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.


Hope and Persistence

These two books show humanity at its worst.

Firstly through the evils of the war in Syria that has made so much of that country impossible to live in.
Secondly through the treatment of those trying to flee the horrors inflicted upon their homeland by both governments and terror groups.
And lastly by the western nations that again close their doors to people in desperate need.

But despite all of that, many of those who have needed to flee from everything they’ve known, worked for and loved, have somehow drawn on those rare human virtues that can lie dormant until adversity of the worst kind is experienced.













Part of the story of A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming is perhaps better told by the author herself in this video.

And the story of Nujeen Mustafa:


Illegitimate Bill

bill-the-bastardBill the Bastard by Roland Perry is the story of an almost legendary horse ridden in Australian Light Horse campaigns in WWI, who my wife and I politely refer to as “Illegitimate Bill”.

I first heard about Bill in a TV documentary about the horses used by The Australian Light Horse during World War I.

His name came up again a week or so later at a local trash and treasure market when I met a descendant of one of the very first ALH members who had fought in the Boer War. He told me where there was a statue celebrating Bill and his most famous exploit. I was able to visit that statue a week or two later.

Bill got his name because of his wild and stubborn nature. He refused to be ridden, although he could be used as a very strong and dependable packhorse. Those who tried to ride him always came off second best, and some were seriously hurt. Perry’s book records how one man, Major Michael Shanahan was able to win Bill over and was able to use him as his mount in battle. On several occasions Shanahan’s life was saved by Bill’s ability to sense approaching danger.

BTBBill’s “most famous exploit” commemorated in the statue happened at the Battle of Romani, where the Australian Light Horse were trying to repel a massive Turkish force. One section of Australian troops fell to the Turks and were wiped out. However four horseless survivors of that section were found as the Australians were trying to withdraw. Shanahan rode up to them and helped them onto Bill, two sitting behind the rider and the other two standing on a stirrup each. Bill carried the five away to safety despite being chased and fired upon by Turkish pursuers.

Later in that battle, Shanahan was seriously wounded in the thigh, but fought on as long as he could before losing consciousness. Bill clearly knew something was wrong, making his way back to camp with Shanahan slumped on his back. The weakened Shanahan came close to death, his wound became gangrenous, and his leg was amputated to save his life.

excerpt from military record

excerpt from military record

Perry’s book is written more like a novel than a history book. While its an easy and interesting read, it has one weakness. There are no source references, so I was left wondering at times how much of the detail is factual and to what extent things may have been imaginatively embellished.

I didn’t doubt the accounts of major events, but at times incidents and conversations were reported with a degree of detail that I thought was a little “suspicious” as if someone had been standing nearby with pen and pad recording it all.
As there are no reference details provided, the possible source of the detail is left a mystery. In other WWI books I’ve read, its been made clear that dialogue between participants has occasionally be constructed from information found in soldiers’ diaries and letters.

At the end of the book, Perry mentions the statue of Bill that I referred to above, however by describing it as “life-sized” he makes it clear that he hadn’t seen it himself; unless Bill and the Light Horse members he saved were the size of garden gnomes.

Major Michael Shanahan

Major Michael Shanahan with nurses after his leg was amputated


Vera Brittain and the First World War

VB My 2015 reading year started off so well – but recently it hit an obstacle or two. I’ve continued with books about World War 1, but started committing myself to too many similar books at the same time.

A few years ago I started my first book blog with the hope that I’d be more disciplined with my reading and would always stick with a book until it was finished. Until that time I had a habit of starting books and then giving up on them if something that appeared more interesting came along.
Mostly I’ve kept up that discipline and the results can be seen in the lists of books I’ve completed over the years (see “books read” tab above).

It has now been two months since my last blog post – which also means two months since I finished a book. That changed last night when I reached the last page of Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge.

It’s a book that I picked up for some “easier” reading to give me a break from those that I’ve been struggling through for a while.

Recently I retrieved Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth from storage (most of my book collection is stacked in cupboards in the garage). I’ve had that book for around 30 years but still haven’t read yet. I sought it out again because it fits in with my current reading about the 1914-18 war.

