- Mosul, by Ben Mckelvey. Hachette, $34.99.
For some time, any book about Australian soldiers will be tinted and tainted by the war crimes allegations against certain Australians who served in Afghanistan.
This book features on the cover a stereotypical photograph of an Australian solider, kitted up, staring intently, heavily bearded, apparently sitting in a helicopter, presumably on the way to somewhere terrible. We have casually called such soldiers "warriors", but might need to re-consider that usage.
I reckon the calibre of a true warrior was established by Herodotus two and a half millennia ago.
When a Persian general tried to intimidate a Greek warrior by displaying all the swords, spears, bows and arrows at his command, the Greek responded: "if you knew anything about freedom, you would fight for it with your bare hands".
Here, Ben Mckelvey recounts recent fighting by Australians against ISIS forces in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Previously embedded with the ADF in Timor Leste and Iraq as well as travelling independently in Iran and Afghanistan, Mckelvey has written about both an Australian commando and an African "war boy".
Mckelvey chronicles Australian engagement in "the largest urban battle since World War Two". (Hue in 1968 certainly seemed larger in scale, as perhaps did Sarajevo.)
His is a "story of adventure, excitement and professional excellence", with due regard for the "attritional nature of war and killing".
That odd adjective suggests Mckelvey's sensitivity to the psychological as well as physical damage done to Australian soldiers. The book even concludes with a list of "suggested support services".
The particular soldiers on whom Mckelvey focuses are treated thoroughly and judiciously. Moreover, unable to pursue research on the ground, Mckelvey tries to illuminate the thinking of the enemy by recounting the stories of three Sydney jihadis.
The narrative is briskly told, in the as-though-you-were-there style associated with Peter Fitzsimons. Mckelvey provides clear, succinct explanations of tactics and equipment, including a "strike room", bio-enabling corpses and cobalt 60.
His review of the fate of Syrian Christians is especially touching.
Counter-terrorism tracking in Australia and campaigns in Afghanistan take up a lengthy prelude; planning for the Mosul operation, off the road to Bungendore, begins only on p.173.
This account of Australians in combat might have benefited from introduction of more narrative voices, on both sides, as well as a more extended appraisal of just what we actually achieved.