Natalie Sambhi is co-editor of Security Scholar. She is also Founder and Executive Director of Verve Research, an independent research collective focussed on the relationship between militaries and societies in Southeast Asia.
Heeeeeeello Friday! Welcome back for my pick of interesting and informative things to read, watch or listen to over the weekend.
Today’s suggested reading is a New Mandala post (also, highly recommend the full 25-page report here) from my ANU colleague Hunter Marston who grapples with the question: in Southeast Asia, authoritarian or illiberal? What’s the difference and why does it matter? Well, it matters if you’re an international partner wanting to work with civil society in Southeast Asia. Understanding the difference helps maximise the kinds of cooperation programs on offer and their effectiveness. A country doesn’t have to be full-on strongman authoritarian to undermine the growth of democracy and exhibit increasingly illiberal values (I wasn’t going to name names but hello, Manila and Jakarta, I’m looking at you). Hunter also emphasises that civil society is not a monolith! Civil society groups come in many different forms and flavours (sweet and sour). This might seem obvious but sometimes we policy analysts and scholars (as well as policymakers and bureaucrats) get lazy and generalise. Not only is Hunter’s work a good reminder to be specific, he even provides a table at the end of his report suggesting how to engage different kinds of civil society actors.
This week’s podcast is a recent interview with Professor Risa Brooks on the erosion of US civil-military relations under the Obama and Trump presidencies, hosted by the Cato Institute’s John Glaser (43mins). She’s also written a heap of stuff on civil-military relations under Trump if you’re keen to pull on that thread, including this 30-page article published this year. In that paper, Risa compares the last administration’s impact on the military’s place in society and politics to its predecessors. Her analysis is hard on the former president but I thought her discussion of contemporary civil-military ties provides useful food for thought.
Weeeeeeell, turns out it was a bit meatier than expected! Military in Politics: Indonesia was a solid 48-minute exploration of the Indonesian armed forces, covering in reasonable detail its origin story, darker New Order decades and 1998 fall from grace. It presented clear-eyed analysis of the army’s past, the ramifications for civil-military relations under President Jokowi and the ongoing maritime challenges from China. Not only did CNA draw from some of the best TNI scholars out there in Singapore (where the station is based) and in Indonesia, the team also interviewed former Indonesian government and military officials including Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar and Lieutenant General (rtd) Agus Widjojo.
The doco was even-handed about the military’s strengths and weaknesses, particularly its background of human rights violations, and there were only a handful of minor points I would have quibbled with. Straight up: if you’re a seasoned scholar of the Indonesian military, this isn’t for you. But if you, a colleague or your students are keen to learn about the Tentara Nasional Indonesia aka Indonesian armed forces, and you’re looking for something to enjoy at the kitchen table in less than an hour, look no further. Hats off to you, CNA!
Speaking of light and fluffy (well, kind of), this week’s music is brought to you by Blink-182, thanks to El Diablo. Happy Friday Burgers and see you next week! —NS
Everyone carries a room about inside them. —Franz Kafka
With the passing this week of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, I started thinking about the ways we look back on the war in Iraq. In 2005, when asked about his memories of his ill-fated UN speech justifying an invasion, Powell described them as “painful”. Indeed, everyone carries a room about inside them. For something different this week, I’d like to suggest exploring Iraq and war through the memories not just of military men but of musicians.
My first pick is British composer Max Richter whose music you might have heard featured on movie soundtracks such as Waltz with Bashir, Prometheus and Arrival. Richter wrote The Blue Notebooks (2004) in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War as a “protest album”, inspired by the idea of music “as a place to think.” Of note, the album’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (featured above and linked here) is a 7-minute sea of melancholy harmony and stately beauty. Richter has said he thinks of the piece as “a meditation on violence and its repercussions.”
