Don’t Mention the War
An extract from Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, the Media and the Afghan Conflict
In the days and weeks after Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, a newly literate population, served by a mass-market popular press, clamoured for details of the British Expeditionary Force’s exploits in France and Belgium. The military, however, were not forthcoming. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, ‘had hated war correspondents since the Sudan’ and refused point blank to accredit a single reporter to accompany British forces and report on their progress. Instead, he appointed a uniformed officer with a ‘tincture of letters’ to furnish reports from the front. Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton of the Royal Engineers had few illusions about where his allegiances lay. His primary role, he believed, was not ‘the purveyance of news to our own people’ but to ‘avoid helping the enemy.’ As a consequence he determined to tell only ‘as much of the truth as was compatible with safety.’
That, as it turned out, wasn’t much. Having gathered his information, shaped his account and purged it of any telltale detail, Swinton passed his material to his senior officers for vetting. They handed it on to Kitchener himself who, having put his own blue pencil to work, approved it for release to the press where it appeared under the ironic by-line ‘Eye-witness’. ‘As many historians point out, little truth escaped this thicket of restrictions.’ Swinton’s reports, intended ‘to offer civilians an aestheticized vision of martial endeavour’, were notable not only for the rigour they demonstrated in excluding any concrete detail regarding ground taken or losses suffered, but also for the jaunty assessment of troop morale and general well-being that they sustained.
Almost 100 years later, Australian media coverage of the war in Afghanistan takes us back into the world of Eye-witness. For much of the period of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) commitment in Afghanistan, independent observers have been personae non gratae. The military has crafted its own reports from the front lines that it has then offered to the media, in the form of press releases and occasional briefings. This official account of the war has promoted the improved security the ADF has brought to its operational area, the mentoring and training it has provided to Afghan National Security Forces, the roads it has constructed and the health centres and schools it has built. Meanwhile it has carefully downplayed the brutality and destructiveness of the war, drip-feeding the public a nutritious diet of positive news from Afghanistan.
The Australian public’s access to objective information about and understanding of the longest military commitment in the nation’s history has been correspondingly impoverished. Just how impoverished was hinted at in Ross Southernwood’s December 2012 review of Chris Masters’ Uncommon Soldier (2012). In his appraisal of Masters’ study of the making of the modern Australian warrior, Southernwood, a reviewer of numerous military titles, revealed that
Until reading this book I was under the impression the Australian Army’s role in Afghanistan was mainly a defensive one – keeping secure areas safe and generally helping society continue operating as normally as possible in its region of influence, Uruzgan province, from its base at Tarin Kot … [W]hat I didn’t know was just how proactive and aggressive the Australians are in the fighting.
ADF Public Affairs has evidently done a good job in promoting its version of the war as a species of armed social work. If a knowledgeable reviewer is so ignorant about the basic parameters of the Australian mission in Afghanistan, one might assume that the disinterested man or woman in the street is virtually in the dark.
If the mainstream media have been dependent on the ADF for access to news from Afghanistan, the public has been, and remains, almost entirely reliant on the media for its information about what its troops are doing there, and its apparent ignorance about the war reflects a critical failure of coverage. The media have to bear their share of the responsibility for this failure, but one must also acknowledge that journalists cannot report on events that they cannot access. Only since 2011 have the numbers of Australian reporters embedded with the ADF reached levels comparable with those of many of our coalition counterparts and comparator militaries, while their freedom of movement in Afghanistan still falls short of that enjoyed by the Dutch, Canadian, British and US media. Australia’s Department of Defence and the ADF have gone out of their way to restrict the media’s access to the troops and their missions in Afghanistan.
If, in December 2007, Richard Tanter could ask then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ‘Why are we in Afghanistan?’, in 2013, as Australian forces prepare to withdraw from Uruzgan and hand over responsibility for security in the province to their Afghan colleagues, it seems more pertinent to inquire ‘What did we do there and why do we know so little about it?’ How is it possible in the network society of the twenty-first century that the Australian public should have been so ill informed for so long about what its troops have been doing in Afghanistan, and why has this situation been allowed to persist?
