Hir’aeth: The Australian Army, Training, and the Nostalgia of the Past

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Editor’s Note: This is Grounded Curiosity’s 2nd most read article of all time.

One of the most useful phrases to emerge from the Australian Army’s strategic guidance this last two years has been the concept of ‘ready now’ and ‘future ready’.  These simple terms capture neatly the core challenge that our Army faces: how to evolve into a future that is accelerating and changing in a remarkable way, while still maintaining the readiness we need to meet immediate threats.

The Regiment I serve with is smack bang in the middle of this tension.  We are bringing in the first elements of Army’s new fleet of armoured fighting vehicles, but we still need to be able to fight the ‘fleet in being’.  As such, we are having to look both thirty years ahead and thirty years behind: balancing our enduring requirement to be ’ready now’ while laying the firmest of foundations for ‘future ready’.  We are just one example of what the whole of Army is grappling with: a growing tempest of transformation that is reaching into every corner of the force.

I think about this challenge a lot.  Recently I was taken by an idea: one that I think might be useful to those grappling with change.  This idea, however, is a little ‘out there’.  To explain it, I need to tell you a story.

A couple of years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who had moved to Australia from overseas.  She was having a tough time.  On the surface all looked great.  She had a really good job, was living in a big city near the beaches, and had made great friends.  She was, to all extents and purposes, settled.  

But for a reason she couldn’t fathom, she wasn’t happy.  A pervasive and persistent sense of discontentment nagged at her; a strange blend of homesickness and nervousness that she somehow couldn’t shake.  Was life really as good as it looked on the surface?  The future was rosy, so why couldn’t she connect to it?  Increasingly she found herself reflecting on the big decision to pick a different future.  What would life had been like if she hadn’t taken the leap Down Under?  Would she have been happier, surrounded by the familiar comforts of home?  Who would she have been?

One day she was discussing this nagging discontentment with a Welsh friend of hers.  The Welsh are a fey people, full of wisdom and spirit.  ‘Ah’, the friend said, ‘your problem is a simple one: you’re suffering from what we Welsh call hir’aeth.  It is the searching for a past, and a present, that can no longer exist … one that perhaps never really existed: except in your mind.  Yes, you’re homesick, but homesick for a place you left behind, somewhere it is now impossible to reach.  Even if you went back.  Once you know this, and accept it, you can move on’.  

And you know what, the Welshman was right.  Once she had accepted this pining for a past that doesn’t exists, or perhaps never existed, it was easier for her to embrace the future (and, for those that know me, I assure you ‘she’ is not me)! 

To me, this idea of hir’aeth is a useful one.  It can help us as we consider our own future as an Army, and the tempest of transformation that is looming on the horizon.  It is particularly useful when we consider a key part of much of what we do: our training. 

As a world-class Army, the scenarios of our major exercises are commendably rich: detailed enemies, large training areas, laser instrumented systems, and live OPFORs.  But until the most recent iterations they have remained broadly rooted in an ‘end of the 1900s’ paradigm, disturbingly similar to those I fought as a young officer at the turn of the Century.  Two imaginary countries (not alike in dignity) compete over land and resources, and one invades the other in a case of bare-faced aggression.  Acting under a UN Security Council Resolution, Army responds as part of a coalition.  We fight a conventional, largely rural, linear battle (maybe with a gesture to hybrid), in pretty much straight lines of either offence or defence.  We struggle to test our tactical or operational logistics, and have just enough enablers.  We prevail.

This ‘Foundation Warfighting’ model has stood us in fair stead this last decade, established as the image of ‘a war’ to train against.  But it is clear to all how increasing irrelevant it is.  Accelerating warfare is outpacing our training muscle memory at a remarkable rate, and the shortfalls are evident.  We struggle to train in the electro-magnetic spectrum, and in cyber-space.  We can’t replicate places like Marawi: the sprawling, urbanised, rubblised and littoral battlefield of our future.  Creating a truly hybrid OPFOR that blends the boundaries between conventional and unconventional warfare is exceptionally hard.  Army’s solution to this problem is captured in the idea of ‘training transformation’: a decade long investment to revolutionise how we train for the modern battlefield.  This investment is rightly gathering pace, rapidly.

This is where the idea of hir’aeth comes in.  Revolutionising our training is going to be hard.  Really hard.  A little bit like emigrating to another country.  We are going to need to pull apart much of the muscle memory that we have relied on for the last decade.  New ideas and scenarios will be need to be created, on different (principally archipelagic) terrain and with a new DATE-P enemy.  We’ll have to leave old friends behind, and make new relationships in strange environments.  New ideas mean we’ll fail more, and outcomes will be uncertain.  All of this will take extra energy, intellectually and physically: a precious commodity in today’s world.

As we grapple with this uncertain new future, the training of the past will look exceptionally comfortable.  It will sing a lullaby of nostalgia and simplicity that, like a Siren’s song, will be hard to resist.  We may well become homesick for it, and will look out over the forests of Shoalwater and the plains of Cultana with a wistful nostalgia for the familiar scenarios we fought for so many years.  Hir’aeth might hit us hard, especially when our doctrines and TTPs are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. 

But like my migrating friend, we’re going to have to deal with hir’aeth when it comes.  We don’t really have a choice. The world is changing around us, decisions have to be made, and we have to keep up.  In a strange way it might help to realise that the nostalgia we feel will be for a past that, in many ways, was never proven: indeed it never really existed. We never actually fought the linear Brigade or Divisional-level large-scale operations we consistently trained for: almost nobody did.  If in our heads this past promises certainty (in a ‘this is the way we used to do it’ sense), then this certainty is a fallacy.  

In the Welsh dictionary, hir’aeth is defined as, ‘a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return; a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past’.  The Australian Army faces a dangerous future, perhaps the most dangerous since the Second World War. We have to adapt, and fast. As we do so, and as we define what ‘future ready’ needs to look like, it is natural that we might yearn for a past that seemed to make much more sense. 

But we have to remember that the past is gone: indeed perhaps it never was. We can draw strength from it, but we can never go there again. Once we accept this simple fact, we will be far more able … and ready … to pull our future towards us.

Tom McDermott is a serving Australian Army officer, and a student of tactics, strategy and military ethics.  You can follow him on @helmandproject.