Some professional frustrations of the modern digger

The withdrawal of our small infantry-cavalry force from southern Iraq, and spirited professional debate in the Autumn 2008 Army Journal, have prompted media commentary – much of it superficial – on how our current diggers see themselves and how our allies see them. Both set against the iconic Australian folk memory of ‘the digger’.

Australians are generally proud of their country’s military efforts since the mid 1880s but this has never developed into a militaristic culture.

As a community we collectively acknowledge and salute our war veterans meeting together each Anzac Day. As a nation, we officially honour the sacrifices of our war dead on Remembrance Day. 

But while the image of the ‘digger’ as a successful soldier and force for good in the world is a national icon, for the other 363 days each year our veterans and the efforts of our current defence force are rarely at the forefront of the thoughts, interests and understanding of most Australians.

The impending withdrawal from Iraq, and consequent professional debate in our Army, has made at least some Australians more aware of our defence force, however transiently.

The confidence building and back-up role of our Overwatch Battlegroup (OBG) in Iraq is no longer required and the operational need for the OBG on the ground has tapered off over the last year or so.

There would always come a time when the Iraqis no longer required such assistance in Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces (which were the first two handed back to full Iraqi control for internal security). This juncture has now arrived. 

The withdrawal of the OBG does not harm our strategic interests in either Iraq or more broadly, including the Australia-US alliance. Nor does it invalidate our broader efforts and continuing responsibilities to help rebuild a new Iraq. Our other military and foreign aid commitments are not being withdrawn. 

The OBG has continued to suffer casualties (mercifully none fatal) and it is arguable whether further sacrifices need to be risked relative to the operational and strategic interests now involved. 

The withdrawal is also driven by the need to reconstitute our limited military resources for higher priority contingencies. Not least because nearly half our infantry and cavalry forces have been deployed overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomons, and this is simply unsustainable in the long run. 

As debate in the Army Journal indicates, the OBG’s increasingly limited roles have also resulted in growing professional frustration among its well-trained troops – especially when compared to US efforts elsewhere in Iraq and indeed our military commitment to Afghanistan. 

Now we should never go to war merely to update the professional skills of our defence force or to ‘blood’ a new generation of diggers in the stark realities of combat.

But if our government decides to go to war for moral, legal and strategic reasons, there are obvious long-term professional and strategic benefits to rotating as much of our defence force through the conflict concerned, and in as many facets of combat, as is possible, relevant and justified. 

And to allow our diggers to fight, and if need be risk death or wounds, for causes they believe in and the war-afflicted people they believe in helping. 

Finally, there are also matters of personal, professional and national honour. Including their desire to uphold the proud digger traditions, and long-established international military reputation, they have inherited and safeguard on our behalf. 

It has therefore smarted somewhat for our diggers in southern Iraq (but not elsewhere) to cop the odd jibe of ‘South Pacific French’ from American and British compatriots with broader roles, different rules-of-engagement and a professional pride that they could demonstrate more freely. 

Iraq has not fundamentally undermined how our allies view the professionalism of our defence force, far from it.

But we have unduly risked comparison with those European NATO members Australia has rightly criticised in Afghanistan – for treating that war as a peacekeeping operation by placing stringent operational caveats on the location and employment of their forces. 

Our diggers are pulling their weight internationally but many do chafe at not being able to do more.

Legitimate concerns of longer-term professional decline in the combat arms (and the Special Forces that can only be recruited from them) if they are not employed more broadly have also been expressed. 

Most modern wars are fought by coalitions with different countries providing complementary capabilities.

In Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan, for example, we currently provide the engineers and the Special Forces, and the Netherlands provides the infantry, artillery and attack helicopters. We also provide enough infantry and cavalry to protect our engineers in their reconstruction efforts so the latter do not have to down tools constantly and fight off Taliban attacks. 

While such primarily defensive combat by our infantry and cavalry is vital and highly dangerous, it is somewhat galling for them in terms of limiting their ability to take the fight to the Taliban as their allies (and our Special Forces) are able to do. The relatively small numbers of our infantry and cavalry involved also contributes to the professional frustration. 

This in turn stems from political concerns about public acceptance of higher casualties — however valid or unfounded they may be. 

It also stems from Australia’s ability to deploy the larger forces required for sustained offensive operations being so limited; hence the current program to rebuild ADF strengths, including two more infantry battalions in the Army and better equipment for the others. 

These are complex and nuanced moral, strategic and professional issues. But letting our diggers do their job is certainly part of any resolution.