Tuesday, November 23, 2010


There's something about a uniform  . . .

But that's just a way into a far more signigicant issue for the ADF.

I've already recieved a few comments to my other email address, nicstuart@hotmail.com , however they are not intended for broadcast so I won't post them here.


It’s possible to date, with almost scientific exactitude, the very moment when Australia’s defence policy began its seemingly inexorable decline. At the same time as it became generally recognised the commitment to Vietnam was a failure and, for the first time ever, serving in the military became unpopular, the military began introducing new uniforms. These were made of an artificial fabric, called ‘polyester’. This gradually replaced the proper, natural materials that previously clothed the forces.

At the same time other, seemingly small alterations were made to the pattern and design of the garments. Shirts, for example, lost the spare reinforcing pleat down the centre that ensured the buttons would be secure. Buttons were replaced by zips. Distinct winter and summer forms of dress were abandoned for ‘all weather’ uniforms. Slowly, ineluctably, everything reduced itself to the mean.

There were occasional rearguard actions. Infantry battalions, for example, sought and gained permission to wear distinguishing berets and these added a splash of colour and individuality to the otherwise monochrome ranks. Perhaps even more improbably, the navy managed to clothe itself in a new blue, white and grey camouflage fabric, although the prospect of sailors standing along the rails of a frigate and successfully managing to disguise the ship’s presence appeared remote. These were, nevertheless, positive moves that had been adopted by services that could understand the importance of esprit de corps in allowing individuals to feel proud and unique. Uniforms played their part in motivating soldiers – helping to transform them from ordinary to outstanding. Dress plays an important symbolic role in the military. By providing our diggers with good equipment we demonstrate that, as a nation, we care about their willingness to lay down their lives for the community. By allowing particular units to distinguish themselves with specific items of equipment, often completely irrelevant to the current task at hand, we nurture the individual character of the small teams of soldiers that actually do the fighting.

And this is why two recent decisions have slashed so viciously at the very ethos of our fighting units. First came the news of an arbitrary edict preventing the wearing of berets by some – although, bizarrely, not all – soldiers because of “health concerns”. Then last week came the astounding news that, 110 years after federation, our diggers will be sent to war wearing the uniforms of another country. Even in the Boer War Australian forces were easily identifiable by something more than a flag, pinned onto the outer layer of their coats. Not today.

Australian spotted camouflage comes in both grey/brown desert or green woodlands patterns. Unfortunately, the soldiers in Afghanistan often found themselves in both types of locations during a single operation. Whichever uniform doesn’t match the terrain drew attention to the digger. The other problem is that, like the US marine “duck-hunter” uniform abandoned during World War Two, the splotches of the Australian cam stand out during movement. The new American multi-cam our forces are slowly to be equipped with uses a less distinct, more blended pattern. The US first identified the need for a local camouflage in June 2009. It has been designed, approved and introduced swiftly. We can’t manage anything like the same efficiency.

It’s vital that our soldiers are equipped with the best possible camouflage. It’s just a pity that it’s taken nine years of complaints from diggers in the middle-east before the hierarchy has finally acted. And even then, the best the military bureaucracy has been able to manage is to borrow another country’s gear. This seems to indicate that the military hierarchy has, for years, not been paying proper attention to what’s going on around it.

Not that this was admitted. “No”, the press was told, “there are no complaints about the uniforms”. Perhaps this was all part of Russell Hill’s carefully laid deception plans for the Taliban which we are told constantly monitor the Australian media. Or perhaps the top brass were just talking rubbish.

The decision to ban berets, on the other hand, seems to demonstrate that the gnomes on Russell Hill have, finally, completely lost touch with the people in the field. The decision is based on sensible concerns; ones about the possible exposure of soldiers to sun cancer without better protection. Then, sheer idiocy rears its head. SAS soldiers are, it appears, still allowed to wear their berets – even though they have less need for the practical item of headgear than, say, helicopter pilots or armoured crewmen. It’s difficult to find a good place to stow a slouch hat in a tank or on a dashboard and special forces soldiers often seem to enjoy their place in the sun more than other soldiers. The inconsistency doesn’t make any sense.

These are just little issues, but they’re symptomatic of a far broader crisis within the services. In both cases it appears as if our hierarchy has stopped interacting with the real world. Decisions that may make sense if they’re worked through appear capricious because of their abrupt introduction. Nevertheless the cause of the rush is that nothing has been done about the relevant issue for years. Finally the pressure to act becomes too great to withstand any longer and so, with a sudden rush, the organisation grinds into gear without pausing to consider other alternatives that may work just as well. Like, for example, getting new colours for the Australian camouflage gear or allowing berets to be worn when the sun isn’t shining.

The hierarchy has trained itself into reactive subservience as individuals seek preferment. Not everyone perhaps, but the problem lies deeply embedded within the corporate culture and it starts at the very top. The uniform issue is simply the outward demonstration of an unwillingness to do the right thing by the troops. Instead of challenging the government on questions of strategy that most emphatically do lie within their purview, the star ranks roll-over, hoping to be stroked. If Julia Gillard blandly asserts, for example, that we will have soldiers in Afghanistan for another decade (even though President Hamid Karzai wants us out and NATO will have completely withdrawn by then) well, that’s her political right. If Defence Minister Stephen Smith wants to dance on the head of a pin and insist that Australia has never received a detailed and “specific request” from the US to increase its commitment in Oruzgan province (as opposed, presumably, to “general request” to do more) then again, that’s up to him.

However when he bolsters his assertion by using the Chief of the Defence Force as cover, Angus Huston has a responsibility to substantiate – or deny – that claim. Unequivocally. But he can’t. Or won't.


  1. Dear Nic,
    Much can be construed about the conduct and capability of our defence force by taking a look at equipment deficiencies.

    Since the early nineties I’d been involved with defence industry and attempting to sell our government some Australian designed and manufactured defence equipment.
    In that process we had the opportunity to lend out some of our gear to individual soldiers for very unofficial trials for the simple reason that DMO (defence procurement) was a closed shop to us and most other Australians we knew in the field.
    It never ceased to amaze us that the positive response to our gear from the ‘Grunts’ was inevitably suppressed by the utterly politicized, ‘labelhead’ pro-American procurement regime.

    To keep the story short and sweet our experience demonstrated that, other than a very Masonic select few, Australians were actively, aggressively ‘discouraged’ from becoming involved in defence projects.

    And when I say discouraged I mean beginning with ‘administrative omission’ escalating to verbal abuse, written abuse to threats and then finally, forcefully closing us down at a time they knew we were mourning the death of our son after four years of illness he contracted on defence exercise at Shoalwater Bay.
    I’m convinced that if the cack hits the fan any time soon our masters are going to find volunteers in short supply.

  2. There are different views about wearing uniforms. It is important that you keep yourself looks good on wearing uniforms.