Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Monday, 6 October 2008

Reviewing "Paul Ham on War"


It's time for another review – this one is looking at an article in the Weekend Australian Magazine of October 4 – 5, 2008.

I'm a fan of Ham's, having read both "Vietnam, the Australian War" and "Kokoda ". I like his work because it is a combination of thoroughly researched and objective material, with reflections based on the experience of soldiers. He lays out context with an attention to detail unsurpassed in anything else I've read. His reflections are never mawkish, but cut like a knife through the jingoism and faux nationalism which is unfortunately a feature of literature about war and conflict.

This article is no exception. I read it as a rationalization of his approach to the subject. He talks about the total impact of military conflict on all involved, and widens the perspective of the reader beyond the conventional guts and glory narrative we're used to. There is also a clear message about the relationship between the soldier and the politicians and the nation who send them off to fight. He makes a very clear and simple conclusion that resonates with my experience –

Australians' newfound enthusiasm for our martial past often fails to consider the dreadful context of a soldier's self-sacrifice, and cleanses the act in a mawkish celebration of civilian conceptions of war as "good triumphing over evil", or "fighting to defend the realm, king and country". Most soldiers scorn these interpretations: "We were fighting for our lives and the lives of our mates" seems to be the most common thread that binds men in battle.

He makes particular reference to Vietnam, and makes a strong point that connects it to Iraq and Afghanistan

Nor is it useful to see the Vietnam War as a mere setback in the Cold War. As one Australian academic stated: "It is easier now to think of Vietnam not as a war that was lost but as a losing battle within a bigger Cold War struggle that was won." It maybe easy; it is also simplistic and dangerous, as it portrays this unique human tragedy as the forgettable ephemera in an otherwise triumphant Western victory, and tends to absolve the grave political mistakes that led to it. In consequence, the soldiers' self-sacrifice is diminished, and the Vietnam War ceases to be a singular human catastrophe from which we might learn. At least our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to have taught us not to attack soldiers for politicians' decisions. If we're honest, only by knowing why Australian soldiers went to war, the context of their battle honours, and their failings as well as their triumphs, can we fully appreciate the true nature of sacrifice in war.

I'd recommend it strongly. Get hold of the magazine, or find it in the library. If you haven't read any of his other works, do yourself a favour and do so.

I've also posted the illustration by Danny Snell. I hope no copyright has been breached!

6 comments:

Richard Sharpe said...

Most soldiers scorn these interpretations: "We were fighting for our lives and the lives of our mates" seems to be the most common thread that binds men in battle.

That is a very narrow approach to the motivation for soldiers to fight. By scorning the more altruistic ideals behind military service, it actually demeans ability of soldiers to rationalise their involvement in conflict. Whilst your personal example provides a convenient escape clause for ownership of a decision process that led you to war, the same generalisation cannot be made for the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts. The soldiers fighting in those theatres are volunteers. They enlisted with the knowledge that going to war may be required of them. To focus on the immediate and visceral reaction to combat oversimplifies a broader understanding that the modern soldier has about his role in any operation. It is an attempt to paint soldiers as pawns rather than the masters of their own destiny and the bearers of responsibility for their own decisions. By so doing, it comes across as the condescending and paternal reassurances from our “intellectual betters” that assume that because we’d be involved in a conflict that they see as repugnant, the only answer that doesn’t lead to the same sort of horrendous treatment of soldiers that you experienced is that we are too stupid to know better. The motivation for going is that all our friends are. The only reason we fight is because we are in the immediate danger that the “evil government” put us in and we are defending our own life and those of our mates. It is demeaning, condescending and insulting.

