If ever there was a moment that galvanised Chris Masters in his desire to write his groundbreaking fourth book, Uncommon Soldier, it was a conversation with then-Defence Chief, General Peter Leahy, now Director of the University of Canberra's National Security Institute. "He'd been working on the nine core values of the Australian soldier and he identified one of them as compassion," recalls Masters. "And I thought that was unusual, that there wouldn't be too many armies in the world that require their soldiers to kill but also require them to act in a humane way."
Masters, one of the country's most respected and awarded investigative journalists, had long suspected that the wider public, steeped in the Gallipoli myth, had not yet caught up with the contemporary on-the-ground realities of the soldier as peacekeeper, aid worker and diplomat, as well as fighter. Then he adds: "It's surprising that we'd been in Afghanistan for over a decade and there'd been nothing written about Afghanistan from the military standpoint in Australia, no real account of military operations at all. So I wanted to examine the character of the contemporary Australian Digger. We tend to look at this through history, and I wanted to use the contemporary battlefield to try to answer the question, what is so special and different about the Australian soldier?"
Six years in the making, Uncommon Soldier answers this in such detail and depth that, since its release late last year, it's become the default guide to both the contemporary Australian military and the efforts of Australian forces in Afghanistan.
Masters had to "pull out all stops" in order to break through the walls of silence that have long surrounded the Australian military, but in this probing study, which ranges from the training grounds of Kapooka and the Australian Defence Force Academy to the battlefields of Afghanistan, he has written a groundbreaking book. A must-read for all Australians, especially those opposed or indifferent to our involvement in Afghanistan, which is seen largely as such an unworthy engagement "that there's not a big emotional investment on the part of the public, and as a result they haven't taken the trouble to find out what's going on."
It's this disconnect that the Defence community feels acutely, says Masters, who gained unprecedented access to the soldiers and their families, as well as the first-ever embedment with Australia's Special Forces - which are carrying a significant weight of the mission in Afghanistan.
"The soldiers talked to me about it quite a lot; they'd come back from intense experiences, and really gave up trying to communicate what they'd been though to their close friends and family, let alone curious bystanders. It's easy to see why it (our Afghanistan engagement) doesn't make sense, but the soldiers don't have that comfort. They're there at the behest of this nation, and it's not theory for them. They have to live with an extremely difficult conflict and do their best to make it work, and I'm very much on their side in that regard."
Not that he argues the case for the Afghan conflict, but his narrative succeeds in sheeting home both the uncommon skills and characteristics of the contemporary Australian forces there, as well as their extraordinary achievements and heroism on the battlefield.
Restraint, for example, is not a trait many would associates with the military, but in a conflict where women and children are regularly press-ganged to resupply ammunition to the Taliban on the battlefield, Australians have become adept at practising what Masters calls "a courageous restraint". Integral to counter-insurgency doctrine, it is something, he says, "I think most human beings would find very, very difficult to practise, but these soldiers have, amazingly, become used to it, and there have been plenty of occasions where under extreme provocation the Australian soldiers that I worked with, demonstrated that restraint."
While Masters believes the process of transforming civilians into soldiers is something that the Australian Defence Force gets largely right, he is critical of the way its habitual secrecy has prevented any real public understanding of the Afghanistan mission.
He also maintains that little of the cleverness that goes into the forming of the soldier, which in the case of the high-value officer category can cost as much as $2 million, is seen at the back-end of the organisation, where soldiers are almost discarded.
"Sometimes when I saw an extremely experienced soldier leaving after 20 years with all those skill-sets in place, and really caring about the organisation, but them not having room for that person, it perplexed me. So it's heartless and a little bit silly too. There needs to be a lot more thinking about how we manage all this."
Masters credits his own uncommon skills as an investigative journalist to his mother, journalist and author Olga Masters. "Because she was a country-town journalist, she would say the best stories are in the human heart. She didn't really need riots and bombs going off to be able to tell a story, and in many respects my own background was the same. If you're confident about your ability to tell a story, then you're not frightened by the facts."
It's also why, in giving heart to his own investigative stories, he believes he's more inclined to allow "the invisible hand of the story" to guide the way.
And without doubt, the invisible hand guiding the writing of Uncommon Soldier was the voices of those many ordinary, but altogether uncommon Australian soldiers that he came to know.
"I can't think of anything else that has been written that actually gives them a voice," says Masters, "And I think, frankly, that they deserve that voice."
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