Masters takes up arms for Defence Force

Australian soldiers on the battlefield are not grappling with ''cultural issues'' and are very aware they are representing their country the veteran journalist Chris Masters says.

The Walkley Award-winning Four Corners reporter, who has spent the past six years getting closer to diggers than possibly any journalist since Vietnam, said he often struggles to reconcile media reports of alleged abuses and failings with what is happening in front of him.

Masters, the author of Jonestown, has just released Uncommon Soldier, a study of contemporary diggers.

He will speak at the National Library of Australia on Friday as part of the lunchtime talk program.

''I don't deny that there is bullying and harassment and misbehaviour and I say this in the book, but I say it shouldn't be surprising when 90 per cent of the army is male, and not just male but hyper-male,'' he said.

Masters said Australian Defence Force members were very conscious of being judged by a higher standard than that applied to other institutions and the broader community.


''But they're wearing the Australian uniform and they realise they are expected to operate to a higher level of honourable behaviour.''

Masters, who said standards of conduct within the military seemed generally higher than in the broader community, believes Defence would be better off explaining than going on the defensive when scandals broke.

''I don't think they manage their PR very well; often when these things happen you wish there would be someone who would stand up, say 'well, OK, this is wrong and we're dealing with it but here is the broad perspective'.''

He believes the military is doing a better job of stamping out poor behaviour than it is given credit for and that bad news carries more weight than good.

''Every time another scandal crops up we think 'they must be doing nothing' but that's not true; they have very strict disciplines; they put a lot of effort in - sometimes to the point where you feel they are over-reacting to things.''

A media preoccupation with military bungles over achievements meant that despite a decade of coverage of the Afghanistan war, most Australians had little or no idea what the soldiers were doing.

''When I did the two-part documentary [on the ADF in Afghanistan] for Four Corners in 2010 I was really surprised at the public reaction,'' he said. ''People were stunned because we were going out on patrol with the soldiers and we were seeing the humanitarian work; we were seeing this very different battlefield that is shaped by counter-insurgency, where there are no neutral spaces and the war is fought among the population.''

The modern army was smart, relied heavily on intelligence and did nothing without careful planning, he said.

''We haven't been able to legislate against war but one thing that has changed is that we've lost our tolerance of casualties.''

The modern diggers, like many of their forebears, were also inherently modest with kill ratios and other measures of ''achievement'' not openly discussed.

''They never talk that up [the remarkable disparity between kill ratios for the ADF and the Taliban]. I think that is to their credit actually. Some soldiers I spoke with, who do the sniping, for example, they've killed dozens and dozens of people but don't [keep] count.

''John Cantwell [Major General, who retired early this year] said to me: 'They'll kill if they have to but they won't like it.'''

''There is something in the Australian attitude that suits the peacekeeping role,'' Masters said. ''The call for courageous restraint is something they seem to be better at than a lot of people.''