My guest today is Anthony ‘Harry’ Moffitt, a recently retired veteran of the Australian Defence Force where he served for nearly 30 years. Most of that time, he has spent in the Special Air Service Regiment, more commonly known as the SAS. During his time, he completed 11 active service deployments amassing nearly 1000 days on Special Operations globally.
Since leaving the Army, Harry has become a registered psychologist and runs a human performance consultancy working with sports teams, the military and industry. He is also the Asia-Pacific Director for the Mission Critical Team Institute. He is also the lead singer and songwriter for the rock band The Externals.
Harry also recently authored his memoir, ‘Eleven Bats’, which is a book about his military service, the SAS and his love of cricket. Along with the book, some of the other topics we covered are:
- Harry’s journey into the SAS
- The first years of the war in Afghanistan
- How strategy translates into tactics or how it fails to do so
- Importance of understanding the human terrain
- Change in how the SAS came to be used
- The price of war paid by those most-vulnerable
- Selecting the right people for the SAS
- The act of killing and its aftermath
- Ethics of war and its link to mental wellbeing
- The price paid by family members of those who serve
- The power of cricket on deployments
- The role of education in a soldier’s life
This was a hugely satisfying and rich discussion and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did recording it.
Harry’s book ‘Eleven Bats’ is available at:
Harry’s podcast with Deane-Peter Baker that we mentioned is available as episode #18 at: https://missioncti.com/teamcast/
Finally, the Externals recently released their new single ‘The Hell Beyond’ on Spotify. You can find it at: https://open.spotify.com/album/5NNRcziDrTnwr6orAT6R3N
Listen to the podcast here
Harry Moffitt – A Humble Warrior
In this episode, my guest is Anthony Harry Moffitt. He’s a retired veteran of the Australian Defence Force, where he served for nearly 30 years. Most of the time he spent in the Special Air Service Regiment, more commonly known as the SAS. During his time, he completed eleven active service deployments, amassing nearly 1,000 days on special operations globally, which included being seriously wounded in action and repatriated to Australia for treatment.
Harry finished his time with the SAS as its director of high performance while also establishing the wanderer’s education program, which funds the education of selected SAS operators to broaden their worldview and better prepare them for life after the Army. As a side note, Harry is also the lead singer and songwriter for the rock band The Externals.
Since leaving the Army, Harry has become a registered psychologist and runs a human performance consultancy working with sports teams, the military, and industry. He is also the Asia Pacific Director for the Mission Critical Team Institute. If that’s not enough, Harry authored his memoir Eleven Bats, a book about his military service and love of cricket. Harry, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for joining me.
Maz, it’s as much a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
I finished your book, Eleven Bats. I must admit, it was an impressive read. It’s a pretty sizable book but I finished it in five days, one of which was Anzac Day. That gives you an indication of the pace of the book and how captivating it was. Congratulations. It was a great effort.
Thanks. I’ve had some sleepless nights around writing and releasing it as well but I loved the process of writing. Originally, I didn’t mean to turn it into a book. I’ve been a mad journaler ever since high school, and it’s a composite of a lot of journals I’ve written over my time. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the kind feedback.
Judging by the feedback I’m seeing on social media, I’m certainly not the only one who’s had that experience. That’s excellent. Before we delve into some of the components of the book, which we will certainly cover, maybe we can go back to the basics. You’ve spent nearly 30 years in the Army. Most of that is in the SAS. Where did this passion for the Army come from in young Harry? What drove you to enlist in the first place?
I always had a sense of community service and national service. My mother was a nurse and my father was a sailor. They have a lot of military background back to the 1700s. My great-great-great grandfather died in the Royal Marines. There’s a lot of history and DNA there. It’s a generational influence. At twelve years old, I was exposed to 22 SAS on the front page of the newspaper and the headlines of what was Black and White television back in those days. The images have burned under my brain of the SAS breaking into the Iranian embassy at Princes Gate in London in 1980.
That was an inflection point for me. It set about a whole bunch of things, including a deep desire to find out more about Special Forces and wondering if I had the metal to have a go at selection. I said a lot about reading. I can probably put the origins of my interest in academic pursuits there. It was a powerful moment in my life. Around that time, I also met a man called Martin. He was a captain in the SAS. I didn’t even know Australia had an SAS at that stage.
Around that time, there were a few things conflated to add to my space life position to join the military. As soon as I could, I was off. I dropped out of the university. I finished year twelve. I was going to do architectural psychology at the uni but left that and joined on my eighteenth birthday. I was a bit of a drawer. I enjoyed architectural drawing or whatever it was at school. I was in the background. I had an early sense of education. It was super important. Not that it runs in my family but I had other things to do and other fish to fry.
You then double back onto psychology many years later. The technical component of it also makes sense or the architectural. It’s all very technical and precise. If I’m understanding service in the SAS correctly, it is very precise and surgical, or at least, that’s what it’s designed to be.
It is very technical. You’re right to allude to that. It was something I didn’t expect. Not much of any selection when you go into the reinforcement cycle. Some of the courses and training that you do there are highly technical, probably beyond what people appreciate. I’m still involved with the regimental level and the outs of training. I was back there. Some of the training they’re doing, I wonder how I could do it. It’s everything from basic surgery to high-level computing courses, and language. It’s pretty intense.
That’s also the deluge of the SAS I suspect to be at the forefront of military technology but also of the art of war. That would have drawn you to it. You talk about this in your book extensively, the first few years as a qualified operator. For you, they were quite busy initially. Is that right?
It was very tough. You’re trying for a couple of years to get to the point where you are on selection and then a couple of years or eighteen months after that intense training and courses. You hit the truth. I hit the truth about 21 years old. I was very young. I struggled, to be honest. I remember walking into a makeshift boxing ring and looking across the other side. There’s a grown man around 40 years old or so. He appeared bearded, toothless, fitting, probably weighing 110 kilos, and 6’6”. He walked up and knocked me out, essentially.
I’ve still got a missing tooth from the background. When I woke up, he was standing over me and speaking, “Welcome to the real game,” and blinding. That was a real wake-up call. I met the standards but I had to work super hard more than others to meet the standards. A non-infantry background too so culturally, I came from Signal calls. I felt that I was always sprinting flat out to keep up but it forged me as a human and a man. I benefited from that period.
You make that point in your book as a signaller. It certainly wasn’t where you wanted to go but you had shown the right aptitude. That paid back the typing skills.
That’s right in writing the book. We did Morse code and radio theory back in those days. That ground gave me a great start inside the teams. I was one of the first picked for a lot of teams because of those skills but that gave me great insight and buy into teams, which is a good start.
Not being the character that stood out, certainly not 6’6” and 110 KG probably also helped out as well being the grey man. What were your early deployments like? Was your first deployment to Afghanistan? Was it a hunt for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden post-September 11, 2001? Is that right?
That’s right. In the 90’s, we spent as much time away but it was mostly training and exercises. We spent time overseas with coalition partners. We didn’t quite get a gig during those years, a trip to Somalia, and a couple of golf trips that I went on. They certainly weren’t combat operations. The first one was after September 11, 2001. I was in England at the time. I kicked off and travelled back to Perth. From 2001 onward, it was a revolving door of operations.
The first one was in Afghanistan. We’re the first on the ground working under Operation Enduring Freedom. We were closely in line with the US and the UK, with Special Forces there and operating out on the border. In many ways, it was probably the hardest work or deployment that I’ve done because we did a lot of foot patrols on the border working with the US. They are the hardest nights of your life.
There’s no doubt about it. I was carrying around a 60-kilo pack but a couple of the big guys got up to close to 70-kilo packs, which is dumb. It is what it is but you don’t have much choice when you’ve got to live in the hills for ten or more days. There were some seriously heavy nights walking precariously along the sides of mountains to get to positions that we could observe.
