COSGROVE.970310.PIC ANDREW MEARES
 97 FILE PIC OF PETER COSGROVE AT DUNTROON, CANBERRA

Good old boy ... Peter Cosgrove at Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1997, when he was a brigadier and the college's commandant.

General Peter Cosgrove is a more than sufficiently important Australian, and more than usually interesting character, to warrant a good biography, but there's not much in the way of insight into him in Patrick Lindsay's cut-and-paste hagiography, Cosgrove: Portrait of a Leader.

So reverent indeed is this stinker - right down to calling the general ''Cos'' throughout the book - and so composed is it of gushing statements and extensive quotations from ''Cos's'' speeches and public-relations handouts - that it almost invites a counter-biography composed only of comments from his enemies, if only for balance.

He never looked good before his peers, in committees or in being on top of what was occurring. He could charm the public and the politicians, but not the machinery of defence. 

Which might be a pity, given that Cosgrove, though a complex person, is not a bad one. He has not a few achievements to his credit, a strong sense of duty and is a person who has occupied critically important positions in his time - as well as having been chief of the defence force - and was, at one stage, seriously considered by John Howard for the post of governor-general. (I have it on excellent authority that this proposal was vetoed by Janet Howard.)

Pool photograph from John Feder...7-10-99..Major General Peter Cosgrove at todays press briefing.Pic John Feder.

Cosgrove briefs the media in East Timor in 1999.

Cosgrove has his strengths, which made him popular with his men and the public, and his weaknesses. Even in his retirement, he has been called on to perform important public functions, not least after Cyclone Larry hit North Queensland, as well as a somewhat eyebrow-raising one as chief urger for South Australia's defence industry.

A critical analysis of his history, his contribution and his ideas, perhaps as well as his personality, would therefore be welcome.

What is especially infuriating about this book is that its author, former television journalist Patrick Lindsay, appears to have some inkling of where the bodies are buried but an unwillingness to confront the issues or set out the facts in a way that might allow proper judgment to be formed. Perhaps it reflects the fact that the book has apparently been issued by a leading publishing house as a spoiler to an autobiography of Cosgrove, which another publishing house is about to issue. Yet there is ample evidence that Lindsay has not suffered from any lack of access to the world as seen by ''Cos''.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott appoints Peter Cosgrove as the next Governor-General of Australia at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 28 January 2014. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Peter Cosgrove, his wife Lynne and Tony Abbott last month when the Prime Minister named Cosgrove as the next governor-general.

Some of the Cosgrove history is too well known - or generally believed, whether true or not - to be completely ignored but it deserves far more than Lindsay's drowning in blancmange, his tendency to see things only through Cosgrove's eyes and a studied unwillingness to criticise.

I do not assume that all critical analysis would be unfavourable to Cosgrove, though it might add dimension to some of the popular views of his character, or the glossy media accounts of his personality and career.

It is generally known, for example, that Cosgrove was a senior cadet at Royal Military College, Duntroon, in the 1960s when the bastardisation scandals erupted. The systematic hazing, bullying and brutalisation of younger cadets had been going on for years and was generally regarded by the army's good old boys, most of whom had endured it themselves, as ''character-forming'', ''bonding'' and likely to reveal how officers - on whose judgments men might lose their lives - might behave under pressure.

Cosgrove: Portrait of a Leader by Patrick Lindsay

Patrick Lindsay's Cosgrove: Portrait of a Leader.

The great thing about it was that the lowest and most persecuted grade, the fourth-year cadets, became in due course third-year cadets, still subject to some bastardisation but able to inflict on some of the fourthies, then second-year cadets and finally first-year or graduating cadets, all the humiliations and punishments they themselves had endured. If they survived the course that far, at least. For some, who may admittedly never have made great officer material, it destroyed their lives, their self-confidence and their mental stability.

It is in the nature of systematic bullying that it quickly identifies and homes in on personal weaknesses and areas where people lack confidence, not least those with a sexual tinge. It is cruel and pitiless. The bastardisers will always assert virtuously that the remorseless tormenting was ''good-natured'', ''only a joke'' and ''meant no harm'', thinking privately and defiantly that those who complain are weak and whingers. Robust characters like ''Cos'' survive; not everyone does.

As the biography recounts, Cosgrove, a brawny and outgoing boy and keen (though not brilliant) rugby forward, received his fair share (perhaps by his personality, more than his fair share) of bastardisation as a fourthie. The book more or less admits, without quite saying so, that he became, in due course, an enthusiastic visitor of bastardisation on the classes that followed him. This is quite in accord with the legend and implies, in context, no particular disgrace, given that it was, at the time, a part of the ingrained culture of the institution and, despite the pious denials, well known to (and implicitly approved by) the authorities.

