The Commando (the life and death of Cameron Baird VC. MG.) by Ben Mckelvey

The Commando, is a biography of Cameron Baird the 100th (and to date last) Australian Victoria Cross winner who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2013.

It was quite a disturbing read, although I’m not sure it was intended to be so in the way I found it. It was written to honour a ‘hero” but (to me) it did more to expose a lot of uncomfortable issues related to Australia’s part in the war in Afghanistan and what it did to the special forces troops trained and posted to serve there.

It shows how Baird and his regiment lived to kill and were always impatient to be sent out on a mission to hunt down the “Taliban”. (The author notes at the beginning of the book that he used the term “Taliban” as a kind of generic name for any hostile Afghan – who weren’t necessarily associated with the religious group, but were assumed to pose a potential danger to western troops).

At one stage Baird and his Australian colleagues were used as the weaponised arm of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, with the aim of destroying Afghan drug cultivation and manufacture: basically as guns for hire, because apparently the US Government wouldn’t allow US troops to be used for that purpose.

Among his colleagues Baird was considered lucky because he died in action on one of the last missions in Afghanistan. Those surviving colleagues have found it hard to settle back into everyday life. One of the men interviewed for the book killed himself not long after giving the interview.

I’ve read or seen accounts of the other three Australians awarded a Victoria Cross for their service in Afghanistan and I was left in no doubt why they were deemed worthy of the award. However with this account I wasn’t so sure about the reason for Cameron Baird’s award. The book just didn’t make it clear why his final action stood out from what his colleagues had also done to earn his posthumous VC.

I feel some discomfort writing this because it might come across as being critical of Cameron Baird, a man who gave his life in service of political decisions made by his country’s leaders. That’s not what I want to do. He was clearly a very likeable man, fully committed to whatever he set his mind to – whether that was football during his youth or his military career as an adult. He wasn’t a man willing to compromise to make do with a second rate effort or to be happy with anything less than a first rate outcome.

Any deserved criticism needs to be directed at the political and military systems that train men to become killing machines but do little to help them return to normality when those “skills” are no longer required.


Afghanistan: 3 Books and a Song

The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb

Christina Lamb is a foreign correspondent with a close relationship to Afghanistan and its people. Long before the current crisis of the west’s longest war-without-end, Lamb was reporting from Afghanistan.

During the time of the Russian invasion of more than 30 years ago, she travelled with the Mujahedeen fighters opposing the Russian forces. Some of those Afghan travel companions afterwards became Taliban members, another of them became the Afghan President.

This book looks at the complexities of Afghanistan from the time of the Russian war through to more recent, post-Taliban years.

The book’s title refers to a group of women in the city of Herat, who took the risk of studying during the Talban’s rule, under the cover of holding a sewing circle. Those women reflect the persistence, the resilience and the stubbornness of one group of Afghan people determined to live their lives no matter what outsiders may try to inflict upon them

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Kahled Hosseini

Kahled Hosseini came to attention through his book The Kite Runner a book about male friendship and betrayal before and during the Taliban’s rule. This is his second book and this time his main characters are Afghan women of different generations, both of whom become married to the same man.
While the women’s relationship starts with resentment, shared experience binds them closer together.

This book also stretches across Afghanistan’s different political eras but starts well before the Russian invasion and ends after the Taliban was driven out. The changing politics also reflects in the changing attitudes and opportunities faced by Afghan women during the decades spanned by the story.

Beneath the Pale Blue Burqa, by Kay Danes

In December 2000, Kay Danes’ husband Kerry (the Laos based managing director of a British security company) was abducted by the Lao secret police and attempts were made to get him to make false accusations against one of his clients. Soon afterwards Kay was arrested and imprisoned to increase pressure on her husband. They spent nearly a year in custody, a year of being subjected to torture and mock executions, while diplomatic wrangling went on to secure their eventual release.

After such an experience it may be hard to understand why less than a decade later Kay would choose to work in Afghanistan, especially after suffering years of PTSD following the Laos imprisonment. But her experience and recovery motivated her towards involvement in humanitarian issues, where she could make use of the public profile her experience had given her.
Then, in 2008 she was approached about a planned visit to an Afghan women’s prison in Jalalabad…

Just don’t tell mum I’m going to a war zone.