We know why we deploy to these places. We know the geo-political manoeuvrings that put us there. We know the historical and cultural roots of the conflict. We know our mission and our role in it. I am yet to receive a deployment briefing that runs along the lines of “You are going to country X in order to protect your own life and the lives of your mates”. Those are what we call implied tasks. They are important, but never the primary mission for any deployment. They are also usually the first questions asked; our ROE hold a very important role in the maintenance of morale. Overly restrictive ROE in dangerous situations makes people tense. Rwanda, specifically Kibeho, is a textbook example of that. Even that example though, of soldiers in the heat of the moment concerned with protecting their own life and those of their mates, were able to clearly see the more important concern was for the civilian populace caught up in those terrible events. They are now horribly traumatised by that experience, not because of the danger that they were in, but because they were denied the opportunity to serve the greater good in accordance with the altruistic ideals that they believed they were there to implement. To reduce those experiences to "We were fighting for our lives and the lives of our mates" cheapens their suffering and ascribes to them a baser level of their understanding of their own involvement than is painfully evident to even the most naive observer.

BTW, rationalize (sic) is spelled with an “s” in Australia. You wouldn’t be aping the spelling of those damnably stupid Americans would you? ;)

1735099 said...

"That is a very narrow approach to the motivation for soldiers to fight."

That's your opinion, and you're entitled to it. It doesn't align with mine, or the well-researched opinion of an author who interviewed a very significant number of Vietnam Veterans. I quoted it because it closely matches my conclusions, developed through personal experience. Apparently Ham found many veterans who felt the same. Undoubtedly there were many who did not – I respect them also.

Ham installs it as a theme in his writing. He remains deeply respectful of soldiering, if not of the politicians who sent them to war, or of some incompetent commanders, and there were a few of these. Remember the barrier minefield? These mines – our own - took a fearful toll of 7RAR members.

The experience of many Vietnam Veterans was bitter, even before they returned to an ungrateful community. It was palpably obvious to me by the time I'd been in the country a month or two, that the Vietnamese, who were fighting as VC, were doing so with a strongly held belief that they were engaged in a war of national liberation. This has been reinforced to me in discussion with ex-VC I have met on my return visits to Vietnam since, and my post-graduate studies in Asian history. I call it as I see it. Many Vietnam Veterans saw the same. You could validly be critical of my behaviour in allowing myself to be involved in a conflict that I did not support. At the time, two years in the army looked to be a better prospect than three years in jail.

"Whilst your personal example provides a convenient escape clause for ownership of a decision process that led you to war,"

Who's decision? It certainly wasn't mine – I was denied a vote during the 1969 Federal election because the army couldn't be bothered to get a truck to take me (and quite a few others) to a polling booth. I was at Canungra at the time. The irony of being denied a vote whilst being trained to fight for democracy wasn't lost on me and my mates. Since you're talking about my view, you might be interested to know that my motivation was purely and simply to get home in one piece. The only medal I coveted was the returned from active service medal. So I was fighting for myself and my mates. That's the honesty of it. And I don't need an "escape clause".

Remember that I was a conscript, that the bulk of my peers were safe at home because their birthdays weren't drawn out of the barrel, that I had left a very satisfying and fulfilling job as a teacher in a country school, and I was fighting in a conflict that did not, by the time I was there, have the support of my countrymen. Contrast this with my father's experience during World War 2. He enlisted in the RAAF, and served in New Guinea as an LAC fitting and repairing radios in Kittyhawks. He fought as a volunteer in a war where our national security was clearly threatened, not as a conscript in a conflict about ideology in the context of the Cold War.

"It is demeaning, condescending and insulting."

You're falling into the same trap as those who spat in our faces when we returned to Australia. Separate the performance of the soldiers from the decisions made by their political masters. We were blamed for the conflict, blamed for "losing" (we didn't – Phuoc Tui was much more secure when we left than it was when we arrived) and treated like pariahs by the same people who voted for a government who sent us to fight. In my book, that's demeaning, condescending and insulting.

"We know why we deploy to these places".

I have the utmost respect for the volunteers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if they are now briefed to a full understanding of why they are in harm's way, and they're operating in the full knowledge of that, there's been a major improvement on the situation forty years ago. The real issue here is not the quality of our fighting men and women – they're the best in the world – but the leadership of our politicians, and their capacity to identify our national interest. Recent experience indicates that it's safe to have confidence in our military – but not our government. Your comment about Rwanda reinforces this -

"but because they were denied the opportunity to serve the greater good in accordance with the altruistic ideals that they believed they were there to implement."

