The Voices of War

57. John Gartner - Reflections on a lifetime of service in the Special Forces

VOW 57 | Special Forces


Today, I spoke with John Gartner, whose career as a professional soldier and security adviser spans more than five decades. During that time, he served in the Australian SAS, Rhodesian SAS, Selous Scouts, South African National Intelligence Service and as a trainer for Sri Lankan Infantry and Special Forces units. He also provided security and close protection advice to a former Saudi Arabian oil minister as well as for the Brunei Royal Family.


John joins me today to discuss lessons learnt throughout his career, which is also captured in incredible detail in his memoir titled ‘The Fading Light’. I recently finished this book, which is a combination of unbelievable operational detail as well as reflections of a man who’s seen the best and the worst side of war.


Some of the topics we covered are:

  • John’s entry into the Australian SAS
  • Reasons behind joining the Rhodesian SAS
  • The (changed) profile of a Special Forces soldier
  • Life and operations in Rhodesia
  • Reflections on taking a life
  • John’s perspective on PTSD
  • The importance of ‘purpose’
  • War, atrocities, and ‘bad apples’
  • Selective Western military engagements
  • Living and working for a Saudi sheik and Brunei Royal Family
  • The power of cultural and linguistic immersion
  • The impact of John’s career on his family

Throughout the episode, I referred to several discussions with previous guests. You can find those here:

Jason Pack – On the ’Global Enduring Disorder’

Marc Garlasco – War through the eyes of a Pentagon Chief of High Value Targeting

Harry Moffitt – A Humble Warrior


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John Gartner – Reflections on a lifetime of service in the Special Forces

A brief preamble to this episode with Special Forces Veteran, John Gartner. As you will hear, he has more than 50 years of experience serving in various Special Forces units, as well as a security advisor working in many conflict areas around the world. John had seen about every side of the war that there is to see. Having said that, some of his views may be considered controversial, especially when discussing post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who regularly tune in to the show will know that I welcome such edgy discussions as I hope to shed light on some of the more taboo topics related to war.

If you have a particularly strong opinion about anything mentioned in this episode, please feel free to share your thoughts, providing public comment on your podcatcher on social media and make sure you tag The Voices of War. Alternatively, you can send me a private note at Lastly, I want to give a big shout-out and thanks to two recent Patron supporters, both of whom have opted to donate beyond the suggested $5 per month. Thank you, Steve and Sarah. Your support means the world to me and I’ll keep working hard to bring you high-quality content about a grossly misunderstood human endeavour that has far-reaching and significant implications. Let’s meet our next guest, John Gartner.

My guest is John Gartner, whose career as a professional soldier and security advisor spans more than five decades. During that time, he served in the Australian SAS, Rhodesian SAS, Selous Scouts, South African National Intelligence Service, and as a trainer for Sri Lankan Infantry in Special Forces Units. He then had a slight change of pace and served for six years as a security and close protection advisor to the former Saudi Arabian Oil Minister, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani.

After this job, he relocated to Brunei, where he spent a further three years in a high-profile security advisory role for the Brunei Royal Family, working primarily for Prince Jefri Bolkiah and his son Prince Abdul Hakeem. In 1998, he returned to Australia to establish OAM Australia, then OAM Indonesia in 1999, based in Jakarta.

Since then, he has delivered and continues to deliver strategic and tactical security consultancy services and risk management support throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South America. He joins me on this episode to discuss lessons learned throughout his career, which is also captured in incredible detail in his memoir titled The Fading Light. I just finished this book, which is a combination of unbelievable operational detail, as well as reflections of a man who has seen the best and the worst side of war. John, thank you very much for joining me on The Voices of War.

My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

John, before we get into the nitty-gritty details of your career, maybe let’s go to where it all started. What motivated you to join the Army in the first place?

It’s quite bland and dry. I was born in Adelaide and raised there. This was in the ’60s and ’70s. I came from a lower socio-economic background. I didn’t have much in the way of growing up. I didn’t go to university. I finished high school, and went into the commercial world for a few years but found it incredibly boring. had been quite a voracious reader in my mid-teens, A lot of that was based on stories of warfare, combat, and so forth. In your teens, you see the idealistic side of things. You don’t see the horror that goes with that.

I decided to get out of my economic lower life. The best course would be to spend a couple of years in the Australian Army, which would give me a financial platform and a little bit of experience, then I would see whether I’d carry on with my time in Australia. I had no intention at that stage of going overseas. My career path would’ve been in the Australian Army. It was only as it evolved through that few years that I changed my mind about where I wanted to go. I then left the Army. I enlisted in ‘71 and did my three-year service, which included the SAS selection and time in the SAS regiment here in Swanbourne, then I decided to go overseas.

That was it. Nothing dramatic. No journey or awakening on the road from Damascus serving. It was a slow progression as to where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. Being in the Australian SAS at the end of the Vietnam War was probably the motivator that I wanted. I didn’t want to stay there simply because as a teenager, you tend to have a very compromised view of what war was like. It’s very naive. I had it in my mind that if I’m going into the Australian Army, this was the height of the Vietnam conflict as well, that I would want to test myself in that environment as a soldier.

By going across for the SAS, I thought it would be more challenging in that role in a combat environment. As I was doing or towards the time I was doing my selection, which was 7th September ‘71, the Australian, government through two squads in the SAS regiment, which was the last squadron to serve there. They came back to Swanbourne, and that was it. They were disbanded and the guys who were left in that unit were spread among one squadron and three squadrons.

I got endless stories about what a great time it was to have served in Vietnam, and what a great experience it was. In ‘19, ‘20 and ‘21, with not a ribbon on my chest, it was a little bit challenging. These guys would be piss somewhat. You haven’t done much. Your time will come but maybe when? It was a little bit challenging serving in a unit where so many guys had combat experience and I didn’t.

I wasn’t alone. There was a large number of younger guys who came in ‘71, ’72, and ‘73 who experienced the same sense of uncertainty about where they were going and what they were doing. They were feeling a little bit diminished in the fact that they hadn’t served with their peers, colleagues, and comrade in a combat environment. Hence, why when Rhodesia popped up on the radar, I knew SAS and Rhodesia were recruiting. I knew that the war was getting underway. It wasn’t intense at that stage in ‘74, but it was going to become intense.

I sent my documentation over to Salisbury in Northern Rhodesia, now Harare in Zimbabwe. They offered me a position and a chance to do the selection, and that’s why I went. I miss Vietnam. I didn’t want to serve a long time in Australian SAS doing a lot. In those days, the Australian SAS was a small unit with only one in three squadrons. It’s much bigger now.

In those days as well, one of the two squadrons would be in training for a month. The other squadron would be on regimental duties. Every second month you were running around picking up rubbish and rubbish bins. It’s all subcontracted out now. In those days, the boys had to do it. Being a trooper, I could be working one day on mess. The next day, I could be up in the sergeant’s mess washing pots and pans, and the next day I could be driving around a truck picking up the garbage bin. It wasn’t an environment in which I wanted to stay.

That’s not the environment that the troopers are in now.

That’s right. Even though this was 50 years later, this still bugs me. I remember I was working in the officer’s mess. I was working in the kitchen washing pots and pan. One of the young officers who wasn’t a SAS officer. He came down for lunch. Anyway, the cook said to me, “You need to take some butter out and put it on the table.” I took some butter out of the fridge, stuck it on a saucer, and put it on the table. This young captain, arrogant bastard, non-SAS, I remember him, called me and said, “Take that away and put it on a proper butter disc.”

I was mortified. I was twenty years old and SAS-qualified being told by this what we call a jam killer in those days, “You don’t understand the decorum in the mess. Put it on the proper dish.” I went back and I was fuming. Thereafter, every time I think of the SAS, that’s one of the more prominent things that I remember. Despite the fact that I’d gone through a very tough selection and I’d been accepted in the ranks of a very fine Special Forces unit, I feel a bit from time to time have to wait hand and foot on people who weren’t members of the unit. It’s not what I wanted to do. No way. That’s a little bit of an anecdote but 50 years later, I still think that. I can still remember that quite clearly.

It’s completely understandable, having done all the training and a past election, which is arduous now as it was back then. In the prelude to this, we had a quick chart. I have a lot of friends in peers in both units, Perth and in Sydney. I certainly know from their experiences how hard it is to even get in and how selective it is and how challenging those roles are. You did say from the start that you joined in to do your three years. All of a sudden, you’re doing the selection. That’s a pretty serious pivot. What drove you to even consider attempting selection, especially when you were in there for a short time initially to secure some economic means?

I was very fortunate. The time was right for me and a couple of selection courses prior to me. When that process started, the younger guys were being taken in. I had done my recruit training course, which was three months over at Kapooka, 1 RTB. I asked for the infantry of my career choice. Other guys went to intelligence, some went to transport, rescue or whatever. They went to the various arms and I chose infantry, which wasn’t a popular choice. I was one of two who chose infantry. A number of others were selected to go to the infantry. They didn’t have much choice but you can only have so many cooked, whatever but the core of the Australian Army in those days was infantry.

More guys were going to be told to go to infantry than elsewhere. I was happy to do that. We went off to battle over at Ingleburn, outside Liverpool in New South Wales and we did three months. It was tough because it was coming into the winter. It was very cold. It was always raining. A lot of our fieldwork was crossing rivers in the middle of winter type thing. It got me into the infantry mindset. This is a tough life but it’s enjoyable.

In the process of that, we had a visit from I would call it a road show but probably not. Maybe that’s a bit too glamorous, but a few guys from the SAS were doing the rounds of various units. They were presenting the SAS in a reasonably good light. You know what a great challenge it would be for the younger people or younger men to go to this unit. For those who were selected to go across to do the full selection, it was a good opportunity.

During the infantry battling training, we were talking at that stage about going to the reinforcement platoon, which would’ve gotten me and seen me. Rather than going into one of the battalions straight into the Rio Platoon, which would’ve gotten to Vietnam more quickly. At that stage, I opted to go. I thought, “I’ve put my hand up for this. I’d love to try this.”

Three or four of us did that. A lot of the guys I was training with said, “Why would you be so crazy to do that? That’s so tough and hard.” It made me puff out my chest a little bit more. I said, “It is. The perception is it’s tough and hard,” which it turned out to be. I put my hand up but I passed the medical. They have site testing now, which is far more extensive than it was in those days. They also call it a barrier test now where they pushed guys through a pre-selection, then those guys are short-listed and sent across to West Australia.

Whereas in my day, small numbers were picked at a time. It was probably from most of the training courses, recruit training, core training, and so forth. I ended up in Perth in Swanbourne, probably on about July or August of ’71, preparing to join the selection course. Now, I had to wait until they built the numbers up. There was a selection course underway at the time. That would finish, then as the numbers came across and assembled in Swanbourne in Campbell Barrack, then my selection would get underway.

I was very fortunate. I don’t know why they did this at the time, but the 4 or 5 of us who came in my batch, we were told, “There’s no accommodations, essentially. We’re going to put you in with one squadron.” They supported us with one squadron and said, “Since you’re with one squadron, you may as well get the feel of the unit. Whatever they’re engaged on, you’ll engage on.” That would include things like roping, climbing, repelling, and so forth.

