Australia’s alliance wars – their respective causes, conduct, and consequences – are overdetermined by the politics and strategies of the United States. In general, though they consist of few battlefield successes, the overall record is one of failed campaigns informed by repeatedly failed – indeed, ‘dead’ – ideas that for various reasons maintain their currency. The purpose of this and associated posts – Parts 1, 3, and 4 – is to conduct a coronial limited inquiry – that is, to establish just how the death occurred.
To start with an assertion, strategy is not well understood. The proliferating appropriation of the term as noun and adjective by corporations and universities has contributed to this ignorance in a major way. When parsed for meaning, what they reveal is nothing more than a rather prosaic claim which would be better expressed as, “we have a plan, sort of”. In matters of war, this is totally unacceptable.
Even in the realm of war, the appreciation of true strategy can be found wanting, reduced to the its Greek origins as strategos – the general. Too often omitted are its concomitants: strategike episteme (the knowledge of the general) and strategon Sophia – the wisdom of the general. It is an art, not a science – an art, furthermore, which, as General André Beaufre insisted, “requires mastery of the dialectics of wills which that use force to resolve their conflict”. Absent this, especially in the presence of other pathologies, and strategic death culminates inexorably.
Accordingly, to study Australia’s alliance wars is to reach, however reluctantly, three conclusions concerning the strategies followed and their evident demise. First, they comprise a history of failure; second, they fail the test of all political action – which is either to make things better, or to stop them getting worse; third, their respective outcomes recall Tacitus’ recounting of the withering condemnation of Rome by the Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, prior to the Battle of Mons Graupius: “they make a desolation and they call it peace”.
Within overall failure several contributing conditions command attention. Foremost is the omnipresence of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, leading to the current undifferentiated understanding of militant Islam as monolithic, and the corollary of this, that it comprises an unfolding, endlessly publicised threat remarkably similar to the “domino theory” which corrupted western understandings of people’s wars in Asia during the Cold War.
Militant Islamic groups of different hues operating in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia notwithstanding, the counter to the challenges they pose requires a tight focus on identification in a comparative context. To begin, while harbouring an animus to the West, they are not strategic threats to the United States and its allies; they are, generally, puny military organisations, ISIS included. They rise, furthermore, in countries lacking effective political institutions and/or seriously unaddressed grievances which too frequently are a consequence of western policies and patronage.
In other words the path to their elimination includes too many components which the record reveals are unpalatable to the United States: revolutionary change, a respect for local forms of legitimacy and resistance (if and when it is found, as in Syria), and lengthy nation-building – a process in which the US is maladroit since it enforces its prescriptions with a military presence indistinguishable from occupation. The reflexive deductive leap to intervention and the insertion of US forces, therefore, is a misuse of US and allied military power.
The irony of this situation is that it is recognised in numerous statements by the officers commanding the forces in the theatres of operations. And yet the addiction to the causes of failure continues unabated as though, somehow, the persistent and repeated miscalculations of the past, based on the same calculus of the death and destruction which US weapons can wreak, will somehow, and illogically, produce a better solution.
To miscalculation and hubris should be added bureaucratic detachment as exemplified by the Orwellian language deployed to conceal criminal activity (including murder) and military fantasy. Among these should be included the euphemism for torture (“enhanced interrogation”), people marked for assassination on “kill lists” of demonstrated unreliability (“high-value targets”) and the delusion that electronic navigation aids and metadata provide the means to kill only those who deserve to die (“precision strikes”). Closely related are the opportunities presented in all campaigns to admit failure and disengage. Where an ethical orientation would determine that continued killing would achieve nothing, and a sensible appreciation of Clausewitz lead to the obvious conclusion that the enemy is not fulfilling the will of the US and its allies, it is obscene to persist because the campaign’s public relations cannot abide the defeat that this entails.
Even then, the question of why, or how, such failed, “dead” strategies have been allowed to remain in place and, in some cases, to be reincarnated years after their demise, needs further attention. Here we must concede the existence of a dominant collective mind with not only a curatorial instinct for traditional approaches but also a collective inertia. Thus, COIN (counter-insurgency) or GWOT (the Global War On Terror) become things other than what they were at inception – inherited, sanctioned artefacts of beauty to be maintained in and of themselves and inoculated against innovation.
The tragedy of the Vietnam War, many hoped, would still this habit. Then, it seems, there were those who experienced what the ancient Greeks knew as metanoia – a transformative change of mind and heart, a turning towards the light which quite possibly entails a spiritual conversion. In 1975, the war correspondent, James Fenton, when passing through the debris of the British Embassy in Saigon, found an inscription with sentiments that has sustained Britain’s abstentionist policies towards the wars in Indochina for over two decades: it was by T.E. Lawrence, who knew something about Arabia and its wars we are told, and it read: Better to let them do it imperfectly than do it perfectly yourself. For it is their country, their war, and our time is short.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics, UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.