The work then was very focused and purposeful. The mission was to get Osama bin Laden. That’s a powerful mission for any soldier to have. The strategy was pretty clear, kick al-Qaeda and the extreme elements of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden sympathisers, I suppose because there’s quite factional. It’s quite a complex enemy ecosystem. We kicked them out of the country, which we did. They’re all intents and purposes.
We removed them from free movement and moved a great deal of those fighters back across the border into the federated areas of Northern Pakistan. We felt as if we were, I suppose, winning the war. That’s how it felt. A rock came along and it derailed things. When we returned in 2005, the Taliban and al-Qaeda had partnered up. It was a much harder and different prospect.
That’s probably something I want to touch on because you are making the point that in the first couple of years of Afghanistan, the vision or the strategy was very clear. We knew what we were getting ourselves into and what had to be done. The mission was rather clear. As you put it so eloquently, you went there and did your job. You knew what job you were doing but that arguably changed a few years later. In your view, what changed because, arguably, the strategy was some might say the same. What was different?
I’ll come back to that in a moment but the whole nature of the deployment in 2001 through 2003 was the enemy was more easily distinguishable. The villages and a lot of the locals were probably more aligned with the coalition than they were with al-Qaeda and the more extreme elements. The government was probably more stable. Although I don’t think hysterically, you can say Afghanistan’s had a stable government for a long time.
There was a sense of winning and doing good. It’s safe to say that was the characterisation of our time. Running away to Iraq concerned us from the start because there was a little bit of deception around the deployments and not from all parties in the coalition side and a lot of negotiations with the world bodies sector. When we went back to Afghanistan in 2005, Australia had taken over.
We were then under this Operation Slipper. I suppose the vision or the strategy was clear. It was to secure IrisGuard and establish a reconstruction task force to help build hospitals and schools, which we did with excellence to a very high level. However, as a ground force and a fighting force, the SAS were the first on the ground. We were a little bit concerned about the fact that we led with engineers and a reconstruction task force rather than an infantry force to secure ground and fight an enemy that was in or had gone.
This is hindsight here so I want to qualify for that. I’m not comfortable often commenting with the hindsight view but at the time, the government was looking for a safe place to contribute to the coalition effort, minimise casualties from a political media perspective, and get some early wins on the board with hospitals and schools. Unbeknown to the government, Oruzgan and Tariqa were a bit of a nexus of the Taliban highways that moved across as they were known.
It was a facilitation point for the movement of people, drugs, guns, money, and information. Any number of IED facilitators moved through them to the helm and province between the borders and how many provinces. It was also between Canada and Cabool. These highways were frequented by high-level commanders. We were busy from 2005 onward. Someone did an estimation. I read somewhere that over 8 or 9 years, there was an average of 3 or 4 contacts a week for the infantry and Special Forces.
In hindsight, I don’t think it was as quiet a place as the government was hoping to be. The hyper lesson that we learned out of this is that we should always lead with our infantry, frontline forces, and combat service roles no matter where we go. They’re trained in both hearts and minds and trying for combat. That’s the ultimate safety we can bring to our force.
I found it interesting. You made the point that the enemy wasn’t as distinguishable in the later years. You also made the point in the book the locals hated you and the Taliban equally over the years. Why was that? That strikes me as a particularly nuanced and insightful comment that was highlighted in your book. It goes to this very point that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about strategy. The enemy was easier to identify initially. Later on, it was very hard to distinguish who the enemy was. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s super complex. One of the reasons that Afghanistan is renowned as the graveyard of empires is because each empire, including our strolling, thinks they’re going to change it for the better as a country. The Durand Line is an arbitrary line placed by British officers or politicians back in the day. It goes straight through a number of language groups. That goes to the point that there are dozens and hundreds of different language groups. They have blood feuds going back thousands of years.
We failed to acknowledge that but we didn’t. We were well read back in 2002 and 2003 about the areas we worked in. When we got to Oruzgan, we were quite aware that somebody had a different relationship with Afghanistan and surrounding provinces than the Hellman or the Norris guard returning captives. These complexities played out in front of us.
We started to understand that some provinces welcome the coalition of US or Australian forces. Some didn’t welcome the US but welcomed the Australians. Others didn’t want to borrow us and we’re sited with the Taliban or al-Qaeda and other factions. We’re in the mix as well. It made for a very complex environment.
One of the skills that we brought or keen abilities we had was to understand this nuance with the different language groups. You overlay that with different motivations. These blood feuds between villages or language groups or tribes, if I can use a clumsy term, monetary and financial motivation. You got the UK burning down marijuana crops. They’re pissed off because that’s the only way they can make money. In another village, the Taliban have had a rogue commander who’s come down and killed a bunch of people so they hate the Taliban. It’s super complex.
By probably 2008, after a few years and a few rotations that we’ve been in, we are starting to understand what’s good for us in operating. We can predict and have a certain amount of predictability when we move into certain areas but it’s also bad because we know that this is such a complex environment. We’re probably never going to win it. There was a sense of inevitability that we would probably have the adventure more than the impact at times.
That’s music to my ears because one of the things I do in defence is co-facilitate a course on conflict analysis with Dr. Mike Martin. I’m unsure if you’re familiar with his work but he wrote his PhD studies. He was a former British Army Officer. The Army funded his research and published a book later on about his findings. That’s one of the critical ones that has since led to the future work that he has done.
We ultimately didn’t understand the human terrain, and I’ll use the word you used previously, ecosystem because it’s what it is. This place is alive. It is not as Black and White as we’d like to paint it. That’s one of the things that I’m co-facilitating. Some of the things we talked about are very much the first to social architecture, the background that exists in an environment that we come into.
I was in HUMINT. When I was in Afghanistan, we contributed perhaps poorly to understanding that picture. I’m glad to hear that you guys look at it differently but certainly from a big Army that I was exposed to and the people that I was briefing, including Syrian leaders, the picture was always very Black and White. Anybody shooting at us was a bad guy. Let’s ascribe the Taliban label to that person.
When we scratch below the surface, there are far greater motivations, whether there might be allegiances to clan groups or economic. I’m reading research on families where the Taliban wants some growing puppies. They’re all part of that family’s ecosystem to ensure that the puppies will get through the military checkpoints through the Taliban and so on and so forth. It’s a far more complex piece.
Complex adaptive systems theory has a lot to offer, even a simplistic mind model of how these things work. I do a lot of work with culture in business and other teams. I’m trying to have other people understand that there’s no linear approach to this. If it’s got humans involved, forget about linearity. Leave the room if that’s how you want to bring it because you’ve got to think about it as a set of complex adaptive systems.
From what I read, I agree with the people who might comment. There’s a large part of Islamic extremism, which is a blanket term we use throughout the enemy, which has a limiting label to put on it. There’s a large part of that enemy for and to be combatants who don’t care about us or the US. It’s a side product. It’s a distraction from the bigger issues that they have. They are complex too whether it’s within Islam or ideology more broadly.
I used to look at the Syrian conflict and think a lot of what’s going up there in Northern Iraq. They couldn’t give a stuff about Australia and what we’re doing. They see us as a distraction. “Get out of the way. We’ve got other things to do.” Your comment about some of the leadership can get a bit too conventional. They’re thinking and trying to put things and reduce things back to Black and White who need to raise our eyes.
This is where special operations in our DNA and in our training are these hearts and minds’ complex adaptive systems and interrogating networks. We understand that. That’s how we enjoy the chaos that comes with complex adaptive systems, not the complicated mechanistic or linear type of systems that we can be pulled into a conventional military sense.
I’ll pull a thread there. You remind me of a quote from a colleague who worked with me in Sweden when you mentioned culture because that’s very much my field as well. His quote is, “Cultures don’t meet. People do.” That speaks to that very point. We get so carried away with Hofstede, Trompenaars, and very much cultures in a one-dimensional frame. Afghani, Chinese, and Indians are like this.Cultures don't meet, people do. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, we all have the same desires and innate urges. How they manifest in our ecosystem is heavily influenced by culture, upbringing, and the cultural programming that we are exposed to from a young age and that we are adjusted to. That’s what we call culture but the emotions we feel are the same. If we can connect to the human behind that cultural programming, that’s when we start understanding and realising, “The motivations behind what we do and why we do it, between myself and that person, are usually very similar.” That’s an interesting point.
I’m so happy to hear someone with your background bringing that to the table. That is how the regiment considers battle space because it hasn’t been in my limited exposure to special operations who have supported closely in Afghanistan. This might go to our next point that you bring up quite loudly in your book and that’s the mission changed, or perhaps the operator changed or the profile of your mission’s changed into a far more conventional kilo capture mission profile. I was in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. By that stage, it well and truly changed. What do you think brought that change on?
I want to preamble this with this is all hindsight.
To say that, it’s important and I agree, it’s hindsight. I’m standing here as someone saying the same thing as well. I played my role in that “shit fight.” While I slept easier at night, I fought for my decisions to where I thought best. It’s important that we unpack this and we’re going forward. I appreciate that. The benefit of hindsight is a dangerous thing.
We have our roles or impact over time and it was reduced to kill-catch targeting. It was driven by a few things from my point of view. It was highly successful. We would take in high-level Taliban and other ACM, any coalition hierarchy off the battlefields. We were clearing and securing villages and taking explosives and weaponry off the battlefield. We were disrupting communication lines. That had flown effects into Helmand and other places.
Ultimately, they found other ways around and bypassed but it was a comfortable, easy capability to wind up and deploy up and down the chain. It was easy for commanders to get lots of numbers back to Canberra. There’s no doubt about that. We know that there was reporting back in these numbers in huge interest at a political level. Why wouldn’t they be? That’s what they do. They count numbers and report happily up and down. It was also comfortable for us at times in the later parts of the Afghan campaign.
A lot of my colleagues and a lot of our junior command were very comfortable with doing direct action tasks. It was sexy. We were dominant. We’re challenged in the field against some pretty ragtime enemy at times. It’s got to be set compared to the capability that we brought. One of the lamentable things for me was we moved away from our core business of surveillance and reconnaissance. We also became comfortable in the short duration here. In our DNA, it’s long duration and long patrol times. I saw a shift in our operators but I don’t blame them for it.
They put up the environment.
I talked about it in the book. This was probably about deployment in 2009, 2010, or 2011. It was around that time walking out into the compound. I’d be up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning with other team guards going through the packs and seeing who might pop for the day and night and doing our work. You’d walk out at 6:00 in the morning for a brew. They’d be guys coming out of the gyms and nicely manicured with beards and wearing all the latest kit.
There’s a fight loft of buddy complacency getting around but at the time, they’re good operators. They’re doing good work there and getting past it but it started to feel that way that we would decide single one-trick pony and very conventional. As a result, we had a lot of reach down from higher. A lot of personnel had a lot of missions turned off or not approved. I was renowned. I was a pain in the ass mess to anyone above Louie Kernel because I was always throwing up.
We want to do this funky job and that funky job. It would take more of those who were getting knocked back and sticking with the direct action tasks. We are products of their environment. We became excellent at it. There were a few challenges, daytime operations. I don’t know what anyone was thinking about taking the night time away from us. The catch-and-release policy with the people all admitted or not was a real issue for us.
What do you mean?
We moved away from capturing bad guys and then passing them onto the US or holding them for long. If we can’t get some legal result within 24 hours, 48 hours, or it might have been 72 hours, we release all of the so-called bad guys or alleged bad guys, back into the network. There was a bit of a joke going around at one stage. We learned from some people we’d caught that at least they get a nice bed and some free food for a while. That was a bit of a joke. It did get a little faster in that sense and borderline Blackadder top moments but that’s war with all these paradoxes.
With all the added complexity of decision paralysis that comes with it, as to who the bad guy even is, you made the point. The image of the bad guy changed. Who is the bad guy now? I find it very interesting, your point about the SAS. It was almost like a punishment for performance because you performed a job to a higher standard. You were to go to an organisation. Perhaps later on, joined by two commandos and so on, as the ones that are going to do the hard yards, arguably the job of conventional infantry.
It’s also because of the wrist threshold. I’ve read about this and people talk about it quite openly. It’s far easier to justify to the public the death of Special Forces. The understanding within the Australian public is that you guys are doing some crazy stuff and high-risk stuff, which it is. Arguably, it is something that regular infantry could have done as well. However, it’s a lot easier to explain losing Special Forces soldiers than arguably conventional forces.
We’ve long known that. That’s not new. If you read back over some of the media and commentary around back to Princes Gate in 1980, and Desert Storm or Eagle Call that the US failed, Iranian University. I apologised. I’ve got that wrong. Read back over some of the commentary there and reports. It was playing in the government and the operators knew that the population back home would put up with a lot of Special Forces deaths because I have a different mindset to how they approach that context.
Young eighteen-year-olds coming back in body bags is hard to stomach. It’s petty. It’s the wrong way to make decisions about winning a war or having an impact in these types of environments. War, money, politics, and interests are ugly beasts. Anyone who goes into it or tries to reduce it to a good or bad, black or white, is going to end up with a bloody nose or bruised ego.
A bruised ego is a powerful term because there were certainly a few of those in our nationals. This is Daniel Chic a little bit but there’s certainly an echo of disdain or dislike for officers in your book. In fact, there’s no echo. In some points, you make it very clear. Where does that come from?
I love the tension in offices. I always say some of our best mates are officers. I love tension, and certainly, in the regiment that tensions writ large, you’ve got a different dynamic. Special operations are much flat structures. We probably suffer a little in how we try to fuse conventional military hierarchies into our special operations.
It does work against us at times. Other units around the world probably deal with it a bit better. For example, our offices should use the regiment and the regiment system for a lot longer than they are. They spend a couple of years and move on. Generally, you’ll have a young captain coming in into a truth full of crustiest like me. It has its inevitable tensions.
In the book, mostly, I hope taken as tongue in cheek that when you mix special operations with conventional hierarchies, that tension can become problematic. I love Preston Clines’s work in fear. He captures it well in a selection paper he did with his PhD. He talks over a few pages about the tension between conventional hierarchies and special operations. They resent us because we’ve got longer hair and wear baseball caps and shorts to briefings. We are selected for our common sense, our bravado, personality types, ability to not only accept high risk but to orientate inside of risk. That’s going back to my point about humans who are more comfortable in chaos and maybe others who are comfortable in ambiguity and lack of information or steer environments.
If we want the best special ops, I would argue, we need to keep a separation. We do. It goes back to one of the problems that we had. For us, one of the challenges we faced was that we were continually bleeding out into the conventional Army and military. That’s not an indictment on our military, the best military in the world. I love it but when it comes to the machinations of how we deploy forces, we probably went for a blanket solution when we should have been a little bit more thoughtful about it.
That did, on occasion. As I say in the book, Louie Kernel gave us a tongue-lashing for looking a bit shabby. We have been out on opiates for 30 days, and we’re washing our uniforms, or we had a pair of shorts and thongs and going to the next briefing. You don’t suffer fools lightly in those contexts. The personality was we don’t take it a backward step on the battlefield or in the briefing room.
That’s part of the Larkin attitude and mentality at the SAS, which is well and truly known. It’s part of embodying that identity as well. That is part of the challenge.
I hope so. We don’t want to lose. There is a bit of science in this. One of the best resilience-building factors or characteristics is the sense of humour. That operates along a spectrum from a cynical to a joyous or more open type of sense of humour. That’s one thing I love about the universe. Probably, it’s a redeeming feature above all. Some people don’t have the same sense of humour as us at times but we love everyone. I use we because it’s a community. I’m not with the unit anymore.
I understand it but I do agree, especially in the dark moments that you guys have been through. That’s oftentimes the only valve you have. My old man speaks to this quite a lot and we haven’t talked about this but he fought on the Bosnian front lines for three and a half years and the trenches. He often talks about this. They used to crack jokes with the enemy, who were 20 or 30 metres away on the other side in trenches. They used to make jokes about each other’s mothers and so on.
This was part of the release but also built or contributed to building the identity that you’re embodying. Going back to the social identity theory that talks about this which I’m sure you’re very familiar with, it talks a lot about how you distinguish yourself from others and that is something for a unit like SAS would be, having the Larkin attitude and the jovial, and getting away with a whole bunch of cheeky things that the more regular conventional Army certainly wouldn’t.
That’s certainly part of the charm. It goes again to the point of you making about selection and selecting the right people for the job. If I can pivot maybe to, I don’t want to say darker but certainly more serious part of that job, that is one of the things that we certainly don’t talk about in the Army. At least in the Army that I know, it is the act of taking your life.
That’s probably because a large percentage of the Army has not fired a shot in anger, myself included. I’ve been arguably to war zones but I’ve never taken a sight picture. That wasn’t my gig. That wasn’t the job I was doing so why should I talk about these sorts of things? I imagine that’s not the case for SAS operators because most of the operators, I’d imagine, have taken lives. Is that right?
You got asked the question a lot. It’s very matter-of-fact, to be honest. There’s not much emotion attached to the instant of pulling a trigger or killing someone that’s pretty, in almost every case, quite distant. It’s not something that you keep any thought to at the time, whether it’s dropping a bomb on a cave or a building or whether it’s engaging someone at 5 metres or less and for some hand-to-hand.
That’s probably a different prospect. I’ve never experienced that but it’s pretty matter-of-fact. They’re training takes over the shots released. Where it hits home is in the aftermath when you do your reorganisation or you’re reporting back and taking stock of the situation. The dead bodies then make you stop, pause and reflect. That’s where your first emotional pains of potentially what you’ve done as a group or an individual or as a team. You do reflect on things later on. You need to resolve those.
I hope I make the point in the book and I certainly do. There’s one area we can get a lot better at, which is in resolving again Preston Cline calls the residue of extreme experiences. That’s a helpful term and concept. Taking a life in the instant at the time is pretty matter of fact. I can’t speak for everyone but I would think a lot of people agree with that. It’s probably in the washout and then further down.
I’ve been much more impacted mentally by the death of civilians and non-combatants. It’s inevitable that the majority of people who die more are civilians and who are impacted, even our families and friends back home. In terms of people being killed, I probably saw the worst elements of that in Iraq, where civilians were always the ones with prominent numbers killed in suicide bombings and other attacks. Also, the guards, whether they were security forces or local security forces such as the Gurkhas or paid contractors from wherever around the world.It's inevitable that the majority of people who die in war are civilians who are impacted. Even our families and friends back home. Click To Tweet
Those traumatic experiences are the harder ones to let go of than the ones that probably dwell a bit more. As for enemy combatants, I can put my heart here and say, “I don’t feel much for them.” I have respect for them, I suppose in a funny way because they’re doing what they believe in. We’re doing but don’t tend to do well on that as much as civilian casualties.
Going back to that selection piece, how comfortable are you that we know how to select people who will have that ability to separate the act of killing, which is by itself a rather unnatural act at that point in time? How comfortable are you that we are selecting appropriately for that?
Very comfortable. We do a very good job and things evolve. In many years’ time, we will be saying, “Why do we do that?” I’m deeply involved in the selection of humans across a number of domains. By and large, for Australian Special Forces, do an excellent job. We acquire the best soccer metrics and cognitive testing.
We have increasingly strong metrics around our physiological selection criteria. We understand the science a lot more, even denser social factors. We have that good examination. We do a pretty good job and in my experience. I’m saying there have only been 1,500 operators selected in our 70-odd years across the SAS history.
As a psychologist and an investment in selection, I would give us an 8.5 or 9 out of 10 scorecard for how we’ve gone about it. We influence and inspire other selection processes. It’s a more complex thing than people give it credit for in special operations. We require a certain aptitude or IQ. That’s not IQ, technically but for the people reading at a certain intelligence level. That’s one starting point. Also, the higher physiological standards and they’re the first filters. Not withstanding also self-selection.
Someone has to have a certain amount of bravado and self-belief to turn up. I talked about it. You might be familiar with the dark triad. The dark triad is an examination of Machiavellianism sociopathy and narcissism. It’s googlable. Get on Google and have a look at the dark triad. I’ve touched on this in the book and we pulled back a little bit from it in expanding on it in the book. We didn’t want to make it too technical.
I believe that the dark triad is seen as a negative or a pejorative thing in terms of personality and behaviour. We need some clinical levels of some of these things to be in special operations. You do need to be a bit Machiavellian because you’ve got to come up with some cunning ways to kill or interdict your enemy.
You need to be a bit suffer a little psychopathy. There’s no doubt about that to be able to separate and distance the emotions. You need to be able to get out and fight the enemy, kill, and be exposed to civilian deaths one day, come home, go to sleep, wake up, and do it again. Do that on an ongoing basis. We also need a little bit of narcissism of subclinical reiterate.
If it’s at night, 30,000 feet, and you’re about to lead 20 men out the back of an aircraft into the hills of Afghanistan on a parachute mission, you’ve got to have a supreme belief that you’re going to pull it off. Not to mention a whole bunch of other technical things. The selection thing we do well. There are all kinds of people crawling over. In the five-hour community and more broadly, that has huge interest around the world. As for this time in history and human evolution, we do a pretty bloody good job of it.
Some might look at that idea of doctrine. I understand it and I agree. Putting those particular jobs, you have to have those elements. How do you put the cap back in the bag so to speak? I refer to a good show where you interviewed Deane-Peter Baker. You folks explored that topic a fair bit. He used the analogy of a submarine like you are inside a submarine. You have a machine and everybody knows what they’re doing but you are floating inside an open sea.
Individual operators might not necessarily realise that it’s either drifting off or even which direction they might be going into when you superimpose this idea for the dark triad, which is necessary. How do you then put the barriers on to make sure that we still remain within an idea of ethical bounds? I’d imagine it would be rather hard the more desensitised you become to war, warfare killing, and so on.
It goes back to the point I made about where we can be better. We talked about it at length in that podcast with Deane. We both agree this is an area to reintroduce back to soldering and that is a philosophical element aspect of human performance. As you may know, my belief is that’s the fourth pillar of human performance that we’ve either forgotten about or ignored.
It’s been made to be seen as fluffy and non-consequential by a stem-biased university system and technology-biased society, which is fine. I’m not having a go at those. They’re very important but who we are and how we think about how we think is lost. My experience with SAS operators, as well as our elite commandos, who are a powerhouse for our world, standard forces as well should be true with them as well.
I often deep think. I’ve had by far the most engaging deep-thinking discussions with my fellow colleagues than I have with any of my civilian mates. Nothing to discredit the Applecross Cricket Club. I’m away from home. I love those guys but it’s pretty shallow, talk of beer and rock and roll and Cricket, which is funny. We do well inside the realms of the selection. We get people who can reconcile the killing and the job, go home, and spend family time.
However, the impacts are probably not as well understood as we need to be. Tom Frame and Deane-Peter Baker talk about moral injury, where we’re starting to pick away through that. If we introduce a bias back to this philosophical, moral, and ethical part of our aspect of human performance, we will be better suited.
The other part, and I touch on this in the book too, is how we recover from a gym workout or a six-month deployment. The principles are the same. We probably aren’t as good as that yet as we need to be. When we first wrote the rewrite, the high-performance program in SAS which is still cracking on and influencing the ADF more broadly, which is great to hear, it was one of the areas for impact that we noted straight away. The more sessions you do a week in the gym, the better. That’s the mentality it was. We almost had a position of saving operators from themselves.
Football clubs have long known that they need to keep an eye on what they’re doing when they’re not around and make sure that they’re taking time to recover. Recovery becomes a part of the process. We can do a lot better with that. Certainly, it’s one of the things that comes up time and time again when we reflect back on the Afghanistan experience that we didn’t do that. We’re just seeing people time and time again. They’ll put their hand up but that’s a lesson that will come out of this for sure.
It’s already coming out. We’re seeing it with the number of suicides amongst the veteran community and so on and the loss of a sense of purpose. Perhaps, a moral injury is playing a part undoubtedly. We talked about what’s the hardest about killing. You mentioned civilians as one key point. In your book, you talk about the battle damage assessment but also with Deane-Peter Baker. Battle damage assessment, meaning for those unfamiliar with our audience, is at which point it becomes okay or what number of civilians or lives lost of the innocent can justify the killing of, say, a Surgent Commander. This is something that even Baker had personal trouble with.
The correct collateral damage estimates the CDAs.
Sorry, not BDAs. That’s right. BDA comes after. The collateral damage estimate, even back in arms here, I had struggled with this idea that we can weigh up the lives of the innocent against the lives of insurgents. At which point does it become justifiable? All it does is sum up that not all lives are worth equally. That’s what it comes down to. You make the point with the Deane-Peter Baker. That was something you struggled with and openly talked about. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Deane and I have a slight bifurcation here, quite a slight point of departure. We’re very dear old friends so it’s not a quarrel. He comes from a just war theory or just war tradition perspective. I come from, I suppose, a lived experience. The point I’ll make before explaining is that the CDAs could mean too much. More is deeply unethical. It’s to be justified. That statement clearly supports my position, as I would say to Deane.
You’re coming from a pretty low or high base or a long way back in terms of talking about ethics and what’s right, just, and fair. That’s the first thing I would say. The cloud of damage estimates is very short for those who don’t know. You can Google this. It’s open source and is applied liberally across all conflicts. It’s the number of civilian casualties you are willing to forgo to achieve a target or an outcome.
For example, in Baghdad, if they were going to hit a high-level al-Qaeda commander. He was having a meeting in a building and there was a hospital or apartment complex next door. They drop a big bomb on it and say, “We’ll withstand 15 civilian casualties to kill this 1 guy.” Once it achieved that max or that cap, they would drop the ball on how they want to structure that. That’s a very clumsy or broad way to look at it but the lawyers are there in the rooms. They advised generals and decision-makers on those things.
I do struggle with that but I draw back to my initial statement that I accept that war is a deeply unethical business. It’s a terrible business. I wish there wasn’t any but that’s unrealistic. We will always have to deal with those dilemmas. It’s up to the individual and our organisations to make sure that we’re aware that that what’s going on in people’s minds and that’s going to have impacts on different people for different reasons. We ensure that we spend time with them and recover them. Not just physically but psychologically, morally and making sure that they’re thinking through these things that they can reconcile.
This brings us back to Peter’s position, which is that all war is justifiable under certain conditions and depending on the outcomes, whether that’s a utilitarian or deontological perspective. However you want to unpack that, that’s for the individual to work through. Our responsibility is to arm them with the tools, the language, and the less common and mental frameworks in which they can reconcile within themselves, those things that they’ve seen or experienced.
Back to the Greeks, their philosophy was one of the foundations of creating a good citizen and, therefore, a good soldier. The ancients scream forward to us from the past and still. Often, when I present, I compare Harry Moffitt in 1916, who was killed on the 18th of July 1916, and Harry Moffitt in 2016. I had two images. I say there’s more technology on Harry Moffitt 2016 than on the whole battlefield of 1916. One thing hasn’t changed. The value proposition or the moral, ethical, and cognitive space hasn’t changed a great deal in those 100 years. We’ve got a big to learn.
It’s still ugly. You made a point with Deane. The training in ethics that you have received, you wish you had received when you were a young soldier just starting. How different do you think you would have been? Could you have been as effective have you had this much thinking in your mind about war killing ethics of it all?
Conventional frontline forces would be a challenge knowing where the balance is because if there is a danger for those who choose to fight for their country, what we don’t want is people challenging the status quo. There comes a point where we need people to fight. We don’t want to turn it into a quest to turn people into pacifists. I’m not saying that’s a bad or a good thing.For conventional frontline, forces would be a challenge to know where the balance is. Because if there is a danger for those who choose to fight for their country, what we don't want is people challenging the status quo. There comes a point where we… Click To Tweet
That’s a real point. We can’t have that in a unit like the SAS.
Certainly not in the SAS. I’m pretty confident that our selection process is rigid enough to pick the right people who can reconcile the two and visit lethal violence, go home, and have a Sunday race for their family but that’s not the case for everyone. That’s a fact. Particularly when we need to ramp up quick numbers, including World War I and World War II, there are probably discussions that I would push to the reconciliation moral or recovery after the fact.
I suppose this brings out the point that the defence force is not in the business of creating better humans per se. It’s in the business of defending the nation. I often can start to sound or it sounds like reading too deeply into it and maybe a little element of passivism at the other end of my career and seeing what war does.
However, I strongly believe that the ADF exists to defend the nation. That means going to war and ultimately, visiting lethal violence and killing. In those formative years of young soldiers’ lives, we need to make them aware that they have a greater sense of themselves, that they think about how they think, and have a strong philosophical base to their values and the community but certainly, we still want to harden them as warriors. I’m not afraid to use that term.
Particularly, we talk about young men, which are, by and large, the ones that go and do the killing and also the dying. We also can’t forget the evolutionary reasons behind them doing so and twenty times more testosterone to go and seek status in the sense of the longing, which is all part of why this works when it works and why we also can’t necessarily hope to infuse all of these ethical dilemmas into young soldiers.
I’m talking in their early twenties and so on because that’s not necessarily what’s going to override. What’s going to override is the sense of adrenaline, adventure, status, and group belonging and fighting for your group. Whether that’s your nation, tribe, or local gang, it almost becomes irrelevant. It is about finding your place in the world.
There’s a helpful framework and that is important to train in ethical dilemmas and ethical decision-making. There’s a nice model that I like. It’s an old one. It’s the Three-Block Model. It’s contemporary in its essence because we no longer need to produce soldiers who will go into trench warfare and fight an explicitly identifiable enemy. We are soldiers.It is about finding your place in the world. There's a helpful framework, and it is important to train in ethical dilemmas and ethical decision-making. Click To Tweet
On the first block, we fight, kill, and die in the combat role. On the second block, we need to provide humanitarian aid, support to civilians, and engage hearts and minds. In the third block, we need to employ diplomacy, key leader engagement, and intelligence gathering. That’s not just for the SAS. That’s the war zone team war, a war zone in Bosnia, or a war zone in Iraq. There is a bit more preparation and thinking that can go into those philosophical aspects, as I like to call it. I’m not afraid of that. The imperative will always be warfighting.
I discussed this with Deane-Peter Baker’s colleague, Cian O’Driscoll, in a previous episode. He comes at it from a just war theory tradition as well but is looking to understand what victory means. That’s in his argument. He agrees that we don’t necessarily define victory, which then leads to a lot of these other problems of mission creep or chasing the idea of war as opposed to necessarily a defined vision. That will cascade down to how we then perform on the ground. Also, we need to speak to that very point to our soldiers, “What does victory look like? At which point do we need to pull back, push harder, or whatever it is?”
I’m very conscious of the time and you’ve been very gracious with it. If I were to say that it is a principle thread of your book, it’s probably going to be an understatement. You’ve already alluded to this as well in the previous comment. That is the cost of service for families. If I may use their names. I feel like I know them because I’ve read your book, your wife Danielle, daughter Georgia, and son Henry.
You make that point so clear in the book and vivid that I get goosebumps about the price, ultimately, you’ve paid. Particularly, you make the point with your son Henry. One of the things that stood out was that you’d missed the first 9 of his 12 birthdays. Can you talk about that? I agree. That’s something that we don’t necessarily discuss and that’s the price families pay for service in particular but perhaps in units like yours going to war so frequently.
