ADELAIDE - As an historian I have a special interest in the causes, courses and consequences of war.
And I am especially interested in the character, motivation and achievements of those who end up as leaders.
My interest in war stems from the depressing fact that it is such a significant feature of human history. Also, it is almost invariably a great test of individual and national character and abilities.
Both my study of history and my personal experience have convinced me that significant adversity in its various forms always exposes the true nature and character of those forced to undergo it.
The Covid-19 pandemic is exposing us all to adversity in various forms ranging from death of loved ones through to the trials and tribulations of lockdowns.
As Keith Jackson has cogently argued, a large number of Australians have not borne up well to the various challenges it has brought with it.
They appear to mostly be people with very little ability to engage in critical thinking, combining with this deficit undue credulousness and naiveté.
These people are always amongst us but they remain largely invisible until events such as the pandemic expose them to situations they cannot properly comprehend and to which they react by making irrational choices.
Over the years I have experienced myself and seen others experience traumatic and distressing events. In my experience, the reactions to such events fall into three broad categories.
In the first category are those people who panic. They tend to engage in various pointless behaviours like screaming, shouting, making irrational demands of others or frantic but useless physical activity or even violence.
This is startling to see and can greatly hinder efforts to develop and manage a rational response.
The second category encompasses people who essentially become immobilised by a combination of shock, fear, anxiety or uncertainty.
They also tend to remain essentially passive, sometimes even in the face of great danger.
Fortunately, this category of person is usually amenable to direction or suggestion and so, with appropriate support and leadership, can act to protect themselves and others.
This may or may not be accompanied by a certain amount of complaining or whinging.
There are many examples of these two forms of behaviour seen amongst combat soldiers or people subjected to severe trauma in one form or another.
The third category encompasses those people who appear to be able to rationally assess the situation and respond appropriately even though they may be just as shocked or distressed as anyone else. These are the ‘rational actors’.
One important characteristic they share appears to be a capacity to compartmentalise their thoughts: they deliberately put fear and anxiety to one side and continue to focus on doing whatever is needed to deal with the situation effectively.
I have seen some stunning examples of this type of person in my working life as a hospital manager and there are innumerable examples of this ability revealed during warfare.
Using my categorisations I would suggests that the large majority of Australians fall into the second category.
While perhaps not fully comprehending the true nature of the threat confronting the country they have been willing to accept and adhere to the advice and directions of those in leadership positions.
They have listened to the experts and decided that, however grudgingly or uncertainly, they ought to comply with their advice.
The anti-vaxxers, libertarians, anarchists and ‘freedom fighters’ who have protested or even rioted in the streets clearly belong in the group prone to panic.
They lack the critical thinking ability to process information and arrive at a rational conclusion and their responses are manifestly contrary to what is required.
These people would flatly deny that they are panicking but their behaviour says otherwise.
In terms of leadership, it is now clear-cut that most of Australia’s state and territory leaders have been willing and able to do what is required to protect their populations from the worst impacts of the pandemic.
Sadly, our Prime Minister, Treasurer and other members of the Federal government, have not shown the same abilities, nor has the Premier of NSW.
They have allowed their assessment of the situation and response to it to be unduly influenced by economic considerations, ideological prejudices and misguided over confidence. They have mistaken good luck for good judgement.
Their ideologically based thinking leads them to conclude that the economy must be prioritised over all other considerations, with constant growth in production and consumption being a critical necessity.
Because of this distortion in their thinking, they seem incapable of properly understanding the actual or potential impacts of the pandemic in human terms or, indeed, in economic terms.
They seem unable to adequately process the information before them which tells them that, almost counter intuitively, insisting upon opening up the economy prematurely (or not shutting it down fast enough) will inevitably exacerbate the very economic problems they are seeking to avoid.
There are many examples of this form of thinking in warfare.
His decision to invade France in 1940 was made in the face of serious resistance from his generals, virtually all of whom thought the risks were too great.
The spectacular success of the German military in overcoming France and Britain in only six weeks persuaded both Hitler and most of his generals that he was a military genius.
Seldom has a more erroneous conclusion been drawn from unexpected success.
Subsequently, Hitler’s insistence on viewing all military strategy through the prism of Nazi ideology, and his own misguided self-confidence, was ultimately fatal to Germany.
Interestingly, Joseph Stalin, having initially fallen victim to the same type of thinking with disastrous results, was sufficiently clever and insightful to realise his error.
Stalin chose to relinquish an active role in directly commanding the military, restricting himself to formulating only the very broadest of strategic goals.
Once the USSR’s military was commanded by competent generals rather than political apparatchiks it rapidly gained ascendancy over the Germans.
In Australia, we have a prime minister who, I think, has a very strong belief in his own superior political judgement.
He has described this victory as a ‘miracle’ and told others that he believes that God willed it that he should be prime minister.
This belief has led him to erroneously conclude that he is more capable than others of understanding and devising the correct political response to the current pandemic.
This belief appears to have persisted in the face of clear evidence that significant errors in judgement have been made.
Fortunately, the Federal government has been left relatively impotent owing to the peculiarities of the Australian constitution and the decisions by the prime minister to effectively abrogate control over quarantine and vaccination purchase and distribution, the latter being badly botched by him.
So what we have in Australia is a mostly compliant population led by mostly competent and rational state and territory leaders.
As a result, so far at least, we have avoided the worst potential impacts of the pandemic.
The country has been hindered to some degree by poor leadership at a Federal level, with a small but vociferous ‘ratbag’ element within the government and wider community making many noisy but hopelessly misguided demands to open up the economy despite the obvious health risks involved.
Thus while I agree with Keith that far too many of our fellow citizens have been tried and found wanting during the pandemic, it remains the case that the ‘sensible centre’ has somehow held, at least so far.
Critical errors of judgement by Gladys Berejiklian have now exposed Australia to a potential catastrophe, and we can only hope that our collective luck holds a little while longer until almost universal vaccination levels reduce Covid-19 to an endemic and controllable illness.