Essay

Missing in action

IT WAS ASKING a lot of a man that he pursue a military career in Australia between 1918 and 1939. Poor pay, low status, few promotional opportunities and little community esteem were only some of the problems with such a career. Perhaps the high regard Australians had for the Anzacs of Gallipoli and France contributed to the problem for it had become a truism that the volunteer Australian citizen-soldier was 'good' at war. As a Labor parliamentarian put it in 1920: 'If the war proved anything, it proved that young Australians, many of whom had not previously known one end of a rifle from another, were, after training for a month or two, equal to, if not superior, to any other troops.' If war came again, the shearers and the factory hands, the labourers and brickies, would once more roll up their sleeves, take up rifles and convert themselves into efficient and deadly soldiers. What need of training; what need of an officer class of trainers? It was the spirit of the people that would prevail. A professional army won little public esteem.

Yet some few did seek to make a career in the Australian defence forces. One such was Henry Douglas Wynter, born near Bundaberg in Queensland in 1886. Working first on the family farm after elementary schooling, and later in a butter factory, Wynter started his military career as a part-time soldier before joining the permanent forces in 1911. War service from 1916 saw rapid promotion for Wynter as a staff officer with General Birdwood, who commanded the Australians. Wynter was mentioned in dispatches four times. On return to Australia he remained in the tiny permanent army, attending the Staff College at Camberley, England in 1921–22. Another stint in England at the Imperial Defence College in 1930 sharpened his skills and eventually, by 1935, he was promoted to the rank of temporary colonel as director of military training.

It was a terribly slow climb to seniority but entirely typical of the times. Nor could the pay justify such a marginal and slow career. An Australian officer was paid approximately 60 per cent of a British officer's salary and as the official historian Gavin Long observed, 'the low pay helped to prevent [officers] from taking their proper place in social life outside the army' so that the military 'became isolated to an extent that was exceedingly inappropriate in a group that was administering a citizen army'. Long also believed that the officer class in Australia was intellectually isolated and remote from such mainstream thinking as might be found in politics, business and the professions. The problem related to the employment of this small officer group. Australia's wars, it seemed, would be Britain's wars; Australia's responsibility, therefore, was merely to take its 'splendid types' from farms and factories and turn them, overnight, into soldiers.

So there was not much that was challenging for the officers of the inter-war defence force in their day-to-day work. 'Highly trained young officers,' Long wrote, 'who had been majors and captains in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] 10 years before, were still serving as adjutants of militia units whose citizen members were assembled for only eight days' continuous training each year and which were only at 25 per cent of their war strength.' During the long economic depression of the late 1920s and 1930s Australian governments cut back defence spending savagely. Indeed the number of volunteer part-time soldiers in Australia in 1936 was fewer than when the colonial forces had been amalgamated into a Commonwealth force in 1901.

Men like Douglas Wynter persevered in the face of this erosion of Australia's defence capability and endured what Gavin Long described as the 'particularly bad odour' surrounding the profession of arms in the late 1920s and beyond. 'None of my friends like returned soldiers,' a particularly priggish young man wrote in a Sydney newspaper in 1931. 'I was born in 1913 and some of my boy and girl friends are thoroughly sick of war pictures, and especially sick of anything relating to Australian soldiers...what we actually see every day, till they have got on our nerves, are crippled, blind and battered wrecks, with brass badges on, begging in the streets, howling about pension reductions.'

Despite this discouraging and debilitating environment, Wynter was telling anyone who cared to listen that Australia's defence needed urgent attention. Identifying the weaknesses in defence preparedness that historians would pounce on with the glee of discovery long after the war; Wynter argued in the 1930s that Australian defence was not secured by Britain regardless of imperial pledges and promises. He also called for a debate in Australia about the priorities that should prevail between the services. Wynter suggested in lectures to the United Service Institutes in Melbourne and Sydney that the naval base under construction at Singapore might be vulnerable to attack, that Britain and Australia's defence interests might diverge if, simultaneously, Britain were at war in Europe and Australia at war in the Pacific, and that while Australian naval forces were important, 'the principal instruments of the local defence of Australia' were the army and the air force. The nightmares faced by prime ministers Menzies and Curtin from 1940 to 1943 showed precisely how incisive was this army officer's prediction. It is an analysis that is still the staple of historians writing about the period, as in David Day's recently published The Politics of War.

