Abbott’s Persuasive Case for National Service

A well read colleague in Washington — a former member of the Bush Administration — recently told me a column of Tony Abbott’s, published this year in the Wall Street Journal, was about the best thing he’d ever read regarding the West’s crisis of strategic competence. As perhaps only a former national leader can do, Abbott seems to have a particular knack for finding the nexus between military strength and Western cultural confidence. His February piece in the Journal essentially linked self-inflicted degradation of Western freedoms at home, to self-defeating military weakness abroad.

This week, Abbott found that sweet spot again, positing that mandatory national service for young Australians could be an effective unifier for the nation. Speaking for the Institute of Public Affairs, Mr Abbott put forth the proposition that school-leavers undertake at least one year of service in a branch of the military, or alternatively, in a community outreach organisation, or Australia’s Pacific Peace corps.

Mr Abbott is to be commended for having the temerity to persist with airing his (often unpopular) views post-prime ministership. Whilst the compulsion of any citizen into forced national service is a grave matter for a free nation to countenance, Abbott has recognised the evident gravity of our national predicament. There are three paramount reasons why Abbott’s suggestion ought to be taken seriously.

The first is that young Australians are in dire need of a mechanism by which their bonds of national fraternity can be strengthened in the critical years following their departure from high school. The United States – whatever it’s manifest flaws – still holds fast to a university system which cross-pollinates young Americans across geographical and socio-economic lines in these critical formative years. Australia does as well, of course, however the size of the nation, and our relatively small number of universities severely limits how effectively this cross-pollination occurs.

America’s military service academies and elite universities bring together the best and brightest young people from across the country in an educational product decidedly national in flavour. In Annapolis, Maryland, where I live in close proximity to the United States Naval Academy, I am as likely to bump into a young surface warfare officer from Nebraska, as I am a trainee submariner from California. This ‘national’ experience — if not the field of expertise — is similar at the Ivy League, and big state-run universities which pump out the administrative talent that decides upon sending those officers to war.

This is simply not the case at Australian universities, and in a country of only 25 million people, won’t be remedied by creating new institutions. National service could instead serve as a proxy mechanism to build a national fraternalism which serves the country beneficially into the future.

Secondly, Abbott recognises that holding national ‘values’ is pointless, unless those values are strengthened by active practice, and applied discipline. This active practice of values is an awfully difficult concept to sell to our young in the years they are most consumed with living freely and happily, newly emancipated from chains of parental control and schoolyard obligation. But this is also why engaging Australians so actively at this stage of their lives is critical to our national project going forward. For six years I taught at The King’s School, in Sydney. The school’s unique strength lies is its military heritage, and its long-held tradition of engaging boys aged 14-18 in a form of compulsory military service, and concomitant national pageantry. This always seemed, to me, to inculcate a selfless love of country in the young men I had the privilege of teaching.

Done well, building this taught national virtue amongst young Australians does inestimable good for the country. In my time teaching, however, I came to hold two grave concerns concerning its execution writ-large: Firstly, that more Australians weren’t exposed to a culture of military service at a younger age; Secondly, that many of the great young men I farewelled each year at the end of year 12 seldom got another chance to practice that virtue in the community at large.

We know that young people leave school incompletely formed, and that young men’s brains in particular take perhaps a decade more to fully mature. It follows then, that in a country concerned with building national resilience, it behooves us to take seriously the prospect of doing something beyond the school gate to buttress the virtues of our young adult citizens.

Finally, and most critically, Abbott should be taken seriously if for no other reason than the ‘maths’ alone.

There are two primary metrics of which Australia must be cognizant in assessing its future national security burdens: Firstly, the likelihood of war in the Pacific, and secondly, the capacity and resolve of the United States to defend its allies, should that war break out. The first is running sky-high. No serious analyst now disbelieves that, short of an internal coup, Chinese President-for-life Xi will move, at some point, to take Taiwan. It will be almost impossible to avoid allied conflict when that occurs.

The second metric is also receding alarmingly below the confidence line. Last month the Heritage Foundation’s comprehensive report into the state of the US military produced damning findings regarding naval and airforce preparedness. A week later, the Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy appeared, highlighting a growing American incapacity to realise two-war battlefront capability. Then, as if to confirm that incapability, last week the last squadron of US Airforce F15 Eagles left Okinawa, Japan, unreplaced by a permanent Fifth Generation fighter squadron stationed in the Pacific — a move expressly linked to airpower capacity shortages across the US Airforce, and heavily criticised by expert commentators.

