Last week’s visit by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to a US warship off Sydney where he told visiting American sailors their navy was a “comforting presence” in Australia should provoke a public conversation.
The command ship of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet had docked at Sydney’s Garden Island naval base ahead of the Talisman Sabre joint military training exercises with Australia. When I read about this and the exchange between Tony Abbott and the sailors: I’ve got to say that it’s a very comforting presence in the world, the US Navy, and good to have you in Sydney, I had to wonder how many of us know anything about the war games being held in the north of the country this month. Another case of what we don’t know but which is sure to hurt us. Surely the truth about future conflicts, real or simply part of the ‘war on terror’ campaign should be known to us good citizens. Maybe ABC TV’s Q&A program could lead the discussion into Australia’s current military practice? Maybe this is what the Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson was alluding to when he said to presenter Tony Jones: “To be brutally honest Tony when I came on this program in 2008 it was an environment where we had serious policy discussion. Too often these days it’s caught up with gotcha moments and snide remarks designed to get extra attention in the news cycle.”
The causes of conflict and our military involvement in the world’s many wars is a serious policy issue that current affairs programs should be addressing.
There are many questions that need answers, such as why we engage in conflict. The Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) argues for the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction and the prevention of armed conflict and works to promote peace through research, advocacy, peace education and partnerships. In an address to the Unitarian Peace Memorial Church in April 2011 Dr Jenny Grounds, Vice President, Medical Association for Prevention of War, led a discussion about the causes of war asking: Is it always deep down about territory and access to resources held within them, or are some wars just triggered by conflict between different tribes or states over differences in religious or political views, or lack of respect for the human rights of each others people?
Recent conflicts would suggest that wars are about territory and access to resources. Dr Val Noone, honorary fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical studies at the University of Melbourne tells of a public meeting held in Richmond, Victoria, two years after Gallipoli where Mark Feinberg, a box maker and a socialist posed the question: What was it for – the terrible loss of life and injury of the Anzacs? Mark, a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World ( the Wobblies), gave the following answer: To satisfy a brutal autocracy that ruled Russia, and on March 1917 was overthrown. According to the Czarist Russian foreign minister of the day, Saza Savanoff, the Russian price for entering the war was to be given control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles Straits. Thus, Mark Feinberg argued publicly at the time that one of the military aims of the invasion of Gallipoli was not defence of Australia but to give the Czar’s regime access to warm-water ports and the Mediterranean.
Conflict over valuable energy supplies have been features of our world for many decades or longer. Fossil fuels are triggering violent conflicts all over the world-in Iraq/Syria, South Sudan, the Crimea/Ukraine, and the South China Sea, says Michael Klare, Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Klare reminds us that at first glance, these upheavals appear to be independent events, driven by their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances. But we need to look closely and see that they share several key characteristics – notably, a witch’s brew of ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms that have been stirred to the boiling point by a fixation on energy.
We must begin our scrutiny of the present day conflicts by first examining the purpose of the Talisman Sabre military exercises which are taking place right now in the north of Australia. In a recent article the ABC’s defence reporter Andrew Greene refers to exercise Talisman Sabre, the largest combined biennial military exercise undertaken by the Australian Defence Force, and notes that it will put about 18,000 Army, Navy and Air Force personnel to the test in the coming weeks. Starting on 5 July and finishing on 21 July, the exercise aims to improve combat training, readiness and interoperability by exposing participants to a wide spectrum of military capabilities and training experiences. It will include military operations at sea, in the air and on land. The exercise will take place simultaneously within the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland and Fog Bay/Bradshaw Field Training Area in the Northern Territory. This year Japanese troops are taking part in a major US-Australian military exercise as Washington looks to bolster links among its allies in the face of an increasingly assertive China. They will participate in joint exercises with the US Marines rather than operating directly with the Australian military and their participation is seen as part of efforts to strengthen defence ties between Japan and Australia. All very worrying. News of Japan’s participation came as tensions remain high in the region, with increasing criticism of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, where it has accelerated building artificial islands in disputed waters. The area is rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping. The South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region. At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
Thus the continuation of world conflicts is much to do with territory and access to resources but it also feeds the huge weapons industry of which Australia plays a considerable role. Currently the world spends $1.53 trillion dollars on defence, 43% of this spent by the US. The financial cost of the US military operation in Iraq since 2003 has been estimated at $1.3 trillion, with a further $600 billion anticipated for the lifetime healthcare costs of injured troops. Increasingly the weapons industry is commercialised and integrated with weapons manufacturers sponsoring universities not only in the United States where the majority of scientific research is defence linked, but are starting to be present at schools and universities in Australia. Australia’s military manufacturing sector was once largely state-owned and operated to provide the needs of Australian forces according to Dr Peter Wigg from MAPW. However since the 1980s the industry has become commercialised and is a considerable source of government income, and actively promoted by government.
As Abigail Bray writes in her explosive polemic Misogyny Re-loaded : the elephant in the room is drenched with blood of others; those distant dark-skinned others with their legs and arms blown off, who are disembowelled by bullets; mothers who cradle their children’s ripped-up bodies, screaming with madness. Make no mistake, the land of the free is a militarised culture. Bray asserts that we have been discouraged from thinking about or acting against the massive imperial war machines. ‘Indifference to the suffering of others is a form of sadism,’ she says. She speaks too of the ‘socially accepted lament that nothing works, that there are no solutions’ ‘that seeps like a poison into the minds and hearts of so many’. But we cannot let this apathy and helplessness continue. Our military involvement in other nations’ wars is a really important discussion that could well be taken up by the chided Q&A.