Lunch with Neil James: “A military man to the core”

Soldiers’ advocate puts defence in perspective for a country that’s forgotten what it means to go to war, writes Mark Dapin.

The executive director of the Australia Defence Association marches up to the woman on the door of the Column Restaurant at the National Press Club and offers a clipped, “James. Thirteen hundred.” This is military-speak for, “Good afternoon, madam. I have a table reserved under the name of Neil James for 1pm today.”

James is a hardy-looking man with 40 years of service in the regular army and the reserves. He’s wearing a Royal United Services Institute tie, a rising sun army badge, and a badge of the organisation which supports relationships between the civil community and the reserves.

“I would normally say ‘1pm’ to a civilian,” he tells me, a little sheepishly, “but it just sort of slipped out.”

He asks to sit facing the door – “an old intelligence officer’s trick” – but isn’t unduly concerned when he can’t. There are no enemies here, unless you count the press, and James seems to regard the media with greater exasperation than enmity.

His organisation, the ADA, is called to comment regularly on defence issues – from the ADFA Skype scandal to funding issues – and yet hardly anybody knows what the ADA actually is. At times, it appears to be a de facto mouthpiece for defence chiefs, who use James to communicate opinions they can’t themselves publicly express.

James describes it as a “national public interest watchdog”, most of whose members are civilians who have never served in the Defence Force. He agrees the ADA can be an unofficial conduit for official opinion “to an extent” but, “we have to be very, very careful about this, because we don’t want to intrude on what is a very complex constitutional and professional relationship”.

James pauses to ask the Press Club waitress about her accent. When she says she is Russian, he greets her in Russian, but accidentally wishes her “good evening” – to which she politely replies “good evening” – instead of good afternoon. He then tells her, “My American friend will pay.”

“It’s the most useful phrase you can learn in any language,” he says to me, before repeating it in French, German and Italian.

“I used to have Swahili too,” he says, “but I’ve forgotten it.”

He orders the steak while I ask for a snapper fillet.

“I’m a steak-and-chips man,” he says, “renowned in my family as not being gastronomically inclined. I’ll eat jam sandwiches if I have to.”

We are, in fact, both jam-sandwich men, which leads to some puzzlement when our sourdough bread arrives with a choice of butter, balsamic vinegar in olive oil, and unidentified green stuff. We both automatically lunge at the butter, as if about to make a jam sandwich.

James grew up in Oakleigh, in south-east Melbourne, the youngest of three brothers, and went straight from school to the Royal Military College Duntroon in 1972.

“I had a great dread of working in an office for the rest of my life,” he says, and he saw Duntroon as a place he could “combine an outdoors life with a university education”.

He graduated into the Intelligence Corps, but did his regimental training as the commander of a rifle platoon. His subsequent postings involved electronic warfare, counter-intelligence and counter-interrogation.

He met his wife, Anne – “red hair, green eyes, hot temper” – while he was on an exchange with the Canadian Defence Force. She was an Irish physiotherapist in the Canadian army. He took her back to Australia and they married in 1985 in Melbourne, where James ran the local office of military intelligence.

He helped investigate the 1986 Russell Street Police Station bombing and then the 1987 Hoddle Street massacre, in which seven people were shot and 19 seriously wounded by former Duntroon cadet Julian Knight, who then turned his gun on pursuing police officers, their cars and a military helicopter.

Although these were civilian cases, military intelligence was involved in Hoddle Street because, in those days, the police had no bomb-disposal skills, and so had to rely on the expertise of the army. And Hoddle Street was of interest because of Knight’s army experience, and the fact he’d managed to shoot out the searchlight of the helicopter – and the Defence Force needed to know if that was an easy thing to do.

In 1997, James was working with the UN Special Commission as a weapons inspector, and he led the first full raid on an Iraqi presidential facility, a palace in Saddam Hussein’s home village, Auja, in Tikrit.

He was headhunted to become director of the ADA in 2003. He has three children, two daughters and a son, and the boy entered ADFA as an Army officer cadet, 40 years after his father marched into Duntroon.

James says most journalists today don’t have much understanding of defence issues “so they often ask the most basic questions”.

