“The Cult of the Dead in Australia”
(From Major Wars and Regional Responses in Australia and New Zealand)
By Judy Hemming and Michael McKinley
“Civil Religion & the Cult of the Dead: DownUnder,” a section of Hemming & McKinley’s
important paper, appears below, condensed and edited.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
Dr. Judy Hemming is a Lecturer in the International Studies and International Development Programme at the University of Canberra.

Dr. Michael McKinley is a Visiting Research Fellow at the College of Arts and Sciences at The Australian National University and author of Economic Globalisation as Religious War: Tragic Convergence.
Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries, Australian, and to a lesser extent, New Zealand, political leaders have defined their respective country's roles as analogous to that of Paladin—one of the legendary twelve peers of Charlemagne's court. Accordingly, they have engaged in many of the great conflicts of the period; indeed, Australian governments have been so enthusiastic to do so, that the leadership on at least two occasions deceived the country as to the nature and quality of the requests. 

In peacetime, too, the same willingness to contribute to British Imperial or Western  Alliance  postures  has  been  evident. In  all  cases, this disposition involves a willingness to defend interests that are, in an essential sense, vicariously defined. Yet the serious consequences or costs that are immediately experienced are never fully admitted to the mainstream debate on national security options.

It is instructive, to look back for outstanding themes during the last 101 years of the countries international history. In doing so, a fundamental consistency is identified—that Australia and New Zealand, in the pursuit of their security, has indulged itself and committed excesses, repeatedly and in the same way, from generation to generation.

The security they seek has proved elusive, never being regarded as adequate. Yet the anguish the search occasions, generation to generation, is stifled and avoided, as are attempts to suggest that the record of failure and destruction needs to be acknowledged in full measure.

Even in a world "grown brutal by the fare” (Yeats) of total war—and the balance of terror and nuclear deterrence (and the catastrophic consequences should it fail)—nation states are held to commit no more than "injustices," even where ethical standards are invoked. From time to time, there is a suggestion that something other and stronger is required. But it takes a Hitler or a Stalin to provide the animus; and only then when they outrage understandings or “rules of the game” wrought by realpolitik or balance-of-power politics.

Between times, and short of holocausts and "killing fields," 9/11 and the emergence of Islamic State, the language of analysis succumbs to what the Atlantic Monthly once described as the “necessity for euphemism.” Whether this arises because—as the Japanese maxim has it "war is the art of embellishing death"—or more simply, out of the simple idea that "man can only take a certain amount of terror," is for the moment unclear.  Perhaps as Paul Virilio suggests: “One might say that the concept of reality is always the first victim of war.”

Such is the triumph of IR realism, an outlook captured by Paul Berman when he writes that such people, in the face of bizarre and shocking events around the world, profess not to be surprised because they reflect the essential nature of world politics.

International Relations as political practice and field of inquiry are misconceived and misnamed. According to the schedules of 20th Century “democide” compiled by Rudolph J. Rummel, government actions—not in wars exclusively—accounted for the deaths of 262 million people. In wars, Michael Vlahos posits a figure in excess of 150 million in the 37 years 1914-1951; while Zbigniew Brzezinski’s category of “lives deliberately extinguished by politically motivated carnage,” estimates 167 million—175 million in the period to the early 1990s.

To this phenomenon he ascribes the term “the politics of organized insanity,” a term which confronts the ostensible rationality of war with a counter-claim that it is, rather, in whole or significant part, a form of collective psychopathology requiring, in Richard Koenigsberg’s terminology, “masochistic submission.”

One consequence of this servitude of concept, language and politics to fantasy is, naturally, a muting of the difference between (say) injustice and evil, between those actions by states that might be remedied, and those that, in a human sense, can never be. The latter category is perhaps, better understood as including actions so terrible in their dimensions and so beyond restoration that they can only be redeemed. And in modernity, who or what is to do that?

A second consequence flowing from the principle that what is unsaid is unimportant is another principle, namely, that preposterous statements made appealing will, for many, make reality captive and assume the status of rational. This is the fusion between (intentional or unintentional) forgetting and propaganda.

The literature in which the debate over security policies in Australia and New Zealand has taken place is rich in the products outlined above. In the context of conventional wars in which the two countries have fought, the unsaid, and its antonym on this occasion, the euphemism is profoundly disturbing.

