Features | Security | Oceania

Can the Australian Military Think Out Loud?

The ADF needs to engage intellectually, on topics from the future of war to gender issues.

Can the Australian Military Think Out Loud?
Credit: REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, suggests that if Australia wants to shape the region, it will need “more muscle”—a bigger military, essentially. I would suggest that if Australia wants to shape the region responsibly, it will need a more critical and reflective military, one that has a decisive grasp of the nature of war and its relationship with political strategy, and more importantly how different positions in that debate will affect military values, the future of military professionalism and military engagement in Asia. Of course, this reflectivity cannot override the political decisions of the day, but it can set intellectual landmarks that become part of a broader and critical conversation.

Can the Australian Defence Force (ADF) grow an intellectual muscle worthy of the profession of arms? This was the challenge issued by James Brown, a former Australian officer, in a recent article.

Writing in The Australian, Brown quotes General Sir John Winthrop Hackett, whose famous lectures “The Profession of Arms” are still widely cited in discussions of military professionalism. The quote used by Brown is intended to hold up a mirror to ADF deficiencies; “When a country looks at its fighting forces, it is looking into a mirror. What a society gets from its armed services is exactly what it asks for, no more or less.”

If we take Hackett’s proposition literally, however, and look at that mirror today—for example, at the latest political incidents involving the ADF—the image is less than favorable. When Labor’s Defence spokesperson, Stephen Conroy, opportunistically asserts that decorated General Angus Campbell is involved in a political cover-up, it is a salient illustration that the use of force by political stakeholders can and does compromise military professionalism at the level of its commitment to social values and virtues.

The backlash against Stephen Conroy’s accusations came quickly: independent MP Andrew Wilkie* demanded a motion to admonish Conroy for daring to ask the question, while an article in The Australian the next day, asking “Who is the better man?” resembled a Zoolander catwalk face-off between Campbell and Conroy. On the main, the political leadership of the day has diminished the conversation by making the infallible character of an ADF general a barrier to questioning the serious deficiencies of Operation Sovereign Borders, which targets asylum seekers arriving by sea. But to suggest that an ADF general cannot be asked such questions on public policy, given his leadership role of Operation Sovereign Borders, is an indication of the inability of politics to have a grown-up relationship with the institution of Defence. After all, politics precedes the military, not the other way around.

The question that of course follows is, how exactly could Campbell respond to such accusations? Whether one likes it or not, it is the political leadership of the day that has effectively gagged the ability of the ADF to respond professionally in this instance. This practice of gagging intellectual debate on the issue of the day seems to be at an all-time high in Australia, given the attacks on independent media, and using the convenient sound-bite of “operational security” as an answer to all questions pertaining to Operation Sovereign Borders.

However—and here is the critical point—when Australian political leaders chose to use armed forces for public policy, it is the policy that needs to have integrity, and in this instance, Operation Sovereign Borders lacks the most rudimentary scaffolding for a policy that claims to have the interests of asylum seekers at heart. This public spat illustrates perfectly the problems that binds the ADF to the whims of politics, and it is precisely this compromised space which demands that the military possess intellectual grit.

How does a military hoping to develop intellectual grit maneuver around the very institution that feeds it? This is not an entirely new question, the late Samuel P. Huntington, spent considerable time thinking about just this topic. In his book, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, Huntington deals with the issue of political change and the military as a profession. He was particularly concerned with what he calls the “prostitution of military organization to political goals,” and calls for an autonomous platform in which military professional judgment can be advanced without hindrance from political tug of wars.

To be sure, the profession of arms is there to serve the nation uncompromisingly, but like any institution, it needs enough autonomy to think—and to think out loud. Not only about operational matters, which might be regarded as “safe topics,” but also about the bigger questions of the day.

Albert Palazzo, a senior researcher at the Land Warfare Studies Centre, recently published a paper, “The Future of War Debate in Australia,” in which he concluded that there is an absence of debate on this and other topics, and this lack of intellectual engagement by the officer cadre represents an anti-intellectual culture in the ADF. It is a compelling assertion. More seriously, Palazzo argues that broader bureaucratic impediments coming from the Department of Defence are particularly stifling, as he states, the Department seems to prefer the “full control of ideas and messages, particularly if there are unorthodox ones.”

