@ClosetIdealist is a security and risk advisor in the private sector, having previously served in the Australian Public Service and the ADF.
I read Rodger Shanahan’s recent post with much interest and a little despair. My background also crosses several disciplines, including a brief stint in the Australian Army. A key principle in Rodger’s argument – that junior leaders in the ADF are expected ‘to take into account the strategic environment’ – doesn’t exactly accord with my experience in uniform. Sure, training activities noted that in some circumstances things had to be done differently due to the ‘CNN test’ – the possibility that someone was filming you – but that was about it. So let’s not pretend that section and platoon commanders are patrolling Oruzgan with a copy of Clausewitz in their day-pack or Evelyn Goh’s ‘omni-enmeshment’ theory at the front of their minds. The better ones might be thinking about the practical application of COIN doctrine, but I’m not sure that this compares to strategy at the highest levels.
I’m also a ‘putative strategist’: I studied at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and served in the Australian Public Service before moving to the private sector. Interestingly, many of Rodger’s ‘putative strategists’ – often post-graduate qualified public servants or intelligence analysts – have keenly sought to serve Australia’s national interests in Afghanistan. Many saw room for an expanded AusAid presence, one focussed not on Canberra’s goal of ‘spending the budget’ but on achieving results through integration with ADF operations. When it became clear that an increased Australian presence was not politically feasible, some sought to work for the Americans in other areas of Afghanistan. In my experience, these ‘putative strategists’ do not consider themselves as superior to those in uniform. Many have expressed a willingness to serve their country in dangerous roles overseas, some have done so and still others have found their dreams frustrated by weak decision-making in Canberra.
I don’t think the ‘lack of mutual understanding’ is helped by the fact that some in the ADF feel that only those in uniform have the moral right and professional expertise to comment on Defence policy. It’s forever humbling to remember that while I served in uniform I was a willing participant of this culture, where civilian commentators and strategists were routinely dismissed as ‘<expletive> civvies’. It is certainly true that those in uniform have a unique and indispensible perspective, one rarely attained by non-combatants. And I think the broader thrust of Rodger’s argument – that ‘civilian strategists’ should endeavour to understand the pressures and challenges faced by those who carry out the operations that achieve strategic priorities – is valid and worthwhile.
But the ADF has also reached a point where some painful, honest introspection might be beneficial. Put simply: ADF members should remember that they, ultimately, do not define the Australian Government’s strategic goals. Civilian decision-makers, hopefully in conjunction with senior ADF officers, will set strategic goals, identify risks and will indirectly determine, through this strategic planning process, what operations the ADF will conduct. But those decision-makers probably won’t ever have crawled out of their sleeping bag – wet, cold and hungry – to do the graveyard shift of picket duty. Nor will have they experienced the ‘two-way rifle range’. So, it is the job of the senior military officers in any strategic planning process to ensure that the ‘ground-truths’ are not overlooked; that the operational objectives derived from strategic intent are realistic and achievable.
Importantly, it must be remembered that strategic intent drives the operational goals. Rodger has commented that a well-regarded (civilian) scholar was ‘caught up in the emotion of the moment’ when writing a blog post, because the author showed ‘a complete lack of understanding of what motivates soldiers’. I think Rodger’s argument overlooks the fact that soldiers are employed to conduct operations, which in turn are meant to progress towards – and eventually achieve – strategic goals. That some who argue for a withdrawal from Afghanistan choose to omit from their argument ‘the impact of such a suggestion on the tactical environment outside the wire’ does not automatically suggest a callous disregard for ADF members in Afghanistan, rather it implies that the strategic priorities of the Australian Government are more important that the feelings of those in uniform, a counterpoint noted (by a civilian) here. This has always been the case and to suggest a reordering of priorities would be the equivalent of putting the operational cart before the strategic horse.
I chuckled when I read that Rodger is unsure as to what a ‘civilian strategist’ looks like. Aside from some notable American exceptions, I am at a loss to identify what a modern-day ‘military strategist’ looks like! Where is strategy taught to ADF officers? At the Australian Command and Staff College? Based on a recent round of job advertisements, it seems that someone in the ADF must hold the ANU’s ‘civilian strategists’ in high regard! I fully agree with Rodger’s point that “’strategist’ is not a qualification – it is an appellation one can give oneself”, but we mustn’t forget that this sword cuts both ways, applying equally to both those in suits and those in uniform. For effective strategic policy, Australia needs strategists in uniform, strategists wearing suits at Russell Offices, and strategists elected to Parliament.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia. The view from the Department of Defence, Russell Offices to Parliament House in Canberra.