Sailing aboard the SS Futility.

The RNZN is celebrating its 75 anniversary through this upcoming weekend, with 18 foreign warships attending the events. There will be fleet review on Saturday and an open house on the ships on Sunday.  An exhibition of international naval history will be open throughout the week on the Auckland waterfront.

For the first time in three decades the US is sending a warship to NZ waters as part of the event. In doing so the US acknowledges and accepts NZ’s non-nuclear stance and the NZ government confirms that it can verify that the ship is non-nuclear propelled and armed via independent means (and quiet diplomacy). The ship in question is the USS Sampson, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Other nuclear powers represented at the celebration are China and India (and France and UK in lesser capacity), as well as a host of regional navies including Australia, Indonesia, Japan and several Pacific Island states. Ships from Singapore, South Korea and Canada will also participate.

The NZ Defense Industry Association is running its annual Forum concurrently with the RNZN celebrations. It gives NZ defense-oriented businesses an opportunity to take advantage of the presence of foreign military commanders in order to hawk their wares as well as exploit the opportunities provided by the NZ$20 billion in capability upgrades announced by the MoD/NZDF for the next fifteen years. Needless say, the combination of events has elicited opposition from a variety of groups.

Protestors have already blocked the venue of the defense industry meetings and more protests are scheduled for the next four days, including a flotilla on Saturday when the fleet will be on review in the Waitemata Harbour. Interestingly, some moron posing as a National MP suggested that the Terrorism Supression Act be amended to include protest flotillas as “terrorists” because they might terrorise the crews of the warships by accidentally getting run over by them. So much for intelligent representation but who knows, maybe someone at the defense industry Forum will have a marketable idea about non-lethal anti-dinghy defences that are designed to deal with such contingencies.

There seems to be several different elements in the protests. There are pacifists who are against the presence of warships of any sort as well as those who profit from the misery of war. There are those who are against the so-called “death merchants” but who do not necessarily object to naval forces (perhaps seeing them as a necessary evil). There are those who are anti-nuclear. There are those who are anti-imperialist. There are those who support indigenous sovereignty. There are those who are anti-American. There is some overlap between these factions but the core appears to be focused on two things: the defense industry Forum and the presence of the USS Sampson as symbolic of conjoined war-mongering evils.

Although one can not really argue against being opposed to “death merchants,” the reality is that like the tip of an iceberg, weapons manufacturers are a relatively small percentage of those exhibiting at the Forum (although major weapons providers like Lockheed Martin are major sponsors of it). Most of the NZ defense industry are logistics and support providers who often also have civilian branches to their businesses (for example, drone manufacturers, navigational technology suppliers and search and rescue equipment providers). At worst, one might consider them “enablers” rather than direct purveyors of instruments of death. Be that as it may, it is understandable why pacifists are opposed to the Forum. Simplistic, naive and righteous, but understandable.

The issue of the warships is a bit more complex. Although there are plenty of pacifists who are opposed to the entire notion of celebrating naval forces, many of the protestors appear to be more focused on protesting the presence of a US warship. This includes some of the ostensibly anti-nuclear types, who seem to have given a pass to the Chinese and Indians while focusing on the US boat. The same is true of the anti-imperialist crowd, who also are concentrating their attentions of the USS Sampson but seem unconcerned about the neo-imperialist ventures of other countries represented, to say nothing of the unhappy histories of places like Indonesia or Chile (whose visiting training ship Esmeralda was used as a prison for political prisoners during the Pinochet era). So that basically means that much of the protesters are anti-American more than anything else.

That stance has been made a bit harder to justify now that the USS Sampson has been diverted to do earthquake relief duties in Kaikura. After all, it is hard not to look silly when the focus of your protests is on a ship that is involved in humanitarian relief operations on your home soil and yet you ignore the authoritarian and often repressive histories of other countries represented in the visiting fleet. This is particularly true if the crowds at the naval expo, watching the fleet review and waiting to board the ships on open house day are larger than the number of demonstrators. Clearly they are not getting the message the protestors want to impart on them.

So the question is: what is the point of the protests?

If the answer is to support pacifism in its opposition to anything connected to war regardless of the ancillary civilian benefits of naval power such as disaster relief and regardless of public attitudes towards the military, then so be it. But if the answer is to selectively protest against the US and defense industry regardless of circumstance, well, that seems to be more of a futile gesture than a public education action.

The last thing the NZ Left needs to be seen as is silly and futile.

7 thoughts on “Sailing aboard the SS Futility.

  1. I don’t really care if the Navy have a party for their 75th anniversary – our Navy, and the Royal Navy it descends from, in WW2 created the finest fighting tradition of any branch of any military anywhere and that deserves to be celebrated.

