Unearthing the truth about the Digger legend

Forces to reckon with ... Chris Masters draws on his trips to report on Australians fighting in Afghanistan.
Forces to reckon with ... Chris Masters draws on his trips to report on Australians fighting in Afghanistan.

For years, Chris Masters had been pondering the reality of the Australian soldier down the ages.

For him, it was a ''quarrel'' with himself: ''an adolescent temptation to see the Aussie Digger as principled and heroic endured alongside a questioning of the evidence and concern about a stretching of the truth''.

With this in mind, he notes some contradictions in the Diggers story.

In World War I, the Australians' scaling of the heights of Mount St Quentin in France and overwhelming the German defenders was called by one British general the most outstanding feat of arms of the war. Yet, the Australians had the highest desertion rate among Allied forces in the war.

In World War II, during the Kokoda campaign, one battalion offered ''brave and stubborn resistance'' at Isurava, whereas many in another battalion ''dropped their weapons and ran''.

Uncommon Soldier is largely the result of Masters, one of Australia's leading investigative journalists, drawing on his three trips to Afghanistan with film crews during the past few years to gather material for two documentaries for the ABC and one for Channel Ten on the Australian soldiers' involvement in the fight against the Taliban and insurgents there.

However, he also deals briefly with Australia's participation in Somalia and East Timor, primarily as peacekeepers. Masters draws, too, on his interviews with mainly army personnel, usually officers and NCOs, looks at soldier and officer training and aspects of army culture.

Until reading this book, I was under the impression the Australian Army's role in the Afghanistan war was mainly a defensive one: keeping secure areas safe and generally helping society continue operating as normally as possible in its region of influence, Uruzgan province, from its base at Tarin Kowt. It does this, of course, as well as building some infrastructure and helping with medical issues. But what I didn't know was just how proactive and aggressive are the Australians in the fighting. Special Forces, in particular, often go out into the province seeking and confronting Taliban and insurgent forces in what can turn into fierce battles.

Such operations, sometimes with US forces and, while they were still in Afghanistan, the Dutch, often come about when Taliban leaders are thought to be in a particular village or compound, the aim being to kill or capture them. The Australians were rather ambivalent about their Dutch comrades, who would strictly follow the International Security Assistance Force's combat guidelines and not go into areas where civilians might be endangered, thus hindering an operation. The Australians seem to be more flexible on this issue.

Masters's recounting of a number of Australian combat operations alone, or with its allies, more lately also sometimes including Afghan National Army soldiers, is informative and vivid but, unfortunately, highly confusing at times. This is because he uses acronyms so often, you cannot always recollect what they stand for. An example: ''… the mission for SOTG remained … FE Alpha, the SASR, would …'' Although all this can be worked out from the index, a list of acronyms and what they stand for, easily found at the front or back of the book, would have been invaluable.

Nonetheless, difficult as it sometimes is to follow events, an overall picture emerges. For Masters, the contemporary Digger is a ''strategic'' soldier, requiring ''a range of skills: driver, signaller, medic, rifleman''. He or she may be required to be protector, peacekeeper, street diplomat, aid worker or war fighter, depending on the given circumstances.

And ''without a doubt'', he concludes in this particularly relevant work, they are ''uncommon soldiers''.

Uncommon Soldier Chris Masters (Allen & Unwin, $49.99)

This story Unearthing the truth about the Digger legend first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.