Opinion Piece - Important book can help drive cultural change - Thursday, 1 April 2021

Opinion Piece - Important book can help drive cultural change - Thursday, 1 April 2021 Main Image

By Joel Fitzgibbon

01 April 2021

As ANZAC Day approaches, we reflect on the many who have given their lives for our nation, and all those still living with the consequences of war. This year we should all spend more time thinking about the many Australian Veterans who have tragically taken their own lives. This is a shocking problem we must do more to address.

In his excellent book Failures of Command – the death of Private Robert Poate, shattered dad Hugh Poate has given a heartrending account of the experiences of three families devastated first by avoidable tragedy, then by inexplicable and inexcusable interference in their search for answers, accountability, justice, and closure.

Every field of collective endeavour has its own culture.  Every industry, every profession, every institution, every political party. That is also true of military forces. Indeed, defence culture is particularly unique and changing it, may be an important part of addressing Veterans’ suicide.

The uniqueness of Defence culture is not surprising. In that organisation, employees are trained in the use of lethal force and can be legally authorised to use it.  They are programmed to deploy into operations from which they may never return. To take risks; to protect their mates, or to improve the odds of mission success.

Theirs is a warrior culture and is one to be respected and supported.  We can expect this culture to push the bounds of human morality and so many other of societal norms. None of this is unique to Australia.

More senior ranks are called upon to make strategic decisions and make judgement calls which can pose great risk for service personnel and civilians alike.  This is high pressure stuff.

We accept the special nature of the work of our military personnel and therefore, expect and tolerate a culture which is necessary for the effective protection of our country and its people.  A culture crucial to the success of military operations and the welfare of our troops.

For me, this tacit approval of a culture we would not otherwise tolerate is justified.  There could be no effective force without it.  And of course, our enemies, are not likely to be so disadvantaged.

Hugh Poate has gone to great lengths to show us, what we might expect when the “special” status we extend to our men and women in uniform is abused, either by those delusional enough to believe the ends justify the means or by those who know better but are determined to do whatever it takes, to avoid accountability for poor decisions or behaviour.

Actor Jack Nicholson’s quote, “you can’t handle the truth” in A Few Good Men, alerted us in one timeless scripted line, how dangerous the betrayal of our trust can be.  That is why Hugh’s contribution is so important.

Indeed, Hugh’s work is important for many reasons. Some of them obvious, some not so.

First, by driving cultural change, it will save lives.  Civilian lives, and the lives of defence personnel. If properly responded to, Failures of Command should also enhance our success on the ADF recruitment front.  We need to reassure the parents of young Australians that the Defence culture is one which ranks the safety and welfare of our troops as its highest priority.

Properly responded to, Hugh’s book can help to restore public confidence in the ADF in the wake of a string of incidents over many years, including most recently, the findings of the Brereton inquiry which published allegations which should never have been made public, in the absence of a statement from Government in defence of the overwhelming majority of soldiers who have done no more than put their lives on the line for their country.

Those allegations should not have been made public without accompanying Government recognition, that in Afghanistan, we pushed our troops beyond the limits of human tolerance. Without the appropriate recognition that we drove them to a psychological zone in which I suspect, differentiating between right and wrong became a difficult task.  As can be the case in war.

But I make another point about the merits of Hugh’s book which may not be so obvious. In Australia decisions to deploy our troops and assets into overseas operations are made by executive government.  May that long be the case.

But I fear it may not be long the case if sufficient community trust and support for that arrangement is not maintained.  This should be of great concern to those of us who understand that it is not possible to have fully informed deliberative parliamentary debates on these sensitive questions. 

Readers of Hugh’s book will be shocked by the failures which led to the death of these three Australian heroes. They’ll be even more shocked to read what Defence was willing to do, in its attempts to deny the families the answers, justice, and closure they were understandably so desperately searching for.  Culture change will be one important part of addressing our unacceptable rate of Veterans’ suicide.

Lest We Forget.