Friday, April 26, 2013

Robert O’Neill on lessons not yet learned


Today’s edition of The Australian carried a piece by defence writer Brendan Nicholson summarising the views of distinguished military historian Robert O’Neill AO, Chair of the International Academic Advisory Committee at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, as presented in a chapter he contributed to Gallipoli: A Ridge Too Far, edited by Ashley Ekins of the Australian War Memorial.

The text follows:

Lessons from history not learned by politicians

Brendan Nicholson

THE confused thinking behind the disastrous Gallipoli campaign persists a century later and was evident in the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert O'Neill, one of Australia's most respected historians, describes in a new book on Gallipoli how "blindness and miscomprehension" about Turkey's ability to defend itself was repeated in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Gallipoli A Ridge Too Far, edited by Ashley Ekins of the Australian War Memorial, Dr O'Neill says lessons that should have been learned in the Gallipoli campaign still bedevil current conflicts.

Under Winston Churchill's direction, the Allied nations sent a potent force to take on what they considered to be an unsophisticated enemy, but they miscalculated badly.

"Once again, clever people in national capitals had failed utterly to learn how other armies might be able to defend their own territory and compensate for their lack of firepower and communications by the bravery and determination of individual troops, their NCOs and officers," Dr O'Neill writes.

And so the troops were ground down by the superior strength of the Turks, the weather, lack of water and dysentery.

"How strange it is that Winston Churchill, a voracious student of military history, thought that a force of some 60,000 men, backed by the Royal Navy, would rapidly induce a Turkish collapse leading to the seizure and occupation of Constantinople," Dr O'Neill says.

"He saw the Ottoman Empire as moribund. Unfortunately the Ottoman Empire in 1914 had plenty of fight left in it."

Dr O'Neill says the Allied decision making process was dominated by Churchill and he quotes Charles Bean's observation on how through "the fatal power of a young enthusiasm to convince older and slower brains, the tragedy of Gallipoli was born".

Sadly, he says, this tendency on the part of forceful and determined political leaders such as Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, is still with us.

That was manifest in the US-led "shock and awe" campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Dr O'Neill also notes that at Gallipoli the British built a significant part of the Turkish defences that destroyed several massive allied warships. That mistake was repeated when Western nations helped Saddam Hussein in Iraq wage war against Iran.

"Like Churchill in 1915, our governments need to think harder about the possible consequences when they give military assistance to foreign countries," he says.

"More recently we have learned through painful experience in Vietnam and Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, that such blindness and miscomprehension is still to be encountered regularly in our own governments and their agencies.

"The lessons from history's pages are obvious but do we have politicians who are prepared to take the time necessary, and do the hard studying, to develop real expertise in the management of international security policy?

"The experience of the past decade suggests that we are as far from that goal as were the national leaders of 1914-15."

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