Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:47 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:47 | SYDNEY

War is always a choice


Andrew Shearer

8 July 2008 15:23

I'm moved to respond to what may have been a throwaway line by my colleague and editor of The Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen:

Besides, the war in Iraq in particular was a war of choice, and improving our military capability for such operations will only tempt politicians to conduct more of them.

Leaving aside the debate over Iraq, in my view seeking to constrain the options of future democratically elected governments to respond to events we cannot possibly predict is not a sound basis for defence policy. The ‘war of choice’ construct is a convenient debating point but not a force structure principle. Australia is a sovereign nation, and the decision to employ force is always a choice – and always a very difficult one for governments. With the arguable exception of the Kokoda campaign, every conflict in which Australia has participated has been a ‘war of choice’ – including our recent deployments to East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Australia nearly paid a very high price in 1941-42 for well meaning but bad defence decisions in the 1930s; it is not so widely known that we could also have paid a price for poor defence planning in the 1980s and early 1990s when in 1998 we deployed a relatively small force to East Timor — very close to Australia — with deficient lift and sustainment capabilities. Donald Rumsfeld didn’t get everything right, but he was certainly right that governments go to war with the army they have, not the army they want.

Rather than presuming to tie their hands based on today’s ephemeral political debates, we need to ensure that the decisions we take now equip future Australian governments with a flexible and affordable range of capabilities to confront contingencies we can’t even begin to foresee.