Brittain’s brother Edward and some male friends enlisted, were sent to the Western Front and didn’t return. Brittain herself worked as a nurse. Her experiences led her to write her best-selling book and set her on a path of pacifism. Her story fits into a primary area of my war interest, which centres on the human cost with a special focus on those trying to pick up the pieces (such as stretcher bearers and nurses), and also the cost born by those who lost their loved ones to a brutal conflict.

Mark Bostridge’s book gives a brief summary of Brittain’s war time experiences: her attempts to write about those experiences in her diary, in fiction and later in Testament of Youth. Bostridge then gives the reader a glimpse of the various ways her story has been explored in other media, including TV and ballet and culminating with a recent film. He also offers insight into some of the unknowns surrounding Edward Brittain’s death, potentially finding answers that Vera herself was never able to discover.


The Price of Valour, by John Hamilton

price valourThe latest book in my Gallipoli quest is Price of Valour, a biography about Hugo Throssell VC.

Throssell, had survived some of the worst parts of the Gallipoli campaign. He was one of the few to live through the suicidal attack at the Nek, where wave after wave of charging Australian troops were cut to pieces by machine gun fire. Appeals to senior officers to stop the attack were rejected and the waves of troops sent to certain death continued. Only a few, Throssell included, managed to find cover and eventually edge their way back to safety.

Soon afterwards he became part of a move to take and hold “Hill 60”, where a partial trench was taken from the Turks who were kept apart from Australian troops only by a barrier of sandbags. The opposing sides attacked each other by throwing bombs into the trench occupied by their opponents. Survival meant catching the bomb before its short fuse burnt through and throwing it back to its source. Several men lost hands and arms during the several hours that this went on. Throssell was one of the few survivors, who despite being shot through the neck and his back peppered with bomb fragments, returned to the battle after being evacuated for medical attention. It was this involvement that earned him the Victoria Cross.

After the Gallipoli campaign he received a lengthy break for medical attention. During this time an attempt to correct a problem with his nose caused a penetration of his brain cavity from which fluid leaked and led to serious infection that caused problems throughout the rest of his life.

His final military experience was in Palestine where he was wounded again, but more tragically it was here that his brother Ric was killed. Later in the year he was part of the final assault on Jerusalem and was chosen to be part of the guard of honour when the victorious General Allenby entered the city.

Exalted to the status of hero after being award a Victoria Cross for actions at Gallipoli, after his return home he was soon pushed off the pedestal upon which he’d been placed, when he spoke out against war, saying that peace would never be achieved while some people could make substantial profits from war. This didn’t go down well in his conservative community, particularly after his marriage to writer Katherine Susannah Prichard, a committed socialist writer who became one of the earliest members of the Communist Party in Australia.

The effects of his war experience, the wounds he received, the legacy of a bungled wartime operation that gave him mild brain damage, the suspicions of his community, followed by the Great Depression when he fell into serious financial trouble – all led to his eventual suicide.

The book’s title is very appropriate and shows a different perspective of the glorious Anzac myth.


Flight Command by John Oddie

flight-command I first saw John Oddie in a documentary about official war artist Ben Quilty. Oddie was sitting for a series of portraits that are currently part of the After Afghanistan exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.*

The paintings of Oddie are haunting.  In Oddie’s words Quilty had “not only captured the worn-out air commodore… he had somehow seen and exposed the burden I was carrying and had yet to understand.”

When I knew that Oddie had written this autobiography, I added the book to my reading list, wanting to know more about the man and the “burden”  Quilty had revealed in his paintings.john oddie

After a short introduction into his family background, Oddie moves on to the difficult technicalities of learning to fly various types of aircraft. He covers both fixed wing and helicopters as he progresses through his training and into operational flying. Some of that went completely over my head but in doing so I was left in no doubt about the skill and determination needed to become an accomplished pilot, especially one flying under difficult and dangerous conditions.