    But I am deeply, viscerally opposed to the merchants of death in any form. Large armies and those who equip them are enemies to liberty and creates war mongers, who because they possess a hammer think every problem is a nail. NZs military tradition doesn’t reside in its tiny professional army with its faintly ridiculous huge numbers of senior officers, staid cold war mindset and mini-me American sycophantism. Our finest military traditions were made by an army of a citizen militia raised and equipped when required and sent home when the war is over.

    By all means, build the weapons and manufacturing facilities when we need them. But we don’t need them, and they must never ever be allowed to get even the merest foothold here.

  2. I’m anti-American, but pro-merchants of death myself.

    Yeah, there is a small but hard core group of far-left wingers that needs to be thoroughly repudiated by normal left wing as the right usually repudiates the ultra-nationalists and the ultra-conservative. I think this might be why the Greens have struggled to perform better.

  3. Sanctuary and James: good (albeit very different) points.

    My inclination is to side in principle with the pacifists who oppose anything tied to war. But I would prefer to protest against the real weapons manufacturers without slamming the NZ non-weapons businesses that have dual civilian/military applications, and since I see machines of war as a necessary evil. I would have preferred that the visiting grey hulls be from democratic states only (which I know is diplomatically impossible but is nice to wish for).

    My purpose in writing the post was to reflect on the public education value of the protests given today’s context. For every bit of consciousness raised, I fear that more minds will be turned off, especially given that the corporate media has cast the first demonstrations in an unfairly negative light with their characterisation of the action as “violent.”

  4. Interesting post.

    Sanctuary your view is logically incoherent. You say you support the NZ navy but are opposed to those who have provided the ships on which they sail.

    Everything is based on background logistical support from a free democratic election to protests to retail to the provision and supply of military services including navies.

    Unless you believe navies should swim out on driftwood and throw pebbles at each other there needs to be an industry to provide both the ships themselves and the supplies they need to operate. I call it the defence industry, and I believe defence research provides many civilian benefits, you call them “merchants of death in any form”.

    Pablo you are right to call out the foolishness of protesting against a ship that is providing civilian support in a time of need.

    James Green your position is even more incoherent that Sanctuary if that is possible. Why be anti American? Every country has it’s flaws but America has generally chosen an isolationist world view but a preparedness to get involved when pushed or attacked. Pearl Harbour, the Cold War and 911 being great examples. The writer’s of the Constitution did a fantastic job of introducing checks and balances and requiring consensus for change. Churchill’ on democracy being the worst of all systems of government apart from all the others springs to mind.
    Who would you hold up as better examples of democratic government? Sweden or Switzerland who stayed out of the fight against the Nazi’s and who until relatively recently had homogeneous populations? Or would you prefer Cuba or Venezuela?

  5. I never said i oppose the military. I think we keep our armed forces at exactly the right size – big enough to do the few tasks required of them, but most importantly small enough for militarism to be completely banished from our political discourse and to keep our society deeply civilianised. I like how our army are a tiny tribe of outcasts who practice their silly saluting and stomping about in a tiny town in the middle of the North Island that no one else in their right mind ever visits if they can help it. In terms of weapons manufacturing, if need arises we can simply create a state arsenal to build the weapons to repulse our enemies, and while they are being made a citizen army can be called up and trained in their use. Once we’ve done with using them, close or convert the factories and get on with living peaceably, and in peace.

  6. Actually my position is completely coherent. I really don’t like the US government, that is a very coherent statement.

    Sanctuary’s statement is a better example: support having a military, but not support giving it equipment and training such that it actually be useful in fighting other militaries that aren’t similarly constrained.

    The framers did a good job for the time and the US constitution was a really progressive document for 1790. But after the European revolutions of the 1850s it was starting to look a little dated. These days it is a laughing stock of a document that is completely ridden through with problems. The US is now the worst example of a de facto democracy in the world.

    The US did hundreds of truly despicable things because of the Cold War that it didn’t need to. And 9/11 was clearly blowback and not something that just came out of the blue.

    Switzerland is not a great example of a democratic government, it is much too convoluted and direct democracy has a habit creating more problems than it solves. It is also far from being a homogeneous society though.

    Honestly Finland is a great example of a democratic government and they were allied with the Nazis, but really you could pick from almost any parliamentary democracy in Europe and it would be better than the US, isn’t it odd how you picked the two that remained neutral.

    The world has dodged a bullet in electing Trump, he has come to power just like Hitler did and could have done what Hitler did, but we are just purely lucky that he just happens to be a total idiot and will run his own country into the ground as he flails about. The Republican party is only interested in enriching itself, which should keep war off the agenda.

  7. Some say the Founding Fathers sewed up the Constitution and its complex electoral mechanisms to ensure elites maintained power in perpetuity.

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