You've hit the nail on the head. In Vietnam there was tremendous dissonance between the values of the soldiers and the reality of the conflict. This is part of the tragedy that Ham writes about. If you haven't already read his book – do so. You may not agree with his views (and he doesn't let them intrude in a very tightly-written monograph) but he will make you examine your own.

"BTW, rationalize (sic) is spelled with an “s” in Australia. You wouldn’t be aping the spelling of those damnably stupid Americans would you? ;)"

Put the spelling down to MSWord spellchecker. The Americans spell better than they fight.

Richard Sharpe said...

If my opinion doesn’t align with yours, I’m fine with that. It is a very subjective topic. The opinions of the author are less reliable; they are not subjective from the perspective of personal experience, but rather from moulding generalities to suit a specific worldview. His focus on both Vietnam and Kokoda exposes the first flaw in attributing a universal motivation to all soldiers. Kokoda was initially fought by militiamen whose caveat on operation service was that they were only to be used in Australia. New Guinea was technically Australian territory at the time, and so they were sent in lieu of the 2nd AIF, still returning from North Africa. There is a commonality with Vietnam in that soldiers were sent to conflicts they were not volunteers for. Therefore, by interviewing both Kokoda veterans and Vietnam veterans, the author was very likely to receive the sort of answers he was looking for.

You contradict yourself in the space of one paragraph when addressing the “escape clause” issue. You claim not to need an escape clause and yet at the same time play the conscript card and the fact that your only choice was between the army and jail. That means you didn’t decide to serve in Vietnam, and therefore you have a convenient escape clause for ownership of a decision process that led you to war. As you quite rightly point out “Who's (sic) decision? It certainly wasn't mine.” Because you didn’t volunteer for Vietnam and had no other interest than coming safely home, you would only have fought for your life and the lives of your mates. That is your experience, and it makes sense if you look at it from a conscript’s perspective. As I said though, it is a very narrow viewpoint. The link between the service of a conscript in Vietnam and that of a modern, professional soldier in places like East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan is very tenuous. Some of the TTPs might look familiar, but the motivations are very different.

As you’ve acknowledged, the modern soldier has a solid understanding of the mission, its background and its objectives. This means that there is a higher ideal to fight for than just the visceral and immediate reaction to danger. Why would the author then try to attribute the basest motives to volunteer soldiers? Is it to paint them as too stupid to understand the bigger picture and the moral consequences of their involvement or is it to portray them as shallow and selfish so that they would only fight to save their own life or those of their close little circle? Either answer is demeaning, condescending and insulting.

There is a third option. Does it suit the author’s worldview to see soldiers as pawns so as not to have to face the spectre of their own conviction that to be involved in war is inherently evil and the only way to avoid the sort of behaviour that occurred following Vietnam is to remove a soldier’s intellect and conscience from the equation and to treat them like well-meaning, if a little misguided, pets? There seems to be some justification for that assertion. “At least our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to have taught us not to attack soldiers for politicians' decisions.”

It is only a very thin veneer that separates the anti-war crowd of today from that of 40 years ago. They have learned the lesson that to attack soldiers is unpopular. It hasn’t really changed their opinions, as much as they may parrot the mantra that they have a beef with the politicians, not the soldiers. The looks of disgust and barely concealed hostility that I’ve experience are only one feisty agent provocateur away from what you would have experienced. Sometimes I’d rather they did. It would be so much easier to deal with and would expose them for the hypocrites they really are. I actually had a guy over at Blair’s express his sincere hope that I get blown up by a roadside bomb. He later apologised, but only after he’d been loudly denounced from all sides. The anti-war movement are very careful to avoid any comparison between their actions and the Vietnam era nastiness because they know they will lose support if they do. It is a tactical move, not a change of heart.

Your comments about Rwanda are a little off target. It was the UN mandate that prevented them from imposing themselves on that situation. The point was to highlight that it is not only the protection of self and peers that is the driver in those situations. They would rather have put themselves and their mates in greater danger to save the lives of those civilians. Their ROE and the UN mandate prevented that, despite their understanding of the situation, their perception of the role of the mission, and their own moral judgement, all of which came higher than self and peers in the decision making process. If you want to blame the government though, go ahead. The PM at the time was a Mr P. Keating, I believe he runs a pig farm now.

