The rage of a prime minister against a modest ranking cartoonist in a foreign government is foolish for a number of reasons.
It is in the first instance folly for the person at highest level to go into combat with a much lower level person, leaving no room to escalate discussion in the direction of peace or war.
In the second instance it is folly because, as John Menadue has pointed out, the Chinese cartoonist has read more of the Brereton Report than have those yelling at him.
Third, it reflects a lack of strategic vision.
There is a useful concept, advanced two decades ago in the US, of ‘pharmacotic war’.
Modern wars are pharmacotic. They allow governments to draw on the singular capacity of sacralized bloodshed to unify political communities and generate fungible political power, by orchestrating symbolically charged military operations against demonized foreign enemies, while scapegoating constructed domestic threats to internal security.
In Australia’s case pharmacotic war has largely been sedative, provoked awake only by the security industry. We have a selective understanding of violence. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Howard government launched a campaign against domestic violence. Domestic violence of the same cloth as the Iraq invasion: the sense of entitlement to go and biff when you think you are superior. I argued in two speeches at the time that the endorsement of violence by invading Iraq with a sense of righteousness would drift down into national affairs and indeed domestic affairs. As indeed it has.
We were, many of us, out on the streets to oppose the Iraq War in 2003 but we seem mostly to have forgotten or prefer not to think about the fact that we continue to be party to illegal war in Iraq and more of the Middle East. We slumber through the Afghan war, prime ministers and opposition leaders greeting returning caskets of dead soldiers with assurances of the war’s strategic merit. We were not woken up when the Washington Post reported a year ago that:
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
We woke up to the Brereton Report, with its identification of tabloid-exciting details of some soldiers’ lives … but with scarcely a thought for the disgraceful role of political masters who have sustained Australian involvement in the Afghan war, plus Middle East wars … and interventions far from home against China in the South China Sea, partly to protect shipping, presumably the shipping of most of Australia’s exports to China.
Few have noted the connection to persistent violence towards people held in detention, here and overseas.
Few have spoken against the government’s adoption as national strategy of a defence force strategy – a defence paper that identifies weapons and threats and is focused on fighting them. With new weapons to cost $270 billion.
The ABC produced mid-year an interesting chart on comparative spending on domestic crises, which is nowhere near the proposed defence equipment spending.
An international strategy for Australia must seek to avoid war and advance the social and economic interests of the nation, in peace. Defence perspectives – the identification of threats and the means to oppose them – must be subordinate to the wider vision. To confuse the two is naive and dangerous.
We have not failed to find voice to attack a Chinese official who finds our situation in Afghanistan ironic, while taking the opportunity to attack controlled media in China, although a great proportion of Australian media is owned by Rupert Murdoch. In whose media vile cartoons regularly promote violence and hatred.
The recent wild urgings to violence and expressions of hatred of the ‘different’ by some of the Coalition backbench is perhaps best compared to the unruly response of some Labor members of parliament to President Nixon’s resumption of bombing of North Vietnam in December 1972. At that time, of course, the Whitlam government was only a few weeks old and Labor had been out of power for 23 years, inexperienced as a government. The present Coalition has claimed to be the natural government of Australia, the best able to manage the nation, from long before that time.
So … are we committed to permanent war and isolation from the region in which we live? How can we make a break, not just in revulsion against some low-ranking soldiers but against the powerful people who have kept them there, for two decades, while the nation slept? How can we back away from the tragic notion that international engagement should be with violence? How can we move to treat others as equals?