The dangers of Anzac myths

While it is easy to focus on the mythical nonsense about Anzac traditions and politicians’ exploitation of the myths, there is a far more worrying  aspect of the myth-making – the extent to which it distorts debate about military readiness, war and what strategies and training Australia and its military should pursue.

A recent book and a recent report provide perfectly complementary explanations of the dangers and some of the things which need to be done about them. The book, Anzac’s Long Shadow by James Brown, is probably most famous for revealing that Australian plans to spend more on WWI commemoration than Great Britain does. This is presumably in keeping with Tony Abbott’s belief that on D Day troops stormed ashore in defence of ‘enterprise’ and keeping countries open for business. The report, The Chiefs: A study of Strategic Leadership, a report by Nick Jans,  looks at how senior military leadership could be improved.

Brown talks about the plethora of mythopoeic books about Anzac and the debunking works of people such as Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake but goes beyond both and talks about the Australian public’s, and policy makers’, failure to grapple with the realities of war and the need for a professional approach to it. “Political debate on defence is characterised by a lack of critical analysis of soldiering, operations and military campaigns,” he says, this at a time when Australia faces complex strategic problems.

Brown says: “Cursing war won’t help Australia make better decisions about when and when not to send troops to fight, any more than will unthinking homage to Anzac. This lack of intellectual analysis of war is accompanied by the constant dissemination of simplified stories of Anzac and other episodes from Australia’s military history, most of which do not deepen understanding of war.” The ‘digger myth’ and belief in our natural superiority as soldiers also obscures our ability to “assess how good the ADF is” and how good our military leadership is. Brown says: “I asked a group of federal parliamentarians a simple question: how good are Australia’s generals? One answered immediately that they were very good indeed. But how do you know, I asked him, and how would you prove it? Uncomfortable silence.”

Most importantly “innovation, understanding, connection and intellectual excellence – these are the skills and attributes not captured in the Anzac legend and digger myth,” Brown says, rather than an internationally superior and natural born willingness to charge once more into breach with friends.

Where these priorities around skills and attributes are brilliantly captured is in Nick Jans (and his co-authors) report. The blog is partial to any study on military matters which is prefaced by quotes from James Fallows, Samuel Butler and T.S.Eliot but this is just the icing on the substance of The Chiefs. The report looks at the operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and goes beyond considerations of combat to how military leaders can provide strategic leadership across the complex competing interests that shape military policy and activities.

Nick concludes that much of the problem resides in three factors: for ambitious officers: “what got you here won’t get you there”; for the military as a whole: “what got us here won’t get us there”; and the concept that leadership is a ‘team sport’ applies throughout all levels of the military. In essence the qualities that get people promoted are not necessarily the qualities that lead to the best form of co-ordinated leadership.

The report looks at what roles leaders should play and focuses on: “sense-making– observing and interpreting what is going on in the strategic environment;  direction-setting– reacting to such interpretations by confirming or redirecting organisational goals and activities;  communicating– framing and expressing all of this in terms that will be meaningful and compelling to a range of constituencies; and, coalition building– engaging the support of a variety of agents across and beyond the organisation, in part by developing and maintaining a network of supportive resources and relationships through which action can be directed, as fast as is necessary, in the absence of traditional sources of professional authority.”

Obviously the findings are pertinent to any leader whether in the private, public or any other sector. In the military’s case Jans points out that part of the challenge is that “it is certainly incontestable that senior military Service committees, comprised as they are of a large majority of men of a certain age and from a certain professional background, are the most homogeneous of any organisation in the country.” Some civilian boards and leadership would, however, almost challenge them for homogeneity and probably fail dismally in comparison with the military in terms of their ability to avoid groupthink.

Read James Brown to see a deeper problem in Anzac mythology. Read The Chiefs not only to see part of the answer to the problem he raises but also to understand much more about leadership – whether you are planning to be General, a CEO, a successful manager or a good strategic leader in any context.

For PR professionals Nick Jans’ description of the skills and attributes that leaders should develop is also, coincidentally, a perfect blueprint for career success for any PR person who wants to become a trusted, highly-paid strategic counsellor.

And on another subject altogether the blog has been meaning to mention a really impressive book published this year. It’s Rodney Tiffen’s Rupert Murdoch. Tiffen, along probably with Henry Mayer, has been one of the most important Australian thinkers on mass media and Australian politics. This new book is the best book yet on Murdoch and his empire.