It’s the unwritten rule principle of service in the military full stop. To that end, in all services or frontline emergency services. You sacrifice your family and wonderful life, as I like to call it in a song I wrote. It goes without saying you don’t have any choice in that matter. When the phone rings for a fire officer, they have to go. That doesn’t matter what’s going on. When the phone rings for a soldier, a similar thing happens. They go willingly too for the most part.
It’s a fact. It’s helpful to have work-life balance in this context. We need to have another way around that. One of the things we are much better at or the unit is much better than it used to be is engaging with families and children on an individual level. A lot of the defence force they do because it’s mass numbers. They have a one-size-fits-all approach.
For example, my wife never engaged too much with DCO or any of the supports. She didn’t need it. She’s a full-time mom and full-time work but she would have liked to be more connected to certain parts of the network. We impacted that and made things a lot better. There’s a high attrition rate in the military or SAS. I can’t speak more broadly for the military but I’m sure there are a lot of additional pressures there around deployments and time away.
Marriages are under stress and a lot of them break. It’s not just the deployments. The children and partners can reconcile the time away with a sense of pride and shared purpose. What can be draining, and certainly, it was for us and very frustrating. I touched on it in the book as well. We would come home from deployments and then we go and do promotion courses. Honestly, we need to do those courses but they’ll be quite arbitrary at times that are frustrating.
We do tours to share information, whether it’s some tactics and techniques or some strategic lessons learned. We would have to participate in exercises. We were spending, and it’s worse, 6 months on opiates, 1 year, and maybe 3 to 4 months of the year away whilst in Australia or overseas. That put a strain on our circumstances.
We’re more cognisant of that. The ADF and our unit, in particular, became better at individualising how we treat families and work with families. Some families need lots of support and attention. A woman posted to Perth with a family all in North Queensland, for example. Other people have their support networks in Perth and don’t need as much. There’s nuance in that. I was very lucky. I managed to finish up on that point.
I was incredibly lucky to have a wife like Danielle to meet her at a pub in 1991. My kids have long suffered for me and they’re wonderful. Their lives have been impacted and still, we see the remnants of that but I’m glad to say we’ve made it through. I had an exhibition for the bats at the Shrine of Remembrance a couple of years ago.
Right at the entrance, the statement I stand by said, “It’s not my body, mind, or soul that I sacrificed in my career. It was my family.” That’s a truth that I would ask all people coming into defence, especially those who are probably going to spend a lot of time away, maybe frontline soldiers. You give the strategic consideration that it needs or demands and have to think about how you’re going to deal with that.
There’s a woman by the name of Melanie Freeman who has done a lot of work in this space. She’s based in Perth. She works with the regiment and has a lot of good things to say. We hope to have her on the show with the MTCI. She’s got a lot of good things to say and has done a ton of research in this space about how we can prepare, sustain, and recover from deployments as family units and communities. We’ll get better at that as well.
It’s important that the rest of the community, not involved with the military, understands those pressures. Ultimately, it’s the nation that’s sending our soldiers forth. It is the families that are remaining behind that are paying the price. We need the whole community to understand that. Also, embrace the challenge of helping those who are left behind alone. That’s an important point. Perhaps even for our politicians who are sending soldiers to war to deeply understand the cost. Not only on the soldiers but on the broader community as well. It’s a good point.
If there are any politicians reading or anyone who’s charged emotionally to do it or motivated to do it, I’d like to see a mental release for partners. There was an informal unreleased for kids, which I thought was a lovely idea. My wife has served this nation every bit as much as I have. I don’t like wearing medals. I don’t know why but I wear them when I’m going to match with my father but I don’t wear them to events and things. She always makes me wear them to certain things where she goes because she says, “I’m proud of them and I share them with you.” She probably deserves every bit as much as I do and many others. I love her. I’m so lucky. My message to most people is to make it work and find a way.
Good on you. Firstly, you publicly disclosed your appreciation and that’s very humble of you. Also, the idea of the spouse medal. That’s a brilliant idea. There are any readings that are certainly something you can earn some cred with men and women in the forces. I keep saying but there are so many points. If you don’t mind, we’ll pivot to something that’s a little bit more light-hearted and that is an intimate part of you. The book is about cricket. It’s a fantastic way to tell the story through your Eleven Bats. Why was cricket so important, both to you, individually but also to those you’ve played with on operations?
Cricket is in my blood. I grew up with two brothers, Robert and Paul, and my father, Greg, and my mom on occasion. She took pleasure in watching us having a good time. We played cricket everywhere, backyard or streets. We played in the backseat of the car, at kitchen tables, in Nerf balls and bats in the lounge rooms at night. We were pretty crazy about it. It was always there.
I was only talking about this with a friend. The very first that happened by chance and for those who don’t know much about the bats, the bullet, the headline is it was my habit to take a bat on each deployment that I went on. We used it then I had the men and women sign the bat at the end as you do. I’ve got that collection of cricket bats, which are unique artefacts. They symbolise Australia’s commitment for many years. As we’re in the twentieth year of wrapping up in Afghanistan, I had to spread the word a lot more about them.
In those early deployments, cricket was a release of a bit of fun. I remember the first games of cricket we had in Asadabad. We were in a compound that was getting rocketed and shot at last night. We played a game of cricket. There’d be a rocket fire and then it was like, “Grab your gun,” and go from the wall. Shoot a few off into the cornfields around you. It was all a bit past, say after a while but we would be playing cricket on those afternoons often before that skirmish, I’ll call it, would occur.
I wonder if the enemy is creeping into position through the cornfields, the Maze, or along the rivers and up on the high grounds. They must have been able to hear his play. The Taliban is trying to squash joy, cricket, music, and everything. That was the whole purpose and here we are, appealing, sledging each other, and having uproarious laughter.
I always felt like we had one over them. We were winning by playing the game of cricket and then hearing us. I hope it frustrated them. I didn’t think much of it. It was something that we did. We played cricket. It’s not always renowned in the regiment for cricket exploits and playing cricket. It’s a bit of an embers at the time about playing cricket. It grew out of that.
On the next trip to Iraq, there were no cricket bats there so I made one out of a bit and a pen knife, which was one that’s in the collection as well. It wasn’t probably until the third or fourth bat that I started to realise the therapeutic impact that it had more than the obvious sense of humour and the rest of its thought.
In 2005, we were sitting around the bee huts. In a massive explosion from Tariqa, a suicide bomber had walked into a dog fight and cracked off or detonated, killing and wounding dozens of mostly men and boys. Our small surgical facility was soon overwhelmed by dozens of dead and dying people. I was in charge of looking after the triage of the people who weren’t going to make it, the dying people that we couldn’t save because we didn’t have the resources.
You can imagine the carnage all day. All of us are helping the lone doctor and a couple of nurses to treat all these horrific imagery and bagging people. It was a terrible scene. At the end of the day, we were all sitting around the bee huts and it was a low mood, it’s fair to say. It was quite depressing and everybody was emotionally spent and fatigued physically. Someone grabbed a bat and a ball and walked out. We were having a bit of a head-up and a muck around.
It was almost like the zombies wandering across to what was later to be our helicopter landing pad. You could see these hunched, depressed figures starting to unwind. It was so obvious to me. I grabbed my camera and started taking photos. There was an appeal. There was a sledge, a laugh, a wicked taken, and more sledging. We’re watching them come back to life after such a tragic day.
It was then that grabbed me. This cricket is more. There’s a deeper thing happening here than relief or novelty. I’m fascinated by novelty. It’s something I get distracted with early in the morning, and for a long, it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and the therapeutic. We also use it to gain intelligence, build rapport, set up, and lay us to security. Kids play street cricket in the street urchins in Kabul. They know everyone. They know everything that’s coming and going. You can build rapport with a bunch of street urchins and better cricket. They become pretty handy local agents. The cricket, I could go on for hours but it’s so much more to it than the game itself.