The most striking feature of the ADF’s media operations practices in Afghanistan has been their continuing fidelity to the lessons of Vietnam and their underlying assumption that the fourth estate is the enemy. Where General Tommy Franks, and just about everybody below him in the US military, recognised that the best means of promoting its aims in Iraq and showcasing the professionalism of the men and women tasked with their attainment was via largely unfettered media access to the troops, until the full scale implementation of a media embedding program in 2011 the ADF remained dedicated to keeping the media on a short leash, restricting their access to the troops and controlling their copy.
Where the Public Affairs Guidance (PAG) provisions, issued by the Pentagon in Feburary 2003 to cover the Iraq conflict, made the military responsible for ensuring that the media could access the theatre of battle, cover events and speedily transmit their copy, the most recent agreement governing the ADF’s interactions with the media on the battlefield, the Statement of Understanding For Accredited Media (Ground Rules), issued by the Department of Defence in January 2009, places the burden of compliance squarely on the shoulders of the media. It is the media who must accept that they may not be able to report from or name certain locations, that they ‘will be escorted at all times,’ ‘must adhere to the direction and advice of the military escort officer at all times,’ and must ‘consult with the escort officer or the Defence’s [sic] Director General Public Affairs (DGPA) or his staff in relation to stories directly arising from this access to ADF elements.’
Failure to comply with any of these regulations will not only bring immediate sanction but may result in ongoing exclusion from all ADF personnel and operations: ‘Violations of any of the conditions will result in the Correspondents’ removal from the location and access to ADF staff and may have implications for future access to ADF elements on operations.’ The accompanying Operationally Sensitive Information Brief likewise contains a list of the information that ‘is not to be visually recorded’, and a second list of information that ‘shall not be released.’
It is, of course, entirely appropriate that the ADF should seek to protect information about ‘Restricted military areas, facilities and installations,’ ‘intelligence or Special Forces personnel and equipment,’ ‘Interiors of vehicles and aircraft,’ and ‘The flight line at Kandahar airfield and military aircraft operating on or near it.’ Yet what is striking about these documents is their failure at any point to consider Defence and the ADF’s responsibility to keep the public informed about what it is doing with their resources and in their name, and the onus this would place on them to facilitate the media’s access to, freedom of movement and association within, and expeditious transmission of material from the area of operations. These documents reinforce the view, prevalent within Defence and the ADF, that the media are on the battlefield not by right but at the military’s grace and favour, and that by extension the public’s right to know extends only as far as the military is prepared to allow it.
This position is further illuminated in the Department of Defence’s Defence Instructions (General) Public comment and dissemination of official information by Defence personnel, which were last updated and released on 5 October 2007. The instructions, like the Operationally Sensitive Information Brief, are overwhelmingly focused on what cannot be said, or on outlining the coordination, clearance and authorisation procedures for what can. Permissive statements – ‘Public comments must be as open as possible to maintain and strengthen Defence’s credibility and reputation’ – are invariably offset by cautionary or prohibitive clauses – ‘While Defence encourages Defence personnel to engage with the public, the information they provide must be coordinated, agreed and authorised.’
The keynote here is oversight, lines of responsibility and the chains of command that enforce them. While it is important to recognise the differences of purpose between the Defence Instructions, the Statement of Understanding For Accredited Media (Ground Rules), and the Pentagon’s PAG – the former shapes the interface between Defence personnel, the media and the public in the domestic context, the latter two govern military-media relations on the battlefield – what is most notable about them is their contrasting attitudes to information and how these shape their relations with its principal purveyors and consumers, the media and the public.
The Pentagon recognises the power of information as a force multiplier and a weapon of war, and takes pains via the PAG to project an appearance of candour. By contrast, the Australian documents express the conventional military view of information as a volatile element whose release and distribution is to be carefully managed for fear of the harm it might do. As a number of media commentators have noted, these views are underpinned by and lay bare ‘a culture of contempt’ for politicians, the public and the media that neither the Department of Defence nor the ADF feel any need to explain or disguise.
Prior to the introduction of a formal embedding program in 2010, the only way for Australian reporters to access their own troops in Afghanistan, other than through accidental encounters when embedded with other ISAF forces, was via the sponsored visits or ‘bus tours’ that the ADF used to bring the Australian media to Camp Holland, the joint Dutch-Australian base outside Tarin Kot. These tours ran intermittently from 2002, and then more regularly from 2008, using spare capacity on ADF re-supply flights to save on costs.
