Uncommon soldier by Chris Masters
Sydney : Allen & Unwin, 2012 ISBN 9781741759716
Here in Australia we don't hear or see much of what our troops are doing in Afghanistan. We don't have embedded reporters, and our Defence Department is not good at the media stuff. These are but two reasons why this book is a valuable addition to the military literature of Australia. Unlike other countries such as the USA, there has never been a broad tradition in Australia of the military life being an honourable pursuit: while the public as a whole generally respect members of our armed forces, they are not usually lauded or seen as exemplars of patriotism. The Army has historically been seen as a career of last resort for many.
Chris Masters, a former television journalist, has written this book to look into the current state of the Army, in particular its success in Afghanistan, and its failures at home, whether it be the rolling scandals that periodically embroil its training institutions, or its inability to hold on to its best and brightest.
Masters has been one of the few Australian journalists who has spent time in Afghanistan with our troops, and had the fortune - in a journalistic sense - to be with them through periods of intense action, which resulted in the deaths of several soldiers.
The Afghanistan sections of this book are based on the stories he shot for 4 Corners, and are none the worse for that. Because we see and hear so little of what goes on, his descriptions of battle after battle, where the Australians were by no means in the ascendancy, is gripping and quite shocking. It seems that it is the same few men being placed in harms way time after time: Masters only touches on what mental toll this might take in future years.
He describes the political and social side of this war well; a side where we must ally ourselves with some less than savory characters, and apply extraordinary discretion in our use of deadly force, which is something with which the Taliban don't concern themselves. He also points out that most of our troops consider they are "winning", which given that many of them have been there over the course of many years, they might be in a good position to judge.
Interspersed between the descriptions of battle are chapters that look at training, home life and wives and partners. these are interesting, but sometimes I had the feeling some of the chapters were there for padding - they didn't connect that well with the rest of the book. The last chapter looked at the problems within the current army, and perhaps could have been expanded beyond Masters' own (completely valid) thoughts, with some commentary from current and former troops, and with some options on remedial actions.
Masters use of soldiers slang was occasionally jarring, and inconsistent. It might have been a better editorial tactic to keep the slang within the soldier's quotes, and for the author's 'voice' to be more civilian.
Despite these minor quibbles, this is an important book, and well worth a read. It will change your view of the Afghanistan campaign, and maybe even of the Australian Army.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell