When the General Calls: Military Tactics Against COVID-19 in Australia

When I received an email in early July this year, ostensibly from Lieutenant General John J. Frewen, the recently appointed coordinator-general of the National COVID Vaccine Taskforce, I thought at first it must be a clever hoax, an amusing scam. I couldn’t decide who of fellow historians Frank Bongiorno or Marilyn Lake was the more likely culprit, but each quickly denied any fabrication. The email arrived in my inbox some six months after Pamela Maddock and I had written for Arena a trenchant criticism of the increasing tendency in Australia to resort to the military to solve civil problems, whether Indigenous deprivation and destitution (as in the ‘Intervention’), refugee troubles, bushfire catastrophes, and now a devastating pandemic.1 When Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on 4 June 2021 the appointment of Lieutenant General Frewen to sharpen up and straighten out the wimpy vaccine rollout, we congratulated ourselves on our prescience. How right we were, we thought. In woke snootiness, I made fun of all the pomp and circumstance, the uniforms and braid, the new propensity to mount a blitzkrieg against the virus, to ‘wargame’ a public-health program. Then came this email from the general, seeking advice on the lessons of history, asking what might be learned from earlier efforts to control epidemic disease. A tease, surely?

Once I’d ascertained the veracity of the request, my first thought was that at least someone in this country appreciated humanities scholarship. Indeed, it seemed to me that the general may value the humanities more highly than many of my humanities colleagues, who continue to struggle to provide a rationale for what we do. 

My next thought was that I don’t really like ‘lessons of history’. I’d been claiming that facile comparison of the novel coronavirus’s onslaught with previous pandemics often obscured more than it revealed. Rather than resort to such glib analogies, we need to engage with history in the making and look critically at how we got here, trying to understand what fashioned the ecological and socioeconomic niche in which the virus currently thrives. We need to set in motion the historicising of our present predicament.2 

In any case, if I were to distil a lesson of vaccination history, I thought at the time, it would probably be: ‘Don’t involve the military’. Too clever by half, and not a particularly useful message to a general taxed with remedying a vaccine-rollout bungle not of his making. 

But then I reflected on what I’d written decades ago about the militarisation and racialisation of colonial public health and vaccine strategies. And so, after a few days, I responded to the general’s aide-de-camp, saying, yes, I’d be happy to chat. ‘Typical’, Marilyn Lake said wryly, ‘ageing white men like you always go weak at the knees when a general calls’. Having campaigned for years against ‘Anzackery’, the militarisation of Australian history, she supposed I was ‘selling out’.3 I vehemently denied it, of course.

Getting armed

When Morrison appointed Frewen to take control of the fumbled SARS-CoV-2 vaccine rollout, just ahead of a national cabinet meeting, it remained unclear to the public what his role might be, where he fitted in government structures and to whom he would report. The prime minister proudly told assembled reporters this was a rerun of Operation Sovereign Borders, the military operation that brutally turned away asylum-seeker boats under his watch as minister for immigration. The expectation was that a ‘direct command and control structure’ might ensure that the goals of the vaccine rollout were met, even if belatedly.4 Australians would thus be immunised against the virus the way they had been immunised against refugees. ‘I was brought on by the prime minister to take operational control and the messaging around the rollout’, Frewen said awkwardly in early July. ‘I think the view is [that] there’s…military planning, and the way that the military conduct operations… Perhaps a broader sense of coordination to the plan [was needed]’.5 It sounded less dramatic and grandiose than the prime minister’s assertions, certainly more complicated. ‘As a military guy’, Frewen reflected, ‘I’ve been on lots of operations and those sorts of things and this is an adversary, and we’ve got to remember that the adversary gets a vote in our plans’.6

