In Harm’s Way

Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War

By James Brown

Quarterly Essay, Black Inc Books, $23, 104 pages, ISBN 9781863958417


Fortunately, the question of when Australia should go to war does not come up often. But when it does it is undeniably important, so it is odd that there has been little examination of the decision-making machinery. James Brown, a former Australian Army officer whose last book, Anzac’s Long Shadow, had some interesting questions to ask, is a good person to look at the area, and the Quarterly Essay format allows him the opportunity for substantial investigation. If there are problems in his analysis it is more because there are gaps in the subject than in his research skills.

Brown believes the Iraq war (that is, the one that removed Saddam Hussein from office) has become the template for much of the current thinking about Australia’s involvement in military conflicts, to the point where thinking is sometimes replaced with knee-jerk reactions, even where the analogy is inappropriate, such as with IS. It also underlines the lack of real discussion about strategic issues at the political level. There are few forums to do so although some are beginning to develop, such as the National Security College at ANU, and the ADF has developed its own research capacity.

In practice, the decision to commit military forces rests with the Prime Minister, who might take advice from ADF leaders and ministerial colleagues but is under no obligation to do so. In a few cases, Prime Ministers have set aside parliamentary time to explain their decisions but this is not the same as seeking input for the decision itself.

Sometimes, the thinking behind security-related decisions seems obscure, to say the least. Brown does not look at the issue in detail but one example might be the decision to build a fleet of twelve submarines. Given the huge expenditure involved, it would be good to know the strategic underpinnings. It appears to be that if the current fleet of six is good then 12 must be, well, twice as good. It isn’t really much of a policy basis.

Brown notes that in several cases Australian troops have been sent into conflict zones without clear strategic directives. He remarks that Tony Abbott, when PM, put forward a series of proposals to send troops into trouble spots, including the Ukraine and Nigeria. He wanted Australia to be seen as active on the world stage but there was little in the way of practical understanding of the limits of the ADF. (Abbott, for his part, has strongly disputed Brown’s claims.)

Rudd appeared to recognise that lack of overview and rigour was a problem but his solution was to centralise everything in his in-tray and then forget about it. Unsurprisingly. Brown does  not mention Turnbull, perhaps because of insufficient evidence or perhaps because the PM is his father-in-law.

Brown suggests a new security council, based on a model used successfully in the UK, as a possible way around such problems. He admits it would take a while to develop it, and such a body could easily undermine the accountability of elected leaders. But it could provide advice on what is possible, and could develop ‘what-if’ scenarios for potential conflicts so that decisions do not have to be made in crisis circumstances.

It is a useful idea but a plan for another advisory council does not really get to the issue of when and in what circumstances Australian forces should be committed to a conflict. Brown offers a framework of questions, mainly revolving around a clear-minded assessment of national interests and costs weighed against benefits. This is a good start but the realpolitik attitude makes it seem very cold. It is the sort of thinking that led countries to ignore the Holocaust as “none of our business”. More recently, we might look at Islamic State’s genocidal practices and its enslavement of thousands of women for sexual use. Is Brown saying we should just ignore this because it does not directly affect our national interest? Apparently so.

True, one does not want to start barging into every hotspot around the world to right perceived wrongs. But surely there is some line where military action meets morality – and surely it is somewhere around genocide and enslavement. One might hope there would be room for such views on the council suggested by Brown, or somewhere in the process.

Despite the shortcomings, Firing Line is a worthwhile essay with useful things to say. And if it makes policymakers think a bit more about the risks and benefits of sending Australian soldiers into harm’s way, then it will have done its job.


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