On Anzac Day Australia can heed important lessons from the war in Ukraine

By Mick Ryan

Posted 8h ago8 hours ago, updated 7h ago7 hours ago

Veteran at Anzac Day dawn ceremony in Melbourne
A veteran at the Anzac Day dawn ceremony at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

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April 25 is a sacred day in the Australian and New Zealand national calendars. It is a day on which many of our citizens can set aside their divides and commemorate the ultimate sacrifice of over 102,000 members of the Australian armed forces who have died during or as a result of their service in wars and peacetime operations. 

On the morning of April 25, 1915, those hardy yet inexperienced souls of the Anzac Corps landed at a place few Australians had heard of. It ended in disaster for the British Expeditionary Force. But, as Australian historian C.E.W. Bean wrote afterwards: 

“In the first straight rush up the Anzac hills in the dark, in the easy figures first seen on the ridges against the dawn sky, in the working parties stacking stores on the shelled beach without the turning of a head, in the stretcher-bearers walking … onlookers had recognised in these men qualities always vital to the human race. Australians watched the name of their country rise high in the esteem of the world’s oldest and greatest nations.”

In the modern era, these words might also be applied to the courageous Ukrainians. Fighting against a larger, more technologically advanced nation since February 24, the Ukrainian people, their tenacious military and their inspirational president have demonstrated the kinds of qualities we so admire in our Anzac veterans and celebrate every April.

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This Anzac Day, as Australians continue to see the Ukrainians demonstrate those qualities of courage, resilience, empathy and cleverness so “vital to the human race”, what might we learn from the Russo-Ukraine War? 

We can’t disappear war with hope

The first lesson is that war remains a central aspect of human existence. No amount of hoping it goes away can make it disappear. As historian Ian Morris has written, war is “something that cannot be wished out of existence, because it cannot be done”.

Despite the theories of Steven Pinker and others, authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin believe that resorting to war to achieve their desired outcomes remains a valid course of action in the 21st century.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech
China is running out of time to achieve the glory so desired by President Xi Jinping.(AP: Li Xiang/Xinhua)

We must not fool ourselves into believing this might just be a European phenomenon. While nations such as China would have us believe they prefer to “win without fighting”, they have also engaged in the largest military build-up seen anywhere in the world in the past several decades.

And China is a nation running out of time to achieve the glory so desired by President Xi. It is getting older, smaller and more desperate to reintegrate Taiwan into China. The lesson for Australia is that a large-scale war is possible in our region in the coming years.

We must be prepared to fight

There is a follow-on lesson from this. We need to do everything we can to deter such an eventuality, but also be prepared to fight if deterrence and diplomacy fails.

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a soldier sits on a rock in the desert

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This means that Australia will probably need to spend even more than recently promised increases in defence spending. Potentially, we may need to double the amount of our GDP spent on national defence.

This increase should apply to the larger national defence effort, and not just military spending. If our nation is to play a more substantial role in deterring conflict, and securing our region, we will need to significantly expand our diplomatic capacity.

Our nation’s diplomats are on the front line of our global engagement, every single day of the year. We need to expand their numbers, their presence, and their aid budget to shape the regional environment so it is less conducive to external coercion or military conflict. 

Military might must expand

At the same time, our military capabilities will need to be sharpened considerably in quality and quantity — on land, at sea, in the air, in space and cyberspace.

Australia must be a nation that potential adversaries look at and think, “no thanks”. This may involve a significant and rapid enlargement in the size of the Australian Defence Force, complemented with a much-improved civil defence and resilience capacity.

It might even necessitate a form of national service for young Australians. Young Australians could serve in the military services or in a variety of state emergency response organisations and other forms of non-martial services.

Leadership matters

Close up of teary man speaking into microphone.
Perhaps the most important leader in the world right now is Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.(Reuters: Gleb Garanich)

Finally, leadership matters. Leadership and inspiration from individuals can make or break nations. Despite the centrality of slow, committee-based decision making in our national capital, it is clever, connected, empathetic and values-based leaders who are essential to our nation.

These leaders must be willing to take risks, nurture an environment where failure is permitted in a strategic learning culture, and accept that time is short. Too many in our national defence community think in terms of decades when it comes to risk and defence procurement. This must change, and quickly.

Ukraine gives us an alternative example of strategic leadership. Perhaps the most important leader in the world right now is President Zelenskyy. He was underestimated by Western leaders before the war, but has since unified his people, exhorted courage from his military and inspired millions around the world to reconsider why democracy is worth defending. He appreciates the need to take risks and knows that time is his most precious resource in saving his nation from potential extinction. 

Read more on the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

Many national leaders in the West will have since looked at themselves in the mirror and wondered if they could meet the high standard of leadership Zelenskyy has set. 

This Anzac Day, Australia again looks on from afar as a foreign democracy fights desperately for its life. We must, as a nation, give thanks for the sacrifices of our forebears.

But we should also honour their sacrifices by learning from the war in Ukraine so in the coming years we might better defend our values, our democratic system, and our prosperity in the 21st century. 

Mick Ryan is a strategist and recently retired Australian Army major general. He served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a strategist on the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. His first book, War Transformed, is about 21st century warfare.

Play Video. Duration: 2 minutes 10 seconds
Ukrainians begin to rebuild in Irpin after Russian assaults


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