Several months later, it was revealed that the prime minister’s office had written to the general giving him ‘direct operational control of all relevant assets and resources across all Commonwealth government departments and agencies engaged in the direction and operation of the national COVID vaccination program’. Frewen was responsible for ‘communication around the vaccine rollout, engagement with health providers including hospitals, GPs, Aboriginal Health Services and pharmacies, and engagement with key community stakeholders, business groups, and unions’—the term ‘engagement’ appears repeatedly in this communiqué.7 He would report directly to the prime minister and the minister of health as well as attend national cabinet discussions. Though bypassed in these arrangements, the secretary of the Department of Health, Brendan Murphy, wrote to colleagues welcoming the general. ‘He is an excellent leader and we have worked really well together in the past’, Murphy assured them. ‘He is incredibly respectful of what we are doing here at Health—and neither he nor I want to change anything on the ground.’8

Once a keen history student at Xavier College in Melbourne, and at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Frewen had excelled in his military training and early deployments, rising rapidly in the Australian Army. In 2003, he commanded the international regional assistance mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), a military intervention to resolve the crisis that resulted when Guadalcanal leaders took up arms against the government, demanding the return of land and ‘compensation’ for colonial injustices. The Australian Army mostly provided logistical and material support to police forces as they tried to restore order—it was, in effect, a peacekeeping mission.9 After this Pacific engagement, Frewen spent time in Kandahar, Afghanistan, coordinating NATO attempts to reform the Afghan army and police in the region. Immediately before assuming the new pandemic role, he was principal deputy director-general of the Australian Defence Signals Directorate, responsible for foreign intelligence gathering, information risk management, and investigating cyberattacks. A cursory review of Frewen’s background indicated to me someone who can think beyond simple concepts of offensive warfare and defence of sovereign borders, a person perhaps adept at understanding more complex and sensitive operational configurations, showing more flexibility than the average general or prime minister. But from my vantage point, viewing him on television as Morrison’s uneasy uniformed prop, it was hard to be sure.

Frustrated with the excruciating slowness of the immunisation program, most commentators welcomed Frewen’s appointment. Labor’s shadow defence minister, Brendan O’Connor, supported ‘utilising the Australian Defence Force’s significant logistic insight and expertise in aiding the vaccine rollout’, though he added that the prime minister ‘should not be hiding behind military uniforms’.10 The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that the general ‘must win the hearts and minds of the so-called vaccine hesitant…with a better data strategy’.11 But in Crikey, Guy Rundle opined that having a general rolling out our vaccines was making Australia look like ‘one of those landlocked Latin American banana republics’. Resorting to ‘military command to impose efficient administration is unquestionably pre-anti-democratic’, he wrote.12 From Melbourne, Jon Faine argued that the appointment of the general was a ‘mission misfire’—an insult to medical doctors and public health experts, who should take the lead in any vaccination campaign. Many marginal communities, often vaccine hesitant, would never trust a man in uniform ordering them around. ‘The lack of creative thought on how to gain public co-operation is astonishing’, he wrote.13 And yet, despite these animadversions, after the general’s appointment there was a widespread sense of relief that something might be happening at last.

Some misgivings did persist, however. John Blaxland, professor of international security studies at the Australian National University, thought Morrison was ‘cashing in on the Anzac mythology, if you like, through John Frewen, to get the Australian people to rise above their own fears and anti-vax phobia’. He believed that desperately reaching out to Frewen disclosed ‘a sense of vulnerability of the government that it needs the military to step in’. For decades, governments had been outsourcing or displacing onto the military the logistical jobs the public service used to do. From the same Duntroon cohort as Frewen, Blaxland was concerned ‘that we are seeing normalisation of the military performing functions that are not military functions’.14

Which military model?

I had a week to reflect on what I should say to the general before he was to ring me in the middle of July. In advance of the Sydney lockdown there was ample time to sit in my office rereading historical accounts of vaccination, especially the detailed studies of smallpox-eradication methods in South Asia,15 polio immunisation in the United States and West Africa, and the rollout of various early-childhood vaccines in Western Europe and elsewhere. I’d almost forgotten that some fifteen years ago I wrote about smallpox vaccination in the colonial Philippines.16 The ‘lesson’ of all these case studies was consistent. Coercion got vaccinators only so far, especially in regions and among communities not tightly controlled. People ordered to line up to receive the jab usually managed to slip away, to evade the vaccinating squad. Thorough and effective vaccination, as in mopping up the last outbreaks of smallpox in villages and townships in Asia and Africa, required patient and painstaking engagement with communities, enlistment of political, religious and educational leaders, sitting down with families and participating in time-consuming explanations in local languages.17 It meant building trust and venturing out to persuade others. It demanded infinite sensitivity, sympathy and flexibility—qualities not conventionally attributed to the military. It was a tedious, humdrum process, lacking the frenzy of armed combat or the excitement of a turnback on the high seas. 

Morrison’s blather about sovereign borders and Anzac and ‘intervention’ didn’t sound quite apropos. Some of Frewen’s earlier remarks also perturbed me. ‘I’m going to sit everybody around the table and we are going to wargame the weeks and the months, and figure out how do we get there and how we need to adjust it’, he said at the end of June.18 ‘Wargame’, as I understood the term, didn’t sit comfortably at the table with the lessons of history, as I understood them, though the openness to adjustment was moderately reassuring. Then, the day before I was scheduled to talk with him, the federal government launched an advertising campaign urging all Australians to get the jab to ‘arm’ themselves against COVID-19. According to the advertisement, arming yourself ‘is your best defence and our only way forward. Now’s the time to arm yourself, your family, your friends, your work mates and your community’.19 Aggressive and enthusiastic, for sure, rather gung-ho, but the rough appeal seemed restricted to a certain demographic. 

In preparing for the call, I remembered some older work I’d done that might be pertinent to my impending conversation with Frewen. When I was writing a few decades ago about the introduction of germ theories into colonial tropical medicine from the late nineteenth century onwards, I’d observed that the relatively new notions of disease causation often were absorbed into an existing military matrix. This military shaping of the reception of ‘bacteriology’, as it was called, could be seen particularly clearly in the Philippines during the first decade of the twentieth century, when US colonial forces were struggling to suppress Filipino insurrectos. There, the tactics of counterinsurgency quickly became a template for the tactics, or practices, of tropical public health. Furthermore, these colonial military-medical tactics were later transferred across the Pacific, becoming models for urban public health work in the United States and elsewhere.20

Colonial warfare rarely depended on pitched battles and entrenchment of positions, as in the ‘world’ wars; rather, military operations in the tropics commonly involved the attraction, transformation and pacification of local communities, the winning of ‘hearts and minds’. These deployments usually followed an administrative logic instead of simply pursuing destructive or even eliminationist strategies. Counterinsurgency and pacification, what used to be called ‘police actions’ in more innocent days, demanded at least some community engagement, communication, intelligence, surveillance and registration—a militarised version of the so-called civilising process or nation building. Thus, the goal of US colonial occupation of the Philippines in the early twentieth century was not so much the destruction of the enemy as the reorganising of conquered peoples. It was not primarily to bring death to the territory—though that it did too—but to recreate life within it, to discipline subjects and incorporate them into a different politics of life. In other words, I remembered that actual militarisation on the ground could take multiple forms, some not covered in the routine censure of bellicose ‘metaphors’, and these variations exerted distinctive effects on the world.21 

And so, I came to realise that the lesson of history that I’d so reluctantly distilled was, in effect, to organise the Australian vaccine rollout as if it were a practice of pacification and counterinsurgency. That is, to follow the style of colonial militarisation from which ‘ordinary’ public health had derived over a century ago, thereby recognising this form of state action as already militarised in a specific, if unconventional, way. It was not, then, a question of whether to militarise or not—but rather, which military model might be employed to engage sensitively and flexibly with Australian communities, to win their hearts and minds. But it would be nothing like Operation Sovereign Borders, and nothing like what happened at Gallipoli. I hoped that this was a framing of the problem that Lieutenant General Frewen, after his experiences in the Solomons and Afghanistan, would perhaps understand.

As it happens

I now appreciate that lecturing this particular general on the virtues of ‘small wars’ doctrine was probably redundant. We chatted for more than thirty minutes about this and that, but I got the impression I was mostly confirming what he already knew or had heard before. I doubt my pragmatic efforts to translate colonial vaccination histories into a usable military mode of engagement made much difference to his plans to equip the Australian people with immunological armature.

