Travels with Des Ball

Travels with Des Ball

Professor Desmond John Ball
20 May 1947–12 October 2016

Professor Des Ball had a profound influence on many of his students, as Cam Hawker recounts.

Like many of his students, I first encountered Des in his books, namely A Suitable Piece of Real Estate, which dealt with joint 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.

With stories of his ASIO file and his profound influence not only on strategic studies as a discipline but on Australian Defence policy itself, Des seemed larger than life to me.

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 that Professor Ball’s guest lecture was not on Pine Gap or nuclear strategy, but on Burma’s ethnic insurgencies. It was a subject 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 close to his heart.

A year or so later I had the opportunity to join him for several weeks on the Thai–Burma border. That trip was the first of several I made with him to western Thailand and near the border with Myanmar. These were followed by visits to the Thai Border Patrol Police’s aerial unit at Hua Hin, the mountains of Doi Ang Kang and to Chiang Mai—punctuated by visits to bases and outposts of the Thai Border Patrol Police.

Ethnic causes

The cause of the Karen and Mon people of Myanmar, and of many other ethnic groups that Des worked with, was extremely dear to him. He took risks for them, saved lives and did things for which he will probably never receive recognition.

Des was open and happy to talk about his career, his work and his family, and was a vast repository of anecdotes and advice. 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 but to have a 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 them to be informed.

While driving him along the Mekong river near the Thai–Laos border in 2014, and knowing that his illness was causing him some discomfort, I attempted to distract him by pointing out some soldiers on the road. He 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 then 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 the Second World War. On casually mentioning that my grandmother had served in Army Signals during the war, Des and I commenced an occasional but ongoing project that shed a little more light on that history for Des and a lot more about my grandmother for me.

Forensic approach

Des’ approach to research was forensic. Fieldwork and firsthand knowledge were paramount. He was never satisfied in relying on secondary sources, preferring to get out there and confirm matters for himself.

Des was undoubtedly the best teacher I have ever had, though he was only interested in teaching students who were committed and had a level of base knowledge. Once I joined him on a visit to Thai Army Intelligence HQ where, 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 appreciated that to learn from Des was to tap into 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 became a government adviser myself, I found his guidance invaluable. When I left government to take up PhD studies, I again turned to Des. 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 he was challenging me, pushing me to refine my work and giving so much of himself. I owe a debt to him that can never be repaid.

Featured image
Desmond Ball in Waley, Thai – Burma border, 2010. Photo by Phil Thorton.

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.

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