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

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

For twenty years after Vietnam, Australians seemed to have taken to heart a great lesson: that it was a costly mistake to try to use armed force to shape the social and political arrangements of other countries and peoples, whether our purpose was to support our strategic interests or to promote what we call our ‘values’.  From the early 1970s to the late 1980s, Australian governments and voters showed deep aversion to committing forces for anything like what we would now call stabilisation operations.  ‘Vietnam’ was the one-word argument that settled any debate on the matter. 

The last two decades, however, have been different.  Quite suddenly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began again to send our armed forces to trouble spots around the world, and over the past two decades the number and diversity of these deployments has been greater than at any other time in our history.  Substantial commitments have been made to many places including Namibia, Somalia, Rwanda, Western Sahara, Bougainville, Cambodia, East Timor, Solomon Islands, Iraq, and of course Afghanistan.  Moreover as time has passed we have become more tolerant of longer and deeper engagements.  Where once any deployment had to begin with a credible exit strategy, today our forces are committed to three operations for which there are no clear end, no clear prospects of success, no clear idea of what would success means.  In East Timor today Australia’s military contingent seems to have become a permanent garrison.

These military interventions have generally been popular with voters.  Individual operations – Iraq, most obviously – have been contentious, but the wider pattern has been not just accepted but welcomed by Australians.  And not only by Australians: the same phenomenon has been seen throughout the West, reflecting an interesting convergence of ‘left’ and ‘right’ attitudes.  This convergence was, typically, best articulated and exploited by Tony Blair in his Third Way heyday.  The defence-policy slogan of his first term in government ‘A Force for Good’ – combined irresistible appeals both to those who favour military assertiveness and those who go for moralistic activism.  

Another reason these operations have been popular is that they have been cheap – relatively small, with casualties few, both among Australian forces and among the people they have operated against.  One might have expected that if and when casualties mount, a more sober assessment of the values, costs and risks of these operations might emerge in public debate. But, as the toll mounts – on both sides – in Afghanistan, this does not seem to be happening.  Afghanistan is the first operation since Vietnam in which Australia has either taken or [so far as we know] inflicted significant numbers of casualties.  As the number of people killed in these operations on both sides mount, questions about the operational conduct, strategic purpose and moral basis of the operations become more pressing.

And yet Australians have remained curiously incurious about the operations which are being conducted in their name.  The Government, and the ADF, have argued that public exposure of information about operations risks soldiers’ lives, and this seems to have been accepted by the media and by voters as a reason not to press.  The result has been a remarkable lack of public information about the wars we are fighting today.  For all the talk of the CNN age, Australians have less information today about the wars our soldiers are fighting than we had in Vietnam, or for that matter in the Boer War.  And we seem not to care.  We have been happy enough to assume that ADF contingents are successfully achieving their missions in accordance with the highest ideals of the profession of arms.

This seems a little feckless.  The strategic purposes for which Australian forces are deployed to places like Afghanistan are profoundly unclear.  The chances of success are slight.  And in counter-insurgency operations, where the enemy wears no uniform and fights among the populace, decisions about who to kill and who to spare are enormously complex and inherently subject to error – as the Government’s recent decision empower officers to pay cash to those whose relatives have been wrongly killed so clearly acknowledges.  As citizens we have both interests and responsibilities for what our armed forces do in our name, and we have no right simply to assume that all is well in these murky wars.

Which brings us of course to the significance of the project that we are celebrating here tonight.  Richard Tanter and his colleagues at RMIT University and the Nautilus Institute have done a great service by providing, through the Australian Forces Abroad Briefing Books, an accessible, authoritative and evolving source of information about Australian military deployments all over the world.   It provides a resource to inform more extensive, sustained, probing and sophisticated discussion and analysis of Australia’s use of armed force as an instrument of national policy.  This is a great concept, very well executed, and I look forward to using it myself a great deal over coming years.  It’s already in my ‘favourites’ list.  It is a great pleasure to help launch it here this evening.

Hugh White is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and Professor of Strategic Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.