Colonel Wynter was a visionary. Long described him as 'perhaps the clearest and most profound thinker the Australian Army of his generation had produced', but that reputation, if widely held, did not protect Wynter from the then defence minister Archdale Parker's wrath. Embarrassed that what Wynter was saying was being used by then opposition leader John Curtin to forge Labor policy and to attack the Government in parliament, the minister struck. There was, of course, no suggestion that Wynter had been assisting the opposition. Indeed it was Government Senator C.H. Brand, who had fought in the Boer War and with distinction at Gallipoli and in France, who circulated Wynter's 1935 lecture to federal parliamentarians.

Even so, by ministerial direction, because of a perception that Wynter was attacking government policy, in 1937 the colonel was posted to a relatively junior position in Queensland with a lower rank and reduced salary. There was a warning here for others. Isolated, insular and compliant might all be words to be used to describe Australian Defence Force officers throughout much of the rest of the 20th century. If so, the case of Henry Douglas Wynter must bear some of the blame.

There is a paradox in Long's discussion of the Wynter case in his official history, To Benghazi. On the one hand, he paints a picture of a demoralised and marginalised officer class within an under-funded defence force. On the other, he claims that Wynter was listened to as an expert and was able to shape policy by attracting Curtin's interest. The early chapters of Long's first volume are important in his overall plan for the official history. Defence, he claims, deserves to be taken seriously and Australia's parlous position in 1942 was the direct outcome of the years of neglect in the 1930s. But there were a few, at least, in the United Service institutes who could see the issues clearly and were prepared to speak out. Australia, Long is saying, needed the wisdom of such experts as were available and needed an informed debate. The minister's churlish response to Wynter in fact demonstrated his concern that this man was influencing national policy formation. Australia listened to experts then.

 

WHILE WE HAVE yet to see a thorough history of the development of the Australian Defence Force in the context of community perceptions, expectations and culture, historians date the growth of a professional defence force in Australia from the period of the Korean War. Leadership in World War II had not come from the tiny professional cadre in which Wynter had stood out. Rather, those selected were men who had made their careers outside the defence forces and who would retire to private life again when the emergency had passed. Korea, then, was the first war for Australia that did not see citizen soldiers in action; rather recruits were enlisting not for the duration of the war but for a set number of years. The officers in Korea were those who had remained in the army after World War II had ended, men like Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Green and Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Daly. Their example was encouraging young men, coming out of school, to see the services as a fulfilling and life-long career likely to lead to promotion, community esteem and a good Australian life.

Peter Gration, born in January 1932 and educated at Melbourne's Scotch College, entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, from school. He would make almost his entire career in the Australian Defence Force and although he also earned degrees in civil engineering, arts and economics, those qualifications were in the cause of making him a better soldier. Chief of the General Staff from 1984 to 1987 and Chief of the Defence Force for six years from 1987, Gration enjoyed a long time at the top of his profession. He has been described by the military historian and former army officer David Horner as a man with 'a quick mind, an outstanding grasp of detail and a fierce determination to implement his own ideas once he was convinced they were right'. Horner also described Gration as 'modest, somewhat shy and not easy with small talk' and saw him as 'willing to listen to both sides of an argument [and] quick to destroy a case that lacked logic or was not well argued'.

Gration served in Malaya during the Emergency, in Papua New Guinea and in South Vietnam, where he commanded the Civil Affairs Unit. He left the army with the high opinion and respect of his political masters the friendship of his minister, Kim Beazley, and with the regard of his colleagues, perhaps tinged with some fear and a lack of warmth towards him. Such is leadership. Opponents, particularly in the then opposition Liberal Party, would question Gration's ability to stand up to those above him but few would have denied his intellectual ability and no one would ever wonder what Gration's position on a particular issue might be.

