A force to be reckoned with
Retired Major General Jim Molan at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
Major-General Jim Molan says the greatest defence challenge facing any government is preparing for war in a time of peace when society doesn't see the military as a priority.
He learnt that lesson the hard way. The son of a World War II warrant officer, Molan was accepted into Duntroon in 1968 and spent the next four years learning how to fight the Vietnam War.
''I graduated in December 1971 and all the infantry in my class were posted to battalions earmarked for Vietnam,'' he said. ''But then the commitment was ended by the Whitlam government.''
Molan said that as a ''consolation prize'' he spent the next three years - 1972, 1973 and 1974 - with the Pacific Island Regiment in Papua New Guinea in the lead-up to independence in 1975.
''Our role was nation building and law and order,'' he said. ''We walked the entire length of the country telling the locals there was a place called Papua New Guinea and that they were it,'' he said.
That consolation prize meant he and his wife, Anne, had to postpone their wedding plans, but only for some months.
''We had agreed to marry while I was in my last year at Duntroon,'' he said. ''Anne's parents, Frank and Margaret Williams, still live in Canberra and I was introduced to Anne by my cousin. As an army wife, she has been with me forever in a way that I have never deserved and I have often rewarded her with absence and worry.''
Molan, who retired from the Australian Defence Force after 40 years in July 2008, happily concedes he has ruffled many feathers in the political establishment by his willingness to draw attention to crook policy since then.
While he never served as a chief of Defence Force or chief of army, his views carry considerable weight both here and overseas because of his unique experience (for an Australian) as the coalition force's chief of operations in Iraq in 2004.
His tour of duty covered the battles for Fallujah, Najaf, Talafar, Samarra and Mosul and the Iraqi elections in January 2005.
Molan sees no contradiction between his willingness to comment and criticise now he is a civilian and his unflagging support for the Australian tradition and practice of excluding military leaders from the political decision-making process.
''I spent five years in Indonesia at a time when the military, from the generals right down to the ordinary soldiers, ran the country,'' he said. ''It was not a pretty sight. An experience like that lets you challenge every assumption you have ever made about what makes our system so good. There is no place for the military in politics in any form.''
Keeping politics out of Defence is the real challenge. Molan has been openly and consistently critical of the politicisation of Defence ever since he stopped wearing his uniform to work.
''The Australian defence decision-making process is fundamentally undemocratic [in character],'' he said. ''When it comes time for voters to assess a government against its own criteria they are unable to do so. Governments only release information on the strategic environment, 'the threat', in the form of a politicised white paper. We never hear what the experts, the Defence secretary and the chief of Defence Force, are actually advising the minister.''
Molan, despite some misgivings about the fact the Defence Department is on its third secretary in less than 18 months, is generally happy with the quality of leadership within the ADF and the department.
''The controversy over the departure of the last secretary [Duncan Lewis] is openly acknowledged,'' he said. Lewis, a former special forces chief and a member of the same Duntroon class as the Chief of Defence Force, General David Hurley, was replaced in September by former Foreign Affairs Department secretary Dennis Richardson after just 13 months in the job. Both men graduated in 1975, making them part of the same generation of senior soldiers as Molan.
''Richardson has proved his toughness in other roles [in foreign affairs] but will still have to prove himself in Defence,'' Molan said.
He says General Hurley is the latest in a succession of gifted and hardworking Defence Force chiefs, including General Peter Cosgrove and Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who had all brought personal integrity to the job of Australia's top soldier.
''The way General Hurley handled [Defence Minister Stephen] Smith's close-to-illegal intervention in the Australian Defence Force Academy Skype affair and the way he has spoken so honestly on Defence issues to the public, as recently as last week, has been delightful.''
Molan says any leadership problems in Defence start at the very top and that the current minister, Stephen Smith, ''has not just been ineffective but has damaged his portfolio''.
''The minister does not seem to like the ADF, does not seem to trust it, apparently does not want to be its CEO, has no strategic long-term vision, is certainly not prepared to pay for it and shows no public interest in its ultimate operational effectiveness.''
He said Smith was ''risk-averse in a portfolio that is all about risk'' and did not appreciate the fundamental truth that under the Australian system the government was paid to take risks and Defence was paid to worry.
Molan argues the current government's funding cuts to Defence are based on the assumption all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds and that the possibility of future conflict against a well-armed and well-trained enemy with capabilities equivalent to our own can be ignored.
''The little wars we are fighting now only contribute to our ability to fight big wars in that they demonstrate our soldiers can fight,'' he said. ''The kind of warfare we are doing now is more akin to what Caesar did in Gaul. The ADF has not been up against an enemy who controlled the air since the Western Desert in 1941 and 1942, for example.''
He is sceptical of what he calls ''a non-existent pivot to the Pacific'' at a time when ''we haven't solved the challenge of the Islamists to the West and to moderate Islam''.
An experienced helicopter and fixed-wing pilot who owns his own plane, a twin-engine Cessna 310, Molan carries a pilot's clarity of thought and ability to make rapid decisions into all other aspects of his life.
While he recognises the modern battle space is finely nuanced and that the shortest route is not always the best way to get from A to B, Molan gives the impression it is his preferred route if circumstances permit. Deviousness and circumspection are not natural to him.
''If we are going to commit to a war we should commit sufficient forces to ensure the desired result,'' he said. ''Part of that [in any future conflict] is to do the job quickly so as to keep the people of Australia with us.''
Molan said despite the controversy surrounding the way it began, the war in Iraq had ended well. ''We were successful,'' he said. ''We consistently defined success in Iraq, as it is in Afghanistan, as providing the people with the ability to determine their own future without insurgents hanging from their throats. I don't recall any soldier ever promising Iraq would be a resounding bastion of democracy.''
While the possibility of a similar result in Afghanistan remains, it has been put at risk by the accelerated withdrawal of Western forces.
''I don't believe we should stay beyond the end of 2014 but I do believe we should have kept as many troops there as possible right until the very end,'' Molan says.
''If I had to predict the future of Afghanistan [as things stand] after 2014 it would be that the Afghan government will control the centres of population and the major corridors between them. I hope that following the 2014 election the country will have a government that can work with the people. Now it is up to the Afghans themselves. Only they can win or lose the Afghan war.
''Afghanistan's biggest challenge is Pakistan, which tries to influence developments in the country on a daily basis.''
Molan, whose account of his experiences in Baghdad, Running The War in Iraq, was published in 2008, now spends much of his time on the speaking circuit talking to business about leadership.
He and his wife have four children: Sarah, Erin, Felicity and Michael. None of them have followed their father into the military but all have successfully embarked on their own professional careers.