Fiddling While It Burns

Afghanistan: respecting expertise, seeking knowledge

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Photo: Department of Defence

I’ve got a piece published on Crikey. An extract:

Part of the problem is that military expertise is simply not accepted as real expertise. Current and former military personnel are treated as biased and unreliable. Consider Senator Bob Brown’s admission on The 7:30 Report last night to having never sought a Defence briefing on Afghanistan to confirm his strongly held position; similarly, an academic recently told me that Lateline was irresponsible for interviewing David Kilcullen on Afghanistan, because his position makes him biased. To some, the only time soldiers can be telling the truth is when they’re criticising the war or their superiors.


A different kind of war


Here’s a project I did for radio journalism. I think the biggest failure of the news media around Afghanistan is not giving interested generalists an understanding of the strategies and realities, instead preferring to sensationalise and trivialise, so I’ve tried to cover some of the basics of counterinsurgency, a doctrine central to understanding what’s happening in Afghanistan right now.

A different kind of war

David Kilcullen and Hugh White

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By spending a few hours in the car over the Easter holiday, I managed to catch a couple of Radio National programs, and was once more blown away by the quality and depth of journalism this national treasure provides. Two programs, the Late Night Live story on retired Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, Ph.D.,  and the “White on White” program on Life Matters, reinvigorated my faith in Australian foreign policy journalism.

It’s my own fault, of course. I’m a newsprint guy. I love newswriting, and I either get my news from a hardcopy paper or online, but in Australia the very best news source is the ABC.

Both of these programs, available for download are very much worth a read. David Kilcullen, who I came away with an enormous intellectual crush on, was one of the architects of the “surge”, which was actually a reformation of the Iraq War using modern counterinsurgency tactics, which due to the political appointment of incompetents previously had not yet occurred. Kilcullen speaks from a depth of both thought and experience, with a genuine understanding of the cultural complexities which have been so important to both the Afghanistan and Iraq theatres of engagement. He believes in war only when necessary, but also believes that war, once engaged, should be conducted as something which can be done well by experts – exactly the opposite of a neoconservative.

Anyway, I don’t want to get stuck on what was wrong with the Iraq War – that’s a thesis in itself, or a thousand theses.

White on White is a significant piece of journalism. There is far too little consideration of strategic foreign policy in Australian media. Australia will spend $24 billion this year on defence, yet very few Australians have even a shallow level of understanding of our spending priorities. Hugh White has drawn to common attention something that I discussed at the end of a post a few weeks ago – Australia is at a critical strategic juncture. As Asian economies grow and increase their defence spending, and particularly as China reaches comparable levels of influence with the US, there are only two logical moves for Australia in terms of defence spending: either radically expand spending, to, as White advocates, double submarine numbers and increase our order of the (probable white elephant) Joint Strike Fighter, or accept a slide into strategic irrelevance.

Hugh White, as a strategic studies specialist, of course leans towards the former option; think-tank types are a little like Warhammer 40 000 nerds – they want bigger armies to move around on their tabletops. The difference is, for the sake of intellectual rigour, they need to get real governments to buy real versions of their miniatures before they can get the miniatures for themselves.

I, of course, would push for the latter, for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think there’s any way Australia could keep up – in population terms, we are less than 1/12th the size of Indonesia, and 1/60th the size of China. That means to maintain parity with Indonesia while its GDP grew at 1% per year, Australia would need to raise its defence spend by 12% per year; while to keep pace with China growing at 1% per year, Australia’s defence spend would have to double every eighteen months. It’s simply impossible. As difficult as it is for post-colonial majority white nations to accept, if it ever comes to all-out war our fate is beyond our control.

Still, I was incredibly impressed at the existence of either of these programs. Funnily enough, I spent over an hour listening to the fate of quality journalism being lamented on Radio National some weeks ago, simply because for-profit newspapers may be on their way out. I’m now conclusively convinced, however, that the capitalist media model only ever provided quality journalism by accident, whereas non-profit models such as the ABC, BBC, or the Guardian have worked incredibly well.

So, things look good for the way our area of interest will be reported in future.