Insurgent intellectual

Des Ball. Photo by Darren Boyd.
12 December 2012


In a career spanning almost 50 years – 25 of them at ANU as Special Professor – Des Ball has worked on ballistic missile defence, nuclear strategy, signals intelligence and Asia’s long-term stability. He talks to NICHOLAS FARRELLY about a life of both reflection and action.

In 1966 during anti-Vietnam War protests you had a run-in with the law. Can you talk us through what happened?
In 1966 I was going through a quite significant philosophical change. I still believed in the Vietnam War but I was an outspoken opponent of conscription. Forcing people to do something seemed to be against the values for which we were fighting in Vietnam. So I went to a number of demonstrations in Canberra where I put aside my views about the war and spoke against conscription.

At one protest I climbed up a statue of King George V. When asked to come down by the police I refused. They put up a ladder, pulled me down and charged me with offensive behaviour. The next day The Canberra Times and The Australian both carried front page stories with the headline ‘Prize winning economics student arrested’. When it did come to court I was found guilty and fined $10.

Kep Enderby, who was a member of parliament later on, but in those days was a junior member of the law faculty here at ANU, came to see me and said, “Let’s appeal this decision”. We went to the Supreme Court where it was heard by Justice Sir John Kerr who found in my favour. Kerr argued that the Australian public should be mature enough to hear alternative views, whether or not somebody was expressing those views by sitting on a statue.

At the start of your career you could have gone down two different academic paths – economics or strategic studies. What led you down that second path?
My former economics mentor, Sir John Crawford, had been instrumental in setting up the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU in 1966. He had also been personally involved in bringing Hedley Bull to ANU as a professor in international relations. He told me about some of Hedley’s work and introduced me to him.

As a result of that meeting I decided that I would leave economics behind and move in to strategic studies. About nine months into my PhD, Hedley arranged for me to go to the Institute of War and

Peace in the US to help focus my research. There I spent a lot of time in underground missile silos working with some of America’s nuclear weapons, like the 1.2 mega tonne Minute Man 2 – a warhead a thousand times bigger than the Hiroshima Bomb.

I was also working on the most secret matters that it was possible to work on, as well as being involved in work for US President Jimmy Carter. As President he had inherited a strategic nuclear policy which included plans for fighting so-called limited nuclear wars. I had produced a study which showed that those plans were seriously flawed – once you started using nuclear weapons on any serious scale, you so disturbed, damaged or destroyed the command and control architecture that very soon a limited exchange would degenerate into an all-out nuclear exchange.

In your time you have been investigated by the Defence Security Branch and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Do you think the resources spent following you around was money well spent?
ASIO started taking an interest in me in 1966 when I was involved in anti-war protests. But in 1969 ASIO really upgraded its levels of interest in me because I had started to take an interest in Pine Gap.

The CIA had asked ASIO who is this guy who is interested in Pine Gap? At that time I did not know that Pine Gap was a CIA facility and they certainly did not want that to be known.

When I look at my file, I’m not surprised that ASIO had taken an interest in me through those years. But I suppose two things surprised me; one was just the extent of their interest and the other was the extent of the resources that they devoted to me. I think that ASIO had lost the plot by then. ASIO was formed for a very specific purpose, which was to identify a group of Australians who were working for the KGB in the late 1940s.

Today we have double the amount of people whose job it is to go round the Australian community trying to find terrorists. This is really what it has come down to. I think that terrorism and counter-terrorism has, to a large extent, been taken out of proportion to what the real threat is internally in this country. I could be proven wrong, but the enormous amount of resources that are being devoted to this subject outweigh the real threat.

In more recent decades you have looked at security\issues in the Asia-Pacific region with a focus on mainland Southeast Asia. What first got you interested in that part of the world?
I had started looking at some security issues in East Asia and Southeast Asia in the 1980s. I had also been involved in assisting and, in some cases, playing the leading role in setting up strategic studies centres in Southeast Asia.

In the mid-1990s I was still interested in signals intelligence and got involved in a project looking at Burmese communications, and Burmese signals intelligence. In the later part of the 1990s this resulted in a book called Burma’s Military Secrets.

To put that book together I got to know some of the ethnic insurgent organisations along the Thai- Burma border.

Since then you have spent a huge amount of time going up and down the border between these two countries. What is it that gets you up there all the time and keeps you inspired to continue this work?
Two things, I suppose. One is that through the process of monitoring communications I got a very real understanding of the extent of human rights abuses that were being committed by Burmese army units against villages.

The other is a personal commitment to some of those ethnic groups. If I am really such an expert in strategic and defence matters, as I am sometimes portrayed, then I think that I have an obligation to apply some of that expertise to assisting some of those ethnic armed groups. So where I think I have expertise that can help them I believe that I have an obligation to apply it.

And that is really what I have been doing over the last decade up there.

There are instances where the Burmese army would go into villages and would take away as many as 25 or 30 young women. They would have their way with those young women, they would put them in bark and thatch huts and set fire to those huts or they would machine gun those huts and just kill all of those young girls. I mean there are aspects of that which are really quite sickening and led me to decide that I couldn’t really stand aside. There was no way that I could come back to Australia and pretend that I didn’t know about this; and having known about it I wasn’t not going to do something about it.

This interview is an excerpt from Mentors – a pilot video series which explores the careers of ANU academics and the significant contributions they have made to their field of expertise. It was first published in the Spring 2011 edition of ANU Reporter.

A newly-released book of essays in Des Ball's honour, Insurgent Intellectual, was launched during celebrations marking his 25th anniversary as Special Professor at ANU this week. The book is available from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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