We used to read our children a book, long since lost, called
Six Men. It was about a little band of men seeking a country
where they could live and work in peace.
They found one, and built a farming village, and all went well
until they realized there was another village across the river.
Knowing nothing about it, they assumed that its people would be
envious of their prosperity and freedom. So they built a tower to
observe the other village, and soon they saw its people do the
Then they made bows and arrows and spent so much time training
to use them that their crops began to fail. The same happened on
the other side.
One day, desperate for a good dinner, a watcher in one of the
towers shot at a passing duck: his arrow fell across the river and
all hell broke loose.
This tale's moral message is obvious, and so is its 1970s
subtext about the dangers of relying on military technology to
assure mutual destruction and hence security. How things have
changed in our lifetime.
Today's sophisticated bedtime audience would notice the six
men's shortcomings in protective security and technological
superiority. Absent, too, from the story is ideology.
Nowadays the six men would claim to be defending their
"civilization" against "evildoers" on the other side, crying "Our
weapons are good, and our war is just. The other side's weapons,
aimed at us, are evil and must be destroyed. To protect our way of
life, we must wage endless war for endless peace." If it works,
it's legitimate, the young now notice, power makes the rules, and
ideology justifies destructive technology.
Ideology and technology march side by side to war, and each is
deployed in the service of the other. Modern leaders plan their
defense strategies on having the best available technology to deter
enemies and win wars, but also to keep each new generation of young
people signing up to fight in them.
By promising to win the "mother of all battles", as Saddam
Hussein did, or to inflict "shock and awe" on Baghdad, as the US
Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, did, both were trying to
convince their troops that because they had overwhelming force and
God on their side, the war would be quick and successful.
Indeed this is what warlike leaders have done for as long as
there have been civilizations.
Ideology occasionally goes to war lacking technology, as it did
when ancient Britons wearing nothing but woad faced invaders
wearing armour. In the Philippines and parts of East Africa,
militant tribal groups took on their enemies, armed with little
more than magic amulets, powerful potions, a few blowpipes - and
conviction. Their impact was not great, nor was their life
expectancy. In other cases, though, ideology is more potent than
The marauding Assassins in Iran, the Japanese army on its
advance down the Malay peninsula by bicycle, and the puritanical
Taliban, controlling life in Afghanistan, all owed more to
ideological inspiration than technological sophistication.
Subversive operations, large or small, can run for years on
maximal ideology and minimal technology. Think of the Bader-Meinhof
gang, the Vietcong, the Palestinians, and the Zapatistas. And, of
course, the hijackers of September 11, 2001, and the bombers of
July 7, 2005, who got in under the radar.
Still we rely on overwhelming military and intelligence
technology to keep us safe. All a born-again president or prime
minister has to do is add ideology and stir.
Credulously, we now go along with Star Wars, which we thought
laughable during the Reagan years. This month, the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Review conference collapsed, but did we panic? No.
We were relaxed, comfortable, or focused on industrial relations.
Our leaders pride themselves on being hard-headed, practical and
not ideological. But ideology has beaten technology in recent
encounters, and we still have Iraq and Afghanistan to go.
War is a theatre in which ideologies, armed with technology,
compete for supremacy. Those who want to star want to give it all
they've got. The US military-industrial complex can virtually tell
Congress and the White House who to fight, where and with what. An
American who had been in Canberra explained to me recently that the
Pentagon and his company, Boeing, were jointly planning not only
future weapons but the wars to use them in. He didn't seem to have
any ideological issues, as we say these days, with that. Nor,
apparently, did Madeleine Albright who, as secretary of state,
asked why the US had such an array of weapons if it wasn't going to
What, then, stands in the way of technology-fueled devastation?
In fact, ideological resistance. For just as technologies can be
safe or destructive, ideologies can, and do, serve benign or malign
Terrorist attacks for two decades - if we add them up - have
been hitting back at what their perpetrators see as humiliating
foreign occupation of Muslim countries. Yet in Europe, where for
centuries wars powered by religion, greed, xenophobia and
technology were waged for the ideologies of patriotism and
alliance, the euro has at last dropped.
Bosnia and Kosovo helped prove to the Europeans the futility of
such fights. Even in Croatia people told me in June that they still
hated the Serbs, but they had more important things to do than
fight them. Libya after Lockerbie was dealt with by law, not by
invasion; London will deal with its criminals the same way.
Haltingly, the European Union is trying to evolve as a community
that can sink its civilizational differences (even if they still
hate each others' cuisine). Perhaps the evolved Europeans will
eventually stop exporting arms too.
This year, Australia has an opportunity to evolve ideologically
and put war behind us. Our neighbors in the Association of
South-East Asian Nations, who have observed the EU's progress for
over 40 years, wrote into their Treaty of Amity and Co-operation a
similar regional ideology of non-intervention.
If our government, which says it is "values-based", is serious
in acceding to the treaty, it will be obliged to forgo its declared
determination to invade our neighbors at will in pursuit of
Much derided by reactionary Australians, accession could be a
wise move, if it's not already too late.
Dr Alison Broinowski's forthcoming book, with Jim Wilkinson,
is The Third Try: Can the UN Work?
©2005 Sydney Morning Herald