Take a look at the photo above. I managed to overcome my usual ineptitude with technology the other day to snap that picture as I was walking into a barbershop in the Californian city of Coronado. Actually, although Coronado is classified as its own city (of barely 25,000) it is in reality part of San Diego. Across a large curving bridge that was opened by Ronald Reagan back in the late 1960s sits the home of US naval aviation, the huge airbase of Coronado, on a peninsula that forms the magnificent San Diego harbor.
This harbor is the home of the third- or fourth-biggest US naval base in the world (depending on how and what you count), the biggest being in Norfolk, Virginia. And even though this peninsula – which is so long you can’t help thinking it’s an island – is dominated by the naval airbase, by a separate Navy Seals base, and by other parts of the US Navy, there is also a chunk of the peninsula that constitutes the civilian town of Coronado. Given how many people either live in, commute to or work for the US Navy, you won’t be surprised to hear that it is the safest city in the United States. Any police officers who want only to investigate bicycle thefts should immediately put in their applications to the Coronado Police Department. There are basically no parking fines handed out because the metres in Coronado charge 25 cents per hour – yes, a quarter is all it takes to park for an hour – so you’d have to be brain dead not to pay up.
My wife and I stumbled on Coronado purely by chance back in 2013 when we were here for an earlier sabbatical of mine. Purely by luck we ended up renting a house on the beach in this amazing place, and we loved it. So when the offer came to return to the University of San Diego School of Law – the most conservative law school in the US, let me note, which means maybe one-third of the law professors would be right of centre, and why I can find a spot here – both my wife and I knew we’d be renting again in Coronado. It is magnificent, and quite a contrast to London, where we spent the first half year of my sabbatical.
Don’t get me wrong. For both us, London is our favourite city on earth. But Coronado is right up there. Furthermore, if you ever find yourself in San Diego let me strongly recommend that the first touristy thing you must do is to take the two-hour boat tour of the harbour. You’ll see a stunning array of top-of-the-line US Navy vessels – destroyers, battleships, weird looking stealth ships, helicopter carriers, two or three of the big Nimitz class aircraft carriers, and at the far outlet end of the harbour the docking zone for nuclear submarines. San Diego is home to the killer attack subs, but once in a while you will see the “big banger” missile-launching Tridents come in for a visit. They are magnificent.
Take that tour and you will soon realise what a joke it is that Australia is spending tens of billions of dollars on fourth-class diesel subs that are outdated as I write, some twenty or thirty years before we even see them. It’s a disgrace that a Coalition government – not Labor but the allegedly more defence-minded Coalition! – would treat national defence as an arm of some weird South Australian job-creation scheme. God knows what this works out at in terms of dollars-per-job. But hey, you have to admit that it buys a couple of Liberal MPs’ seats – no doubt paid-up members of the party’s Black Hand faction.
And that takes me back to the photo above, which is to be found in the original at the barbershop on the main street of Coronado. Consider its message.
“War is an ugly thing”, it begins. True enough. “But not the ugliest of things.” Also true. Even the irredeemable luvvie leftist and Trump-a-phobic J.K. Rowlings realised that when, as one of her Harry Potter books’ central messages, she acknowledged that some things in life really are indeed worth dying for.
And then there’s the barber’s passage about how it is far worse to think nothing is worth dying for — to be someone who would not fight for anything. Hence these “miserable creatures … have no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than they.” You get the gist of it. It’s a Hobbesian state of nature message through and through and one to which I wholly subscribe. (And as a only slightly related sidenote, my favourite all-time philosopher is the great Scottish sceptic David Hume. When Boswell asked Doctor Johnson about Hume and his politically conservative leanings, Johnson, who held no affection for the Scots in general and did not like Hume in particular, scoffed that ‘Hume is a Tory by chance; if anything he’s a Hobbesian’. I think that’s right about Hume being a Tory. There is chance involved in being a conservative. It depends on what you’re born into as to whether many or any of the existing institutions are worth preserving; it’s a matter of chance. And we do live in a dangerous world where a strong national defence ought to trump everything, and which can also play into preferring slow piecemeal reform and change to utopian revolution.)
But getting back to the barbershop, I knew as I read the message walking in that I’d be giving my barber a big tip. As it happened my guy was a refugee, a Libyan Christian. We chatted. He didn’t have much good to say about the Barack Obama/David Cameron mission to take out the strongman Muamar Gaddafi and replace him with … what? With Muslim extremist zealots who – his words, not mine – set out to kill everyone not Muslim, or not sufficiently Muslim for them. Thinking you can remake chunks of the world into democratic paradises, and do so overnight, is not something David Hume would have rated as even remotely plausible. In a dangerous and sometimes ugly world it can be true that the strongman dictator is the least-bad option. David Cameron and Barack Obama thought otherwise; my barber and his family paid the price. (And note, this sort of zeal was just as loopy in the case of George W. Bush and his invasion in Iraq. One of the core selling points of President Trump was his whole-hearted scepticism of this ‘remake the world’ attitude. Democracy is hard. It takes time to build. It demands a sort of modesty insofar as you have to be willing to let your deep conviction — what you happen to think is morally and fundamentally right — be out-voted by others who believe their views also are morally and fundamentally right, and then you need to have losers who will leave office willingly, something not wholly in evidence, by the way, in the US with the Democrats after losing the 2016 electiont.)
On this similar theme, when you put on the TV here in the US you will come across recruiting ads for the military. The ones we’ve been seeing talk about ‘warriors wanted’. They show soldiers fighting and shooting all sorts of things. They most certainly do not look like ads for a sort Peace Corps foreign aid worker who happens to wear a helmet. These are ads for fighting men and women, full stop. When I saw them I thought immediately of Australia, and again not in a good way. Military ads in Australia strike me as having been fashioned by some diversity guru who misunderstood ‘warrior’ to mean ‘social justice warrior’. At times they seemed pitched at the caring, sharing segment of the population, those who might learn some nifty computer skills on joining. I hate those Australian ads for their implicit affirmative action and diversity overtones.
Look, there is one point to a country’s military and one point only: to defend the country – if necessary to kill and maim those who would attack us – and nothing else. I have zero confidence that recent Coalition defence ministers share my view of what the military is for. Here’s the thing: were Scott Morrison remotely supportive of an effective ADF he would insist Jim Molan got the NSW Senate spot and then he’d replace the current defence minister with Molan. But after what we saw in Victoria with the open Senate spot, I think it would be a Pollyanna who believed Prime Minister Morrison would do anything other than quietly support the Photios faction of the party.
Am I less than thrilled with what we’ve seen from the Morrison government? You bet I am. I still say he’s better than Turnbull, and I’d still vote for him. But I really don’t like the party’s direction. I don’t think the PM shares many of my core values. And on defence this government doesn’t seem to have views anything like mine. Maybe the Minister of Defence might think about flying over to the US, indeed to San Diego, to see how these things are done properly. We have a spare room. Just promise you won’t go to Canada. They’re even worse than we are when it comes to defence and the paltry – and NATO-treaty infringing – amounts they spend in the Great White North on national defence.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and the author of Democracy in Decline. He is in on sabbatical in the UK