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How good are Australia's generals?

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 10 April 2014

This is a question posed by James Brown, former army officer, in his recent book, "Anzac's Long Shadow". It is a critical question in light of the changing economic, political and military circumstances in our region. It is a critical question in light of climate change and the effect, over time, on changing regional circumstances.

Brown posed this question to a group of federal parliamentarians, "One answered immediately that they were very good indeed. But how do you know, I asked him, and how would you prove it?" He notes that a parliamentary study tour to the Middle East praised the deployed military without evaluating its performance. And he says, "Among many of defence's senior leaders, there is a deep unease about how smart the organisation is."

Brown seeks to stimulate debate on the desired qualities and skills required of senior officers in the future. He cites the chief of the ADF, General David Hurley, as saying that future leaders will need to be able to operate remotely and autonomously, and posses a deep understanding of the cultures, languages and ways of thinking of regional countries. He says, Hurley suggested that defence would need to adopt a highly innovative culture developing and encouraging analytical thinking, a sense of the military connection to the civilian community and debate on military issues.


There is one significant attribute wanting from this analysis of required qualities and skills and that is moral courage – moral fibre. An old fashioned notion perhaps, but when lacking in a commander disaster stalks. Australians often mistake physical for moral courage; they are very different qualities, although they make for great strength when they are found together, as friends of Captain Albert Jacka, VC, attested.

Failure of moral courage in Australian military leaders has cost Australian soldiers dearly; McCay at Fromelles, Legge at Pozieres, White and Birdwood at Bullecourt and Jobson at Messines. Bennett betrayed his division at Singapore and Blamey sacrificed, Potts, Allen, Rowell and Clowes, in deference to the bullying and vanity of MacArthur in order to protect his own prospects. Their sacking had nothing to do with the successful prosecution of the war in New Guinea.

One of the recent tests of moral courage on the part of the ADF has been involvement in the government's war on people smugglers, involving turning back asylum seekers in boats as deterrence to others seeking a similar passage to Australia. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration, decided to militarise the deterrence policy under the umbrella, Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB).

The policy is harmful to the people targeted, to the ADF personnel charged with implementation and to Australia's relations with Indonesia. Implementation is bad for the morale of ADF members; many are brutalised and traumatised, they require counselling, man hours are lost, effective people become less effective and good people resign.

It was always open to senior defence officers to argue the case to government that involvement in OSB would undermine naval force readiness; that asylum seeker boats do not constitute a national threat and that the matter could best be dealt with through joint processing with Indonesia on Indonesian soil. Senior defence personnel have the contacts in Indonesia for that policy to be developed and implemented.

I find it hard to understand why the ADF has bought into the notion of deterrence, when the asylum seeker 'problem' is one of management – long term management. Surely defence has a greater sophistication to think through these issues than both major parties have demonstrated to date. Does it require an Arthur Tange, a formidable former head of Defence, to argue the case with Morrison and Abbott for the proper deployment of defence assets? The ingredient lacking in standing up to Morrison and Abbott over this issue is moral courage.


What has gone awry with the chain of command when the Minister for Immigration has control over naval vessels?

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell gives every appearance of being a pawn in the politics of asylum seekers. I hope he has the moral courage to fulfil the role of Chief of Army, but his performance to date does not inspire confidence; nor does the judgement of Abbott.

Brown quotes Campbell as saying, "Put simply, war is sustained through public support which, in turn, is enabled through regular and constant contact with the media. It is simply unreasonable to not engage because to not do so will damage the campaign."

The government claims a war against people smugglers. OSB is the military response. Campbell was promoted into the role of titular head of OSB, if it is a war why isn't Campbell following his own advice? Why is he shutting down explanation and comment by the executive of OSB? Because it is not a war, it is a political imperative, the ADF should not be involved and they should have the guts to call it for what it is.

The case for the implementation of an Australian coast guard was debated and lost when Kim Beazley was Minister for Defence. That debate should be re-opened.

The heads of the ADF, particularly the current Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, have gone a long way in addressing sexual abuse in the three services; to do so required moral courage, let them now display the same qualities with respect to asylum seekers.

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Bruce Haigh is a conscripted member of the ADF. Most of the males in his family for the past three generations have served in the army or air force. His grandfather was an instructor at Duntroon, 1917 and 1919-1922.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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