Burr's trapped between a rock and hard place selling army's message

Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr. Picture: Karleen Minney
Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr. Picture: Karleen Minney

Army chief Rick Burr's no fool. As well as time commanding the SAS and international Special Forces in Afghanistan, the boy from Renmark High (where he was a classmate of Social Services Minister Anne Ruston) has had postings in Canberra with the prime minister's department (when Kevin Rudd was PM) and in Hawaii (where he became the first ever non-American to be deputy commander of the US Army in the Pacific).

He's even managed to find time to cram six weeks' study at Harvard into his schedule. It's an impressive CV: the sort of thing you might expect would provide a pretty good grounding for shaping and fielding an army capable of tackling tasks ranging from fighting fires and quarantining travellers right through to war-fighting.

That is, after all, his task - to deliver a land force capable of meeting our defence needs.

At one time doing that job would have been enough and politicians dealt with controversies. No longer. Since Burr took the job he's been asked if officers commanding soldiers who committed war crimes should be hanged (like Japanese generals in World War II) and expected to accept continuing responsibility for soldiers' mental health (possibly regardless of whether they had medical conditions quite separate from their military service). He's expected to pontificate on everything from the meaning of Anzac Day to whether our contribution to Afghanistan was, somehow, worthwhile after all.

The problem is, these issues aren't susceptible to sensible answers.

Take that last question; how can anyone present a worthwhile response to a question about the future of a country where government is disintegrating further day by day? Burr's being asked to make political judgements and so of course he's going to say, as he did, that Australia's deployment in Afghanistan has left a "proud legacy" and the work soldiers did "is not tarnished by the alleged serious misconduct of a few". Similarly he insisted this country would continue to support stability to preserve the gains made over the past decades.

And that's exactly what you'd expect Burr to say - because he's trapped.

As the pay of top executives - like Burr - has increased they've been increasingly expected not just to do their real job (like running the army) but also take on a representational role (defending and endorsing everything about it). That's difficult and particularly when - again, like Burr - your job involves pushing to transform that organisation into something very different from its current state.

Add to that all the usual problems, like a minister who thinks they can define reality simply by asserting something, organisational inertia, and narrowing windows for actually accomplishing your job.

It's hardly surprising clever people end up repeating well-worn phrases reinforcing the status quo. Eventually they might even believe them.

Just remember to think beyond the anodyne blandishments and measure the words against reality.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
This story Burr's trapped between a rock and hard place selling army's message first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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