Given on Wednesday 22 July, 2009 at the Melbourne Exhibition Convention Centre (MCEC) …
Michael, thank you very much for the introduction.
An excess of modesty has never been one of my faults but I am greatly honoured by this award today in the presence of so many distinguished people. I thank you all very much for coming this evening, even if you are motivated merely by some form of mild curiosity.
The American comedian Henry Youngman said that “behind every successful man is a surprised woman”. My wife Anne has not only often been surprised, but sometimes absolutely astounded.
To be back in Victoria (a state which sees itself in the vanguard of thinking), to be nominated by the School of Thinking as the 2009 Australian Thinker of the Year, to be sponsored by the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre at this extraordinary new facility, puts me in great company. As Michael said, three scientists, a footballer and now a soldier. Where can he go from here?
I was born not far from here in St Vincent’s Hospital. I lived in Ivanhoe until I joined the Army at the tender age of 17. I had forgotten what it was like to see myself as a Victorian until I spent a Christmas with one of your state Governors, Dick McGarvie. Dick of course was a thinker all his life and in the short time I knew him he reminded me of the importance both of thought and of being a Victorian. Dick was a writer and a speaker, the complement to thinking, and as such, a leader on the national scale.
As is evident to everyone in this room that knows me, this award does not imply that I am the greatest thinker in Australia even in 2009. I was recently a speaker at an international convention of paediatric cardiac surgeons, a visit set up by my brother who is a radiologist here in Melbourne, and I came away feeling most inadequate in front of a caring group of medical professionals. The exchange of ideas, and the forensic examination of their profession, reminded me what a substantial contribution that physical facilities such as the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre make to the dissemination of ideas.
Plato may have held his discussion under a tree and so reached 20 people with some intimacy, but these surgeons ideas will now extend from doctors in Geelong to India, Kenya and the US.
Our democracy demands of its serving soldiers, sailors and airmen that they do not participate in the debate on many issues that could be described as political. That might be a reason why the opinions of servicemen rarely surface in public debate on many issues. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are of one mind (or no mind) on most issues. Having retired a year ago, I am now free to exercise the privilege of any Australian citizen and to join in the public debate. But debate requires you to have an opinion and an opinion requires thought.
Unthinking obedience is not the nature of most effective modern militaries. It is not the expectation that every order of every commander is accepted unquestioningly at every stage of the decision making process, or even during execution. This is grounds for disaster in modern fast moving operations. There may be less questioning at the lowest tactical level — when someone says ‘Duck!’ it is best to act without discussion. But even at this level, there are very few occasions when an order must be obeyed immediately and to the letter in an unthinking manner. Modern military discipline in an Australian sense is not having your soldier fear their officers more than they fear the enemy.
Decisions and strategies are what the military must be about. If you don’t make the right decisions, from the political level all the way down to the individual soldier, you will end up fighting the wrong war for the wrong reasons with the wrong equipment in the wrong place at the wrong time using the wrong tactics. No society will not thank its government for that.
May I specifically mention that present today are Wilma and Graham O’Neill, the parents of a member of my bodyguard in Iraq, a fine Australian soldier, Dave O’Neill of the Special Air Service, who was tragically and accidently killed here in Victoria. I am also honoured to have Joe Day here tonight, an Australian soldier who knows as much about tactical warfighting and leadership as any other contemporary Australian. There is a real price to pay for our country and some pay it more than others.
You may have noticed that militaries have had some very bad press over the last few centuries.
We know that the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is getting an old one out.
HG Wells said that the professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind — “no man” he tells us, “of high intellectual quality would willingly imprison his gifts in such a calling”.
And Tolstoy really put the boot in when he said: “The best generals that I have known were stupid or absent minded … not only does a good army commander not need any special qualities, on the contrary, he needs the absence of the highest and best human attributes – love, poetry, tenderness, and philosophic inquiring doubt”.
Perhaps the award of 2009 Australian Thinker of the Year acknowledges that one aspect of what I have become known for required a great deal of intellectual effort as well as practicality, and that I took the step of recording that process in my book in a way that many could share, and indeed think about, and now I can talk about it.
This award has forced me to think about thinking and at the risk of sounding like a consultant, I totally agree that it is not what you think but how you think that is important.
The first tasks that I was given in Iraq was to provide some kind of security to the power, oil and rail infrastructures across that vast nation against attacks that were driving the people into the hands of extremists. No matter how far back in my military training I went, I had never even theoretically discussed or experienced such a problem, but I was trained and experienced as a problem solver.
The challenge for any society is to maintain the competence of its military during periods of low conflict, as we have had for the last 40 years following the charnel house of the first half of the 20th Century. Militaries need to do our bread and butter, day to day operations as well as be prepared for the generational military challenge that history indicates is likely to come. If you fail to prepare adequately, you only know by drastic failure on the day.
Understanding the nature of military operations is not a burden that the public, individually or collectively, is required to shoulder. Some commentators will attempt to do so, but their comprehension will often extend little beyond abstract symbols in the world of public opinion, resulting in gross simplifications. It is the job of Government, and when appropriate, the military with the approval of government, to explain military operations to the public.
