General Peter Cosgrove, sworn in as Australia’s 26th governor-general today, is the ultimate soldier’s soldier.
He has probably done more than any other single person to raise the popular profile of the Australian military.
He reached the pinnacle as chief of the defence force.
But his springboard was East Timor where he gained enormous respect and affection as head of INTERFET, the multinational peacekeeping force during the country’s traumatic transition to independence.
In his trademark slouch hat, he was calm, authoritative and straight-talking. His care for his troops – Australian and others – and compassion for the East Timorese was palpable.
He’s told how he even ministered to army chaplains who were overwhelmed by the suffering of the local people.
He’s also said that in East Timor he enjoyed a privileged front row seat for an Australian “sunshine moment” – all the Australians troops, police and aid workers doing everything they could to help the East Timorese.
Biographer Patrick Lindsay said Cosgrove is an “Australian Everyman” who exemplifies the courage, ingenuity, compassion, larrikinism and humour that Australians admire in their diggers.
The military is in Cosgrove’s blood, with both his father and grandfather having been soldiers. And two of the three sons he and wife Lynne had together joined the army.
Born in 1947 and brought up in Paddington long before the inner Sydney suburb was gentrified, Cosgrove went to Waverley, a nearby Catholic School, and Royal Military College, Duntroon.
He was a successful, if sometimes too exuberant, allrounder. Playing squash, he almost took an eye out of future Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett.
After a posting in Malaysia, Cosgrove was sent to Vietnam in 1969.
As a 22-year-old platoon commander and, as he much later acknowledged, full of the arrogance of inexperience, he won the Military Cross for courage under fire during an assault on an enemy position.
Unlike some, he respected the Viet Cong.
“They are a skilful, courageous enemy who seeks to kill you and will do so using any device … but nonetheless I never found hatred for them,” he has said.
After Vietnam, Cosgrove rose steadily. Among his early posts was aide-de-camp to governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck.
But he was scarcely known to the outside world when he was sent to East Timor in 1999.
Among the many admirers he gained from East Timor was then prime minister John Howard, who’s widely thought to have helped to accelerate his subsequent career.
His rise to chief of army in 2000, just before he was named Australian of the year, and chief of the defence force in 2002, certainly looked fast-tracked; and some observers thought he was more effective as a commander on the ground than as a largely desk-bound top military bureaucrat.
About the only public blip on Cosgrove’s image came in 2004 when he, for what looked like political reasons, disagreed with Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty’s view about the link between terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.
Cosgrove retired – sort of – in 2005.
But the following year he was put in charge of the taskforce rebuilding north Queensland communities devastated by cyclone Larry.
Many other positions followed. They included chancellor of the Australian Catholic University and a board member of Qantas and the Australian Rugby Union.
Cosgrove is the second career soldier to be elevated to Yarralumla this century, with Howard selecting Michael Jeffery in 2003.
There are similarities – Jeffery, like Cosgrove, was a decorated Vietnam veteran who became a senior general.
But Jeffery was, outside his native Western Australia, virtually unknown; and to his great frustration was never able to change that.
Cosgrove starts his vice-regal career with a hugely bigger image, but don’t expect him to use his new position to push personal causes.
“I think your responsibility is to shine light but not to generate heat,” he said at the time of his appointment in January.
“I think you’ve got to listen a lot and take in everything you see, but you’re not a participant in the political process.”
Cosgrove once believed he wasn’t suited to the vice-regal role, even if it includes being commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces.
“If you foresee that there’s a call to arms, so to speak, as an old soldier you just get on with it.”
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