In 2016, when the British public enquiry into the war was finally published (we know it as the Chilcot Review), Richter penned a Guardian op-ed. In it, he reflects on the demonstrations against the invasion, the war’s aftermath and what he sees as Tony Blair’s continuing evasion of responsibility. For Richter, Blair’s actions continue to “insult the memory of those hundreds of thousands whose lives were taken.” Looking back on the 13 years between the article and his composition of The Blue Notebooks, he says:
When I perform The Blue Notebooks now, it seems at once familiar and strange. Time has passed; I am a different person but the events of 2003 and their aftermath still resonate daily. All of us were changed during that political moment, but I remain convinced that human creativity can influence the world, or at the very least our perception of it, in some small way.
The second suggestion is the Iraqi singer Kadim Al Sahir, one of the country’s biggest acts and famed throughout the Arab world, whose 2006 song “Baghdad Tata la elami” (“Baghdad Don’t Hurt”, above and linked here) became an “anthem of Iraqi suffering.” Even if you don’t understand Arabic, the yearning and heartbreak in Al Sahir’s voice project the anguish around him with more conviction than his lyrics ever could. A must-listen for his raw emotion, accompanied by the lush, sombre waves of Middle Eastern and Western stringed instruments.
The Iraqi singer’s devotion to his country has been long woven into his music, including in his most popular songs. In “Beauty and His Love” Al Sahir confesses to his girlfriend of someone he loves more than her, someone who fills his dreams: Baghdad. In February 2003, he toured the US to ”show another face of my country” and inspire Americans to ”think good thoughts—not all bad thoughts—of my people.” While he no longer lives in his motherland, in a 2020 interview with Vogue Man, Al Sahir’s devotion to his mission remains clear:
I carried Iraq with me to the most remote corners of the world through my voice, drawing the best picture of it so people can understand that Iraq doesn’t deserve war.
Ending on a high-energy note—and crank the volume for this—my last pick is US rock band Green Day and their 2004 hit “American Idiot” (above and linked here), inspired by their disgust with cable news coverage of the Iraq War. While some of the lyrics aren’t—unlike Wu-Tang—for the children, the song is a punchy, punk-influenced, hard-hitting protest against blindly going along with media-generated paranoia. Behold, the opening lines:
Don’t wanna be an American idiot! / Don’t want a nation under the new media / And can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mind fuck America!
Performing in an abandoned warehouse in front of an American flag in faded black, white and green whose colours start to run halfway through the clip, the trio get drenched in fluoro green liquid spraying from their amplifiers. As lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong holds two fingers to his chin to simulate shooting himself, his message is clear: I’d rather be dead than believe this toxic shit.
“American Idiot” is the title track from an entire protest album of the same name which captures the angst and culture wars Green Day’s members observed in George W. Bush’s America. That said, in a 2017 Rolling Stone interview that touched on the legacies of the American Idiot album, bassist Mike Dirnt clarified:
I mean, American Idiot wasn’t fuck George Bush. That was a personal question that Billie was writing. “I don’t want to be an American Idiot.” We’re watching the fucking war take place on television for the first time in our lives and we were like, “This is bullshit.” But it was not a Bush record.
From contemplation to anguish to angst, here’s just a handful of music that the Iraq War generated. If you’ve got some music that makes you think back to, reminisce or remember that era, feel free to leave it in the comments section. Image courtesy of Flickr user The US Army. Catch you next week! —NS
It’s Friday! So grab a burger to go with a side of my reading, listening and watching picks below.
Myanmar’s military mindset. Kicking off today is Andrew Selth’s newly dropped tour de force report on the Tatmadaw aka Myanmar’s armed forces because, you know, there’s still a coup there. Even if you’re not focussed on Myanmar, his methodology on studying leadership is worth getting your head around and applying to China, Pakistan and other regimes. In a 45-year career spanning government and academia writing about international security and Asian affairs (including shit-tonne of books on Myanmar), Selth sheds light the country’s strategic culture and the military’s mental landscape. Breaking that landscape down into personal, institutional and national levels, he covers aspects like Buddhism, ethos, suspicions of civilians, fear of foreign interference and, super importantly, implications for interlocutors. A must-read for the civil-military, intelligence, Southeast Asian studies or strategic/military culture types. Full report here (PDF, 40 pages).
