Reactions to the recent combat deaths of two Australian Diggers in Afghanistan again demonstrate serious problems in how we decide to initiate, fight and end our wars.

Complex strategic problems such as war fighting require complex solutions forged in sustained and informed debate. But instead we mainly have spasmodic, generally ill-informed and at times even defeatist interchanges, most notably at the fortunately few times when our Diggers are killed defending us.

Emotional moments are not conducive to informed public debate about anything. Nor indeed is it appropriate to argue about our wars, especially insensitively or simplistically, while the families and friends of our fallen Diggers are initially grieving their loss.

The underlying problem is that Australian society and our political mechanisms have now largely forgotten how to wage war and debate the options and consequences involved responsibly.

Most Australians think about defence matters only on Anzac Day and only in an historical or commemorative sense, rather than drawing contemporary or future strategic lessons. Most mainstream media coverage of defence matters is by generalist reporters, political columnists and academics rather than by specialised and qualified journalists (as occurs, for example, in economics, business and science matters). Consequently the quality generally hovers between poor and appalling, although some coverage by Australian foreign correspondents in the Middle East and Afghanistan is very good.

In Afghanistan we are fighting our first war since 1940 without an in-country ABC bureau. More generally, no Australian media organ now deploys war correspondents, especially ones able to stay in the country concerned or accompany our troops long enough to understand complex situations properly.

Australia’s modern wars are also fought by a small, voluntarily recruited, professional military, not by the large, mass-volunteer and conscripted forces that still resonate in national folk memory each Anzac Day. Unlike even Vietnam, where conscription (if not usually war) involved the families of around one in 40 male 20-year olds, only some 18,000 of Australia’s six million families now have an immediate family member serving in an overseas war zone each year.

The vast majority of Australians simply no longer have any personal experience of military service or war. Moreover, there is usually little or no second or third-hand experience even in extended families or broader communities. Common sense judgements about current wars from the parents and grandparents who fought or lived through previous wars are generally no longer available in most family, social and electoral discussions. Discussion about our wars on most blog sites and on talkback radio, for example, is more often than not beset by ignorance, ideology, prejudice and abuse.

Experience of war was also widespread in parliament and in Cabinet until the mid 1970s, but the last war-veteran minister was Tim Fischer (1996-99). Out of 226 federal parliamentarians, Mike Kelly, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, is now the only war veteran (Somalia and Iraq) — and the first one in the Defence portfolio since Lance Barnard in 1974. His opposition shadow, Stuart Robert, is the only one in parliament with peace-keeping experience (Bougainville).

Thirteen parliamentarians have at least peace-time military service, but 11 only as reservists, mostly for short periods, long ago, in very junior ranks. Joe Ludwig, the sole long-time reservist officer, is the only cabinet minister. Bill Shorten, who served briefly in a university regiment, is the outer ministry’s only example.

Over the past decade our governments have often had to decide about using military force in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. While not doubting good intentions, how well do modern cabinet ministers and their political, bureaucratic and academic advisers really appreciate what going to war, and prosecuting war, really mean and need? And has partisan advantage always been subsumed to the real national interest appropriately — and to any government’s responsibility not to endanger the men and women of the ADF unnecessarily?

As ill-informed public debate regularly shows — and unlike our forebears who learned the hard way about deterring, fighting and winning wars — most Australians across parliament, the bureaucracy, the media and the electorate seem to have forgotten 10 of war’s key lessons:

  • Wars are nasty, difficult, rarely short and laced with unavoidable and sometimes irreconcilable moral and strategic quandaries;
  • Wars are ultimately contests of will and end only when one side gives up;
  • Well-led national unity is vital and our leaders need to fight with words as well as bullets by explaining why we fight, what is happening and what would happen if we lose;
  • All Australians are at war, not just the troops we send to fight, and we all have an enemy that none of us must help;
  • Warfare is inherently dynamic and surprising, and we must all be resilient to its ups and downs;
  • Unless we fight to win it is not morally or operationally sustainable to risk the lives of our Diggers in the first place;
  • Our cause must be one worth fighting and dying for at Digger level;
  • Combat means casualties but the best force protection measures are adequately sized and resourced forces with commanders being allowed to command; and
  • When the troops on the ground have a markedly better understanding of the situation than the public back home we have a serious problem.

Furthermore, in a globalised world our web-literate enemies now readily monitor our domestic arguments and spread misinformation and propaganda to undermine our national will directly. Any opining that a war might be “unwinnable” or “wrong” therefore needs to be done responsibly and objectively, not in reckless ignorance or ideological indifference to the safety of our troops and Australia’s national interests. Much Australian media coverage of our wars lacks such senses of perspective or responsibility.

Finally, limiting our real war aim in Afghanistan to supposed “alliance maintenance” is not a winning strategy in any sense and is not a cause worth dying for. Especially when our over-burdened US ally is increasingly exasperated by such buck-passing anyway, it does not reassure the Afghans we are helping, it perpetuates a risky combat status quo for our troops on the ground, and is suggested by theorists and politicians never called on to do the dying.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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