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Monday, August 30, 2021

Dave Witherow: Peace In Our Time


The American collapse in Afghanistan has provoked some urgent discussion on the current state of Western military competence. Are our armies fit for purpose? Will they ever again win a war? Or has armed force become obsolete in the world we now see evolving?

Here in New Zealand, of course, these questions are more or less moot. Our participation in Afghanistan was less than enthusiastic, and we have been well ahead of the pack in defusing the legacy of organized violence still associated with armies. Our recalcitrance runs deep, and I remember an auspicious Anzac Day, many years ago, when Prime Minister Helen Clark banned the carrying of real rifles by Army Cadets at memorial ceremonies. Guns, Helen reckoned, might give these impressionable young men - they were nearly all men then - the wrong idea.

As well they might. Guns, after all, are lethal by design. And an army equipped with lethal weapons is well-placed to cause serious disturbances of the peace. Get rid of the guns, this line of reasoning goes, and the chance of this happening will diminish - if not melt entirely away. Such was the view of Ms. Clark’s Labour Administration, back in 2001, and thus our Army became a Peacekeeping Force, and our Airforce, shorn of its fighter jets, became a Nonforce, a toothless adjunct to the sitting-duck remnants of our Navy.

NZ’s defence strategy, in other words, was to unilaterally disarm and leave the job to the Australians. And this is still our position. As Ms Clark explained at the time: “here in Australasia we live in a strategically benign environment”.

Events in the South China Sea (not to mention Afghanistan) have cast some doubt on that happy analysis. Times have changed, not for the better, and the possession of a functioning army might no longer seem such a bad idea.

The grand old Duke of Wellington would certainly have agreed. The purpose of the military, in his view, was to win battles, and he was under no illusions about the qualifications appropriate to regularly achieving that goal. A proper army, he considered, should consist of the most efficient, keen, and fearless killers it was possible to get into uniform. Peace-keeping and the winning of hearts and minds were not his business, and while reviewing some Irish soldiers (just before Waterloo, I think it was), he observed: “I don’t know if they’ll scare the French - but By God they sure scare me”. The Duke’s military record (no longer widely studied in these sensitive post-colonial times) was a fair indication that his priorities were sound, and one is tempted to speculate how Waterloo might have gone with a modern bed-wetting army of sexually-diverse woke warriors fully up-to-speed on gender fluidity.

The effective functioning of any army has forever been based on instant obedience and strict unquestioning discipline - attributes now seriously out of fashion, especially with the liberal left. Why, these good folks demand, should soldiers be required to behave like automatons, just because they enlisted in an army? This kind of stricture, they maintain, is scandalously undemocratic, and before risking being shot or blown to bits, every trooper should be allowed due process and adequate consultation.

There is no consensus on this issue - although one pundit did recently opine that the military should be made up of “the best and most competent people regardless of race and sexual orientation”. Which is all right as far as it goes, but who exactly are “the best and most competent” when it comes to recruiting soldiers? Would Wellington’s Irishmen qualify? And what kind of “competence” should we seek in persons who may one desperate day be required to kill other human beings?

An army’s capacity to win battles depends on the answers to these prickly questions. But after three generations of peacetime we have become reluctant to address them. We prefer to fudge. We would rather pretend that the army, despite its singular task of defending the realm, is really just another branch of of the bureaucracy - like the Customs, or the Inland Revenue. It is a normal, conventional institution, whose employees should properly be selected on universal notions of merit.

Thus, in one typically liberal view: “the principle of meritocracy should apply to all institutions”. “The armed forces should not be viewed as some sort of exception to an illicit general rule that contravenes meritocracy”.

But the armed forces, no matter how they are viewed, ARE exceptional. They are not at all like other institutions, and the nature of their role immediately precludes many people whose merits, otherwise, might be undeniable. The blind and stone deaf, for example, are of limited utility as tank drivers or fighter pilots, or even as basic infantry. Paraplegics, pacifists, octogenarians, hemophiliacs, epileptics - whole categories of estimable people, however meritorious, need not apply.

