Des Ball had a profound impact on many of his students. Cam Hawker reflects on his time travelling with the acclaimed scholar throughout Southeast Asia.
Professor Desmond John Ball
20 May 1947–12 October 2016
There have already been several wonderful tributes on the death of Professor Desmond John Ball AO FAIIA made by his contemporaries, and people who knew him for much if not all of his distinguished career. Having only known Des since 2009 I cannot add much to these. I can however, speak of Des a mentor, a travel companion and a most unique friend.
Like many of his students, I first encountered Des in his books, namely A Suitable Piece of Real Estate which dealt withjoint Australian – American intelligence facilities, a subject which he pioneered. From this I knew that Des was a figure of some renown and more than a little mystery.
Indeed, he seemed a larger than life figure to me with stories of his ASIO file, and his profound influence not only on strategic studies as a discipline but on Australian Defence policy itself. There was also his work in the secret recesses of the American nuclear machine and Jimmy Carter’s description of him as the ‘man who saved the world’.
So arriving in Canberra in early 2009 to study in the master’s program at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, it came as a surprise Professor Ball’s guest lecture was not on Pine Gap or nuclear strategy, but on Burma’s ethnic insurgencies. It was a subject that I knew little about but which I was soon to learn had become not only a major area of Des’ research but also a cause very close to his heart.
A year or so after this, still only knowing him a little, but befriending two of his students Shahriman Lockman and Sheryn Lee, I had the opportunity to join Des for several weeks on the Thai Burma border. Des’ trips were already legendary. I had heard stories of students enrolling and not returning having taking up arms with local insurgent groups. There was a sense of adventure.
That trip was the first of several I made with him to Mae Sot, in western Thailand and near to Myanmar, and the surrounding areas. These were followed by visits to the Thai Border Patrol Police’s ariel unit at Hua Hin, the mountain of Doi Ang Kang and many nights in the shabby comfort of the Night Bazaar Inn in Chiang Mai – all the while punctuated by visits to bases and outposts of the Thai Border Patrol Police (BPP)
Des discussed much though not all of his work in that part of the world in various interviews prior to his death. This was also covered extremely well by Phil Thornton in his chapter of Insurgent Intellectual. One day the full story will be told. What I can say is that the cause of the Karen, the Mon and that many other ethnic groups that Des worked with was extremely dear to him. He took risks for them. He did things for which he will probably never receive recognition and he saved lives.
It was on these trips, during long drives through the mountains of Thailand that I first really got to know Des. I found him to be open and happy to talk, about his career, his work and family. Des was a vast repository of anecdotes and advice. The conversation could vary from his habit of attending Hedley Bull’s dinner parties bare footed — he never understood what the fuss was about — to the requirements for Australia’s new submarine fleet, to where to find a really good duck curry be it in Canberra or the remoter parts of Thailand.
The trips weren’t holidays. Itineraries were prepared months in advance. Once we were on the road photographs and field notes were taken and visits documented.
I quickly learnt that background reading was essential not only for the trips themselves but to have a really good discussion with Des. He expected you to know what you were talking about and though he was happy to answer your questions he expected those to be informed ones. In December 2014 while driving him along the Meekong river near the Thai-Laos border and knowing that his illness was causing him some discomfort I attempted to distract him by pointing out some soldiers on the road. Des replied that these were not soldiers but Thai Army Rangers, the Thahan Phran which he wrote about in the Boys in Black. Had I done my reading?
By this stage I had begun to read more of Des’ work including Breaking the Codes, his and David Horner’s expose of Soviet spy networks in Australia during World War II. On casually mentioning that my grandmother had served in Army Signals during the war Des and I commenced an occasional but ongoing project which shed a little more light on that history for Des and a lot more about my grandmother for me. It was also the first time I was able to observe Des at work up close. His approach to research was forensic. Fieldwork and firsthand knowledge was paramount. For example, Des’ extensive knowledge of antennas, radio and encrypted communication was largely self-taught. He was never satisfied in relying on secondary sources, preferring to get out there and confirm matters for himself.
Back in Australia I got to know Des’ family. Along with the Collingwood Football Club and his dogs, they were his great love. I count myself fortunate that they opened their home to me.
Des was undoubtedly the best teacher I have ever known though he was really only interested in teaching students who were committed and had some level of base knowledge — as such he was more inclined toward PhD supervision than the undergraduate lecture theatre. I once joined him on a visit to Thai Army Intelligence HQ where although he was already suffering the effects of his illness he gave an impromptu lecture on the art of intelligence assessment to a group of young officers. Over time I began to appreciate that to learn from Des was to tap in to a vast tradition of scholarship and public policy that included the likes of Hedley Bull, Coral Bell and Sir John Crawford. Like Bell, Des had little interest in scholarship that was cloistered, preferring policy relevant work.
When I went on to become a government adviser myself I found his guidance to be invaluable. I again turned to Des when I left government to take up PhD studies. In doing so I followed the example of many students so I am certainly not unique though I was perhaps the last. Des taught me the same approach to reading, note taking and filing that he used himself. We kept working together as long as we could. Even as his illness advanced Des was challenging me, pushing me to refine my work and giving so much of himself. In that sense I owe a debt to him that can never be repaid.
Des will always be known for the vast body of work that he leaves behind. This is only right but I think he should also be known for the many people, some students but others not, whom he mentored across the years. These include both Australian and international people and are too numerous to name but I know he was immensely proud of them. That he was so generous with them is a great credit to him. There will never be another Des if for no other reason that today’s universities do not nurture their academics in the same way that allowed Des to pursue such a wide ranging career. That is a shame but I hope at least that his spirit, his approach to scholarship and to life itself lives on both in his work and in his students.
Des’ illness was always in the background for the time that I knew him. For a long time it was to me at least a somewhat abstract thing as he continued to work and travel in the same way, but it was never far away and as time went by it grew ever closer. Because of it I never took him for granted. I savoured every moment that we spent together. I know that others felt the same way. Although my sorrow at his loss is tempered by a sense of relief at the end of his suffering, I like everyone who knew him, will miss him terribly. He was a very rare person, a remarkable scholar, and incredible friend and mentor.
Cam Hawker is a PhD candidate at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy where he also works as a Government Relations Adviser. Cam was previously a Defence Adviser to the Coalition Government. A shorter version of this article was also published at Asian Currents.
The Australian National University is holding a public memorial service for Des Ball today.