Assessing this equation in real terms should be a sobering exercise for any Australian concerned for the future of the nation. The sum outcome, is that Australia is in urgent need of more boots on the ground, planes in the air, and boats on the sea if it is to have even a remote chance of meeting its national security challenges.

Tony Abbott remains the only major Australia political figure willing to assess fully, truthfully, and publicly, the nature of the threat the nation faces. Australia will do well to heed his advice, and take seriously his well-considered call to national service.

Ben Crocker is a Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation Postgraduate Scholar, and Research Fellow for Common Sense Society, in Washington DC. His Substack is Crocker’s Columns

29 thoughts on “Abbott’s Persuasive Case for National Service

  • David Inches says:

    I admit to initially dismissing Tony’s call for conscription as mere fluff and grandstanding.
    But yes, there are sound reasons to raise the issue.
    I also like the alternatives to military service ( community outreach organisation, or Australia’s Pacific Peace corps) as important in their own right but also a clever political strategy to divert conscientious objectors into worthwhile activity whilst minimising loud objections.
    I do worry though that the train of national pride has already left the station and insufficient young people currently hold bonds of national fraternity and can’t be taught it.

    • profspurr says:

      Exactly. Young people are taught in schools, from kindergarten, to hate their country, and be ashamed of its history. They will hardly be keen to serve it.

      • Farnswort says:

        “As a result of years of relentless attack on our values by the cultural and media elites, young Australians are now so ashamed of themselves and their country that they would rather flee Australia than stay and fight if the need arose,” said Daniel Wild, Director of Research at the Institute of Public Affairs.
        A survey commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs and undertaken by Dynata of 1,000 Australians from 25-27 March 2022, asked ‘If Australia was in the same position as Ukraine is now, would you stay and fight, or leave the country’? The results were:
        Stay and fight: 46%
        Leave the country: 28%
        Unsure: 26%
        Only 32% of those aged 18-24 said they would stay and fight and 40% said they would leave the country (28% were unsure), and 35% of those aged 25-34 said that would stay and fight while 38% said they would leave the country (27% were unsure).
        “The negative, self-hate view of Australian history and culture being forced onto students at schools and universities means that now barely one-third of young Australians believe Australia is even worth fighting for.”
        “Since World War II millions have fled racial division, sectarian conflict, and abject poverty for a better life in a tolerant and free society that Australia offers. Yet young Australians are denied the opportunity to be taught about this inspiring, optimistic, and hopeful reality of Australia’s history.”
        The survey also asked: ‘given conflict in Ukraine and growing rivalry between countries in our region, the federal government should do more to teach school children to be proud of Australia’s history.’ The results were:
        Total agree: 63%
        Total disagree: 12%
        Unsure: 25%
        “Mainstream Australians understand their nation is a force of good in the world and the results show they want future generations to be proud of our achievements, rather than constantly be berated and shamed by the noisy minority of elites.”
        “The deceit which forms the basis of the national education curriculum must be replaced with the truth that Australia is one the most tolerant, free, and democratic nations on earth – and that this is worth fighting for.”
        “Young Australians don’t want to fight for Australia because the cultural elites in schools, universities, and the media have convinced them that there is nothing worth fighting for.”

        • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

          A great many Australians have at least one parent born overseas or were themselves born overseas and a great many of those say that they have come here for a better life or are they country shoppers? Many come here because of our welfare system that rewards them handsomely and the bottom line, the stark blessed reality of it all is that they are economic refugees who left their country for a better life (money and welfare) instead of remaining in their own countries and trying to help overcome the difficulties therein so come a conflict here they will be gone like a shot. Would love to know the surnames of those the IPA polled for that would give us an indication. The Australia of today is a far different one from the one our forebears came to from the UK, Ireland, and Europe in the 1860’s for those people worked and even fought for their new land, most now just won’t or would side with whoever wanted to invade.

          • Farnswort says:

            Agreed, Botswana. Thanks to incautious mass immigration and multiculturalism, there are now millions of people residing in Australia who have shallow to non-existent roots in this land and no real attachment to the historic Australian nation.

            Geoffrey Blainey warned a number of decades ago that there was a tendency among Australia’s ruling class to view Australia not as a nation but as a “subsidized rooming house for the peoples of the world – a rooming house without any of the safeguards which a nation needs for its preservation.”

            According to Blainey:

            “Nothing will turn us into a phantom nation so much as the policy of multiculturalism. In its most common form it sees Australia as a loose alliance of ethnic groups. Australia now permits new migrants to retain a large measure of loyalty to their homeland. It allows them citizenship on terms which their own homeland would on no account extend to Australian Australians. Multiculturalism is really a policy designed for those who hold two passports and who can abandon Australia if our society collapses – indeed if it collapses through the foolish policies they themselves have imposed.