Armies once again are in the news. The Americans have lost another war, and the rejoicing of their enemies should make very clear that in our neck of the woods the “benign strategic environment” is history. The Australians are re-arming, the island nations are nervous, and for the Taiwanese it is 1939 again, their hopes of liberty hanging on the deterrent strength of the US Navy and Marine Corps.

In New Zealand, meanwhile, a measured calm prevails as we reassess our historic allegiances. Our dear leader confers with her seasoned advisers and a thousand flowers bloom in our newfound amity with China.

And why should they not?

There is so much we have in common: our Taniwha and their Dragon; our ever-vigilant state-funded press and their candid Communist organs. At every level the convergences grow - the people themselves of course - clear-eyed, freedom-loving, ever more closely united. And our governments, so fraternally entwined and daily more indistinguishable.

A few ancients demur, mumbling of old alliances and bonds forged through generations. But these dinosaurs have had their day, and their quibbles are no more than the fading echos of an era gone. The shackles of the past count for nothing now, and the near future, surely, will belong to those willing to adapt - the nimble, the strategically bold, the ideologically malleable. Our governors understand this, and our bankers and businessmen are in close and shrewd accord. They have glimpsed that future - the broad sunlit uplands of a proud transition that will enhance us all: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality!

Why, in this coming nirvana, should old friends and allies matter? And in the roseate light of this fresh new dawn, what need have we of an army?

Dave Witherow, an author, columnist, and script writer, worked as a scientist for Fish and Game.

7 comments:

DeeM said...

NZ's armed services are a token force only. Other than some initial resistance, they couldn't defend the country for longer than a day.
That's why alliances are so very important to ensure our defence against larger aggressors.
And that's fine. We can't justify the huge expense of maintaining adequate armed forces to defend our tiny country.

Helen Clark and now Jacinda belong to the world where the UN will sort out any unpleasantness before it turns physical. Despite the fact that in its 70 years in existence it has not prevented a single war. Nobody takes the UN seriously when considering starting a war. It's a talkfest that never decides anything important.

Unless NZ wants to form a military alliance with the dark side we will forever be reliant on our traditional allies who, not unreasonably, will expect something in return.

Rob said...

We've been lucky to live in a benign corner of the world, but the world is rapidly changing. Our objective has always been to promote a rules based system of international relations but we delude ourselves if we believe that ultimately there doesn't need to be a country or alliance of countries willing and able to enforce the rules. In that respect we are too far up our own morally superior backsides to realise that New Zealand free-loads at the great expense of the Americans and Australians. I'm sure our relationship with Australia for one would be a whole lot better if we were prepared to contribute more to our collective defence.

Jigsaw said...

Great article in every way - except Helen Clark didn't abolish the 'fighter wing' she did a much worse things and abolished the force whose job was ground support. Nowhere and in no situation can our troops be in the field and be unsupported by airpower-aircraft that are specifically designed to support ground troops and that what she abolished. National have been little better and are now, as the author pointed out incapable of even defending ourselves without massive outside help.
What a disgusting legacy the Clark government left.

Alan said...

I lamented the demise of our airforce. But now I am happy; because we did not bomb the Syrian Army and militias to support ISIS like the Australians did.
Army and Airforce people in Kabul, deserve a medal, and their exploit merits a film. They plotted the route, relayed instructions by cell phone, evaded both the Taliban and the Americans, brought the refugees across the flood drain and under the wire fence, and sneaked them onto the plane.

Should Jacinda have sent our little frigate to join the the Australian Navy to confront China in the South China Sea?

Anonymous said...

Apparently the US Military spent huge money on gender studies in Afghanistan - a country in which there is no word for 'gender'. Meanwhile training soldiers to be warriors is just not the done thing anymore. Heaven help them and us!

witwot said...

Our armed forced have never been so weak-we have no airforce, the new purchases there, the Boeing anti-sub/surveillance A/C & the replacement Hercules A/C were all put into the pipeline by the former National Govt.This Govt has not & will not buy a single bullet!
Our 2 frigates (we were supposed to get 4) have been in drydock for overhaul for 2 years, & when they do sail, apparently they do not carry munitions.
Our Army is now so lean the New York police department outnumbers & out guns it.

Unknown said...

Once the uniform goes on one should be ready to kill or be killed the rest is lolly water.