The myth behind the might. Courtesy of El Diablo, I highly recommend this Foreign Affairs essay by Michael Beckley and Hal Brands that rigorously lays out the case for why we’ll see the end of China’s rise (yeah it’s paywalled but beg/borrow/steal). From dwindling demographics to Evergrande and economics to inert innovation, it appears Beijing’s got more than 99 problems. But puncturing myths about China’s inexorable rise isn’t cause for calm. Au contraire:
Revisionist powers tend to become most dangerous when the gap between their ambitions and their capabilities starts to look unmanageable. When a dissatisfied power’s strategic window begins to close, even a low-probability lunge for victory may seem better than a humiliating descent. When authoritarian leaders worry that geopolitical decline will destroy their political legitimacy, desperation often follows.
Battle Rhythm is a great podcast series run by two Canadian thinks, the Canadian Defence and Security Network and the Network for Strategic Analysis. Their latest episode #58 kicks off with a discussion about a reset (maaaaybe) between Ottawa and Beijing over the two Michaels and Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. Interested in moral injury? Skip ahead to 25:20 for an interview with Stephanie Houle for her research on the Canadian Armed Forces. (49mins)
Bring da AUKUS (live). If you haven’t had enough about nuclear subs and regional order, check out this La Trobe Asia–US Embassy Canberra panel event in two weeks’ time featuring Aussie, American and Kiwi scholars. Apart from yours truly, you’ll hear from Dr Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University, NZ; Assoc Prof Maria Rost Rublee, Politics and International Relations, Monash University; and Prof Peter Dean, Director, Defence and Security Institute, UWA, chaired by Dr Rebecca Strating, Executive Director, La Trobe Asia. Log on Wednesday 27 October at 2.30pm UTC+8 (Perth, Singapore etc) / 5.30pm UTC +11 (Sydney, Canberra etc). Register here.
And, to end on a lighter note, check out the The Juice Media poking fun at Scotty from Marketing with this “Honest Government Ad” on AUKUS. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marc Veraart. See y’all next week! —NS
Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. —Saul Bellow
This week’s instalment is a little less sassy and a bit more sober in subject matter. It’s a quick round-up of three military memoirs I’ve recently read. As Bellow’s quote suggests, a memoir is more than just a record of certain events in your life. Memoirs help create meaning out of the past in service of the present. They are a selection of memories, strung together to tell a story. Every memoirist dances between candour and concealment. The very act of writing a memoir, in some cases, is a therapeutic catharsis.
So with that in my mind, the first book for today can be described as devastatingly honest.Exit Wounds (2013) a no-holds-barred look into the life of Australian Army officer, Major General (rtd) John Cantwell. Cantwell lays out how he dealt with his demons (or, at times, not) from his time in Gulf War 1 and how trauma took its toll after gruelling deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Read it for a senior officer’s perspective on war and PTSD, especially one who grew up before mental wellbeing formed a greater part of our public conversation. My winter morning companion, I couldn’t put it down. If you prefer listening to things, check out Life On The Line’s two-part interview with Cantwell here (part 1) and here (part 2).
Next up is Survivor: life in the SAS (2021) by Mark Wales, which chronicles his dream to join Australia’s special forces, multiple deployments and struggles in dealing with moral drift. Written in no-bullshit language, it’s another exceptionally candid story of highs and lows. Read it for special forces officer’s view on how he navigated life after the SAS and how, after finding the courage to try new and daring things, he found light at the end of the tunnel. Wales’ comeback at Wharton was some much-needed inspo for the week. Life On The Line also nabbed him for a two-part interview here (part 1) and here (part 2).
