Tuesday, 3 March 2015

War And Democracy

Gallant Deeds: New Zealand SAS troopers returning from a bitter fire-fight at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel, Afghanistan, June 2011. The NZ Defence Force is fanatical in its determination to control the totality of information emerging from the theatres in which its personnel are engaged. Independent journalism, of the sort so vital to the workings of a viable democracy, is aggressively discouraged.
 
WAR AND DEMOCRACY do not mix. They never have and they never will.
 
Even during World War II – the “Just War” to beat all Just Wars – a drastic curtailment of domestic civil rights was deemed unavoidable by fascism’s democratic opponents.
 
The Cold War, similarly, engendered a climate of fear and suspicion. Tremendous courage was required to challenge the “Free World’s” interpretation of international affairs. At home, dissidence of any kind was met with vicious persecution. Failure to toe the official line on “the communist threat” could seriously threaten your career; your liberty; even your life.
 
 Governments have always preferred to fight their wars in black and white. Shades of grey are regarded as, at best, confusing, and, at worst, demoralising. In the fraught aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the United States, President George W. Bush made it chillingly clear that the Global War on Terror would be waged uncompromisingly on this crude binary basis. “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make”, intoned the President. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
 
Such statements are hostile to the very essence of democracy, which, since its earliest manifestation in Ancient Athens, has been about the people’s right to deliberate upon all matters relating to their interests; about weighing the options carefully and responsibly; and, most importantly, about their right to disagree.
 
But these, the fundamental tenets of democracy, are not the fundamental tenets of waging war. Soldiers do not deliberate. They are not encouraged to weigh their options. And they are absolutely forbidden to disagree.
 
America’s experience in Vietnam demonstrated how rapidly the efforts of the armed forces can be undermined by democratic disagreement at home. The moral ambiguity of the Vietnam conflict made some degree of tension between the battle front and the home front inevitable. The justifications offered to the American public for the fight against fascism, which had kept them behind the war-effort for the duration, simply weren’t available to America’s leaders in their brutal struggle against Vietnamese peasants. Such justifications as they did attempt were routinely demolished by the uncompromising journalism of America’s war correspondents.
 
Never again. Less than ten years after America’s final, panicked retreat from Vietnam, the British were waging a war in the Falkland Islands from which any chance of independent and uncensored war journalism was being ruthlessly excised. The concept  of “embedded” journalism (if not the expression) ensured that the content and supervision of the war’s media presentation would remain firmly in Mrs Thatcher’s hands. The Americans were only too happy to follow the lead of their British cousins. By the time Uncle Sam was ready to pull on his desert camouflage gear, independent war reporting had joined long hair and flared jeans as just another icon of the seventies.
 
British and American politicians were as keen to apply the new techniques of media management on the home front as the military had been on the frontlines. Understandably so, since the military and civilian impacts of war are impossible to separate. As the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, said of the horrors of World War I:
 
“If the people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.”

The True Face Of War:
"If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow" - Lloyd George
 
The depiction of gallant deeds lies at the heart of the New Zealand Defence Force’s media brief. It is what their political masters demand, and their commitment to the task borders on the fanatical. Nothing strikes fear into the NZDF like the news that an independent Kiwi journalist is in the field asking questions, interviewing locals, following leads and painstakingly assembling stories that owe nothing to, and may sharply contradict, the official narrative. Operating in regions where New Zealand forces are deployed, unembedded war correspondents are considered little better than terrorists.
 
This is how New Zealand’s wars are brought back home. Ultimately, “managing” the media means subverting the media. It’s about co-opting and corrupting the profession upon whose independence and integrity a healthy democracy depends. A journalist persuaded to pull his or her punches for the sake of “our men and women on the ground” may prove equally cooperative in relation to other, equally “sensitive”, government policies.
 
And it doesn’t stop there. New Zealand’s coroners will soon be legally prevented from inquiring too closely into battlefield deaths. In the interests of “national security” future investigations will be left to the NZDF. According to an NZDF spokesperson, it is important to strike a balance between independent investigation and ensuring judicial scrutiny does not encroach into “matters of state”.
 
War’s aversion to democracy could hardly be more plainly stated.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 March 2015.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Man when you nail it, you don't muck around. Superbly constructed piece Chris.