What the book completely fails to deal with is the effect on Cosgrove of his being one of the people standing without a chair when the music stopped. That was, presumably, just an accident of history, even if it was waiting to happen. I have never heard it suggested that anything he did precipitated the inquiry, the publicity, and the disgrace brought on the Royal Military College.

But he was a senior boy, was said to have been an enthusiast for the tradition and a standout in its infliction. He is said by some (but not in this book) to have keenly felt the disgrace visited on his class, and to have feared that his own personal career was blighted, even ruined.

For a good biographer, this was important for two separate, but very significant, reasons, neither of which rates the slightest mention or discussion.

First, some of Cosgrove's colleagues have suggested, if never on the record, that it introduced a note of recklessness in his early career. A colleague of his at the time once suggested to me that, when Cosgrove went to Vietnam, he was desperate to get a medal, if only so that any imagined stain on his record was wiped off. Courage and opportunism are good characteristics in an officer commanding men; recklessness is not, if only because it has the potential to put the lives of others at unnecessary risk.

Get a medal Cosgrove did - a good one, and for brave personal action rather than action that directly hazarded his men. But it was for action that (to his mind) had become necessary because he had let his attention slip and unwittingly exposed his men to danger.

No one can, or would, dispute his courage, or his capacity to lead by example; a trait he displayed whenever he led formations (of course, bigger and bigger ones) in active service, ultimately in East Timor. It also reinforced a good deal of the ''blokiness'' and popularity with the troops that, with the medal, made him one of the standouts of his class - as a leader, at least, if not a thinker or planner.

The book describes also his presence near the scene of the Australia ''fragging'' incident, where a fellow junior officer, camped near Cosgrove, was killed by a grenade thrown into his tent by a young soldier. We learn, however, little about how this affected him, though surely it must have done.

Second, the bastardisation issue has an interest going well beyond some sense of getting to know Cosgrove.

By the time he became chief of the defence force, the ADF had pronounced systemic problems of sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault, and bullying. The problems reflected a new era, particularly in attitudes to women (and, to a lesser extent, homosexuality) but also in nurturing and protecting service personnel, in many respects quite different from the attitudes prevalent at the time that Cosgrove had entered the army. On top of that was obvious evidence of failures in grievance processes, of a tendency among senior officers to interfere in fact-finding processes, and of massive ''cultural problems'' within the Australian Defence Force, right up to senior levels.

A continuing complaint was that senior officers did not ''get it'' and that they paid only lip service to ideals of removing discrimination, punishing bullying and sensitising staff.

It was an allegation being made even before Cosgrove got to the top but became pronounced when he was there; not only because of the widespread legend of Duntroon but because he was generally regarded as the Good Old Boy of the good old boys. He was believed, rightly or wrongly, to be likely, privately, to disparage the ''moaners'', or the ''politically correct'' or the people who wanted to ''waste time on this sort of stuff'' when there were important things that ''really mattered'' to be done.

For all I know, Cosgrove actually believed in the new sensitivity and had become a model citizen: he was certainly media savvy enough to always look serious and determined when he ordered or implored service people, as a group, to wake up to themselves. But a big problem - a continuing one - is that many people, including ADF people, did not really believe that he, or the senior echelons of the services, really meant it. Anyone who has spent time in officers' messes or looked at the ADF's hypocrisy in its attitude to abuse of illegal drugs and of alcohol, would immediately understand their scepticism about changes of culture.

While Cosgrove was chief of the defence force, its performance in this area deteriorated and so, probably, did the systems in place designed to combat it. The evidence of proclamations, manuals and occasional dreadful scandals notwithstanding, the ADF could never convince anyone that it was taking the problem seriously.

The book judges Cosgrove over his successful performance in East Timor by the lights of the moment. He was an able, popular and media-savvy commander being sent in on short notice to achieve a difficult task, chosen to lead the selected group at the moment it was decided to send it in. That was luck, for what it was worth, but he capitalised on it. He succeeded, not least by some skill in managing and looking after his men and women, the people of East Timor, the militias, the Indonesians and, not least, the press, the politicians and Australian popular opinion. He learned fast some public-relations skills and was, by the time he finished, by far the best-known soldier in Australia. He radiated an attractive measure of fair-mindedness, friendliness and firmness.

He is not to be judged for the political decision to go in, or the timing of his arrival (though he deserves credit for establishing himself very quickly), or the decision about when to leave, or for any failures (if any) manifest from the fact that, in due course, we had to intervene there again. Judgments about that are to be visited on the politicians and the political generals (and admirals and air marshals) back in Canberra.

But the fact was that his success, and the popularity this brought him, marked him for quick advance, above more senior people, away from the practical leadership of formations and into political generalship in Canberra; first, briefly, as chief of the crmy and then as chief of the defence force.

