Flawed Hero by Chris Masters

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

This is the background story to the defamation trial between decorated Australian soldier Ben Roberts-Smith VC and the media companies that employed journalists Chris Masters and Nick Mackenzie. This is the version by veteran investigative reporter Chris Masters, who had first-hand experience in Afghanistan, having been embedded there with Australian troops.

This is a harrowing tale of alleged war crimes by a national hero and the trial that saw divisions open up within the closely guarded ranks of Australia’s SAS regiment. A regiment that had long prided itself on humility, professionalism and understated excellence (51). Perhaps most perplexing of all though, was that soldiers from the same troop had markedly different recollections of the same events.

While the soldiers naturally take centre-stage, it is also the lawyers who figure prominently, as the courtroom becomes the battleground over what happened in Afghanistan years earlier. A quote from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary sprang to mind:  Lawsuit: A machine which you go into as a pig and come out as a sausage.

I thought there was an awful lot of… you say black and we know it’s white back-and-forth between the barristers and the (often reluctant) witnesses. Arthur Moses KC and two other silks for Ben Roberts-Smith (BRS) squared off against Nicholas Owens SC in what seemed like trench warfare from WW1; with generally little movement toward or away from changing the original opinion. The trial judge, Mr Justice Besanko, is portrayed as a fair and civil referee over these proceedings. In the end, he finds for the Nine media and the two journalists.

Since the witnesses to various events appear in a seemingly random order in the courtroom, readers need to keep track of both the key geographical locations as well as these events in chronological order. There is a very confusing back and forth as the dozens of different witnesses are cross-examined by the different barristers at different stages of the trial. Some of these incidents included:  Chora Valley/ Koran Ghar (2006), Whiskey 108- blood the rookie comment and the prosthetic leg (2009), Darwan (site of the alleged cliff kick) (2012), Chinartu (October, 2012), and Lancelin, a training area near Perth – shoot him order (2012).

Given the above confusing scheduling, the text was top-heavy on granular detail, and consequentially it was a hard slog for the general reader to follow. It would be interesting to see how Nick Mackenzie handles this problem in his account of the trial.

Prior to the trial and during its running, powerful media interests took sides (and spent an estimated $25 million on it). Fairfax and later Nine, pushed the public’s right to know argument, while billionaire Kerry Stokes and The Australian newspaper saw Roberts-Smith as an Anzac hero, being dragged down by envious colleagues. Surprise, surprise, Masters was not impressed with BRS’s media backers, but he did make some good points about the need for objective and accurate reporting.

The question of how to represent the good and bad of Australian soldiers arose after BRS was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2012. A prominent display on him at the War Memorial in Canberra is subject to an on-going debate about his legacy.

Awarding of some medals became contentious within the SAS after the initial decisions to give lesser medals in 2012 were bumped up back in Australia (550). Also, it appeared that some equally deserving soldiers were initially overlooked, which gave rise to a wellspring of discontent. Later, a group of SAS sergeants were highly critical of BRS being awarded a Commendation for Distinguished Service medal in 2014.

One of the key events in this whole sorry saga was the screening of the 60 Minutes episode by Mark Willacy, which showed an unarmed Afghan man being shot by an Australian soldier on camera. This was gruesome to watch and compelling evidence.

A recurring issue was the accountability, or lack thereof, of senior ranks in the military. Didn’t any officers know of these allegedly unlawful killings or if they did what did they do about it? Masters makes a point of lauding those morally brave soldiers who did speak out, including Andrew Hastie MP, a former Captain in the SAS regiment.

This book had a vaguely science-fiction feel to it; set on an alien planet (war-torn Afghanistan) and amongst super-human warriors who speak a strange form of English (NCOs, EKIAs, MAMs, etc.) and where ordinary norms do not always apply. While it is not an easy book to read, it should be read widely to inform us of the difficulties of fighting unofficial wars.

Chris Masters PSM is one of Australia’s leading investigative journalists, having won five Walkley Awards. His report The Moonlight State into corruption in Queensland in the 1980s lead to major reforms via the Fitzgerald Report. Working mainly for Four Corners on ABC TV over many years he also covered corruption in Rugby League and the judiciary in 1983. His brother Roy is a former coach and commentator on League. He was embedded with Australian troops in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2010 and with Special Forces in 2011.  He has written Jonestown, Uncommon Soldier and No Front Line.

Flawed Hero: Truth, Lies and War Crimes


by Chris Masters

Allen &Unwin

ISBN: 978 176106 981 9

$34.99; 592pp

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