By Chris Masters
Allen & Unwin, $49.99, pp. 400
In military matters, separating fact from fiction and reality from legend is a difficult task. These days, when any military involvement is inevitably obscured by political attacks and media soundbites, it is even harder. So it is refreshing to find a journalist who is willing to delve deep into the issue, even willing to get his hands dirty by getting into the field.
Chris Masters is better known as a television journalist, but Uncommon Soldier, the result of six years of research, shows that he can write as well and keep to his subject rather than be distracted by partisan sideshows.
His central motivation for the book, he says, is that the broad public does not really understand much about modern soldiering. The ADF within Australia is mainly in the news when there is a scandal or a problem, and the news from overseas is usually framed in terms of casualties. Masters does not deny the downside but emphasises that there is much more to the story.
He begins the story at the logical start, with the training process. It is undeniably tough, but not designed as a punishment: the point is to prepare people for the job and to build co-operative units. After the basics, some recruits go into specialist roles, and others are offered officer training. There is an acknowledgement that even rough diamonds can eventually shine.
It cannot be said that the ADF does not learn from experience. It has even developed simulated battlefields and environments to prepare soldiers for service in Afghanistan, and a series of peace-keeping missions have been carefully studied. A distinctive feature of the Australian military, compared with other countries, is the responsibility given to soldiers of lower rank: even corporals can call in air strikes. There is, of course, a chain of command, but initiative is expected right down the line.
And in the Afghanistan battles recounted by Masters, this point comes through. The Australian soldiers were known for their willingness to take the fight to the Taleban’s door, and then to kick it in. At the same time, most soldiers did their best to avoid civilian casualties. Not easy, when women start shooting at you and ten-year-olds act as spotters for insurgent snipers.
Masters had to do some training before he was ‘embedded’, and given that he is twice the age of many of the soldiers his persistence is admirable. He also showed commendable patience, slowly building relationships.
Getting to know the Special Forces was a particular challenge, as they tend to be disdainful of anyone outside their circle, and much of their work is by definition secret. But Masters managed to get to know them well enough to tell some personal stories and to put the Special Forces into the wider context of the conflict. In fact, the Special Forces have done a disproportionate share of the work, although this might be due to the irregular nature of the war.
The key role of the Special Forces, and their culture of insularity, might also be why the public attitude to the Afghanistan conflict is so different from the reality on the ground. Masters suggests that the ADF does not do enough communicating with the public, and the vacuum tends to be filled with stories of injuries and funerals. For their part, the soldiers on the ground insist that they are making a positive difference, both on the battlefield and in building a country, and they are often puzzled as to why that is not understood back home.
Masters also points out that many journalists do not want to commit to such a long, difficult story. And the media organisations do not make it easy: Masters wryly notes that the ABC has a reduced travel allowance for journalists in Afghanistan.
A recurring theme is that the Afghans often seem like their own worst enemy. There is a quagmire of tribal allegiances and feuds, and corruption is endemic at every level of government. As for the Afghan police and army, there are good ones and bad ones, but telling the difference is a difficult trick.
This has brutally become obvious with the growing incidence of ‘green on blue’ killings, when Afghan soldiers turned on those who were there to help and train them. For Masters, this was a pivotal point, as if the country was telling the foreigners to go home. It might not be entirely logical but, somehow, it feels right.
The current status of the mission depends on who you ask. Certainly, most of the soldiers see it as a success, with the Taliban beaten back and drastically reduced as a political and paramilitary force. Whether this ground-level view will match the big picture can only be answered, perhaps, in the long run. There is a nagging thought that one day we will have to do this all again, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
But for the moment, Masters has delivered a remarkable piece of work. At a time when too many books are aimed at the quickie bestseller market, he offers the weight of history and a human face. He might not get a medal from it — those should go to the people he talks about — but he deserves respect.
Derek Parker is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.