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The anthrax vaccine saga proves our military personnel deserve respect

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 3 March 2004

In democracies in particular there is an important distinction to be drawn between war and those we send to fight. Especially among those who actively oppose war, there can be a tendency to mistake military personnel for the conflict being opposed. Never was this more evident than at the end of the Vietnam War, when our troops - who did only what a democratic government had sent them to do on our behalf - had so tepid a reception at home after all their sacrifice and loss. An opponent of Vietnam myself, I recall only hearing with unutterable relief that Whitlam had withdrawn the last Australian Defence Force (ADF) people; I bore those who went to Vietnam no ill-will but simply forgot them thereafter. Indeed I hated the whole sordid Indochina business, and putting it out of mind once over was all too easy. I am no fan of Mr Bob Hawke but his government's effort to right this wrong was indeed long overdue.

Things are different in authoritarian states, where the military is an instrument - and sometimes the author - of unconscionable oppression. But in democracies we have an obligation to treat those we recruit to fight and if need be die on our collective orders with appropriate respect.

Unfortunately, recent revelations about the ADF's treatment of serving members only reinforce impressions garnered over decades: there is in elements of the senior uniformed and civilian hierarchy a well-established culture which, often aided and abetted by governments, can perceive individual service members as expendable pawns to be used and, if damaged, discarded at minimum possible cost.


Service members are entitled to assume that they will be deliberately harmed only by an enemy; they should not be lied to, improperly coerced, victimised and otherwise professionally disadvantaged or denied adequate redress, especially over what in the civilian sector is called occupational health and safety (OH&S).

Obviously this concept must be modified for ADF personnel. Serving ADF members by the nature of their profession know full well that they may be placed in harm's way on the orders of politicians, hopefully only in cases of a genuine national security need. They know that even peacetime training use of their equipment can be inherently dangerous. ADF pay and conditions reflect these risks and also the various family hardships associated with service life. Nevertheless there are legitimate OH&S issues for military personnel, and the Defence organisation, uniformed and civilian, has not always distinguished itself in the field.

Some may recall the extensive publicity over the Navy's former use of asbestos. Sailors seeking help and support over the resultant mesothelioma cases had to campaign for years. There were Vietnam veterans with herbicide (Agent Orange) exposure, veterans who had been exposed to radiation during British nuclear tests in Australia, veterans with problems arising from their participation in the 1991 Gulf War. In all these cases the Defence hierarchy and the government of the day fought tooth and nail, usually through the courts, to deny, firstly that any problem existed, secondly, that they had any responsibility for the problem and finally (all else failing) that they were in any way obliged to compensate the victims.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that a ghoulish cynicism underlies this strategy of litigation to exhaustion. Wait long enough, and sufficient victims will have died to reduce the compensation bill. Better to pay 200 surviving victims $100,000 each in ten or twenty years than 2000 victims $25,000 each today. This will be vehemently denied, of course, but the record perhaps speaks louder than any such disclaimers.

The current example of an uncaring culture at work is the apparent situation of those who accepted, and also those who refused, to receive anthrax vaccine shots prior to going off to George Bush's unsanctioned invasion and conquest of Iraq.

It now seems that ADF used, at the least, strong peer group pressure to get people to take the shots. Sending those who refused home, in the name of safety but no doubt in unofficial disgrace, was a powerful coercive tool. In all probability refuseniks were repeatedly approached one-on-one (no witnesses, please) and asked to "think it over" or "reconsider in your own best interest". This is how these things are usually done.


The use of such tools would be bad enough - it needs to be understood that there is much more of a group culture in ADF units than in most civilian work environments - but it now appears that personnel may have been denied full information on which to base their allegedly informed choices. In particular, the ADF hierarchy seems to have had access to information which might have fuelled individual concerns about use of the vaccine. This information was apparently kept from affected personnel.

If those who took the anti-anthrax shots develop further medical problems later in life, it is a fair bet on past performance that their claims too will be resisted even unto death.

A culture that can do such things perpetrates an injustice, and does not support national security because it undermines the confidence of the serving military in their superiors and "the system" at large. Above all it suggests a lack of respect and concern for the welfare of our personnel entirely at variance with the official rhetoric.

We need a real sea change in the way we treat our military personnel. We do not need to accept every far-fetched claim made by the inevitable greedy opportunists but we do need a far better balance between protecting the Defence budget and throwing good and loyal people to the wolves by denial, litigation and delay all the way to the grave.

Our service personnel are special. They are amazingly competent at what they do - sometimes better than the US superpower - and they are entitled to the justice and fairness which comes with a culture of practical rather than rhetorical respect.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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