Loz said...

The type of peace that Iraqi people have been living under since the “end of hostilities” and the imposition of the “free government” has been Hell on Earth. We know of 153,000 documented civilians being killed in Iraq since the coalition’s victory in 2003. That’s more people killed in a single generation than the combined war dead for Australia and New Zealand in both World War One and World War Two.

Ten percent of last year’s civilian death toll was attributed to Iraqi military air strikes, and while horrific, only 25% of civilian deaths in Iraq last year were attributed to the horrors of Isis. This by no means apologises for one of the world’s most brutal and intolerant forms of governance but it does suggest that the brutality of existence in the region has fermented the creation of the Islamic State instead of being the result of it.

We do have a collective responsibility toward the welfare of all on this planet. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as the foundation of the United Nations recognises that responsibility.

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.


The difficulty is that Western foreign policy, based primarily on obtaining oil, has been responsible for denying the people of the Middle East any self-determination that might threaten foreign control of resources. Our governments overthrew democracy in Iran and by supporting the brutal rule of the Shah created the condition for only the most fanatical opposition to develop in his shadow. The return of brutal dictatorship in Egypt has only been possible through vast gifts of military aid from the United States. We support dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and turn a blind eye to atrocious persecution of human rights activists in Yemen because democracy there could ferment rebellion against the House of Saud.

Any belief that this ever increasing catastrophe can be resolved through sending Kiwi kids with guns into the maelstrom is nothing short of insane.

As a timely reminder of World War 1, Australia’s deployment was justified as “supporting New Zealand” while our own commitment is nothing other than the price of being “part of the club”. You could almost hear the ghostly voices of the long dead servicemen singing “We’re her because we’re here, because we’re hear”

peter petterson said...

Being an active labour party member, and even worse an active trade unionists didn't help your future employment opportunities in days gone by.I'd make unionism compulsory again - and stuff the EU.

Olwyn said...

Democracy requires, first and foremost, a level of trust between leaders and those being led. Given that background condition, when engagement in war is seen as justified (defending one's country from attack for instance), people generally accept that they will not be consulted at every turn. They do, however, expect their leaders to be acting on their behalf.

Since Vietnam, the levels of trust between governments and the governed have weakened where war is concerned.
This is especially so since the divide between the haves and have-nots has further diminished their community of spirit. In WW2 the Queen Mother famously said after Buckingham Palace was bombed, "At least now I can look the women in the East End in the eye." It is hard to imagine Key harbouring such a thought, and it is most unlikely that love for NZ will see the Key children enlisting in the armed forces - that is a job for dispensable people.

Wars such as the one in which we are about to engage proceed from, more than bring about, the weakening of democracy. Duplicity about the details of the war itself just compounds it.





Charles E said...

Yes well said .... nice writing...... except the ridiculous reference to the Key children. Just as bad a referring to the lack of Clark children when she sent many more to war.
What you blithely miss it is still our precious democratic choice to vote for or against the leaders who send our tiny group of military to a war zone. And our democratic right to join the military, or not, to become a soldier, a professional soldier who not only knows he or she can be sent to war but actually very much wants to go.
So your bit applies to a lot of wars & countries, but not to us here now & the current minuscule contribution in the slightest.

Chris Trotter said...

What in God's name are you blathering on about, Charles? There is no reference to the Key children in this posting.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I think he was referring to Olwyn's comment Chris :-). And may not be the Key children I must say, but it seems that American politicians sons and daughters enlist in their military at a higher rate than the general population. So maybe American politicians are a little less hypocritical :-).

Olwyn said...

Charles, assuming I am the person you are addressing: I mentioned the Key children to highlight the lack of community of spirit of which I was speaking - I did not intend a casual ad hominem.

You are right in pointing out that a small force of volunteers are being sent to Iraq, for now anyway, with the implication that I was getting a bit hyperbolic in using a WW2 comparison. OK, point taken. However, where our "precious democratic choice" is concerned, Key gave the impression prior to last year's election that we would not be joining the fight against ISIL. After the election he decided otherwise. While many people guessed that this would be the case, such moves exemplify the erosion of the trust upon which "our precious democracy" depends.