The last one is a wild card, so bear with me: it’s an important memoir written by the man who literally opened and closed the gate on Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor* and a review essay of his book. While many accounts about the Indonesian military’s time in East Timor speak of the human rights violations (and rightly so), Lieutenant General (rtd) Kiki Syahnakri’s memoir Timor Timur: the untold story (2013) is an Indonesian perspective that not just defends the TNI’s actions in the province but criticises them as well. Yes it’s in Indonesian, so I strongly suggest reading Bob Lowry’s 11-page review essay on Kiki’s book (PDF), published in the Australian Army Journal. Having served as Army Attaché in Jakarta, Lowry is a fount of knowledge on the TNI (the man wrote a book on them) so he adds considerable depth to Kiki’s reflections and much-needed context to how Indonesia experienced that era. A must-read for Australian strategic and military thinkers (and super helpful to my thesis).
*As background, Kiki was posted as a junior officer on the border between East and West Timor in 1975, opening the border to Timorese fleeing to the west. Some 24 years later, as Commander-in-Chief of Martial Law in East Timor, he handed over authority for the province to then-Major General (rtd) Peter Cosgrove who headed up INTERFET after a referendum in August 1999 rejected Indonesian rule.
Fitting in with this week’s theme (one to ponder), the music is brought to you by Avenged Sevenfold, suggested by El Diablo. Image courtesy of Department of Defence. See you next week! —NS
[Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore sections updated Wednesday 29 September] Welcome back! With AUKUS dominating the news, I took a small break from Suggests to write for The Strategist (more on that below). Today’s a small hit of Southeast Asian views on Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines and the new security pact announced on 15 September as well as some interesting things to sink your reading teeth into.
Australia’s experience can offer lessons for ASEAN countries. Instead of counting the costs of opposition to Beijing, ASEAN leaders should ponder their affordability. ASEAN countries need to reflect on how much independence they have lost or are losing while deflating opposition to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy. Rather than fearing China’s counteroffensive, ASEAN should formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy that recognizes AUKUS, the Quad, and other similar arrangements as leverage over China’s growing military and economic power.
Meanwhile, the Defence Minister of Malaysia says “We need to get the views from the leadership of China, especially China’s defense, on AUKUS that was announced by the three countries and what are their actions following the announcement.” What does he really think they’re going to say?
Another friend over in Kuala Lumpur, defence journo Dzirhan Mahadzir has a more chilled out series of tweets of how AUKUS plays out with Malaysia. Check it out in full but in short: “We don’t like it but we still BFF (Best Friends Forever) with Australia.”
“You go girl!” (mostly) Among the upbeat club, the Philippines seems to be the most supportive so far. Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin’s statement points out that ASEAN, “singly and collectively”, isn’t packing enough heat to “avoid disproportionate and hasty responses by rival great powers” and that “the enhancement of a near abroad ally’s [ie Australia’s] ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.” Worth reading the statement in full. Since then, on Tuesday 28 September, President Duterte’s spokesperson said that his boss wasn’t too keen on the pact which could “[insert talking points about triggering nuclear arms race]”. Analysts are asking why the spokesperson would buck the tone laid down by the nation’s top diplomat … but then again, it’s Du30.
Softly softly.Singapore was a bit more muted, with PM Lee saying during his call with Australian PM Morrison the same day as the announcement that he “hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.” Meanwhile, on Saturday 25 September at the UNGA, Foreign Minister Dr Balakrishnan expanded on his PM’s words, saying “The fact that we have a longstanding and constructive relationship [with Australia, the UK and the US] with large reservoirs of trust and alignment is very helpful because it means we are not unduly anxious about these new developments.” While underscoring the importance of ASEAN centrality, he added that AUKUS was “really part of a larger geo-strategic realignment, and we have to take these things in our stride.”
Peace out in! Similar to Singapore, a spokesperson from Vietnam‘s Ministry of Foreign Affairs just yesterday carefully stated “All countries strive for the same goal of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world over” and that “nuclear energy must be developed and used for peaceful purposes and serve socio-economic development, ensuring safety for humans and the environment.” In contrast, former Vietnamese diplomat Nguyen Ngoc Truong kept it real real: “Beijing may become even more aggressive. But China reaps what it sows.”
