Thursday, March 26, 2015

I've been terrible in not keeping the blog up-to-date, I'm afraid. 

This is Tuesday's piece for the Canberra Times. 

Reuters image

This is about Gallipoli - or today. 

Or this column is about today - and the past . . . 


We like to think the Gallipoli campaign began before the sun rose on the morning of April 25, as the hobnailed boots of the first Anzacs leapt off the wooden lighters and splashed into the water, before running ashore. After all, that's the moment many use to define the nation – a supposed moment of birth. Yet the campaign to force the Dardanelles (in which Australia actually played merely a peripheral role) really began a century ago last week, when a flotilla of Allied battleships attempted to storm through the Strait and force their way to Istanbul.

That assault had become a debacle. The French battleship Bouvet hit a mine, peeled over, and capsized with 600 crew trapped inside. Two British capital ships followed her to the bottom; another was badly damaged. The minesweepers fled. Shocked and dazed by losses, Admiral John de Robeck ordered retreat. This was the moment the myth began. 

Even though the score was three-nil a young Commodore, Roger Keyes, remained undaunted. Without any proof he asserted the Turkish guns were about to run out of ammunition. They weren’t, but it was this dull glimmer that Winston Churchill later used to ignite his suggestion the assault almost worked. He blew it into a fierce flame, suggesting ”the terrible ifs accumulate". If only, he said, the ships had tried one more time. If only, he later suggested, the Anzacs and British had landed on different beaches. If only, he imagined, things had gone differently, the Allies might have won, knocked Turkey out of the war, saved Russia, and changed the course of world history. 

Such dreamings are dangerous. The consequences are still playing out today. 

Last week an excellent conference in Canberra again punctured Churchill’s illusion. Take the considered words of two the worlds foremost experts on military aspects of the First World War. First Sir Hew Strachan, Chiehele Professor at Oxford, who helped the audience understand the development of the idea. It had seemed worthwhile making an effort to knock Turkey out of the war and particularly from the perspective of early 1915 the strategic opportunities were clear. The problems began when the aspirational ideas were translated into operational plans. Concepts turned into concrete but the commanders of the day lacked the flexibility to implement the original concept. 

Flinders’ Professor Robin Prior led a forum on the landing which led inexorably to an ineluctable conclusion: the assault could never have succeeded. There were a plethora of reasons, of course, and it’s the little ones that we tend to focus on, because those are the easiest to understand. But the key, overarching cause of the defeat seems to have been the cultural and doctrinal underpinning of the operations. 

The Royal Navy had never really believed in the attempt to break through the Dardanelles. It was Churchill's implacable desire that forced the issue. Yet once they’d been given the mission the commanders kept pushing, reinforcing failure again and again instead of admitting defeat. The abortive naval attempt to force the straits were followed by landings, which were followed by more landings and the August offensive, until finally the collapse of any possibility of success had become apparent to everybody, thousands of lives later. The problem is that the reasons underlying defeat were quickly rewritten. The compiler of the British Official History was, in fact, an officer heavily implicated in the catastrophe and he understandably wasn’t capable of seeing how embedded cultural issues had played such a significant part. Which brings us to the present. 

Those arbitrarily drafting the boundary lines of new countries (like Syria and Iraq) replacing the Ottoman Empire had no understanding of the sort of ethnic and religious divides seething under their nice new borders that cut across the land. They were trapped in the same cultural mindset that had sent a generation to die on the barbed wire of no-mans land. They believed they’d won and they could shape the world. Unfortunately, they still do. 

Back in 1915, those responsible for crafting strategy did so without any engagement with those who had to implement it on the ground. Churchill may have failed to heed the warnings of his commanders, yet once they were given the task they were determined to carry it out without relating it to the broader strategic objectives. They’d became trapped, attempting to successfully complete their mission even when it no longer made any sense. 

Today Tony Abbott has thrown our forces into another battle where their contribution will be irrelevant in determining the outcome.

Our troops in Iraq are not fighting against Daesh, the Islamic State. They serve as little more than a political prop, providing a physical representation of Abbott’s insistence that we are supporting Baghdad. But that's it. A couple of weeks ago Iraq turned to Iran for assistance as it began an offensive to drive the rebels from Tikrit. Iranian soldiers and the notorious, ruthless Shiite militia groups were deployed to fight the battle. After initial success this has now bogged down, but our forces have refused to engage. The Canberra Times understands a request for air support has been turned down by the coalition command in the Gulf. Our soldiers are also being kept away from the attack, although Baghdad apparently doesn’t want them involved. It’s a mess. 

And, just as in World War One, none of the players have any desire to clear things up. The military aren’t facilitating any requests for media embeds. It’s not difficult to suspect that’s because the politicians don’t want you to know what’s going on, just as they didn’t in 1915. And that’s why, despite the huge advances in technology, you won’t have heard anything more from our soldiers than they heard from Gallipoli back in 1915. 

In the meantime the fighting goes on. 

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