From the countless inscriptions, epitaphs and speeches which proclaim the country's gratitude to those who "gave their lives" in a particular conflict—to the gates of the great British memorial at Thiepval, the Somme, where 73,000 soldiers of the Great War are classified as "missing"—the representation of what took place is a lie. In general terms, the deceased did not give their lives voluntaristically; they had it taken from them arbitrarily and violently. 

Moreover, those that are “missing” are missing because nothing remained of them to be found. Thirty years before the atom bombs turned the very ground into a photo-sensitive plate, and so recorded the last nano-second of many people's existence, thousands of tons of high explosives shells on the Western front during the First World War were de-realizing people in similar numbers that were exterminated in Hiroshima. And yet the obscenity of euphemizing it all is permitted, and persists.

At the atomic and now nuclear level of the debate, the situation is no different. The language of nuclear war, replete with its Orwellian corruption of thought and expression, has been adopted in Australia—not, let it be said, faute de mieux, but with gusto by the "strategic studies community".

At the same time, this community has so far failed to write/publish a single article, let alone a monograph reflecting on its own language, and with the exception of Arthur Lee Burns' seminal study, Ethics and Deterrence (1970), it has allowed twenty years to pass without a further contribution on the subject. The need to counter these silences is, of course, almost self-evident. Indeed, in recognition of this, John Keegan's The Face of Battle was a timely attempt to construct "the point of maximum danger" for a readership blissfully ignorant of the realities of battle.

In Australia, the attempt by Robin Greste took a different tack by exploding the myths of war-writing. But Big-Noting, while clearly significant intellectually, is something of a late corrective against the national literary habit of heroizing the 'Digger" by creating myth and false consciousness via "beautiful", consoling lies. Like Keegan's work, it stands almost in isolation against a torrent of unreality. Traditionally, this has taken the form of crude censorship and denial—as witness the Returned Services League's attempt to have banned such 'nauseating muck" as Robert Graves's "Goodbye to All That.”

Here the poet (apostate) was met with the full fury that an established church reserves for that which it declares to be anathema. Alternatively, and in these times more likely, its manifestation is a grand licentiousness, of which a recent, double-page advertisement in Defense News is the apotheosis: on two black pages simulating night, but illuminated by lasers of many colours simulating incendiaries and other exploding devices, the Loral defense electronics company proclaims:

Today’s military training has enough realism to make your hands sweat—thanks to over $650 million worth of laser-based MILES equipment delivered by Loral. Not just an automatic record of hits and misses.  But the bang, the flash and the "feel" of battlefield experience, too.

Now we're developing MILES II via links to the global positioning satellite, it will track every weapon in a simulated battle—simultaneously and in real time—including high angle fire, and helicopter gunships. It can even play back an entire exercise to commanders afterwards.

But the true absurdity of this message is only to be found in the words of the heading that frames the advertisement below it—COMBAT WITHOUT CASUALTIES.

In the denial of memory and fact to which these examples attest, two consequences appear to follow. In the first instance, the evil that is war is desensitized, robbed of its sting, so to speak. Even the Holocaust can be de-natured or expunged. And it was, of course, under attack from the earliest post-world War II years, as the following statement made by Isser Harel, onetime Chief of Mossad, points to:

After the creation of the Jewish state in May 1948, the search for Eichmann was one of the main objectives of the Israeli State Services because he was responsible for the fate of our six million dead. This was all the more imperative in that the Nuremberg trials, for reasons of foreign policy, had carefully avoided any talk of Jewish genocide: French, Poles, Hungarians, etc. had been exterminated in the concentration camps, but nowhere was it mentioned that a great majority of them were Jews.

Second, war and its atrocities become that much easier to commit and to engage in repeatedly. But this is no Buddhist cycle in which the actors are faced with a universe of imperfection from which it is possible to escape only through a series of relentless and repetitive purgings in a long series of existences. On the contrary, this is damnation—at least it is if damnation is defined as an eternal punishment that consists in repeating forever one's initial indulgences and excesses.

That, in Australia's case, these were committed in the name of "security" does not redeem the acts in question. Once again (and apart from the problematic nature of what redemption would mean), and to the contrary, they illustrate that the "security" which the Australasian nations have pursued was never conceived in terms deserving such a status.

Nevertheless, at each turn the concept of "security" was assumed or borrowed successively from Great Powers, entailed evils induced by Great Power conflicts, and always inexorably so. This, it is argued, is the fundamental consistency that identifies both traditional and contemporary Australasian security policy and the casts of mind associated with it.