The Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) core business is foundation warfighting. However, it is often involved in other activities: welfare of soldiers and their families, uniform and nutrition provision, military training, military memorials and music bands. Beyond Combat seeks to explore military history- not just through the wars that are fought- but by “embrac[ing] the history of all that militaries ‘do’ away from the battlefield that is central to the lives of the soldiers who compose those forces” (p.1).
Edited by military historians Tristan Moss and Tom Richardson, the volume includes 14 chapters from Australian, New Zealand, Singaporean, and American authors. The contributors are mostly historians, but there are also two serving Army Officers (from Australia and Singapore) who write for the book. Published by UNSW Press, it is part of a series from Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS) which operated 2012-2019 at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
The first section on soldiers and their families includes chapters on service families in Malaysia in the 1950s and 60s and how they navigated foreign cultures and military life; the ADF’s management of LGBT+ personnel (from persecution until 1992, tolerance until 2005 and then inclusion); and the experience of lesbian servicewomen prior to the ban on gay and lesbian service being lifted in 1972.
Defence must reflect and embrace society’s views on families, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and disability, and learning from history can help foster a more inclusive future. These chapters suggested to me that reflecting upon the way Defence has progressed in one aspect of inclusion (i.e., sexuality) might give us ideas about ways we can continue to become more inclusive.
The next section analyses military training– including chapters on the Australian Army’s educational assistance in Papua New Guinea (PNG), an early military science diploma at University of Sydney, and the dynamic of negotiating cross-cultural relationships when offering training assistance in other nations. Army is in the early stages of its ‘training transformation’ and learning how training has been conducted previously and changed over time can help us navigate innovate.
LTCOL Clare O’Neill’s chapter- named ‘Training for the Enduring Human Dimension of War’- is one of my two favourite chapters of the volume. O’Neill elevates the importance of understanding the human dimension of conflict, including the place of peacemaking and regional development. She captures lessons she learned from partnering and teaming in PNG, including fostering a ‘one team’ identity and using unofficial communication channels in support of this international alliance. She paints a picture where Army needs to be ready without long training and logistical lead times and suggests that international engagement and peacetime disaster relief helps develop soldiers who are agile and adaptive in challenging cross-cultural contexts.
The third section explores caring for soldiers – including WWI folk remedies for dealing with lice, case studies of food provision at Gallipoli and Afghanistan, and the marriage of nutritional science and rationing.
Jaclyn Hopkins’ ‘“My Dearest Girls”: Letters from Australian Army Nurses’ was a model historical paper and my other favourite chapter in the book. This insightful chapter analyses the discrepancy between the way WWI nurse Irene Bonnin wrote about the war in her personal journal as opposed to the letters home to her sisters.
Bonnin’s heartfelt expression of her lived experience in her journal speaks to the way she internally processed the horrors of war, while filtering how much of this experience she shared with her family members. Her experience is historically interesting, particularly in the way she navigated starkly different gender roles to today, and this tension caused by deciding what to share with loved ones back home is shared by soldiers of any era.
A final section unpacks the processes we have in place for caring for the dead, including chapters on the recovery of downed airmen from WWII, and navy vessels that are used as memorials and museums. These chapters of remembrance resonated for me as a chaplain. Firstly, Army must deal with our dead respectfully as it is important for the morale and grief of those who survive. A Lieutenant reinforced for me the importance of a chaplain’s involvement in mortuary affairs: “If I know Army will look after my body or my mate’s after we are gone, then I can go on and fight and face the possibility of death with confidence.” Secondly, Benjamin Hruska explained that there is large scope for museums and cultural institutions in the future in ‘Morphing Vessels into Artifacts’. They can invite the contribution of baby-boomer, retired volunteers and invite visitors to ask deeper spiritual questions alongside intellectual and social issues. That challenged me to think about how our memorials and chapels might best invite visitors and serving members to reflect on the experience of soldiers who have drawn on their faith in difficult times in years past.
Lastly, Singapore’s ‘Always Ready’ citizen-soldiers and their extensive peacetime engagement is unpacked. As Australia seeks to refocus the utility and reputation of its Part-Time Army for domestic operations, and navigate an increasingly volatile region, the experience of Singapore’s non-war readiness is instructive.
I enjoyed the diverse historical experiences of military members and units in this book. It addressed a wide range of issues and attuned me to the broad experience and responsibilities of serving members and their families today, including the many non-combat and ‘peripheral’, but important, tasks that are part of the everyday lives and careers of thousands of ADF members. Promoting welfare and wellbeing calls for attentiveness to the lives of Defence members not just on the battlefield but beyond combat.
Darren Cronshaw is a Chaplain in the Australian Army (part-time), Pastor of AuburnLife Baptist Church, and Research Coordinator and Professor of Missional Leadership for Australian College of Ministries (Sydney College of Divinity) and Stirling College (University of Divinity).
An earlier version of this review was originally published in Grounded Curiosity, August 5, 2021. The publisher details of the book are Beyond Combat: Australian Military Activity Away From the Battlefield, edited by Tristan Moss and Tom Richardson (Sydney: New South Books, 2018).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.