously about the circumstances that might bring our nation to the point of conflict. [pp 40, 44]
I expect the essay will be confronting to most readers – those like me who marched against the invasion of Iraq (OK, so Howard didn’t lie, but he didn’t interrogate what many people thought at the time was dodgy intelligence); those who are gung-ho for military adventure; and plenty in between.