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Fear and Loathing in National Security

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

We have to get out of here; this is bat country.

~Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

It has been 18 years since Hunter S. Thompson passed.  A mind that peered deep into the American Dream and saw the dysfunction that was tearing it apart.  His arrival in popular journalism is a Rolling Stone article he wrote on the Kentucky Derby.  A brilliant piece that famously makes no mention of the race itself.  Gonzo journalism described his style, where the journalist becomes part of the story — putting aside his works of surreal fiction such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  So why should we look at his work in the military and security context?  Because in his prime, he bears witness to the decline of the Western democratic process.  The best descriptions of this descent are in his works Hells Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trial (his opus), an essay on a new governor named Jimmy Carter, and, more importantly, numerous pieces on one Richard Millhouse Nixon.

Hunter S. Thomas in Las Vegas in 1971.

Central to much of his serious journalism is the concept of Fear and Loathing permeating US domestic politics (led by Nixon), the rise of shadow ideology trumping facts to drive policy.  I leave the reader to decide if this is occurring within their nation.  However, if you hear or have heard ‘stop the boats’ or adamant ‘no’ campaigns that offer zero alternatives (the NRA tactic, as I call it).  I would posit that you are in a similar condition.

The first idea is one of Fear, to artificially amplify a threat, perceived or insignificant, to such a level that it becomes a clear and present danger to society.  Thompson witnessed this first-hand when he rode as an observer with the nascent Hells Angels motorcycle gang (he loved motorcycles, fast ones).  At the time, they were a rag-tag bunch of self-absorbed scum.  Yet when they rode, owing to media hype and over-zealous local police chiefs meeting them with blockades on county limits, they became dark celebrity.  Falsely, an existential threat to the atomic family, ensuring local police budgets stayed high and media outlets made money.

The Hells Angels

In the case of Hells Angels, it was more an involuntary than a well-organised phenomenon.  However, the elevation of a threat as a political tool is now commonplace.  Immigrants and refugees are a threat, not an opportunity.  Only this party has the will and means to protect you from them.  It leads us through a succession of vague threats, wars on nouns, such as drugs, terrorism, the ‘Muslim’ world as a unitary entity, and the now-rebuked clash of civilisations.  These are all imprecise to the point of being useless in real threat definition.  They needlessly potentially militarise social or political issues and remain enduring, allowing the fear lever to be used repeatedly.  It is the ultimate abuse of Eisenhower’s ideal, ‘that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, creating Fear of all so we may protect you.

The second element of Thompson’s observation is Loathing, which he distils well when following the McGovern presidential campaign of 1972.  Thompson concludes that political dialogue has become so trite and mendacious that rational people turn away from exhaustion.  The tiring narratives, coupled with the behaviours and qualities of the political candidates themselves, merely walking sound bites with minimal ethical grounding or administrative capacity.  Again, the stupefying fact that these individuals have risen to the highest governmental positions in the land turns people away.  As he says, ‘With the truth so dull and depressing, the only working alternative is wild bursts of madness and filigree.’

So we are now in a paradox; the political system has always had an element of theatre.  But now it is an absolute theatre, full of sound and fury yet… (you know the rest).  A ruthless lock on truth and insight are vital to security and defence.  As we can see in Ukraine, even the most incompetent enemy unchecked can generate immense suffering and loss.  As Thompson warns, ‘Those who fail to learn from the brutal stompings visited on them in the past are doomed to be brutally stomped in the future.’

‘Those who fail to learn from the brutal stompings visited on them in the past are doomed to be brutally stomped in the future.’

This has already affected the defence debate; a recent example was the former UK PM Boris Johnston commenting that ‘the days of massed tank battles in Europe are over.’  It is irrelevant if he thought up the phrase himself, if an internal staffer gave it to him, or if it came from the UK MOD pushing their restructuring.  It was simply ignorant of the nature of close combat and land warfare.  Mendacious (loathsome).

Is another issue the government function getting absorbed into the habits of Fear and Loathing?  For example, the frank and fearless advice of the public servant (uniformed or otherwise) evolves into ‘support your minister’ (don’t laugh, this was a real campaign in an Australian government department).  Currently, a Royal Commission in Australia is revealing the abject peril of this culture at the most senior levels of the public service (and consulting firms, surprise, surprise).  Commendably public sector reform is underway before its conclusion.  However, this is missing one point: leadership is ultimately by the politicians and is more generally affected by societal culture and traits.  I believe reform without recognising these tensions is a somewhat fraught endeavour.

I would now contend that one of the greatest threats to democracies is the governmental function of these democracies themselves.  Whilst militaries must remain apolitical, they must not remain passive.  It is not about speaking the truth to power but telling the truth.  That military media training has paralleled political media training in approach is perhaps something that requires reflection.  Politicians (and some ex-military) on both sides of the Atlantic and the Southern Pacific are spouting myths and nonsense that would make Baghdad Bob gasp.  Mythology worshipping undermines confronting the security environment in a time of social and economic challenge.  The lost decade of climate action through denial is a tragedy that will impact us all.  Yet, great power competition is a more crucial existential threat?

Conclusion

I do not call for greater military involvement in government affairs; Charles Dunlap warned us decades ago of such perils.  However, we shouldn’t pretend either that some serving military personnel will seek to exploit such an environment for their gain.  Nor should we blame social media and the sound bite generation; if that is the game, then play it.  Nor are the rabid mutterings of self-deceiving dictators as powerful as they are odious.  Instead, we seem to be yielding ground unnecessarily to avoid some vague risk of professional embarrassment to goodness knows who?

Passivity in the face of Fear and Loathing is unacceptable; Thompson’s searing and lucid prose showed the farce of his times.  Military and public leadership perhaps should review their approach for the sake of their true masters, the people and land, sea and air of the nation they serve.  Because Fear and Loathing only help the authors, not the country.  Misinformation is not new; myths and false prophets have always existed, and some will always believe them.  Now undervalued is the power of informed and articulate opinion inside and outside the halls of government.  It is probably best served with an additional dollop of courage, humility, and candour.  It is for politicians to be political, not others, and a rare few around the globe are proving both ideals are not mutually exclusive.  The behaviour of the Baltic States during the current Ukrainian War is a good example, spin in their case is fatal.  Solid and rigorous explanation and debate are now more than ever a critical element of national security.  It’s a straightforward idea, but as one dead Prussian (and his wife) once said, even simple things are difficult.  But, not impossible.

Jason Thomas

Jason is a retired Australian Armoured Corps Officer who served in a variety of command and staff appointments.  Including capability development and future warfare positions. He holds a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering, a Master of Science in military vehicle technology, and a Master of Arts in strategy and policy. Currently, he is living in Copenhagen where besides reading for a PhD in Mission Command at the University of Sydney, and being a house dad, he occasionally writes on military topics with a focus on leadership and strategy.

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