Must the military’s primary focus be lethal violence?

The Australian military’s primary focus – at least according to Assistant Defence Minister and ex-Army officer Andrew Hastie – will always be the “application of lethal violence” and that the fighting forces always needed mission clarity.

Arguably a mission statement with the primary focus of ‘lethal violence’ is a recipe for potential war crimes as has allegedly happened with some Australian troops in recent  years.

Particularly as the primary focus of the Australian military is actually the defence of Australia and, where appropriate, its interests. Lethal violence is simply one element of achieving that and then only in certain circumstances.

The focus on defending Australia is easily forgotten or distorted for various reasons mainly because of the worst excesses of Anzackery and misguided political perceptions of what our interests are.

The best means of defence is deterrence. Mutually assured destruction was once the most discussed form of deterrence strategy and it has worked in that competing nuclear powers have not yet launched a major war against each other.

Other forms of deterrence might include the state of our military resources and capabilities; the willingness of allies to come to our defence; and perceptions of our willingness and capacity to respond militarily.

In Australia’s case the first is currently extremely problematic. We have extended limited resources, particularly special operations forces, to the point where they are being used as regular troops with the inevitable burn out and reductions in effectiveness.

Potential enemies don’t have to worry very much about our capacity to build weapons and equipment which can provide troops with the tools they need. Our record on defence procurement from F-111s to the flying lemon F-35s to submarines, which we may or may not get in the foreseeable future and which may or may not be effective, suggests any enemies need to just wait patiently until we bankrupt ourselves trying to acquire or build weapons and then walk in and take over.

We weren’t even able to produce a modern-day equivalent of the once ubiquitous jeep without it being vulnerable to land mines and had to finally – and expensively – acquire a German-designed successor which wasn’t as vulnerable to land mines and improvised explosive devices.

In the second we live in an Alice and Wonderland world imagining the US will come galloping to our aid if necessary. Yes they might – if they perceived it was in their interests.

The British didn’t perceive the defence of Australia as in its interests during WWII and if the Japanese hadn’t blundered in attacking Pearl Harbour while invading Malaya who knows when the US would have got involved given the strength of isolationism there.

The once much-vaunted ANZUS Treaty (now minus New Zealand) also doesn’t actually promise any of the protections Australian politicians have claimed over the years.

Indeed, the only immediate consequence of our relationship with the US in the event of all- out war is that the bases the Americans use in Australia – like Pine Gap – would be early targets. Moreover, as the Whitlam Government found out and has been detailed in Brian Toohey’s Secret, its presence is more likely to destabilise us than any enemies.

The relationship has, instead of protecting us, dragged us into a series of unnecessary, unwinnable or illegal wars – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – at the cost of billions, many lost lives and traumatised veterans. In two of these cases the US whistled and we responded and in one of them we pleaded to be asked.

There was not much mission clarity in any of those entanglements.

In contrast our peacekeeping efforts have often been remarkable particularly in Timor Leste although our subsequent disgraceful and illegal behaviour over Timor Strait oil has sullied that.

The work undertake by General John Sanderson  in Cambodia was also incredibly important and one hopes that the detailed records he and his staff kept during that process will some day become freely available.

The same hope applies with the records of Australia’s spying on the new Timor Leste and the details of Australia’s appalling persecution of whistleblowers led recently by Christian Porter.

As far as lethal violence is concerned of course, any military organisation – from Alexander to today – must be capable of inflicting lethal violence.  But the military art is to do it as efficiently and effectively as possible. In the modern world that is only possible with a complex mixture of political will, personnel, resources and training.

The end result is that a very small percentage of those who serve in the military actually get involved in combat with the majority in support roles. Admittedly the support is largely necessary to the application of lethal violence but it is not the primary focus of the vast majority of the military.

In some cases, moreover, the lethal violence is likely to come from somewhere other than your enemies. For instance, friendly fire killed more US soldiers in the Iraqi invasion than Saddam Hussein’s troops did.

And…if we need to worry about the perspective of the Assistant Minister for Defence what about the Minister, Peter Dutton? His previous Ministry was characterised by cruelty, disregard for international law, unknowable levels of secrecy, probable spying on Australians and dodgy contracting.

Given his track record who knows – he could end up unleashing lethal violence on the Kiwis to ensure they keep all those he has deported from Australia there.

But then the Maoris did once fight the British to a draw and, with Dutton directing things, could we  be sure we would do any better today?

The author served in Vietnam as an Australian Artillery officer.