Of course the military are servants of the state and the ends for which military force is used, the means used to achieve those ends and limitations on the use of those means is the prerogative of government. This does not mean the military should not attempt to shape political opinion, but ideally it should do so without it becoming a public political protagonist. If you think about it carefully, both government and the electorate have the right to be wrong, a right they will exercise. I cannot think of one conflict or war that was lost because of the actions of soldiers. It is civilian and military “generals” that lose wars. If you want to change the nature of your military, start with their political masters.
What a society gets in its armed forces is what it asks for, and what it usually asks for is something that reflects itself. Any core institution in a society that becomes progressively isolated from the society it serves will lose its relevance and respect, and inevitably it will be the victim of a violent correction.
If you have read my book you may not describe much that I did as skilful. It was by the very nature of war clumsy, as often as not our military impact was on places where our enemy was not, and no one living in the streets of Baghdad would have seen us as skilful. But we probably did it more effectively and on a higher moral plane than any other military in the history of arms, especially given the fact that we had insufficient troops. In saying this I am not avoiding judgements about the morality of our actions: I consider that the invasion of Iraq to have probably been legal, but to have been in retrospect a gross strategic error, but I consider that the subsequent counter-insurgency was something that morally, we could not walk away from.
Now I sing the praise of our military because they deserve it but you should be aware that I commissioned one of our best military intellectuals (Dr Michael Evans) to write a paper to support an argument that I was then making that we have failed to encourage our generals in the field of operational art, the command of forces in a campaign. Michael produced a brilliant paper that examined the intellectual environment in the Australian military and he ominously called it: “The Closing of the Australian Military Mind: the ADF and Operational Art”. This paper argued that the ADF has failed to keep abreast of conceptual developments and debates regarding operational art that have occurred and that the ADF must undergo a number of reforms. This paper was published first internally and then publicly, and it whipped up an absolute storm of apathy. Quick as a flash, we all did nothing. As Henry Kissinger said: Some officials are chronically overburdened by the urgent, very often at the expense of the important”. Many of our leaders, military and otherwise, find themselves far too busy to think.
The interesting thing for me was that soldiering has demanded of me a very wide remit in the area of ideas. I have been required in many of my operational deployments to address the very big ideas, but to address them in a very practical way.
I have been involved as an agent of Australia in the struggle for freedom in Indonesia, in East Timor and in Iraq. I have been privileged to accompany five countries down their road to democracy. I have led and supported groups of inspirational people who fought against ignorance, prejudice, hate and true evil to gain at least a measure of freedom. I have been forced to address the role of individuals and personal freedom in society, the centralisation of power in a few hands, the dissemination of power closer to the people, and how more fortunate societies can assist the development of emerging societies especially where values clash. I thought deeply about the nature of our own institutions as nations collapsed about me. I have been forced to think about my own religious beliefs as I watched hate masquerading as religion, and my family and I grew to appreciate the soft tropical Islam of our near neighbours. I have had to address deep ethical issues on a personal basis. I have seen tragedy and courage and mateship and death, often in the same hour, and that makes you think. And what an honour and a privilege that has been for me, a boy from Ivanhoe.
As Michael forces me to think about thinking, I have asked myself: what is the greatest challenge to successful thinking.
I think that Karl Weick, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Psychology at Michigan University, put it as well as anyone. He said: “Your beliefs are cause maps that you impose on the world, after which you “see” what you have already imposed”. And again, he says: “People expect their social world to be put together the way their justifications say it is put together, they act as if it is put together that way, and they selectively perceive what they see as if it were put together the way the justifications say it is”.
Which I think makes understandable what Edward de Bono, a founding father of the School of Thinking with Michael Hewitt-Gleeson, meant when he famously said: “Strategy is good luck rationalised in hindsight”. I hope that we are not seeing a still dangerous world as we would like it to be, not as it is. In this situation, you do not need an enemy to dislocate your ideas or your plans, you are doing it to yourself.
Let me briefly conclude.
I have been honoured to be the 2009 Thinker of the Year at a stage in my life when to my surprise I find that I am getting old. I know that we all grow old but I had hoped that in my case, God would make an exception.
It is hard for me to decide whether I have turned forty years of experience into wisdom. In Iraq, I relied very heavily on those around me to say: “Sir, I don’t think that is going to work, what about this”.
We all learn so much in our lives.
I have learned that artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity;
I have learned that for every complex situation there is a simple answer that is probably wrong;
I have learned that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency.
I have learned that the only two constants are the fan and the shit, only the distance between the two varies.
But most importantly, I have learnt that skills such as thinking can be taught, but it is equally as important to establish a certain culture – you can disagree with me without it being disagreeable. Your military, in most things, is a reflection of your society
This slide behind me shows a galaxy romantically called NGC2841. It has a diameter of 150,000 light years and is about 50 million light years away from the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. It is beautiful, it is big, it is amazing.
In my view it is no more amazing than the values that we have in our Australian society, a society which has nominated three scientists, a footballer and a soldier as Australian Thinkers of the Year. For all our collective faults, you represents a pinnacle in human achievement.
I hope that I get more time in my life with Anne to think about things like that.
I thank the School of Thinking very much for the award, I thank the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre for their sponsorship and I thank you all very much for coming.