Date: May 25 2012
By focusing on party politics and personalities, and not the history, a recent article by Graham Downie (''Lest we forget, our troops should not be controlled by others'', May 6, p22) and subsequent letters have missed the real causes for past and continuing problems with the formulation and higher direction of Australian national security strategy.
Such confusion or reliance on cultural or partisan mythology underlies many of the polemics that mar effective discussion of current strategic policy alternatives, the amount of defence investment we should make as a country, how to fix the structural problems perennially affecting the Department of Defence, and why all the external reviews of the department every two or three years since 1981 have not succeeded in doing so.
During World War II and its aftermath the key aspect, our civil-military interface at the strategic level, went seriously off track.
The problems caused continue to bedevil this interface today constitutionally, institutionally, professionally and culturally.
None of the five Australian prime ministers during World War II had served in World War I.
They lacked first-hand experience of the inter-relationship between strategy and operations, how militaries work and need to be made to work, how life-and-death decisions can and must be made and borne at personal cost, and how to weigh military advice against other strategic policy inputs. This dearth of strategic and military experience also contributed greatly to the widespread governmental panic of early 1942, a time when non-partisan historians of the period note that only the army chief, Lieutenant General Sir Vernon Sturdee, kept his nerve when virtually all our political and bureaucratic leaderships did not and so later embraced the arrival of US General Douglas MacArthur without sufficient objectivity and without thinking through our national need to weigh or develop and implement strategic policy independently.
Our political leadership situation in Word War II was in marked contrast to Britain.
Both Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee were war veterans and accustomed to seeking, listening to, and heeding or rejecting professional military advice on strategic matters.
Few remember, for example, that Major Clement Atlee was the last British officer to evacuate Gallipoli in 1915.
Four further disasters led to and entrenched aberrations in Australia's civil-military interface that have dragged us away from Westminster-system checks and balances ever since.
First, an August 1940 air crash here in Canberra killed the experienced war veteran ministers for the army and the RAAF, and the army chief.
The latter, General Brudenell White, had been recalled from retirement, was respected on both sides of politics and senior to General Sir Thomas Blamey in rank, experience, tact with politicians and strategic nous. If these ministers, and particularly White, had survived much of what has subsequently gone wrong might not have occurred.
Second, our strategically inexperienced political leadership improperly surrendered much of its responsibility for higher direction of our war effort to a foreign supreme commander (MacArthur).
Third, they also destroyed the Cabinet-military interface in a proper Westminster system by sidelining the service chiefs as their principal strategic advisers. This did not occur in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
What went wrong happened in part because politicians on both sides of politics had ignored advice from the chiefs warning of the growing threat from Japan throughout the 1920s and 1930s, largely because it was politically and fiscally inconvenient.
Army and air force chiefs were even retired or sidelined for speaking truth to power in tendering professional advice during the inter-war period.
Finally, from March 1942 onwards the flawed Blamey was appointed ''Commander-in-Chief'' but only of the army. What was really needed was real joint strategic command and a source of strategic-level professional advice to government independent of Macarthur - and indeed of Sir Frederick Shedden, the over-confident and often self-interested secretary of the Department of Defence. The cabinet also failed to clearly establish Blamey's residual strategic-level responsibilities functionally and efficiently by removing his operational-level command of the troops deployed. Just like we have a separate chief of the Defence Force and chief of Joint Operations today.
As a result of these wartime aberrations it was not until 1989 that Australia became the last comparable Western democracy to institute true joint strategic command of its defence force.
Even more detrimentally, we were the only one where the needed integration of the separate navy, army and air force departments preceded, not followed, the institution of effective joint command of our defence force.
This happened in 1974 here. Moreover, the subsequent 14-year delay to 1989 expanded and entrenched bureaucratic power improperly and inefficiently, although many of the military attitudes of that era are not blameless.
Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.
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