No sugar. While Thailand hasn’t released an official statement, former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said “No one country in the region wants to be under the domination of China and the U.S. presence is thus a necessity” and “the current Chinese leadership has become revisionist with assertive and aggressive ambition.” Worth reading in full is senior Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn’s take of how AUKUS will turn Southeast Asia into a “new battleground of the “Hot and Sour War””.
China’s security influence in Africa: While China’s mining and economic interests on the African continent are well known, we don’t discuss Beijing’s influence on military and security affairs there nearly as much. Two suggestions to get you up to speed: first is a short Monkey Cage post by Natalie Herbert on how the Belt and Road Initiative motivates African countries to increase Chinese security engagement. Cooperation often takes the form of intelligence exchanges and police and military training, with security elements often “bundled” into BRI economic agreements.
Second is Dries Velthuizen’s short article on why China can address weaknesses in Africa’s peace and security. Velthuizen proposes that China enhance the African Union’s intervention capacity using lessons learned from the PLA, including the implementation of non-combatant approaches such as poverty alleviation programs. He also argues that China’s economic model be used as a blueprint for development. Read more about his research here (13 pages).
Thailand, between two ferns: over on The Strategist, Jittipat Poonkham smacks down outdated views of Thai foreign policy as bamboo bending with the wind. As Bangkok engages more militarily with Beijing, there has been a decline in alignment with its ally Washington. Hammering that point home, “Thailand has participated in more combined military exercises with China than any other Southeast Asian country.” Super informative is Poonhkham’s assessment of the material shifts in Thailand’s strategic relations with the US and with China, and worth pondering is his proposal for a new Thai narrative of “leading-from-the-middle”.
Taliban and Jemaah Islamiyah: Next up, the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC) dropped new knowledge last week on the impact of the Taliban’s victory on Indonesia’s JI (20 pages). The quick take? “In the short-term, JI does not pose a significant threat [but] No one should rule it out”, says IPAC director Sana Jaffrey, and for now “the pro-ISIS groups remain the ones to watch.” There are some bits at the end on the Taliban but really the report is one useful update of JI’s goals and strategy, structure, cash flows, views on women and military capacity.
Uncle Leo: Lastly, today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud known as the Lion of Panjshir, killed in 2001 by al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists. If you ever wanted to know more about him, you might want to start with writer and investigative journalist Tam Hussein’s Twitter thread packed with articles, photos, quotes and interviews offering some glimpses into Massoud’s extraordinarily rich and complex life. The late Saudi journalist Jamal Khasoggi, who met Massoud in 1992, said “I fell in love with him like everyone else…he was truly an astonishing guy. I wish that Osama met Massoud…it could have changed history.” For balance, Hussein includes critiques of the guerrilla fighter, highlights his tainted legacy, and how his son Ahmad Massoud is leaning on a romanticised image of his father to shore up support for the resistance.
There’s currently no shortage of reporting and analysis on Afghanistan, the humanitarian challenges ahead and the future for terrorist organisations. However, strategic thinkers based in the Indo-Pacific are debating right now what the US military withdrawal heralds for American commitment to its regional alliances. For one, does “abandoning” Afghanistan lead allies to lose faith in Washington? Director of the University of Western Australia’s Defence and Security Institute (and friend), Professor Peter Dean says this is nonsense; rather, US allies, including Australia, should be reassured. To be sure, he links to numerous academic studies which demonstrate that withdrawing from one theatre does not mean a lack of resolve in the eyes of alliance partners. In light of the rapidly changing strategic balance resulting from China’s rise, he and other Australian analysts argue that commitment is better directed where the stronger interests lie. Keep reading for the view from one of the US’ most steadfast partners (NB today’s image, courtesy of Department of Defence, shows Australia soldiers training with US Marines in the Northern Territory during Exercise Koolendong 2021, the largest combined exercise in the ten-year history of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin).
