2015 speaker: Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG
Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG delivered the Australia Day Address on 23 January 2016 at the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney.
Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG served with distinction in the Australian Army and Special Air Service Regiment. His service includes operational deployments to East Timor, Fiji, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ben is a recipient of the highest award in the Australian military honours system, the Victoria Cross for Australia, awarded in 2011 for the most conspicuous gallantry in action in circumstances of extreme peril in Afghanistan. Ben was also awarded the Medal for Gallantry in 2006 and the Commendation for Distinguished Service in 2013. He is the Commonwealth’s most highly decorated serviceman from the war in Afghanistan.
Ben’s contribution to Australia extends well beyond his military service; he is Patron of the White Cloud Foundation who assist sufferers of depression and Wandering Warriors who support current and ex-servicemen. He is also a National Ambassador for Legacy. In November 2014, Ben was appointed as Chair of the National Australia Day Council.
Welcome your Excellency, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to start by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land we gather on this evening, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Just over 15 years ago I went on my first deployment with the Australian Army. I’d been trained as an Infantryman. A freshly-minted Rifleman, aged 20, I headed off to East Timor to serve with the multinational peacekeeping force led by Australia, with our now Governor-General as force commander.
For longer than I can remember, that’s all I’d ever wanted to do, all I’d ever imagined myself doing. Leave school, join the Army, and fight for my country. It was an uncomplicated, old-fashioned dream in lots of ways. And then all of a sudden it was real - here I was, part of the largest deployment of Australian troops since the Second World War.
The independence vote in 1999 overwhelmingly declared East Timor a new nation. But it was a fragile and volatile one. Then Major-General Peter Cosgrove was overseeing a complex environment, politically and militarily. We were there to contain the violence, but we were also there to restore peace and the rule of law, and to provide humanitarian relief to a vulnerable and displaced population.
Innocent people were subjected to horrific atrocities. There were violence, looting and arson in homes and streets everywhere. The daily bloodshed and suffering were unrelenting.
No soldier enters a situation like that audaciously, but it’s what you’ve trained for, it’s what you’ve mentally and physically prepared yourself for. You want to know yourself, and demonstrate to your team and command, that you have what it takes to do whatever the situation demands; to do the job.
But this was no standard military campaign. It was a hint of the sort of conflict we’ve now come to know so well. The militia’s urban warfare tactics were outside the bounds of conventional contact, and the rules of engagement required that our priority response always be to neutralise rather than escalate the violence. It was a careful and nuanced manoeuvre that we all understood, but when face to face with the senseless death and trauma and abuse, it was very hard not to want to deal with it overtly and directly.
I turned 21 in the midst of all that and a few months later went home angry, angry that I didn’t fight as I felt a soldier should against such horrific acts of inhumanity.
That’s a bit about what conflict teaches a young soldier, but it speaks of something more too, of the demands on modern soldiering – they’re multi-layered, ever-shifting, unforgiving and unpredictable. The skill sets of our men and women recruits have to match and better those demands. There’s nothing quite like the journey from civilian to soldier. Turns out, the journey back is a pretty interesting one too – I’ll come to that later.
This year’s centenary of the ANZAC Gallipoli campaign reminds us of much earlier journeys of citizen soldiers. Among them, those of 60,000 ordinary Australian men who signed up for the British Empire war effort and, after minimal training, soon found themselves part of a fated attack on Turkish shores. The sheer numbers of Australians killed or somehow struck by this campaign were too much to fathom for a country of fewer than 5 million people. The great searching hole it left was a human inevitability, one we’ve spent a century trying to fill. Not all that long ago, there was the thought that Anzac Day might even become Australia Day given its momentous place in our country’s history.
Almost my age, the Australian film, Gallipoli, was as much about the battle as it was an exploration of our national identity. All those ideas about an innocent nation and its innocent youth, the toughness that comes from life in the bush, and the mateship, egalitarianism, even competitiveness, that characterised the Australian digger-soldier.i
And well before late-20th -century film-making, General Sir John Monash, a respected Australian military commander of the First World War, had his own character portrait of the Anzac: courage, mateship, initiative, egalitarianism and decency held firm under fire.ii
Apart from the suggestion of innocence, which thankfully we’ve long given up, we still mostly subscribe to these portrayals today, especially on Australia Day and Anzac Day. There’s a good reason for it. We are who we are as a nation because of who we are as a people – our values, how we behave, how we treat one another, how we grow into our skin as a society that is vastly diverse in so many ways. What else can more truthfully define us?
