On The Junket Agenda: What People Keep Getting Wrong About Life And Leadership In The Australian Army

"I’ve lived my adult life in one of the most high-profile, and paradoxically most cloistered, professions in Australia. Everyone has an image of what a soldier is, but not many people actually know."

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In the lead-up to Junkee’s first youth unconference, JUNKET, we’ve asked a few of the 200 delegates to expand on the ideas they’re bringing, to help set the agenda for – and start the right conversations about — Australia’s future.

Friends regularly accuse me being a closet-hipster, or hipster-adjacent — and whenever I meet their friends, I spend a lot of time explaining and defending my job. People seem genuinely shocked when they find out I’m a career soldier.

I’ve lived my adult life in one of the most high-profile, and paradoxically most cloistered, professions in modern Australia. Everyone has an image of what a soldier is, but not many people actually know.

For most of the last fifteen years, I’ve led men – and yep, for now, the Infantry remains a male-only environment — on operations from the Solomon Islands, to the 2006 Timor Leste intervention, and two tours of Afghanistan.

So what conversation do I want to start at JUNKET? I’d like to talk about the growing liberalisation of the military, and the ways we could develop a representative, capable defence force in this century. I also hope that my attendance will go some way to debunking the myth of soldiers as barely-literate thugs, and let people know about some of the pragmatic idealism that’s driving social change through the ranks.

Army guys find our voices dismissed a lot, because it’s assumed we’re all Howardites – right-leaning, if not downright redneck – when the truth is that a soldier tends to become more little ‘l’ liberal the longer he stays in the army. (And I can’t even count the number of shocked faces hovering above small-batch craft beers I’ve seen on the occasions I’ve built a coherent sentence.)

It took some work to convince my commanders of the merit in participating in JUNKET. We take great pains to separate ourselves just enough from the rest of society – shitty haircuts, esoteric uniforms, jargonese – and it’s mostly to a considered benefit. Our separation builds within the ranks an idea of comradeship, of something special. This is useful in service, but not useful for trying to be a normal 30-year-old Australian.

But I really think there’s a quiet, and surprisingly modest, wealth of innovation and leadership being cultivated incredibly well in today’s army, and I hope bringing that to open conversation with other JUNKET delegates will be of some use. I hope to maybe provide an unexpected voice in the discussions.

If I left the Army tomorrow, the most salient things I’d take with me — aside from an A+ zombie apocalypse skillset — are the experiences no one would expect to happen on the job. Like learning enough Pashto in Uruzgan that I could be of actual use to, and communicate with, the people we were there to help – including a guy who had just lost his best friend in the middle of an idle Tuesday night. The personal lessons I’ve learnt are truer drivers of capability than any policy or doctrine; I think that might be true for anyone trying to bring about social change.

There’s also lessons that could be learned about leadership. The everyday leadership of soldiers is a responsibility that falls squarely on the foundation team in Army’s leadership structure: The Platoon Headquarters (that’s basically a young guy, an old guy, and a radio). This team is responsible for the lives of around two-dozen others, generally aged from 18 – 24. Most are living not only out of home for the first time, but also away from all their friends and societal comforts; I’d also like to discuss the ways we can manage the mental well-being of men who are culturally reticent to admit to anything they perceive as a weakness or a failing in this tightly regimented lifestyle.

Photo by Jonathan Batten.

(L-R) Corporal (CPL) Mal, CPL Batten, LT Ben, SGT Lloyd, PTE Mayo, CPL Dan, Afghanistan (Image via ADF)

It may seem counter-intuitive to look for ways to engage and lead Australia’s most connected young generation, in an organisation as seemingly antiquated as the Army — but when it comes to remaining flexible through generations of societal change, while robust enough to maintain the core of its being, the Army’s certainly doing something right. The structure of the command team – of which Platoon Headquarters is the first crucial element — is another process the army got right all those years ago (certainly long before anyone cringed at the coupling of DeNiro and Hathaway); they worked out that pairing an eager young officer in his first command appointment as a Platoon Commander – conventionally someone newly graduated from university — with an experienced senior soldier (who, importantly, is his subordinate – the Platoon Sergeant) would a good mix. My Platoon Commander, a Lieutenant, recently graduated from the Royal Military College, and brings a motivation and enthusiasm for the job which is crucial for those around him; the aim is to offset the expertise of curmudgeonly old vets with a youthful vigour. As he progresses in his career, he’ll continue to be partnered with other Senior Non-Commissioned Officers, the experience gulf between them narrowing as they climb the ranks.

Every generation complains about the next being lazy, or too soft for real work, or having no street-smarts, but the profound truth is that our society’s getting smarter, more connected, and almost inevitably more cynical. In the army, we are challenged with shaping the mindset of a generation often maligned unfairly as being self-centred and self-interested, into finding an engaged and rewarding career in what may be one of the least self-valued organisations in the country, while constantly asking how we can adapt that organisation to seize the benefits of a changing demographic. I think the lessons we’ve learned in that process could be broadly applicable to anyone who wants to keep Australia moving forward.

And sure, if you want, I’ll tell you some stories about war. Buy me a beer.

Junket takes place at the QT Canberra on November 1-3.

Visit the Junket website here.

Jonathan Batten is a fifteen-year veteran of two Afghanistan tours, and one each of Timor Leste and Solomon Islands. He has also had a posting as an Instructor at the Army Recruit Training Centre in the frontline of the changing demographics in our Army.

Feature image by Jonathan Batten.