Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 08:48 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 08:48 | SYDNEY


Graeme Dobell

2 September 2008 16:21

Beyond the golf versus swimming choice, former public servants and military officers can be divided into those who still hear the ring of the Minister’s phone call and those who don’t. Some can never abandon the closed-mouth habits of circumspection bred deep by years of service. Always, the old habits kick in for fear of that blast heralded by the ring from the Minister’s domain or the summons to the Secretary’s office.

Others, of course, realise they are free and start using their new freedom. It looks to be a question of character triumphing over habit.

My posts on the future of the Australian Army and Canberra leaks turned my thoughts to what appears to be an emerging trend — the number of ex-military officers embracing their freedom. The military tradition is to salute and shut up. The bookshelf shows that some now salute for the last time, then turn on their laptop.

Jim Molan, retired Major General and suddenly best-selling author, is an example of the breed that is able to slip free of the old mental restraints. He wryly comments that it was a 'miracle' that the Department of Defence approved the release of 'Running the war in Iraq'. Perhaps Defence has noticed that times have changed. Officers walking out the door for the last time are finding publishers ready to put them into print. And some of the tougher operators in Russell Hill might have worked out that a few mavericks roaming the hills can speak truths that Defence could never officially utter.

The operational tempo since 1999 means that there are many more exciting stories to liven up the narrative. A glance along the bookshelf shows how the tempo has been translated into print. Peter Cosgrove has been the subject of a biography and offers his own hefty version. Cosgrove’s effort lives because he writes exactly the way he talks.

Having gone all the way to the top, though, the saviour of Timor, Australian of the Year, Chief of Army and Chief of Defence Force can not bring himself to write anything that would promote an angry call from the Minister’s office. You would not know from the Cosgrove book, for instance, that the militias that put the torch to East Timor were actually created and run by the Indonesian military.

For a more Chomsky-like view of the East Timor adventure, turn instead to former Major Clinton Fernandez and his short but pointed, 'Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the independence of East Timor'. He’s also written what amounts to a companion work, 'Reluctant Indonesians', about West Papua.

East Timor propelled another intelligence officer into the headlines – Lieutenant-Colonel Lance Collins. Embracing post-Army freedom, Collins teamed up with the ex-ASIS agent Warren Reed to produce, 'Plunging Point: Intelligence failures, cover-ups and consequences.' In his introduction to Plunging, the journalist Phillip Knightley explains the tensions:

All intelligence officers sooner or later face a moral dilemma – should they tell their political masters the truth about the world out there, however, unpalatable, or tell them what they want to hear.”

Ah, the security-crat’s eternal choice: the organisational safety of preference and promotion or the cold comfort of pointing to monsters that might never actually arrive.

And that brings us to the one intelligence officer who resigned from the Coalition of the Willing over Iraq, Andrew Wilkie. The Lieutenant Colonel’s book – Axis of Deceit — is a minor Canberra classic. It gives you the routine of the intelligence officer as part of the civil service mainstream – co-ordination meetings and round tables and lots of reports. It also offers an account of what the Canberra system tries to do to a disillusioned officer who decides that the press gallery is the place to unburden his conscience. Deciding not to salute and shut up carries costs, as Wilkie concludes:

Blowing the whistle on your government isn’t for everyone. It can turn your life upside-down…it can also leave you remarkably at peace, especially if you’re sure of your conscience and self-confident enough to ride the roller coaster that inevitably ensues.

In the US, you couldn’t write a golly-gosh column about ex-military people writing honest books on current policy dilemmas (as opposed to safely-passed history). The US produces that genre by the shelf-full. Australia’s military elite seems to be adopting the US model. Put it down as one side-benefit of all that mid-career study the officers have to undergo and all those MAs they now need to get promoted. Not only can they salute, they can type.

Another way of defining this as a change to the Canberra order is to look at what has been coming out of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. More accurately, what has not been coming out of DFAT. The shelf-test reveals some biting work by the previous generation of ex-DFATers. Alison Broinowski and Tony Kevin in their writing have clearly thrown-off all the old habits imposed by Ministerial blowback. Alan Oxley mused on Australia’s economic way ahead ('Seize the Future') while Allan Gyngell and Michael Wesley have brought out two editions of 'Making Australian Foreign Policy'.

In the generation before them, Richard Woolcott moved from being John Howard’s personal envoy to one of Howard’s toughest critics in his 'Hot Seat'. By contrast, the habits of official reticence produced little anecdotage or anger in Rawdon Dalrymple’s, 'Continental Drift – Australia’s Search for a Regional Identity'.

Dalrymple’s 2003 book sits in distinguished linage – former diplomats worrying about Australia’s 'place'. Rawdon’s image of Continental Drift is an echo of the concerned ex-diplomat titles of previous eras: Malcolm Booker fretting about Australia as 'The Last Domino' in 1976 and Alan Renouf in 1979 lamenting Australia’s status as 'The Frightened Country.'

The operational tempo that has thrown up so much diverse thought from Defence this decade seems to have had the opposite impact in Foreign Affairs. Or maybe the DFATers just have to stay longer before they qualify for the pension!