Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Since this column was written more issues have arisen about the way the military and society interrelate in Australia, nevertheless, this is a beginning . . .


The American army always wore blue coats. That’s why, to them, it seemed natural to use blue when marking US units on the battle-maps. Although at the end of World War One the British and ANZAC’s were using red chinagraph pencils to represent their formations (we used to have red coats, don’t-you-know) that didn’t last long. When the next war came around it was far easier just to fit in with the Yanks. Getting them to change was next to impossible. And soon, once the communists had become the enemy, it just seemed obvious they’d be painted red.

But change became necessary in Afghanistan. The Nato forces are ‘blue’ but every commander knew the Afghan National Army couldn’t measure up in terms of quality. It lacks the equipment, training and determination displayed by the ISAF units. Inevitably, so as to easily identify where the ANA is on a map, their units were coloured ‘green’.

That’s why the attack on our diggers the other day was described as “green on blue”. It’s military shorthand. It’s unfortunate, sad and regrettable that the phrase has now been used so often that it’s now jumped over from being simply a technical term to possess wider currency. Our thoughts, now, are particularly for those here in Canberra who knew and loved a bright young man who’s lost his life. When the news of a tragedy takes a human face, it’s so much more difficult to bear.

At one time the relationship between those in the military and people in broader society was much closer. After Federation it was the Labor party that insisted the army’s ranks would be filled by conscription: partly because it was everyone’s duty to serve the country but also because the left didn’t want a small professional military becoming a bulwark of right-wing conservatism. And that’s the way things remained until Vietnam.

More full-time soldiers were needed for that unpopular war than there were volunteers. Conscription was introduced; which just made the war even more detested. The professional military withdrew into itself. General duty uniforms were not allowed to be worn on the streets. The breach between wider society and the soldiers deepened. Tragically, that remains the case. Sure, thousands now attend Anzac Day ceremonies and serving in the military’s more popular than it once was, but little has been done to broaden contacts and understanding. The military isn’t representative of the country. The gulf is deepening.

Language is just one of the problems. Increasingly the military is set apart. It has its own patois; a secret lingo for the initiated where blue means friendly and secrets are held tight and only spit and polish is shown to the audience from outside the fraternity. At a time when most business’ are doing all they can to engage with the community, the forces are increasingly setting themselves apart.

Recently an academic working at the Land Warfare Studies Centre, Dr Albert Palazzo wrote a paper lamenting the “odd” and “worrying” lack of debate in the Australian army. He suggests cultural, bureaucratic and operational factors have led to a deep-seated fear of challenging the all-pervading official doctrine. He made a strong case for a “robust, vibrant, sometimes painful but ultimately healthy debate over the changing character of war”.

An independent thinker, I assumed, and telephoned to discuss the issue. I wanted to make sure I’d understood the points he was trying to make. Very politely, Palazzo cut me off. He said I’d need to go through Defence Media Operations before he could speak to me. How about a casual, off-the-record meeting over lunch, I enquired? No, he responded, it would be impossible to continue the conversation without official approval.

That particular day was Indonesian Independence Day, so less than twenty minutes I was standing on the Ambassador’s lawn with the Chief of the Army, David Morrison. Still furious that every interaction supposedly had to be monitored from above, I upbraided him. The general’s response was far more measured. He had no problem, he insisted, absolutely no issue at all with people, particularly defence academics, discussing their views with the media. He just wanted to make sure that everything they said was well informed and made the point that Palazzo hadn’t put the critique to him before publishing it. Morrison insists he is all for a genuine contest of ideas on a wide range of topics.

Suffice it to say that the difference between the situation in Australia and America is dramatic. In the US opinions are free and controversy is allowed – even, in some instances, encouraged and, perhaps most significantly, it’s not necessary to clear anything beforehand. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the constitution. It’s not here, where every ‘fact’ is carefully vetted before being grudgingly released way beyond deadline.

The requirement for only vetted journalists to deploy to Afghanistan on carefully controlled ‘tours’ suggests the fixation is not on getting it correct, but on managing the story to ensure the appropriate nuance pervades the reporting.

