Hamlet’s glass and the Brereton Report: the radical reality of Australia’s security culture

Dec 28, 2020

It is almost an invariable rule that the citizens of nation-states in their generality, and Australia in particular, are obsessed with security and fascinated with violence; equally, they are illiterate in understanding their own traditions and practices. And when they ostensibly honour international law, rules-based orders, add peace, they require a more suspecting glance than they are accorded. An iconic play provides the invitation.

In a passionate outburst, Hamlet commands his mother as follows, “You shall not budge. You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you.” Major-General Paul Brereton is neither Shakespeare nor a Danish prince, but his report on what appears to be atrocities and war crimes by units of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan requires the same obedience.

The reflection, being determined by the laws of optics, is indifferent to national pretences and self-images; it simply reports back the unadorned behaviour that takes place within its view. What it says about Australia’s national security culture is, to say the least, unflattering, even derisive and excoriating.

By way of a philosophical beginning, the relevant facts with I propose to start with here as undeniable are:

  1. that civilization itself is founded on violence;
  2. that political collectivities which emphasis self-interest and collective egoism are inherently brutal;
  3. that “a nation is a group of people united by a common mistake regarding its origins and a collective hostility towards its neighbours;”
  4. that nationalism is, ultimately, a “community of blood,” and
  5. that we are all embedded in violence and, to a greater or lesser extent, benefit from it. As well, there is a pronounced tendency to forget the true past which of death and destruction because it might just be unbearable.

These underlie a search for, and an elaboration of, that which is at the core of security culture – namely the methods by which a nation’s security is pursued and achieved through requiring its citizens to fight, kill, and perhaps, to die. Foreign and defence policy may be politely, disingenuously configured in monetary terms but the reserve currency of a nation is always its people; more precisely, it is the number and quality of disposable bodies it possesses.

Now, consider Australia popularly understood – for too many, a country that dates its useable history, national identity, and sense of nationhood not from the politics and history which culminated in Federation in 1901, but from the Gallipoli landing in the Dardanelles in April 1915, and the subsequent years of the Great War in which some 60,000 Australians were killed, and then heralded as the blood sacrifice that demonstrated national worthiness.

Then let us consider Australia’s national capital, Canberra – probably the only inhabited, or residential, war memorial in the world. With its proliferation of prominent monuments commemorating past wars, and the imposing Australian War Memorial, it might even be accurately described as a necropolis form which the bodies have been banned (the exception being the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial (and that could change if ever the proposal to bury, inter alia, dead servicemen in a national cemetery on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin comes to fruition).

But it is Sydney that provides the most powerful illustration of the attempt to establish a warrior culture, a militarised society, and a cult of the dead: it is found at the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park South.

The central motif of the design is Rayner Hoff’s The Sacrifice, officially described as a bronze group of sculptures depicting the recumbent figure of a young warrior who has made the supreme sacrifice; his naked body lies, cruciform, upon a shield that is supported by three womenfolk – his best-loved Mother, Wife and Sister and in the arms of one is a child, the future generations for whom the sacrifice has been made.

According to the associated educational publicity, “it illustrates the sacrifice engendered by war, self-sacrifice for duty and the beautiful quality of womanhood which, in the war years, with quiet courage and noble resignation, bore its burdens, the loss of sons, husbands and lovers.”

This is a formative, cultural experience if a certain caution is observed: reject as anathema any attempt to interrogate this historical record according to the principle of being sceptical about all claims that cannot be substantiated by evidence and logical argument.

What this civil religion demands of the mind (suspension of all critical faculties and incuriosity) and the conscience (subordination and conformity) extends to the surrender of the body, and even life itself.

Obedience to this principle provides not only the origin but the elaboration of national security myths, and the places and events which are venerated in manners and forms which create a fatal environment which sanctions the blood sacrifice which security culture holds dear, but cannot afford to admit is a demand of its own making.

Moreover, the same environment ensures that, for many, what they choose to call their identity is no more than a process of imitating others who, like them, are engulfed in a background that allows a measure of individuality but at the cost of accepting that serious and prolonged resistance is unacceptable.

A tolerance, even encouragement, of indefensible behaviour grows in such an environment. Warriors are indulged because they are a caste apart from the mass of the citizenry – a division of labour that is deemed acceptable and desirable by both, the latter not wishing to be discomforted by inquiring too deeply, let alone having to perform something along the lines of national military service.

Over time, and without constant and successful resistance, warrior cultures, militarised societies, and cults of the dead lead logically to what Brereton discovered – namely, that such a substantial body of evidence exists certain personnel should be investigated for the commission of atrocities and war crimes.

That this pathological and criminal behaviour is not ADF-wide is no counter-argument: it is enough to know that it exists in the venerated national security culture; indeed, can be held to be a consequence of it, not the dark, unheralded revelations which are detailed, and, in some cases, had to be redacted in the public interest.

Recall the recent, immediate reactions at all levels. A poet from another time, James Clarence Mangan, encapsulates them so well in these few lines:

Kings, nobles, all,

Looked aghast and strange;

The minstrel group sate in dumbest show!

Had some great crime

Wrought this dread amaze,

This terror? None seems to understand . . .

But lo! The sky

Showed flecked with blood, and an alien sun

Glared from the north,

And there stood on high,

Amid his shorn beams, a skeleton!

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