On the eve of Anzac Day 2016 I was invited to a wonderful function held to commemorate Australian service personnel. Unfortunately I was seated next to an uncharacteristically bitter Vietnam veteran who spent the evening telling me how the Australian Defence Force was in decline, and that we were not a scratch on his generation. He suggested our missions were not as arduous as theirs, and that we lacked the experience to be a truly skilled force. He finished his diatribe suggesting that our diversity was an anchor to progress. While I politely smiled, deep down I was seething. I was seething both because, as a Vietnam veteran who was undoubtedly judged by his forbears, he should have known better, but also because he was just plain wrong.
Our Army has Courage, Respect, Initiative and Teamwork as its core values. I have absolute confidence these values would have received the seal of approval from our original forbears. In my 30 years in the Australian Defence Force, I have seen these values lived by our people. I offer three personal anecdotes that, when connected, paint the picture.
In 2007, when I was a Battalion Commander in Southern Iraq, we regularly patrolled our Area of Operations hunting out insurgents who both rocketed our base and employed Improvised Explosive Devices on our roads. During one of these patrols a team had halted for a break. As they were trying cool down, which is not a simple task during a 50 plus degree day in the middle of the desert, an insurgent team fired a volley of very well aimed mortar rounds. The group’s section commander was the sole casualty. He had been hit with shrapnel in his neck and back. Had the shrapnel been a couple of millimetres higher it would have severed his jugular vein, which would have been a fatal injury so far from base. His section quickly reacted to the threat, arranged for their commander’s evacuation and then continued on patrol. Miraculously the soldier was deemed fit to re-assume duties after only a week. While he was physically ready, the event had clearly taken its toll on him mentally. The mortar round had landed within five metres of him, and he had suddenly become consumed by a feeling of mortality. I decided that he needed to return home. However, having such respect for their section commander, his soldiers pleaded with me to give him more time. They assured me they could get him back in the saddle. Against my better judgment, I relented. Those soldiers coaxed him back out on patrol, pleading with him that they needed him. Within days he was back out commanding his team better than ever. One does not need to look hard to see the Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork in that story.
Fast forward to January 2020, while Commanding Operation Bushfire Assist, in support of the devastating events of what is now known as the Black Summer, we deployed an army of chainsaw teams across vast areas in South East Australia to re-establish access to communities cut off due to fire damage. This work was arduous, dangerous and conducted in some very inaccessible areas. I received a call about a week into the operation notifying me of a sapper who had sustained a terrible injury from her chainsaw. She had done everything right, but nature and chance got a vote. In this complex environment, she had sustained deep lacerations on the top of her foot that severed all of her tendons, removed the skin and cut to the bone. When I visited her in hospital, given the severity of the injury, I was expecting her to talk about her pain and her fear of what such an injury meant to her personally and professionally. This would be a natural reaction. To my surprise, which transformed into admiration, she never once mentioned any of this. Rather, she spoke of how her team mates had cared for her, got her evacuated and visited her in hospital. She also spoke of her gratitude for being able to help Australians in their time of need. She talked of the pain and loss of others in the community, but she never spoke of herself. Again, yet another example of Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork. I have served for 30 years in the Army and I have seen this time and time again.
Now, to shape this into the context of today’s soldier I draw upon a story I was told by an old veteran, Harry Wright. An absolute character who had fought in the Battle of Tobruk and was a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. As a young Captain I asked him what was harder, his experiences in World War Two or Vietnam. Rather than answer my somewhat naive question, he relayed a story to me. He described that during the Battle of Tobruk, he had shared his foxhole with his dad, who was also a veteran of World War One. A new reinforcement passed by their foxhole after a big fight. The nervous looking young soldier asked Harry whether it had been a large battle that they had just fought. Harry recounted turning to his Dad saying 'Pa, what do you think?' According to Harry, his Dad just shook his head and said, 'Son, compared to the Somme this was just a minor skirmish.' According to Harry, context was everything. Each event is significant, and none can really be meaningfully compared to the other. And that is where the veteran I referred to earlier was so plainly wrong. Comparison is useless, context is everything. Our soldiers have been exposed to a vast array of differing contexts throughout history. However, they still display the same traits today as they did 119 years ago – Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork.
So, to summarise from my foxhole, our soldiers are smart, they are tenacious and they are committed. These are important qualities in potentially lethal environments where we can never afford to be complacent, must always stay on our game and hold ourselves to account. They also epitomise the values and ideals that we hold so dear as described in Good Soldiering. They are courageous, they always show initiative, they respect themselves and those around them and they serve and thrive in teams. I have had the good fortune to serve alongside many nations on a number of operations, and we are consistently held in the highest regard by all of our Allies because we are good at what we do. We are truly blessed to have our contemporary soldiers swelling the ranks.
The ANZAC legacy lives on.
“Each event is significant, and none can really be meaningfully compared to the other.”
I totally agree. My similar anecdote is from a presentation on Long Tan, given at the AWM. The historian remarked: “It was just small beer”. He was comparing Long Tan with Passchendaele. I was so incensed that I stood up and stated that he had no right to use the term ‘small beer’; asking if he could understand how insulting it would be to the NOK of the Long Tan casualties to have the sacrifices of their family members, portrayed on this basis? The bravery and dedication of soldiers is the same, not matter the scale of the battle.
You mention that “Our Army has Courage, Respect, Initiative and Teamwork as its core values”. I don’t doubt for one minute that our soldiers today live up to, and indeed, exceed, these expectations. I wonder, however, if they are being supported well enough.
Sometimes the maturity of a nation is expressed in terms of the degree to which it cares for its veterans. I believe that the maturity of an Army can be expressed in terms of the degree to which it embraces the lessons that have been learnt from past experiences (not only those of yesterday, but also those happening in real time).
The Vietnam experience was that combat lessons had to be relearnt (at the cost of casualties) by every new unit deployed. There was no attempt interview soldiers returning from active service, so as to gain (and build on) their insights and experience. Has the Australian Army of today, reached maturity?