The news of Michael O’Connor’s death is a great blow to the study of Australia’s military history and to Quadrant, where many of his essays first appeared. The Australia Defence Association, which he built to national prominence as its first national director, has posted a tribute on its website, briefly detailing his life and achievements, but there was much more to the man than can be summed up in such relatively few words. Consider one aspect of his time as a district officer in pre-independence New Guinea:
When back in Australia for a year in 1960 (studying at the Australian School of Pacific Administration) he met, wooed and married Colleen. After returning to PNG they did not bother unwrapping any electrical wedding presents for several years because their post had no electricity.
As the blurb for his memoir, New Guinea Days, puts it
…when Michael O’Connor was just 20 years old, he was given responsibility for most aspects of the lives of 30,000 Papua New Guineans in the Nuku district of the Upper Sepik.
A voice for effective defence policies, he wrote in 2013 of the danger political correctness and victimology posed to the discipline and ethos of the armed services. The catalyst for his thoughts was the shock and horror evinced by the military, the press, and sundry axe-grinders at the news of two cadets having had consensual sex, a tryst one broadcast on the internet without the other’s knowledge. While deploring the incident, Michael made the following commonsense observation:
Virtually anybody who has served in the military can describe incidents where he or she was personally abused, normally verbally, but sometimes with more subtlety. As I write, I can with difficulty recall three incidents that might conceivably be described as abuse during my own service many years ago. One, I confess, I deserved. Another involved a public humiliation by a senior officer from a different unit. The saving grace was that the bemused audience was clearly on my side and the correct and actual response—behind his back—was a shrug of the shoulders. The third involved a sustained denigration of my work that ended only when the senior officer concerned was posted away.
This sort of thing is never pleasant in any context, and should not happen, but is not something to get excited about. It rankles only if the target allows it to rankle. What is certain is that no criminal offence occurred; the worst that can be said is that a clash of personalities underlay the situations. If that sort of clash is allowed to become a matter of extensive investigation on the demand of an alleged victim, with subsequent public condemnation of the perpetrator, any sort of social stability, never mind organisational effectiveness, will be destroyed.
The entire essay, Trawling for Complaints Against the Military, can be read here.
Quadrant is poorer for this decent man’s passing. Australia even more so.