On Military Leadership in Australia

On Military Leadership in Australia

by Alistair Pope

27 August 2021


There is a quote in a book ‘With the Flag to Pretoria’ about General Buller, VC : ‘He was a magnificent Captain, a mediocre Lieutenant Colonel and an abysmal General.’  He followed the Peter Principle  by ‘rising to his level of incompetence’, where he lost the Battle of Colenso and took enormous casualties for no effect. The British lost 143 killed, 756 wounded, and 220 captured. Boer casualties were eight killed and 30 wounded.

Caesar and Alexander were both excellent frontline warriors and magnificent strategic Generals, whereas Wellington and Monash never fired a shot or stood in the frontline, but were brilliant Generals.

Clearly, there are other factors than actual operational experience that need to be considered.

Like all pendulums, in the Australian case, it has swung too far to the Left and now sees combat experience among senior officers as almost distasteful …  Yet, the factors that could turn a mediocre junior officer into a great General, or a great Platoon Commander into an abysmal General can be quantified, sought out and assessed.



The Army Staff College is one potential means, but even that is flawed because the rebellious junior officer with the non-doctrinal ideas and regularly questioning authority will never be selected to get there in the first place (with a few exceptions). A good example is a Platoon Commander at Long Tan who failed his promotion course to Captain (Tac-3) when he recommended calling in artillery fire on to his own position –- just as he had actually done in Vietnam in 1966. He was marked down as ‘tactically unsound’ as that was against doctrine. He is alive today because of his ‘tactically unsound’ decision.

Armies tend to look for ‘conformity’, rather than initiative, innovation, or rebels stirring the pot.  When his plan was rejected, General Manstein bypassed the hierarchy and went straight to Hitler with his Plan for the Battle of France. The OKW was enraged, but Hitler was impressed and France was defeated in just six weeks. OKW never forgave Manstein.

Unfortunately, as the American military has shown, ‘Thoroughly Modern’ General Milley is the wokest of woke generals, with 16 medals and an assortment of baubles. He is also a complete failure as a military General.

Our own recent military hierarchy is little different because they are being chosen by their fellow bed-wetters for promotion because ‘they are ‘just like them’. 30 senior officers recently signed a letter to the Chief of the Defence Force imploring him to ensure that the effects on the climate were incorporated in our strategic military plans. Oh, good. That makes things easier as they have outed their desire for immediate retirement …

I have noted that Minister Dutton is being distracted by the ‘machine’. It is an old trick I used myself. To keep him away from the real issues he is being drowned in trivia ‘needing his personal attention’. So, he is asked for advice in planning a march for all veterans of post 1980 wars, peacekeeping, domestic violence, training accidents and whatever. Submarine Farce? Howitzers Modified? F-35 still a dud?  Frigates overweight and late? SASR rendered almost ineffective — no time for any of that, Sir, but we need you to consider this 716-page report for a new ‘participation’ award for all those who never deployed and are feeling left out …

So, while the machine remains well-lubricated and running on all cylinders, essential changes to reform, reorganisation and re-equipment of the ADF for the next war with effective senior officers, cannot happen.


Lieutenant Colonel Alistair Pope graduated from Officer Training Unit Scheyville in 1967 and retired from the Australian Army in 1986.