Richard Sharpe said...

If my opinion doesn’t align with yours, I’m fine with that. It is a very subjective topic. The opinions of the author are less reliable; they are not subjective from the perspective of personal experience, but rather from moulding generalities to suit a specific worldview. His focus on both Vietnam and Kokoda exposes the first flaw in attributing a universal motivation to all soldiers. Kokoda was initially fought by militiamen whose caveat on operation service was that they were only to be used in Australia. New Guinea was technically Australian territory at the time, and so they were sent in lieu of the 2nd AIF, still returning from North Africa. There is a commonality with Vietnam in that soldiers were sent to conflicts they were not volunteers for. Therefore, by interviewing both Kokoda veterans and Vietnam veterans, the author was very likely to receive the sort of answers he was looking for.

You contradict yourself in the space of one paragraph when addressing the “escape clause” issue. You claim not to need an escape clause and yet at the same time play the conscript card and the fact that your only choice was between the army and jail. That means you didn’t decide to serve in Vietnam, and therefore you have a convenient escape clause for ownership of a decision process that led you to war. As you quite rightly point out “Who's (sic) decision? It certainly wasn't mine.” Because you didn’t volunteer for Vietnam and had no other interest than coming safely home, you would only have fought for your life and the lives of your mates. That is your experience, and it makes sense if you look at it from a conscript’s perspective. As I said though, it is a very narrow viewpoint. The link between the service of a conscript in Vietnam and that of a modern, professional soldier in places like East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan is very tenuous. Some of the TTPs might look familiar, but the motivations are very different.

As you’ve acknowledged, the modern soldier has a solid understanding of the mission, its background and its objectives. This means that there is a higher ideal to fight for than just the visceral and immediate reaction to danger. Why would the author then try to attribute the basest motives to volunteer soldiers? Is it to paint them as too stupid to understand the bigger picture and the moral consequences of their involvement or is it to portray them as shallow and selfish so that they would only fight to save their own life or those of their close little circle? Either answer is demeaning, condescending and insulting.

There is a third option. Does it suit the author’s worldview to see soldiers as pawns so as not to have to face the spectre of their own conviction that to be involved in war is inherently evil and the only way to avoid the sort of behaviour that occurred following Vietnam is to remove a soldier’s intellect and conscience from the equation and to treat them like well-meaning, if a little misguided, pets? There seems to be some justification for that assertion. “At least our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to have taught us not to attack soldiers for politicians' decisions.”

It is only a very thin veneer that separates the anti-war crowd of today from that of 40 years ago. They have learned the lesson that to attack soldiers is unpopular. It hasn’t really changed their opinions, as much as they may parrot the mantra that they have a beef with the politicians, not the soldiers. The looks of disgust and barely concealed hostility that I’ve experience are only one feisty agent provocateur away from what you would have experienced. Sometimes I’d rather they did. It would be so much easier to deal with and would expose them for the hypocrites they really are. I actually had a guy over at Blair’s express his sincere hope that I get blown up by a roadside bomb. He later apologised, but only after he’d been loudly denounced from all sides. The anti-war movement are very careful to avoid any comparison between their actions and the Vietnam era nastiness because they know they will lose support if they do. It is a tactical move, not a change of heart.

Your comments about Rwanda are a little off target. It was the UN mandate that prevented them from imposing themselves on that situation. The point was to highlight that it is not only the protection of self and peers that is the driver in those situations. They would rather have put themselves and their mates in greater danger to save the lives of those civilians. Their ROE and the UN mandate prevented that, despite their understanding of the situation, their perception of the role of the mission, and their own moral judgement, all of which came higher than self and peers in the decision making process. If you want to blame the government though, go ahead. The PM at the time was a Mr P. Keating, I believe he runs a pig farm now.

1735099 said...

"There is a commonality with Vietnam in that soldiers were sent to conflicts they were not volunteers for."

More accurately, the conscripts had no intention of becoming soldiers, let alone fighting overseas. My belief is that conscription has no place in a democratic society.

