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.