Professor Des Ball AO 1947–2016
Written by Dr Nicholas Farrelly
Des Ball arrived at ANU in February 1965 as a 17 year-old fresh from Timboon in country Victoria. Before long, he was making his mark, academically and socially.
An early example was his arrest for “offensive behaviour” at an anti-Vietnam War rally. Although he was a member of the ANU Company of the Sydney University Regiment, he became implacably opposed to military conscription. He eventually defeated the prosecution case, setting a precedent still often taught in Australian law schools.
After finishing his undergraduate degree with a whirlwind of academic prizes, Des then made quick progress towards the completion of his ANU PhD. Under the stewardship of Professor Hedley Bull and a number of the other leading figures in the study of US nuclear strategy, he came to understand the dynamics of nuclear escalation and determined that the notion of “limited” nuclear war was fanciful.
It was that work, along with his studies of American intelligence facilities in Australia, and particularly A Suitable Piece of Real Estate published in 1980, which first made
In July 1986, the front page of the Cobden Times, his home region’s newspaper, ran the astonishing front page splash: “Timboon link with Soviet spy claims”. In the report, Des was credited with claims the Soviet Embassy in Canberra was listening to sensitive Australian communications.
By the late 1980s, he was also working on what would remain one of his unpublished works. By closely observing diplomatic facilities, he created a systematic, global survey of the era’s Russian signals intelligence capabilities.
He accumulated the materials by travelling all over the world and meticulously mapping facilities in Africa, Asia and Europe. The study was compelling and comprehensive. The big pity was the timing. Once the 528-page manuscript was completed, the Cold War was over and that horse had bolted.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Des did not rest on his laurels. From the mid-1990s he produced a unique set of studies of sensitive security matters in Thailand and Myanmar. His focus was paramilitaries and particularly the shadowy groups that fight Southeast Asia’s civil wars.
In his research, he took calculated risks, all in the interest of better serving the peaceful and democratic values that formed his personal ideology. Writing in Insurgent Intellectual, a 2012 volume that paid tribute to Des Ball’s immense academic contributions, former United States President Jimmy Carter explained how the Australian academic’s counsel helped avoid nuclear war.
So, what did Des, the strategist, make of human conflict? With his life-long study of its dire consequences, he once described himself as “almost a complete pacifist”.
It was fitting that in his final years he received the Peter Baume Award, the University’s highest recognition. He was also made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2014. At the same time, he fought valiantly against the cancer that eventually sapped his strength. He was proud he managed to keep up his output of publications right to the end. Yet he was prouder still of his family and the untiring support they offered.
With his passing, Australia has lost one of its finest public intellectuals, a humble man and original thinker whose prolific scholarship will offer great lessons to future generations.