GREEN ON BLUE
The American army always wore blue coats. That’s why, to them, it seemed natural to use blue when marking US units on the battle-maps. Although at the end of World War One the British and ANZAC’s were using red chinagraph pencils to represent their formations (we used to have red coats, don’t-you-know) that didn’t last long. When the next war came around it was far easier just to fit in with the Yanks. Getting them to change was next to impossible. And soon, once the communists had become the enemy, it just seemed obvious they’d be painted red.
But change became necessary in Afghanistan. The Nato forces are ‘blue’ but every commander knew the Afghan National Army couldn’t measure up in terms of quality. It lacks the equipment, training and determination displayed by the ISAF units. Inevitably, so as to easily identify where the ANA is on a map, their units were coloured ‘green’.
That’s why the attack on our diggers the other day was described as “green on blue”. It’s military shorthand. It’s unfortunate, sad and regrettable that the phrase has now been used so often that it’s now jumped over from being simply a technical term to possess wider currency. Our thoughts, now, are particularly for those here in Canberra who knew and loved a bright young man who’s lost his life. When the news of a tragedy takes a human face, it’s so much more difficult to bear.
At one time the relationship between those in the military and people in broader society was much closer. After Federation it was the Labor party that insisted the army’s ranks would be filled by conscription: partly because it was everyone’s duty to serve the country but also because the left didn’t want a small professional military becoming a bulwark of right-wing conservatism. And that’s the way things remained until Vietnam.
More full-time soldiers were needed for that unpopular war than there were volunteers. Conscription was introduced; which just made the war even more detested. The professional military withdrew into itself. General duty uniforms were not allowed to be worn on the streets. The breach between wider society and the soldiers deepened. Tragically, that remains the case. Sure, thousands now attend Anzac Day ceremonies and serving in the military’s more popular than it once was, but little has been done to broaden contacts and understanding. The military isn’t representative of the country. The gulf is deepening.
Language is just one of the problems. Increasingly the military is set apart. It has its own patois; a secret lingo for the initiated where blue means friendly and secrets are held tight and only spit and polish is shown to the audience from outside the fraternity. At a time when most business’ are doing all they can to engage with the community, the forces are increasingly setting themselves apart.
Recently an academic working at the Land Warfare Studies Centre, Dr Albert Palazzo wrote a paper lamenting the “odd” and “worrying” lack of debate in the Australian army. He suggests cultural, bureaucratic and operational factors have led to a deep-seated fear of challenging the all-pervading official doctrine. He made a strong case for a “robust, vibrant, sometimes painful but ultimately healthy debate over the changing character of war”.
An independent thinker, I assumed, and telephoned to discuss the issue. I wanted to make sure I’d understood the points he was trying to make. Very politely, Palazzo cut me off. He said I’d need to go through Defence Media Operations before he could speak to me. How about a casual, off-the-record meeting over lunch, I enquired? No, he responded, it would be impossible to continue the conversation without official approval.
That particular day was Indonesian Independence Day, so less than twenty minutes I was standing on the Ambassador’s lawn with the Chief of the Army, David Morrison. Still furious that every interaction supposedly had to be monitored from above, I upbraided him. The general’s response was far more measured. He had no problem, he insisted, absolutely no issue at all with people, particularly defence academics, discussing their views with the media. He just wanted to make sure that everything they said was well informed and made the point that Palazzo hadn’t put the critique to him before publishing it. Morrison insists he is all for a genuine contest of ideas on a wide range of topics.
Suffice it to say that the difference between the situation in Australia and America is dramatic. In the US opinions are free and controversy is allowed – even, in some instances, encouraged and, perhaps most significantly, it’s not necessary to clear anything beforehand. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the constitution. It’s not here, where every ‘fact’ is carefully vetted before being grudgingly released way beyond deadline.
The requirement for only vetted journalists to deploy to Afghanistan on carefully controlled ‘tours’ suggests the fixation is not on getting it correct, but on managing the story to ensure the appropriate nuance pervades the reporting.
It’s not fair just to blame the troops for this. A recent academic survey found it was the very officers who had the most frequent dealings with the media who held journalists in the greatest contempt. And then there’s the Minister. Ever since John Moore was in the job politicians have sought to (and been effective at) muzzling the services. Nobody wants the awkward questions raised, it’s much easier to brush it under the carpet and rely on operational secrecy.
This tension is reflected in the way officers are trained. There’s an inherent tension between wider education and the sort of training that’s required to do the job. This was the subject of a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report. It highlighted the urgent need for sweeping changes. Morrison himself is the product of a civilian university (Melbourne) and it doesn’t seem to have done either him or the army any harm.
If there’s to be change it will need to be driven from the top – and that means the Minister. Unfortunately the distinction between those in uniform and civilians appears to be growing wider, not shallower, by the day.
[addition on 20 September]
The following link is to a piece in the (British) Telegraph published a couple of weeks after this column appeared in the Canberra Times. It's an interesting perspective because it's from a British CO 'talking' about the war in Afghanistan. I suspect it's very, very difficult for anyone actually in combat to be as 'reflective' as a journalist standing outside the story.