No Front Line – Australia’s Special Forces at War in Afghanistan by Chris Masters – Book Review

This long book – 594 pages – deals with Australia’s war in Afghanistan from October 2001 to July 2012. During this time the author was attached to those forces and could report on them subject to censorship by the Australian Defence Force.
Unlike earlier wars, Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has received little day-to-day reporting and less serious attempts to relate their history. The Vietnam War is a case in point. The Australian public received frequent accounts of what its armed services were doing in the conflict together with the sad news of the casualties suffered. The media received a regular flow of press releases. Sometimes these were informative; sometimes they verged on the stupid. Nevertheless, it could be said that the Defence Force communicated with its most important electorate, the people who sent their soldiers, sailors, and airmen into conflict. Day-to-day releases did not threaten the military security of the forces involved.

Allen & Unwin 2017 Paperback 594pp RRP: $34.99
Allen & Unwin 2017
Paperback 594pp RRP: $34.99

The Defence Department states that there are currently over 1300 of our troops deployed to the Middle East. Most, if not all, are in harm’s way. There is little reported on their activities, except for reporting of casualties. Since the Vietnam era a veil of secrecy has descended. Of course, operational security is an imperative. However, the public knows very little indeed of the activities of these deployed forces. The reviewer does not find this to be satisfactory – neither would he seek information that might jeopardise their security.

The veil of secrecy is much denser for our Special Forces. It is justifiably so. Names are not mentioned, or photographs published. Citations for awards have names obscured. And clearly operational capabilities and techniques are not matters to be exposed in the public arena.

This book contains much detailed information about Australian participation in the war in Afghanistan for the first time. The eleven years covered, and the time elapsed since 2012 very probably mean that no information conveyed threatens the security of our service personnel. But could – or indeed should – the public have known about these matters earlier? The reviewer’s answer is an emphatic yes. The Australia public has a right to know what its troops are doing, subject to the security issues discussed above. The consequence of public ignorance is likely to lead to diminished support for these troops. We have not been well served by the Defence authorities (and the government) in this respect.

This book reveals much operational detail of the Special Force involvement in the war with personal detail and day-to-day descriptions of operations. Its language is modern and abrasive at times. It is rich with the acronyms that equip our modern armed services. The immediacy of its narrative tends to obscure the bigger picture (if there has been one). It is emotive and emotional: it frequently reflects strong views on the attitudes of commanders, perhaps without having offered them a right of reply.

When the book was released in October 2017 it quickly became enmeshed in controversy about an action involving an individual – a VC winner. Differences between accounts of the same action were a key part of the criticism proffered. The reviewer considers this dangerous territory. Only those soldiers under fire in these circumstances know what happened.

This book is the exhaustive sum of the 10 years Masters spent investigating the Special Air Service. He was given unprecedented access by the Australian Defence Force to embed with Australian special forces, under agreement the manuscript would be screened by the ADF, but, says the VC winner alluded to above, the fact key serving SAS members were unable, for security reasons, to speak with Masters “creates a number of holes … so then there’s a number of inaccuracies”.

The VC winner (Ben Roberts-Smith) has also said, “If you’re gonna write an official history then it needs to be that. This is not an official history.”

The book is emphatically not an official history. It is perhaps all Masters was able to relate and perhaps he has, on occasions, delved where he was qualified to do so. But, sadly, because of the lack of information conveyed to the public on this war, it’s the best we are going to get prior to an official history. That’s a pity. Nevertheless, it a book that should be widely (but critically) read.

Reviewed for RUSIV may 2018

Contact Royal United Services Institute about this article.

Subscribe to our FREE MHHV newsletter here

We are proud to have the support of the following organisations: