Tom Hyland speech at the launch of the Australian Forces Abroad Briefing Books, Nautilus Institute at RMIT, 29 June 2009

Tom Hyland speech at the launch of the Australian Forces Abroad Briefing Books, Nautilus Institute at RMIT, 29 June 2009

I’m honoured to be invited to speak tonight – and somewhat overwhelmed by the distinguished guests who are gathered here. I must confess I have mixed feelings about promoting the work of the institute, and particularly the Australian Forces Abroad Briefing Books. While I’m in the disclosure business, sometimes I like to keep my sources under wraps – especially when they’re just out there, on the net, in places like the briefing books, and my competitors can easily find them.

In February and March this year, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer, the ADF – that’s the Australian Defence Force – took me and a small party of journalists to a place the ADF calls the MEAO – that’s the Middle East Area of Operations. We flew to a country in the Middle East which, under the conditions of the trip, I agreed not to name, and stayed in a military base, which I agreed not to name. But if I told you the name, and you punched it into Google images, 113-thousand images will come up – including detailed maps, flight paths, air traffic control details, satellite pictures, and hundreds of ”happy snaps” taken by soldiers. In fact, you’ll find this secret place, and some of those images, in the briefing books we’re launching tonight.

There are about 100 Australians based at this place I can’ t name, and thousands of Australians have passed through it, on the way to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this place is unknown to the Australian public who sent them there, and have spent billions of dollars in the process.

On our last night in this base, we attended a briefing with about 100 Australian soldiers who were flying out, the following morning, to Afghanistan. Unlike the previous such briefings we’d attended, there was no banter, no jokes, no humorous interjections, no taking the piss out of the sergeant. They were serious and sober. They carefully checked their equipment and stowed weapons – including sniper rifles. This was serious. My colleague, the photographer Simon O’Dwyer, was deeply frustrated. ”These are great pics,” he said. ”These guys are going to war. This is history, and I’m not allowed to take a fucking pic.”

The next day we flew to a place called KAF. That’s Kandahar Air Field. You’ll find that, too, in the briefing books. Then we flew to a place the soldiers call TK. That’s Tarin Kowt, where most of the Australians in Afghanistan are based. ”Welcome to FOB Ripley,” we were told. (FOB, as you’ll learn from the Briefing Books, stands for Forward Operating Base.) Actually, we were told, we’d be staying in Kamp Holland. which is part of Ripley but it’s an ISAF base, part of Nato. ”And over there – but you’ll never go there – that’s Camp Russell, where the special forces are, but you won’t be reporting on them, either” – even though they are the Australians doing most of the dying and most of the killing.

We spent the next five days or so in places called FOB Locke, that’s in Chora, and Forward Patrol Base Buman (which used to be called Wolsley, then the Dutch changed the name when they occupied it, then the Australians took it back but kept the Dutch name) and Forward Patrol Base Qudus (where private Greg Sher was killed in January, but the ADF has never publicly said this) and we passed by FPB Attique and COP Marshal, and what used to be called FPB Lyddiard but now is called Khyber. Unless the name has since been changed, again. You can find out about these places from the briefing books.

We walked in the Chora/Baluchi Valley, where ten Australians have died and hundreds of Afghans – including an unknown number of civilians – have died since 2006. And we could study maps showing where all these places are – some of them manned by as few as six Australians – and I wondered then, and now, if people at home knew or even cared.

And I wondered why am I allowed to see all these maps here, but if I ask the military when I get home, to locate a base or an incident for me, they’ll say they can’t, for operational security reasons – even though I can find them in the briefing books. Which brings me to why we’re here.

The briefing books aim to document the activities of Australian forces abroad. They do this because: ”Public discussion of these deployments is severely constrained without extensive and reliable information about the basis of policy and its consequences.”  This is a crucial point.

For a whole range of reasons – obsessive military secrecy, bipartisan political agreement which has the effect of limiting public debate, and a traditional news media that is increasingly unwilling and unable to provide extensive and reliable information about what our forces are doing overseas – public discussion is constrained. In East Timor at the moment there are young Australian soldiers who were ten years old when Australians troops were first sent there. How much do we know of why they are still there, and what they are doing there?

In Afghanistan there are Australian soldiers who were only 11 or 12 when the Twin Towers came down and Australian’s military commitment began. In Canberra last week, Kim Beazley gave a speech in which he said  the lack of public information about what Australian special forces did in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 meant they had effectively been ”written out of the first draft of history” because of government and military secrecy.

So we owe it to the soldiers to at least know and acknowledge what they are doing. And we owe it to ourselves to know what’s being done in our name, and why. To know why we’re spending billions, and why we’re asking young Australians to kill and be killed. Hence the importance of resources such as these briefing books.
Richard Tanter and his colleagues should be commended for performing a valuable public service.  I commend their work in informing the community about what’s being done in their name.

Tom Hyland is the International Editor of the Sunday Age.