Books Australia

Letting go

16 April 2014

1:00 PM

16 April 2014

1:00 PM

We are not, by our nature, a militaristic people, and it is significant that our most well-known military venture was a defeat. But somehow or other, the Gallipoli story and the Anzac idea have come to dominate large sections of public debate in Australia, and while recognition for veterans is a worthy undertaking the consequences for the larger picture are problematic, even dangerous. Brown is the right person to take on this daunting subject. As a former army officer who commanded a cavalry unit in Afghanistan he knows about the reality of battle. As a military researcher at the Lowy Institute he has access to a wealth of useful data. He has been around the policy process for long enough to know what is feasible (he is, in fact, the son-in-law of Malcolm Turnbull) and what might be too much to ask.

He notes that the real growth in the commemoration of Anzac Day started with Bob Hawke, who never met a symbolic gesture he didn’t like. The process continued through his successors, with a wave of medals, pins and coins. It has become a huge event, with young people in particular seeing it as a way to participate in a national ceremony without much required in the way of actual commitment or thought. The wave has grown as the centenary of the Gallipoli landings approached. Brown notes that over $325 million of taxpayers’ funds will be spent on celebrations — enough to put a mental health professional in every army combat unit for the next 30 years.

Or to buy equipment that would make Australian soldiers more effective, or safer, in the field. Brown points out that the Australian military is chronically under-resourced, relative to the many tasks it is asked to perform. This is not so much a dislike of the military in political circles as a lack of understanding. Brown believes that the military is, by and large, respected across Australian society — a far cry from the post-Vietnam era, when soldiers were disdained as either murderers or failures — but it is largely in abstract terms. There is little real understanding of what soldiers do in the field and how they do it.

Brown suggests that a political focus on commemoration rather than genuine debate is simply easier than wrestling with tricky details. There have been a few steps to address the knowledge shortfall, with a programme that allows parliamentarians to spend a few days in the military. It’s a start, but not much more. Perhaps strangely, one of the parliamentarians who has delved most deeply into military issues is a Green, Scott Ludlam. Amazingly, there was not even a parliamentary debate on the Australian involvement in Afghanistan until 2010, and then little of substance was said.

For its part, the military often retreats into secrecy and jargon, and tends to see criticism from within, however justified, as not far from treason. Brown spends a good amount of time discussing this and some of what he finds is disturbing. While militaries in other countries accept internal debate, the tendency in Australia is to close ranks. As a result, there is little analysis on the quality of military personnel, including commanders.

Brown sees the Anzac myth as filtering right across perceptions of the military, more likely to distort than enlighten. Australian soldiers are often seen by the public as tough and egalitarian, more competent and innovative than those of other countries. Flattering, says Brown, but not always true. Indeed, he cites comments from soldiers coming back from Afghanistan that they felt ashamed that they had not lived up to the Anzac myth, even though they had done everything asked of them, and often more. And as for their famed informality, well, wearing thongs and T-shirts in an active warzone might seem dinky-di but is not always wise.

Anzac’s Long Shadow could easily have turned into a litany of complaints but Brown punctuates his criticisms with sensible suggestions. An institute for the study of possible future conflicts would be an overdue move, he says, although politicians on all sides would have to avoid the temptation to turn it into a point-scoring weapon. In the training of military professionals, there should be more emphasis on strategy and less on tactics. Within the ADF itself, reasonable criticism should be welcomed instead of quashed, and people who have left the service should be allowed to air their views.

There needs to be a mechanism to check that money donated to help veterans actually reaches them, and companies should consider the issues more carefully before turning Anzac Day into a commercial opportunity. Less salesmanship, more dignity. Brown accepts that Australians want to mark Anzac Day but he argues that the Gallipoli story should not be invested with more weight than it can carry. Perhaps his final suggestion is the most valuable, and that is to return to the original idea of Anzac Day. That idea, inscribed at the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, is a simple one: let quiet contemplation be your offering.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments