Pathological philanthropy in the Australia-US Alliance

With confirmed coronavirus cases in excess of two million, the number of new, confirmed cases across the country approaching 45,000 per day for most of the last ten weeks, and resultant deaths in excess of 126,000 (and climbing), the decisions made across the United States to open the economy should not surprise.

Washington has once more declared war – this time on a submicroscopic infectious agent – and the habits of mind which have marked its previous wars have returned. Australia is being offered another lesson in the perverse generosity that the United States exhibits when faced with such a challenge.

Consider that, among the schedule of benefits and rationales put forward by Australian protagonists of the alliance are the following two: first, Australian Defence Force personnel, by way of joint exercises and exchange postings, are able to learn military-philosophical, strategic and tactical lessons from their US counterparts which will benefit Australia’s national security; second, the alliance is a natural alignment of two countries which share the same political, social, cultural, and economic value systems.

If the rationales put forward are true, and operationalised, then Australia, and all other allies which parrot them, are in serious ethical and moral strife. Essentially, Australia, and the others, subscribe to a view that certain classes of their citizenry are expendable – chattels to be disposed of as the market-moment demands.

In recent weeks, and in the face of a rising and accelerating trajectory of infections, this was frighteningly obvious with exhortations to sacrifice by prominent political figures below the level of the President whose own inanities are exhaustively documented. At the state level, two examples: the Lieutenant-Governor of Texas advising seniors that they should risk dying of Covid-19 to protect the economy; the Governor of Georgia followed suit, both rejecting the advice from scientists that to do so would lead to needless death, and did.

But the White House cannot escape a mention, notably in reference to Kevin Hassett, currently a senior advisor to Trump: his contribution was to refer to the population as “capital stock” – a term normally used to describe productive farm animals – which needed to get back to work. It was, of course, enthusiastically embraced in the Oval Office.

On display, and not to put too fine a point on it, is an obscene inversion: the market-economy, rather than being an instrument of national prosperity and thus subject to political revision in the national interest, is an end in itself, above and beyond politics and demanding obedience.

So venerated, it was natural that decisions were to sacrifice parts of the population – people of colour and vulnerable older people in particular – in what Fintan O’Toole justly described as acts of “deliberate and homicidal stupidity.”

How does this relate to the alliance? Closely, as it happens. Stupidity, incompetence, and the refusal to be guided by evidence, clear thinking and the strictures of logic produce the civil version of “friendly fire” – an oxymoronic evasion of mental and physical impairment and, in many cases, death.

The crucial factor to note here is that the term “vulnerable Americans” extends across several categories of the population, as does the attitude towards them. Indeed, the perpetual wars of the US require the existence of one almost at the opposite end of the demographic spectrum – the young of militarily recruitable age, many of whom sign up for the military because they have no other prospects.

It’s not so much a process of conscription; rather, it’s better described as “the poverty draft.” From it, the US derives its “capital stock” for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other, less publicised deployments, around the world. Within them we find the successors to precedents of sacrifice required in order to satisfy an immediate demand unworthy of the means devoted to it.

Numerous investigations and reports of the US debacle in the Vietnam War – Edward Luttwak’s The Pentagon and the Art of War, and Richard Gabriel’s Military Incompetence – exposed the the managerialism and entrepreneurialism that had infested its officer corps: as more than ninety percent of graduate study by US officers were in the areas business, management and economics, “business think” dominated. Combat came to be seen by many as an investment opportunity in which those under their command were collaterals in the quest for promotion.

That the war itself had extraordinarily tragic consequences for the collateral which survived. Consider: within six years of the last US soldier leaving Vietnam, 25 percent had been arrested on criminal charges (mostly drug-related); within 15 years, the number of suicides among the Vietnam War era veterans exceeded the total war dead (58,000).

This has made no apparent impression. As the Global War on Terror and its variants have proceeded since 2001. One example: In March 2010, at Fort Lewis-McCord, on the occasion of another US Army suicide (then running at approximately 1 per day for serving personnel and 22 per day for veterans), Major Keith Markham, the executive officer of the deceased unit, wrote to his platoon leaders confirming exactly this, and the need to understand the military economy in the following terms: “We have an unlimited supply of expendable labor.”

The current situation can be reliably estimated from just the figures available for veterans’ suicides for the period 2005-2017: 79,000. And this for a succession of failed wars in the pursuit of unachievable objectives.

A brief conclusion: there is a symbiosis between US economic thinking and US strategic thinking. Both are aligned with each other.

Two questions follow: First, is this part of the much-heralded common value orientation in the Australia and the US in the alliance relationship?

Second, between these wars and their consequences, and the Covid-19 Crisis and its consequences when the economy is served ahead of common humanity (as in the US), are we not witnessing in Australia an emerging pathological philanthropy, almost indistinguishable from that of the US, when political and business leaders follow the American model?


Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University. Formerly he taught International Relations (Strategy, Diplomacy and International Conflict) at the University of Western Australia and the ANU.

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