Hyland, Tom: What have I become?

Tom Hyland

“What have I become?”Inside Story, 14 December 2017

A review of – and a look at the politics behind – Chris Masters’ just published book No Front Line: Australian Special Forces at War in Afghanistan. Hyland notes that Afghanistan serviceman, Ben Roberts-Smith VC, has objected to the description in the book of an incident in Afghanistan involving him, while War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson has been outspoken about investigation of Afghanistan ‘heroes’ for possible breaches of the laws of war and related offences.

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.

This important book, Hyland says, respects soldiers but tries to add to our knowledge of what they do. There is plenty of coverage of battlefield action but the voices of soldiers are heard, as well as something of the internal politics of the Australian Defence Force (commandos versus Special Air Services Regiment).

All of this against the background of an ethically ambivalent conflict. As to wrong actions by some soldiers, Masters suggests that throwing light on the whole Afghanistan story will put individuals’ acts in context. ‘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.”’

Hyland wrote in 2014 about the opaque war in Afghanistan. There is also this review of Masters’ two video set on Australians in Afghanistan.

David Stephens

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