"You claim not to need an escape clause and yet at the same time play the conscript card and the fact that your only choice was between the army and jail."

You and I have a different idea of "escape clause". Able-bodied citizens either have an obligation to defend their country or they do not. To have a situation whereby some citizens are expected to serve, and some, on the basis of some random factor (birthdate, for example) do not, is morally indefensible.

"The anti-war movement are very careful to avoid any comparison between their actions and the Vietnam era nastiness because they know they will lose support if they do."

This is a gross over-simplification. You can be anti-war without being anti-soldier. Most veterans are anti-war. In fact, after experience of war, how any rational individual cannot be anti-war is beyond me. Again, I can be anti-war, and still prepared to fight if our national security is threatened and there is no alternative. Unfortunately our nation's history is littered with episodes of young Australians fighting the ill-considered wars of our ex-colonial masters. Fortunately, we've had senior commanders (Monash is a good example) who protected their soldiers from the worst excesses of the cannon-fodder mentality so prevalent amongst the chinless wonders masquerading as British commanders in the Great War.

"As you’ve acknowledged, the modern soldier has a solid understanding of the mission, its background and its objectives. This means that there is a higher ideal to fight for than just the visceral and immediate reaction to danger. Why would the author………………
……………..Either answer is demeaning, condescending and insulting."

Again, you're making a bunch of assumptions that simply don't hold water. Ham does not "try to attribute the basest motives to volunteer soldiers" He interviews ex-soldiers and develops a range of themes from his research. Soldiers have a whole series of motives – you can't assume a collective mentality, and you certainly can't distinguish volunteers from regulars once operational service begins. That is well understood, and a feature (and a strength) of the Australian military. It is also my personal experience, during and post-Vietnam. Our military lacks the hierarchical culture of both the US and British forces – and I've observed both. In Vietnam many of our NCOs were ex-British army, and they valued the egalitarian nature of soldiering for Australia, and often said so. The way many of the Yanks treated Afro-Americans disgusted and bewildered Aussies when they encountered it.

What I find "demeaning, condescending and insulting" is to be preached at about my motives. I have every right to hold an opinion about military service based on my experience. I have every right to recommend literature which I believe accurately reflects that experience and that of many of those with whom I served. I have every right to remind you and others of the rank hypocrisy and dog-whistle politics that got us into the mess that was Vietnam. I hope we've learned something from the experience.

I have two sons of military age. I would be accepting of a notion that they should volunteer to fight to defend this country should it be threatened. I would, however, go to the barricades to prevent them from being conscripted as cannon-fodder in a conflict lacking the strong support of their countrymen.

"The PM at the time was a Mr P. Keating."

Yes, and it's interesting to note that the Prime Minister during the only time in which this country faced a genuine military threat was a certain John Curtin – remembered for bringing our soldiers home in the face of strong resistance from Churchill. We'll never know, but I wonder whether Menzies would have had that kind of backbone?

Curtin was, I believe, a man of the left…………

Richard Sharpe said...

Read this sentence carefully. You have a convenient escape clause for ownership of a decision process that led you to war. Note that the sentence indicates that the escape clause is not for the war itself, but for the ownership of the decision process. You were a conscript. You do not have to take responsibility for a decision to go to Vietnam. You were made to go. There is your escape clause from owning that decision. You don’t own that decision. I’m not sure why you’re having trouble following that and taking it on weird tangents. It has nothing to do with the birthday lottery or the duty of able bodied men to defend the homeland. It is about owning the decision to go abroad and fight. You don’t own that decision. Sir Robert Gordon Menzies KT, AK, CH, QC does. Just accept that society does not hold you morally responsible for being in Vietnam and let’s move on, OK?

Did you see what I just did? I just told you what to do and how to act. That is preaching to you. I do that now only to highlight that it hasn’t happened until that last paragraph. I’ve expressed a different opinion to you. I’ve questioned your opinion, and provided my own take on the material. I have not, until that last paragraph, been preaching to you. I’ve made fairly clear that your opinions are perfectly understandable given your experiences. I don’t agree with them, but that doesn’t mean I question your right to hold them. I also don’t question your motives for holding those opinions. As I’ve already pointed out a number of times, they reflect your experiences. You certainly have every right to recommend literature; I also have the right to disagree with what it says. Just because I disagree doesn’t mean I want to deny you your right to post about it.

