David Stephens. Malcolm Turnbull’s post-Anzac pitch to the Australian Defence Force

Tony Abbott admired soldiers. He liked to be around them, to talk about the fortunes of war (“shit happens,” as he memorably muttered to troops in Afghanistan). He quoted Samuel Johnson about how men despise themselves if they have never been a soldier. His Anzac Day Dawn Service speech last year at Gallipoli portrayed the men of Anzac as sacred role models for us today. He tried to con New Zealand’s John Key into a “Sons of Anzac” commemoration force to take on Islamic State.

Malcolm Turnbull is different. On 14 February (11 days before he released the Defence White Paper) he spoke to soldiers at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville. He mentioned the “professionalism” and “commitment” of members of the Australian Defence Force and recalled his recent visit to Afghanistan. He thanked those present for their service. Then he said this:

I want to say how much I admire the way the Australian Army in 2016 is adapting to the rapid changes in technology. What you are doing here is showing the kind of agility and innovation that the most successful companies in the private sector do as well. It is recognising that you are operating in a rapidly changing environment … [W]e constantly have to adapt what we are doing to be agile and always, always at our best. To reject complacency. So really, you are a model of a 21st-century army.

Later on the same day, at a doorstop with journalists, the prime minister warmed to his theme:

What an inspiration it is to see how the 21st century army is adapting to new challenges, new challenges on the battlefield, and using the newest technologies to ensure that our young men and women, when they go out to defend our nation, defend our values, protect our interests, are doing so in a way that gives them greatest effectiveness, the greatest ability to succeed and also gives them the maximum protection.

[Our soldiers are] adapting to every new stage of technology, every piece of new information and experience coming in from Afghanistan or Iraq is being analysed and then incorporated into the training here … So, this is a critically important part of ensuring Australia’s Army is at the very cutting edge of military technology, both in terms of signals and of course, in terms of military technique and training.

So innovation and agility is not just for start-ups and science graduates but for men and women in uniform as well. The prime minister did not ignore the Anzac tradition but his mention of it came right at the end of his Lavarack praise of the innovative military, almost as an afterthought:

Agile, nimble, technologically advanced and of course, you embody all of the same values of the ANZACs, 100 years ago, the ANZACs of 100 years ago, their values, their traditions, their commitment, their patriotism, you embody today. So, we are so proud of you.

Prime Minister Turnbull has in the past been an enthusiastic spruiker for the book written by his son-in-law, retired Army Captain James Brown, Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession (2014). (So he should be; it is a very good book.) In the book, Brown is sceptical of the traditional image of “larrikin Anzacs” as the epitome of Australian soldiers. He also quotes former Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, who in 2010 called for the Australian Defence Force to become innovative in strategy, intellectually excellent and deeply knowledgeable.

Innovation, understanding, connection and intellectual excellence – these are skills and attributes not captured in the Anzac legend and digger myth. Hurley is describing [says Brown] a new type of military professional – one who can fight tactically but also do battle in the realm of ideas. But Australians have their own ideas about what professional soldiers should look like, and their own legends about how they should act.

Brown also quotes military psychologist, Damien Hadfield, who has identified “the Anzac spirit monkey” as something that Australian soldiers today have to deal with. Not only does “the monkey” leave today’s service men and women with a legacy of Anzac superheroes that is difficult to live up to but it also ingrains unrealistic concepts in civilians (including, one might add, some prime ministers). They still see warfare in World War I terms (charging at the guns, reckless heroism, stressful lives in trenches). Archie in the movie Gallipoli has a lot to answer for.

Modern warfare is more complex than this, Hadfield (and Brown) conclude, requiring more technical expertise and stressful in different ways to what it was like a century ago. Consequently, it is “much harder for people at home to identify with a war driven by machines, systems and strategy.”

That latter type of war is what Prime Minister Turnbull seemed to have in mind when he spoke in Townsville. As things ramp up again in the South China Sea, that may be a good thing. The final image in Brown’s book may well have been in the prime minister’s mind when he spoke. Brown imagines the scene in the belly of an amphibious vessel (interestingly enough, one based in Townsville) approaching a hostile shore. Only the invasion scenario looks much like what Australians faced a century ago in Turkey; the men and women in this boat (or in one of the submarines the White Paper says we are going to acquire) are high-tech and highly trained but are their heads in the same place as their ancestors in the Dardanelles? “Has our obsession with the Anzac legend,” Brown asks, “helped prepare us for what happens next?”

Brown, the prime minister (and us) should hope that it never comes to that. If it does (and Australia is foolish enough to follow the United States into a confrontation in the South China Sea, come what may) a nimble, technologically advanced defence force will be much more desirable than one with Anzac stars in its eyes.

David Stephens is secretary of the Honest History coalition and editor of its website (honesthistory.net.au). The views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History.

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