It’s not fair just to blame the troops for this. A recent academic survey found it was the very officers who had the most frequent dealings with the media who held journalists in the greatest contempt. And then there’s the Minister. Ever since John Moore was in the job politicians have sought to (and been effective at) muzzling the services. Nobody wants the awkward questions raised, it’s much easier to brush it under the carpet and rely on operational secrecy.

This tension is reflected in the way officers are trained. There’s an inherent tension between wider education and the sort of training that’s required to do the job. This was the subject of a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report. It highlighted the urgent need for sweeping changes. Morrison himself is the product of a civilian university (Melbourne) and it doesn’t seem to have done either him or the army any harm.

If there’s to be change it will need to be driven from the top – and that means the Minister. Unfortunately the distinction between those in uniform and civilians appears to be growing wider, not shallower, by the day.

[addition on 20 September]

The following link is to a piece in the (British) Telegraph published a couple of weeks after this column appeared in the Canberra Times. It's an interesting perspective because it's from a British CO 'talking' about the war in Afghanistan. I suspect it's very, very difficult for anyone actually in combat to be as 'reflective' as a journalist standing outside the story.



  1. The question that arises is what exactly would you like the civilian leadership to do ? For example, officer-training via ADFA is much broader than what was provided at the Defence academies for the three services and officers have UNSW degrees which is meant to provide a better understanding of the world around them and the challenges it presents. There is also provision for postgraduate education. The specific service training occurs afterward when they move to the ARA, RAAF and RAN. Oddly enough though, after a few years these same younger officers moving through the ranks to the upper command structure appear more constricted than their US counterparts. Perhaps this is a characteristic of small peacetime defence forces which engage to a degree in self censorship. Ministers are politicians and spin is part of their culture but General staff officers seem to be caught between the old security mantra ('loose lips, sink ships'), the need for operational propaganda versus the needs of a 21st Century civil society.

  2. Start with ADFA. Why spend half a million each on some lieutenants giving them BA's when civilian uni's will do it for free? Why shouldn't psc be recognised as being just as valid a post-nominal as say, an MBA?

  3. There's no such thing as a free lunch or free BA for lieutenants or anyone else for that matter in the Australian uni system. Equivalent to an MBA - are you serious ?

    1. Sorry - the point is it costs the Australian taxpayer $500,000 to put a cadet through ADFA. Of course a student can go to a civilian university to obtain a degree in which case the cost is shared (via HECS) between them and the taxpayer. And I didn't say 'equivalent' to an MBA; I said as 'valid'. Why do graduates from the senior military academy (CSC) bother receiving an academic degree concurrently with their military qualification? Shouldn't the military one be enough?

  4. There is a difference between training and education. Why do senior military officers go onto to do higher degrees and theses later in their careers either for that matter? Obviously there is merit is further study as a means to focus on specific specialist issues. Concurrent quals are not unique to the armed services.

  5. I absolutely agree about the difference between training and education - even though I avoid discussing it in this column. I'm afraid it would take up all the space. I believe Journalism, for example, is a trade that can be learnt by training. Similarly I believe good unit commanders are trained rather than educated (although then it gets a bit more confusing). The trouble, I think, is that we don't distinguish enough. Defence might get more out of people if it trained them to be officers first, then allowed those who wanted to specialise in a particular area to do degrees, but didn't force others down the same path.

  6. Journalism is a trade ? So is street sweeping which is now called Waste Management Services and has TAFE training. Are they the same ?

    1. I was speaking to some senior ANU professors the other day and referred to the table on which we'd all put our papers, suggesting jokingly that if it was made by an academic it would have fallen over by now. There's nothing shameful about working in a trade; be it carpentry or journalism. The ability to craft an accurate story is (I believe) the product of a trades person. You don't require a journalism degree to be a journalist (I never had one) or a brilliant writer. It may help, but it's not necessary. There's no professional body that says who can and who can't be a journalist. Medical Practitioners are, on the other hand, professionals. They spend more than five years studying the corporate body of knowledge of medicine before they can practice. They can be prohibited from doing so (struck off). Street sweeping, on the other hand, is an occupation.