Old soldiers never die, General Douglas MacArthur said, they just fade away. In Australia however, it seems they vanish completely. So few retired generals contribute meaningfully to public debate on Australia’s defence and strategic policy, it often feels like Jim Molan is carrying water for all of them.
By my count there are just four retired generals (including admirals and air marshals) regularly contributing to the current public debate on defence. There have been others who have made occasional contributions, but the voice of so many of our ex-generals is missing entirely.
There are several reasons why ex-generals might not feature regularly in public debate. Perhaps they feel a duty not to run commentary on their successors. Perhaps they are wary of the influence wielded by US peers and instead maintain a dignified silence as loyal professionals. Some might believe they can be more influential through private lobbying. Or perhaps they have conflicts of interest through employment in government, defence industry, or as defence consultants.
Anyone of the above reasons might explain why our ex-generals are reticent to sally forth onto the airwaves, talk to journalists, or storm the op-ed pages. But they don’t explain why our ex-generals are missing from scholarly discussion, journals, and academic debate on defence and strategic issues.
In the marketplace for good military ideas, there’s scarcely a retired Australian general to be found. Only a few lone voices, like my colleague James Goldrick, are actively and altruistically engaged in thinking about the future of the Australian military.
Our ex-generals do have opinions, but are more likely to express them in private conversations around Canberra. Many are concerned about the widening gap between the government’s defence aspirations and Australia’s defence capabilities. Some are concerned that an incoming coalition might not have the policy solutions or funding to fix this problem. But so many choose not to contribute these opinions to the public pool of defence knowledge.
Our ex-generals represent a rare body of talent, with technical and strategic understanding of defence policy. There are few other experts in the country equipped with this taxpayer-funded knowledge. We have precious few defence think tanks or academics (present company excepted). Do our generals have a responsibility to productively share their knowledge after retirement? Should they offer more to public life than professional services for a fee?
And if the situation in defence policy really is as bad as many ex-generals are privately stating it to be, do they have a duty to professionally and productively voice their concerns in the public domain? To be sure our generals have a responsibility to their successors and the government. But they also have a duty to the soldiers and officers currently serving and risking their lives. And to those who will inherit the current ADF and perhaps fight as part of it in the future.
There’s plenty of courage to be found amongst our junior military personnel in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And they might like to see more of it from their senior colleagues in Canberra.
James Brown is the military fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Image courtesy of Flickr user patries71.