The program was closely managed by ADF Public Affairs who ‘fixed’ the reporters’ itineraries ‘well in advance’. Once the journalists were on base the Public Affairs officers ‘chaperoned’ them ‘every step of the way’. The standard schedule took them past a selection of prestige training and reconstruction projects – most notably the Trade Training School and the Tarin Kot Provincial Hospital – exposed them to selected personnel, primed to respond to the reporters’ questions, and incorporated routine visits to nearby villages. Photojournalist Sean Hobbs recalled how, ‘steered through itineraries designed to demonstrate the important work being done by the Australian Army,’ he found the whole ‘brief, glossy experience more akin to a battlefield Contiki Tour’ than a real taste of war.
To maintain the ‘Contiki Tour’ effect the ADF ensured that reporters were kept away from Australian troops out on patrol. Little was left to chance. As SBS’s Karen Middleton notes, the ADF’s determination to minimise the scope for surprises or negative publicity ensured that as a journalist with the ADF in Afghanistan, while ‘You can’t be sure what will happen during your allotted time in country or what kind of stories you will be able to do … You can be absolutely certain you will be subject to considerable restriction.’
On occasions these restrictions reached farcical proportions. During her first visit to Afghanistan in March 2007, having spent around ten days ‘behind the wire’ in Tarin Kot and Kandahar ‘talking to carefully selected Australian troops and being shown what they were doing,’ Middleton and her colleagues found themselves temporarily stranded waiting for a flight out of Kandahar Air Field. ‘Nobody was sure how or when we would be going home and we were … put on a short leash.’ The escort officer called Middleton and her colleagues together to pass on a message from Canberra that
as our official program had ended, Defence did not believe it had any obligation to facilitate our work any further. In other words, we would not only get no more help in securing interviews or briefings (help we had received upon our arrival), we would be prevented from seeking them. Unless we were going to the toilet or being escorted to get food or coffee, we were to be confined to barracks until somebody figured out how to get us out.
The ADF considered the bus trips a vital means of promoting the successes of its mission in Uruzgan, but later conceded that they had persisted with them longer than they should have done, and that in the long run they damaged the military’s credibility:
The decision to operate this way made sense during the initial phases of the conflicts [in Iraq and Afghanistan] with their heavy Special Forces presence, but once large bodies of conventional troops were on the ground, Defence’s ongoing justification became untenable. The negative comparison between the coalition approaches became the subject of increasing political pressure.
For the media, the bus tours were a source of profound irritation: ‘ferried to and escorted around operational zones by a cadre of Public Affairs personnel’, unable to undertake even routine questioning of soldiers without the presence of a Public Affairs officer, News Limited Defence Correspondent Ian McPhedran felt that the relentless emphasis on promotion ensured that ‘the message becomes repetitive and the frustrations immense.’
Though the bus tours may have been ‘of very limited value’ to the media, they were highly revealing of the military’s practices and priorities. The Australian’s Mark Dodd noted that a key focus of any media visit to Camp Holland was the Tarin Kot Provincial Hospital, recently refurbished by the Australians. Yet the renovation of the hospital, and the addition of a maternity wing, was not the good-news story it seemed. While the ADF was ‘rightfully proud’ of this achievement and visitors were ‘inevitably … briefed about the showcase project’ few saw it in operation, as ‘no foreign aid organisation has been willing to staff the hospital or provide the sort of support envisaged.’
This was no isolated example. At a Senate Committee hearing in March 2013 the Department of Defence ‘admitted it has no idea whether nearly two-thirds of projects built under a $34 million development fund in Afghanistan – including schools and hospitals – are actually working.’ Deputy Secretary for Strategy, Brendan Sargeant, confirmed that
once the bricks and mortar were in place on projects such as schools, hospitals, compounds and storage facilities, they were handed over to local authorities. ‘We have no information, so we’re unable to report … The projects may or may not be viable. Once the ADF has done their job, it leaves.’
Clearly, the hospital and these other projects were of greater benefit to ADF PR than they were to the people they ostensibly served. They offer a compelling emblem of the ADF’s reluctance to admit its failures in Afghanistan, and its continued determination to promote its successes, regardless of actual setbacks. They stand as concrete testament to the primacy of public affairs in the ADF’s operations in Afghanistan.