When you’re bundled into the bus heading to Kapooka, just outside Wagga Wagga here in New South Wales, for your initial basic training as an Army recruit nothing strikes you more than that diversity. There’s the whole messy lot in ages, bodies, backgrounds, and abilities. And once you get your standard issue from the quartermaster, it pretty much looks like Dad’s Army.
And then the directing staff get started on turning you into a soldier, bit by bit, day by day, 80 in all.
Any morning you might look up and see mattresses and the rest being tossed out of the 3rd floor windows in your accommodation block, then get the command to restore it all to inspection order in 10 minutes or have it flooded with water. Unless you’ve been an emergency worker or someone trained in chaos, this sort of thing throws most of us. Basic training gets you used to facing the unfamiliar, and using the skills you need to best respond. Some, in the end decide it’s not for them, despite a natural aptitude.
Completing the recruit course is a huge leap from whatever civilian life you’ve known. The brochure says you’re tested physically, medically, morally and spiritually. I’d agree with that, and I’d also say it’s an emotional and intellectual test too because so much of what you do and how you do it is governed by what’s going on in your head - a sharp eye on the critical issue, sticking with the job, believing you can do it, shunning your demons.
At the end of 80 days, you’re deemed capable of being a soldier. Then you’re sent off to learn a trade, not necessarily the one you might choose. Artillery, transport, signals, engineering. In other words, you need to learn how to be a useful soldier. And, like any trade or profession, that can take a few more years.
I mentioned earlier that I’d gone to Infantry School where I did my Rifleman training; it was at Singleton, up north-west of Newcastle. There are a number of establishments around the country where Army recruits go to complete their employment training before being posted to a base, like Holsworthy Barracks here in Sydney.
And then there are the places where all three services turn up: most Australians have heard of Duntroon, the Royal Military College in Canberra where officers are trained in leadership and command; and ADFA – the Australian Defence Force Academy – in Canberra too, where officers get a package deal, a degree in their chosen discipline along with military training.
So there are many pathways to first base and beyond.
I have a close mate I’d grown up with, went to school with, who was as hell bent as me on being a soldier. It’s all we ever talked about. James’s dad had been with the New Zealand SAS in Vietnam; he was a squadron commander, killed in a parachute drop. His mum remarried a fellow who’d also been a Vietnam SAS vet. James lived and breathed soldiering long before he became one himself. He’s one of those guys: extraordinarily capable, a lovely bloke, as a kid everyone liked him, kids, teachers, parents. He was my measure of decency and friendship and endless potential.
When I went to enlist a few days after my 18th, James didn’t turn up. That threw me and I wasn’t even out of my civvies. I got on with it and didn’t see him for a couple of years until one day I spotted him at Holsworthy. He’d joined later, gone to Duntroon and come out an officer. Remembering my rank – I was a corporal – there was a bit of fumbling about on my part with salutes and so on, then we settled back into being mates. The one thing James and I both had been fixated on was joining the SAS – the Special Air Service Regiment. We got talking about it again, and in 2003 decided to bite the bullet, which is a pretty fair description of what was ahead.
The end goal is to get through the SAS reinforcement cycle, a whole series of courses in weaponry, parachuting, diving, urban combat and much more, completed over 18 months. If you fail even one course at any point, you may or may not be given the chance to attempt another full cycle. Some are told not to come back. Even once you’ve passed everything, there’s a year’s probation before you’ve proven yourself.
But even before you get on the reinforcement cycle, you have to be selected – the SAS has to work out whether you’re up to it and whether you’re the sort of person they want ultimately performing special operations like reconnaissance, strike operations, counter-terrorism, training indigenous forces, and all in enemy controlled territory and war zones.
SAS selection is the toughest of all entry tests in the Australian Army if not globally. I took leave and spent three solid, solitary months training for the three week selection course. The training was by far the hardest I’d done in my life, harder than selection. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Of the 150 who would arrive for the course, fewer than 30 would finish, and only 15 would be chosen.
