No Front Line: Australia’s Special Forces at War in Afghanistan
By Chris Masters | Allen and Unwin | $34.99 | 608 pages
Chris Masters’s new book about the army’s special forces in Afghanistan has attracted controversy for all the wrong reasons. Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith has taken offence at the account of a battlefield incident in which he was involved. Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson has gone further, questioning whether a book that raises troubling questions about the special forces should be written at all. The book pulls down heroes, he thinks, and publication may not be in the national interest.
Roberts-Smith’s reaction to Masters’s reporting of his role in the killing of an Afghan teenager suspected of working with the Taliban is puzzling. Masters doesn’t pass judgement on our most famous soldier; instead, he highlights the moral ambiguity confronting soldiers on an unforgiving and opaque battlefield, where there’s no front line — and, often, no clear distinction between civilian and combatant.
Nelson’s reaction is more than troubling. In fact, it’s extraordinary, given he was a defence minister in the government that sent the army to Afghanistan and now heads a respected national institution that aims to help Australians understand the Australian experience of war. Understanding requires knowledge — something that’s lacking in community perceptions of our longest war.
There are plenty of reasons this important book should ignite controversy. It contains insights and revelations that should prompt national reflection — among politicians who sent our soldiers to war with ill-defined aims, among the officers who trained and led them, and in the community that stubbornly lacks curiosity about what has been done in its name.
Australians have an image of what soldiers do and what they are like, but little real knowledge. Soldiers are venerated as the embodiment of national values. They are the focus of our national day of commemoration. They are commonly either seen as heroes — the dashing diggers of the Anzac legend — or pitied as victims. Either way, they are reduced to myth-shrouded caricatures.
Masters shares the national respect for soldiers, but his view is informed by experience and research. He spent three extended reporting assignments with the army in Afghanistan, including one stint with the special forces — the only Australian journalist given such access. He has interviewed hundreds of participants and his research is based on unprecedented access to official sources. No Front Line is a multidimensional story, underpinned not by pity but by empathy.
The special forces — comprising the Special Air Service Regiment, or SASR, the commandos and the combat engineers — were the sharp end of Australia’s combat role in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013. Over that period, groups of 300 to 400 soldiers rotated in and out of Afghanistan on four-to-six month “tours,” twenty-three rotations in all. Some went back more than half a dozen times. They were overused, perhaps because of their political appeal. Their advanced skills meant they were more likely to survive and, as a senior officer told Masters, if they didn’t survive, the “public seem to better accept the loss of a thirty-year-old career warrior over someone who had only begun to shave.”
Those who like reading about the battlefield feats of individual heroes will relish this book. There’s lots of gunplay with all kinds of weaponry, close shaves, and dense thickets of military jargon. Masters recounts stories of desperate and ferocious combat, where the Taliban enemy was sometimes just a metre away. Courage was commonplace; on occasion, the fighting was hand-to-hand. The troops exchanged fire in 3000 separate incidents. Some survived combat with their uniforms and backpacks shredded with bullet holes. Little wonder that some went into battle expecting to die. As one soldier put it to Masters, “To win you have to fight like you are already dead.”
The Australian Defence Force says this was the most sustained and intense combat faced by the army since the second world war. Of the forty-two Australians killed in Afghanistan, twenty-one were from the special forces. Their battlefield achievements, skill and courage can’t be denied. Not that it mattered in the end, but they inflicted a massive toll on their opponents, accounting for most of the up to 5000 enemy killed by Australians.
Masters gives voice to the best of the special forces, who were thinkers as well as fighters. Many respected the fighting ability, discipline and determination of their opponents. After one close encounter, one Australian reflected on the arrogance of Westerners with all their technology: “We think we can’t be beaten and it is a shock to learn somebody incredibly motivated with a cheap weapon and a willingness to fight you at close range can nullify all those advantages.” While some Australians were inspired by the belief that they were fighting “bad people,” few said patriotism propelled them onto the battlefield. Some fought because they liked fighting.
