An article in last weekend's The Saturday Paper on the supposed affinity between ex-military personnel and the Coalition Government lists the ex-military now serving in parliament and those (me) wanting to serve in parliament, and quotes Professor Hugh White at his patronising best: one level, it is good to have former military people in the parliament, and any increase in their representation reflects the rise in prominence of the ADF since deployment to East Timor in 1999. However, he adds that it would be wrong to assume former ADF personnel necessarily possess the strategic abilities needed for setting sound defence policy. 'The ADF is not a strategic organisation. It is very much focused at the tactical level,' he says. 'One of the risks is that military personnel are given more deference than they deserve.'

This is an unworthy generalisation. Perhaps Hugh has watched too many re-run documentaries about the Cuban missile crisis. JFK said: 'The first advice I am going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn'. So no one denies that, based on this example, some generals at some time may not have possessed the strategic abilities to give sound defence advice. But then again JFK, a civilian president, initiated US involvement in Vietnam.

I thought governments set defence policy, not generals.

I am aware that the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary of the Department of Defence give advice on such matters. I am not aware that there has recently been a massive split between a CDF and a secretary over such advice, though Hugh could know something I don't. To make Hugh's statement true, the advice given by a CDF to the government on defence policy would have to have been inadequate, and a non-military person, probably the Secretary, stepped in to correct the advice because he, as a civilian, possessed the strategic abilities needed for sound defence policy. And then of course, the government would have to have accepted the Secretary's advice over the CDF's because, much as Hugh and many others don't like it, the government of the day defines what is sound defence policy, just as Papal infallibility is assisted by the Pope defining infallibility.

I suspect something else is going on here: those who argue that current or retired military personnel lack the strategic abilities needed for setting sound defence policy simply don't agree with the advice those people are offering.

I would have let Hugh's remarks pass except that I noticed this thread of articles. A civilian analyst is arguing with several retired and serving officers about the future of the army and how it should be structured and equipped. The analyst does not agree with current defence policy as laid down by a conservative Coalition government, in which the Government wants the option to deploy land forces outside a narrowly defined region. Because this does not align with the personal view of the analyst, he decries the policy and the capabilities that enable it.

Even Professor White falls for this one. He characterises the procurement of a capability to enable the army to actually achieve what the Government wants as 'a big waste of money and a big strategic mistake' because he does not agree with the Government's defence policy.

The approach such people take is that when their preferred defence policy is not adopted by government, they advocate only those capabilities that match their defence policy. This is generally a civilian trait as the military know that once a military policy has been decided on, it is they who have to make it work. Continued argument is a luxury.

But I don't dismiss these fine people just because they have no idea about military operations and therefore stay at the vague level of clever strategic posturing. Still, if professors are permitted to be arrogant in their generalisations, then permit me to at least be blunt in my reply: no one should be permitted to give strategic advice involving the military unless they have at least a familiarity with military operations and tactics. The uniform currently or once worn is irrelevant. I know civilians who can and have done it, but not many. The greatest gift of anyone who calls themselves a strategist must be the ability to align policy, strategy and its implementation.

Because I am ex-military, I have worked at the highest levels of government, taking policy through strategy to successful implementation, and I strongly object to Hugh's generalised views of myself and my military colleagues.

Leave the strategy for the bright civilians and the implementation through operations and tactics to the simple soldiers? What a recipe for a disaster. The most prominent recent example I can think of is US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ignorant rejection of military advice on the number of troops needed to occupy Iraq in 2003, and President Obama's rejection of military advice on the importance of leaving behind in Iraq a residual force of US troops in 2011.

I wonder if these failures of policy and strategy by the non-military balance out the Cuban missile crisis?

Photo by Flickr user Len Matthews.