While this took place, Morrison was referring increasingly to efforts to ramp up vaccination as ‘Operation COVID Shield’, an echo of Operation Sovereign Borders, which did not bode well. But the campaign plan as released on 3 August contained no such martial bluster. In the Foreword, Frewen stated that ‘vaccination is the most effective means we have to build nation resilience’. The plan proposed ‘mechanisms for engagement and coordination with all stakeholders including states, territories, industry, the health sector and the community sector’.22 One of the ‘workstreams’, titled ‘Motivate’, consisted of a ‘roadmap’ to ‘shape positive public sentiment and drive public action via targeted communications and incentives’. There was another part on ‘contingency planning’ and the importance of risk assessment and operational ‘flexibility’. The lengthy document emphasised a ‘targeted implementation plan for culturally and linguistically diverse groups’, which included consultations with the Aboriginal community controlled health sector. It claimed the campaign would ‘ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ and communities’ needs and perspectives are at the forefront of the program’. Terms like engagement, collaboration, consultation and partnerships cluttered the text—even a reference to ‘leveraging local community leaders’ appeared—all indicating good intentions, no doubt, even if many of the logistics necessarily remained vague and aspirational.23 

In any case, the plan did not trumpet the belligerence typically associated with cruder styles of militarisation—and it therefore did not portend the kind of military intervention Morrison probably wanted. But maybe, just maybe, it would be ‘good enough’ as militarisations go. At the end of winter, vaccination rates took off, for whatever reason, becoming almost ‘world-beating’, as the prime minister likes to say. I expect he’ll soon commission a small spiky statue of the virus, with a plaque saying: ‘I stopped this too’. 

But do we need these days to settle for one style of militarisation or another, the better of two ‘evils’? Must our public-policy implementation be dependent on the repertoire of modes of martial operation? As we in Australia emerge from the pandemic, isn’t it time we tried to think otherwise about how to react to recurrent crises? Perhaps this is an unprecedented opportunity to refuse the habitual recourse to militarisation—whether in ‘hard’ or even in ‘soft’ forms—when responding to the problems that confront us. In 2020, Arundati Roy warned that ‘the mandarins who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally’. But then she went on to observe how ‘historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’.24 As we enter that new world, brave or not, are we in Australia now ready to reimagine care, prevention, and compassion without any military trappings? And are we ready to fight for such a vision? 

1 Pamela Maddock and Warwick Anderson, ‘Standing Up Straighter Against COVID-19’, Arena no. 4, 2020, https://arena.org.au/standing-up-straighter-against-covid-19/ 

2 Warwick Anderson, ‘Think Like a Virus’, Public Books, 7 January 2021,  https://www.publicbooks.org/think-like-a-virus/

3 Marilyn Lake, ‘The Militarization of Australian History and the Myth of Shared Values’, 31 August 2020, https://johnmenadue.com/marilyn-lake-the-militarization-of-australian-history-and-the-myth-of-shared-values/ 

4 Scott Morrison to John Frewen, 8 June 2021, available in Daniel Hurst, ‘Letter Reveals what Scott Morrison Told John Frewen When He Gave Him Vaccine Role’, The Guardian, 1 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/sep/01/letter-reveals-what-scott-morrison-told-john-frewen-when-he-gave-him-vaccine-role 

5 John Frewen, 7 July 2021, quoted in Amy Remeikis and Daniel Hurst, ‘General Confusion: Who Is John Frewen, and What Is His Role in Australia’s Vaccine Rollout?’, The Guardian, 11 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jul/11/general-confusion-who-is-john-frewen-and-what-is-his-role-in-australias-vaccine-rollout 

6 John Frewen, no date, quoted in Rachel Clun, ‘Why Scott Morrison Brought in the Army to “Wargame” the Pandemic Response’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/why-scott-morrison-brought-in-the-army-to-wargame-the-pandemic-response-20210630-p585jk.html 

7 Morrison to Frewen, available in Hurst, ‘Letter Reveals’.

8 Brendan Murphy, 4 June 2021, quoted in Daniel Hurst, ‘Health Department Boss Told Staff Incoming Vaccine Chief Wouldn’t ‘Change Anything’, Email Reveals’, The Guardian, 7 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/07/health-department-boss-told-staff-incoming-vaccine-chief-wouldnt-change-anything-email-reveals 

9 https://www.defence.gov.au/Operations/PastOperations/SolomonIslands/default.asp 

10 Brendan O’Connor, no date, quoted in Remeikis and Hurst, ‘General Confusion’.

11 ‘Editorial: Clear Message Is the Best Ammunition for General in Vaccine Rollout’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 2021.

