The Australian Armed Services, by definition is a public service institution. As such, it is run by bureaucrats, who are conservative by nature and by necessity, since they are in turn controlled by policy, put forward by politicians. The latter in turn, formulate policy according to popularity, diplomacy and personal and party philosophy. Such a system, in contrast to say free-enterprise organisations, means that the process for advancement for the individual is structured in such a way, that talent is only one parameter in achieving success, and indeed may even be secondary or ignored. Many talented servicemen/women have been ‘marginalised’ when they failed to ‘toe the line’ and follow similar philosophies of immediate superiors. Such a system is consequently and obviously inefficient. Because competition is fierce amongst ambitious young men/women in their prime, for the few positions available at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, aspirants are always on the look-out for short-cuts to the top.
One short-circuit method of advancement in the Services, to be able to stand out from all the other equally ‘talented’ prospects, was/is to possess a chest full of ribbons (colloquially termed ‘fruit salad’). The most coveted one of these (outside the almost unattainable V.C.) for the young army officer was/is the Military Cross (now Medal of Gallantry). Ownership of that award was/is almost a certain passport to move from Major or below into the ‘big time’.
I’m sure (or I trust) that the majority of officers adopted the casual approach to obtaining such an award in terms of: ‘If the opportunity presents itself then fine, I’ll give it all I can!’ On the other hand, there appeared, to the troops at least, a few individuals that were willing to push the odds in order to achieve their goal, ignoring the words in Shelby Stanton’s The Rise and Fall of an American Army, 1985: ‘At the end of the most grandiose plans and strategies is a soldier walking point!’
“He thought : ‘ [‘X’], you lucky so-and-so!’ as the platoon commander put in an attack
on the rubber tappers’ hut. It was every commander’s dream: a platoon attack, bowling
over an enemy section or squad and picking up an M.C. on the way through!”
- quoted from an officer in Lex McAulay’s The Battle of Long Tan, (p.48), 1986.
Each ribbon on greens,
Some distinction it means,
Along with badges of rank they wore;
And ’tis a tragedy when,
Some ambitious young men,
Possess power in times of a war.
In an officer’s gown,
This one, sporting a crown,
Career foremost, ’twas there in his mind;
The lives of his men,
He risked time and again,
Yet, that didn’t matter, for those of this kind.
With any ‘op’ drawing near,
Always first volunteer,
For his company to take on the task;
Promotion of course,
His main driving force;
Any chance at impressing ‘high brass’.
Perhaps too young in age,
To take centre stage;
Personal goals pushed, ignoring all costs;
Responsibilities not faced,
Real talents misplaced,
In coveting a Military Cross.
‘Saddle-up!’ came the sign,
Passed to each man in line;
No words required, done in silence instead;
With sweat pouring out,
Of the face of this scout,
The ‘Nasho’ took up his position and led.
Platoon spread out, single file,
On a Rung Sat isle;
Its real name ’twas called Long Son;
Thick jungle, slow going,
And this commander was showing,
Impatience for the patrol to push on.
A rendezvous with H.Q.,
Chances in limelight were few;
A ‘chopper’ waiting to fly him to base;
Instructions sent up ahead,
For the scout to ‘pull out the lead’,
Proceed to the L.Z. location in haste.
As the patrol began nearing,
A rice paddy, a clearing,
The young man signalled, he’d circle around;
Yet, no time now afforded,
So the commander then ordered,
To cross over that exposed open ground.
From the trees up ahead,
A hail of green tracers and lead,
The scout dropped, from a wound in his side;
To the commander he muttered:
“You ... bloody ... stupid … bastard!” he uttered,
With his last breath, in agony, then died.
And after returning to base,
Eager to continue that chase,
For that ribbon of purple and white;
An enemy camp, this next hunt,
His company again out in front,
Riding ‘tracks’ so his prospects looked bright.
Yet, many are still asking: “Why?”
On that day 9 had to die,
When skull and crossbones, ignored as the sign;
Advised by the lead,
This commander refused still to heed,
So his men advanced and rode over a mine.
As any ‘real’ soldier knows,
Under fire, ranks close,
Incentives offered, to keep some quiet;
‘Fruit salad’ used as one way,
Exposing truth kept at bay,
Blunders must be hidden from light.
So all attention diverted,
And to the soldier who’d alerted,
That danger had lurked, just ahead,
‘High brass’ later then ordered,
A Military Medal awarded,
But for a different occasion, instead!
Though success is no sin,
And ‘those who dare win’,
Yet, for the commander, ’twas the end of the line;
Brought him no raised rank position,
For he too was one of the nine.