No Short Cut
Military Christian Fellowship – Australian Defence Force Academy Dinner 29 May 1999
by Brigadier Jim Wallace then Patron of Military Christian Fellowship of Australia
I’m both honoured and pleased to be here tonight and to see so many of you gathering here as Christian leaders.
I’m going to begin my talk tonight by quoting someone who might surprise you, the enemy we might say, from both a spiritual and practical point of view. The man is Leon Trotsky. But perhaps it is because he is inimical to all we hold dear that we as soldiers should consider what he says. He said:
“You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”
I believe that it is poignant for us to consider this as Defence professionals in Australia. War, even conflict, seems far off. We live in an idyllic environment. But we don’t have to look far past the faces of Kosovo refugees on TV each night to realise that there is no guarantee that war won’t be interested in you.
It is important then as we train as professionals, that we prepare with an urgency that reflects this reality. We have to commit ourselves, every one of us in our role, to be the best we can be. But even more than that, as officers and officer cadets, to master leadership – the ability to cause others to be the best that they can be – to give the best that they can give.
In this regard I’m not going to apologise for focussing very much tonight on the battlefield. It is not that I claim any but the most marginal experience of it. I’ve watched other people at it. But I haven’t fought myself. But the fact is that if you’re a member of the Defence Force, the battlefield is your core business as they say in industry. We can’t talk about soldiering or Defence without discussing the battlefield whether it be the sea, land or air battlefield.
I’d like to talk tonight on just three things that I think are important to developing your leadership and in doing so I hope to illustrate why for me a Christian faith is important to us as military leaders. I want to look at :
- The nature of war and conflict
- The nature of those we’ll lead and
- How our profession is changing.
When we consider the nature of war, we might first think of the nightly images from Kosovo, or the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. But however graphic these images might be, however much they might dominate our image of war, they are not it’s essence for you and I as professionals. They are unfortunately givens. They are again unfortunately, like deaths in training, something we have (especially as leaders) to rise above, to adapt to. We have to look beyond these characteristics of war to understand it and ever hope to master it, or to lead others in it.
In searching to define war, Clausewitz called it, “a clash of wills.” He said, “The proud spirit’s firm will dominates the art of war as an obelisk dominates the town square on which roads converge.”
How many amongst us really believes that in the atmosphere you saw in the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan you can, from just your own resources, find that “firm will that dominates the art of war.” Better men and women than me. I’ve served with the best, SAS troopers, but if you can, you’re better men and women than a lot of them too.
I’d rather know that I’m drawing for my will on the rock of faith. Faith in God who calls out the stars by name, who measures the seas in the cup of his hands and the mountains on a balance, as Isiah tells us.
In another but similar definition of war, Du Picqu said, “in battle, two moral forces, even more than two material forces, are in conflict. The stronger conquers.” How are you going to ensure that yours is the stronger “moral force”? Are you going to draw your moral force from the moral code in society today? It’s bankrupt, even in much of its leadership. Or are you going to draw on the incorruptible moral example and strength of Christ? I know where I’m putting my money.
We have to understand the nature of those we lead. I was fortunate enough to attend the British Command and Staff College soon after the Falkland’s War. We were played a taped interview with a 2nd Lt who had found himself in a ship to the Falklands within three weeks of graduating from Sandhurst. Now, I don’t think we have any 2nd Lt’s any more, but a friend of mine who was one, said it is the worst rank in the world. He told me how corporals had pushed past him as he stood in the troop office, so they could ask the Sgt a question. This young British officer found the same. All the long way down to the Falklands he was ignored, even after they had landed, he was ignored. Then one day they were about to go into their first battle. They were standing in the FUP, the forming up place, I think at Mt. Tumbledown, and it was mortared by the Argentineans. Suddenly, he said, for the first time everybody turned to me. Everybody expected me to know what to do.
Now I doubt very much that you will find yourself being ignored. But, as sure as eggs, when the chips are down, it’s you they’ll look to. But, you have to be worthy of leading them. How will you make yourself worthy of leading them?
There’s an element of larrikan in the Australian solider or serviceman – he’s generally no saint! He’s egalitarian, he’ll salute you because you’re wearing rank, but he won’t respect you for that much alone, you have to earn respect.
Being a Christian in a larrikan environment, not just the soldiers, but the young officer’s environment, can be a challenge. Particularly when you’re trying to earn respect and acceptance. I’m sure there is not one of us who hasn’t compromised to some degree, believing it was earning acceptance and maybe even, through some twisted logic, respect. But, if we held Christ as our example, would we?
Christ found himself in company and in an environment more foreign to him and his standards than you or I will realise this side of heaven. But, did he ever compromise his standards? No, and as a result he set new standards of leadership. His leadership was so effective that even after his death his disciples and their disciples sought to complete his mission through 2000 years!
We talk of having our subordinates fulfilling our intent without constant supervision as a measure of good leadership – how’s that for an example? – over 2000 years. That’s an example I would follow. That’s an example I need to study.
This Australian soldier may be a larrikan, but he’ll constantly astound you with his capacity for self-sacrifice and devotion.