12 Guy Rundle, ‘“The Idea that You Have to Resort to Military Command to Impose Efficient Administration Is Unquestionably Pre-anti-democratic”’, Crikey, 7 July 2021.

13 Jon Faine, ‘Mission Misfire: Why the Uniform Approach to the Pandemic Is Wrong’, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 11 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/national/mission-misfire-why-the-uniform-approach-to-the-pandemic-is-wrong-20210709-p588b0.html 

14 John Blaxland, 1 September 2021, quoted in Hurst, ‘Letter Reveals’.See also Frank Bongiorno, ‘A Little Jab, Now and Then’, Inside Story, 9 July 2021, https://insidestory.org.au/a-little-jab-now-and-then/; Karen Middleton, ‘The Militarisation of the Public Service’, The Saturday Paper, 24–30 July 2021, https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2021/07/24/the-militarisation-the-public-service/162704880012129#hrd 

15 Sanjoy Bhattacharya, Expunging Variola: The Control and Eradication of Smallpox in India, 1947–1977, New Delhi: Orient Longman India, 2006.

16 Warwick Anderson, ‘Immunization and Hygiene in the Colonial Philippines’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 62, 2007, pp 1–20.

17 Julie Collins, Rosie Westerveld, Kate A. Nelson, et al., ‘“Learn from the Lessons and Don’t Forget Them”: Identifying Transferable Lessons for COVID-19 from Meningitis A, Yellow Fever and Ebola Virus Disease Vaccination Campaigns’, BMJ Global Health 6, 2021, e006951. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2021-006951.

18 Frewen, quoted in Clun, ‘Why Scott Morrison Brought in the Army’. The wargame occurred on 6 July.

19 James Massola, ‘“Arm Yourself”: Military Chief Launches New Vaccination Advertising Campaign’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/arm-yourself-military-chief-launches-new-vaccination-advertising-campaign-20210709-p588h6.html 

20 Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. See also Maddock and Anderson, ‘Standing Up Straighter’.

21 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

22 Op COVID SHIELD: National COVID Vaccine Campaign Plan (3 August 2021), Canberra: Australian Government, 2021, pp iv, v. 

23 Op COVID SHIELD, pp 4, 11, 13, 14, 36. For the contrasting brutal South African militarisation of the COVID response, see Lenore Manderson and Susan Levine, ‘Militarising the Pandemic: Lockdown in South Africa’, in Lenore Manderson, Nancy J. Burke, and Ayo Wahlberg (eds), Viral Loads: Anthropologies of Urgency in the Time of COVID-19, London: UCL Press, 2021, pp 47–66. 

24 Arundhati Roy, ‘The pandemic Is a Portal’, Financial Times, 4 April 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca 

The Rules-Based Order

Clinton Fernandes, Sep 2021

Military historians are well aware that Australian governments have not gone to war for sentimental reasons or because they were duped. The organising principle of Australian foreign policy is to remain on the winning side of a worldwide confrontation between the empire and the lands dominated by it. 

About the author

Warwick Anderson

Warwick Anderson is Janet Dora Hine Professor of Politics, Governance and Ethics at the University of Sydney and an honorary professor in the Centre for Health Equity (which he founded) in the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. His books include The Cultivation of Whiteness (2002, 2006), Colonial Pathologies (2006), The Collectors of Lost Souls (2008), Intolerant Bodies (2014, with Ian R. Mackay) and Spectacles of Waste (2024). In 2023 he was awarded the John Desmond Bernal Prize of the Society for Social Studies of Science, in recognition of lifetime achievement in science and technology studies.

More articles by Warwick Anderson

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