I was very fortunate that even though I was a Black Beret and non-selection qualified at that stage, we were accommodated in one squadron and allowed to parade with them. Once the selection got underway, we were then relocated. It gave me an insight into the unit and some of the guys and how they thought. It was a little bit of an additional motivator for me. I wanted to get in. It became more than testing myself.

I liked the number of the blokes that I was serving with. In one squadron, I thought these guys are great and they were all Vietnam veterans in the country. Most of them had just come back, so they weren’t much older than me. I decided, “This will drive me.” When the selection got underway, which was the first part was over at Rottnest Island in those days, which wasn’t the tourist spot now. There were old military and government facilities. They had old barracks and things there.

The first two weeks were very much the beasting. There were running everywhere and forcing guys to confront their weaknesses. It’s surprising how many dropped out in that period. It was also a learning curve for us. Not only was it running everywhere but we were given mapping exercises. We were taught how to operate as a patrol. We were given weapons training and so forth, and a bit of moist training.

It was a good learning curve. From there, we went to phase two, which was down in the forest of South West Australia, down outside Collie, which then became more of a patrolling assessment. We’d been taught the skill, the basics on Rottnest, then we were told to put them into practice. We alternated as patrol commanders and had different roles within the patrol, which was five-man teams in those things.

One day, I would be the medic in the patrol. The next day, I might be the patrol command taking responsibility for an ambush. you’re being assessed all the time by the Ds who’s been following you around. They don’t say anything to you but you’re always on the edge that you don’t do anything wrong. I was fortunate enough to get through that.

The third phase was more individual down in the Stirling Range, which was a pretty tough country. That was the individual phase where they dropped you off at a fair distance from an Albany checkpoint and off you go. All those checkpoints were run on top of the hills. If you didn’t go through that, you’d be climbing long hills in the forest, creeks, and so forth. They would be on the other side of the feature. I eventually learned to look at the map first and if it looks like it’s a long feature. I go around it on the base of it, then straight up. You learn your lessons and this is the thing, but it’s very strategic.

It’s because you’re on your own, you had to reach these certain milestones within certain times, then get back to your RV points the day or two after. It was a challenge individually, and that was like two weeks. The last couple of weeks, which rounded out for about eight weeks, was more the skills which you’ll come across in the unit. There are small craft that are diving and so forth. To finish it all off, there was, I think a 20-miler and 30Ks. It was miles in those days but 20 miles, which was in the last few days of the thing.

Off you went first thing in the morning, dropped 20 miles outside of the barracks, and you had to be back at Swanbourne and Campbell barracks within a certain time, which might have been four hours or four and a half hours. Even though we were the fittest, they were still quiet and that was in basic, bush order, webbing, and rifle and off you went. We all got back but by that stage, there was no one else was going to drop out.

Anyone that didn’t want, had already been selected and said, “You’re not up to it this time but try again some other time.” More or less, what the guys who started that 20 miles were always going to go into the unit. At the end of that, we were taking in one by one and said, “Congratulations, you pass. Your next phase is the para course.”

Not many of the ones that started probably finished, I’d imagine.

In my head, that was around about twenty. There was sixteen or something, and I don’t know where I got that figure from because it’s a long time ago. We had over100 starts or 120. We went over on a couple of landing craft to get over to Rottnest on a stormy day. It’s a flat bottom boat getting across to Rottnest. It wasn’t a lovely boat. Once our feet were on the soil again, a lot of the guys were seasick. We were vomiting as we were running. I don’t understand.

I said to somebody, when I looked back, we were all military guys. We were all soldiers. We were all at a certain level of fitness. I found it remarkable looking back that so many guys would drop out in the first couple of weeks. That’s more a mental thing than anything. Maybe they got over there. They didn’t expect that it was what they thought it would be and chose to return to their units. The fact that so many, attrition rates are very high in selection courses.

VOW 57 | Special Forces
Special Forces: Many soldiers who train for the Special Forces usually go back to their unit because it was not like what they thought it would be.


Why do you think that is? That’s an interesting point. I guess that’s happening even now. Is that potentially because of the allure that it has and the draw of the Sandy Beret? The idea of it is almost more appealing than doing the job itself.

It is. When you look at it, I don’t want to denigrate infantry units or any other of the military. To me, the peak of services is Special Forces. There’s a certain cache about it. There’s charisma about the guys who serve in the unit. They’re generally alpha-male-type guys. They’re all very confident. They’re fit as fiddles, fit and strong. I look at the modern military now and I find it a little bit funny at times because when I did my selection and when I served in the Rhodesian SAS, you could walk past the guy on the street and you wouldn’t know Special Forces.

Whereas, there seems to be a mentality in particularly the US. I’m hearing it from a friend of mine in Harford but also in Australia that they have a lot of gym time. Guys bulk themselves up. They look strong and fit. I was stick thin in Rhodesia because I was carrying 70, 80, or 100 pounds. I was working on two-man reconnaissance, for example. I was in thick bush but dry terrain, and limited rations. If you were bulked up, it would’ve been uncomfortable. You would lose it within a couple of weeks of that environment. It’s so tough. You’re burning muscle and you’re burning. There is no fat.

You might squat and go to the toilet once every ten days after because you’re not eating enough food to waste it. Your body is absorbing it all. One of my partners never went to the toilet in a 7 or 8-day deployment. When he came back, he went and sat on the toilet but he didn’t do it because all of the food we’re taking was being absorbed by the body. There’s a big difference now. The guys get a little bit carried away with the bulkiness of it.

That’s a very interesting point. We had Harry Moffitt on the show. He made the same observation, reflecting on his experiences in Afghanistan and the first time he deployed to his later deployments. The first time was the traditional SAS role and long-range reconnaissance. He described what you said. Blokes were wiry thin who would disappear off into the night.

As he came back in later rotations, sometimes it felt at times that they would be redding for an op, and bloke would be coming out of the gym with their Red Bulls jumping on the helos and off they went. That’s an interesting shift and an interesting change. He also had some opinions as to how and why that might have happened. That was the change mission profile for what the traditional SAS role was.

That’s what I was told as well. Even when I was working later years in Iraq, I had an old Australian military guy like my RSM. It enlisted in the Aussie Army in the ‘60s and many years in the military unit. I brought him. He was my RSM over in Iraq and he said he was having endless problems. Trying to get the guys that we had, this is a commercial environment but they were all running off to the gym at 7:00 in the morning.

He was saying, “No, you got to check your vehicles first. You got to be prepared and ready to go. It might be commercial convoys. It may not be military but you still have to do first breaks. “No, we’ve got to the gym.” It was ridiculous. They were getting all stoked up if they couldn’t get down to the PX and get their protein powder. It was quite absurd. They become obsessed about it.

I was in Indonesia on a commercial site one day and I was bringing in an ex-SAS consultant to come. He was very wiry. He was a superb climber. I won’t mention his name here but he was a very well-known climber. He was also a bit of an intellectual, he did a couple of language courses, the long twelve-month courses over in Victoria.

Anyway, I was on the LZ waiting for the helicopter to come in from Bali, Kuta. I had a couple of guys around me. I’m 6’4” and I’m quite big. People think, “That’s my image of a SAS guy and the Special Forces.” This guy comes, gets off the helicopter, and I said, “Here he is.” They said, “He’s not SAS.” I said, “Yes, he is.” “No, he doesn’t look like it.” He also had glasses which were added to the image of it. I said, “This guy served a long time in the SAS. Not everybody in the SAS wants to sit in the gym and build up and flex their bicep, triceps, and so forth. There are someone like him who’s a climber that would rather be wiry and live because he is not carrying a huge weight when he is climbing up a rock base.”

The image is wrong but again, I go back to the Hollywood stuff and this is it. When I was in Sri Lanka, I had young guys putting up posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator and John Rambo posters in First Blood. They’re all cutting the sleeves off their arms and off their T-shirts. I said, “They’re ridiculous. Put your shirt back on. You’re not going to have this.” It was the way you have to be. It encroaches into the reality. The world’s not like that. You’re carrying a heavy pack. A big guy is a bigger target. That’s the reality.

VOW 57 | Special Forces
Special Forces: Hollywood often portrays Special Forces like Rambo or the Terminator. The world is not like that in reality. You will be carrying heavy packs that make you a bigger target.


I want to get to that because that’s a piece that interests me. That’s this cultural or popular culture of warfare and the idealized version of a soldier. To get back a little bit onto your career now, because after your time and it’s completely understandable to me, especially after reading the book. Having seen the guys that are now in the unit fresh from Vietnam, lots of stories, you are fit a fiddle, trained, and ready to go but nowhere to go. It makes absolute sense why you look for opportunities elsewhere. It’s quite amazing that Rhodesia at the time, Zimbabwe now, was taking in people directly but you did have to do the Rhodesian SAS selection as well, right?

I did. A friend of mine with whom I had done this Aussie SAS selection, Ken Smith. He was the first to go and a couple of other sergeants who had finished their time and had been to Vietnam. They also went in between Ken going and me finally going in March of ’74. Ken ultimately was killed on active service but I got there in March ‘74. It was a very easy process to attest him to the Army. I had a medical discharge from Australian Army. I’ve gone through that routine. I produced all those papers.

The doctor said, “How are you feeling?” I said, “I’m fine. No problem.” He said, “You look okay,” and he signed off of it. Someone said, “What’s your eyesight?” I said, “It’s pretty good.” Essentially, that was all it took. I signed the documents and they had a vehicle to pick me up and take me down to Campbell Barrack, which is where SAS was based at the time. Very easy game. No dramas.

Remembering as well that Rhodesia had a very small population. A lot of people because the war would start, probably a few years earlier because of the declaration of UDI, Declaration of Independence. A lot of people decided they weren’t going to live there or they wanted their children to grow up in a different placement, particularly when the war started. A lot of guys were leaving. Younger guys were leaving. There wasn’t a huge pool of men from which to recruit. National service was in full swing and that got longer as the years of the war went by. Rhodesia had a problem in recruiting good solid manpower and keeping it because your national serviceman only served 6 weeks, 8 weeks or whatever it was, then goes back to his job, generally.

If you have a regular army, they had to recruit. There were a lot of foreigners coming and not all states. Disappointingly, many left after six months, three months, a year, or whatever. A lot of the guys like me, decided to stay. I also grew roots in the community very quickly. I met my wife. I was only 23 when I met her. She was eighteen at the time. Nineteen when she got married to me and I was 24.

I had roots straight away. I had family there. My family in Adelaide became a remote family. My immediate family was my wife and ultimately, my first child who was born in ‘76. I had no trouble integrating, assimilating, and becoming a part. I loved it. I considered myself very much a Rhodesian at the time and a lot of other guys didn’t. Some of the Berets brought their wives down from the UK, so they settled well. There were no issues there.

They had wives and some had children. They brought families down and again, that cemented them into the community. A lot of the younger guys who didn’t have girlfriends tended to lose interest after a while. The war and the social life were pretty much intermingled. They would come and go. In the end, I stayed six years. Endured is probably the wrong word but I experienced six years of combat in an environment. I gave a presentation. I said the difference for us in Rhodesia and South Africa was that we were fighting for a country in which we believed.

The war and social life are intermingled. Click To Tweet

We weren’t doing a five-month deployment to Afghanistan and back again or twelve-month for Vietnam and coming home and not going away for another year or two. We were constantly in the field, on combat missions, returning and picked up. That very evening, I could come out of a contact in the bush in Mozambique and that very evening, I could be home with my wife and children or child at that stage.

It was something we valued. We defended the borders as best we could and we were heavily outnumbered, of course. With sanctions, it didn’t make it easy. We were often short of ammunition. Fuel was always a challenge. South Africa supported us for a long time but when they decided that they wanted to squeeze us a little bit, then fuel would be held up by bridge, ammunition, and trains coming up with ammunition, wouldn’t get through the border quickly.

Ultimately, the South Africans called the shots there. In the six years that we fought, I always thought it was a noble cause. People will criticize me and have but many supports me because they see what’s happened in Zimbabwe with the kleptocracy, the oppression of people, the 90% unemployment or whatever. It wasn’t the heaven that was promised to the Black community when they supported the insurgents or the liberation groups as they call them.

For me, it was a personal thing. I believed in the cause of it. I thought it was reasonably just. Not everything was right but it wasn’t quite as bad in the eye or from a perspective point of view as a part state, for example. A part state, that whole policy was crazy. I always thought it was crazy. I couldn’t survive. Financially, it was impossible to maintain double systems or twin systems. Morally, it was wrong. I worked with Black soldiers. I trusted my life for Black soldiers.

That would be an interesting piece to talk about when we get to your Selous Scouts days. It was a mixed-race team. I want to get to that because that’s a unique part of the book that you described in a lot of details. Going back to the point of effectively fighting for another country’s cause, how was that? I asked this from a very personal perspective because as I mentioned before we started, I was born and raised in Bosnia and found myself in the Australian Army serving overseas for Australia. Much like you, I wholeheartedly embraced what Australia represents and where it stands. How was that shift for you? In your case, it was slightly different because you went from one Special Forces unit to another and started serving on the front lines immediately. How was that mental bridge for you?

To me, it seems a normal evolution from the Australian SAS. I prepared myself in the Australian SAS. I’ve done good courses that made me valuable to the unit that would add value to the unit and meet some of its strategic and tactical needs. I was ready. When I came across Rhodesia, I did the selection. I’m not saying it was easy. It was very tough but it was short. Unlike the Australian SAS, and later when the Rhodesians embarked on their recruit training, so it became a long course.

I was in that window of opportunity where they were wanting guys from overseas with experience. The people I did my select work, some young guys would even like infantry blokes, who’d been trained there. They wanted guys to come to do the selection, get through the selection, then deploy to the field, para course, and then operations. They didn’t need to train people through 3 to 6 months of recruit training.

They wanted guys to come to test themselves on the selection. It was very tough on the Eastern highlands of Rhodesia, which was Indian Gambia and these other places. These were tough high mountains and very difficult terrain, and off we went. It was mainly an individual effort. The first day was a team thing carrying a telegraph pole or something, which sort the men from the boys. The guys did drop out from that because they found it difficult to work as a team and they were whinging the morning. Some people do step back from that.

The rest of it was individual, going from point to point, meeting milestones within certain times, and getting to the final RV where we’re told, “Well done. You’ve all passed. Now, it’s time to go and do your para-course.” The para course was very quick. It’s a typical para course. No time wasted a bit of ground training then get guys up in the aircraft, which was the Dakota in those days, the C47, DC3. A nice aircraft jump-off. Guys would get up in the morning.

It was always very early morning stuff. They would do the jump in the morning and probably two a day. I’d have to look at my record of jump. It seemed a very quick process. I was para-course qualified. I had the right because I’d served with the Australian SAS to wear my SAS wings anyway prior to doing that. I was the only one on the course who had that right because there were no other odd guys there. As I said, there was one par guy and he had Brit para wings. We were presented with the Sandy Beret and integrated immediately into the unit. I was on quite quickly.

As you say, you were deployed quite quickly. Would you then say that was your first combat experience pretty soon after getting to Rhodesia?

Preparatory to combat, nothing happened then. You don’t know that at the time when you’re deployed. You’re not going to have a firefight that first day or first week but you always prepare for it and you always expect it. This is what you expect. It took a few ops. We’ve always expected to come across the enemy and never did. Ultimately, that first year, we deployed on a very large operation into Zambia, which was a major arms cash. That was the first cross-border operation that had been authorized, and combined operations in Salisbury. It was an SAS thing.

We were no more than 50 or 60 men. That was the extent of the Sea Squadron in those days. Off we went and I had my first fire fight that day. It was exciting as hell. I know that makes me sound a little bit coldblooded but that was my expectation. You trained for years as a Special Force soldiers. I know that in one of your questions, what does it feel like to prepare for killing people? You don’t prepare for killing people. You train to take on an enemy, which is a more ambiguous thing, rather than an individual thing.

You’re not visualizing the impact of a bullet on an individual body. You’re thinking about an attack against a large formation of men or something like that and fighting through. It becomes a little bit of ambiguity about it, but no one I know in Special Forces ever thought. I’ve seen it on TV and again, I go back to the Hollywood stuff. What was it like for somebody? How did you prepare yourself? Now, the fact is you’re training to do this.

VOW 57 | Special Forces
Special Forces: Special Forces don’t actually prepare for killing people. They focus on attacking large formations of men, making their training quite ambiguous.


When it happens, it’s just an extension of your training. There’s no joy. There’s no exhilaration and exuberance about it. There’s no remorse as such. I’ve never known anyone, “This is it. I’ve survived. He’s dead. Let’s carry on to the next thing.” That’s how I thought at the time. I didn’t take any joy in that first contact but I have no remorse about it. He would’ve killed me if he had the opportunity. I survived that and other encounters over the years. That’s how I look at it.

Do you remember the first insurgent you killed?

I do. I had him running. He was running down a river line. I was in a stop line with another Australian colleague of mine, ex-Australian SAS. We were on the edge of the river. I looked up the fire and the attack went in on the main camp. A huge amount of fire went down and was returned by our opponents being seen. They are also bombshells. Generally, at that time in the morning, it was first light. We had taken them by surprise. No doubt. They did return fire but then, generally, they would bombshell. They would leg it.

This guy came running down the river, which was a silly thing to do. He should have gone through the bush running down the river line. He was out in the open. My colleague and I both opened fire on him. He looked up as I moved. He looked and saw me. He was probably no more than 50 meters away. Maybe even less. We engaged. His momentum took him out of the river and into the bush. The other stop sign and finished him off.

He was a dead man running. We’d hit him with a number of rounds and he would never have survived it. The adrenaline flow and all the other things that go with that just kept him running. I can still see that he was in a big trench coat and military Russian-style trench coat, flattening around his knees, and armed. He was a fair game.

The reason I asked you that question is because that’s something we don’t often talk about and certainly not in the matter-of-fact way that you do because perhaps even people in uniform like myself have never taken a fighter shot in anger. I’ve never been in that situation. Although, I’ve served on war-like operations, I certainly was never in that type of war. There is always this idealized version, and your book reads like every boy’s dream is to join the Special Forces and do all the things that most young boys dream of. This is why they draw for selection.

Even the terminology Special Forces, to be selected, you’re part of a special group of people who are selected to do something that very few can do. We often forget that it’s very real. Pulling a trigger to take a life, you describe it as an automated response, where your training kicks in. My follow-up question is, is it because of that training, your professionalism, and your commitment to that? Your entire identity and your entire being is so deeply inculcated in being a soldier. This is not a part-time job. This is not a 9:00 to 5:00, so I guess that comes with it. Is that then what allows you to compartmentalize it and deal with the act of killing as merely part of the job?

You do. I know to an Australian audience, we sit in our ivory tower here and people criticize military acts, particularly on the left side. They’re going, particularly if you’re quite working, “This is a terrible thing. Army is a horrible thing to have. Why do we need to have them? Why do we have to go to war?” The reality is this is politics by other means and you deal with it.

One of my former partners who was a former SAS officer said to me one day in a casual conversation, he’d never been to war, “I wonder what I would’ve been like in combat.” I said, “Bob, you would’ve been exactly like me and everybody else I know. You would’ve done what needed to be done. You would’ve extended your training.” Your training would’ve stood you enlisted. The extension of that was you would’ve pulled the trigger and carried on as normal. That’s how it has to be.

I have a real thing about the way PTSD has been commercialized and industrialized. I’m not denying it exists, of course not. It does. This is the nature of the work we do. We’ve prepared for this, particularly Special Forces. You’re training. You’re going into a training area that’s called the killing house. You’re doing urban warfare, house clearing, and room clearing in the killing house. What else do you think it’s going to be?

It’s not the wound in the house or the capture house. It’s the killing house. This is what you go and you do it. This is why when I was dealing with some Special Force’s guys in Sri Lanka, we built an urban warfare house-clearing facility. I said, “This is your killing house.” They said, “Really?” I said, “What do you think you’re going to do in it?” They said, “Yes, boss. That’s great.” They embarked on their training with tremendous. They knew that this was something they could possibly put into action because they were an army of Special Forces on a war footing. They were at war in Sri Lanka. They knew that if they went into an urban environment or an operational house clearing, there was an enemy inside who would be trying to kill them, and they would kill him instead. This is the reality. You get on with it.

There’s no hiding under the bed. Someone said to me years ago, “Every time I hear a car backfire, I duck to cover.” I said, “We’re talking modern cars. Have you ever heard a car backfire? I’ve never heard a car backfire. What are you talking about you duck for cover when you’re walking down the street?” Someone told me that happened. I said, “You’re talking BS. Don’t be ridiculous.”

I said fine. They fall for this ridiculous idea that this is what people say should happen or has happened to others. Therefore, it should happen. It doesn’t always happen. I know a lot of Special Forces guys who have had many combats and conflicts. None of them tells me, “John, I can’t sleep at night. I’m aggrieved with bad memories and so forth. I’m always alert and nervy.” None of us are like that. I know nobody like that.

That’s certainly interesting. It also might be viewed as controversial and I certainly welcome it. I certainly welcome that discussion. My only retort to that would be, what do you say to the number of veterans committing suicide? We’ve gone well over 500 now. This is combat and non-combat veterans, where we’ve lost 41 in Afghanistan. We’ve lost more than ten times that to suicide.

I know and it is controversial. I try and measure it with a little bit of sensitivity when I say that. I know, for example, and I said in a message to you. PTSD is a here-and-now thing. To me, someone like a paramedic who has to drag an assistant driver or victim or a passenger out of a car, a dead body, a police officer who has to go to a murder investigation or domestic violence that led to a murder case. These truly are horrendous.

I know policemen and paramedics who told me they have difficulty. They do need counselling. When I talk about PTSD and see through it, I don’t emphasize it as much with Special Forces because your whole training, everything you do, and the reason you go into Special Forces is not to be sitting around with a beret on. You go into Special Forces and fight a war. This is the purpose of a Special Forces unit. A general Army has another role. It can help a government in time of national emergency, flooding, and so forth.

A Special Forces unit zips up to that. It is special for a reason. It’s geared for war and war is killing. Anybody or most people who go into that space, and I might be contradicted here by others who tune in to this, but my view is that anyone who goes into a Special Forces unit is well aware of what they may confront. The reason they go into it is because of that. The reason they stay in it after multiple combats to it is because they enjoy the work they do.

