Anzac Day is about to be celebrated with its usual pomp and populism. It behooves a column on design to ask just what is the purpose of having a military, how should we design our defence force, especially now? Whilst we respect the past, I want to reflect on a possible future.

According to Andrew Hastie, assistant minister for defense, the core business of the military is ‘lethal violence’. This view, from the far right, seems deeply old fashioned, early 20th rather than 21st century, ignorant of evidence of failure at all levels, failing to win wars, failing our troops and failing the country. Wrong in every way.

But to go against the ‘proud tradition’ of Australians at war is seen as heresy, almost treasonous. Mindful of the wholly unreasonable farrago that engulfed Yassmin Abdel-Magied in 2017 I will tread carefully here, relying on my personal experience, a familial issue that runs deep.

Both my father and his father fought in the numerical wars. My paternal grandfather Bertie was injured at Ypres in WW1, shot twice in the same leg, 3 days apart, and was invalided out. But there was a silver lining: his nurse, on the hospital ship back to New Zealand, became my grandmother. He spent a life in considerable pain, hobbling with a surgical boot, but not once did I ever hear him complain.

Their second born, my father Hugh, who joined the navy in WW2, had a minesweeper shot out from underneath him in the Pacific. He injured his back, again no complaints, and he stayed on in the Navy, until he quit in disgust at the political fallout over the Voyager disaster (a peace time collision that killed 15% of the total number of sailors killed in the entire WW2).

Neither of them ever spoke about their service. My father never joined the RSL, he abhorred the idea of talking or reliving those times. He suffered what we would now call PTSD, which he ameliorated with the recommended medicines of the time: alcohol and nicotine. From which he died too young, forty years after the war ended.

At 20 I was conscripted for the American war in Vietnam. At the time I was at University, a CO (conscientious objector) and what was then called a ‘peacenik’, having marched in anti (Vietnam) war protests. To my surprise my father was wholeheartedly behind my decision to be a CO (not to be confused with a CUO in the Australian Army Cadets, which I had also been to my shame).

I was saved from war, as were thousands of others, on 3rd December 1972, when Gough Whitlam, and deputy Lance Barnard, only elected the day before, cancelled conscription. We had all lived through the nightly TV screenings of the war and all its atrocities, including the My Lai massacre. And we lost that war. But not before 60,000 fought there, 521 lives lost and 3000 seriously injured. There is no reasonable estimate of the dreadful plague of PTSD in its wake.

One curiosity I noticed when I finally did go to Vietnam (to lecture on sustainability – like coals to Newcastle) was how little discussion there is of what they call the ‘American War’. They are single mindedly viewing forward, to put that conflict behind them. And they won, whilst the USA and Australia, having lost the war, have not been able to dispel it or lift it into the noble pantheon of defeats like Gallipoli.

The ‘war in your living room’ has only heightened by our disastrous involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter from where we will be following the USA in withdrawing our troops in six months’ time. As Crikey’s editor has commented: “The long, largely forgotten war in Afghanistan has, in an Australian context, become recognised more as a site of alleged war crimes than a do-or-die fight against terrorism”.

In contrast to our anger with the politicians who promoted these unwinnable wars, our sympathies are entirely with the troops, whose work in setting up schools and hospitals in Afghanistan has been quite rightly admired and applauded, if not well reported. But over hundreds of years, no one has ever tamed Afghanistan, the warlords and the druglords. We were crazy to try, and now the Taliban will take over the country. And that loss will come at a huge cost.

If ‘lethal violence’ is the go, then recent history has not been kind, or successful. It has left a tale of terrible destruction, not only in civilians killed, but the damage done to our fighters. 47 killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by some estimates more than 500 have taken their own lives on return to Australia. And only now has the LNP been finally arm-twisted into holding a Royal Commission into veteran suicides.

On the contrary, I have seen the value of the military in a civilian disaster firsthand, and it’s deeply impressive. Together with recent events it is an experience that leads me to suggest an expanded role for the armed forces in civilian disasters; a better idea for our military all round. Something along the lines of a Civil Defence Force, or the US Peace Corps founded by President by John F. Kennedy.

This is how my first-hand experience of the military as a civil defence force unfolded.

In the days after Cyclone Tracy in Darwin a call went out by the BLF (Builders Labourers Federation, of which I was then a member) for volunteers to go to Darwin to help make emergency repairs to houses. I ‘joined up’, was flown at night by TAA in a plane full of tradies (volunteers from the BWIU) to Darwin and bussed to our accommodation at Nightcliff high school (I slept on a science bench).

The first morning out was frightening: many houses had been destroyed as we had anticipated, but what you don’t realise is that the debris goes everywhere and causes even more destruction: closing roads, filling swimming pools and making the whole city impassable. The only ‘usable’ buildings are the larger civic buildings such as offices, schools, low-rise hotels (such as the Tri-Arc Travelodge) and other concrete framed structures. It was often referred to as a ‘war zone’, which I trust was true, having never been in one.Our recent losses at the hands of ‘lethal force’ in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan should tell us there is a better future for our armed forces. Not for a moment am I suggesting we abandon our military, we are no Costa Rica. Rather, our successes in building infrastructure in Afghanistan, securing peace in Timor and particularly in serving as a bulwark in times of disaster suggest a different design, a change in direction, for the existing military is required.The BLF volunteers were grouped into teams of five, trucked out to the suburbs with sheets of corrugated steel and supplies, and set about repairing roofs to prevent the afternoon rains doing further damage. It's only when you see a disaster up close that you realise that some jobs, the really dirty ones, are hidden. Imagine what happens when the cyclone cuts off the electricity to 25,000 fridges filled with Christmas lunches of prawns, meat and other food. In the tropical heat and humidity who was to deal with that problem?

