War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing

Jun 6, 2024
Australian missile defence system concept, 3D rendering

War may good for absolutely nothing. But the spectre of war is great for business if you are part of the “military industrial complex”. And if that spectre can be painted in the shape of China, then that’s hitting the jackpot.

The latest flurry of talk about conscription and national service by Rishi Sunak and even some commentators in Australia has stirred up many unpleasant memories of my own experience as a conscripted Nasho in the Australian Army. It was an appalling waste of eighteen months of my life. While it has irritated that part of my memory that I do not like to revisit, it has also got me thinking how could our society have become so numb about horrors of war. Talk of conscription is just the latest bit of sabre-rattling. Both major political parties have signed us up for AUKUS telling us that the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars on nuclear submarines is in our nation’s defence so that we can partner America in its East Asia contest with China. Then then penny dropped.

Taking a step back. It is clear why rich nations have been slow to accept the need for urgency in addressing climate change. This wall of resistance was built brick by brick by powerful pressure groups for whom change presented a threat, not to the planet but to their profits. The fossil fuel producers and their downstream partners have been behind the sophisticated influence campaigns run by lobby groups, think-tanks, media outlets, social media and political parties. They softened up the society to such an extent that elections have been won by parties that promised to do the least about the crisis facing the planet. “Crisis. What crisis?”

In 2001, I was in a very large auditorium in Canberra. Perhaps there were 2000 people there and they had come to listen to one person. It was the annual Defence Procurement Conference and there were representatives from all the majors in the “military industrial complex” (a phrase that rankles whenever I hear it), American mega-companies, French, Spanish, Israeli and more. There were also many Australian outfits that are part of this global supply chain as well as bureaucrats and high-ranking officers from the Army, RAAF and RAN. Perhaps there were diplomats from other nations too.

The person that they had all come to see and especially to hear was Peter Reith, the Minister for Defence, famous for keeping a leadership baton in his knapsack. He really was the gunrunners sort of guy. Reith entered the room to warm expectant applause and could clearly sense the anticipation in the audience. He opened his remarks by saying, to the best of my memory, “This is such a remarkable industry, yet so different to nearly every other industry. A monopsony like Defence will mean that Procurement Conferences are going to be upbeat or depressing. Well let me say from the outset, you will not be depressed by what I am going to announce today.” The room erupted.

Perhaps you are like me, when I heard “monopsony” I had to find out what it meant. It’s a market situation in which there is only one buyer and Reith was the buyer who had come with his chequebook. What a supremely powerful market position and one that the “military industrial complex” cannot leave to chance if they are to protect their profits.

Just as the fossil fuel industry has made an artform of influencing policymakers and the public, this huge and powerful industry that makes its fortune by creating deadly machinery, has followed suit. They have been so expert at this that think-tanks have been created and funded in partnership with the government; the monoponistic customer. Imagine the weight of the pressure groups coming with the funding support of some of the largest corporations in the world bearing down onto just the one customer. Furthermore, in order to get favourable decision making from that customer, they are assiduously massaging the general public to their messaging. Politicians are generally a soft touch when the electorate is on board.

And then, along came China. What a godsend for the “military industrial complex”. By creating a bogeyman out of the emerging, huge and different nation of China, they were able to unload all of the most dastardly bits of military hardware till the cows come home.

So now government decision making in Australia is dominated by security hawks operating behind the scenes with compliant Ministers being fed all of the threats that they can muster. Their work is supported by the sophisticated publicity (call it propaganda) that is fed into the general public by the “military industrial complex” and its arsenal of pressure groups. Fearmongering about China has been normalised and this is happy days for this most dangerous industry. What a depressing state of affairs.

It does not need to be this way. A country like Brazil that has an economy like Australia, export driven with minerals and agri-produce, has found that it can have a beneficial relationship with China and yet see no need for warships to threaten China. In fact the ships that they built were mega-sized bulk carriers, nearly twice the size of those sailing out of the Pilbara, for their iron ore to China.

The leaders of our neighbours in South East Asia are largely comfortable with their China relationship, yet we pay them no heed. There is a community of Australian companies and businesspeople in China who see the benefits that a relationship with this remarkable country can deliver.

As recently as 2011, HMAS Ballarat visited Shanghai and tied up across the river from the iconic Pearl Tower and the Pudong skyscrapers. On a beautiful evening, the ship’s Captain hosted a BBQ on the rear deck for some very senior Chinese naval officers as well as a number of the Australian community, led by our Ambassador. It was quite something to have both the Chinese and Australian national anthems played on a RAN vessel in the heart of China’s megacity followed by the friendly atmosphere of a good old barbie. News of this hospitality must have given the “military industrial complex” sleepless nights.

The specious argument of increased military spending for deterrence needs to be seen for what it is, just another tactic by the “military industrial complex” to convince their monopsony customer to procure more stuff. That stuff being “weapons of mass-destruction”, examples of which are on full display in all of their destructive awfulness in Ukraine and Palestine.

Those who are responsible for the normalisation of war are sinister profit seekers and they will only do us all harm. Their pressure groups of lobbyists, think-tanks and media hacks are taking full advantage of this monopsony. Funny how former ministers and even Prime Ministers find a well greased pathway into that business in their post-parliamentary career.

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