Just a couple of weeks ago, army commander Lieutenant General David "one-take" Morrison was over in Britain sharing a stage with Angelina Jolie. He’s now (and rightly) far more famous for his YouTube address, staring down the barrel of the camera and declaring he had no time for sexist soldiers, than (perhaps) for military prowess. That’s fine, because command is not just about ensuring machineguns are sited correctly. It’s about dynamic leadership – and this is what our military desperately requires as it transitions into a new environment and role, post-Afghanistan.
But let’s deal with the anti-misogyny speech first because that’s an integral part of this story, which is about culture change. Morrison’s former speechwriter Cate McGregor, a wonderful person who has herself experienced the difficulty of being forced to play inappropriate gender roles, brilliantly crafted the words. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why they resonated so strongly in the community.
But if McGregor wrote the bonfire, it still required Morrison to ignite the flame. His delivery was, quite simply, superb. No viewer could doubt his utter determination to enforce his vision. To a large extent, it’s worked. The proportion of women in the army is up from under 10 to 13 per cent and the army’s become a "white ribbon" workplace – against gender violence. Yet "culture" doesn’t change overnight, particularly in strong institutions like the services, and so the shift will, inevitably, take time. Nevertheless, even to admit the difficulty of moving forward offers an excuse to everyone who resists change. It allows them to oppose, prolong, and delay. The net result: nothing’s achieved and what’s done comes too late in a rapidly changing world.
This is the challenge faced by our military today. More than at any other period in history – any other period – our environment is changing. Not just socially; the transformation in the strategic landscape is immense. It’s hard to discern exactly how the next war will be fought; which is the exact point. Whatever happens, it won’t be fought the way we think or against the enemy we imagine. Future conflicts will bear no more similarity to Afghanistan than the sands of El Alamein did to the rice paddies of Vietnam, or the "thin red line" of the Crimea did to the trenches of Gallipoli. This means we need, not necessarily to change, but certainly to challenge the structures upon which our defences are founded.
Yesterday was General David Hurley’s last day as Chief of the Defence Force. I first met him in 1978, when he was Adjutant of the Sydney University Regiment. A lot’s changed since that time. The pipes and drums of the SUR band we marched behind have now, unfortunately and regrettably, gone, but so has that entire world. Hurley served with the Irish Guards when the British army was planning to repel a Soviet invasion across the inner German border. Yet, by the time he was actually commanding troops in action, his job was attempting to create order in the chaos of Somalia. Today he heads off wearing his aiguillette again, this time as governor of NSW.
This is the big challenge for our forces. How best to structure and train for the next war. This is where, interestingly, it may be that the very professionalism and discipline that makes our military so brilliantly competent may actually be a stumbling block as we attempt to envisage the future.
The new Defence white paper offers an opportunity to peer into the future and choose how we’ll engage in this coming world. Perhaps the biggest change over the coming decades is going to be our relative strategic "weight". In five years Indonesia’s economy will be bigger than ours. We’d need to punch well above our weight simply to remain a middle-power, but that’s not our future. In 20 years' time I find it genuinely difficult to perceive any future in which Australia will not be relegated diplomatically to World Cup status. A good team, certainly, with an occasional good player, but nowhere near the top of the league.
This is a future that’s not been properly grappled with by our politicians or media, although it’s beginning. The Royal United Services Institute (a crusty sounding body if ever there was one) understands the need to debate these issues. That’s why tonight at the Harmonie Club in Narrabundah, it’s beginning a series of seminars, open to the public, to discuss the white paper. People who know Defence (like federal Canberra politician Gai Brodtmann), the region (Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Natalie Sambhi) or both (such as ANU academic John Blaxland) are beginning to articulate exactly what we need from our forces.
Other specialists are coming together in the National Security Forum, which is also dealing with these issues. This won’t be just another think-tank – it’s aiming to engage with the public and in broader forums to break out of our traditional ways of thinking about defence. The vigour of their opinions is refreshing. This is exactly what we need. Which brings us back to Morrison.
The army’s commander understands change has already arrived. Last week I attended a seminar he arranged on future warfare on the Pacific Rim. Former officer, now consultant David Kilcullen emphasised that the very terrain of the region is changing. The development of mega-cities means that these have become virtual sub-states of their own. Simply operating inside these is likely to become almost impossible, even for massive armies. The resources the metropolis demands are just too great to be met by force alone.
The military’s been justly criticised in the past for not being prepared to challenge itself. It’s still too rigid and the structure of the army urgently needs to change. But don’t accuse Morrison of not welcoming debate. Or, if you do, stand handily out of arms reach.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.