I loved your second paragraph. It started “This is a gross over-simplification”, and ended with “the chinless wonders masquerading as British commanders in the Great War”. Pot, this is kettle over. To address your assertion though, yes you can be anti-war without being anti-soldier. The way I see it, there are three ways to approach debate on the morality of any particular conflict.

1. Create papier mache effigy of G.W. Bush, burn it. March in the street chanting meaningless slogans. Avoid calling soldiers baby-killers, spitting on them and throwing blood at them because that happened after Vietnam, and it is not going to engender support for your cause.
2. As per COA 1, except that you genuinely believe that soldiers are the pawns of their political maters, unable to make their own judgement because they are too poor, too uneducated, too unintelligent, unenlightened, or brainwashed to know better. They should be given a pat on the head and a flower.
3. Accept that soldiers (nowadays) are volunteers. They accept the moral consequences of their decision to enlist. They are willing to serve overseas because they have made the decision to abide by the will of the Australian people as expressed by their elected representatives. The way to change policy is to change government. Attack the aims, principles, or justification for the conflict. Convince the people that the government have made the wrong decision and encourage them to express their intent at the ballot box. If the will of the people is strong enough, a government will either change policy to avoid an electoral backlash, or will become the opposition.

The majority of the anti-war movement seem to adhere to the first two options. Fortunately, democracy is not rule by the vocal mob, but rule by the ballot box.

Your argument about defending Australia is also a little misguided, and reflects a position that clings to the now outdated DoA doctrine of the Beazley years. In the unlikely event that Australia is attacked by a foreign power, there may be some merit in your position. That is a very simplistic approach to the role of the ADF though. The Australian government have an obligation to protect not only the Australian mainland, but also her interests. That includes our alliances, economy and way of life. If the ADF are required to deploy overseas to protect those interests, then so be it. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have aspects of all of those interests and more. We are supporting the US as main strategic ally and by default defending the Australian mainland by supporting the ANZUS Treaty. We are combating terrorists and Islamic extremists because they threaten our way of life and our economy. Conscription plays no part in that. Not even the US, who is heavily committed to both campaigns, has resorted to conscription. Understandably, you have a preoccupation with the conscription issue, but it is really a moot point.

“Soldiers have a whole series of motives – you can't assume a collective mentality”. On the contrary, Mr Ham assumes just such a collective mentality. “Most soldiers scorn these interpretations: "We were fighting for our lives and the lives of our mates" seems to be the most common thread that binds men in battle.” Now, I can accept that Ham is making the same sort of gross generalisation that I made earlier about the anti-war movement, but you are contradicting your own argument by saying that Ham’s observations accurately reflect your own experiences, and then denying that they do. You are quite right though, soldiers have different motives, particularly in different eras and in different wars. That’s what makes sweeping generalisations about the current conflict based on previous soldier’s experiences and motives flawed logic. I could accept that sentence if it read “Most soldiers I interviewed scorn these interpretations: "We were fighting for our lives and the lives of our mates" seems to be the most common thread that binds men in the specific battles that were the focus of the study.”

Ham does not "try to attribute the basest motives to volunteer soldiers".
What then would you describe self-preservation as a motive for fighting as? It is the most base and primal survival instinct. By attributing "We were fighting for our lives and the lives of our mates" to “[m]ost soldiers”, and then drawing parallels to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ham is attributing the basest of motives to volunteer soldiers.

"At least our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to have taught us not to attack soldiers for politicians' decisions. If we're honest, only by knowing why Australian soldiers went to war, the context of their battle honours, and their failings as well as their triumphs, can we fully appreciate the true nature of sacrifice in war."

The conclusion is true, but the premise behind it is false. If anything, acknowledging that modern soldiers are fighting for more than just self-preservation should only enhance the appreciation of the sacrifices they make.

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