Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 26 April 2021

 

The drums of war are growing louder 

Michael PEZZULLO

Later this year Australia and the US will mark the 70th anniversary of our military alliance. We seek to be militarily self-reliant in all contingencies short of great-power war.

Nonetheless, our national defence strategy has at its heart the protection afforded to Australia in the most perilous circumstances by the military might of the US — including by way of the deterrence effect of its nuclear arsenal — and its willingness and preparedness to wage war against a major-power adversary.

Of course, before the striking of the alliance agreement in 1951, Australians and Americans had already fought side-by-side in two world wars. The ANZUS Treaty gave formal shape to implied strategic understandings. So, to mark the passing of Anzac Day this year, I should like to draw attention to remarkable — but too little remembered — addresses by two US generals of the army, who in terms of Australian military rank would have been field marshals.

General of the army Douglas MacArthur gave an address to the US Military Academy at West Point on May 12, 1962. This general, who had known war over 50 of its bloodiest years, reminded the cadets of West Point that their mission was to train to fight and, when called on, to win their nation’s wars. All else was entrusted to others. MacArthur reminded the cadets that only the dead had seen the end of war and that for so long as war afflicted the human condition, a nation’s warriors had but one dedicated purpose, with all else being secondary.

Nor, MacArthur said, should our warriors be thought of as warmongers. On the contrary, warriors, above all people, pray for peace — for it is they who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds, the trauma and too often the death that is the invoice of war.

It is left to the rest of us to make the wisest possible choices about sending our warriors to war. It is left to the rest of us to make clear their mission, and to explain why it is that we ask them to face danger and suffer the scar of war.

It is left to the rest of us to ensure that our statecraft and diplomacy are effectively pursued. It is left to the rest of us to ensure that the best military strategies and plans are in place, that the required machines and war stocks are to hand, that all scenarios have been explored and tested, and that strategic assumptions have been challenged and reset, as necessary. It is left to the rest of us to mobilise the necessary treasure and resources that are required to support the mission of our warriors.

It is left to the rest of us to secure the homeland in their absence, including by way of civil defence, ensuring the continuity of ser­vices and producing the machines and stocks of war. It is left to the rest of us to volunteer our services on the home front, something that typically fell to women in wars of old as the men went off to do the fighting, although today we are increasingly likely to send our female warriors into battle alongside their male comrades.

Most significantly this year, we recognise that it is finally left to the rest of us to care for the returned and to honour the dead.

MacArthur knew Australia well. From 1942 he served as the supreme commander of allied forces, Southwest Pacific area, with his general headquarters in Melbourne and then Brisbane. While addressed to cadets of the US Military Academy, his address could be given today to Australian cadet officers, almost 60 years later, and still could be relevant to the final punctuation mark.

Another US general who had known war for more than 50 years was president Dwight D. Eisen­hower, who was also a five-star general of the army.

In a speech delivered on April 16, 1953, Eisenhower rallied his fellow Americans and the country’s allies to the danger posed by the amassing of Soviet military power and the new risk of militaristic aggression. Throughout his presidency Eisenhower instilled in the free nations the conviction that as long as there persisted tyranny’s threat to freedom they must remain armed, strong and ready for war, even as they lamented the curse of war.

Today, free nations continue to face this sorrowful challenge. In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat — sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer. Free nations pity the burden of arms that drain the wealth and labour of all — a wasting of strength that thwarts true abundance and happiness for all people. Eisenhower, the general who had known war fully unleashed, the president who was the first human in history with the power to destroy all life, bemoaned the fact every weapon that was made was a theft from those who hungered, who were poor and who dreamt of a better life.

Every dollar spent on war machines is a dollar not spent on a school, a hospital, a road or a bridge. Eisenhower, the military man, the president with his finger on the button of global destruction, said this was not a way of life at all. Under the threat of war, it was instead “humanity hanging from a cross of iron”.

Let there not be doubt — war shakes confidence in a civilisation’s soul. Who could begrudge the sorrow of Europeans after the horror of World War I? Yet, in their sorrow and their revulsion at the thought of another terrible bloodbath, they did not heed the drums of war that beat through the 1930s — until too late they once again took up arms against Nazism and Fascism.

Today, as free nations again hear the beating drums and watch worryingly the militarisation of issues that we had, until recent years, thought unlikely to be catalysts for war, let us continue to search unceasingly for the chance for peace while bracing again, yet again, for the curse of war. By our resolve and our strength, by our preparedness of arms, and by our statecraft, let us set about reducing the likelihood of war — but not at the cost of our precious liberty. War may well be folly, but the greater folly is to wish away the curse by refusing to give it thought and attention, as if in so doing war may leave us be, forgetting us perhaps.

The least we can do for the host of the dead whom we remember this Anzac week is to be prepared to face equivalent challenges with the same resolve and sense of duty that they displayed in years past.

Michael Pezzullo is secretary of the Department of Home Affairs.

 

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