When we hear a conservative politician of Tony Abbott’s partisan ilk seeking to legitimise his direction by appropriating Ben Chifley’s image of ‘the light on the hill’, citizens are well advised to check their critical faculties. There are incalculable uncertainties associated with the merits of Australia’s rush to join the third military campaign related to Iraq. The first campaign aimed to stop, the second to destroy, and now we’re off to save the country, or supposedly something like that, with little idea of what's likely to come next.
The uncertainties are compounded by two troubling new contingencies. The first is that the Abbott government is getting off lightly in the justification department. Governments of democracies carry, or should carry, a heavy burden to justify any resort to the antithesis, rule by armed force, and all the more so when they’re betting on being third-time lucky. Mr Abbott is doing what this country has already done over and over again, hoping for a different result, and yet his justification has barely risen above platitudes and loaded grabs.
The government’s free pass derives from the traditional power of the ‘atrocity story’ in harness to the modern power of the internet. Phillip Knightley’s standard account of wartime propaganda, The first casualty, traces the disreputable history of atrocity stories that have swayed the public behind war. The Kaiser was a beast in human form, a lunatic, a barbarian, a madman, and Germans were rapers of nuns, mutilators of children and destroyers of civilisation. The ‘art’ of atrocity was taken to a high pitch to kick-off Iraq I. For a cool $10 million, agents of the Kuwaiti government contracted the public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, who manufactured a story about Iraqi soldiers ripping babies off their incubators. Distributed via outlets designed to flood 700 TV networks world-wide, the story is renowned as the swing factor in the US Senate vote, but turns out to have been reheated from the Great War, when the British were told of the Germans tossing Belgian babies into the air and catching them on their bayonets. Many will remember John Howard mobilising support for Iraq II by invoking Saddam Hussein’s ‘human shredder’, which still goes missing.
In this extraordinary case, the atrocity tactic has been employed by the enemy itself, broadcasting beheadings on the internet. It's as if the perpetrators have studied Knightley’s how-to historical guide for mobilising public opinion behind war in democracies, or more likely they merely paid attention to the way things got started the last two times. The atmospheric upshot is precisely what the logic of Hill & Knowlton would recommend in a no-holds-barred bid to trigger war, allowing the Abbott government to free-ride; to fog the air with alarm over ‘beheadings’, a ’death cult’ and ‘evil’ in place of measured argument. This isn’t to say that these atrocities were not genuinely atrocious, or that they didn’t matter or won’t continue to occur. Nor is this to imply that Australia has no humanitarian obligations to a place it helped destroy; or even to say that a case for war cannot be made.
This is to insist, rather, that the truth with which the atrocities must be reckoned is that war is itself an atrocity. Seeking to eradicate atrocity by committing atrocity is a mug’s game; blindly multiplying the incidence would be insane; even worse is the chilling suspicion that the democracies have had their strings pulled by the latest technology. The emotional charge in the trigger calls for responsible leaders to justify themselves in proportionately more rational speech, not less; for the national media to apply proportionately more caution, scepticism and critique, not grant a free pass. Emotion is integral to the experience of war, often deep emotion, but threshold decision-making is a grave business for cool heads with respect for democratic accountability, not red faces with steaming ears flying off at the handle.
Secondly, the prime minister cannot be lightly trusted not to deliberately or mistakenly confuse his political interest with the national interest. Mr Abbott is not a garden-variety politician who has broken more than the usual number of election promises. He is a deceiver to a higher power, for the shrillest note in his pitch for government was the charge that his predecessor broke an election promise, i.e., Abbott leads an illegitimate government by his own political standards. As this betrayal has been reflected in sustained unpopularity in the opinion polls, anyone could be forgiven for suspecting that Australia’s rush into Iraq III has been given impetus by a bid to trump the damaging stories about the budget and the hapless treasurer, Joe Hockey. The parallel rush to amplify the power of the domestic security force to trample citizens’ rights only reinforces the discomfort, for this is what someone seriously untrustworthy would do, wouldn’t they? With typical opacity, in his statement to the House of Representatives on Monday 22 September, Tony Abbott described the Middle East as ‘a witch’s brew of complexity and danger’. We need to be assured that he’s not recklessly over-egging the concoction to suit himself.