Militarization and Societal Polarization

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I’ve long been aware of a particular shift in our collective cultural thinking, towards the belief that our military, and its warriors, are beyond reproach, beyond criticism. In the same way that we often hold our police to be incapable of criminality, we have a military component that can do no wrong, and must not ever be spoken poorly of. To do so is treasonous. Do not think differently, toe the line, believe it, and it will be true.

(It’s interesting that this is a similar mind-set that followers of religion possess: they assuage their own doubts by ever more fervently telling you exactly how you are a betrayer for having your own. The two groups are often the same, shouting about their fantastical, romanticized image of a simple truth that is in reality much more complicated.)

I do not like this shift. It is relatively new, not so much in its existence, but in its widespread acceptance. That the wider public believes it, that they’ve bought into this terrible connection between love for country and love for military, bothers me.

When you arm a warrior and unleash them against other people, you’d better be on that warrior’s back all the fucking time, making sure that they’re not using the power you granted them in inappropriate ways. Checks and balances, questions and criticism. This is the price paid for power, of all kinds. Politicians, police and the military work for us all, they must be accountable to us all.

These are the very last people who should be unchallenged in their actions. To grant them immunity from scrutiny is to invite abuse. History proves this to be true: make someone unstoppable, and they will not stop.

A recent The Conversation article about the ANZAC legacy in Australia discussed this shift in thinking. I quote liberally from it below, but the upshot is: the ANZAC legend was made more inclusive, acknowledging and inviting the minorities involved. No longer limited to the white men, it became so encompassing that it was easy to say “Most of Australia believes in ANZAC, therefore anyone who questions ANZAC is un-Australian.”

The result is true, it certainly is easy to find people who refuse to allow criticism of the diggers, though I’m not sure this aforementioned inclusiveness is the key component. Perhaps, though, there’s something to the idea.

The polemic unfolded in a familiar fashion. “History warriors” from the political right have publicly insisted that historians and left-wing commentators were distorting the past and violating cherished understandings about the First World War.

never has the Anzac tradition been more popular and yet never have its defenders been more chauvinistic, bellicose and intolerant of other viewpoints.

ANU historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that it is precisely the renewed cultural authority of Anzac – the popular enthusiasm for remembrance – that has had unanticipated and, for some of us, unwanted consequences, notably a declining toleration of any critique of Australian military endeavour.

There is, also, the metaphysical pull of the occasion – the obstinate or perhaps eternal need for the sacred in a secular society.

And there is the all-important role of governments (Labor and Liberal) in the lavish promotion of a war-centred nationalism going back at least to the Hawke government.

Anzac Day works better as a national day because it avoids the contentious matters that Australia Day brings to the fore – Aboriginal dispossession and colonisation.

But once a tradition is defined in more inclusive terms, those who refuse to participate can readily be represented as beyond the pale. To question, to criticise – to doubt – can become un-Australian.

Two days later, Andrew Bolt chimed in on cue in the Herald Sun. Intent on vilifying academic critics of the Anzac legend, he suggested they were lining up with Islamic extremists. [..] Doubt and debate in Bolt’s worldview is not only unpatriotic, it is the mark of fanaticism and treachery.

Anzac’s inclusiveness has been achieved at the price of a dangerous chauvinism that increasingly equates national history with military history, and national belonging with a willingness to accept the Anzac legend as Australian patriotism’s very essence.

War as socially uplifting and purifying was a common theme among Australia’s political elites in 1914. War was an antidote to “effeminate thinking”, ‘sentimentalism” and the way that too long a peace “can rot all manly thought and action out of our race”

The celebrants today would have us forget this. They would have us forget both the racial framework and the obsessive paranoia that inspired the push to war in Australia.

Politicians and a retinue of warrior commentators want us to be proud of our martial history, lest the nation fall apart. Historians worth their salt want us to know that history critically, lest the nation be deceived, or simply dumbed-down.

Drape “Anzac” over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct. History will not stand for that. In history nothing is sacred. History is open inquiry; politics is slogans.

Political agendas require a national story that is simple, fixed and inviolable. Thus the Anzac centenary is committed to locking in a glorious military past but, like the 1988 Bicentennial, it is raising more questions than the celebrants want. Centennials can backfire. That is the heart of the problem for the history warriors on the conservative side of politics.

That, more than any other factor, explains their bellicose insistence on the rightness of what happened.

[ May 1 2015 ]



Jun 5 2015

I was really surprised to read this here, but also thought it to be quite informative. I think there’s another aspect of Anzac Day that you didn’t touch on. In this historical moment, in 2015, why was Anzac Day so widely overblown? I believe it has a lot to do with US foreign policy and plans to use Australia as a military base in a future war with China. The Aussie elite, both on the right and the left (did the Greens offer any criticism of the Anzac proceedings?) are preparing a new generation for war. This isn’t simply about remembrance; it’s about the future – making the Aussie population just another meat shield between the US and it’s geopolitical rivals. The US is cultivating the same types of military relationships with Vietnam and Ukraine; both are strategically located next to Russia and China – two countries whom the US seeks to neutralize as global competitors, even if it means a third world war…one with nuclear weapons on both sides.


    Jun 6 2015

    I don’t think there’s a conscious, deliberate attempt to prime the populace for war. I’m a big fan of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

    I think it’s more likely that the people we’ve elected believe they’re special, and they don’t read or understand enough history. They’re too far away from the scourge of war, they don’t necessarily think their spin is propaganda, they can’t see the downsides to what they’re doing.

    I am fascinated by, and read a lot about, how countries become warmongering. I see a lot of parallels between what America is doing now and what Germany did leading up to WW2. But I can’t really be sure how much of what I see is cognitive bias and how close we actually are to walking down the same path.

    And, I’m curious, why were you surprised to find this here?

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