Why Australian soldiering needs to step out of its time warp

This article was published by The Sydney Morning Herald and other Fairfax papers on 24/04/2018. The author retains copyright.

I signed up to serve three years as an ADFA cadet and seven as an Australian Army officer. Making the cut as an officer like Weary Dunlop and John Monash represented the best thing I could do as a citizen. Of course, this decision preceded the infamy of ADFA’s various sex scandals.

I never took up my commission as an officer. I dropped out soon after graduating from ADFA in 2011. Not because of any sex scandals, and not because ADFA is terrible. Behind those whitewash walls on Canberra’s outskirts lie many formative moments.

In fairness, ADFA performs its role as best it can. But that role itself is problematic. ADFA works as a slow-acting filtration system for very young, idealistic Australians. The time I spent there put me on a three-year conveyor belt that gradually alienated me from society and integrated me into the military ethos.

Taking the individual out of society and into soldiering is hardly a new practice. It also happens to be the fun part. It involves bayonet course runs, precision drill, physical training, inspection scrubbing and the building of esprit de corps. These techniques date as far back as the 16th century.

But the physical activities and gushing endorphins that weld many individuals into one organic whole feels like a cheap high when the final result doesn’t correspond to a larger cause. You can wear any privation with a smile so long as you’re still convinced that it’s meaningful.

I became less and less convinced the longer I stayed. It got to a point where I felt chagrin on Anzac Day. Felt like a bad actor. Partially that was due to the execrably slow process by which cadets become officers. I was a university student with no real claim to call myself a soldier. I had no responsibilities. More important, however, was the knowledge that I was emulating heroes and struggles firmly lodged in the past. So much has happened since Gallipoli – a century, wars of all shapes and sizes, terrorism, the digital age.

ADFA is a time machine leading to a bygone era. It was founded three decades ago, in 1986, to bridge what was even then a widening gap between reality and social institutions like the Defence Force, like our national mythology.

The cadets who graduate from ADFA are equipped to serve in a Defence Force geared towards 20th-century warfare. We learnt strategy and tactics from both world wars and the Cold War. The underlying facts that make those strategies sensible have long since changed.


Featured image: Cadets of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra on Parade, 1986 – Fairfax.