(lyrics here:Good Morning Freedom)

Kabul Dreams holds to the claim of being the first rock band from Afghanistan; established in 2008 in Kabul.

All of the band members were born in Afghanistan, but they were displaced to different neighbouring countries as refugees during the Taliban reign: Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, returning to meet and establish the band after the Taliban fell.

In 2014, the band relocated to Oakland, California where they recorded and released their second album.

In His Strength, by Noriko Dethlefs

Letters from Afghanistan 2005-2009.

A journal-like record of life in Afghanistan as observed and experienced by a Japanese-Australian teacher.

Noriko Dethlefs’ husband was posted to Afghanistan to serve with the Christian Blind Mission.

This account of her life in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2009 gives an insight into the different cultural attitudes and religious beliefs she encountered as well as the daily dangers faced by both locals and foreigners.

She also writes about the lack of comforts that we in the “west” take for granted that Afghans do without throughout their lives.

The book shows that despite all of those differences, there is a shared, vulnerable humanity.

That’s something too often forgotten or purposely avoided when it becomes politically expedient.

Read more here:


One Woman’s War and Peace by Wing Commander Sharon Bown (Ret’d)

one womans warTHIS is a book I was very eager to get from the time I heard it was being published. I pre-ordered a copy months ahead of publication, and then had to wait longer, because Gloria insisted on paying for it to add to my Christmas presents


Sharon Bown was a vital part in my growing interest in military medical work, after I came across a quote from a speech she gave, providing a moving and poetic, but graphic description of her work as an RAAF nurse in Afghanistan.


“I have worn their blood
So many of us have worn their blood”

Bown enlisted in the RAAF three years after her graduation as a nurse. Her autobiography takes us through each stage of her military career, from officer training, through service in Australia, overseas deployments and her role as Aide-de-Camp to the Australian Defence Minister.
A defining moment came in East Timor, during a flight to an isolated village where a woman was going through a difficult child birth. The helicopter crashed and Bown was severely hurt, receiving spinal fractures and a broken jaw among other injuries.

It seemed like her career could be cut short, but with determination she pushed through to a remarkable recovery and was eventually able to be deployed overseas again: in Afghanistan.

During her time in Afghanistan, Australian troops were involved in significant confrontations with the Taliban, one of which resulted in SAS Trooper Mark Donaldson being the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross since 1969.

While she mentions Donaldson by name in relation to his award, she earlier tells the story of a tall red haired soldier who had been blown metres into the air from an armoured vehicle after it had triggered an explosive device. He fell almost uninjured still holding tightly to his gun. While she doesn’t name this soldier, a comparison with VC winner Mark Donaldson’s biography makes it clear that he was the tall red-haired soldier in her story.

Like so many who serve in war zones, Bown wasn’t untouched by PTSD. She continued to be haunted by memories of her helicopter crash, with recurring nightmares and flashbacks related to the crash.

Bown is now retired from the RAAF and serves as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.


Military Medicine. Three Conflicts


Bad Medicine by Terry Ledgard.
Subtitled “a no holds barred account of life as an Australian SAS Medic during the war in Afghanistan”.

This would be the most disappointing book of the “military medic” books I’ve read. Firstly I thought it had too little about the author’s work “during the war in Afghanistan “ (as the title led me to believe). Secondly I found the “no-holds barred” description relates more to a style dependant on clumsy “blokey” crudities than on gritty uncompromising reporting of a medic’s work in a war zone. It seemed to me that he was trying too hard to come across as a “bad boy”


combat-medicCombat Medic by Terry Pickard.
Now THIS is the kind of book I expected when I bought the one mentioned above. Despite the slight similarity in author’s names, I thought this book presented a far more honest “no-holds barred” account of a medic faced with the horrors of a war zone. In this case the author recounts his experiences during the Kibeho Massacre in Rwanda in April 1995.

Engaged in a UN peace keeping mission, Pickard and his colleagues found themselves caught up in a devastating killing spree carried out against refugees by the Rwandese Patriotic Army where more than 4,000 men women and children were murdered. The exact number of dead far exceeded the confirmed number, but further counting of the casualties was prevented by the RPA after UN officials had reached the 4,000 mark. Also it was clear that many bodies had been disposed of prior to the count starting.