VOW 57 | Special Forces
Special Forces: The Army helps the government in times of national emergencies. The Special Forces is geared for war and killing.


They get a sense of achievement out of it, a sense of satisfaction that they’re representing their government and protecting their people. There is a nobility to this. I’m not talking about guys who say, “I enjoyed that. It was a personal challenge. I can strut around knowing that I’ve endured 20, 30, or 40 contacts.” There is a sense within a Special Forces unit and a Special Force that you’re serving your nation. You’re doing it to the best of your ability.

You’re putting everything on the line. I see people talk about sportsmen doing heroics, how brave they are, and what courage and so forth. These are highly paid sportsmen trained to do these things. This is not the same as a soldier and particularly Special Forces guy. When you go and deploy on operations, it’s going to be very high risk, which is why they wouldn’t deploy Special Forces otherwise. It is high risk and you’re putting everything on the line.

There are times you may not come back. I’ve seen a lot of people shot. I’ve seen colleagues shot. I’ve seen the horrors of men wounded. I’ve held people as they were crying in pain. I understand what it is. Like me, we’ve got the blood on our hands of our friends. We’ve tried to save their lives when we’ve loaded them into helicopters to get them back to a treatment facility. We understand that the risk is there. We see it.

This is not something in a movie that you watch. You can walk away and make a cup of coffee. This is the real deal. This is what it’s like. For guys like me who’ve made a career of conflict, not because I like the conflict. I like the challenges that go with it. I also believed in what I was doing. There are certain things I’ve pursued in my life, I believe the cause was right.

Is that a necessary precondition? To be successful as you have been in all those roles, is that a necessary condition to embrace and embody what you’re representing because ultimately, your life depends on it?

It does. There’s that’s the reality of it. I can hum and philosophies until the guys come home but the reality is this is a tough life. If you can’t take it, you leave. I don’t know many people who have left. They do their time. Some do ten years and go somewhere else then start over a business. Some do twenty years and they retire. I’m not saying I have a broad network of friends but I have a pretty good network of guys I’ve served with and within other units. I don’t know anyone who’s struggled with the day-to-day demands of living now because of what they did in the past.

If anything, I belong to a number of these military societies and associations, the RSL, South African military veterans, the Rhodesian, the Australian SAS, and so forth. Men use these facilities because they enjoyed the companionship of those guys. It’s a memory of recollections. They can talk about times they serve together. They can help one another through on hard times. I’m not saying everybody is blindly above all. People do have to discover it to a degree. We don’t all put up our hands and say, “I can’t manage. I can’t deal with this myself. I need help. I need money from the government. I need the government to give me a handout.”

My grievance would be with this commercialization of the PTSD industry now as I call it. Many people who’ve not been in combat but have been on the periphery perhaps are coming back. For example, I remember a situation some years ago where some guy was driving. He was an Australian Army. He served in the Australian Army protection element there. His job was based up at Victory. Occasionally, he had to escort people down to the Green Zone, which is like a twenty-minute run. The main route was a dangerous place. It was an ambush alley at time, but we used to drive up and down that thing in unprotected soft-skinned vehicles.

This guy was in the Bushmaster-type vehicles and driving backward and forth a couple of times, maybe once a week or whatever. I heard this story from maybe a radio station in the East or something. He was going on about how we were struggling with PTSD because of his deployment to Iraq. I was thinking, why would that be the case? You never came under fire. You were living in Victory Camp, which was the biggest FOB in Iraq.

You could get your McDonald’s and your coffee. All of the fast food options were there. McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s were all there. You were in the biggest bloody base in Iraq, which was very rarely attacked. You were surrounded by 25,000 US troops, including a huge armour contingent. When people start saying that, I hate that. I hate it when people come and say that they’re struggling with PTSD because of a very minor challenge. To me, sometimes it’s intolerable.

When veterans struggled with very minor challenges on the battlefield, it cannot be immediately considered PTSD. Click To Tweet

With your background of 50-plus years of doing this work, I can certainly empathize why that would be your view. I certainly would never call into question anyone’s perspectives on how they perceive war. There’s undoubtedly a percentage of people who are, I don’t want to say exploiting the system but certainly, taking the easier road out.

I also wonder, you mentioned something earlier and we talked about the need to embody and believe the war you’re fighting. I wonder whether you consider that might be part of the reason because of some of the more recent wars that certainly Australia has been in. I’ve spoken to a number of soldiers and even senior officers who were part of those wars.

In many ways, they stop believing in the justice of those wars. I wonder how much that then contributes to, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m risking my life for something I don’t believe in for political influence or alliances or financial gains or whatever it is?” I wonder if you have any thoughts on that?

I agree. When the last Australian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan and there were no further deployments, I made a comment to some colleagues within the unit who had served. I said, “What a waste of 20 years, 18 years, or 15 years at a time.” The huge national treasure is gone. We have defence agreements. Australia always talks about, “We punch above our weight.” We were a small nation with a very small military. We are very fortunate where we’re located in the world geographically. We have certain defence advantages. We are a small army. We depend on our alliances. If those alliances, which is the US security umbrella. If the US deploys on a task that they consider in their national interest, Australia has no choice but to follow on. Whether we agree with it is no conflict.

From a Special Forces perspective, there’s a slight difference. The guys would welcome the opportunity to deploy on an operation where they can test themselves. They understand that this is what they train for, but year after year where they’re going backwards and forwards and doing, they tire of that. Of course, they will. With the SAS here, particularly, I know guys that have done 10 or 12 tours of duty over in Afghanistan over the course of their deployment there. That’s a hell of a lot. They have families. They have lives of their own. Eventually, they’re going to start saying, “What is this all about?”

