Are Armed Forces A Necessary Evil? Conservatives assert that government’s highest priority is, and must remain, the protection of its people from armed assault by foreign and/or domestic enemies. A state that can neither defend its borders, nor protect its citizens, is hardly worthy of the name. But, if national defence does not mean ensuring the basic welfare (Health, Education, Housing, Employment) of every citizen – then what does it mean?
IF POLITICS is the language of priorities, then we have been left in no doubt as to how this government ranks the importance of housing and defence. Twenty billion dollars, over the next 15 years, will be spent on weapons of war. Though the outcry against homelessness grows louder every day, hardly a voice has been raised in protest at this monstrous outlay on the NZ Defence Force.
No doubt conservatives would respond by asserting that government’s highest priority is, and must remain, the protection of its people from armed assault by foreign and/or domestic enemies. A state that can neither defend its borders, nor protect its citizens, is hardly worthy of the name.
Conservatives would further insist that, since a small nation like New Zealand will forever be dependent on the willingness of larger powers to come to its defence, it must be prepared to “pull its weight” military expenditure-wise. Expecting our friends to pour out their blood and treasure in our defence, when we are unwilling to do the same, is not only unrealistic – it’s morally indefensible.
But this romantic – almost chivalric – understanding of national defence bears little resemblance to the brute historical realities of international conflict. Blood and treasure are almost never poured out for purposes unrelated to either expanding the borders, or defending the interests, of the state/s doing the pouring.
If the only arguments in favour of military intervention are moral arguments, then it is most unlikely to happen. How many nations with the military capability to do so intervened in time to prevent the Rwandan genocide? None. Contrast that fatal inaction with the number of New Zealand’s “friends” who joined in the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a ruined nation which posed no threat to its neighbours – let alone its aggressors.
The eminent Jewish scientist and historian, Jacob Bronowski, described war as “organised theft”. How many equally wise scientists and historians would be prepared to argue that war is organised morality? (Acknowledging that nearly all American politicians, and an alarming number of their British and Australian counterparts, believe that war and morality go together like apple and pie!)
A more realistic assessment of New Zealand’s national security (or lack of it) would take as its starting point our extraordinary geographical isolation. So far away are we from the rest of the world that only a major military power could hope to assail our shores. That being the case, we need to ask ourselves what other major power would be willing to prevent such an assault – and why? The blunt answer is that any intervention on our behalf would be undertaken solely on strategic grounds. If the subjugation of New Zealand was deemed inimical to the interests of the United States and Australia, then they would hasten to our defence. If not, they wouldn’t. The capability and readiness of our miniscule armed forces would not materially alter their calculations. Although, it’s at least arguable that the weaker we are, the quicker they’ll come.
Perhaps, therefore, we should follow the example of Costa Rica and abolish our armed forces altogether. On 1 December 1948, following a bloody civil war, the President of Costa Rica announced the abolition of that country’s armed forces. His decision was confirmed the following year in Article 12 of the Costa Rican constitution. The monies previously spent on the military were reallocated to education and culture. The maintenance of internal security was left to the Police.
Why not do the same? We already have the SIS to warn us of terrorist attack. Protecting our fisheries could become the task of a specialised division of the Ministry of Primary Industries. Defence against cyber-attacks could, similarly, become the responsibility of a special unit within the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.
Imagine the number of state houses and affordable apartments this country could build over the next 15 years with even half the $20 billion currently promised to the NZ Defence Force. Surely, in a democratic state, it is the adequate provision of health, education, housing and employment that should take priority over the vast sums required to purchase the most up-to-date weapons of war? If national defence does not mean ensuring the basic welfare of every citizen – then what does it mean?
As the Costa Rican President realised 68 years ago, if you maintain a body of armed men, then they will forever be searching for opportunities to use their weapons. If not provided with foreign foes to fight, they will start looking for enemies at home.
This essay was originally posted on the Stuff website on Monday, 13 June, and published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 June 2016.