War Culture, by John Hinkson

It is hardly surprising that social institutions oriented to military activity develop their own culture—distinctive ways that differentiate them from other social institutions. Generations of families sometimes develop strong attachments to these institutions. But the practices associated with the military institution can become disturbing, as they have in the United States over the last seventy years or so since the Second World War, especially where they develop their own internal economy and become something like a state within the state. This entrenched militarism could be regarded as a culture of war. However, the concerns taken up in this issue of Arena Magazine are of a different order.

Here the issue is a growing concern that warfare, as a ‘solution’ to our problems, is in the air and gaining traction. It is not that anyone is explicitly advocating it. Rather, it is mostly peace that is advocated. Certainly, as Tony Kevin remarks in this issue, ‘no one declares war any more’. In the Middle East any sense of security and social order is retreating, while views and policies are being adopted that not only lead in the direction of war but, over time, will make war difficult to avoid.

In addition, our media are preoccupied with the glorification of past wars. In Australia this has especially been hinged around the celebration of Gallipoli. As 25 April approaches, a 100-year commemoration becomes an irresistible point of focus. Of course it is joined with other military possibilities, especially those clustered around responses to the emergence of Islamic State.

Not all of these media preoccupations have military aims. As Valerie Krips discusses in this issue of Arena Magazine in relation to The Water Diviner, there are some explorations of the other side of Gallipoli today in a limited humanisation of the Turkish people at a face-to-face level. However, there remains almost zero insight into the broader context of Gallipoli in which that battle was but one aspect of a much larger struggle pitting the West (the British Empire) against a struggling Islam (the Ottoman Empire), as referred to by Paul Barratt in this issue. Here Gallipoli is an expression of a Western interest and practical involvement in the fragmentation of Arab and Islamic cultures, in turn through time related to the invasion of Iraq and the rise of Islamic State today. This ignorance of what the West was doing at Gallipoli, and in its relations with Islam and the Middle East more generally, is necessary: it is essential if the West is to continue pursuing its interests in the Middle East. It is an ignorance that is also essential if the present build-up of war preparations is to continue.

There is continuity between this ignorance and Western attitudes towards other cultures, attitudes of superiority that in themselves predispose us to feel that war with non-Western cultures is a matter of little consequence or, more to the point, relates to people who are either insignificant or disposable. While this is an attitude that is not exclusive to the ‘Anglo-sphere’, it is nevertheless deep-set and firmly in place, arising out of our own settler-colonial past. Settler-colonial societies have long learnt to express in myriad ways their deep disrespect for non-Anglo cultures while simultaneously hiding this attitude from themselves. Other cultures experience the relationship; they know. They experience cultural disrespect or worse and resist where they can.

As Paul Barratt and Tony Kevin argue in this issue of Arena Magazine, Australia’s disrespect is evident in brushing aside any serious attempt to gain approval from Iraq to send troops into that sovereign nation. Tony Abbott’s troops sent to fight Islamic State have had to become part of the diplomatic corps in order to be allowed in, a ‘solution’ that may indeed come home to bite us, and reflects the view that the Iraqis don’t know how to be thankful for our unquestionable efforts.

Of course our disrespect dates from much earlier times and includes our military involvement in the actions to clear the Ottomans from the Middle East (well before Gallipoli) and a lack of comprehension of the Palestinian experience of ‘Catastrophe’ when their lands were wrenched from them in 1948, setting in place a perilous road to war that continues to threaten the world. This incomprehension mirrors the settler-colonial relation to Indigenous cultures at home in the colonised lands. Even Abbott’s well-known thought-bubble that Islamic State is no more than a ‘death cult’ is illustrative of this attitude that cannot recognise humanity in the Other or the nature of the desperate experiences that have, ultimately, issued in the indefensible behaviour of IS. Abbott’s attitude is that only he knows how to conduct war, which of course is the way he conducts politics.

When Tony Kevin notes that five powers make up the present war-oriented intelligence and policy-sharing collaboration of the Anglo-sphere—the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia—he is noting the realities on the ground while also recognising this deep lack of respect towards other cultures, which generates its own dark consensus among those in the Anglo-sphere. While it is true that, as Valerie Krips notes, the old arrangements associated with the British Empire no longer work as a culture of war (because they have lost all purchase on their colonial outposts), there is a certain continuity that issues in an emergent Anglo-sphere culture, and it is alive and well. It deserves analysis in its own right.

There is another reason for the need to come to terms with the culture of war today, one that complements the discussion of the relationships above, and adds to it in disturbing ways.

The conventional account of war and its morality relies on a distinction between war and civil society. Attempts to deal with war and morality have always attempted to keep these spheres separate, such that war crimes are often exemplified in the breaching of these boundaries. So, for example, engaging in war in a way that predictably will cause significant civilian deaths is regarded as a serious war crime. Technological change embedded in weaponry has made this separation increasingly difficult to maintain. But it is technological change as embedded in civil social institutions that, it can be argued, is generating a culture of war in unfamiliar ways.

Wars often arise out of crises internal to civil society. This is one way, for example, to account for the Second World War. That war had many particular causes, but in general it was framed by a constitutive crisis: the Great Depression. Unable to make their internal institutions work in ways that offered sustenance to civilian populations, nations externalised their crises and engaged in warfare.

The novel culture of war taking shape today arises differently. We are experiencing a crisis similar to the Great Depression: the GFC. But in addition there is globalisation. And in this respect it can be argued that it is the ‘positive’ working of contemporary social institutions that is the source of crises that are generating a culture of war. In the contemporary context we experience the failure of institutions, in the sense that they do not work, as with the GFC; but we also experience the social failure of institutions that do work—globalisation itself. Both draw societies towards an externalisation of crisis in the form of war.

The failure of globalisation and its trajectory towards war is a drama that is completely novel. The failure of positive globalisation lies with the nature of its institutions, relying as they do on technologies that transform civil society through social abstraction. The neoliberal market that supports globalisation is more socially abstract than previous markets. In the main it does not supplement local communities and economies, but rather undermines them. It helps to draw social life into relations organised around distance that undermine the social life of generations and communities and projects us into forms of travel and trade that deny meaning to place and local economy. These processes are exacerbated when ‘positive’ globalisation enters a crisis like the GFC.

The circumstances that lead to a lifetime of unemployment for many young people outside the West are related to these new forms of globalised development. The consequent emptying out of social life leaves the young in desperate straits, and some turn to violent responses. These same circumstances are now also eating away at the social institutions of the West, most strongly illustrated in Greece and Spain. The Powers push on, perhaps uneasy, but unwilling to accept that they have settled upon policies and processes that call into being a culture of war.

Closer to home we find the same processes at the heart of our dealings with Asia. Japan is a case in point. Japan is a ‘winner’ in the globalisation process but is nevertheless losing: its internal culture has been deeply affected by positive globalisation, while it remains embroiled in a deflationary crisis that was an early expression of the GFC. It has been suffering from economic contraction for twenty years, leaving it especially vulnerable to political desperation. Now Prime Minister Abe is engaging in wild gestures of money printing to kick-start its deflated economy, together with dangerous brinkmanship in its relations with China. Japan finds itself in an emerging culture of war because circumstances threaten to overwhelm it. It adds to this by adopting policies that attempt to achieve some kind of ‘breakout’, whatever the cost.

As Richard Tanter argues in this issue of Arena Magazine in relation to Australia’s submarine agenda, these are terrible times to draw Australia into Japan’s orbit, as Tony Abbott is attempting to do. Turning to Japan to build our submarines de-industrialises Australian industry in South Australia and simultaneously encourages Japanese remilitarisation, drawing Australia into a potential conflict between Japan, the United States and China, a conflict that would be disastrous for all concerned. Potentially it even draws Australia into a complex that could lead to nuclear war.

Syria exemplifies what can happen when societies lose their capacity to offer security to its resident peoples. The resulting political vacuum supports behaviour unacceptable in all conventional normative systems, behaviour that is actually far worse than is found in the most brutal regimes. When people lose their stable reference points all participants in a conflict can turn into monsters. There is no one reason for the attraction to war, but having a culture and a form of development that undermines ways of life and shows no respect for the generations is a recipe for extreme danger.

John Hinkson is an Arena Publications editor.

About the author

John Hinkson

John Hinkson lectured in the Education Faculty at La Trobe University for many years. He is a longstanding Arena Publications Editor.

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