One of the ugliest battles ever fought by Australians was at Buna – Sanananda.. The 7th Div Cavalry Regt, fighting as infantry, went into the battle 420 strong, in just a month they were reduced to 62 fit men. 125 dead or wounded, and 243 evacuated for scrub typhus or malaria. This account of part of that battle comes from a book written by the Bn chaplain. Lt Cameron and his troop were wading through swamps in an attempt to get around the concentrated fire. As they came on at the guns however, Cpl Connel was hit. He immediately called a warning to those following to keep clear. They would not heed his warnings, but crawled on in the hope that they could drag Ed clear. Again he waved them back, insisting that they could do nothing for him and they were coming to certain death. His warnings only acted as a stimulus to urge them to greater efforts to save him. When Ed saw that his appeals were falling on deaf ears, he summoned his remaining strength, picked himself up and threw himself bodily at the guns. Obviously he was simply riddled with bullets and fell like a log. His last act was one of supreme unselfishness and devotion to duty. His sacrifice undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his mates”
Will you be worthy to lead Cpl Connell? You’d better model yourself on an excellent example of selflessness. Perhaps someone who died on the cross, not just to save his mates, as noble as that is, but millions of people, he, at that time, didn’t even know. Someone else who counted duty and loyalty more important than self. I think he lived in Nazareth. He’ll do me.
But most important about this soldier is to realise he’s a spiritual being. You see, this business of battlefield leadership which you and I are about, has no parallel in industry. This leadership isn’t an appeal to logic – like you might if you owned a company appeal to a worker’s logic by offering him a bonus to go a little further. There’s no logic in a platoon attacking a hill when at least some of them will be inevitably wounded and others die. This leadership, battlefield leadership, isn’t an appeal to the head, it’s an appeal to the spirit. It’s reaching down inside the bloke and getting his heart to take him where his head wouldn’t.
Let me ask you this. How do you best understand rugby? By studying hockey? I don’t think so. It’s not even by watching it. You understand rugby best only by playing it. How then will you best understand this essential spiritual nature of those you lead? I expect it’s experiencing your own spirituality. By exploring it through faith in the God who is its source.
But you probably still think it’s a bit weak this linkage between, spirituality and soldiering. We don’t mix these two, do we?
When I commanded SASR I had a soldier very badly injured in a mine accident. He was on a course, learning, among other things, how to remotely detonate mines when one went off while he was near it. He was very badly injured and looked like he’d die. I was up outside Kalgoorlie checking the accident scene and the trooper had been flown back to Perth where he was listed as VSI, and not expected to live. I rang my second in command and told him I wanted to hold a church service for the soldier. I explained that I was sick of going to memorial services, and instead we would have a healing service when I got back the next day. I said I didn’t want it to be compulsory and anticipated it being held in one of the two small chapels in the barracks.
In the event we had to move it to the gym. I think everyone in barracks and not on guard duty was there. I explained what a healing service was and the chaplain conducted it. I have never felt a more spiritual experience than with those hundreds of tough, strongly individual SAS soldiers in that gym that day. The great majority, of course, would not have been in a church before, but I defy anyone to tell me after that day that there is no spiritual nature, that spirituality is inconsistent with being tough or soldierly. Every one of us has a spiritual nature. I believe the complete leader understands the spiritual nature of man. The Christian in this regard, has a great advantage. He isn’t just a student of it, or a spectator, he’s in the middle of the scrum!
The third point I want to touch on quickly is the way your profession is changing. You’ve probably all heard of the Revolution in Military Affairs. So strong is this that if we’re not all careful we’ll find all the signals units on the right of the line and the infantry relegated to the left – actually I don’t think it will ever get that bad!
But we are been technology pulled. The range, lethality and precision of weapons in this revolution in military affairs are changing the very nature of the battlefield. Without a doubt it will be more frightening. It will certainly be more lonely, as combat elements become smaller and are forced to disperse to survive. Loneliness and fear, probably the two factors most likely to make us look beyond ourselves for strength. Two factors that all the physical attributes in the world won’t help you to overcome. Again then, it is an issue of the spirit, what’s inside.
If you’re going to make sure that your preparation for your role in this future battlefield is comprehensive, don’t stop then with your professional skills and physical preparation – develop and train your spirit. There is only one spiritual strength you can rely on and it’s not your own. Different people will go to different thresholds on their own strength, but there’s only one that won’t fail, and that’s one anchored in the spirit of God. Don’t underestimate the demands on your spirit that this future battlefield could make.
I’m often asked to give talks on Christian soldiering and I’m always a little reluctant to do it. Although I’ve enjoyed a relatively challenging career and have got as close to combat as observing someone else’s war – I haven’t actually fought. But, when we speak of soldiering we can’t escape the fact that the battlefield is what we’re about. We can’t talk around it, it is our business.
Perhaps, then, it’s time you listened to someone who’s been there, for his opinion. The extract I’ll read you now is from Field Marshal Montgomery’s memoirs. He wrote this:
“…it seems to me that a nation needs two things if it is to survive and not become engulfed in centralised control and mediocrity. Those two things, which are basic and fundamental, are:
- A religion.
- An educated elite, who are not afraid to take an independent line of thought and action and who will not merely follow the “popular cry”.
Perhaps I had better explain what I mean by a religion. The outstanding influence in my life has been a deep sense of religious truth. It can best be expressed by quoting the last sentences of my address at the unveiling of the El Alamein Memorial in the desert on the 24th October 1954:
“and let us remember when all these things are said and done, that one great fact, the greatest fact, remains supreme and unassailable. It is this. There are in this would things that are true and things that are false; there are ways that are right and ways that are wrong; there are men good, and men bad. And on one side or the other we must take our stand; one or the other we must serve.
A great commander once dismissed his troops after a long campaign with these words:
‘choose you this day whom ye will serve; as for me and my house we will serve the lord.’ Joshua 24,15
These words seem to me to be the foundation of the whole matter, and it is my belief that they ought to be impressed on every young person from the earliest days. We can only secure a better world, and abolish war, by having better men and women; there is no other way and no short cut.”