The leaving of Afghanistan: ‘no sense of defeat’
4 Nov 2013|

Australian Army soldiers from the Special Operations Task Group wave goodbye to the families of Australia's fallen after a ceremony at Multi National Base – Tarin Kot, southern Afghanistan.As with Vietnam, the Australian military will leave Afghanistan believing it won its bit of the war, even if the Afghanistan war is eventually judged a disaster. This is the limited right of small alliance partners to claim small victories, even if the total effort fails.

The Army can sit close to the shade of the farewell epitaph offered by the Prime Minister:

Australia’s longest war is ending, not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that’s better for our presence here.

The Liberal and Labor Party joint interest in not disturbing their unbroken political consensus on Afghanistan, discussed in the previous column, will aid an Army interpretation that it fought a good war and brought it to a good end.

The we-won-even-if-the-war-is-lost view of Afghanistan follows the logic the Australian Army applied to Vietnam. To understand the argument, see the judgement offered by an official historian of the Army in Vietnam, Ian McNeill. Consider McNeill’s words while inserting Afghanistan for ‘Vietnam’ and for ‘the North Vietnamese Army’, read Taliban:

Australian soldiers who fought in Vietnam were imbued with the notion of serving an honourable cause at the nation’s behest. For most, this ethos seems not to have changed. In Vietnam, the task force had no sense of defeat. The final collapse, four years after the task force’s withdrawal and at the hands of the North Vietnamese Army, exemplified the tragedy but seemed remote from the experience of the men and their leaders.

These ‘no sense of defeat’ lines aren’t from McNeill’s work in the official history of the Army in Vietnam; this is the concluding judgement in the chapter he contributed to a book on ‘Australia’s Vietnam War’, published by Texas A&M University Press.

You have to ignore a lot of history and take a narrow profession-of-arms view of Vietnam to embrace the no defeat position. But strict, even narrow, professionalism is what democracies ask of their military. The Army can apply the ‘no sense of defeat’ Vietnam lens to Afghanistan using the Prime Minister’s own core sentiment: this is not a victory but it isn’t a defeat. It’s the most arguable of propositions, but it’s the basis for evading a post-Afghanistan syndrome, in the same way much of the Australian military managed after Vietnam.

Australia’s officers didn’t suffer a Vietnam syndrome of the sort that afflicted their US counterparts. The US military had waged the war and had to search its soul over defeat. Invoking the small privilege of a small ally, the Australian Army could take pride in the military achievements of its task force in its limited area of operations. For Australia’s officer corps to pluck a sense of professional success out of Vietnam says something about Army culture, a reminder that military officers—like jockeys and bishops—are members of an elite and self-referencing sect that can see the world in strikingly different hues and humours from the wider society.

The Australian Army could consult its own standards after Vietnam without worrying too much about the view from beyond the mess because it no longer had to worry about the challenges of running a conscript force. Conscription was the great wound afflicting the Army’s relationship with the Australian community during Vietnam, just as the conscription argument and referendums tore at Australian society during World War I. Vietnam gave birth to the fully professional Australian Army in ways that calmed the military’s relationship with civilians. It may be a more distant relationship, but this has some hidden advantages for the military and certainly for the politicians.

As previously noted, the professionalism of the all-volunteer Army was an important factor in allowing Labor and Coalition governments to maintain their joint commitment to the Afghanistan mission for a dozen years. The voters came to see Afghanistan as a war not worth fighting, but the society also heard the alliance argument from their leaders and strongly supported the soldiers who did their duty.

The strain this imposed on the small professional force was considerable. The multiple rotations will exact a continuing price from many individual soldiers and their families. As Tony Abbot noted: ‘Forty have died, 260 have been wounded, many more carry mental scars that may never heal.’

Soldiers bear the continuing costs, but armies can draw continuing benefits. Wars and deployments are where armies find out what works, from officers to equipment to doctrines. The operational tempo means that the Australia Army today is a force that has been tested in myriad ways and knows a lot about itself and its men and women.

In the way of the military, the lessons to be deduced from combat can take a long time to be argued to a conclusion. After Vietnam, the Army warred with the RAAF for 15 years before it finally won the argument and seized ownership of battlefield helicopters. The what-gets-used-gets-rewarded rule seems to have worked more quickly with Iraq and Afghanistan: the SAS have drawn the resource rewards from their leading roles, and a former chief of the SAS, after transitioning through the civilian bureaucracy, even stepped up to be Secretary of Defence before being crunched by his Minister.

As the Army heads home, it finds the US pivoting in our direction and US Marines in Darwin. With all the similarities that can be drawn from Vietnam and Afghanistan, that alliance effect is a huge difference between the two wars; more on those Vietnam-Afghanistan contrasts and coincidences in the next column.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.