Teaching Generals Their Craft

Teaching Generals Their Craft

by Alistair Pope

29 August 2021


In our Australian war in Vietnam, Australians killed our opposition at a rate of about 14:1. Not a bad batting average, but also irrelevant. Ten days after my return to Australia I applied for a second tour ‘in any capacity’, yet I had recognised even then that we could not defeat an enemy who lost one million of its youth, but would NEVER stop. I simply wanted to be there, because I was also 25 and that’s what soldiers do.

In 1981, at Army Staff College (the military university formerly based in Queenscliff in Victoria), Vietnam was barely mentioned. Yet most of our recent experience had been in the WW2 Island campaigns, Malaysia, Borneo, and Vietnam. These wars had all involved small unit, close quarter jungle fighting. The exceptions were WW1, the Middle East in WW2, and Korea.

By 1981, the ‘No wars for 15-years and no threat to Australia’ determined by the Defence White Paper of 1976 had refocused the Army back to conventional war and ‘Fortress Australia’. This was the strategic plan to fight our next war on Australian soil rather than someone else’s country. As peace was the order of the day we could not name an enemy, so we created the mythical Musorian Army from the mythical Atlantis continent of Orangeland (located somewhere around where Fiji is now). In our dreams, Australia fielded 7 x Infantry, 2 x Armoured and 1 x Cavalry Division supported by 3 x Independent Brigades, 3 x Commando Regiments and 2 x SAS Regiments.  About 300,000 frontline troops, with another 250,000 in support roles. Yet we were outnumbered 4:1 by the invaders. Oh, and we had a powerful RAAF and RAN (with two Aircraft Carriers and 12 x submarines interdicting their reinforcement convoys). Expressing the view that this was farcical did not gain any support from the Directing Staff.



However, I want to raise one point about an essay we had to write after our budding Napoleons were introduced to the strategic, political, and diplomatic views of some prominent people.  The question posed was: What is the greatest threat to Australia and what counter-measures should we take?

Naturally, most students identified the major countries to our north as the obvious likely potential threats, and recommended more aircraft, more aircraft carriers, more guns, and more alliances. I wrote what was probably a unique article, entitled “The Peaceful Invasion of Australia”.  My scenario was that after the death of an Indonesian President it was possible that their country would descend into chaos and possibly civil war. Even then there were frequently violent small-scale disturbances against the Chinese, Christians, and some ‘foreign businesses’. In my scenario, up to one million Indonesians fled in small boats and ended up in Northern Australia. Naturally, we took them in, in accordance with our UN Treaty obligations. By the time things settled down, there were two million in the North and another 500,000 who had relocated to east coast cities. Those in the North then demanded to secede from Oz and become an independent Muslim state. Terrorism, murders, bombings and riots began. We had no answer and ceded most of the North from Broome to the East of Darwin. Indonesian troops arrived to ‘train’ the locals in ‘self-defence’.

My answer was to herd them into camps, separate the men from the women, and when the chaos in Indonesia was over return them to their homeland. In criticising my view, it was pointed out that all a refugee had to do was claim he would be persecuted if returned and under our UN treaty obligations they could not be sent back. My answer to that was one of two options: abrogate our UN obligations or retain them in a desert camp for life. I was scored lowly.  I appealed to the Commandant, who commended my ‘innovative thinking’ and regraded it upwards. One only has to note what has happened in Europe (and the Hungarian and Polish refusal to take in asylum seekers) to realise that I had predicted the future in the wrong place.

In his small book “Clausewitz on Vietnam”, US Colonel Harry Summers quotes one of the greatest put-downs I have ever heard. He writes in the introduction that he was sent to Hanoi in 1973, to begin the negotiations for the return to the USA of American POWs.  He flew in to Hanoi, dressed in his finest Dress Uniform with all his medal ribbons and baubles and, at 185 cms tall, met his crumpled 170cm-tall opposite number on the tarmac.  They saluted and Harry then set about establishing American superiority by saying: “Colonel, you know, you never won a single battle against us”.  The NVA Colonel pondered that statement for a moment and then replied: “You’re right. It is also irrelevant.”

Which brings us back to Clausewitz and the insights he set out 200 years ago: ‘that war is fundamentally a political activity’.

If this is true (and it is), then we have five choices when we go to war:

  1. Fight to the death until one side is conventionally destroyed, annihilated or absorbed (the Canaanites, WW2, the Jacobites, Saddam’s Iraq, or South Vietnam).
  2. Come to a mutual Agreement to stop, through exhaustion, the realisation that the cost exceeds the benefits of any potential Pyrrhic ‘victory’, or changed circumstances — in which case nothing is actually resolved (WW1, Korea, or Kosovo).
  3. Surrender, appease, and become a vassal state — choose from the hundreds of examples.
  4. Fight endlessly, with war being the ‘normal state’. That was the view of the North Vietnamese and the Afghani tribesmen since Alexander the Great to the present.
  5. Isolate and reject those who do not fit the cultural ‘norm’ of the host nation (ethnic and cultural ‘cleansing’, apartheid, ghettos and the ‘no-go’ zones of Northern Ireland and France).