It was not a job for which he was well trained or, some would say, temperamentally well suited. He is certainly no strategic intellectual and, while having superior logistic skills, was not naturally a manager or paper-shuffler. He was not well adapted to patient negotiation, to the business of rationing scarce resources, to debate, or to the political or bureaucratic process.

He was, on the other hand, with some fame, a manager of men (women, to that point in his career, had hardly come into it) and there was evidence that the ADF was in need of some tender care and rebuilding in confidence. It had been badly and sadly used by the government, and badly and sadly let down by his predecessor, Admiral Chris Barrie.

The choice of Cosgrove was the more interesting, perhaps, because Angus Houston, then an air marshal and the logical successor to Barrie, was being pushed aside (though he later came into his inheritance). Houston had behaved well in the Operation Relex controversy; indeed, that was the problem. But Barrie had failed to support him, and had effectively repudiated him, and this was being compounded by a political decision by the government to punish Houston for his forthrightness.

That very fact was enough to signal to Cosgrove how carefully a political general had to play the game. Sometimes, one had to compromise between the needs (at times very crass) of the government and the needs of the Defence Department, or the needs of the ADF. For this, he had personality and a good deal of media savvy but not a great deal of experience or flair in political infighting, or feel for the higher politic of defence and national security. He could look good to the soldier, as an obvious comrade-in-arms, and to the citizen, as a plain-spoken, decent Australian; he never looked so good before his peers, in committees or in being on top of what was occurring. He could charm the public and the politicians, but not the machinery of defence.

At what Cosgrove knew well - not least in planning and executing Australia's involvement in the invasion of Iraq, our intervention in the Solomons and in first-aid after the Bali bombings - he performed well. He probably served reasonably well in rebuilding some morale and self-confidence, and public confidence, in the services. This was not least because of a coincidence of interest by ministers, prime minister John Howard and even governors-general in being seen with the boys and the girls.

But the services went missing in most of the wider strategic debate. Or, when they were present (as when the boys were dividing new toys, now manifestly more abundant, among themselves), there was little evidence of rationality, forward planning, a single ADF as opposed to a three-service approach, a strategic vision or hard-headedness, least of all from the leader. The PR got better, marginally, but no less politically focused and controlled. The question of whether there was substance and improved service management, or serious intellectual input into military decisions, was much more problematic. Perhaps, after all, these are essentially political or administrative issues, too important to be left to generals, particularly fighting generals.

Moreover, Cosgrove, or the ADF, systematically mismanaged a few administrative and political crises. Not the least puzzling, given Cosgrove's intimate knowledge of the issues, was the bizarre brawl affecting the grievances (real and imagined) of Colonel Lance Collins. The heat and smoke of the Collins affair is treated in this book, but without a glimmer of light, new or old, and anyone wondering what to think would still be confused.

Then there was Cosgrove's personal and professional betrayal of federal police commissioner Mick Keelty. Many judge that affair - which Lindsay, in the closest judgment amounting to criticism, describes as having been caused by Cosgrove's ''lack of experience in the political pressure cooker of Canberra'' - the more unforgivable because it was an unforced error. Cosgrove's remarks were volunteered, not conscripted. They contained a whopper, which had close observers writhing with laughter. A man not famous for reading anything had actually claimed to be a diligent reader of files.

The problem began when Keelty made a statement of the obvious: that Australia's high-profile involvement in Iraq had increased its exposure to terrorism. This embarrassed John Howard, who had insisted that Australia's exposure came merely from its being a Western secular nation. But the argument was a fairly sterile one until, first, a prime-ministerial minder tried to mug Keelty, and then a few loyal sycophants (most sickeningly, foreign minister Alexander Downer) were wheeled out to doubt Keelty's sanity, loyalty to the nation and perviousness to enemy propaganda.

Cosgrove, hitherto a close mate of Keelty, could not help himself from trying to win a few brownie points with the politicians. In circumstances where he did not need to say anything, and on a matter that did not concern him, he publicly disagreed with Keelty, saying: ''I see the same intelligence as he's seeing and I disagree with him.''

His intervention (and eagerness to please the government) appalled his colleagues and amazed a host of close observers (including ministers and admirers in the media). It seriously wounded Keelty, who, however, had more than enough wit and dignity to recover - even, according to this book at least, to ultimately forgive and resume a friendship with Cosgrove. The one who suffered was to be Cosgrove himself.

For many people, not least people in the services, it is the incident - the moment of character and judgment - by which a whole and distinguished career was tainted, and confidence in him diminished, just as Barrie's judgments on the children overboard affair now blight his whole career and reputation.

Even this admiring book reflects a tinge of regret for any people, such as Keelty, trampled on as the burly forward grabbed the ball and sprinted to the line. Collateral casualties and friendly fire, perhaps.

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large of The Canberra Times.

Cosgrove: Portrait of a Leader, by Patrick Lindsay. Random House, 2006.