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Having a say in the defence of the nation

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Sometimes I wonder how on earth I ended up doing defence and security analysis for 30 years at Parliament House. More often than not (though beware of stereotypes!) people working in this field have family or personal military associations, and tend to be political conservatives. None of this was true for me: early plans included high school teaching or maybe academia, and a goodly slice of the family were moderately Labor-oriented.

My introduction to the security field came in the 60s, at high school, when we studied the Nazis and the terrible World War (1939-45) they set off. It didn't take much nous to realise that despite their early successes they were doomed, because they bit off more than they could chew. Effectively, they committed security suicide, unfortunately taking millions of innocents with them.

At the time, baby boomers were confronted with the Cold War and of course the Vietnam War. These were not academic exercises. Global nuclear war was a real threat to civilisation itself (the Cuban missile crisis was only a few years old), and males in my age group faced the prospect of being conscripted and sent to Vietnam. This was a terribly divisive issue, and even at school we used to argue the pros and cons. I thought that if I had to face being sent to war, I should at least try to understand why it was necessary.


So I looked afresh at the justifications, usually summed up as the "domino theory". This held that aggressive communism was moving purposefully through South-East Asia and that, if South Vietnam were lost, communism would come on through Thailand, the Malay peninsula, Singapore, and Indonesia, eventually arriving on our doorstep. Better to fight them in Vietnam in the 60s than here a few years later, the argument ran.

A bit of skullwork soon convinced me that this was malarkey, pure and simple. The domino theory was an updated version of the Japanese conquests early in the Pacific phase of World War II. The military capacity (massive land, sea and air power) realistically needed to mount an opposed invasion, and conquest of Australia was simply not available to any communist power of the time - not even the Soviet Union. Even in 1941-2, the Japanese had examined the prospects of invading Australia and rejected the idea as beyond their capabilities, or even their exaggerated concept of security needs.

I was fortunate, both at school and then university, in encountering teachers who emphasised the primacy of reason over irrationality. "If you don't understand an opposing case," one said to me, "how can you claim to understand the one you support? Reach your conclusions from evidence, not preconceptions." Never was I given better advice, and somehow I was wise enough to take it to heart.

So I soon became dissatisfied with the simplistic sloganeering frequently used by both supporters and opponents of the Vietnam war. The "downward sweep of international communism" (or worse, the "yellow peril" of Red China) were countered by "fight US imperialist aggression" and "support the peoples' liberation forces". Awful. And many participants were willing to ignore the excesses committed by their preferred protagonist, while bleating sanctimoniously about those of the other side. This reeked of hypocrisy.

Much to my relief, I escaped conscription - I didn't "win" the lucky lottery. Had I been picked and passed the medicals, I would have had to go underground to avoid arrest and jail. By that stage I was at university majoring in history, and even while helping the Moratorium movement, chose a military history emphasis. I realised that, while the Vietnam War had been discredited, validating the view I had already reached, there was no reason why we could not again be sucked into an unnecessary war at some future time.

I thought that if such a thing were to happen, it should not be without at least a sensible and rational case in opposition being put up. The "anti-imperialist" Marxist formulae were obvious rubbish to anyone who didn't uncritically accept their assumptions. Of those, the core was simply an emotionally-based anti-Americanism with little rational foundation. Something more credible and reasonable was needed.


Pacificism, of course, is one way: it takes the high moral ground and its advocates are good, principled, people, but it was never going to convince a majority. I dabbled with it for a time, but kept coming back to the war against the Nazis: if ever a war was justified, I thought, that one was. Lying down to the likes of Hitler was just a form of suicide.

To mount reasoned cases for or against wars requires people who speak the language of strategic and military analysis. Arguments in that language can justify wars - and supply obscurantist technobabble where reason falls short - and the same language is needed to oppose them effectively, if opposition is justified.

In early 1973, while researching for a PhD on pre-World War II Australian defence policy, by chance I spotted a job ad in a Melbourne paper: "defence research for Parliament", it said. An ability to see both sides of an issue was rated essential, and the salary on offer lit up the eyes of an impoverished would-be academic. There were an awful lot of humanities PhD graduates driving taxis, etc, for a living because there were more applicants for jobs in academe than there were positions.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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