If the public affairs agenda had a stranglehold over the reporting and perception of day-to-day events in Afghanistan, it also looks set to play a key role in historical assessments of the Australians’ engagement there. Despite his appointment as an Official War Artist with a commission from the Australian War Memorial to photograph Australian troops in the Middle East for the Memorial’s collection, Sean Hobbs discovered that when he arrived in Afghanistan he ‘could not get beyond the public affairs screen and the carefully constructed narrative it promoted.’ Refused permission to go out and capture his own photographs of the nation’s men and women at war, he was expected to stick to the party line and courier the good news generated by the ADF back to Australia. Arriving at Camp Holland, Hobbs recalled, the Commanding Officer treated him to
a standard media spiel … detailing the excellent work being performed by the Australian Army provincial Reconstruction Task Force (RTF) who, I was told, were building schools, hospitals and renovating mosques. However, I would not be permitted to travel outside the wire to see any of these philanthropic activities. No explanation was forthcoming as to why this was the case, but I was assured that a Defence Public Affairs photographer had extensively documented the Army’s activities beyond the perimeter and that this material was available should I wish to take it back to the War Memorial instead … I was to be told nothing and taken nowhere – with one notable exception. At the first opportunity I was escorted to see the Afghan ‘Trade Training School’ on base, where Australian Army Engineers taught a select bunch of Afghan youths to use a hand plane, wire a light switch and build a pergola. It was perfectly clear that I was only meant to see and record this ‘hearts and minds’ operation, the feel-good experience, and none of the grit. Not only was I being presented with a one-sided, unremittingly positive view of the Australian Army’s military objectives in this part of Afghanistan, it was assumed this was the version I would document for posterity via the collections of the Australian War Memorial.
Ian McPhedran feared that the ADF’s overzealous promotion of ‘feel-good’ stories would bequeath generations to come a misleading vision of what Australian forces were doing in Afghanistan:
The first draft of history is written by journalists. If the ADF continues to block the media’s access to the troops … the only true reporting and recording of Australians in action will be accidental, when an Australian media crew embedded with foreign forces happens upon some Aussies on exchange or during a joint operation.
At the Chief of Army’s Military History Conference in 2008, then Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, worried that ‘the history of the Australian Army of the late 20th – early 21st century is going to be a work of fiction.’ His fears arose from the military’s embrace of modern electronic communication and his belief that this was depriving the chroniclers of ‘the essential building blocks of the historian’s trade … written records.’
While Gillespie may be half-right about the effects of rapid technological change on the writing of the nation’s military history, he wholly overlooks the role of his own organisation’s communications strategies in contributing to this looming crisis and the scripting of the fictive responses to it. Speaking as the only press representative at the same conference, Karen Middleton pointed out that: ‘How much of history we are able to record depends on how much we are allowed to record.’
If we want a truly Australian chronicle of what Australian forces are doing in Afghanistan, Middleton reflected, then the ADF has to grant its national media sufficient access to gather its raw materials:
During my Afghanistan visit, the most telling descriptions of the level of preparedness and resourcing and state of mind of soldiers in the field came from a British officer, obtained in casual conversations while our escort officer slept … Now, Defence may congratulate itself that no such musings emerged, through us, from its own forces. But why? It means we end up with a British perspective, not an Australian one.
Likewise, Ian McPhedran feared that as a result of military censorship, ‘future generations of Australians will view these modern wars through a British or an American prism, and what a tragedy that would be.’
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Paul Daley, ‘Defence versus Parliament: the next great debate,’ The Sunday Age (1 March 2009).
Department of Defence, Defence Instructions (General) Public Comment and Dissemination of Official Information by Defence Personnel (Department of Defence, 2007).
Department of Defence, Operationally Sensitive Information Brief (Department of Defence, 2009).
Department of Defence, Statement of Understanding For Accredited Media (Ground Rules) (Department of Defence, 2009).
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Ross Southernwood, ‘Review of Uncommon Soldier: Brave, Compassionate and Tough, the Making of Australia’s Modern Diggers by Chris Masters,’ The Sunday Age, Melbourne Inside (30 December 2012).
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David Wroe, ‘Defence in the Dark,’ The Saturday Age (23 March 2013).