We were on a meal break in the first couple of days of selection. James had just completed a night of command assessment - officers do extra sessions of strategic command testing during the course. James came in and sat down; calmly, he said he’d been pulled off the course, he’d been told he wasn’t up to it. This was the guy who was everything I could ever hope to be. It just couldn’t be right. I was reeling; there was no way I’d make it if James couldn’t. Rather than focus on his own grief – it must have felt like that for him – he turned to me and said in the brief minute he had before he was sent on his way, “Don’t worry about it, mate, you’ve just got to get to the end, don’t give up”.
That was a defining moment for me. Here was a soldier – I hadn’t known anyone more capable, looked up to anyone more – who for whatever reason didn’t have what they wanted. He accepted the verdict and walked away with dignity, but not before making sure I was going to give it my best shot, no matter the outcome. That lesson in how to cop rejection lined up with the rest in the 3 weeks that followed. It’s no surprise you have to be exceptionally fit and strong and calm in combat, and you’re pushed off your limits of hunger, fatigue, deprivation, even sanity. In the end, the Army wants to know what will break you when it matters. When you’ve not eaten for 3 days and had only an hour’s sleep in 24, whether you’ll pull your weight and get your team over the line, or whether you’ll look after yourself and let someone else carry the can.
I didn’t see James for five years after that. The SAS missed out on a man who I know wouldn’t have broken, and that man missed his greatest potential. It happens, though thankfully only rarely. No screening process – even one as rigorous as the SAS – is or can be faultless.
Once accepted into the SAS, I was deployed on operations in Fiji, Iraq and Afghanistan – I had multiple deployments in the Middle East.
I did eventually get that fight I figured I’d missed in Timor; turns out, I got a few.
So, there’s the training, a bit of which I’ve described, and then there’s combat. You spend years being conditioned to the closest possible simulations of warfare and enemy engagement: the terrain, the weather and conditions, the often non-standard munitions and firepower, the mind and objective of the enemy, the cultural, moral and social divide. Then you head out on an operation to disrupt an enemy stronghold or destroy a high value target or whatever the assignment is, highly conditioned as you are, yet mentally prepared for the absolute certainty that at some point things won’t run as planned, the circumstances will demand that you do something different or untried, and fast.
Back in 2006 our six man patrol was conducting an observation post high up in a rocky mountain saddle overlooking the Chora valley. 19 heavily armed insurgents were closing in on us, attempting to overrun our position. Sitting in the rocks, firing to hold them off, reality dawned on me. Outnumbered nearly 4 to 1, surrounded and out positioned, 2 weapons out of our 6 malfunctioning, and we’re told there’s no air support available. We’re on our own.
No matter how tough you are, or think you are, at those sort of moments you can’t stop thinking, “will I see my family again?”. So, while I’m pondering that, Matt, a member of my patrol stood up in the midst of rocket fire and bullets ricocheting all around us and started free climbing the sheer cliff to our rear. He knew that if he could get to the top and hold that flank it would give the rest of us a chance to fight the insurgents at the base of the cliff. If the enemy were to beat him to it and fire directly down on us, that’d be the end for us. As Matt climbed, no ropes, no safety, wearing around 25 kgs of gear, you could see the enemy rounds smashing into the cliff face next to him and shards of rock exploding off, but he kept climbing. Eventually he got to the top and as he rounded the lip three insurgents moved in on him. He started a running gun battle with these three and held that flank single-handedly from a narrow ridge for 2 long hours.
That was extreme bravery, for sure. But what it really showed was that Matt believed in himself. He had a personal ethos that he was prepared to back, and that day, was prepared to die for. He believed that leadership is about taking the right decision, not the safest. Matt was awarded a Medal of Gallantry for that action, Less than a year later he was killed by insurgent fire while on patrol in that same valley.
I remember former Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce, would often talk at award ceremonies and on Anzac Day about soldiers like Matt, and countless other servicemen and women, being the modern faces of Anzac.iii Chris Masters in his book, Uncommon Soldier, writes that the best measure of the Anzac legacy is found in the present.iv I like the honesty of both. They take nothing away from the Anzac story as it’s preserved and memorialised and honoured, and yet they acknowledge that we carry the lessons and experiences of past conflicts, Gallipoli included, into modern theatres of war and peacekeeping. Soldiers today stand tall on the Anzacs’ shoulders, now with monstrously heavy packs.