The Australians had conflicting views of their largely illiterate, dope-smoking allies in the Afghan National Army. They were also divided over the merits of their alliance with Afghan militia forces led by local warlord Mattiullah Khan. For some, working with Mattiullah was a necessary compromise with the “Afghan way”; others were more troubled, seeing him as little more than a gangster who was suspected of dealing in opium and even cooperating with the Taliban. His militiamen were seen as wild and reckless cowboys.
Running through No Front Line is an internal conflict within and between the major elements of the special forces — the SASR and the commandos. Masters reveals a sometimes toxic relationship that went beyond normal intra-army rivalry. They squabbled over equipment, and sometimes fought among themselves “over women, to release frustration, to settle grudges and for fun.” Some in the SASR thought the commandos weren’t up to the job. In turn, the commandos felt patronised.
Tensions erupted when an SASR trooper was perceived to have shown a lack of respect after a ceremony for a commando who had been killed in action. Grievances festered, sometimes over who received bravery medals and who didn’t. Some officers faced insubordination as mateship replaced leadership. Lionised as elite super soldiers, some felt they were a law unto themselves. The longer the war went on, the harder some of the men became, and the harder it became to maintain morale.
Masters partly attributes this erosion in discipline and morale to the impossible task the special forces were given in a war in which strategy was muddled or non-existent, where aims shifted and rules were unclear. They fought in a remote and backward rural area where their guerilla enemies were often indistinguishable from civilians. As Masters notes, “Wars fought in homes and neighbourhoods more than usually enervate human decency.” In such an environment there’s “barely definable space between the so-called good guys and the bad guys.”
At the centre of their task was something called the joint prioritised effects list, or JPEL, which recorded Taliban figures to be killed or captured. As the war dragged on, it was more the former than the latter, since captured Taliban fighters were often released and returned to the fight. In effect, the JPEL became a hit list. Individual soldiers kept tallies of their personal body counts, even as more thoughtful soldiers recognised that the killings made no strategic difference and judged a successful mission to be one where no shots were fired at all.
They operated in an ethical and legal grey zone where unintended civilian casualties were inevitable, where the Australians felt they had all the rules and the enemy had none, where civilian casualties inflicted in the chaos of close combat were subjected to clinical official inquiries conducted in ignorance of the fact that battle “is a complete and utter mess.” The soldiers faced a constant struggle to define what was defensible conduct in a “morally vexing mission.” This is a more complex and nuanced picture than the preferred narrative of the heroic digger. As Masters puts it, “Between the story of the evil of war and regard for the sacred digger is a vast no man’s land of raw truth.”
The JPEL target list made it worse. It pushed “kill/capture missions into the shadows of the law of armed conflict,” he writes. “Kinetic strikes on JPEL objectives did not require the targets to be either armed or demonstrating lethal intent. Frustrations with the catch and release [system] may well have advanced a rationale to opt for the kill rather than capture option.”
A gap emerged, says Masters, between what some soldiers considered acceptable and what their commanders knew to be intolerable. In this murky environment, a thoughtful soldier questioned “what are we doing here?” and “what have I become?” Captives were killed trying to escape, some soldiers were rumoured to have been advised to kill prisoners, weapons were allegedly planted on dead suspects, one soldier was said to have thrown the rule book “off a cliff,” and evidence accumulated of suspected extrajudicial killings.
All of these stories are now the subject of an inquiry, initiated by army chiefs and conducted by the inspector-general of the Australian Defence Forces. Brendan Nelson has questioned the need for this inquiry, too, but Masters has heard enough to believe the inspector-general will be kept busy.
Masters believes a full telling of the special forces story will recognise their achievements, secured through good intent and extreme personal risk, in carrying out an impossible task imposed upon them by “democratic Australia.” Masters doesn’t absolve individual soldiers who “surrendered moral authority,” but he hopes that “fault can rest more broadly than on those who carried the most weight of this long and losing war.”
Implicit in Masters’s hope is the expectation that those who sent them to war will shoulder some of the blame. What chance? ●