Beefing Up the Army


On 24 August the Prime Minister announced that, under an 11-year, $10 billion plan, Australia’s Army would gain 2600 extra soldiers. Under the expansion plan, the Army will increase in size to eight infantry battalions, with one new unit to be equipped with M-113 armoured personnel carriers. John Howard made the announcement, flanked by Defence Force Chiefs and the Defence Minister, the unpleasant Brendan Nelson.

Howard said that Australia was in an unstable part of the world, and that it was in our interests to stop States failing and deal in a pre-emptive fashion with problems in the region (my italics).



Opposition Defence spokesman, Robert McClelland no doubt under instructions from his leader, ‘Bomber’ Beazley said Labor supported increasing Army numbers to enable Australia to contribute to regional security challenges. Only the Greens Senator, Kerry Nettle, pointed out that the Government already spent more on defence than education. She went on to say that instead of increasing the size of the Army, Australia should pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan and re-think our support of America’s foreign policy adventures.

In 2005, Australia’s defence budget was $17.5 billion although this figure is probably inaccurate. In 2004, the Auditor-General found that a total of $8 billion in the ADF’s assets and liabilities were unaccounted for.

Australia has always been a militaristic nation. The hard-bitten, tenacious, larrikin soldier with a heart of gold is an essential part of our national psyche. (One finds the same values in our sporting outfits, especially the national cricket team.) A recent example might be the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan in Vietnam. The rehabilitation of the Long Tan veterans was not about the tragedy of Vietnam, but yet another glorification of the mythical qualities of the Australian soldier.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Another example is the absurd expenditure of $1 million by media magnate Kerry Stokes for the last Gallipoli Victoria Cross in private hands and its subsequent donation to the War Memorial. Thus, the Australian military tradition is kept alive. A failed battle involving brave Aussie diggers is more important than a new classroom or operating theatre. Stokes’s contribution of the Victoria Cross was worthy of Channel 7’s tabloid television.

The farewelling of Australian troops is another part of our military tradition, skilfully engineered for political purposes.

In all the comment about the expansion of the Army, two things have not been mentioned: the basic function of a soldier; and who profits from the supply and purchase of equipment from boots, to food, to weapons systems.

The primary function of the soldier and any military machine is to kill and despoil. Soldiers may do good works with victims of natural disasters and so on, but the army’s basic function is killing, disablement and destruction. Such unpleasant matters are rarely discussed and often covered over with the patina of sentiment and patriotism.

The expansion of an army is for some people usually large corporations good business. Every bullet, every helmet, every yard of fabric for uniforms must be manufactured and paid for. Some of the companies that stand to benefit from the expansion of the Australian Army are: ADI (formerly Australian Defence Industries, and soon to be fully owned by the French arms manufacturer, Thales), Raytheon (US-owned and in partnership with Northrop Grumman for some arms projects), General Electric, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Mitsubishi, IBM and General Dynamics.

No fewer than 40 companies supply the Department of Defence, and this business will increase with the expansion of the army. Beefing up the Army will be good for the economy. It will create more jobs.

Any fool can see that if we were to get out of Iraq, there would be little need to expand the Army. But such commonsense is beyond the Howard Government and the Australian public, the majority of whom seem not to be concerned with the issue. The public will only start to care when conscription is re-introduced and body bags begin to arrive back home. We are in Iraq, of course, simply to please George W Bush and the American military, who have no exit strategy. The violence and bloodshed in that unfortunate country will grind on for years. And we are party to it.

There is one other unpleasant aspect to the expansion of the Army and the further militarisation of Australian culture. In the past, the army has been brought in to put down ‘civil unrest’. As Julian Burnside demonstrated with his article in last week’s New Matilda, we are subject to repressive anti-terror legislation and, to say the least, a reactionary Attorney-General. (The Control Order placed this week on Melbourne man, Jack Thomas, is horrifying and a sign of things to come. It is noteworthy that Beazley and the shadow Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, have said absolutely nothing.)

In a climate of fear and suspicion, ‘civil unrest’ (whatever that means) is not too hard to imagine. It may well be that the Army will be used for purposes other than ‘regional instability.’

In the long run, it’s the increased militarisation of the Australian culture that is the real worry. One day, the occupation of Iraq will end in one way or another. But we will have the defence force of a pathetic, seedy, reactionary mini-super power, and a bloated bureaucracy to run it.

There will be endless parades, soldierly rhetoric, muffled drums and the slow march for fallen comrades. And the Army chiefs will rule the roost. The discredited values of the Great War 1914 “18 will be paramount.

Any dissent from trouble-makers will be dealt with firmly, as Philip Ruddock says, to ‘protect the public.’

Iraq , Afghanistan, regional instability and ‘failed States’ aside, the expanded Army will have loads to do.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.