“We also have to try and convince journalists that soldiers are wounded and not injured,” he says. “It’s actually quite a grievous insult to describe a soldier as ‘injured’, because someone’s done it to them deliberately. It’s like telling a rape victim they deserved it. It’s that level of thoughtless insult.”

He says he finds it difficult to convince reporters of the importance of operational security “because, unfortunately, most journalists these days are reasonably over-confident about their ability to discern what’s operational security and what isn’t, and their default position tends to be that it’s not. And occasionally they’ll come up with something, and I’ll say, ‘Well, we really shouldn’t be talking about this in public because the people we’re fighting don’t need to know this.’ And it’s really distressing when a journalist will agree with you, and then you know they’ll hang up and ring someone else who’ll tell them the answer. They just don’t think of their moral obligations as Australians to our soldiers to not unnecessarily endanger them.”

When his steak and chips arrives at the table, the steak-and-chips man pronounces the steak “lovely and juicy and soft and chewy” although he finds the chips “a bit brittle”.

He talks while he eats, each with equal gusto.

It’s not only journalists who don’t understand defence, he says. Today, the number of people with personal experience of war, or even the Defence Force, is tiny.

“In the sixties, people understood that soldiers got killed in war,” he says, “whereas now, every time a soldier’s killed, the first question for many journalists is, ‘How and why did this happen, and why can’t it be stopped?’

“The moment the country decides to commit its defence force, you have to accept the fact that some of them won’t come back. Whereas the average Australian seems to look at it as an industrial accident, or an OH&S problem, and if we were just able to give them the right equipment, they wouldn’t die.”

My attention is diverted by the sight of a toothbrush protruding from the breast pocket of James’s jacket. Does he always carry one?

“Yes,” he says. “The reason is I had braces taken off recently, and I’m having some dental work done, and when I had braces, after a dinner like this, I’d have to go and clean my braces.”

Just as long as he wasn’t hoping to hook up, then.

“No, no, no, no, no,” he says. “It’s to do with my orthodontics. I had people looking at the website and saying to my board of directors, ‘You’ve got a really ugly executive director, can’t you get somebody better looking?’ So I said to the board, ‘Maybe you can pay for my orthodontics,’ and they said, ‘Get knotted.’ I had an overbite and it needed correcting. They’ve only been off for a couple of months.”

James has to keep up his appearance, as he often addresses the media about Defence Force “scandals”.

“The Defence Force has got a problem,” he admits, “the real question always is, ‘Are the scandals covered in context, and is the problem the Defence Force has any different from the wider society, and if it is, should it be?’ The Defence Force aren’t a warrior caste. They’re recruited from Australians, predominantly from young Australians. Half the Defence Force is under 25 and three-quarters is under 30. If young Australians do stupid things all the time, the idea that you can suddenly quarantine young Australians in the Defence Force from doing stupid things is just not a going proposition. All the things that have happened in ADFA have happened in colleges in our universities.”

He says female journalists report higher levels of sexual harassment (57.3 per cent in 2012 according to the MEAA’s Women in Media study) than women in the Defence Force (25.9 per cent, according to the Broderick Report 2012), and, from his conversations with ADFA cadets, he believes they are “very angry” about the way they’ve been portrayed in the media. But he has no sympathy for the so-called “Jedi Council” of Defence Force personnel who filmed themselves having sex with women and then shared the videos and some of the women’s personal details.

“There’s no excuse for that behaviour,” he says, “no excuse whatsoever. But given all the reviews after the Skype thing at ADFA, what idiot believed they’d get away with it, or it was acceptable to do it? Throw the book at them, because it ruins the good work that’s been done.”

But why do there seem to be so many scandals? “The Defence Force is the third largest employer in the country, after Coles and Woolworth’s,” he says, “so the reason you keep hearing about the Defence Force ‘sex scandals’ is it’s a very big organisation, disproportionately full of young people. An element of perspective has to be maintained. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try and stamp it out, but you shouldn’t have an unrealistic expectation that the Defence Force should somehow be perfect – in a society that isn’t.”

James could talk more – a lot more, I suspect – but I really have to leave. It’s nearly fifteen hundred hours, after all.