As the pilot of a Chinook, one of those familiar, large double rotored helicopters, Oddie had the opportunity to be seconded to an RAF unit in Europe and during this time became part of Britain’s involvement with the first gulf war. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book relates to this period when the RAF (Oddie included) mislaid 14 Chinook helicopters.chinook

Later in the book Oddie moves on to the management side of his experience, as he progressed through the ranks and had to deal more with the bureaucratic aspects of the military. One thing seems clear, that he was intent on improving the way things were done to help his crews increase their efficiency and their safety.

One of Oddie’s more significant roles was overseeing the first response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated so many communities around the Indian Ocean. Oddie’s role was taking aid into Aceh, the worst hit region where around 160,000 lost their lives. Working 22 hour days, Oddie  organised the the aerial delivery of supplies and evacuation of survivors while acting as diplomat alongside the Indonesian military and other aid agencies (many of whom were determined to do things their own way despite the wishes of the local authorities).  I found this to be one of the more interesting parts of the book,  contrasting the earlier technical and bureaucratic elements with the emotional cost of a major disaster. Here is the first glimpse of the “burden” captured in Quilty’s portraits.

Oddie’s final operational military role was overseeing Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a time of many challenges when several Australian servicemen lost their lives.  He writes:

In the eight months I was Deputy Commander JTF633, eight of our people were killed, and I reflect sadly on that price and the eight families damaged as a result…

…By the time I sat down to write this book, Australia had lost forty of its finest sons and over 250 had been injured. In total, including those with lasting emotional or mental damage, well over 300 families will be affected.

Flight Command gives an overview of a military career from recruitment to retirement; from the technical aspects of operating military hardware to dealing with personnel and reducing the risks they face in a high risk occupation. It also shows the emotional cost that is felt most keenly when constant pressure is removed.

What I initially thought was exhaustion from eight months of work in a stressful environment, I later felt was some emotional damage. This increasingly surfaced as the demands of being an active and present military leader faded.

For me the strong points of this book were the parts showing the more human aspects of Oddie’s military service, how people were affected by what they saw and what they did. And also the effects of knowing they couldn’t do enough when a need was too large or a bad situation was unpreventable.

It was the portrait of a haunted man that brought me to this book. While its intensity may not match the painting (for me there was too much technical information I couldn’t follow), we do get quite a bit of insight into the emotional cost of Oddie’s experiences and responsibilities.



* Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan Exhibition:


Bravo Two Zero, Andy McNab

BravoBravo Two Zero isn’t a book I would have chosen to read. A work colleague told me that he never read books until he came across Andy McNab’s stories, and he lent me this autobiographical account of McNab’s involvement in the first gulf war.

The prominent thing I see in the book is how little life is valued in war and how men can be uncompromisingly brutal, committing unthinkable atrocities against “the enemy”.

Most of the book gives graphic detail of the obscene treatment of McNab by his Iraqi captors during his time as a prisoner of war. I had to wonder whether that kind of treatment of prisoners by their Iraqi captors was the norm and if so what does it reveal about their national character?
And then I recalled the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by their US captors a decade later during the second gulf war and I saw that the capability of inhumanity is within us all, ready to be exposed when faced with the “right” circumstances.

McNab’s experience also shows another side of human nature. After an extended period of brutal bashing, threats of death, being kept in the filthiest of conditions and being denied adequate food and water, McNab reveals:

“For fifteen minutes one night I found God…and I had a little discussion with him.
“’Come and help me now,’ I pleaded. ‘If you help me now, I’ll be your best mate forever. If you’re there, f***ing do something about this. We need your help now – all of us. If you’re there, do it, and I’ll be putting pennies in your pot every day.’

“I said as much of the Lord’s Prayer as I could remember from school, but nothing happened. God did not exist”

I think the above quote (sadly) reveals more about mankind than the obscene inhumanity demonstrated in the killing and torturing described throughout the rest of the book. In fact the sentiment revealed in that quote exposes why such inhumanity is possible. It is the literal belittling of God: reducing Him to a being required to jump to our service when we finally see fit to turn to Him.

Thinking that He can be won over by the promise of mateship, or the offer of daily “pennies”. Expecting Him to act the second we call out – despite having ignored and dismissed Him throughout the rest of our lives.

Looking at Him like a lamp-bound genie, whose existence is disproved when he doesn’t immediately appear at our command to grant our wishes