Achieving military and political goals at least cost in men and dollars has been attractive to politicians and generals since the Stone Age. This has been so whether the goals have been trumpeted and grandiose ("saving civilisation from tyranny") or muttered and rather cynical ("paying the premium on the ANZUS insurance policy"). The problem is that if wars become cheaper and less bloody we are likely to fight more of them.
One way of distancing combatants from targets – and thus saving lives, at least on the attacking side – is by using drones (euphemistically known as unmanned aerial vehicles) armed with missiles or laser-guided bombs. The United States has used armed drones frequently in Pakistan and other war zones and so have Israel in Gaza and the United Kingdom in Afghanistan. Other countries are lining up to follow suit. The use of armed drones seems to be inevitable for any defence force that takes itself seriously, raising the prospect (noted by Joe Camilleri) of a "drones race" to rival the nuclear race of the previous century.
In Australia, there is a strong push coming from the air power-oriented Williams Foundation to encourage the government towards drones, manned and unmanned, military and civilian. The Foundation says its reports are independent but a lot of its funding comes from drone manufacturers.
Another new, arm's length way of attacking perceived enemies is cyberwarfare. The US made a mess of Iran's nuclear program with a computer worm called Stuxnet but now itself seems to have suffered hacking from China. Chinese hackers may have – or may not have, depending on whether you believe the government or the ABC – cyber-snaffled the blueprints of the new ASIO building in Canberra. The then Prime Minister announced a cyberdefence program, although "defence" in this field is like Reagan's "star wars": it morphs easily into attack.
Cyberwarriors and screen-savvy drone operators will be in demand in defence forces, although it is quite possible that a drone or cyber attack will be met by a conventional or terrorist response. Observers of the US drone program have noted the potential for homeland terrorist strikes on drone operators working at the Creech base and living in nearby Las Vegas. Presumably, the advocates of an Australian drone capability are factoring in the possibility of such revenge attacks.
Paradoxically, the history of one of our high kill-count wars could play a significant role in accustoming us to drones and cyberwarfare, providing it is presented in the right way and to the right people. We are about to start commemorating the centenary of World War I and particularly the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915. The years 2014 to 2018 will see a succession of events and exercises marking significant dates during the Great War along with other military exploits dating from 1898 to 2008.
Our willingness to accept new forms of warfare can be reinforced by the sanitised remembrance of past conflicts. Much of the planned commemoration has a celebratory look, big on heroism and jingoism but lacking the anguish and gore of the real thing. It could make war look almost attractive, particularly to children who take part in the proposed re-enactments, view the travelling war memorabilia exhibit or wave flags at patriotic ceremonies.
Government bodies have form in this field. The educational material of the Department of Veterans" Affairs is strong on nostalgia and family stories but relatively weak on death and destruction. The Discovery Zone section of the Australian War Memorial has a similarly airbrushed view of war (advertised with pictures of primary school children in battle mode). One imagines sitting in the cockpit of the Iroquois chopper with Vietnam battle soundtrack would be quite a buzz for the average 12 year old.
The American anthropologist of memory, Paul Shackel, has said, "Public memory is more a reflection of present political and social relations than a true reconstruction of the past". The words "Anzac", "cyber" and "drone" each contain just five letters. This coincidence should remind us of the potential for our history to be misused for political ends. Politicians prominently commemorating past conflicts implicitly seek support for current wars. Our then prime minister spoke of "the tradition of arms passed down unbroken over a century [from Gallipoli] to more recent conflicts" and she was pleased that "it's actually the children who are driving the next level of engagement" in war commemoration.
Hyper-inflating Anzac and other military adventures softens up our children for their brave new world of Predator drones and Stuxnet. Meanwhile, our obsession with past conflicts fought by expeditionary forces far from home accustoms us to doing it all over again next time. If that is what commemoration is becoming, then best we forget.
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