            For the millions of Australians who have no other nation to fall back upon, multiculturalism is almost an insult. It is divisive. It threatens social cohesion. It could, in the long-term, also endanger Australia’s military security because it sets up enclaves which in a crisis could appeal to their own homelands for help…

            The evidence is strong that the mainstream Australians do not want the present policy of multiculturalism. Nor do the great majority of mainstream Australians want the present immigration policy, with its increasing inflow of migrants and its undue preference for Asia and the Third World. Increasingly there is a feeling of resentment that some of Australia’s crucial questions – the cohesion of the nation, the question of who shall come to live here and on what terms, and even our ultimate military security – have been largely taken from our hands both by the Liberal and Labor parties. The majority of people do not have an effective say in these crucial issues.”

            “Australia: One Nation, or a Cluster of Tribes?”, in Our Heritage and Australia’s Future: A Selection of Insights and Concerns of Some Prominent Australians (1991)

            Blainey was right.

  • rosross says:

    The military has a mindset. It does not suit everyone. Yes, the discipline and pressure to perform can be useful for the young but there must be better ways to do it than the military.

  • Paul W says:

    I agree with the national service suggestion but agree with rosross that actual military service may be undesirable. Vietnam makes all university students under go national defence training. Over several days they are taught to march, shoot, and attack physically. It’s less about preparing them for war, and more about prepreparing them for training. Agree with everyone else regarding ‘our’ history.

    • rosross says:

      Yes, a good suggestion. There are many ways to serve nationally in disciplined ways than spending time in the military.

      • Doubting Thomas says:

        I agree, ros. I missed out on the old 1950s era scheme because I lived in rural NSW and we were excluded as a matter of policy as the scheme was being dismantled. I was too old for the Vietnam era scheme, but had joined the RAAF in any case.
        During my time in the RAAF, I never heard any arguments in favour of the RAAF’s participation in either the 1950s scheme or any possible new scheme. No doubt Peter O’Brien will have valuable opinions from his direct experience in the Army during the Vietnam era.
        Highly technical operations like the RAAF take years to train their personnel, and need to recover a much longer return of service from their trainees than finite National Service commitments allow. No doubt the RAN and the technical corps of the Army have similar problems.
        One of the main problems that always worried me about military national service schemes is that, among other practical problems, they are fraught with equity problems that impact most heavily on our brightest and best. It is totally impracticable to put an entire age cohort into any compulsory military scheme, as the recurring numbers would be unmanageable, and many could escape an obligation on medical grounds. What will we do with women who must be treated exactly as men in this day and age? So if only to cater for everyone, civilian service opportunities must be created and managed.
        All this would be ferociously expensive to create and manage.
        The Vietnam War era lottery system was horribly unjust, and there is simply no practicable means of creating and managing fair schemes, military or otherwise.
        It would be easier to drain the academic swamp that is destroying our society.

        • Brian Boru says:

          Despite my emotional attachment to the idea of national (military and civil) service, I think you are probably right about the logistic and equity problems.
          Would be good though if those problems could be overcome somehow.

        • rosross says:

          Well said. Times have changed and old-style military may have helped some and harmed others. The new world of military and the way it works has no time to pander to kids to give them a bit of discipline.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “Exactly. Young people are taught in schools, from kindergarten, to hate their country, and be ashamed of its history. They will hardly be keen to serve it.”
    Care to back that up with some academic-style references, rather than a mere assertion?
    As a trained soldier (13th NS Trg Bn 1958-60) I have always been prepared to defend Australia against foreign attack, as was necessary in 1941-45, but never when Australia was the aggressor and involved on the wrong side in a colonial war of national liberation, as was the case in Vietnam.
    You will recall that we went into Vietnam on the decision of that great Australian hero of WW1 (I jest) Bob Menzies, the grandson of a miner, who swanned around Melbourne in the uniform of a captain in the Melbourne University Rifles until certain European events in August 1914 caused him to resign his commission, resume civilian life, and work his way to the top in the ‘conservative’ apparatus of his day to join the genuine ‘elites.’ But those genuine elites, to their credit, never forgot or forgave his cowardly act; hence their delay in conferring a knighthood upon him.
    In the words of Sir Wilfrid Kent-Hughes, whom Menzies understandably detested (and the feeling was mutual) Menzies had “a most promising military career, unfortunatey cut short by the advent of war.”
    I have always been proud of our history; well, most of it, anyway. I encourage all young people to take particular pride in this country’s democratic traditions, which were forged in the 1854 Eureka Rebellion.

