Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:53 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:53 | SYDNEY

The political dimension of war

11 August 2010 14:48

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

In my response to Dr Stephan Frühling and Dr Benjamin Schreer, I claimed that they showed an inability to differentiate between what is difficult in military operations and what represents defeat, an inability to learn from previous wars, an inability to understand even the basics of military operations and how tactics are linked to strategy, and a frightening continuation of the extreme minimalist approach to the use of military force that has served us so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stephan and Benjamin have taken me to task on the last point and replied that what I failed to do is address what is essential to strategy: political context. 'Without it, any discussion of strategy is meaningless, because it is political objectives and commitments that justify and give sense to military operations'.

Political context (meaning, in part, objectives and commitments) is very important for military operations. But what I have seen from both military and civilian leaders and commentators in justifying military minimalism over many years is either an unquestioning acceptance of the political context as it is, or, if the political context is not yet set, assuming what it is likely to be. In both cases, there is a very strong bias towards assuming a political context that results in ineffectual use of the ADF.

It is the role of our armed forces to accept political direction once that direction is decided and promulgated. It is not the role of the military or other officials to accept the extant 'political context' as immutable, nor to assume what the political context is likely to be and so structure advice to politicians accordingly. Political leadership is an important factor in deciding the political context at any point in time, and political leadership on any issue can change dramatically, and can be changed.

I am reminded of my first tour as an attaché in Indonesia. I was confronted by people in Defence, in DFAT, in other bureaucracies and in the embassy who lived by the saying: 'The relationship between Australia and Indonesia will proceed at a pace comfortable to both sides'. As a result, nothing occurred. This was another way of advising me, as the new boy, not to rock the boat because it involves risk and effort, neither of which was welcomed by the bureaucracy.

It was pathetic to see how quickly the same bureaucrats changed when the Foreign Minister and then the Prime Minister recognised what could be achieved, and how the relationship could actually go 'gangbusters'. Leadership involves risk and effort but leadership is pretty well everything.

I thank Stephan and Benjamin for saying that I continue 'to do great service to the Australian debate by highlighting the tactical and operational aspects and limits of Australian coalition contributions'. Hugh White has previously damned me with similar faint praise, and I objected to it here. If Stephan and Benjamin's comment assumes that I, or the military in general, am only good at the tactical and operational level of war and should leave the strategic level to the 'strategists', then I once again thank them for this faint praise and reject the implication.

Photo by Flickr user tallpomlin, used under a Creative Commons license.