Saturday, April 25, 2015

Has Australia learned nothing from the Gallipoli military disaster?

Australia's political leaders will give some very fine Anzac speeches this weekend. But are they just posturing, or are they serious about Australia's defence?

Their toughest audience is one you mightn't expect - the military community. The president of the Australian Defence Association, Neil James, a 31-year veteran of the Army, brought together five military historians to devise a word for the Anzac syndrome – "Anzackery". 

The definition, in part:

Anzackery ~ n. 1. nationalistic, laudatory and distorted portrayals of Anzac history with little regard to accuracy or context…4. shameless exploitation of Anzac commemoration and sentiment for commercial, political or authorial gain. 5. fixation on inaccurate or actual Anzac history at the expense of considering Australia's current and future strategic security needs.

Another former army officer, James Brown, has written a book on Australia's "Anzac obsession" in an effort to see that "all this effort, all this attention, all this emotional investment has a purpose". 

Australia draws on Anzac as a wellspring of national spirit. But is it missing something?

"While there is bipartisan consensus that the actual defence force is underfunded by 25 per cent, Australians are racing to outdo each other with bigger, better, grander and more intricate forms of remembrance," Brown points out in Anzac's Long Shadow.

He poses: "Are we doing enough to make sure Australian soldiers never again lose their lives in a poorly devised and executed campaign?"

Of course not. For instance, what he calls "one of the stunning ironies of Anzac".

"Australia has invested heavily in maintaining the emotional memory of Gallipoli, but the operational lessons learned in the Dardanelles campaign are not formally studied at any Australian military school," writes Brown, who works at Sydney University's US Studies Centre.

The Gallipoli campaign was studied by the US Marine School and its tactical lessons were applied to the US beach landings in the Pacific in World War II. In this way the Anzac sacrifices lived on in US amphibious doctrine. They helped save thousands of allied lives.

But not in Australia, where Gallipoli is allowed to live on in popular emotion but not in military doctrine. "Australians think that what characterises Australia's experience of war is the Anzac spirit," says Jim Molan, a retired major general. 

"That's not true. What characterises Australia's experience of war is unpreparedness overcome at the expense of the soldiers."

An even bigger lesson that Australia has chosen not to learn? The Anzacs marched dutifully into a disastrous campaign designed by our great and powerful friend of the time, Britain. It was Churchill's project and it was an unmitigated failure. 

It should have taught Australia and New Zealand to be much tougher-minded in signing up for strategies devised by others. Yet 88 years later Australia again marched its troops into a disastrous campaign designed by our great and powerful friend of the time, the US.

NZ did not send its soldiers to fight in George W. Bush's trumped-up, botched-up 2003 invasion of Iraq. Neither did Canada. But Australia did. 

The Howard government was smart enough to minimise the risk of casualties. Yet it nonetheless suspended Australia's power of independent analysis in eagerness to please the great ally. Howard's aim was to support the US and uphold the alliance. Instead Australia gave succour to one of America's greatest errors.

The US was much diminished by the Iraq invasion. Its much-ballyhooed war, with its "shock and awe" ordnance overture, only shocked the world at American incompetence and intemperance. It awed no one. And, by handcuffing Iraq, the invasion set free Iraq's great historic rival, Iran. 

US credibility has not recovered. Russia invades neighbours Georgia and Ukraine, scorning US threats. China frantically builds bases on disputed islands in the South China Sea, brushing aside US demands. Syria crosses Barack Obama's chemical weapons "red line" with impunity.

This is not an argument to abandon the US alliance. Australia's US alliance is an asset to be managed. Australia should neither slavishly snap to attention to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner nor reject it in a fit of undergraduate pique. But Australia surely needs to think, rigorously, for itself. That was the overarching lesson of Gallipoli. 

It has urgent application today. Risk for Australia has risen; reassurance has fallen. At the end of the Cold War, the global level of war deaths fell steeply, by 70 per cent, according to Andrew Mack, the author of the Human Security Report. That trend has gone into sharp reverse: "Between 2007 and 2014 the number of high-intensity conflicts being fought around the world almost trebled. Islamist radicals were warring parties in a large majority of them," Mack writes today.

