Hugh White

A Quarterly Essay provides space for a skilled essayist like John Birmingham to explore his topic from several angles. In A Time for War he makes the most of this opportunity, ranging from the hills of Afghanistan to the Bondi RSL. That journey becomes a kind of metaphor for the range of deeper questions he raises about the ways our attitudes to armed force, and to our armed forces, have evolved in recent years. The story moves from a glowing, almost hagiographic account of the exploits and qualities of Australian soldiers at Shahikot, via a meditation on Australia’s idiosyncratic culture of military commemoration, to much darker questions about the nature of a new Australian militarism and the ways in which Australian governments have used our armed forces in recent years. Like many of us, Birmingham loves our warriors, but is much less sure about our wars.

All of this sets up tensions in the argument of the essay which are not fully resolved. That is not necessarily a fault. It means the essay itself becomes a demonstration of its key point: that our attitudes to military force are deeply ambivalent, and at times frankly contradictory. As Birmingham’s quote from Kipling suggests (“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that …”), this is not new. Indeed a profound ambivalence to war, and warriors, is embedded in our culture, back to Homer.

That ambivalence has become more acute since about the start of the nineteenth century, with the rise of the Liberal Conscience. It was amplified in complex ways in the first half of the twentieth century, and then again more forcefully by the Vietnam War. After Vietnam, Western countries came to believe that, short of major war, there was very little that could be achieved by the use of armed force, and very few circumstances in which it was legitimate to try. And of course this was particularly true for the United States and Australia. Hence T.B. Millar’s 1979 comment, quoted in the essay, that no one at that time was interested in deploying Australian forces overseas. 

Since then, as Birmingham shows very well, the pendulum has swung back, and military operations are again seen by Western governments to be sensible and legitimate instruments of policy in a wide range of circumstances. The change started ten years before September 11, with the end of the Cold War, the (at first, timid) commitments to UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations, and especially the easy victory over Iraq in 1991. In Australia, as Birmingham says, the army’s role in East Timor in 1999 took this trend to new heights. Armed force again became central to Australia’s international posture, and the army regained its place as a central national institution. And the War on Terror has reinforced these trends – at least until Iraq.

But Iraq has clouded the picture a little. Some of the old ambivalence has returned. We have been reminded that we don’t mind short, simple wars, but don’t like ones that drag on and get complicated. We have been reminded again of some of the lessons of Vietnam – about how hard it is to achieve political objectives in foreign lands using military forces, for example, and how easily the job of fighting an insurgency can undermine one’s own values and standards. And we have been reminded that, notwithstanding successes in East Timor and elsewhere, we still face some very tough questions about when and how it is wise and right to use our armed forces, and what kind of forces we should be building as a result. 

Everyone can agree that weak and failing states pose serious long-term security problems. Everyone can agree that in some circumstances Western countries have both an interest and an obligation to intervene to help provide stability. Sometimes, military forces will be among the instruments we need to use. But there is a big step from these propositions to the idea that over coming decades the key role of Australia’s armed forces will be – and should be – to undertake armed interventions in other countries in order to fix their internal problems. Shorn of persiflage, this is the idea which underlies much of the current discussion of Australian defence policy, and especially much current thinking about the future role of our army. And this is the idea that, with understandable ambivalence, Birmingham is wrestling with in his essay. It obviously worries him, but his admiration for the ADF is a counter-weight to those worries.

I do not share that ambivalence. I admire the ADF immensely, but I am very sceptical of the idea that armed forces can readily be applied to the tasks of stabilisation and nation-building. We have perhaps been seduced by the apparent success of operations like East Timor into thinking that the ADF, and especially the army, can do anything it is asked to do. The army, not surprisingly, encourages that view, and its self-publicity extols the effectiveness of soldiers in nation-building and diplomacy as well as combat. Individual soldiers may have such skills, but armed forces as institutions do not. An army is a highly specialised organisation designed, equipped and trained to perform a very specific type of task. That task is combat with other, similar armies. 

Birmingham’s doubts are assuaged by his belief that today’s Australian Army is adapting to the new tasks of intervention and stabilisation through the publication of documents like the recent The Australian Approach to Warfare. I can’t agree. The concept of manoeuvre which he says lies at the heart of that paper is all about conventional combat against an adversary’s army. These are traditional concepts of continental land warfare, concepts that have much more to do with the world of Sir John Monash than with the world of T.E. Lawrence, or Osama Bin Laden. The army talks about new tasks, but is still preparing to fight old wars. Indeed the government’s vision of a new hardened and networked army – buying tanks and amphibious assault capabilities – is taking the army closer to the heavy armies of the old Cold War, and further from the kind of light forces that stabilisation operations demand.

So while I think Birmingham has done a wonderful job of exploring the evolution of our attitudes to our armed forces, I am less confident than he is about the way ahead. I do not think that the army has now, or is evolving to acquire, the capacity reliably to achieve complex, non-military, essentially political objectives in a turbulent and unstable region. At best it can only make a partial contribution to those objectives; often it will have no role at all. So I think we should remain very conservative about the circumstances in which armed force is a good instrument of policy for other than conventional inter-state conflicts.

And we should not forget that, for Australia, situated where it is, the era of conventional inter-state conflict might be far from over. As Birmingham acknowledges, the challenge of terrorism is only one of a range of new security challenges: the rise of India and China are others. In coming decades Australia may well find itself living in a region torn by strategic competition, even conflict, among the great powers of Asia. If that happens, we will need all the military capability we can muster. But the forces we will need then are our naval and air forces. We are today the largest air and naval power south of China and east of India. That gives Australia real strategic weight. Our army, however hardened and networked, will always be the smallest serious army in Asia. The heroics of Shahikot notwithstanding, there are limits to what it can do for us if and when, in Kipling’s phrase, “the guns begin to shoot.”


Hugh White is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 20, A Time for War. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 21, What’s Left?.


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