In 1999 Anita Bell had written a break-out bestseller for Random House: Your Mortgage And How to Pay It Off In Five Years (By someone who did it in three).
While Mortgage and its many offshoot titles were so successful Bell needn’t really worry about her bank manager again, it was not her first publication. She had long written fiction, and three years after Mortgage she was working on an idea for a novel about art forgery and murder that also touched on the East Timor crisis.
Looking into Peter Cosgrove’s role as commander of UN’s INTERFET (or International Force for East Timor), she rang the Defence Department in Canberra for some background information. When she said she was doing research on Cosgrove, the officer who answered the phone said, ‘Well you can talk to him now. He’s right here.’ The then Chief of the Army came on the line and cheerfully answered all of her questions.
Cosgrove’s popularity was no accident. In many ways he was a natural for the media age. He wasn’t a pretty man, but then you don’t really want newsreader good looks in your commanding generals. It would be wrong.
Looking more like Hollywood’s idea of a potato farmer than Hollywood’s idea of a dashing infantry officer, Cosgrove spoke in a flat, direct manner, often with a very dry, deadpan sense of humour exercised at his own expense — an almost unheard-of quality in a public figure nowadays.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, in which he was decorated for bravery after leading a protracted assault on an enemy bunker complex, Cosgrove was well aware that he would have to manage the press every bit as carefully as he did the Indonesians and their surrogate militias.
Rather than shutting the media out, however, he used them to pitch a reassuring message back home. He told The Australian newspaper that his troops could be winning on the ground, but if they weren’t perceived to be winning
over the breakfast table or in the television rooms, then we were losing. I felt that we didn’t just have to win in Australian lounge rooms we had to win in the capitals and with the watching public of our coalition partners.
Cosgrove understood that whenever he stared down the lens of a news camera he was talking directly to ‘mums and dads’, who would always be judging him, asking, ‘Is this guy telling the truth? Are our boys and girls safe?’
For a man whose skills lay in the destructive curriculum of the profession of arms, he proved himself to be a master of creation too. A few minutes of no-nonsense talk and he could craft entirely new and comforting stories out of events that had previously appeared unremittingly grim. Although privately he feared taking heavy casualties in the first few days of the mission, with just a few words he punctured the aura surrounding the militias who had seemed to be an unstoppable horde.
He advised them to lay down their arms and leave East Timor if they didn’t like the idea of independence. When asked what would happen if they refused, he simply pointed out that his soldiers were very well armed and very well trained.
In terms of fashioning a discontinuous moment, when everything that has gone before is rendered meaningless by a new reality, it was peerless. Compare his understatement, with its unspoken threat of annihilation, to, say, the black comedy of Saddam Hussein’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, also known as ‘Comical Ali’, and his Pythonesque threats of violence and damnation as US forces approached Baghdad.
Of course, Cosgrove was not in the business of fashioning a new mythology. He had the altogether more serious task of suppressing a murderous ‘uprising’, avoiding a war with Indonesia and calming the animal spirits of the Australian populace, which were close to running amok.
Alexander Downer had repeatedly to stress that Australia would not shoot its way into the province. In one sense, Kim Beazley’s wish had come true. He had wanted to rework the national character, to turn it into something more confident, even ‘harder’. Yet in one of the historical ironies that so often attend politics, it was John Howard who inherited the consequence of this change, having to manage an enraged people which suddenly looked to its military forces to do something they hadn’t done since 1915: invade another country.
Cosgrove touched on the wonder of how well it turned out when he spoke to Gary Tippet from The Age in February 2000. Recalling how many opportunities there were for disaster, he said:
The Rules of Engagement would actually have excused any soldier who, in fearing for his or her life, had fired their rifle, and I am constantly, amazed is the wrong word but certainly admiring of their discipline in saying, ‘No, no, this is not yet at that point where I need to shoot.’ They stood there in, I guess, a confrontation, and they held their place and held their discipline, until either the other fellas tired of what they were doing or sanity gripped them.
It is telling that even as the Howard Government embraced him while using the defence forces for highly contested ends, such as intercepting asylum-seekers, Cosgrove’s popularity, and that of the armed forces, rarely suffered. He enjoyed an ability to synthesise positions from both ends of the political spectrum.
When journalist Maxine McKew, long suspected of thought-crime by the Right, asked him about the role of the navy in the government’s so-called Pacific Solution, he replied:
This is a job that has to be done, but it has to be done humanely and with great care. It’s obviously prone to exacerbating suffering rather than to alleviating it. Because to thwart people, desperate people in horrible boats from completing their journey, well that’s obviously adding to their suffering. They may well feel resentful and aggrieved.
McKew could not have been more gushing in her response. Nobody scripts Peter Cosgrove, she wrote. He is anything but a dissembler:
John Howard, Kim Beazley, Peter Reith, I hope you’re reading this. I know it will be difficult for you to comprehend but if you go over it slowly, it will eventually dawn on you that what’s coming through here is the voice of a human being. A senior servant of the public, whose position of privilege and sense of duty does not prevent him from empathising with the plight of the damned.
Perhaps these sentiments merely indicate a maturing of political thought, an ability to separate the subjects of state power from its objects, a facility that was beyond most of the anti-war movement in the 1960s. In any case it attests to the way in which the Australian Defence Force has magically levitated above politics, in spite of the fact that so many of the Government’s critics and enemies believe the forces have been used for base political ends.
Speaking on Cosgrove’s retirement as Chief of the Defence Force, an office he assumed in 2002, his predecessor, Admiral Chris Barrie, praised him for ‘reconnecting Australians to the defence forces, [and for]healing the legacy of alienation after the Vietnam War’.
This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 20, A Time for War: Australia as a Military Power by John Birmingham ($14.95, Black Inc.).
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