In January 1993, the Australian government sent just under one thousand young men and women to serve under American command in a violent, impoverished, starving society. Most males over the age of twelve either carried or had access to a gun, and most Somali men had been fighting a vicious civil war for years. Australian soldiers and their teams had to gain control of the streets of Baidoa and surrounding towns. This contest was not 'find, fight and kill' warfare. There was no decisive victory or defeat. The aim was to detect 'the bad boys' and deter and de-escalate their violence rather than escalate hostilities to success through 'body count'. This mode of operation was not community policing by soldiers either. It involved adjusting attitudes forcefully and assuring uncomfortable consequences for bad behaviour and ultimately lethal responses to armed challenges. The world looked over their shoulders. Corporals and diggers had to make split-second decisions to open or hold fire. Holding fire when provoked by punks constituted disciplined professional performance. Opening fire before understanding the situation, especially against unarmed provocateurs, constituted unprofessional conduct and possible condemnation, even criminal charges. These young Australians carried the international reputation of Australia and its army on their shoulders. Their actions would either enhance that reputation or create controversy, negative publicity and, potentially, international embarrassment and condemnation. After asserting a presence through rigorous patrolling and search-and-clear urban and rural operations, the Australians deterred a range of marauders from interfering with UN and NGO humanitarian activities, keeping expatriate staff safe and killing and wounding several Somali shooters in surprise clashes. After adjusting their own attitudes to balance aggression and compassion, fight leaders and their diggers forcefully adjusted Somali attitudes, secured a stalemate, and then took control for the time they were in Somalia Australian soldiers individually and collectively helped a traumatised society needing a 'fair go' and gave ordinary Somali men, women and children trying to survive a little bit of hope.
Associate Professor Bob Breen OAM is Director, Defence Professional PhD Program, at Deakin University and a former Colonel in the Australian Army. His first publication in 1988 was First to Fight, a history of the first tour of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment group in Vietnam in 1965-66. He served as Colonel (Operations Analysis) for Land Commander-Australia from 1992 until 2002, conducting first-hand research in Somalia in 1993 and in Rwanda 1994-95, the Middle East and Mozambique 1996, and then Bougainville and Timor Leste (then East Timor) periodically 1997-2002. He has published several books drawing on this first-hand experience of Australian post-Cold War operations including a volume of Official History on Australian peace support operations in the Pacific Islands 1980-2006.