Issue 6, October 2007 | Anthony Lepere


In My Story, General Peter Cosgrove AC, MC – previously Commander of the International Force in East Timor, Australian of the Year, Chief of the Defence Force and, perhaps, future Governor-General – purports to write his ‘personal story, from boyhood to battlefield and beyond’, promising ‘no diatribe or manifesto, but simply the story of a young boy from Paddo who many years later found himself like a kangaroo in the headlights, running hard in order not to get flattened’. Cosgrove’s choice of simile is an intriguing one. For one thing, it beggars belief that so senior a public servant did not make at least some of the running himself. For another, it foreshadows the self-deprecating humour present throughout the text – the reader is led to believe an avuncular, elephantine general evolved from an awkward, disorganised cadet. More importantly, the startled marsupial metaphor speaks to the shortcomings of My Story as autobiography. Cosgrove’s narrative is little more than that: a descriptive chronology, detailing an unexpected, unquestioned journey, a happening and not a thing, to borrow a phrase from the historian EP Thompson. Consequently, an opportunity to ventilate important foreign policy issues confronting Australia has been missed.

In fairness, Cosgrove achieves his stated objective: My Story is a thoroughly readable account of a soldier's life, from dormitory days at Duntroon, through harrowing experiences in the jungles of Vietnam, to changing times in the corridors of power. Cosgrove’s concern for the men and women in his charge – one of two great families to whom the volume is dedicated – seems genuine and deep. His (undoubtedly correct) meditations on the deep pity and horror of war are timeless. Cosgrove himself emerges from his prose as likeable and decent, a genial exponent of what the Australian historian Andrew Thackrah has eloquently (if provocatively) described as the ‘historically recent yet clearly destructive creed of nationalism’. Cosgrove is, after all, still a man for all that. Like his Irish Catholic forbears before him, country lads and larrikins, Cosgrove is fond of a brew and fonder still of a beer. The discipline instilled by a career spent preparing reports with enumerated clauses constrains a deep-seated preference for rollicking yarns. The manners born of a boys-only schooling at Waverley College see Cosgrove devote more ink to descriptions of his rugby than his wife. Throughout, an independence of the spirit suffuses Cosgrove’s anecdotes. In his clashes with Senate estimates committees and Federal Police commissioners, Cosgrove is at pains to present himself as Pinocchio, a puppet perhaps, but one without strings.

It is trite to observe that East Timor made General Cosgrove’s career. The same is true of My Story: that part of Cosgrove’s life spent intervening, evacuating and then keeping the peace in our near northern neighbour takes pride of place. The precision of planning and attention to detail essential to those missions characterises Cosgrove’s account of them, providing a well-structured stage edifice for the protagonists there encountered. Cosgrove presents the East Timorese people in a sympathetic light; so too their leaders physical (Xanana Gusmao and José Ramos Horta) and spiritual (Carlos Belo). The brief portraits of more familiar public figures are similarly fascinating, and often surprising. Prime Minister John Howard is ‘indefatigable’ when signing autographs and posing for photographs, a ‘natural instinct and heartfelt pleasure’ but not a ‘contrived political artifice’. (In turn, the PM is ‘loved’ by mobs of Australia’s servicemen and women who ‘jostle politely for a chance to speak to him’.) By contrast, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan is aloof and uninspiring, 'almost regal' in his conduct, 'preoccupied with protocol' to a fault. While Cosgrove is too polite to say so, he conveys the unmistakable impression that Anan's error in failing to visit any troops in East Timor was a grave one.

Turning to omissions on Cosgrove's part, My Story fails to engage the most important foreign policy question of our time: whether Australia should be in the business of liberal empire (or, to use today’s jargon, ‘nation-building’) and if so, where? Cosgrove is eminently qualified to take part in the debate, for two reasons. First, Cosgrove has extensive experience with the 'strategic corporals' and 'ink-spot strategies' familiar to imperial historians as 'fits of absence of mind' - that tendency of empires to expand (and contract) spontaneously, as a result of local initiatives rather than central plans. Secondly, Cosgrove is savvy to the policy-maker's concern that ‘large [, …] rich and developed' Australia not appear to reprise England's role as perfidious Albion, even when attempting to prevent 'the flickering flame of meaningful nationhood' from extinguishing.

However, the benefit of Cosgrove's insight is conspicuously absent from My Story. Cosgrove's explanation of the ongoing American-led occupation of Iraq, by way of example, is an exercise in official lines, a state of affairs perhaps explained by the fact that Cosgrove submitted his manuscript for vetting by his successors at the Department of Defence. In the result, Cosgrove offers only the unhelpfully ambiguous advice to 'never […] take the decision [to send troops to war] lightly and, having done so, never stop until the outcome is worth the cost'. Such advice, of course, presumes to saddle a straw horse – it is surely common ground to all sides of politics to never go to war without serious consideration – and requires a purposive predicate: what outcome, when compared to the cost born by whom?

In a revealing passage about Gallipoli – that military defeat the Australian political scientist Robert Manne has perceptively labelled the ‘war myth that made us’ – Cosgrove tentatively explores the collection of emotions that prompts the annual ‘second invasion’ of Turkey’s Anzac Cove. The young Australians Cosgrove met were:

[E]xuberant, high-spirited, irreverent and wonderfully affectionate to each other, to the day and to me. I felt in some ways they were channelling the admiration and affection Gallipoli invoked for our ancestors on to me, the nearest bloke they had in a uniform.

Cosgrove’s explanation is as endearingly (and characteristically) modest as it is, with respect, incomplete. Though the General serves as a convenient proxy for what Gallipoli represents (or, perhaps more accurately, what Australians customarily presume Gallipoli to represent), there can be no question that Cosgrove is a celebrity in his own right. (This much is confirmed by Cosgrove’s status as a sought-after company director and management consultant. Cosgrove, for his part, leverages his public profile in support of his private sector partnerships in My Story, nominating Qantas ‘not only an iconic company’ but an ‘enormously vibrant and exciting corporate environment’, while Deloitte ‘are a great bunch’, ‘aggressive and ambitious’.) As an Australian military leader famous in his own lifetime, Cosgrove is in uncharted territory: lives of Blamey and Monash never exercised Australian schoolchildren as volumes about Kitchener and Montgomery diverted generations of their British counterparts. The thought tout comprendre, tout pardonner is beguiling, but should be refused. It is a great pity that Cosgrove does not reflect more deeply on the remarkable changes to Australia he has observed in his lifetime. Why did unassuming Paddington, devout and working-class, become the affluent, agnostic beacon of eastern Sydney we now know? Why did home remedies like friar’s balsam give way to haute couture like Fendi? Moreover, to what extent are Australians reconciled with their journey thus far, and their likely future? Unfortunately, these and other questions raised by Cosgrove's journey remain unanswered.

To conclude by revisiting Cosgrove's hard-running kangaroo, the American humorist James Thurber's observation – that 'all men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why' – is instructive. It is not too much to say that Cosgrove’s professionalism and decency represent an example to which all Australians might aspire. Cosgrove’s ongoing deference to his civilian superiors is entirely consistent with Australia’s constitutionally entrenched system of representative and responsible government: whither the Cromwellian alternative. Discretion may yet prove both the better part of valour and an expedient alternative to candour. But such concessions behove neither the General nor the nation he served with such distinction. By conveying ‘what it was like’ at the expense of asking ‘why’, My Story is, in turns, charming, compassionate and wise, but it is, at best, half the story.