MICHAEL McKINLEY. Australia and the wars of the alliance: fragments for a coronial inquiry – Part 2: United States strategy.- A REPOST

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.


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5 Responses to MICHAEL McKINLEY. Australia and the wars of the alliance: fragments for a coronial inquiry – Part 2: United States strategy.- A REPOST

  1. paul frijters says:

    I am missing some sense in these pieces of how wars come about and what the effect of the security apparatus in the US is. Because that perspective is lacking, these pieces (and many others like it on this blog) put far too much emphasis on the US in explaining the large increases in Australian defense spending.

    Whilst it is easy to quote the 1961 speech of Eisenhower where he warned of the political influence of the Industrial-Military complex, the reality is that in GDP terms, the US army is one-third of the size now then it was under Eisenhower, and the arms-purchasing part is now only about one fifth of what it was in his day. Less than 1% of US GDP is spent on weapons. Arms exports manage to lift it closer to 1%, but no more. 2/3 of US army spending is basically on personel, bases, and other non-weapons stuff. At 3% of total GDP spent on the army, the US is in historical terms not a big army spender at all, and Europe is enjoying decades of peace dividends by spending far less than that.

    On top of that, the world has hardly known a more peaceful and prosperous period than the last 30 years. It has not lacked wars, but the really nasty ones (the wars in the Congo in particular, but also the recent carnage in Syria for which you really have to blame the Syrian regime and the Arab peninsula, not the West) have had relatively little to do with the West, and levels of world violence are very very low. Wars between nation states are rare and civil wars have become less bloody. The increase in wealth, literacy, life expectancy, education, etc., in the world has similarly been spectacular these last 30 years. To say the world population is doing badly on average is just false.

    So the narrative that the US weapons industry and security apparatus is masterminding some kind of continuous world war game to keep the public subsidies coming simply does not ring true. Of course the security apparatus plays scare tactics and lobbies for contracts and powers, just like every other interest group, but from an historical perspective we live in fairly tranquil times with relatively small armies.

    We thus need a more balanced perspective. Blind hatred of the US army (‘coronial inquiry’? Really!) is just as silly as blind adherence. Indeed, since we all here are pretty much on the same side as the US despite our reservations (to varying degrees), we have a joint interest in having a strong US army.

    So I would seek Australian reasons for the surge in defense spending, not US reasons. It is because of domestic drivers that Australia has this huge increase in secrecy laws and spending on its security apparatus. It would seem to have almost nothing to do with the US (which has capped military spending) or the actual world security situation, though both are of course used by opponents and proponents as straw men. Don’t lose sight of the real game.

    So the right questions to ask are very different and follow the money: what is the budget being spent on? Who lobbied and got commissions for the spending changes? How much is actually spent on foreign adventures that is not personel-related?

  2. Julian says:

    Well done Michael. The breadth and insight of your historical perspective is excellent especially in relation to the US, closely followed by our own failures. While it is certainly the case that the Mil/Ind complex in the US has created and maintained its own terrible inertia, in some respects we are not that far behind. I have heard some Australian commentators say, without any sense of irony, that over the last 15 years or so, the AMF has had “excellent training opportunities”.

    • Michael McKinley says:

      Thanks Julian.
      In another, more accurate context, this abuse and misuse of the ADF would be called for what it is: a blood sacrifice.

  3. Andrew Glikson says:

    According to Upton Sinclair’s writings and those of other, and consistent with the history of Rome and the Roman legions, once superior military forces are created they and the industries which support them need to be fed and given active roles, namely permanent or repeated wars. The pretexts for these wars may vary from time to time but the underlying factors remain — the military-industrial complex needs war and leads to war, as indicated by Dwight Eisenhower https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y06NSBBRtY

    • Michael McKinley says:

      Thanks for this. Norman Dixon, a former British Army Officer (Artillery) , who became a experimental psychologist, and author of an extremely fine work, The Psychology of Military Incompetence, made a similar and telling observation at the time of Desert Shield. The US was claiming to be focused on diplomacy but at the same time building up its troop numbers in the Gulf – a development which prompted Dixon to write that war was becoming inevitable. It was an acerbic insight which went as follows: the rule which applies to diesel engines and sexual prowess also applies to a large body of armed men – use it or lose it.

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