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A new letter from the Director of The Centre for International Security Studies

By James Der Derian

29 May, 2013

Read the second Director's Letter from James Der Derian, Michael Hintze Chair of International Security Studies

The University of Sydney’s venerable Great Lecture Hall, its rows of hard benches steeply raked for 19th century medical classes, was filled last week with an audience interested in a different sort of pathology. Current and former members of the Australian military, journalists from the major outlets, academics from the field of security studies, and, given the stormy weather, a surprising number of intrepid citizens, had come to hear about the global threats facing Australia in the 21st century. 

The featured speaker was General David Hurley, Chief of the Australian Defense Forces. He arrived right (and remarkably fresh) off the plane, just back from an official visit to the Pentagon, where he had met with his counterparts in the US military as well as with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was barely out of the frying pan of one of most contentious confirmation hearings ever and into the multiple fires of North Korea’s missile-rattling, Iran’s on-off nuclear program, and high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the US military. 

The General showed up in khaki, battle ribbons, and digger hat - but without the war wagons, fussy entourage, and security details that attend arrivals of top brass in the US.  Moreover, he was going into battle without the military’s favorite infowar weapon:  there was not a single Powerpoint slide in sight. Hurley was accompanied only by a petit adjutant carrying a very large shoulder bag. (When I later asked if it contained the nuclear codes, an arched eyebrow suggested her opinion of a bad joke - or of an ignorant Yank). 

My introduction to the Sydney Ideas event was under the influence of the greatest dramatist of power politics. The night before I had been bowled over by the Bell Shakespeare troupe’s presentation of Henry 4 at the Sydney Opera House. Updated to the late 70s - judging from the punk-driven score and desecration of the union-jack that opens the play - the message remains the same: violence, in this case to pre-empt a Scottish rebellion and bring a renegade son back into the royal fold, begets only more violence; or to put in more sociological terms, war makes the state, states make war, war unmakes states, ad absurdum.

More specific to the topic at hand, Will Shakespeare understood better than his near-contemporary and foil Nicky Machiavelli how easily actions undertaken in the name of security produce new and worse forms of insecurity. With a stage full of strutting warriors it falls upon the fat and fulsome Falstaff, who fakes a ‘counterfeit death’ on the battlefield rather than engage in false heroics, to utter the most memorable line for leaders who would plunge a nation into an unnecessary war (Iraq lurks in the wings throughout the performance):

‘To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of
a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying,
when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true
and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is
discretion, in the which better part I have sav'd my life.’

This sentiment has echoes in Shakespeare’s other plays, most loudly when Uber-witch Hecate augurs the fateful outcome of an overconfident Macbeth:

‘He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace, and fear.
And you all know, security
Is mortals' chiefest enemy.’

So, channeling the Bard, I opened the proceedings with a melodramatic question: ‘What makes us safe?’ My pre-emptive query was not just an attempt to shunt the proceedings onto a more philosophical track, but also to offer the General an opportunity to question what the Defense White Paper (released the previous week) as well as the field of International Security Studies takes for granted: that it is primarily the material strengths of the nation - geography, resources, economy, and, of course, a strong army that keeps the nation safe. By vexing the syntax of the sentence, putting scare quotes around ‘us’ and italicizing safe, I hoped to shift the emphasis from the protection of interests, the conventional object referent of security, to the identification of an ‘us’ and a way of life worth protecting. 

To visualise this admittedly metaphysical question, I projected photos I had taken at my first ANZAC day parade. It might be because I am new to Australia but as a stranger in a strange (yet strangely familiar) place, I had been surprised to see just how critical the memory of ANZAC is for the Australian national identity.  For those non-Australians reading this letter - and the few among them who have not seen the movie Gallipoli - ANZAC is short for ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’. The ‘Day’ – the 25th of  April, 1915 – refers to the invasion to open the Dardanelles, capture Constantinople (now Istanbul), and deliver a fatal blow to Germany by defeating its ally, the Ottoman Empire. It did not go according to plan (thought up by Winston Churchill): eight months later, with over 8,000 ANZAC soldiers dead, the allied forces withdrew. A commentator on General Hurley’s Facebook page - yes, Generals now facebook – referred to it as Australia’s ‘coming of age’.

I had intended to stay for only an hour at the event but I was there closer to three, most of it at Martin Place, the site of the ANZAC memorial. I felt, in the most visceral and most emotional way – the intended effect - an empathy for the marchers and the observers, who were four and five deep on the sidewalks. Such parades are hardly unique to Australia; nor is Australia the only state to find a national identity in the memorialization of past wars.  However, at some point, after the spectacle of if all – bagpipers with lionskins on their backs! -  began to give way to self-reflection about my own presence, I began to wonder about the boundaries of the ‘us’ being constructed by the event. I wondered how the Turks were celebrating the day - and not just for the obvious reasons of national pride. My own identity – or at least one-half of it – was implicated in the question. If I were back in the US rather than in Australia, I would be participating in the remembrance of a very different yet related event: the day Ottoman Minister of the Interior Mehmed Talaat Bey ordered, under the pretext of pre-empting an internal ‘fifth column’ from forming with the coming Allied invasion, the arrest and relocation of all notable Armenian leaders of Constantinople. Most of them were executed, the beginning of what became the Armenian Genocide, now commemorated around the world on April 24.  

I did not bring this up in my introduction. But I did contrast my ANZAC experience to a similar one I had in my previous job. Every day when I walked to my Brown University office, I passed a large stone arch. Only after I came across a sparsely attended event on November 5 - Armistice Day, the day commemorating the end of the First World War as well as soldiers killed in all other wars - did I realize the Soldiers Memorial Gate was  dedicated to the Brown students and alumni killed (42) in the ‘World War’ (still unnumbered when the gate was constructed in 1921). For the first time I stopped to read the names as well as the two inscriptions on the Memorial. 

The inscriptions were barely legible (later cleaned up, I suspect not coincidently, when a debate erupted on campus about whether to bring ROTC back to Brown). The first was from the familiar Winifred Letts’ poem, ‘The Spires of Oxford’: 

‘They gave their merry youth away/For country and for God’. 

The second was much darker and unfamiliar, requiring a Google-search when I returned to my office.  It was from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem, ‘Sacrifice’:

‘Tis man’s perdition to be safe/When for the truth he ought to die.

I was tempted to leave this quote hanging at the end of my introduction to the General’s presentation. Instead I offered an interpretation that I hoped would frame the evening’s discussions. The first was taken from the great strategist Clausewitz who said that ‘war has its own grammar, but not its own logic’. By this he meant war is not a science but an art, shaped like language by dialectical acts that are often ambiguous, even indecipherable. Like war, language makes us as we make language. So when we ask what makes us safe, we are also asking whom we have become through wars fought and to be fought in our name. Ultimately, we are asking whether it really is man’s perdition to be safe when for the truth he ought to die.

That said, General Hurley made his speech. It was a good one: a frank, informative and comprehensive review of Australian defense policy now and in the near future.  He, like Australia, was nobody’s fool.

James Der Derian, Michael Hintze Chair of International Security Studies

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