A soldier on patrol in Afghanistan, where Chris Masters sees an uncertain aftermath.
By Chris Masters
Allen & Unwin, $49.99
IF YOU read only one book related to Anzac Day between now and April 25, make it Uncommon Soldier. After six years of writing and hundreds of interviews, Chris Masters has produced a fair-minded, clear-eyed study of the contemporary Australian Army, describing everything from the basic training of recruits through to retirement from the military.
To Masters' credit, the book feels much more comprehensive and detailed than is suggested just by its number of pages.
Masters, who has visited the front line in Afghanistan more than once, is a highly regarded investigative reporter best known for his work at the ABC's Four Corners. His previous book, Jonestown, which profiles the controversial Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones, attracted considerable praise.
In Uncommon Soldier, he delves into the professional and personal lives of the soldiers, their achievements, setbacks and tragedies. Among the most poignant passages are those that tell of soldiers killed or maimed and the impact such terrible events have on their families.
Masters notes that writing the book meant chipping away at the wall of silence that normally surrounds the Australian military. ''One obstacle is historic,'' he explains. ''The Australian Defence Force's default position in its dealings with the media is caution. Another explanation is cultural. Australians, unlike Americans in particular, don't perform on cue.''
Masters made the most of contacts, among them former Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston, whom Masters respects for his candour during the ''children overboard'' affair.
Implicit in the approach Masters takes to his subject is that a distinction needs to be made between the decisions made by politicians in relation to the deployment of Australian troops and the conduct of the soldiers themselves. ''I am by and large an unapologetic admirer of the Australian soldier, mostly seeing soldiering as something the country gets right,'' he declares.
But he does express certain reservations about the enduring value of the Gallipoli myth of blood sacrifice, a scepticism he says is shared by the army leadership. The modern professional Australian Army has moved far beyond providing colonial cannon fodder.
Like each of its allies, Australia has its own military command structure and chooses its own rules of engagement. Also, modern soldiering is tied to the idea of providing humanitarian assistance to the local population in addition to the unavoidable task of killing the enemy before he kills you. Masters acknowledges that Australian soldiers and the military way of doing things have never been perfect. He notes that mateship of the kind that occasions so many platitudes in this country is common among soldiers throughout the world who depend on each other for survival.
Among the positive characteristics of the Australian military, in Masters' view, are an underlying egalitarianism and a can-do attitude. The Australian Army is replete with quiet achievers who genuinely want to make a difference, its soldiers not class-defined like the British, nor as reliant on sheer firepower as the Americans. Masters reckons that the best Australian soldiers are among the finest in the world.
There is room in Uncommon Soldier for some reflection on the personal and professional demands that covering war makes on journalists. According to Masters, part of the challenge of choosing to cover the war in Afghanistan is financial: ''The highly remunerated jobs in journalism are not generally associated with risk taking.''
For the journalist re-entering quiet, largely uninformed suburban Australia, having just witnessed the stark reality of the conflict in Afghanistan gives rise to the ''dissonance of returning from a war zone. You ask yourself, how can people get so hyped up about a horse race or petrol prices?''
Masters' visits to Afghanistan acquainted him with the wide cultural gap that exists between that country and the West, especially in aspects such as the habitual treatment by men of women and children. In strictly military terms, the difficulty of the terrain and the cunning and ruthlessness of the Taliban make the conflict pervasive: ''As you often hear, in Afghanistan there is no front line: the killing happens everywhere.''
The foreign forces operating in Afghanistan have had to adapt to a landscape that the local population has inhabited since time immemorial, developing complex tribal and ethnic allegiances and enmities as well as an apparently innate situational awareness. As one soldier observes, the native Afghans could look at a mountain ''and see what we could not''.
Perhaps even more relevant to the eventual outcome of the current conflict than sense of place is the fundamental difference in world view between the foreign soldiers and the insurgents. Masters writes: ''The swift, violent, on again, off again clashes also have a temporal dimension. The Taliban would say: 'They have the watches, we have the time'.''
Masters sees the approaching aftermath of the war as uncertain, with the management of the withdrawal of the Australian forces requiring the kind of ingenuity that is the essential, albeit not widely recognised, truth behind the legend of Anzac.
''Efforts to ensure the Afghans provide their own security has seen a mass of weaponry enter the hands of people who do not easily give up their hatred for one another. As at Gallipoli, we need to be cleverer in getting out than we were at getting in.''