I don’t want to say it’s also the idea of sport in itself. I draw on experience, which we touched on. Most of my audience was familiar but my partner and I opened the first CrossFit gym in Bosnia with a vision to build a community and build bridges between those who were otherwise divided. By the end of our time, too easily, we had nine flags of foreign nations that were represented in the gym membership.
We had the four Bosnian ethnicities all training together. Ethnicity and politics were never discussed but as a unit or an organisation, we were able to then do charity work for kids with cancer and kids with autism or do a blood drive, which was probably the most symbolic where we had a couple of different coaches of different ethnicities lying next to each other all bleeding red.
This was the powerful symbology in sport and there’s plenty of research to support this. Sport does have the ability to do that, to bring down walls. Your book speaks to that beautifully. Your gratitude for them with the Nepalese Gurkha who you first got exposed to Iraq and then later on, in Afghanistan.
Cricket was the principal vehicle through which you built relationships, trust, and friendship with these guys, and then a deep understanding of both of their circumstances. Also, how you, as an individual Australian Soldier, can perhaps help them in their circumstances. Can you talk about that a little bit because it’s a powerful insight?
In Iraq, we played a bit of cricket with the Gurkha, who were often the front line, the very first line of security. A lot of them were hurt by suicide bombers standing alongside local security forces. In one instance, during that deployment, a rocket landed in their 11B 11/10 city, which is essentially what they were staying in, which is a bit of a disgrace. We’re all in these sandbagged, concrete bunkers sleeping quite comfortably and generally supporting high survivability but they were intense in a car park.
It goes to show the deaths, I thought. I use the word death cynically. Some of the contracting companies who are taking large volumes of the dash and paying people stuff all as a disgrace. In one instance, they lost maybe half a dozen or a dozen of their colleagues directly from a rocket. They burnt down the 10th city. We had them come to the compound. They stayed in the various foods and a couple of accommodations until they found another.
We’d already written reports saying, “This is not good enough. We should be looking after them.” We played cricket. They were devastated and lost a lot of their close friends. They are understaffed so they were doing double. It was a horrendous time for them. To play cricket with them and see the smiles on their faces was super powerful. We encouraged touching, hugging, and sharing physical contact connections, as well as emotional and psychological connections with them.
I worked again with them in Kabul. I talk about them and build up such a fond relationship with them. We played cricket and smoked cigarettes at the front together. It wasn’t just me. It’s not all about Harry. This is the Australian Forces. I’m not a cynical person but I was getting a little sick and tired of seeing people doing it that tough and getting paid off towards the end of the war.
It was $50 a month or something. Probably they’re getting $2,000 a month or more for the payment in the contracts. We had a pay raise for them. We organised, legal, and nudged for a pay raise and the contracting groups which they got. They are super happy with that. We were driven to do that, such as the feeling and rapport that we had with those with the Gurkhas. I could go on but I’d start to sound a bit better about how they were treated.
This is part of the ecosystem of post-conflict. We touched on this. I went to Iraq as a contractor. I saw those vets and I couldn’t believe it.
You’re death right about sport. There is a lot of research. Some great PhDs have been written about the power of sport and bridging as a non-violent diplomatic tool in warfare and Cold War environments as well. It has examples of where it had a massive impact at a diplomatic level. I suppose I defend you. You always defend your home turf but cricket is a different type of game that separates from football and gymnasiums.
The reason I say that is it is in its inclusivity. It expands skill level, gender, ethnicity, religion, and everything. You don’t have to even know what cricket is to turn up and get a game. It is inherent in its informal rules that all of us, I hope, understand about cricket. You can’t get out the first ball. Everybody gets a bat and a ball. Everybody has to feel before you get a bat and a ball. You can be out one hand and one bounce.
It’s this inclusivity in an informal game of cricket. You can play with anything. You can play with it and stick it on a piece of paper. I’ve seen it played equally as passionately in all spheres. I love 42. I love Aussie rules and soccer but it takes a bigger field. It’s a bit more competitive. It kicks around a ball. I remember seeing a number of young women in Afghanistan intrigued with what was going on. We threw them the ball and they got involved. They equally enjoyed the experience and the same team, we’re in cricket. They go, “What is that?” This game is a cricket team or with people who’ve never seen ever cricket ever.
As an immigrant to Australia, I must admit, that was my first reaction. The only cricket I’ve played is the one you described, where the rules are made up on the spot because that’s the only skill I was bringing to the table.
Baseball is similar. It’s a stick and ball game.
There’s the third area that you talked about in your book about the three things when you were blown up when you lost a close mate. That’s a key thread that resonates throughout the book about your close mate who was lost in an IUD when you were wounded. You described the moment when you were flying in the air and there were three things that flashed up in front of your mind.
That’s your books in your backpack, your family, and cricket. It touched on the latitude but the last one we haven’t is psychology. I came to find out, as you said at the start, that architecture psychology was always something you were going to do, which I’ve never heard of but this was before joining the Army. After leaving, you then became a registered psychologist. Why psychology? Why do you think life has drawn you to it?
Isn’t that the most fascinating subject of all? Humans are the most complex, frustrating, beautiful, ugly organisms, things, or whatever we are of all. We’re all infatuated and intrigued. We’re all psychologists. We all have our perceptions and observations of the world. I decided that was an interest of mine that I wanted to take much deeper. Also, I wanted to be able to have some authority. I don’t mean in terms of me being an authority. I wanted to reach into that as close to the truth as I could.
I thought that academia was the place where I get the best evidence and support research in terms of where I want to say a single point of truth but where the multiple points of truth are. That was behind me. I’ve always been interested in the evidence. I was drawn to that but it’s certainly the most interesting topic of all psychology and its forefather or mother philosophy. The two are very closely aligned for me.
Going back to Sean. Whenever I hear Sean’s name, I always think of Dave and Mary, his parents and family. I want to acknowledge them in my narrative here but when I was returned wounded in action in 2008, the study journey that I was on became even more meaningful, powerful, and deeper implicit motivation for me. It inspired me. I was already set on a journey to be a psychologist, hopefully, at that stage but that was something I spent a lot of time in the dark, lying in bed on intravenous drugs, and contemplating that that was my way out of the hole or part of the solution.
If I lost my leg, which was still under review at that stage, I couldn’t be an operator anymore. I knew that I had a second identity or at least something to cling to if I were to separate. That’s where this notion of the third thing comes from. That was the third thing on the mantle piece. I know that education is a super powerful way. We’ve said it a few times. You’re saying it too much but there’s great evidence and great research behind life outcomes, mental health outcomes, physical outcomes, social outcomes, and moral outcomes for people who pursue education, is what I’ll say.
That doesn’t mean everyone should run off to do a Masters, an MBA, or anything. It might be as simple as finishing year twelve. It is a huge barrier to young men, I believe. We should allow all humans to go back to and finish year twelve if they choose to for free or it might be a small business or learning to be a carpenter. I’ve got a friend who set up a chain of hairdressing salons. They did small business but this is his lifelong pursuit of education. It’s a massive part of the solution to veteran ills, that blanket turn of veteran issues.
Nurturing intellectual curiosity. I published an article on the forge about that very point because after coming back to defence, to be frank, I was somewhat disappointed that we still hadn’t bridged the idea that education is a fantastic way to help people outside of defence but also inside of defence. In my paper, I was arguing for defence funding for any type of vocational training, whatever someone wants to do. It could be a cooking class. It doesn’t matter. What is creativity? Creativity is emergence of different ideas to come up with two disparate concepts, arguably, into something new.
To be agile in the future of war, we need creativity. That might come from, say, an operator, who’s also taking a cooking class. A spark might occur somewhere but also, it also gives them another outlet. It removes this from this blinked view of the world through the lens of Army defence, which is arguably quite dangerous. I hardly agree. Is that the reason that you started the wanderers’ education program?
What we’ll see to keep riffing on the point you made it is in the future, and I’m certainly turning my mind to this, mental health will be rebadged as brain health. Education is about brain health. I increased movable on that point. It’s more helpful language than mental health. Education, learning, curiosity, creativity, novelty, attention focused, perception, and the list goes on of cognitive phenomena that we yet to understand but we have somewhat explained or understand.