  • Sindri says:

    Good that someone is saying it. Interesting that in some of the touchy-feeliest democracies (the neutrals and those with bitter memories), national service, even in a watered-down form, is a given: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland. Switzerland too. Why should Australia, in its current geo-political circumstances, be any different?

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    A/L 1: Delete “tint”, insert “tiny”.

  • Sindri says:

    I’m not necessarily in disagreement with you if you mean universal national military service for everyone in a certain age group, without exception; it may be impractical. It doesn’t happen in that absolute fashion the countries I mentioned (Sweden by the way has a population of 10.5 million – hardly a “tiny nation”). But the desirability of some sort of national service, with a military component at least in some cases, seems to me to be a highly arguable proposition, for a variety of reasons.

  • sfw says:

    Abbott, the man many of us thought would be a great PM, instead he sold out his base (18c), increased middle class welfare and promoted his enemies and created Turnbull/Morrison. Now he flys around the world on our taxes telling everyone what they should do.

    If he did oppose the covid madness and the destruction of freedom and the economy, he did it very quietly, no one I know heard him speak out. Do us a favor Tony, refuse your pension and perks and leave us alone to sort out our problems, many of which you created through your ineptitude.

  • wdr says:

    This is not a good idea. First, armies in advanced countries today consist of well-trained professional soldiers employing advanced weaponry, and are not mass armies of the type found in both World Wars, where 50,000 soldiers were sent “over the top” in hopes that only 10,000 were killed. In the future, wars may be cyberwars, with no human casualties. Secondly, all English-speaking countries have long since abolished conscription- the UK in 1961 (effective in 1963), Australia in 1972, the USA in 1973- and no one has been calling for its return, including, most definitely, Tony Abbott when he was PM. Libertarian conservatives would regard conscription as a form of slavery or involuntary servitude, justifiable only in a total war where the life of the nation was at stake. The first prominent American politician to call for the abolition of the draft there was Barry Goldwater, the right-wing conservative. Thirdly, if enacted, conscription (i.e., abolishing it or refusing to serve) would obviously serve as a major focal point for every radical activist in the country, and would not increase Australian patriotism at all among the young. Finally, there would be innumerable very difficult questions about who was exempted: should you draft women? University students? Suppose the Aborigines refused to serve because of their alleged historical treatment here? Not a good idea.

  • Paul W says:

    Wdr, is not the point that everyone should participate equally in a national activity, military or civil? What about my suggestion above that everyone can do a few days of physical training as all university students do in Vietnam?

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Vietnam is an authoritarian communist dictatorship. Despite the likes of Dodgy Dan, Australia is still a mostly liberal democracy where any sort of conscription is rightly condemned.
    More immediately, Vietnam is relatively densely populated, physically tiny country. Organising and managing compulsory physical training for university students is still unlikely to be a cost effective training regime even there. Here in demographically diverse and geographically enormous Australia, costs would be prohibitive.
    Once again equity problems would be insurmountable.
    National service may be emotionally desirable, but in reality it’s useless.

    • Paul W says:

      DT, I disagree. As we have a centralized population, it would be easier to do short-term training than you might think. Demographic diversity is not relevant as giving everyone a common national experience is the purpose. As for cost effectiveness, this is simply a matter of values and priority: if we want it, we can pay for it.

      • Doubting Thomas says:

        Paul W, I think you’ll find that few if any people with significant professional experience in Australia’s modern ADF would support the reintroduction of national service, particularly as we are already facing enormous budgetary problems with the urgent need to replace our submarines with nuclear boats.
        Ignoring the problems of finding and training the additional essential instructors, where are we going to house the thousands of young people, both men and women, if the scheme is to be equitable? Presently, each of the three Services conducts its recruit training at only one or two bases which have sufficient accommodation and staff for the normal recruitment requirements – something in the order of a few thousands per annum across the entire ADF.
        Universal national service, the only equitable option, would demand an increase of several orders of magnitude in training capacity. Simply not possible without a massive expenditure on infrastructure, even if accommodation was limited to tents, let alone permanent structures.
        What are we going to do with these kids? March them up and down parade grounds for hours on end? Give them cans of white paint and have them paint the kerb stones (already a popular make-work option on many bases for untrained recruits awaiting training courses)?
        Rosross made the very valid point that modern military forces are nothing like those in the 20th century. National service would be a waste of young people’s lives and an expense that could be far better spent on more modern weaponry.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Thank you for raising this topic.
    I did 7 years of military involvement before I was 21 y o with 4 years school cadets, 3 years RAAF Academy.
    Only others can judge if this was detrimental or beneficial.
    My opinion is that it facilitated learning a much-needed aspect of early life. Learning what is considered to be “normal” conduct from a close group is helpful. This goes beyond topics like the Ten Commandments, example, if you are caught stealing within such a military group you are likely to gain a blood nose to deter repetition. Without a close group, you might simly go on stealing, example, current teens doing home invasions. It extends to topics more likely to be found in the military setting than civilian, like observing group members and self, at times of higher-than-normal stress such as crawling on the stomach under live round gunfire.
    As an aside, I strongly object to having non-males in combat in the defence forces. The female brain is wired differently to the male and this creates potential for conflicting decisions at times of high stress in combat. It would not surprise me to find that silly proposal like tanks powered by rechargeable batteries were traced to female input. Not judging good or bad, just different. Vive la difference.
    Geoff S