Consider the valedictory address that Australia's outgoing ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan, delivered to the UN Security Council last December:

"The dimensions of the challenges before the Council are staggering. We face more simultaneous conflicts with a bigger impact on a larger number of people across a wider swath of the world than at any time since World War Two. Terrorism is resurgent and in large areas rampant."

The world is troubled and Australia's great ally is both diminished and distracted. So where is the rigorous, independent thinking? And what is our state of preparedness?

Australia's defence planning, says Molan, "is based on the idea that we will not be challenged in defence in the next 10 years. That is an incredibly optimistic assumption.

"I'm not talking about putting another 300 troops here or deploying another 600 there. That's kiddies' play compared to the uncertainty that now prevails in our region."

Molan warns that the US cannot be depended upon in a crisis. He knows something of this subject. The Pentagon appointed Molan in 2004 to run the American war machine in Iraq, making him the chief of operations for the entire coalition. 

He points out that the US had to strain to meet its Iraq troop needs, bringing in army reservists to back up the regular army: "And that was a war below the level of heavy combat.

"Anyone who thinks that US power is infinite is stark raving mad. If there are concurrent crises in the world the US can be overwhelmed. And sequestration" – a process of non-negotiable budget cuts forced on the military – "is going on now. Australia, in short, is increasingly likely to have to fight a war as a standalone country."

Molan's political sympathies lie with the conservatives. From military retirement he advised the Abbott government on how to "stop the boats", and now he is seeking Liberal preselection to enter parliament. 

Yet his concerns are closely aligned with Hugh White, the former head of strategy for the Defence Department who also worked for both Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley as a defence adviser.

The biggest question facing Australia today, says White: "Is it sensible to assume the US will continue to play a role as Australia's security guarantor for the next 40 years?

"Because at the centre of our strategy is the assumption that, whatever else changes in our security, US primacy in Asia will remain uncontested. Now there are not many things I'm sure of in this business, but one thing I am sure of is that it's not going to stay the same," concludes White, now at the ANU.

Australia does not need to think about jettisoning the alliance. But it does have to think about standing on its own feet in the alliance. Australia's political class does not want to acknowledge this. It's too hard. 

Why? First, because it would disturb the comfortable arrangement where mainstream Australia puts the defence burden on a smaller and smaller proportion of the population. The big wars of the past were mass events.

Neil James of the Defence Association points out that there are some 6.8 million families in Australia. Yet at the peak of the war in Afghanistan, only 15,000 of them had a family member serving in the conflict. 

"The average Australian today thinks defence has northing to do with them. They couldn't give two hoots." James Brown recounts the conversation at a party where an investment banker expressed surprise that Australia even had a full-time army.

True national involvement in war is a historical artefact, like Anzac remembrance.

Second, Australia would need to spend more on its defence. Under Labor, Australian freeloading on the US only increased. After setting up the US Marines with a permanent rotation in the Northern Territory, the Gillard government then cut Australia's defence spending dramatically. Gillard cut or deferred over $20 billion in promised defence spending, taking the defence effort to its smallest since pre-World War Two – just 1.6 per cent of GDP. The Abbott government has promised to increase this over some years until it returns to 2 per cent of GDP. That's why defence will be one of only two portfolios to receive a funding increase in next month's budget.

But the Abbott government isn't serious about defence either. The bungling of the decision to replace Australia's decrepit submarine fleet is a central failure. Labor wasted six years, and now "the Coalition is in the process of overtaking Labor in blame for this major failure of national policy" says Hugh White. With the latest fumble, "we have just lost another year and we have run out of years – the only solution now is to buy an interim submarine as a matter of urgency, and that will buy ourselves another five to 10 years to commission a proper replacement project."

And if Abbott were serious about defence he would stop appointing substandard ministers, the hopelessly overwhelmed David Johnston and now the underpowered Kevin Andrews, who proved unable to name the leader of ISIS even as he waves goodbye to troops going to deal with them.

The parting plea of Australia's last Anzac, Alec Campbell, before his death in 2002 was: "For God's sake, don't glorify Gallipoli – it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten."

It was a terrible fiasco. We can't forget and we won't forget. But we don't need fine sentimentality from our leaders. We need to learn the true lessons of Anzac, not ersatz Anzackery. They are hard lessons that demand real leadership. Lest we forget.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor Sydney Morning Herald


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