When things get that difficult, we turn to the military. And so it was in Darwin. A total of 13 Navy vessels were dispatched from Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville to assist in the recovery, led by the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. 300 tons of supplies were loaded on Boxing day and the Melbourne arrived on New Years Day, filled with vehicles, food, fuel and construction materials, together with 13 Wessex helicopters for ship to shore work. One thing the military have mastered is logistics. No private organization comes near them.Our recent losses at the hands of ‘lethal force’ in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan should tell us there is a better future for our armed forces. Not for a moment am I suggesting we abandon our military, we are no Costa Rica. Rather, our successes in building infrastructure in Afghanistan, securing peace in Timor and particularly in serving as a bulwark in times of disaster suggest a different design, a change in direction, for the existing military is required.1200 sailors worked ashore until the end of January, restoring infrastructure (electricity and telephone) removing the detritus from the worst hit areas of Casuarina, Nightcliff and Rapid Creek (where the BLF and BWIU volunteers were also working), and crucially, fixing the refrigerator problem. It needs some detail description to get the full horror these sailors dealt with.

Teams, wearing face masks, arrived in designated streets very early in the morning, they entered the houses and apartments (you didn’t need a map, the smell was your guide), they then strapped the refrigerators closed, wheeled them out into the garden, dug a long pit, emptied the contents into the pit, threw up after that, hosed out the fridge and move on to the next house. That’s a job that no one would willingly take on.

But Navy and Army train their troops in three ways that makes them exemplary here: they are fit, they are rigorous with logistics, and moreover they have an ingrained sense of service. Following orders is their safety methodology, crucial in disaster zones. I saw this with my father, and every service person I have ever worked with (particularly some Vietnam vets working to restore the Kokoda Track in PNG, but that’s another story). There's no service medal for that work in Darwin after the cyclone, but there should be.

Since then, the Army and Navy have distinguished themselves far more away from the battlefield than on it.

One standout was INTERFET (The International Force East Timor), a multinational non-UN peacemaking task force, organised and led by Australia to address the humanitarian and security crisis that took place in Timor Leste from 1999–2000. Our pride was then sullied by the LNP’s grubby shenanigans to spy on them to cheat them out of the oil reserves. And now the LNP, urged on by Christian Porter, is chasing the whistleblower. It degrades our standing that should be so much better because of the military’s work.

The Darwin cyclone was just a big example of many disasters to come. The military have been there for every cyclone, every bushfire, every flood. They’re the team to call in times of distress when you need high levels of organization, hierarchical training and orders followed. Just this week, when the vaccine rollout hit bottom, the military was called in, with Navy Commodore Eric Young appointed to manage the logistics of the program, coordinating the supply and distribution of the jabs.

For a long time, we feared Indonesia, making plans to use ‘lethal violence’ against them if they invaded. We are far better to have them as friends not foes (particularly now China is rampant), and we gain so much more by using our relief expertise in their disasters, but we could go so much further with a force re-oriented to this task. Not to mention Papua New Guinea and the Pacific: imagine a force trained to deal with the threat of climate change.

Which raises the question: what kind of kit would you design for such a force? Well, for starters you’d stop ordering submarines; $80bn for construction (double the original estimate and it mostly goes OS), still 10 years away, technologically obsolete by the time they hit the water, at a total cost of $225bn out to 2080 (who knows what threat these dinosaurs would repel then). My father often said there are two types of ships: subs, and targets. No-one touting these subs has ever said who the targets are.

Far more useful would be to have a greater number of (Aussie built) patrol boats to keep ‘our borders safe’, and moreover prevent people drowning at sea. Plus, smaller boats and landing craft that could have assisted HMAS Choules and MV Sycamore, the ships that helped evacuate people from Mallacoota in the 2019 fires. At that time HMAS Adelaide put to sea to offer mobile disaster relief, defence force bases prepared to temporarily house bushfire refugees, and 3000 reservists were called up to help maintain essential services through the crisis. That’s defending Australia (against climate change).

The Army and Air Force should re-consider their defence purchases. Defence is 15% of all Federal spending, or 2% of our total GDP. That’s $575bn over 10 years. And there is no transparency for the big boys’ toys. Surely you’re not still buying tanks and jets? How about all terrain people movers - we have the brilliant Bushmaster that could be adapted to evacuate people from disaster zones as well as being a patrol vehicle.

And jets? Top Gun is so last century. Why not more C-17A Globemaster III that have been an integral part of disaster relief and humanitarian missions, to rapidly deploy troops, supplies, combat vehicles, heavy equipment and helicopters anywhere. Adapted as water bombers. That’s defending Australia (against climate change).

This Anzac Day I will celebrate my family’s commitment in early wars when ‘lethal violence’ was needed, and they suffered for it. There are medals to be placed in the ‘tokonoma’ at my house, pride of place will be granny’s NZ nursing service medal. But that is the past, the deep past.

Our recent losses at the hands of ‘lethal force’ in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan should tell us there is a better future for our armed forces. Not for a moment am I suggesting we abandon our military, we are no Costa Rica. Rather, our successes in building infrastructure in Afghanistan, securing peace in Timor and particularly in serving as a bulwark in times of disaster suggest a different design, a change in direction, for the existing military is required.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]