If we go back to the idea of Anzac being an Australian value almost, of it being somehow symbolic of our nationhood, what part do our modern Anzacs have in shaping a modern and maturing nationhood? A central part, I think. It’s not for reasons any of us wish for, but the infinite, inescapable reality for Australia and its allies and friends is that the freedoms and rights we’ve always fought for and won at great cost to our own are again under serious and continuing threat. Australian soldiers and the broader military are at the coalface – they are the face – of our defence, of our efforts to overpower the lethal forces of terror and insurgency rampaging throughout the world.
The terrifying and tragic siege in Martin Place at the centre of this very city just over a month ago told Australians that we’re neither remote nor immune. 9/11, Bali, Mumbai, Istanbul, Madrid, London, Jakarta, Delhi, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Boston, Ottawa, Sydney, Paris – just in this short century alone, and hundreds more I’ve not mentioned, and hundreds more to come.
As Australians witness these things in the midst of our ordinary lives, getting a morning coffee, watching it on our screens, reading about young people leaving the country to join a raging, borderless jihad, the outlying world of Australian soldiers fighting Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to come within touching distance of domestic, civilian life. Both very much dependent on the other for their purpose and protection.
There’s no doubt that for the one who believed the fight was a necessary part of the job, the last decade or so of my soldiering served me well. Every day on deployment I knew what I had to do, and I went out with my team and did it. The mission was clear. When I came back home, I put it out of my head, the job was done, until the next round.
However, when you return to civilian life for good the mission isn’t as clear. In fact, you may struggle to find a mission that comes anywhere close. That’s not a criticism of civilian life; it’s a reflection of its quite different demands and expectations. You have to find your own mission. The motivation and the passion have to come from you. In my experience, the hardest thing for a soldier, once they’ve handed back their kit, is knowing and believing in what they know. After a career of never even whispering can’t, they seem to get good at banging on about what they can’t do. I was one of them – I’m just a corporal, what do I know?
One day a mentor of mine – someone who was prepared to back me when I wasn’t so keen – asked me to write my CV. He didn’t want a security briefing; he told me he wanted what I could do in words a normal person could make sense of. I thought he was going to get me a job and my worries would be over. Nup, that wasn’t it. I delivered it to him, and he said: great, now you know what you can do, go find it.
Now, that’s not a criticism of the Army either: that you can spend all those years acquiring skills and experience unparalleled in most professions and jobs, and not know what you’ve got, or more precisely, what you’ve got to offer a new landscape. There isn’t an equivalent of SAS selection for becoming a civvie again, just your very own baptism of fire.
The singular talent I’ve seen in spades in soldiers of every rank in every circumstance is leadership. There are libraries written about leadership, but I find it’s best explained in action. Its foundations are in the training: the physical and mental sharpness, the resilience and steadiness that come with pressing on through hard stuff day in day out, doing the best you can over and again, never even whispering can’t.
Then, at a moment’s notice, something else, something more strides through the middle and rises above the rest. It has impeccable timing, it knows what needs to be done and when, it stays on call until the job is done, it sees what others can’t, it guides but doesn’t stand in others’ way, it knows when to step aside.
That’s what soldiers know how to do.
We need leadership in every facet of Australian life, from our families and communities to our institutions and governments. Not only to discharge our charter and trumpet our successes, but to lead us through the difficult times, the complexities of a modern nation, our natural susceptibilities, and the human and institutional failures.
The sort of leadership that defines a nation. And the sort of leadership that we celebrate on Australia Day:
- in the achievements of our Australian of the Year Award finalists
- in the contribution of the eminent Australians who’ve spoken before me to the national conversation
- in the enthusiasm and inspiration of our volunteer Australia Day Ambassadors
- in the courage and conviction of our new Australians becoming citizens in ceremonies around the country
- in the determined pursuits of Australians every day
- in the superb management by the Australia Day Council New South Wales and all other state and territory councils of an impressive Australia Day events program
- and in the efforts of the National Australia Day Council over many years in nurturing a culture of understanding, inclusiveness and reconciliation – I feel privileged to have been invited by the Prime Minister to chair the Council, and even more so, to take up the role.
In that role there must be one question you must never shake: what does it mean to be Australian? Australian author, David Malouf, said a long time ago that we can feel relaxed about taking our Australianness for granted, that we can feel confident that we are distinctly something and distinctly different.v
It’s an observation and a lesson for us all.
I told some colleagues recently that I’d lived my dream. One said she’d never heard that from anyone. But I’m here to tell you that you can do that in Australia; live dreams, that is.
So whatever your dream, whatever your mission, get on with it.