Pickard’s return to Australia after his deployment in Africa saw him suffer severely from PTSD, resulting in his discharge from the Army just short of the 20 years’ service that would have entitled him to a military pension.


tearsTears on My Pillow by Narelle Biedermann.
Here is a slightly different side to the military medical story, concentrating on Australian nurses serving in Vietnam.
The first part of the book gives a brief background history of the war, an overview of the successive Australian field hospitals and a brief introduction to the nurses’ role.

The second part gives individual stories of several of the nurses who served throughout Australia’s involvement in the conflict. Heartbreaking stories could never be avoided when young men, just entering manhood were regularly being killed or maimed in horrific ways, but there are also lighter moments of all too short breaks from the heavy workloads of understaffed operating theatres and recovery wards.
Stories from several different nurses show how differently each of them coped (or not) with what they were facing, but two things remains constant, firstly how little preparation they were given to get them ready for the extremely demanding and stressful work and conditions they were sent to face. And secondly how little support they were given to help them return to lives back in Australia.


In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord

burqasIn the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord gives a fascinating insight into the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women, and how Islam affects their lives and relationships.

While Islam and Christianity embrace very different views of God, McCord makes use of a few common areas of belief to build a bridge to share the gospel.

McCord writes of how “Afghans almost universally believe in the concept of kismet, fate. Whatever happens happens because Allah wills it, no matter whose hand has accomplished the thing”.

She addresses this with a group of Afghan women while discussing a deadly car bombing in Kabul that destroyed a bus and killed many including a young mother:

“God told us not to kill. We cannot disobey God in the name of God. That is a lie. God told us to love Him with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Then He told us to love our neighbours. If a man kills his neighbour, he is disobeying God. This man who blew up the bus and killed that mother did not do the will of God. He did the work of Satan. God will judge him”

One woman in the room responded by sharing another story.

“Our town was at peace. We didn’t know war. We were happy. One day my cousins and aunts were gathered in the house preparing [food] for a wedding party. A bomb fell. We found pieces of dough, bundles of meat, hair ties, scarves, and scraps of bloody fabric. Even the part of the ceiling that didn’t fall was covered with blood and pieces of bodies”

… we all looked at the swirling red carpet . Each woman muttered “Tobah” repent.

After a long pause I restated what I absolutely believe to be the truth: “That was not the will of God, either”
“No,” the women agreed. “That is not the will of God.”

McCord gives the Christian reader a lot of food for thought.
She writes:

“For many Westerners, the question of who God is and what He wants for and from us is simply not relevant. We are, after all, wealthy and busy. For Afghans, it may be the most important question of all.”

And she confesses to something that I think affects most western Christians to one degree or another:

“Sometimes I forget to differentiate between what I believe as an American woman and what I believe the Bible teaches. America is my culture, and Jesus is my Saviour and Lord. Sometimes it’s hard to untangle the two. Afghans challenged me to try.

McCord compares various aspects of her Christians beliefs with those of her Afghan neighbours to show how the vastly different cultural beliefs affect Afghan views of God and as a result their society.

One example she describes is the Afghan view of temptation and sin.

I learned that in Afghanistan, the influences that cause or encourage a person to do what the society defines as wrong are the real sin, not the person who actually does the wrong. People are weak and must be protected. The society provides that protection. Any influence that tempts a member of the community must be eradicated, silenced, or walled out.

McCord also found that her time in Afghanistan gave her a new perspective on some very familiar parts of scripture.

Afghans helped me understand the teachings of Jesus more completely. The culture of Afghanistan today is much more similar to the first century Judea of Jesus’ day than my own Western culture is…

As an example of this, she writes:

I was often amazed when an Afghan heard a Jesus story for the first time and then told me what it means. Jesus spoke to a woman at a well, a woman who had had several husbands and was not married to her current partner. My Afghan women friends immediately saw the woman’s shame. No woman in Afghanistan can arrange her own marriage. The woman at the well had been used by five men, and the last didn’t even have the decency to marry her.

I found the book to be a an effective eye-opener, not only to an unbelievably foreign culture and religion, but also to the unbelievably naïve view that Western Christians have developed concerning the life and teachings of Jesus and how we’ve been taught to view them.