Born of Fire and Ash Australian operations in response to the East Timor crisis 1999–2000 by Professor Craig Stockings – Video & Book Review

As a participant in the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET), I have eagerly awaited this volume.

While it has been 23 years since we first deployed I am gratified by the result. While some sections of the narrative are personally confronting, for the first time in 23 years I am learning what was happening around me both in East Timor and up and down the various chains of command; and it is quite a frightening story. Craig Stockings has weaved a narrative that the blurb describes as an “honest, challenging and compelling account”. My view is that it is comprehensive (as you would expect), dispassionate (as you would hope) and confronting account (which is why a 23-year wait has made it more bearable).

Born of Fire and Ash is the first volume in the landmark Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. It covers the 1999–2000 East Timor crisis and Australia’s response to it. Necessarily, it provides a significant amount of background information and examines the activities of the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), Operation Spitfire and Operation Stabilise/Warden (INTERFET).

Stockings has been the Official Historian and general editor of the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor since 2016. Prior to this appointment, Stockings was an officer in the Australian Army and professor of history at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, working out of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

In 2015 the Abbott Government authorised the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor, allocating A$12.6 million to the project which was to be based out of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The series was created to document Australian involvement in the peacekeeping initiatives in East Timor from 1999 to 2012, along with the operations in the Middle East as part of the Afghanistan War (2001–21) and the Iraq War (2003–11).

The position of Official Historian and general editor of the series, to be ongoing for six years, was advertised in June 2015 and Craig Stockings’ appointment was announced in February 2016. Stockings’ first task was to define the scope and structure of the series and employ a team of authors and researchers. The structure as of March 2018 is a six-volume history, with two volumes dedicated to the operations in East Timor, three on Afghanistan, and one on Iraq. The remit Stockings received from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on accepting the appointment of Official Historian was clear that the history be delivered “by July 2022”.

Stockings is the author of the first of the East Timor volumes, while five other historians—each assisted by a full-time researcher—have been employed to write the other books in the series. In 2017, Stockings remarked that there were “significant differences” between his project and previous Australian official history series. The budget for the project is much larger than that afforded to previous histories, though as Stockings notes the timeline is also “extremely tight” and the series subject to “firm governance frameworks”.

While research and writing continued apace, in November 2019 it was reported that Stockings had threatened to resign as official historian due to his frustration over the large number of changes requested to the first volume on East Timor by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The dispute over the book’s content had delayed its publication.

The published version certainly doesn’t cover DFAT in glory, but neither does it shy from significant criticism of the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force. Stockings provides a ‘warts and all’ account that would be useful as a “lessons learned” type document, but given the passage of 23 years, it won’t perform that function and will simply be an account of many, many ‘stuff ups’.

Australia’s involvement in East Timor from 1999–2000 was this nation’s largest mission conducted under United Nations auspices, the single largest deployment of ADF personnel since the Second World War and an instrumental part of Timor-Leste gaining its independence. Critically, it was also one not nestled within a larger or lead nation’s logistics and administrative support, and also the first time Australia had led such a large multi-national force. In short, INTERFET was Australia’s most complex politico-strategic challenge, at least since the 1940s.

Written from classified government sources and bolstered by hundreds of interviews with veterans and stakeholders, Stockings pulls no punches. He tackles the good alongside the bad, successes and failures, to chart a complex ‘truth’ unknown to most Australians, then and now. But official histories rarely make Christmas reading lists so I suspect the vast majority of readers will be participants. In time, historians will refer to the document and one of their first questions will be “what did they learn and what did they change as a result?” While Stockings points to some institutional changes as a result of the experience (such as the formation of HQ Joint Operations Command) he states that “it is beyond the scope of this study to trace in any depth what lessons were or were not implemented within the ADF in the decade following”. Subsequent volumes of this official history may indeed reveal that little enduring change resulted as the ADF pretty much reverted back into its comfort zone of niche elements deployed in support of US-led coalitions after the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. As we did in August 1999, the idea that Australia would step-up to lead a multi-national coalition (with all that entails) is now regarded as highly unlikely if not impossible.

There are a significant number of tables, charts and images to assist the reader. As you would expect timelines, footnotes and references are comprehensive. One must wonder, however, that interviews conducted sometimes decades after the events are an accurate and reliable source; but I am sure the author, as a professional historian, has used quotes to simply illustrate facts confirmed from multiple sources.

It is tremendous that Born of Fire and Ash has finally been published. The fact that it took 23 years to be published is lamentable, but one hopes that the remaining volumes follow in quick succession from now.

Reviewed by Marcus Fielding

New South Publishing; 2022; 976 pp.; ISBN9781742236230; RRP $99.00 (hardback)

Contact Marcus Fielding about this article.

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