In 1987 in Canberra, General Gration launched one of the first academic studies of Australia and the Vietnam War, Frank Frost's Australia's War in Vietnam. His lengthy speech was subsequently published, and with good reason, for Gration's was a forthright and critical account of what the Australians had experienced in Vietnam and what they had achieved. It was not necessarily a speech that one might expect from the nation's top serving soldier. Quoting an Australian officer with experience of the Australian sphere of operations, Phuoc Tuy province, in both 1966 when the Australians first went in and at the death in 1972, Gration said that he found the 'truth' of the officer's observations 'indeed depressing'. It was, the officer had reported, 'as if we had never been there'. Gration wanted Australians to understand what their troops had suffered and achieved in Vietnam and to understand, too, what had been done well and what poorly. He was as open to admissions of failure as he was to claims of success.

Those who knew Gration well would not have been surprised at his analysis of the failure in Vietnam. As a young major in the Tactics Wing at the Land Warfare Centre, Canungra, Queensland, in 1966, Gration puzzled over the inability of the Americans and their allies to bring the war to a quick and devastating conclusion. Initially accepting the Government's position without question, he began to wonder why the Allies were not winning, given their enormous preponderance of military power. Intense study showed him a different war from the war the governments were portraying. By 1968, after the Tet Offensive, Gration had concluded that Vietnam was an unwinnable war.

Gration saw the situation for himself in 1969–1970 in Phuoc Tuy province. 'The truth is,' Gration continued at the book launch, 'that we knew very little about the province when we went in. We knew little of its long history of struggle with the French, of its history as a Viet Minh stronghold in the war against the French from 1946 to 1954, of the almost complete control of the province by the Viet Cong in 1966... We weakened the local units but never destroyed them or prevented them from recruiting and continuing to regenerate and fight.' Gration observed that the tripartite efforts of South Vietnam, the US and Australia in the province led to 'major problems of co-ordination and sometimes conflict of interest'. He spoke of ill-advised decisions, unsuccessful attempts and said that it was 'wrong to imagine that the efforts of Australian soldiers in a foreign country could win the support of the people for their own government'.

On the positive side, Gration noted successful battles and engagements and thought that the army conducted itself throughout as 'a professional, cohesive and well-disciplined force... We retained our discipline and good morale and were never plagued by the problems of drugs and indiscipline that beset the Americans from 1969 onwards, when the United States Army began to disintegrate'.

To have publicised the 'disintegration' of the American Army even in the first years of the aftermath of the war might not have been wise for any Australian officer in a position of authority. Perhaps by 1987 the sensitivities had lessened, but the Americans do seem unsympathetic to critics of their armed forces. Yet Gration's speech and its later publication caused no fuss in Australia; perhaps the occasion and the publication were too obscure.

But it indicated clearly that this general would say what was on his mind, even treading on a few toes. Few in the room at the launch, surely, recalled the fate of Wynter but some military historians would remember that divergent views had never exactly been welcomed in the Australian defence forces or by government. Perhaps, as so often happens, it was the politics of the thing. Gration was neither explicitly nor implicitly criticising current government policy but rather the policies and failures of its predecessor, the Government's political opponents.

When Gration spoke publicly about the limits of the Vietnam campaign in 1986, it was not the first time he had made his views known within the defence forces, even if it was the first time they had come to public attention. In 1968, deeply troubled by the Tet offensive he wrote an essay for the Army's annual Oswald Watt competition. Gration's essay argued that the war was lost at that point, 'not a popular view for a serving officer at that time.' Remarkably the essay won the competition and Gration was given the prize, but in a departure from tradition it was not published. The Army had found way of accommodating critical perspectives.

Gration left the Defence Force in 1993 to a busy new life of further government service, heading the Civil Aviation Authority, the Australian War Memorial and a significant government inquiry. There were also appointments in the private sector. Following the US, Australia now seems to find real work for its former military leaders beyond the largely ceremonial roles of state governors.

TOWARDS THE END of 2002, with momentum building for a new war in Iraq, Peter Gration again came to public attention. In September, along with a former governor-general Bill Hayden, three former prime ministers, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, two other former military leaders, Admiral Alan Beaumont and Admiral Mike Hudson, and the current president of the RSL, Major-General Peter Phillips, Gration signed a letter published in Australia's major newspapers opposing the coming war.

The letter was short but to the point. 'We share,' its authors wrote, 'a deeply held conviction on a matter which we believe is of the most profound importance. It would constitute a failure of the duty of government to protect the integrity and ensure the security of our nation to commit any Australian forces in support of a United States military offensive against Iraq without the backing of a specific United Nations Security Council resolution.'

The letter was unprecedented. Plenty of former Australian politicians, including former prime ministers, had weighed into public debate on all manner of issues. But never before had the national president of the RSL stood against an Australian government in a matter as significant as a decision for war. On the contrary, Phillips's predecessors at the RSL had often been well in advance of government in advocating Australian commitment to overseas engagements, in advocating conscription in peacetime and in advocating a strengthening of Australia's defence capability. Never before had former defence force officers of such seniority and recent experience been prepared to publicly state opposition to an Australian government's momentum towards war. Gration had been Chief of the Defence Force for the entire term of Australia's commitment to the first Gulf war and Admiral Hudson had led the navy throughout that war. Now they openly opposed what many were calling the 'second Gulf war'.

Gration was not simply a name on a letter, rounded up by experienced political operators, to lend credibility to a cause. He continued to argue the case against Australia's participation in lectures, in print and in media statements. In a statement in November 2002, for example, he announced that he was 'very pleased' to lend his support to a report released by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War. 'This is no exaggerated tract by a bunch of zealots,' he wrote, 'it is a cold factual report by health professionals...it is timely and sobering.' In this statement Gration's main emphasis was on the 'monumental human and environmental costs of [the coming] conflict'. Once describing himself as a 'Christian Chief of the Defence Force', Gration looked back to the costs of the first Gulf war. 'Many of us think of that conflict as one with relatively low casualties.' But Gration endorsed the report's conclusion that the Iraqi military suffered between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths in the war and possibly three times that number of wounded. Between 3500 and 15,000 civilians were killed in the first Gulf war, Gration wrote, with a further 110,000 dying later from war-related causes. He feared that a new conflict 'seems certain to be more intense and more destructive, and the human and environmental damage correspondingly much higher'.

Gration's early interventions in such debate about the war brought some notoriety and a good deal of support from people he did not know. 'Keep on going,' they told him. Senior retired officers also welcomed his contributions and agreed with him while publicly they kept their own opposition to the war to themselves.

Writing in an Australian Strategic Policy Institute publication, War with Iraq?, published in November 2002, Gration now concentrated on the strategic aspects of the war. He was unmoved by the argument that the war was necessary to remove Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Iraq was not the only country with WMD, Gration noted, asking whether the US proposed to invade all the other countries thought to be so 'tooled up'. Gration also noted that Iraq lacked 'strategic delivery means' to exploit whatever weapons it possessed so that Saddam Hussein posed 'a psychological but not a credible military threat to the region'. Like the Soviet Union, China and North Korea before Iraq, 'there is no reason why containment and deterrence should not continue to be effective... It is simply incredible,' Gration concluded, 'to suggest that a decrepit desert state such as Iraq poses any threat to the only global superpower, let alone to the world.' The threat of WMD, he concluded, 'is being greatly exaggerated'.

Carefully canvassing a range of issues and outcomes, and chancing his arm with a little prediction to the dangers inherent in the decision for war, Gration concluded with his 'central message'. 'The best hope for global security and the war on terror is to pursue a rules-based international order based on the UN.' Were the US to continue on the path to war without UN backing, then Australia 'should grasp the nettle and decline to participate.' It was an unequivocal message delivered in a soldier's style: blunt and straightforward.

 

THERE IS NO example in Australian history of such outspoken criticism of government defence policy coming from a former officer of the rank, seniority and experience of Gration. Observers might have expected substantial media concentration on the 'crisis' the commentary would provoke and significant government response to the points Gration was advancing. What is astonishing, however, is the relatively minor impact that Gration's opposition caused.

The story of the peace movements in Australia from opposition to the Boer War onwards sees a minority group, variously heavily or lightly unpopular, gingering up a society that is, variously, heavily or lightly in favour of the coming or current war. Henry Douglas Wynter might attempt to put alternative ways of defending Australia on the table for discussion, and almost lose his career in the process, but, in general, the Defence Force, most particularly its leaders, has held aloof from debating the merits of a decision for war. Here was a former military leader breaking that mould. This was no 'peacenik' arguing against a war but as high an expert as Australia could find.

The media virtually ignored him and the Government was not troubled into any response to him. All that John Howard would say was that he detected some 'reservations' about the Government's position in Gration's analyses. Gration, Howard claimed, had 'different views about different aspects of [the war]'. The Prime Minister claimed to have followed closely what Gration had said but he seemed supremely uninterested in his views. In Howard's eyes, Gration had not 'mounted the moral parapets', whatever that might have meant.

What Gration would not do was to speak up once the war got under way. 'I'm still smarting,' he reported, 'from our experience during the Vietnam War when Australian servicemen were fighting and dying overseas while there were big demonstrations going on at home.' Gration made the point that dissent relating to the Vietnam War came 'well after the war had started' but with this war there was very strong opposition even before the war had begun: 'As a military commander that would worry me a lot.' With the welfare of the Australian forces in Iraq uppermost in his mind, Gration became less prominent once the war had started. We can respect him for that.

Gration was right to identify the significant popular opposition to the Iraqi war, before it had even started, as a departure from the norm in Australia. Traditionally, wars in which Australia had participated in the 20th century were widely popular at the beginning, with war weariness and the cost only weighing into the debate later. Few now remember, apparently, that the mass movement in opposition to the war in Vietnam only emerged in 1970, four years after the first deployment of Australian troops. Indeed, so unprepared was the Government for the mass numbers of demonstrators in all the capital cities on the first moratorium day in May 1970 that a senior Government minister, on the eve of the protest, could characterise those who would march the next day as 'political bikies pack-raping democracy'.

But in 2003 there were mass rallies against the war before it started; for long months, in fact, before it started. Drawing on opposition to war from so many elements in the community, was the former general's voice somewhat lost in the crowd? That would be a convenient explanation for the lack of interest in Gration's views but such an explanation does not go far enough.

Something has happened to public debate in Australia over the past decade or so that is also observable, perhaps to a lesser degree, elsewhere. We have lost the ability to listen to and to value the opinions of those whom, in the past, we might have respected for their experience, their knowledge and their keen personal insight. The spin machine of the prevailing established viewpoint has successfully marginalised even the most respectable critics.

To some extent this is also because those in leadership positions have abrogated their leadership roles. With few exceptions, do we now listen carefully to religious leaders when we know that they will listen to their lawyers and insurers first? Do we listen carefully to political leaders, knowing that they will spin every issue out of all truthfulness, will wedge to gain political advantage and when all else fails, will simply lie or fail to inform themselves of the truth, regardless of the human or diplomatic consequences of such lies? Do we listen to military experts with any confidence when we hear them mangling the English language and using every euphemism possible to avoid saying that war kills soldiers and civilians, but predominantly in the wars of the 20th century, civilians? Have we lost our confidence that anyone in authority might want to climb the 'moral parapets' and speak the truth?

If we have lost that, we have suffered a grievous loss that could see our capacity to fight even evil and terror vastly impeded. And that really would lead to a sense of insecurity such as Australia has never known before.

When Henry Douglas Wynter spoke people listened and his minister sacked him, perceiving that his words carried weight. Some, no doubt, listened carefully to what Peter Gration had to say. I did, but the Prime Minister dismissed his careful thinking and close reasoning as a minor difference of opinion, and no one else seemed to hear. This is a significant change in the way we conduct public affairs in this country that could see informed discussion replaced by indifference and a massive lack of interest. 

 

References:

For Colonel H.D. Wynter, see Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 16, Melbourne, 2002, pp599-600; for Wynter and the debate about Australian defence, see Gavin Long, To Benghazi, Canberra, 1952 pp1-32 and Jeffrey Grey, The Australian Army, Melbourne, 2001, passim; for David Horner on Peter Gration, see David Horner, Making the Australian Defence Force, Melbourne, 2001, especially pp106-107; for Gration's views on Vietnam, see Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no 12, April 1988, pp45-46; for the letter of dissent, see The Age, September 26, 2002; for Gration's support of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War's report, see his statement November 12, 2002; for John Howard's views, see report of his address to the National Press Club, March 13, 2003.

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