If history has taught us anything, it's that war always results in the senseless death of our young. War against China would be catastrophic, writes Martin Pike.
“WE” SEEM to have forgotten.
If you’re following the news, you might be mistaken for thinking war is just a policy development, like a new quarantine rule or tax. Middle aged men are everywhere in the media, talking about it in the same, high-handed, non-specific way war has always been rendered familiar and acceptable. “Oh well,” they are starting to say, “sometimes it is inevitable and if it happens we must join in”. Duty, responsibility and so forth.
Perhaps we will reach such a point, but let’s be clear — when they say “we”, they don’t mean themselves. They mean the young. After all, war is not just the continuation of politics by other means. That kind of abstracted rhetoric is designed to lift the discussion up into the hot air clouds of “serious strategic” talk, spoken by “important men”.
War is death: mass, industrial-scale butchery. War is vast landscapes and cities laid to waste. War is sexual violence, torture, whole regions of people turned into refugees. And war between China and the U.S. has the potential to unleash horror the likes of which Australians have never experienced.
Unlike a new tax, we can find ourselves there on an executive whim, without so much as a firm legal basis let alone legislative scrutiny. We are not even likely to see a serious analysis of Australia’s national interest — after all, we haven’t seen much of it before. Despite the way those words get bandied around, we have had a strategic policy best characterised as a one-way peg for over 50 years. We are pegged to one big country and every time they get excited and lairy, we do, too.
If we were driven to intervene to protect democracy, why did we not move on Myanmar, or the many other examples like it? If it’s international law and the protection of sovereign states, again, we are hardly consistent. Why now, with an island we and most of the world – rightly or wrongly – have never recognised as independent? Indeed, for this reason our legal position may not be as straightforward as “they” seem to think. Not that, recent history suggests, we would let the law get in the way too much.
We are not lurching down this path because of high-minded multilateralism, nor even a realist’s notion of our own national interest. On our current trajectory, any intervention by Australia – by which we mean declaring war on China, the second most powerful nation in the world, bristling with conventional and nuclear weapons – will most likely be nothing more than a trigger-response to the imperative of the one-way peg. And the hawkish, unreliable, slightly unstable nation it is attached to. They ramp up the rhetoric, we ramp up the rhetoric. They launch, we launch.
Australia’s strategic talk makes little reference to the past half century or so of learning in international relations. Indeed, many of the voices are dabbling dilettantes, without qualification in this most complex and nuanced of fields. They ignore half a century of learnings in security studies, with its shifting focus towards the human as the subject and even fail to grapple with the complexity that underpins “realism”.
War may become inevitable, but we haven’t got there yet, nor even started to see a case for why Australia would take that path rather than giving other forms of support to multilateralist efforts. We can stand alongside people and push back on brinkmanship without swinging our fists around out front.
I don’t argue for total appeasement, just a better-reasoned, careful review of our position in the world and our options. Most importantly, that we don’t “forget” what stumbling into war can mean. Appeasement is easily invoked, calling forth the 1930s and the many opportunities to curb the rise of the Nazis. Yet we don’t tend to think as much about 1914, the quick, unthinking way we jumped into war based on our allegiances. It may be a better analogy for everything we’ve done since 1945. Are we ready to follow that path again?
Over 60,000 Australians were slaughtered in the Great War. We still remember Gallipoli and the Western Front, but do we really remember in the way that history is of most use? By empathising, using our imaginations and pulling those tens of thousands of bodies and smoking shellscapes into our conception of the present and its potential?
When they talk of fighting, they mean the next generation of young people, men in particular, many barely more than boys. Look at your children, our youth, at the teens riding to school with their hopes and dreams. We’ve already taken the best and left them a second-rate inheritance, from housing to jacked-up uni fees to climate and the environment.
Now their elders, perched in comfortable chairs and pontificating on TV, offer to send them, en masse, to their graves. Don’t think they won’t resort to conscription. And adding insult to injury, many of those elders grew comfortable off the back of trade with the very nation they now want the young to die fighting. Eating their cake and still having it in front of them. Something to snack on as the bodies start racking up and the mothers start wailing, as mothers have always done.
We’ve learnt so little and forgotten so much.
We need more real remembering, especially accounts of the true horror of total war as passed on to us by those who were there. Wilfred Owen fought on the front and died in action. He is venerated as one of the greatest war poets, but he did not set his words down in the hope they would inspire middle-aged men to bandy war talk around over a century later. In ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, he took an already-disturbing biblical tale and gave it a shocking twist. I still remember the feeling the first time I read it.
“Abram” (Abraham) sets out to sacrifice his son at God’s request. At this point, the original story already laid the groundwork for so many parents to set aside their instincts and send their children to their deaths for “greater” causes. The biblical version then softens — having shown his loyalty, Abraham then gets to sacrifice a ram instead.
Owen leads us along this familiar path then yanks us in a different, darker direction:
‘But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.’
Owen’s rage at the old men who slew Europe’s youth is palpable, red-raw. Soon enough, they slew him, too, but his message has more moral and intellectual utility to us than 20 commentators muttering about “inevitability” in the media.
The old men are taking the knife out again, sliding their hands behind the heads of the next generation. I don’t argue that war can or should always be avoided. But let’s be sure it’s our only option. Be sure we will feel the same way when those young people we are meant to protect, whose inheritance we were entrusted with, are lying in bloody mudpits in their thousands. Or returning with their limbs blown off, to lives wracked by PTSD.
Returning, as Australia’s own Bruce Dawe put it in ‘Homecoming’:
‘...too late, too early.’
Martin Pike is a lawyer and writer who lives in Melbourne. You can follow him on Twitter @armagny.
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