The German philosopher Rudolf von Ihering was among the first to propose a definition of the state as any institution that held a monopoly over the use of violence in a human community. That claim of and for the modern state, which even the divine right of Kings could not hope to stake, gives us at least some sense of why having a military force may appear socially and politically intractable—now and into the future. That intractability, as a problem for Aotearoa/New Zealand, is interrogated by Griffin Manawaroa Leonard, Joseph Llewellyn and Richard Jackson in their new book Abolishing the Military: Arguments and Alternatives. Why is it, they allow us to ask, that political life in this country cannot be thought of without a military?
For the authors, answering this question begins with explicating the ‘myth of military security,’ or the idea that national security is impossible without military capacity, however limited that may be. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), as they point out, is very limited. It would be unable to prevent a full-scale military invasion. And by the admission of its own leaders, there’s no threat of that reaching Aotearoa’s shores (or its realm countries of Tokelau, Cook Islands and Niue, for whose defence it is responsible) for at least another twenty years. So, why have a military at all?
In short, because these limitations are not sufficient to dissipate the affective necessity for a military institution in times of crisis. In this respect, the geopolitical contest between China and the U.S., and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 may have compounded the difficulties of abolitionism:
For most people, the obvious response to this uncertain security environment and the myriad threats facing the nation includes the military and security approaches we have depended on in the past – a strong and professional military.
The historical backdrop for the myth of military security is vast, if not limitless: the authors identify the ANZAC’s Gallipoli campaign and its memory as ‘the central political and cultural narrative about the role of the military in the birth of New Zealand’s national identity.’ The inverse of this ‘positive’ myth making is the repression of socio-historical awareness of the role British and colonial troops – precursors of the NZDF – played in ‘in the violent suppression of Māori and the maintenance of Pākehā power’ during the New Zealand Wars. Caught between memory and forgetting, it is difficult for any critical assessment of the NZDF to extricate itself from these histories.
Although the authors say their criticism in the book is not directed at the individuals in the NZDF but at its structural basis, this claim is hard to parse politically – even more so, without impinging on the veteran as a political subject. One example of just how unpalatable this criticism is can be found on the political campaign trail before the 2020 election: ‘When it came to defence policy, four of the five parties that ended up with seats in Parliament (National, Labour, ACT and Te Pāti Māori) were listed as “no policies found.”’ Indeed, the NZDF appears to get a ‘free pass’ precisely because, as an entity charged with national security, it must be essential and apolitical.
One of the most effective and original findings the book draws from NZDF policy documents and statements is how the U.S.-led Global War on Terror informs and structures Aotearoa’s military spending, even as it purports to maintain an independent foreign policy. The authors hone in on comments made in 2018 by the Chief of Defence Force, Kevin Short, when more than $2.4 billion was spent on four P-8A Poseidon aircraft. ‘That allows us to operate at the high ed [sic] of the spectrum, which our friends and allies want us to do,’ he is reported as saying. The charge being that a lockstep approach to the U.S. and United Kingdom has effectively required that New Zealand’s military technology be operable in the Middle East and other global regions the Global War on Terror has marked out as disposable.
Indeed, while some of these aircraft conduct search and rescue and other non-combat operations in New Zealand waters and the South Pacific, much of their total flying hours is spent in the Middle East. For the authors, this makes any claim that the NZDF is being oriented toward humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping hard to stack up:
The NZDF is in fact anachronistic, not least because it has its roots in colonial conquest and imperial support. Today, the NZDF is funded, equipped and trained primarily for armed combat, often in direct support of the Anglosphere […] Its composition, training and equipment mean that it is geared towards interoperability with its powerful allies, which in turn contradicts the role many perceive it to have in promoting an independent, values-driven, Pacific-oriented foreign policy.
For all its appeals toward a ‘revolutionary transformation’ of Aotearoa’s national identity, the book does have some practical ideas for how the NZDF’s effective abolition might be brought about. Rather than remove its functions entirely, the authors suggest ‘alternative security paradigms that can meet current and future threats and dangers, and positively contribute to peace, democracy and wellbeing.’ What would these look like, exactly? They ransack the political science library for civilian-based defence (CBD) approaches, in which the population’s capacity to resist an occupying force through nonviolent disruption would be enshrined in policy; and unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP), in which demilitarised peacekeepers could be deployed to countries to assist with conflict management and nation building. These ‘types of roles could be more effectively dealt with by specialised agencies and groups, especially as we know that the NZDF’s primary training and equipment is for war-fighting.’
If all of this were achieved, the book suggests, Aotearoa would be a world leader more in line with its action on denuclearisation rather than its militaristic valour in World War I. Through abolition the country would make ‘a genuine contribution to international peace and security and [prove] its worth as a good international citizen.’ Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that for all the compelling and caveated arguments of Abolishing the Military – the book is neither ‘foolproof’ nor ‘a detailed blueprint or practical handbook for action,’ the authors stress – ultimately it does not call into question the very framework it strives to comprehend.
That is, it does not ask what sense of global community determines the qualities of a ‘good international citizen’? And what role does the insistence that Aotearoa participate in a global community, even as an exemplary liberal ‘trailblazer,’ play in facilitating the Global War on Terror – which is itself the production of a universal ethical stage where terror authorises the expansion of Western values. While these considerations almost certainly exceed the scope of Abolishing the Military, they are an attempt to show how quickly the term abolition dissipates once it is placed into the realm of policy, becoming instead a production of political reform.