Peter Leahy

As a veteran, James Brown knows the consequences of war and the impact it can have on individuals and communities. He is correct to write, in his Quarterly Essay, that today, in Australia, we rarely think about war. He is also correct to say that we need to think more closely about decisions to go to war. With Australian forces deployed to Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003, and now operating in the sky over Syria, we should also deliberate on the decision made every day to remain at war.

The Roman philosopher Cicero told us that we go to war so that we may live in peace. Today conflict seems to be everywhere and it is hard to distinguish between war and peace. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted longer than the two world wars combined. Yet our troops continue to go, many of them for multiple deployments, with the ever-present risk of being killed or wounded, both physically and psychologically. But we have not declared war on anyone and we hear precious little about what the troops are doing in our name. Do we even have an answer to the question, what does victory look like?

As a nation, we let our troops down if we don’t think about how they are equipped, trained and led, and how well prepared they are for today’s wars and the contingencies of the future. Other important questions include: what national interests are served by our involvement? is it legal? what is our strategy? what is our mission? and what tasks do we give deployed forces? At the moment, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the answers to nearly all of these questions are unclear. As tensions in the South China Sea mount, we need to ask such questions as we contemplate what to do there.

There have been no recent debates in parliament about our war aims and how we are going to achieve them. One obvious problem is that the political parties have decided defence and security matters are to be handled on a bipartisan basis. While comfortable for politicians, this serves to stifle debate on the most important responsibility of the parliament: sending our sons and daughters to war. 

There is nothing in the Australian constitution or legislation that requires the government to gain parliamentary approval before deploying military forces or declaring war. This leaves Australia very much on its own in reserving to the prime minister the decision to commit armed forces. Both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron saw fit to engage their legislatures over recent deployments to Iraq and Syria. Their subsequent deployments were constrained by the response they received. Even President Putin is obliged by Russian law to seek approval to use military force abroad. It has been granted twice in recent years – for Ukraine and Syria. Not so in Australia.

Following the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry, there are suggestions to introduce a bill proposing that the decision to deploy members of the Australian Defence Force be made not by the executive alone, but by the Australian parliament. An earlier version of this bill was rejected in 2010. However, in its consideration of that bill the relevant senate committee stated that it was not against the involvement of both houses of parliament in open and public debate about the deployment of Australian service personnel to warlike operations or potential hostilities. The committee further stated that it agreed with the views of most submitters that the Australian people, through their elected representatives, have a right to be informed and heard on these important matters. The committee saw the 2010 bill as a step along the way to a more mature debate in Australia. It is time for that debate and it is time for a bill to be enacted requiring parliamentary approval before the ADF is deployed.

While addressing a group of retired parliamentarians, I came across a deeply concerning reason why some are reluctant to open the matter to debate and decision in parliament. One retired politician strongly suggested the responsibility must remain with the prime minister as we could not trust the parliament to make such an important decision. We trust it with a whole range of important economic, health and social policy issues – why not the decision to go to war? 

Wisely, James Brown discusses the current ill-preparedness of politicians to make important decisions involving defence and security. He notes that few prime ministers and members of the National Security Committee come to the role with an understanding of military matters. He also notes that there are few trained strategic analysts and all of them are distracted by short-term issues at the expense of longer-term policy development. His proposals to reinvigorate the country’s national security apparatus are sensible, as are the proposals to expand the range of supervisory committees within the parliament.

He could also have added the need to prepare parliamentarians and their staff, at all levels, to meet the weighty responsibilities they face in considering the path to war. Strategic thinking does not come naturally to many, and given the often catastrophic results of strategic miscalculation, a better way of preparing parliamentarians for their duties is warranted. In Canberra there are two excellent national institutions that could be brought into play to prepare parliamentarians and then support them through their careers. They are the National Security College at the Australian National University and the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies at the Australian Defence College. Both could arrange an introductory course of around two weeks, which would help equip our parliamentarians to discharge their duties properly. All parliamentarians should attend these courses early in their careers.

War is no longer exclusively large and episodic. Instead it tends to be small, persistent and pervasive. Of the major armed conflicts in the world today, few are between states. In this environment it is difficult for governments to understand the implications of their decisions on the path to war and build a narrative that engages the people and convinces them of the need for war and then for its continuation over an extended period of time. War has become confused. Some wars are seen as wars of choice, others as wars of necessity. Often what starts out as something other than a war ends up looking a lot like a war. Events can quickly change and escalate, so that we are at war before we realise it and unable to extricate ourselves.


Peter Leahy is Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra. He was Chief of Army from 2002 to 2008.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 62, Firing Line. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 63, Enemy Within.


Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics
Waleed Aly, Scott Stephens
How Contempt Is Corroding Democracy