Army chiefs must avoid politics
Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, pictured in his office at Russell, Canberra. Photo: Stuart Walmsley
IF YOU want to spark interest in a conference there are few better ways to do so than a front-page splash in a national newspaper, supported by preview radio and television reports.
Thus the address by Army Chief Lieutenant-General David Morrison, to Canberra University's National Security Institute, attracted much attention a little over a week ago.
''Army Chief's dire warning … More cuts a 'risk' to soldiers' lives,'' the headline in The Australian screamed and the article went on to quote General Morrison saying: ''We are approaching a point where doing more with less risks becoming a cavalier disregard for the ability of forces to survive against credible peer competition.''
It was strong stuff. But it immediately raised questions about the role of serving military personnel in a democracy.
General Morrison appeared to realise this himself when he came to actually deliver the speech on the morning the report was published. He acknowledged that the quotes in the article were correct, but said the headline was not.
''The headline, as it's written, impugns that I would, as servant of government and as the chief of one of the most respected institutions in Australia, choose to use megaphone tactics with my government. I never would. And the headline is inaccurate.''
He added that following the article there had been no direction given to him, personally or through his office, by the minister or by the government.
Other reports suggested that he did get ''counselling'' and ''support'' from his boss, the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, but the Defence Department said he was not reprimanded. Perhaps he should have been. In a democracy there is no place for such public comments from a serving officer. Few things endanger our political system more than serving military officers dabbling in politics. We do not want to emulate Pakistan or Suharto's Indonesia.
There is some irony in the fact that on the same day he delivered his speech, General Morrison revealed that he had invited senior military officers from regional nations to meet to discuss security issues. What message did he hope to impart?
If military officers have something to say about the allocation of resources, there is a perfectly proper way to do so - in private, to representatives of the government.
In the end it is up to the government to decide whether funds for defence spending should be increased, maintained or cut. If military personnel do not like the result they are perfectly free to see out their term, resign or retire, and campaign against the policy. But they can't do it in uniform.
It has long been recognised that there is a relationship between high defence spending and a weakening of the economic base of a country. The military consumes resources. It does not produce. The American economy is weak today in part because resources have been consumed by two wars, putting them on the credit card, as President Barack Obama is prone to say. Had these funds been allocated to domestic infrastructure - pipelines, railways, etc - the United States would be in a much stronger position. The big defence spenders are countries we think of as economic basket-cases - North Korea or Burma, where the military is in control.
Here we must not allow military officers to use their respected positions to manipulate public opinion. General Morrison created a new role for his position when he said, ''Now, as the Chief of Army, I am its main public advocate and champion in the public domain''.
No he is not! Are we going to have the chiefs of the navy and air force also on the stump putting the case for their forces and the merits of submarines, or joint strike fighters over tanks and soldiers on the ground?
As far as the defence chiefs are concerned, their counsel must be in private. If the army is fragile and cannot withstand cuts, it is up to General Morrison to convince the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister that that is the case.
General Morrison paid lip service to the principles involved when he said, ''In a liberal democracy such as ours, the civil authority is supreme,'' but the overall tenor of his speech flew in the face of this statement.
He made another extraordinary statement when he claimed: ''Every time the Australian Army has sent a contingent overseas it has been at the behest of a democratically elected government, which has used this rational strategic calculus to calibrate the level of commitment and risk warranted. All our wars and all our peacekeeping operations have met this fundamental public interest test.''
Is he seriously suggesting this in relation to Vietnam and Iraq? It is well known that the South Vietnamese government's ''request'' to send Australian troops in 1965 was received three weeks after the Australian cabinet had taken the decision to send the troops.
And then there is the recent invasion of Iraq, which was based on lies about weapons of mass destruction. This operation, which failed to gain the approval of the United Nations and many democratic countries such as France and Germany, resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Is General Morrison saying the Americans properly undertook the public interest test? By what right did they have to decide that another country must be invaded at such a cost?
Thanks to revelations at the British Chilcot inquiry, we now know that then British prime minister Tony Blair was told by his government's lawyers - including then attorney-general Lord Peter Goldsmith - that the planned Iraq military action was unlawful.
General Morrison laments those ''siren voices assuring us that after Afghanistan we are unlikely to send the Army away to another foreign entanglement''.
I do not know when we will next send troops overseas. But if we do I hope we have much clearer objectives and an exit strategy determined by a civilian government of the day.