Michael McKinley. Alliance Ideology, The Myth of Sacrifice and the National Security Culture.

Aug 8, 2015

The following is an article by Dr Michael McKinley, which was published in June 2015 in the book ‘How does Australia go to War’. See link www.iraqwarinquiry.org.au

Conventional wisdom holds the following claims to be true. Australia is not an aggressive country and goes to war only for reasons of self-defence. The world is a threatening place and by extension Australia is threatened. Because Australia is essentially indefensible against many types of the posed threats it requires a protector who would significantly enhance, if not guarantee its security. The optimum arrangement for acquiring a protector is an alliance which, for more than sixty years and currently, has been through the ANZUS Treaty and the relationship it has fostered with the United States. To remain in good standing with the US, explicit acts of support are required from time to time, the more regular and the more extensive the better. The result is a beneficial arrangement which extends across all areas of national security. This is a popular view and is repeated in official statements, textbooks and media commentary.

These conventions constitute the ideology at the core of Australian security culture. More accurately, it is a civil-religious confession: it constitutes a habit of mind and action, requiring inexhaustible faith and offering absolutions and indulgences for crimes and atrocities committed against adversaries and enemies, actual, potential, or merely presumed. In sum, both the Alliance, and the Empire before it, resembled biblical instruments of redemption against isolation, uncertainty, and vulnerability (also actual, potential or merely presumed). But being popular and conventional does not make this ideology wise because, for the most part, it is also wrong and/or misleading.

The relevant, undeniable facts are these. Civilization itself is founded on violence. Political collectivities which emphasise self-interest and collective egoism are inherently brutal. A nation is ‘a group of people united by a common mistake regarding its origins and a collective hostility towards its neighbours’. Nationalism is, ultimately, a ‘community of blood.’ We are all embedded in violence and, to a greater or lesser extent, benefit from it, and ‘government is impossible without a religion – that is, without a body of common assumptions’ (all quotations from Marvin and Ingle 1999: 15).

If traditionally we understand the nation-state as the ‘legitimized exercise of force over territorial boundaries within which a population has been pacified,’ then, because nations frequently lack ‘the commonality of sentiment shared by members of a language group, ethnicity, or living space,’ the fundamental commonality is actually ‘the shared memory of blood sacrifice, periodically renewed’ (Marvin and Ingle 1999: 4).

Alliances in this context are part of the problem. Historically extensive and theoretically rigorous research projects have reached conclusions that comprise a demolition of their role as instruments of peace and security. Specifically they, and the attendant attempts at balance of power, are found to encourage behaviour that is a cause of war. The benefits that are claimed to flow from Australia’s alliance relationship are to be seen therefore as inducements to a reckless strategic posture. Worse, they are difficult, even impossible, to verify from the published record. Four benefits are commonly cited. Access to, and influence with US policy-makers and decision-makers; the exchange of a significant amount of strategic intelligence data; the formal and informal assurances of security assistance in time of need; and access to state-of-the-art military weapons systems and technology. But the evidence is either non-existent or contradictory. Furthermore much of it, where it is available, is to be found in government and quasi-government sources (McKinley 2012).

Exacerbating this is the war-prone nature of the United States, aptly described in one major work as ‘a country made by war’ (Perret 1989), and this is apparent in any examination of its war history. Notwithstanding the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, the US by 1942 had established its credentials an enthusiast for the international system and its practices by its role in the Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, and World War I. By 1980 the United States had managed to participate in eight international wars at a cost of nearly 700,000 American dead. On average each war lasted longer (33 months) than those of Britain, and resulted in a higher average of lost American lives (83,000). (Geller 1988: 372-3).

What various studies reveal is that, once committed to a war, states forget the past and need to learn anew the costs it will involve. Wars, in any case, tend to be long and expensive in human, economic, and environmental terms, particularly those fought by major powers. From which it follows that minor powers aligned with major powers share the risks and eventually the significant costs of conflicts that are, at root, derived from a status that is beyond them.

If anything, the prospect of war has increased dramatically: an historical survey by the Congressional Research Service reveals that, between August 1990 and August 2014, the US deployed military force on 146 occasions, or 5 times more often than in the prior 193 years (Project on Defense Alternatives, 2014: 1). And this excludes the current campaign against IS in Iraq. Even then the overall figure may well be significantly understated.

During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed to 133 countries − roughly 70% of the nations on the planet − according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command.  This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises.  And this year could be a record-breaker. . . just 66 days into fiscal 2015 – America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total (Turse 2015).

Given that the US is a great power whose leaders encourage a view of the world in black/white, good/evil terms, and which pursues the impossible dream of invulnerability, there is a sense that it envisages a future of perpetual war. When to this mindset are added seven easily identifiable structural determinants of US strategy, this is simply a logical outcome:

  1. War has been privatised.
  2. The national security state is embraced by both major parties.
  3. ‘Support Our Troops’ is a substitute for critical thought.
  4. The details of wars are redacted.
  5. Threats are inflated.
  6. The world is defined as a global battlefield.
  7. War, for the US, is the new ‘normal.’


Under such a regime Australia’s security is hostage to Washington’s strategic fantasies. Its tokens of support ultimately become, in Edmund Burke’s famous phrase, ‘an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’   Essentially they are blood sacrifices that, the more they are denied, the more of them will be made in the future. But this is no Buddhist cycle in which the actors are faced with a universe of imperfection from which it is possible to escape only through a series of relentless and repetitive purgings in a long series of existences. On the contrary, this is damnation − if damnation is defined as an eternal punishment that consists in repeating forever one’s initial indulgences and excesses (McDonagh 1979: 2).




Geller 1988         Daniel S. Geller, “Power System Membership and Patternsof War”, International Political Science Review 9 (1988): 372-3

Marvin and Ingle 1999  Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and theNation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 15, 27, and 312-313

McDonagh 1979                Oliver MacDonagh, ‘Time’s Revenges and Revenge’s Time: A View of Anglo Irish Relations’, Anglo-Irish Studies IV (1979): 2

McKinley 2012                    Michael McKinley, “Critical Reflections on the Australia – US Alliance,” in Craig Stockings (ed), ANZAC’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History, Sydney: NewSouth, 2012, pp. 235-259

Perrett 1989                        Geoffrey Perret, A Country Made by War: From the Revolution to Vietnam – The Story of America’s Rise to Power, New York: RandomHouse, 1989

Project on Defense Alternatives 2014

Project on Defense Alternatives, Reset Defense Bulletin,

“Since Cold War the US has deployed military force 5 times more often than prior

193 years,” 15 December 2014: 1

Sands 2008                           Shlomo Sands, When and How the Jewish People WasInvented, Tel Aviv: Resling, 2008, p. 11

Turse 2014                            Nick Turse, “The Golden Age of Black Ops,” Tomgram: Nick Turse, A Shadow War in 150 Countries, 20 January 2015 http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175945/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_a_shadow_war_in_150_countries, accessed 21 January 2015

Warner 2015                       Daniel Warner, ‘Henri Dunant’s Imagined Community:

Humanitarianism and the Tragic,’ Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 38 (1, 2013):

3-28, and


accessed 28 January 2015


From 1982 to 1988, Dr Michael McKinley taught international relations and strategy in the department of Politics in UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the ANU.



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