As an alternative to the anti-intellectual culture in the ADF, Polazzo cites the somewhat public “future of war” debate that took place in the U.S., both online and in academic journals and books. Above all this debate was, as Palazzo states, “unchecked” by senior officers, the exchange of ideas included serving and retired military officers, the usual specialists from academia, and others. This exemplary exchange of ideas will not be easy to reproduce in Australia, given the lack of critical forums within the ADF.

What stands out the most about this debate is that any real discussion about the “nature of war” and if indeed it has changed is inevitably linked to and compromised by political ends, geopolitical considerations, and contingent questions about the type of nation that we might want to have in the international system. This is not easy discussion, given the tendency to want to control ideas and messages. In the U.S. case there was enough autonomy that the military personnel involved were able to pull off quite a thorny discussion, with implications for politics.

There have been a few modest gestures by the ADF that should be acknowledged as a forward march into critical positions. A speech by Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, given in 2013 at the UN International Women’s day conference, reveals a self-reflectivity rarely heard or seen either in public office or the military generally. Indeed Morrison critiqued the cliché of a “few bad apples,” which has often dominated responses to instances of malpractice in the Australian Army. His YouTube address later in 2013 went viral, not only in Australia but also in the United States due to its very public critique of the demeaning behavior towards women exhibited by a network of officers.

In the same vein, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Smith’s report documenting ill discipline by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, such as “skylarking,” “greeting helicopters at landing with thongs and t-shirts,” “hitting golf balls from overwatch positions into the green zone,” among other infringements, has made waves in media and defense circles. These types of behaviors, some more serious than others, are in many respects inevitable and reporting them should be part and parcel of any professional practice. That the media would sensationalize them should likewise be expected. What is crucial is that the report is an act of institutional criticism, something that does not come easily to the ADF. Obviously these gestures are limited in scope but they could set precedent for further change.

Among the critical discourses that will be important to the ADF is the actual debate on the changing “nature of war,” and what it might say about the future of war and its institution, the profession of arms. This conversation should draw out soldier scholars and more generally those that have interest in the future of Australia’s position in the region. The debate will inevitably ask questions about the use of armed forces and the changing nature of democratic societies. This debate cannot be cut-and-pasted from the United States to the Australian context. In real terms, Australia will face friction between its own role in Asia and the role of its closest ally. That will necessitate a critical distance.

A second topic of contention will be squaring up to the gender problem, which shows no sign of attenuating. It is common to try and solve gender problems by what feminist scholar, Charlotte Bunch characterized as the “add women, and stir syndrome.” This essentially boils down to giving more women jobs in the ADF, hoping that this strategy will calm the waters of bad gender habits. Unfortunately, these policies rarely have the wherewithal to address the significant power differentials that create vulnerabilities, for men as well as for women. To be fair, these vulnerabilities are proliferating outside the ADF, in Australian society generally. This is not to say that the ADF cannot set an example, but it will likely need a lot more forethought than is currently employed.

Intellectual resources are not scarce in the ADF. After briefly attending the Staff College at Weston Creek in 2013 to see firsthand a post-conflict military exercise that exposed the future officers of the Australian military to post-conflict operations scenarios, I was pleasantly surprised at the often provocative discussions held by these future cadre. There was eagerness to discuss questions of politics and morality, foreign policy, military maneuvers and ethical considerations. These critical discourses need to find an adequate space to develop.

Without autonomous platforms on which to debate critical questions, most of these cadre will find themselves stifled. This platform cannot be created in a vacuum, or else discussion will be inevitably self-serving, and as Brown and Palazzo have eloquently pointed out, there is too much of that already. Ultimately this space has to be carved out by the future officer cadre themselves; it is very unlikely that outsiders, given the difficulty of accessing the ADF, will make any dent.

It perhaps goes too far to claim, as Huntington does, that the “stronger the military voice, the less likely there is conflict.” I would posit that the stronger the critical military voice, the more likely considered alternatives will be developed. Continuing to ignore demands for an intellectual architecture within the ADF would make for a very dangerous tilt to Asia and would be a disservice to the Australian public.

Julia Terreu is a PhD candidate researching military professionalism, ethics and critical international relations at the University of South Australia.

*Corrected from original. Thanks to commenter “Richard” for pointing out the error.