“Never go to war with a noun. You will always lose.”
- John Green
"In the end we are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers and if we were at war we wouldn't be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves," Mr Abbott told Network Ten's Wake Up breakfast program.
- via News.com.au, 10 Jan 2014.
Tony Abbott likening a so-called fight against people-smugglers to war, is not a terribly new or novel concept. In the United States, wars have been declared on nouns for half a century.
Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union address declared “unconditional war on poverty in America.”¹ Two years later Johnson declared "a war against hunger"². Richard Nixon declared "war on drugs"³ in 1971 (and as we've seen in California and now Colorado, drugs won) and Ronald Reagan declared a "war against terrorism"⁴ in 1984, although it was George W Bush who is most associated with the term. (Incidentally all four of these presidents who went to war with nouns, were all reelected; so that was technically a win for them).
The thing is that unlike a war against a corporeal entity like a foreign nation or a group of insurgents, going to war against a concept doesn't really have a definite end point. When Neville Chamberlain declared war against Germany⁵ in 1939, the enemy was "Germany" and the war would be over when "Germany" surrendered. Now due to a quirk in history, I suppose that it could be argued that World War II ended in 1990 with the "Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany"⁶ because Germany as a thing didn't begin to exist again until 1990, but for all intents and purposes, the war ended in 1945.
When does war against a concept or a noun actually end? If the war with Germany ended when Germany surrendered, does that mean that a war against people smugglers will only be over when all people smugglers have surrendered? That seems like a wistful wish to me.
Declaring war on people smugglers seems akin to the sort of airy promise that George W Bush made when he said that America would:
"pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime"
or perhaps comedian Bill Bailey's take on the matter (as George W):
"I will tame evil, I will get the evil ones, We must find the evil ones. We must get evil, we must laminate evil, we must wear it round our necks, at the backstage party in paradise!"
So why declare war on a nebulous concept? What's the point? If declaring war on an undefined concept and nouns in general has no obvious end point, then isn't that an empty promise and put the government on a hiding to nothing?
Well not quite. By declaring war on a noun, it means that an obvious enemy is created in terms of rhetoric. It creates an "us and them" mentality in which if you aren't "us" then you must be "them". As George W said "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists".
Logically as far as rhetoric goes, if the crusade against the particular noun fails, you can blame the other side of politics for the failure and any victory against the concept can be played for all it's worth, including and even if you didn't do anything positive to solve the problem.
Why specifically liken an initiative stopping people-smugglers/asylum seekers/boat people from arriving in Australia to war? That's a little bit more complicated.
US Politics likes the idea of a war on a noun because so much of US Politics has been viewed through the prism of being a nation at war since World War II. Selling ideas in politics relies heavily on the constant rewriting of myth and in America, a nation which was created as a result of a war, likes to frame so much of its politics through that lens.
Australia though, has a different set of myths and so it didn't really make sense to use the lens of war to colour political debate until 2001. In August of 2001 the MV Tampa which had picked up mainly Hazara people from Afghanistan, was refused entry into Australian waters. The MV Tampa which had been turned around, then Australian waters anyway. In September of 2001 the Twin Towers at the World Trade Centre in New York came down and in October, the Children Overboard affair made life politically difficult for the Howard Government. Thankfully for the Howard Government, the United States started bombing Afghanistan on 7th October and Australia also found itself at war. Suddenly, there was a genuine real blowing-stuff-up and killing-people type of war on and both the Tampa Affair and Children Overboard could be quashed under the wave of actual war information. The plan worked magnificently and in November of 2001 and in just three months, the Howard Government saw its polling figures bounce back incredibly and was returned in an election which up until October, they were probably otherwise going to lose.
Fast forward eight years and one months and on 31st December 2009, just thirty days after becoming Leader of The Opposition⁷, Tony Abbott mined the same rhetoric which worked so well for John Howard in 2001. Prior to this, neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Brendan Nelson before him had mentioned this as a policy. Tony Abbott though, found a pet policy with no obvious winnable outcome and milked it for all it was worth for four years until he finally became Prime Minister. By likening the issue of people smuggling to a war in 2014 is just a new application of rhetoric. It's rhetoric which probably wouldn't have worked pre-2001 but works absolutely fine now.
A more useful question to be asking is whether or not framing the question of people smuggling (or indeed any war against a noun) makes the world a better place. The answer to that in this case is a resounding no. By declaring that people smugglers and by inference asylum seekers are an enemy, it does that most wonderful of things that always happens during a war and that is the dehumanisation of that enemy. Never mind the fact that the people themselves might have faced treacherous conditions, fled a country where they were likely to have been killed or come from a country which Australia has had a part in bombing. A dehumanised enemy is one which the public don't really have to care for at all. If the shoe was on the other foot and it happened to be you who escaped a country with racial tensions, or was on the brink of civil war or perhaps where abject poverty was rife, would you want to escape?
I'm reasonably sure that the current Prime Minister whose electorate happens to contain Mosman which has a "combined taxable income higher than the gross domestic product of dozens of countries" and "is similar to the GDP of Burundi, an African nation with 10 million people"⁸ probably knows nothing of the sorts of journey whom he's classified as an enemy. He certainly makes no effort to sympathise or empathise with them, I bet.
If the subject of asylum seekers/people smugglers can be framed as a conflict against an enemy, then when will the war actually end? Is that even the right question to be asking? Does the war even need to end? Provided that there's still an "us" and "them" narrative which is useful for political gain, then the war can go on forever and ever amen.
As an exercise in creating rhetoric and telling narrative for political gain, going to war with a noun is never a recipe for failure because you can never lose. The story can always be told anew.