This fifth option is both the best and the worst choice, because it can be so readily abused (e.g. Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1937). On the other hand, we can cite Japan (which had one of the worst militaristic regimes, but is now at least partially reformed, though it disallows almost all immigration!), Angola (no mosques or Muslims allowed after they saw what happened to Nigeria), Saudi Arabia (a horrible place, like most conservative Muslim countries) or Iceland.

Every country that has been infected by promoting ‘multiculti separatism’ will face permanent violence, and that includes Australia.

So, what do we need to do to defend ourselves? We need to retain a conventional military, but with better equipment than we now have or are getting. We also need to reconsider the future of warfare, given the defeat of the high-tech USA in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. What weapons do we really need, and what is the military structure and command and control mechanisms required to effectively employ them? The world’s last large-scale tank battle was probably fought in Iraq, more than 20 years ago.

We also need a new ‘Special Branch’ (or secret police, if you prefer) with a range of functions and powers usually reserved for war.  In short, McFate is right, but the solution to the problem Australian politicians have created is almost (but not quite) as bad as the problem. How we keep this secret service focused and under control is for another time. However, I would add that it needs to have powers — like the Special Tribunal during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland — because our current Courts are not equipped to deal with internal terrorism trials.

The following was in answer to someone who asked me how our Generals would respond to the British General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, who wants tanks to run on magic non-fossil fuel to attract eco-recruits worried about the environment — another ‘woke’ General unfit for war.

There was a recently produced film about the battle of Long Tan in 1966 called “Danger Close!”. It is not a documentary, but enough is right to make it worth watching.



Some of the senior officers are not portrayed in a flattering light. Which brings me to the main point.

Senior Officers Training

In 1982, Australian HQ Training Command noted that, since the end of WW2, no serving General had commanded more than a brigade of 5,000 men on operations. The GoC Training Command tried to address the lack of knowledge and experience of our senior officers in commanding large-scale forces by creating a short training course for our Generals and Brigadiers. This included Command Exercises that looked at real life battles by setting the scene, and then asking the Generals to produce their Concept of Operations at the Division, Corps, and Army Command levels. It was interesting to find myself presenting to Generals on the art of war. After just the first hour I had divided them into three categories:

  • Interested and participating,
  • Not interested and not listening,
  • Wasting my time and the taxpayers’ money.

Perhaps they had not read the curriculum and had not realised they would be required to take Command roles and give their strategic orders to fight the battles. The GoC Training Command and a small staff would assess their concepts for group analysis.

Suffice to say that the ‘students’ apparently did not take their task seriously and were soon defeated in the wargame. The generals were displeased, but were not remorseful or willing to analyse their errors — because that might mean losing face in front of their peers and compatriots. Their preferred approach was to criticize the exercise and the training course.

We moved on to the second scenario from WW2. German General Balck (Corps Commander) and his Chief-of-Staff Mellenthin, who had fought on almost every front, were pitted against the Russians in the Chir River battle, where they were outnumbered 10:1. According to the historian David T. Zabecki, Balck was considered a gifted commander of armored troops, as exemplified by his handling of 11th Panzer Division and XLVIII Panzer Corps during the Chir River crisis in 1942–43. In reviewing Balck’s command of the division during December 1942, U.S. General William DePuy assessed Balck to have been “perhaps the best division commander in the German Army.”

The American Army studied their battles, and in the late 1970s invited Balck and Mellenthin to relive and refight them at TRADOC, the US Army war games center. There they were challenged by the best American Generals, in the Chir River wargame.

In our game we gave the Australian generals part of the answer, so they could deduce and apply the whole solution that had proved such a success in real-life. I tested it on non-military people — and they came through — so this time confidence was finally high, but misplaced. We told our commanders that Manstein let the Russians rush forward nearly 60 miles, then attacked their flanks with the 4th Panzer Army, surrounded the forward Russian armies, and destroyed them. When Manstein gave Col. Gen Hoth the word, the panzers rampaged through the Russian armies destroying the Russian 6th Infantry Army, Popov’s Armoured Group, the 1st Guards Army and the 6th Tank Army, and recaptured 10,000 square miles of territory. The Russians lost 40,000 dead, 10,000 prisoners and over 1,000 tanks and artillery pieces. Tens of thousands more were hiding out in small groups in the forests just trying to survive. Hoth’s casualties were less than 5,000.

So, how did the Australian generals do? They produced conceptual plans that were incoherent from a military standpoint. If either side had a Manstein, Hoth, or Balck (or maybe Mary Poppins), they would have won. I do not blame them for failing, but what I found galling was that their preferred world was the Canberra-bubble, rather than the hardships of command in the field, which was supposedly their chosen profession. There were exceptions, and I have met a few of them, but these days the appropriately pushed pen and opinion is far, far mightier than the warriors sword — and it helps your promotion prospects if you are a woke, climate-fighting, gender-sensitive, combat-averse, kneeling apologist. And the earlier you apologise for everything, the sooner you might receive another participation trinket.

The good times and field postings were over, so I resigned at the earliest date and have retained good memories. Had I stayed, I suspect that several years in Canberra would have soured my remembrance of ‘interesting times’.


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