  • Anthony says:

    I have yet to bear witness to anyone of whom has not benefitted from military service. Be it a mandatory national service style engagement of 1-2 years, or from a short stint becoming trade-qualified, or long-term career.
    I am tall, dyslexic, and have ischaemic heart disease. But I did three years service in the Army. Not being height challenged, I was placed on point. Yet, I couldnt march properly. I was yelled at, scorned, and villified by my peers. Drill, discipline, respect, and camaraderie took on an entirely new meaning. Those bonds formed then remain as strong today.
    Assertions that “…the miltary is not for everyone..’, and that “… military service is not cost effective for ‘us’ (presumably Australians’) …”, is ludicrous. You wont know that until you have served twelve months. You wont know who you are until you have served twelve months. And that is the point. Obscure, rebellious civilian attitudes are broken down and rebuilt into cohesive, well-rounded invidiuals who are focused, team-oriented, and respectable people.
    There are those whom have long-since returned from active service (war) and who have not yet resumed a ‘normal’ life and reintegrated with society. That is a topic for another discussion. But, their present situation does not diminish the quality of the person within.
    Those who have never done it will always scorn it. But, fob military service off at both Your-, and your Nations’ peril.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Anthony, I don’t think anyone doubts the individual character/skill building benefits of military service. I had about 25 years active and reserve service, and saw it with my own eyes. But this discussion is about the benefits to the nation of compulsory national service, and that’s a totally different thing. If it really were as intrinsically beneficial as some claim, then we’d still have it, but it’s not.
    A fair, effective compulsory national service scheme is impracticable and prohibitably expensive.

  • Watchman Williams says:

    National Service in military or civilian functions for young men was always a good idea. But Tony Abbott overlooks a few points that render his proposal impossible.
    Firstly, Australia is no longer a nation. Typically, a nation is established around a culture and it is the culture that binds citizens into a nation and inspires fealty, patriotism and a willingness to serve and, if necessary, to suffer. The political class has spent the last fifty years destroying that cultural unanimity, replacing it with an abstract notion called “multiculturalism”.
    Secondly, when children finish schooling, the battle is already lost. Ten or twelve years of relentless brainwashing by neo-fascist cultural marxists will not be overcome by a year’s military service; more so since our military services are also infected with the Woke bacteria.
    Thirdly, there are three institutions that once had responsibility for the transmission of cultural values from one generation to another; the family, the Church and the nation state. These have all been undermined by the political class during the last fifty years. The family has been destroyed by the economic conscription of women into the work force and by the masculinisation of women through “feminism”. The Church has eschewed its role to be a light to the world and has instead, chosen to become its mirror. The nation state has been undermined by the political class and has been replaced by the “Deep State”, a self perpetuating and self serving institution that is unaccountable to citizens and that serves only the political class and its interests.
    In the beginning, Australia was founded on the notions of God, King and Country, and our Constitution reflected those values. God has been legislated out of official existence, the King has been captured by Woke culture and the country has been sold to international interests.
    And, it should be noted, that Tony Abbott has been a participating party to these tragic events, as an active and influential member of the political class for a generation. Rather than lecturing us on proposals that he must know are ridiculous and incapable of achievement in any meaningful way, he should spend his remaining years in remorse and repentance, somewhat succoured by the outrageous generosity of his publicly funded Parliamentary Pension scheme.

  • terenc5 says:

    Amazing hoe ex-PM’s have all the good ideas yet while in office seem paralysed.

  • thebrae1 says:

    I agree on national service but not the Kings School as a good example – I have found their graduates elitist and destructive .
    Kings School born to rule !

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Thank you. Your views and mine harmonise well, but the pity is that a return to sanity is not possible in my lifetime. Too much damage has been done. The evidence is in acts like dynamiting what is left of coal fired generators. Geoff S

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