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From major power to General crisis

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2 August 2010 14:30

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

We generals have got to stick together. If we don't, our arch enemies — the academics — will overwhelm us by the unfair use of logic and the deceptive use of verified facts. That is something up with which I will not put.

Peter Leahy has crossed the line from general to academic, so he deeply confuses this comfortable position. The only thing worse would be a general who became a media tart and criticised 'the system' from the safety of retirement. Unthinkable, even in this day and age.

I read Peter's view on war in general and on Defence procurements (his criticism of 100 Joint Strike Fighters and 12 submarines) on the same day as I travelled back to Canberra from the Niall Ferguson lecture in Sydney on 'Empires on the Edge of Ruin'.

As one of 500 in the audience, I had a depressing but thought-provoking evening during which I was told that empires can be on the edge of chaos, appearing to be stable but requiring only a small trigger to move from apparent equilibrium to crisis. Ferguson told us that the fall of empires is nearly always associated with financial crisis, that the fiscal position of the US is at least as bad as Greece and is moving into territory last pioneered by the British Empire, post-World War II.

He made the interesting point that, in this situation, there can be little or no prediction of final collapse (he claims to have predicted the GFC in 2006). But the power of the US is waning, he warned, and there are dramas ahead, not in the time of our children, but in a more immediate future.

If there is even a tad of truth in what Ferguson says, we should be preparing for a very uncertain future, a future where power structures will undergo dramatic change. Similar messages, not half as well sold as Ferguson the Brilliant Entertainer, are present in various forms in the strategic guidance associated with the 2009 Defence White Paper.

From what I could see of my fellow listeners, the effect of such a depressing forecast hardly lasted until coffee. The impact of the strategic guidance in the White Paper on the Government's willingness to fund its own plans did not last much longer.

Peter Leahy raises a number of issues that may be linked to what Ferguson said about future uncertainty. If we are at war as a society, what should society do to control its military and its government in the prosecution of current and future wars? Should we concentrate on the wars we fight now or on the wars that we might fight in the future? Are we preparing for the right war? What is the balance between the military and others elements of society that might contribute to conflict resolution?

All of these are big subjects and deserve treatment in depth, and perhaps others will join the discussion. Let me make a few passing comments.

  • Our society is not at war; a very small part of our army is at war. If our society was at war, it would insist that we take steps to win.
  • Our political system is such that the steps Peter suggests to submit the government to more popular control would only produce more party-political speeches. What we need is pure, unadulterated leadership from our politicians.
  • How do we know that even the 50 jets that Peter suggests 'would be more than enough for the task of supporting an Australian land or sea deployment as part of a coalition — the most likely scenario.' I have studied this exact problem for years, and it continually shows our Defence impotence when you feed in the reality of concurrent demands on any military resource. Until we honestly analyse, we will never know.
  • We have spoken for years about wider support from society for our conflicts, and we have yet to see it. The failure of US civilians (even diplomats) to support the war in Iraq by their presence in sufficient numbers was second only to such civilian failures again in Afghanistan.

Peter Leahy's questions are legitimate, but if Niall Ferguson is even partly right, I worry that we are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Photo by Flickr user kmevans, used under a Creative Commons license.

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