Reviewed by Ian Lipke
To undertake a review of this book is one of the more difficult tasks I have set for myself. It’s not because Cameron Baird VC, MG does not deserve the accolades that the media (including this book) have awarded him. He was without doubt the warrior we all depended on to protect us against the forces of evil that populate this world. His story (as depicted in this book as well as in many other sources) shows him to be a young man, dedicated to the life of the serving soldier, who without fuss gave an outstanding degree of service to his unit and the wider community.
Forthright as an Australian Football League player and showing great promise, he sought an alternative option when the AFL closed ranks against him. He became a soldier and, from all accounts, a dedicated one right up until his death on 22 June 2013 in a gunfight against Taliban troops, a fight that was to see him in the forefront of an attempt to relieve pressure on another Australian unit. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that his VC was earned that day.
But that is the story of Cameron Baird and nobody will write a word that detracts from his much deserved reputation.
However, my job is to review Ben McKelvey’s book and that is a different task. To stop messing around I would have to say upfront that in places I found the writing patchy. Among competent passages, I found writing that was half-hearted and uninspiring. Passages like the following example from page 119 would benefit from the services of a clear thinking editor.
Although Operation Anaconda is now seen as a cautionary tale detailing the difficulties of securing Afghanistan, at the time it was thought to be nothing more than an aberration in the inexorable journey towards completion of the mission. Keen to move the focus to Iraq, the United States made every effort to frame Anaconda as a rousing success, and perhaps even the full stop in the conflict they had envisioned it as.
In fact, the cliché-ridden text is often loose (“killing more than 1000 Taliban fighters and ostensibly creating the conditions for ISAF” (124). The book is tedious on occasion and does little in the service of Cameron Baird’s family. I know nothing of Edward Robertson but assume he is the Commando friend who served alongside Cameron Baird in the Middle East. I am more familiar with the work of McKelvey, whose media release describes his previous writings as ‘gigs’. I think that trivial phrase is at the root of the problem I have with this writer. For me, he has spread himself too wide. Cameron Baird’s biography is too important to place in the hands of a generalist author. Baird deserves a writer whose specialty is the armed services.
I take issue with the lack of focus of the book. The title tells us with a complete lack of uncertainty that the book is about the life and death of Cameron Baird. But then, in the Media Release, the focus alters. Now the book is to be “a unique look at modern warfare and the lives of Australia’s Special Forces including one of our most decorated modern soldiers”. Baird has become an addendum. Pages 116ff and similar pages take a swipe at US-Australia foreign policy or on-the-ground administrative matters that should be given solid treatment reflecting their importance or alternatively, given such little exposure that they do not divert attention from the book’s focus. But, of course, this book doesn’t have a clear focus. How fortunate for Cam that he was not deployed to Iraq which, in a breathtaking moment McKelvey tells us “was on the verge of going to hell in a handbasket” (127) – where is there a good editor when you need one?
McKelvey seems to find little significance in the fact that Cameron Baird’s wife had no wish to be associated with the book about her husband. “With respect for her wish for privacy, details of her life, except those that are pertinent in telling Cam’s story will not be revealed” (79). I found the treatment of Robin insensitive.
What the writer hoped to achieve with the following recount is beyond my understanding. Perhaps he thought that this might have given him some personal identification with the soldiers:
On the last night in South Australia, there was an almighty piss-up. Details concerning this night are not available, but I’m told Bravo is no longer welcome to train at Woomera.
Forget that approach, Ben. You have to be a professional soldier to be recognized as such. It’s not enough to associate with soldiers.
At other times it is as though another writer took up the pen and introduced some sharp and exciting description. When the armed forces are in action in the pages before and after Baird’s death the pace picks up. The action becomes less of an academic exercise and breathes authenticity. That is why I wonder what part, other than advisory, was played by Edward Robertson who knew the cold fear and brilliant crispness of moments in battle.
The url https://www.hachette.com.au/news/the-commando-by-ben-mckelvey was written by no professional soldier. It reeks of commercialism. It is in the hand of a promoter who wishes to win funds from an investment. And that is as close to a focus as I can come.
In sum, this book is indeed a puzzle. The tribute to Cameron Baird in the final paragraph is heart-felt and sincere. It is one of the few passages where the writing reaches any great height.
By Ben McKelvey