New Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson has undertaken a media
blitz campaign that would make Germany’s World War II Air Force
the Luftwaffe proud. He has launched a lightening attack by vowing to
control the defence bureaucrats wasteful spending, fix shoddy equipment
and at the same time will make the customary visit to the troops in
Iraq and Afghanistan.

But will all this really solve the problem? And will the good Doctor
have the courage to examine the real problems plaguing Defence? Wearing
an earring off-duty and riding a powerful motor-cycle sounds tough, but
we will see if Doctor Nelson can tame the savage beast of Defence?

Once again the Australian media has refused to examine the real reason
for the mess within the Defence Department. Those who have tried
to open up the Defence debate have been quickly silenced or
marginalised by being painted as crazy veterans with an axe to grind.
But this no longer works with an ever-sceptical electorate. Some of us
are not crazy nor do we have an axe to grind.

The Australian Defence Association (ADA) has argued for the need for two
or more ministers to run the unruly department; whilst leading academic
Hugh White has called for another Defence White Paper.

But will this really solve the problem? No. Outgoing Defence Minister
Senator Robert Hill was praised for being the most hardworking Minister
in recent times. But no matter how many hours he worked and how many
trips he made to Iraq wearing a flak jacket for the cameras he cannot undo
the wrong message he has given to the community: As a young man he
applied and was given a university deferment and then ruled medically
unfit for military service in South Vietnam.

How many of the leading Defence bureaucrats or experts have actually
served in the military or fought in a war? Only a very small number.
Yet these people are the ones who buy the weapons and send others into
battle. How many times has the average soldier complained about poor
weapons and equipment chosen by “desk warriors” in Canberra? Too many times.

Take for instance, the F89 Minimi 5.56mm calibre light machine gun that
ordinary infantry soldiers (grunts) have to use. The weapon is simply a
piece of junk. It has a tendency to jam and its hitting power is not
great. During the East Timor campaign the weapon had trouble
penetrating thick scrub known as lantana. So the older MAG 58 (GPMG)
7.62 calibre was brought back into use.

As an infantry soldier who was a journalist in civilian life, I had the
good fortune to spend six months attached to the Defence Public
Affairs Organisation in Russell Offices, Canberra. I had the
opportunity to observe some of these desk warriors first hand. One was
a really nice bloke; he was a technology guru and a Buddhist convert,
and pacifist. But working for the Defence Department was lucrative
despite contradicting his ideals.

Then there were the budding Henry Kissingers who worked in Defence who
saw themselves as playing a large part on a world stage by sending
others into battle in the hope of advancing their careers. But the
irony is Kissinger served in the US Army as an intelligence officer
during World War II.

The media have refused to put the spotlight on these people. The reason
comes down to ego. By scrutinising the desk warriors, the media
inadvertently puts the spotlight on its reporters who have not served
in the military, who have never fired a weapon, nor carried a heavy
pack on operations.

This becomes a cosy little club: defence reporter without military
experience becomes Defence bureaucrat or government advisor then leaves
to become expert and makes a lot of money writing articles, publishing
books.

With Hill’s resignation, you would think the Prime Minister, John
Howard, would have appointed Mal Brough, an ex Army Officer, as Defence
Minister not Dr Brendan Nelson. Likewise, the ALP opposition would have
Graham Edwards, a Vietnam Veteran who lost both legs to a land mine
whilst serving his country, as Defence Shadow Minister. But Edwards
will retire at the next election.

But once again, the mess that is within the Defence department gets swept under the carpet.

Sasha Uzunov is a freelance journalist who has worked in the Balkans
and Iraq and a former Australian soldier who served in East Timor.

Peter Fray

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