Ten rules of the Australian way of war
8 Aug 2022|

‘For a century, Australian leaders have been engaged in the war game. And just as a game has rules, there are rules for effectively playing the war leadership game.’

— David Horner, The war game: Australian war leadership from Gallipoli to Iraq

Examining how Australia decided to go to war nine times in a span of nearly 90 years—from 1914 to 2003—the military historian David Horner distils 10 rules.

The rules are short and sharp.

Yet like the Bible’s Ten Commandments, Horner’s rules are simple only in their expression. What is asked for is the ultimate test of leaders and it’s devilish in what it demands of the nation. Failure in this game is deadly.

Embracing the ‘cautious recommendations’ of Horner’s The war game, the former Labor leader and defence minister Kim Beazley observes: ‘This is a book of lessons for Australian political leaders on managing wars. An analysis of actual performance against those lessons is humbling.’

After analysing Australian war leadership in the wars from Gallipoli to Iraq, Horner offers these rules.

1. The war leader’s most important decision is whether to commit the nation to war. In the First and Second World Wars, Horner writes, ‘this decision was taken out of the hands of the Australian government’. But in all the wars that followed, from Korea to Iraq, the decision to commit forces ‘became increasingly controversial, raising questions about the process, and whether legislation should be introduced to ensure these decisions are taken by the parliament rather than the executive government’.

In an ASPI interview (audio below), Horner judges:

I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there should be some limit on the power of the prime minister and the government to make these decisions. Because, as I said, these are the most important decisions. They result in deaths to Australians. Tragedy for the families. The financial cost to Australia. The cost to Australia’s reputation.

If there was an emergency, the government has to have the capacity to react, straight away. But for so many of the commitments that we have made since the Second World War, it was not absolutely vital that we go into operations straight away, tomorrow. No. There was always a period of time. Maybe there’s a political imperative with our allies to make an announcement. On the other hand, if we had delayed in so many of those commitments, would it have made the difference?

That leads to the consideration, with these decisions being extremely important and far-reaching, whether there should be some mechanism by which the government has to put the decision to the people of Australia through the parliament.

2. War leaders determine the level and nature of the commitment. In the First World War, Horner writes, the decision was taken before the formal outbreak of the war. Robert Menzies’s government was more cautious about this in 1939, while the decisions in Vietnam were incremental. During all the wars from Korea to Iraq, Horner observes, Australia has ‘tried to keep the commitment as small as possible’ while reaping the alliance benefits.

3. The prime minister is not the source of all wisdom. ‘Obviously, expert military advice is important, but so too is the advice of senior ministers with their specific responsibilities.’

4. The government must have confidence in its military commanders. In a democracy, Horner writes, ‘war leadership involves the interaction between the political leaders and their top military advisers’. And, he judges, there’s ‘no perfect model for the civil–military relationship’. The outstanding war leader Winston Churchill ‘drove his military advisers to distraction, but in the end was loath to overrule them’.

5. Ensure that operations are conducted in accordance with government policy. ‘A fundamental of effective war leadership is to ensure that the government’s wishes are followed on the battlefield.’

6. Get access to allied strategic decision-making. ‘Menzies and [John] Curtin struggled with this issue in the Second World War, and it persisted in the later wars. In the invasion of Iraq, the Australians detected that the plans for the subsequent post-invasion phase were deficient, but were unable to change them. The lesson for Australia is to remain constantly vigilant, and a prime task for war leaders is to manage Australia’s role in the alliance.’

7. Australia must gather its own intelligence. Don’t rely on the big alliance partner for all the facts, interpretation and understanding. The message for Australia’s leaders, Horner writes, ‘is not just the need to have effective diplomatic and intelligence agencies, but also for the government to listen to them’.

8. Manage the politics. The power of Australia’s prime minister to wage war depends on their power in parliament. Billy Hughes split Labor over conscription in World War I. In World War II, Menzies fell as prime minister because he ‘failed to manage the politics of his own party in 1941,’ Horner writes. ‘It is just as important to deal with the politics within the party as to deal with the Opposition. [Bob] Hawke understood this as he sought to deal with his party critics in the Gulf War. [John] Howard managed the Coalition’s politicians superbly and gave the Opposition little capacity to manoeuvre in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.’

9. Manage the media. Tough censorship and tight control of newspapers worked during the two world wars. Since then, speaking to the voters depends on versions of media ‘management’.

10. War leadership will always take place in an environment of uncertainty. In this game, the other side plays as it wants, and can make its own rules. ‘Intelligence assessments can usually determine an enemy’s or potential enemy’s capabilities, but they are less certain about actual intentions.’

The 10 rules of Australia’s way of war act as guide, not law. Here’s my interview with David Horner on the rules.