Chris Masters is determined to ensure Afghanistan isn’t another Vietnam

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Behind the lines: Afghanistan: The Australian Story. Photo: SevenHaving been to Afghanistan three times to report on Australia’s war effort, Chris Masters knows the terrain better than most. In fact, he’s convinced we know so little about our longest ever military campaign that we’re at risk of repeating the mistakes of 40 years ago.
Nanjing Night Net

“There’s a lot of public education to be done about Afghanistan,” says the veteran reporter, best known for his Walkley-winning work with Four Corners.

“A lot of people think the whole mission was completely worthless, and those lives that were lost were a complete and utter waste. That may well be so, but it’s got to be contextualised. It’s not good if people who have a bad experience return to a country that’s either ignorant or indifferent.”

Shades of Vietnam, you mean?

“Exactly.”

Australian troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001. Photo: Seven

Masters has parlayed his experiences in the country in 2007, 2010 and 2011 (when he became the first and only reporter to be embedded with Australia’s Special Forces troops there) into TV documentaries (including 2011’s Tour of Duty) and a book. But his latest effort, made for the Australian War Memorial and now set for a TV broadcast on Seven, gave him something he’d never had before: Relatively unfettered access.

“One of the differences of doing something for the War Memorial is you’re doing it for the sake of history, and you’d get interviews with people who wouldn’t otherwise have done it,” he reflects. “Some of the widows, for instance, whose personal tragedies wouldn’t be played out normally, were more than happy to do it. As a result, we got some pretty special material.”

There are interviews with the Army Reserve captain who was on duty when an Afghan soldier turned on his Australian colleagues, the first such attack experienced by the Australian Defence Force in the country. There’s also the account of a soldier who saw his best mate killed by an IED, and lost his own leg in the incident, as well as incredible helmet-cam footage of battles and the immediate aftermath of attacks. It is, in every sense, raw and revealing.

Chris Masters in Afghanistan in 2011.

“It wasn’t just about access,” Masters says of the candour his subjects showed. “It was about being able to say, ‘You’re not doing this for Four Corners, you’re doing this for history’. As a result, you often got a more generous and revealing interview.”

“There were times,” he continues, “when the whole room stood still and there were tears on everybody’s face, including mine.”

But given that access was granted on the basis of “history”, isn’t there some small element of betrayal in it now being screened on commercial television?

“I don’t think there’s anything unfair about making history,” Masters says. “It’s probably more unfair that when you’re working for a television program there are all sorts of obstacles placed in your way, particularly when it comes to telling veterans’ stories.”

The notion of “operational security” is often deployed as an all-purpose barrier to reporting, he says, and the activities of Australia’s Special Forces personnel are typically shrouded in secrecy, even though they have been at the forefront of our operations there since 2001 (although Australia withdrew its combat troops in 2013, about 400 ADF personnel still serve in Afghanistan).

An Australian special forces soldier in Afghanistan. Photo: Special Operations Task Group

For most journalists, the only way to get the story was to be embedded with the military, as was Masters. But as he has acknowledged in the past, that can pose challenges of its own.

“Journalism is about good judgment, and I found myself in that circumstance a number of times where I had to weigh the facts and recognise that I wasn’t going to get the truth from the local community, I was just going to have to find other ways to do it,” he says.

Once, he hired another crew to work outside the ADF. “It’s never going to be perfect,” he says, “but why would you believe the Taliban ahead of an Army PR person?”

He understands why some reporters opt to stay outside the fence entirely, eschewing the official military line (and protection), but that too has its risks. “It’s fair enough, you need to try to get to the truth wherever you can – but how do you know it’s true?” he asks. “There were a few occasions where people got badly caught out, people pretended to be someone they weren’t for the sake of getting the bucks from the fixer.”

For all the perils of modern-day war reporting, Masters admits he has a fair degree of respect for the ADF, having witnessed them in action from East Timor to Somalia and Rwanda and, of course, in Afghanistan. But he doesn’t want anyone to imagine he’s been dipping into the Kool Aid rations.

Masters with the director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, at the launch of the DVD of Afghanistan: the Australian Story. Photo: Karleen Minney

“I don’t think it’s advocacy,” he says of his film. “There’s a lot of material in it that the ADF wouldn’t have had in it. It’s definitely no PR piece.

“As much as I like working with the ADF, I was never in their uniform,” he adds. “I was still on my own side, the side of journalism.

“If you’re in the ADF your first loyalty is to the chain of command, your superiors. As a journalist, your first loyalty is to the public.”

WHAT Afghanistan: The Australian Story

WHEN Seven, Sunday November 6, 9.30pm

Karl Quinn is on facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.