BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
In-depth picture of Australian army life
, May 24, 2014
Brave, Compassionate and Tough, the Making of Australia’s Modern Diggers
by Chris Masters
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 374 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Virtually every Australian reading this News Weekly review is related to someone who has, at some stage, been a member of the armed forces. Typically, this is a grandfather or great-grandfather or uncle who might have served in World War I or World War II.
However, ask the average person what it is actually like to be a soldier in the modern Australian army, and their vague conception is more likely to have been gleaned from watching one too many blockbuster movies about American soldiers than from talking to current or recent-serving Australian members.
Gold Walkley award-winning journalist Chris Masters, whose previous works include the bestselling Jonestown (2006), describes in detail the life of the modern soldier, going beyond the myths and stereotypes.
His book begins, appropriately, by describing the selection process and recruit-training for privates, and ends by describing the experience of soldiers leaving full-time service and returning to civilian life.
These days, those joining the army as privates come from a variety of backgrounds. Not all of them are necessarily young; a significant proportion of them are in their late 20s to early 30s.
One recent development is the number of recruits who are university-educated.
Masters also describes the selection and training process for officers. There are two streams: the ADFA stream in which training takes place over four years and is combined with a degree, and the direct-entry stream of 18 months, taken by those who have completed, or else have no intention of pursuing, university studies.
The bulk of the book describes operations in Afghanistan over the past decade. Masters provides the most realistic account this reviewer has read of the experience of a soldier on deployment.
He describes in detail not only some of the skirmishes, but also the actions that have won Australian soldiers high military honours such as the Victoria Cross. Special mention is made of two recent VC recipients.
Trooper Mark Donaldson VC, a member of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), who has served in Afghanistan, was decorated for conspicuous gallantry after he exposed himself to enemy fire to protect injured troops and rescue an interpreter.
Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG, who also served in the SASR during the War in Afghanistan, was decorated for his actions in 2006, and again in 2010, making him the most highly decorated currently serving member of any defence force in the Commonwealth.
Masters acknowledges that his book’s contribution in this area fills a void in current reading material, as accounts of Australian military personnel serving overseas are under-reported in the media.
Masters also discusses some of the ways in which Australian troops have interacted with the local Afghan people.
One thing that emerges clearly from this work is that the image of the Australian soldier, grounded in the Anzac story, is essentially true to form.
The men Masters met and interviewed were tough and resilient, particularly in the face of danger. They were also extremely loyal to their fellow serving soldiers. In many instances, they risked their own safety to save the lives of comrades wounded on the battlefield.
However, they also struggle to balance the demands of military service with those of family life. For many, deployment means absence from their wives when their children are born.
Other strains of defence life on marriage include moving interstate every few years, with the result that children often attend four or five different schools in different states. Pressures like these often either cause marriage break-ups or serving members to leave the army.
Masters also explores the reputation the Australian army has for bullying and bastardisation.
He argues that the training of general-entry soldiers and officer cadets no longer involves methods that permit harassment of trainees.
Equally, however, Masters does not shy away from recent episodes that have soiled the army’s reputation, such as the misconduct in April 2011 by officer cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA).
Uncommon Soldier is a thoroughly researched, well-written and fascinating account of the life of a modern Australian soldier.
The book is based largely on interviews with current and former serving soldiers who were prepared to speak frankly about their experiences to Masters, after he had first gained their respect.
This is particularly evident in the observations Masters makes about the War in Afghanistan.
His accounts are also interspersed with anecdotes and entertaining — and often “eye-opening” — vignettes.
It is entirely fitting that Uncommon Soldier was short-listed for the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award — Non-Fiction.