Sunday 10 October 2010

Abbott in Afghanistan

What should we make of visits by politicians to the troops?

Personally, I think they're a pain in the arse. If you want to talk to the troops, debrief them when they return.

We had Kim Beasley pay us a visit during an exercise when he was Minister for Defence back in the late 1980s. Our company had been dropped off somewhere, done a lengthy patrol and was settling into all round defence when he popped in for a visit. I remember him looking sweaty and uncomfortable as he was led around from position to position. It was baking hot, and dusty as hell and we were digging in. Normally, we'd be stripped off, but the CSM had marched around and ordered us to keep our kit on; apparently my naked chest would have been offensive to the Minister.

I had to dig more than anyone else in our section, as I was the gunner. The rest could dig a shell scrape and then gradually enlarge it over a few days. As we were going to be there for a while, I had to dig a proper U-shaped pit to the regulation depth as quickly as possible. That meant moving a lot of dirt.

So there I was, shovelling sand onto a hootchie (we didn't just throw the sand anywhere - signs of digging are a great way to give your pit away - we would cart it away somewhere else in the hootchie and cover it over) when Beasley rolled up. He had the usual cluster of brass in tow, plus the RSM. The RSM stood behind Beasley slightly to one side, where Beasley couldn't see him, and fixed each digger with a death ray stare as Beasley chatted to them. That stare said, "Say the wrong thing, and we will be having words". Words with the RSM was something to be avoided at all costs, so we were very careful about what we said.

Actually, at that point, a short break was probably welcome. He asked the standard questions - how is your kit, how is the food etc etc. I had to stifle a laugh - almost all my kit by that point was non-regulation. I replied that it was excellent - and it was. I had paid a lot of money for it, and had stashed all the crap that the Army issued me in my parent's garage.

He wandered off happy, thinking that he was overseeing a system that was delivering great kit to the troops. No one bothered to tell him that all of us had bought our own boots and sleeping bags, many had non-regulation packs and most would soon be following me in ditching their Boer War era webbing for the modern seat belt stuff I had found. Everyone threw away the wet weather gear and bought their own. Out truck drivers had bought their own radio sets in order to talk to each other, because the Army wouldn't provide them.

Unless a politician has a nose for ferreting things out, they're liable to be fed a truckload of bullshit, and they'll go home thinking everything is perfect. Beasley seemed to think he had a top notch Army, when it was falling apart at the seams due to lack of funding and clapped out, Vietnam era kit.

I would have preferred that he stayed at home and organised for me to get a better pair of boots.


Pedro the Ignorant said...

Can't agree BOAB.

It is a God given right for Diggers to bitch to visiting generals, politicians, rock stars or whatever, and no amount of glaring from CO's, RSMs or anyone else prevents them from speaking out, regardless of embarrassment to unit, commanders or the system.
One of the great features of our military. The right to speak out does not extend to the press or outsiders, however.
I have seen Diggers in the field whinge to US General Westmoreland, PM John Gorton, Malcolm Fraser (Minister for the Army and later as PM) PM Billy McMahon, PM Bill Haydon, assorted Chief of Army, Chiefs of Defence Forces, Heads of Corps, and the list goes on, stood by and occasionally squirmed with embarrassment (after I had climbed the promotion ladder), but would never punish a soldier for speaking their mind.
Sometimes the whinging works, and it would be a fool of a commander or politician who dismissed a legitimate complaint out of hand.

When I find a Digger who is totally happy with his issue weapons and equipment I will know I have either achieved Nirvana or gurgled down too much vintage port, and reality will return tomorrow.

One of the greatest attributes of Australia's military is to get the job done with whatever is at hand.

Boy on a bike said...

Pedro, that's the way it should be. I think the problem back then was everyone was petrified our regiment was going to be closed down, so no one wanted to rock the boat.

As it happened, a relative of mine was in parliament with Beasley, and they often sat together on the flights to and from Canberra. I briefed him, and he gave it to Beasley chapter and verse a few weeks later.

No digger will ever be happy with his or her kit - I know that for a fact. You always need to have something to bitch and moan about.

Skeeter said...

I've seen no active service but in my 1950s "peace" time service I learnt very early that the media would seriously distort whatever we said to them. A ban on our talking to reporters was entirely acceptable to me.
As an armchair observer since those days, I have been increasingly alarmed at how much of active service is being given live coverage on the media.
These days, anything said to a politician or a rock star will also be available to the media for them to spin with their finely-honed tools.
I have no idea how the military of today copes with such embedded threats to security.

1735099 said...

If the pollies were fair dinkum they'd travel without media. These visits are photo ops and a waste of time and resouces.

Boy on a bike said...

Yes, I'd dump the media. Defence will always send along someone to take photos, so if they want to publish anything from the trip, they can use the defence photos.

It's been a long time since I have read any sensible commentary from anyone in the media about the military, so what's the point in sending some drongo over there to misreport what's going on.