All these things play into brain health. Good brain health is causing life outcomes, longevity, and all the rest of it. Education is key. My journey in education, I wrote a paper back in 2007. That got a little punched through the noise a little and that was calling for US GI Bill. I knew back then that there were a lot of operators in the regiment, and I wrote this disruptive paper on it, who was studying in the closet.
You were studying and seen as a bit x, “What are you studying for? That’s for bloody the academics.” We want war fighters and so on. We do but that doesn’t mean we are smart. We’ll fight overhead. A few officers said, “We don’t need smart soldiers. We need soldiers to learn to shoot guns.” I had a bit of a B in my bonnet. In 2008, I had a lot of time to think about it. I thought, “How can I stop talking about it, writing about it, and doing something about it?”
That’s a message I hope brings through to a few people in the social media at the moment who are doing a lot of talking. In short, very briefly, I suppose I envisaged the wanderers’ education program, which is an education program that recognises that transition is too late. The transition could come now or in the next few seconds.
We need to start educating or treating our soldiers and defence members from the moment they arrive and preparing them for the transition from the moment they join. I wanted to establish something where those who were studying in the closet could come out and also give opportunities for those who wanted to study while they were in service. The end state is it’s gone gangbusters. I’m hoping to take this to the minister of inventions affairs very soon.
I’ve spoken to them about it. We’ve proven the concept. We’ve been out and raised a whole bunch of money from corporate. We’ve ported it inside the fence, which I don’t think has been done before. It’s spent inside the regiment. It’s managed by the unit and soldiers who are serving. The fund is looked after and invested. It’s all above board. We’re putting our 70th person into a scholarship soon. Everything from year twelve to carpentry to MBAs are all punching way above their weight, as you would expect and that’s my experience with soldiers and defence members full stop, whether they’ve done year twelve or are already masters qualified.
No surprises but they transition into a network that’s already long been established during their career. All of the civilian stuff is demystified. Here’s the kicker for me because it was the biggest criticism I had from everyone, from generals down to private about the whole thing. They said that people will study and run. They’ll get a degree and bugger off. It’s added to retention.
On average, people stay in defence for two years longer to finish their studies. It’s been a huge win. I don’t have a great deal to do with it anymore. It’s all managed from our human performance or out from the units of human performance manager. We don’t have too much trouble raising money. If you want to scale, it would take some money but this is a preventive measure. There’s not enough of those in the whole veteran value at the moment.
One of the things that the Royal Commission does is take a deep dive into preventative initiatives, and this is it. I’ve changed my mind on the GI Bill. The GI Bill concept is good for the US but it’s hugely limited and targets an audience here in Australia. We can come up with something similar, some legislation or defence education legislation that allows people to study what they want, when they want, on what topic they want, and whenever they want self-directed and identity-improving amplifying solutions to transition issues. Ambulance at the top of the cliff. Not at the bottom of the cliff like everything is at the moment. Let’s get the ambulance to the top of the cliff.
That’s so spot on. That resonates so closely with me as someone who’s a perpetual learner in some sense. I couldn’t agree more. There are so many points we could use from there but the one that stands out to me the most is the connection between Army units and the greater community. You said you received investment from corporates.
There’s a recognition and a bridge that we need to build with the broader community about the experience of soldiering and the hardships of soldiering. Also, the value defence people bring. There is quite a way of that happening. Certainly, the transition piece about employment and employee veterans because of their X, Y, and Z. I agree, this is all fantastic but I couldn’t agree more with your point about this needs to start from recruitment until, ultimately, we leave the defence force.
You touched on a couple of points like the veteran issue with suicide and mental health. I hope you step up and take a very deep dive into those figures and the nuance. I don’t necessarily agree that we should be using terminology that blankets all veterans with mental health risks. We need to dial that language a little because it’s helpful to the people we need to help the most.
However, one thing that comes out of these statistics on suicide is mental health problems in veterans. A significant portion of those individuals have only been in the military for a short time. Probably, it’s weighted more heavily in people who have only served a number of years and are getting out for physiological injury or being moved on. It’s obvious to us.
This approach to putting the preventive measures and giving them something else recognises that a soldier, sailor, airman, or a woman’s career can be over in a moment. The military is a contact sport whether you’re on operations or not. Kapuka is a context sport. People had come run around it all the time. Exercise, parachuting, shooting, and all of these are highly risky adventures.
It’s not just education but my thoughts on it are that we need to start treating transition as part of your initial engagement because your career can be over in a moment. That’s an important point to make. I would tend to address what is a highly sensitive time, people who have been discharged after only a short period of service, which seems to be. We need more data for sure but there seems to be a high elevation of prevalence in those populations.
I spoke about this at length with Pip Weiland on a previous episode, who was the head of Sitecore and heads up Open Arms, Queensland. At that very point, the medical discharge, in particular, are the highest risk, followed by those who’ve left. With the length of service, there’s a correlation between. If it’s a shorter period, the risk is somewhat higher. There are no clear answers as to why but it is certainly has something to do with the loss of tribe and identity that you had ultimately embraced and that is taken away from you willingly or not.
It’s hard to adjust when your identity is so dependent on the uniform. You keep harping on about the points you make in the book because they are so strong. This might have been in a show I’ve listened to you. One of the main bits of advice you give to young soldiers is to have civilian friends. It’s to then have a separate identity outside of the military, which is part of building that resilience. The Army or the military, whatever service you’re in, you cannot allow that to be all of that just you. That’s it.Young soldiers should have civilian friends to have a separate identity outside of the military. Whatever service you're in, you cannot allow that to be just all of that. Click To Tweet
The military is a part of who you are. That’s not all you are. It rounds back to the philosophy of how we think about how we think. It’s a superpower. You know the Army is meant for education. It’s the biggest provider of education in the nation. We have 3 if you want but we have 2 huge universities that we should be channelling people who’ve been discharged physically through doing short courses and reading them.
Everyone who reaches the rank of Lance Jack should go off to do intensive courses. It’s not just for officers. It should be for all of us. It’s our defence academy. We’re missing a beat here. I found nothing. I’ve put hundreds of defence members into universities. Every university I’ve approached or spoken to go, “Welcome. Bring them in. We want more. If the government’s going to pay, we’ll have that as well.”
There are no barriers anywhere. They’re 1800s technology in terms of hierarchy. Imagine barriers that go back to the days of segregation when there were places in the barracks where privates weren’t allowed to go. There were signs on the beaches of South Africa, “Privates or soldiers are not welcome here.” Let’s get past that.
That’s not cultural. You talk about culture. That’s an organisational cultural shift that we need to make. The fact that it is overwhelmingly officers that have education funded is a huge shortfall on our side and a point I made in the previous article. Harry, I’m conscious of time. I could sit and talk to you all day. I’m going to say at the outset you can expect an additional invite from me to do episode two because we’ve barely scratched the surface.
While we covered some of the points that I had on my notes, there is plenty more I could ask you. You keep using the word disruptor. You truly are a disruptor. You were a disruptor in the unit because, as you self-described yourself in the book, you were lightweight. Afterwards, you were a closeted learner who then came out of the closet quite prominently. That’s a disruptive effect. You become a psychologist, which tries, understands, and echoes the lessons you’ve learned, undoubtedly in your employment. I’m sure you’re doing the same thing.
Thank you for your service. You are truly a legend of the Australian Army. I echo many of the comments I’ve certainly seen about the book on social media. You are not only telling the story of SAS per se but also of the hardships, the pain and the sacrifices many US soldiers make in the service of the nation. I congratulate you. It’s a fantastic read. Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Maz, thank you for your service. This is a great show. From inside defence, it’s a great effort to achieve that and have it sanctioned. More power to you and kicks on big goals.
Thanks. I appreciate you saying that. Look out for that invitation email. It will be coming.