Next up for today is the relatively recent publication from PRIO aka the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Conflict Trends in Asia 1989–2019 (41 pages), and data geeks, this one’s for you. As the names suggests, the report takes a longitudinal view of state and nonstate conflicts in the region and compares it to global data. Key takeaways? In 2019, there were 15 state-based conflicts in six different countries however, contrary to global trends, there were only three nonstate conflicts and a record number of ceasefires (yay, well kinda). Between 2017 and 2019, Afghanistan was the most violent place worldwide, with 30,000 conflict-related deaths. What I found useful were the graphs and infographics throughout that compared stats between Asian states but also how Asia stats measured up alongside Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Europe. Published in 2020, the report doesn’t cover important developments such as in Myanmar so fingers crossed there’s an update in years to come. If 41 pages is too long, check out the four-page policy brief here.
Lastly, is empathy important to strategy? In a brief but thought-provoking blog post, military ethics professor Pauline Shanks Kaurin extends Lawrence Freedman’s assertion that “empathy matters to strategy” to the potential implications for moral injury. While her post is a few years old, her questions are no less pertinent. The part that caught my eye, in particular, was this:
But empathy, especially for an adversary, is hard and also hard work. It requires emotional and cognitive skills, critical thinking, moral imagination and a willingness to step outside of one’s own world – at least temporarily. But there is also danger. Can empathy shift into sympathy? If it does shift, can that impair one’s ability to engage in strategies and tactics against the party in question. Or even if it does not impair this in the moment, can it produce guilt and moral injury later?
The problem of child soldiers seems a clear case. I can enter into the world of the child soldier, I can imagine the difficult situation they find themselves in and see why they are fighting. I also have children. If I target this child with lethal force, will I feel like I am targeting my own child? Will I feel guilt because in my worldview, children are not to be combatants, they are to be protected as innocent? Will I be able to kill if it is called for? How will I feel afterwards?
Meanwhile, Saferworld’s Warpod episode 7 looks at special forces, private military security contractors and their impact on the changing character of conflict with two sets of guests. The first guest is Dr Samantha Crompvoets of Rapid Context and author of a report that documents allegations of abuses by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. She outlines the factors that led to those findings, the subsequent internal investigation by Defence (published as the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report, commonly known as the Brereton Report) and the need for transparency. Riffing on a theme of keeping it real, the second set of guests are Malte Riemann and Norma Rossi of the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst who grapple with the challenges of outsourcing killing to contractors, particularly by drones. They challenge the idea of “remote” warfare, highlighting both the impact on communities whose individuals have been targeted and the lesser examined impact on communities and governments who do the outsourcing (38mins).
Most recently the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia before retiring in 2019, Douglas London is launching his memoir,The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, Thursday 30 September 10am UTC -4. For Aussie and most Asian audiences, grab a coffee because it doesn’t start until Thursday 30 September 10pm UTC +8 / Friday 1 October 12am UTC +10. Hosted by the Middle East Institute by Zoom, you can register here.
This week’s instalment was brought to you with the sounds of Aussie legends Silverchair (and a sweet acoustic version at home). See you next week! —NS
Talk about Indonesia’s Bela Negara program began a little while ago. The concept of the citizenry defending the nation isn’t new, though it is now being introduced systematically through training centres administered by the Ministry of Defense. The overarching goal of the program is to instil nationalistic values, underpinned by the Pancasila ideology, in the hopes that social stability will withstand threats in the form of extremism, drug abuse, communism and even homosexuality. In February, Minister for Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu labelled the LGBT movement as a form of proxy war.
The idea of proxy war—that enemies could exist anywhere at anytime, ready to bring down the Indonesian state—situates the military at the forefront of defending the nation. Through the Bela Negara program, military elites such as Ryamizard and TNI chief General Nurmantyo can legitimise their pronouncements of threats against Indonesia.
Reuters was given a glimpse into training held in West Java (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside):