Australian Khaki Ambassadors

Andrew Bolt is a journalist and current affairs commentator with the Herald Sun in Melboure and here is one of his articles which appeared in the Herald Sun.

It's a nice read.

Khaki Ambassadors
Andrew Bolt

LINING up for tickets to King Kong this week, I saw the latest try-on to get sensation-seekers to join the military.

"Thud, thud, thud, thud," read an advertisement on a little stand by the queue with a picture of RAAF helicopters coming in to land.
"And that's just your heartbeat."

Is that what serving in uniform is really about -- getting a rush like the one some slack-jaw is about to get by watching a giant ape being shot off the Empire State Building?

Still, the ad could have been worse. It could have been one of the Australian Defence Force's earlier attempts to lure recruits.

I'm thinking of the commercials that made the ADF seem like just the outfit you should join if your deepest desire was to build schools or give children a checkup.

Or, even worse, that it was the best way to learn skills you could use for a real job -- you know, after you quit the military.

Guns? What guns? This is a school for mechanics, nurses and mid-level managers, mate. The only shooting here is shooting through.

So I'm not surprised, especially with so many other employers now begging for workers, that the ADF has trouble hiring soldiers, sailors and airmen. I'm even less surprised that the minister responsible for defence personnel, De-Anne Kelly, is so unhappy with the latest ads for officer recruits that she wants the ads redone.

Several officers have told me how disappointed they are, too, by the way the ADF sells their army, navy and airforce to potential recruits. And after a week in the company of our military in Iraq, Afghanistan and three of the Gulf states, I can see precisely why they are right to feel offended.

The ADF isn't something you join for some cheap qualifications or a quick thrill.

Excuse me now if I sound a bit born-again or romantic in what follows, but I must speak just as I've found.

To join the ADF, I've seen up close these past days, is to join a great institution that both defends Australia and displays the best of our culture to the world.

DO I exaggerate? Once I would have thought so myself, but what did I know? Who in a journalist's social circle serves in the military? That's what other kinds of people do -- perhaps people a bit thick or desperate. Not People Like Us.

So what a humbling surprise I had last week. Actually, surprises plural.

The first came when I drove into Kuwait's huge Ali al-Salim air base, out in the desert, from where I was to fly into Iraq with Foreign Affairs Minister Downer.

The Kuwaiti part of the base was a dispirited jumble. The American, a dusty collection of tents and a barren piggledy of equipment. Then we pulled up to the Australian sector -- neat rows of cabins, not tents, softened with new plantings of trees and even lawn, and announced with a big stencil of a fighting kangaroo.

Here was the temporary home of Airmen and Soldiers who took pride in their surrounds, and felt the greener they were made, the better. How very Australian.

Naturally, I expected the pilot who flew us into Iraq that morning to be as meticulous and expert as he clearly was. What I didn't expect was to find, when he finally took off his helmet and asked Downer to pose for pictures with his crew and their Australian flag, that he was still so chubby-cheeked young.

In fact, so many of our military seemed so young, yet had so much responsibility. The Major in charge of the 100 Soldiers who guard our embassy in Iraq and protect our ambassador in runs out of the well-defended "green zone" is just 31.

An Intelligence Officer now tracing the Taliban had completed his science degree only some six years earlier. A young Soldier -- a woman -- serving in Baghdad seemed little taller than her rifle and was not half my age, yet calmly told of helping to treat American Soldiers whose bodies had been shredded by bombs.

And every one of them so professional, so team-minded, so focused -- just ask any politician or journalist who has visited them -- and none more so than the SAS soldiers guarding us, after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, hunting the Taliban. Perhaps it's no wonder we have not lost a single Soldier in combat in either Afghanistan or Iraq, touch wood.

It was also soon clear that the ADF has not just kept but exploited that independent streak, which Australians have traditionally admired, giving even the smallest units some freedom to use their initiative.

One small example: the 27-year-old Lieutenant in Baghdad found the army didn't issue the right equipment for Platoons like his to break into houses during operations to clear urban areas. So he ordered two sets of door-breaking tools over the internet, using money scrounged from his regiment.

That go-fix-it attitude is one reason our officers have been given impressively senior posts in the coalition headquarters in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Not all may yet be identified, but Maj-Gen Jim Molan was last year the coalition's deputy chief of operations in Iraq.

Yet one officer after another told me the secret to the high reputation of our troops among our coalition partners was not just their ability to fight or to fix, or even to work hard. (Warning: if you must believe Australia is racist, read no further.)

No, what has perhaps won us the most admiration is the ability of even our most raw private to deal as an equal with people from whatever culture or country, whether soldiers or civilians.

This makes them not just ideal for fighting in a multi-ethnic coalition army, with Soldiers from Albania to Ukraine, but even better at keeping a foreign peace.

I heard this even from Iraqis. The governor of al-Muthanna province, where more than 400 Australian troops protect Japanese army engineers, last week said our troops "knew a lot about Iraq and its culture, so avoid doing anything bad".

Australia had a "very sensitive culture", he added.

Our al-Muthanna task force's regimental sergeant major, Kevin Ryan, explained it simply: "The difference is that we say g'day. We mix more." American soldiers, he and many others said, were friendly, but far more distant. They were losing a chance to make friends of Iraqis.

Indeed, I noted in both Afghanistan and Iraq that when Australian troops bumped into Americans -- whether walking around their base or lining up for food -- they were more often the first to say hello.

The task force commander, Lt-Col Peter Short, gave a more serious example that bothers him. US army convoys shoot when other cars get too close. Australian soldiers take a risk, and try at first to just wave them away.

Then again, as other officers added, the Americans have lost more than 2000 dead, a good many to car bombs. We haven't. They liberated Iraq and Afghanistan. We would not have even tried it without them.

The longer I stayed, the more anecdotes I heard of the easy diplomacy of Australian troops, and the respect they'd won for it.

One senior female officer serving in a Gulf state said an American admiral had told her how impressed he was by the civility, as well as professionalism, of the Australian personnel. An officer in Afghanistan said that, unlike the Americans, he and his Australian colleagues regularly had a how-are-you chat with their Afghan sentries, and figured they got better protection as their reward.

A Private in Baghdad said his unit had been given a lecture on Iraqi history by his Commanding Officer, Major Malcolm Wells, so they'd know the place better -- and maybe like it more.

A Captain in Kabul said it was perhaps the fact that Australia wasn't a very powerful country that made us more open to dealing easily with Soldiers and civilians from other nations.

But this approachability is helped, of course, by the fact that we're an immigrant nation. Lt-Col Vance Khan, great-great-grandson of a Sikh immigrant and now head of the Australian soldiers in Kabul, laughs when he explains how useful it has been in Afghanistan to have a name like his.

But when we were held up by some high-handed security official at the Afghan president's heavily defended palace, it wasn't Khan's name that finally got us in, but this arts graduate's uncrackable reasonableness and patience -- traits I like to think of as particularly Australian. There was no shouting. No chesting. No how-dare-you.

SO I admit it: I've returned from my time with our military not just deeply impressed by how they carry themselves, but proud of a country that produces such a culture among those who wear our country's uniform.

And how much sweeter that such people serve in such a noble cause, and one I heard not one soldier dispute -- the liberation of two countries from tyranny.

A love of freedom and a hatred of bullies. Those, too, are great Australian virtues.

What a pity the ADF advertisements don't come within a King Kong's roar of explaining the true thrill of service in the Australian Military today -- the thrill of defending such virtues in such a gallant way.


Book Reviewer
Couldn't agree more - working with them is particualrly pleasant. I would say that they are the equal - possibly the superior - of UK Troops in their relations with the Iraqis. The job gets done, with no fuss, no bother, no worries.

I'm really glad they're on our side, and what's more out here with us.
The recruiting paractices back home are so shit, its a wonder anyone is able to make their way into the Military. A good proportion of it is made up of dealing with civillian agencys, who **** people around so they can get a larger bounty from the govt. I remember when I was at basic training people were asking early on about putting their paperwork in to go full time from the reserves, and it emerged that about 10% of the platoon had signed up as reservists on the advice of the Manpower (a civillain recruiting agency), who's people swore black and blue that if they signed up as reservists and put in their transfer when they got to Kapooka theyd be full-time well before the course was over.

Number this worked out for: 0

These werent isolated cases either, as the very pissed off Pl staff explained. It also put a few blokes up the creek, as they thought they were going to be in service accomodation from basic training on, so when the course was up, they had no place to go back to. Fcuking pathetic.
Cheers for that IG, makes me even keener to get over there - Sept 06 should see me in Darwin - if I can get the Visa done during this R&R :)

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