I would agree with that. Whereas, I fought for countries where I lived and in which I believed. I could be back with my family. I always believed that by defending the boys, I was protecting my family back in Salisbury or Johannesburg when I moved South. There’s always that justification in someone like me who’s defending borders. I would think constant redeployments one after the other, a few months back in Australia must kill your relationships.

That’s going to create other problems as well. Would there be PTSD? Maybe not so much for PTSD but certainly frustration, anger, a sense that a lot of this is not no longer justified and they’re wasting their time and putting their lives on the line for no reason. That may come into the questioning and the equation somewhat.

VOW 57 | Special Forces
Special Forces: If you think that the conflict is no longer justified, or you are dealing with frustration and anger, there is no sense for you to put your life on the line.


This is a question I sent you as well in preparation for this, what are your thoughts on the accusations, particularly of SAS, of all the reports that went out on Four Corners on Killing Field and now the Ghost of Timor, which allege that some members, particularly of SAS had committed what ultimately are now being described as war crimes. I want to emphasize that the court should do its thing. I certainly defend all of those soldiers as much as I can in the sense that they needed a day in court, but I’m trying to understand the context and how these things could happen. Speaking to somebody like you is a prime opportunity for that.

It’s a difficult situation. There’s always a bad apple. Selections are very selective. Now with the amount of psychological testing before the guys even get to the physical testing, they can generally winnow out those bad apples. There is always somebody. They get into an environment where there’s a sense of impunity because they’re carrying weapons and they’re fighting the war. You will always get somebody who goes to the extreme. I think every conflict has that. It’s coming home to the roots now. The command fell down.

I heard from guys who said, and I would agree with this too, “You’ve got senior sergeants who’ve spent 20 years or 15 years in the SAS.” Officers will hate this but this is the reality. The SAS in Australia is a unit of troopers and NCOs. It’s the NCOs who served continuously there. A young officer comes along, does his selection, passes the selection, serves two years in a specific role, and moves out again. He’s posted out because of his career path. He might come back. When a SAS officer told me he served ten years in the SAS, I say, “BS. That’s not possible. You might have done two years as a troop commander and two years as a squadron commander.”

There’s that pyramid that goes up because there are a lot of troop commanders relative to the unit, then there are only so many squadron commanders. There are only troop commanders and NCOs. No officer can do ten years in the regiment as a general rule as a combat leader. Your unit is comprised of sergeants, and most of your patrol commanders are sergeants and some senior corporals. These guys have got a lot of experience.

A young green officer comes over, he cannot assert himself easily. He’s very much and I know there’s a uniform code of justice. There’s a rank structure and so forth. These are lieutenants, therefore, he’s seen further up giving orders to a sergeant. He is, on paper. The reality on the ground is slightly different. A young lieutenant and even young captains, squadron commands come over. They haven’t done a great deal of time in the SAS and Special Forces.

They’re learning as they’re going. They’re dependent on very experienced senior NCOs to guide them and help them. If that system falls down in any way or you’ve got a more aggressive senior NCO who’s more reluctant to assist the young officer coming in, then you can have problems. I think a lot of the issues that derived from the focus on the SAS now is the command fell down. That goes all the way to the top.

I read something that Dutton’s prevailed on Campbell. They’re not going to prosecute. They’ve dropped charges or something, subject to it being an independent investigation. All of this storm and anger about the regiment bill, all of the criticism, the finger-pointing that all of these guys, everyone is tied with the same brush, 39 billion were killed by 24 SAS soldiers, whatever the figures are. I don’t think that’s correct but there will be a process that will go through that, and they’re innocent until proven guilty.

When people were told to show cause on suspicion or on accusations that were unproven at the time why they shouldn’t be thrown out of the unit or discharged from the unit, that’s a presumption of guilt. That’s where the hierarchy in Campbell fell and shows the lack of a board because they’re too political. My view has always been to reach the height of senior general, you have to be a political animal. They’re seat warmers in my view. Many of them have never applied as a shot man. They have no idea what it’s like. They have no concept of being out in the bush or being frightened.

When I talk about war and it’s an evolution from the training, that doesn’t mean you don’t get scared. The adrenaline flows. Fear is ever-present. Fear of dying, of being wounded, and of letting your friends down and your comrades down in your patrol. These are all part of day-to-day operations. If someone hasn’t experienced that, they don’t understand what it’s like day to day on the ground. I’m not going to name names here but a general sitting in a chair of command in Campbell has no idea what’s going on the ground.

VOW 57 | Special Forces
Special Forces: Fear is ever present in wartime. You fear being wounded or letting your friends down. That is what it is like day-to-day on the ground.


He was probably let down by his junior officers as well. A lot of that information flow didn’t go upwards and you left with a mess. The poor old regiment was left to have fingers pointed at it and seemingly constantly under the aggressive gaze of the ABC with Four Corners and other news outlets pointing the finger and saying, “You’re a bunch of psychopathic killers,” which is not the case. The unit himself is very good. The people you get. I was talking to a young training NCO. He finished his career in the training side a couple of years ago. I met with him socially over a coffee just for a chat.

He was running a CQV for a period of time. He said that the people coming into the regiment now are the best he’s seen in his time there. He had joined the unit in the early 2000 sometime. Let’s say 2004 or 2005, and this was 2020. In the fifteen years he’d served there, these are the best guys coming in. The quality is so good, that you’ve got to walk with pride about the guys you have in the unit now. This is not a bunch of buggers and genocidal killers as might be depicted. It’s easy to depict these guys and incidents that are highlighted in other sites.

Probably, the circumstances at the moment is very much in the public eye and the accusations are flying quickly and fast. That does disparage the regiment. It’s unfair. The regiment is a fine body of men. It’s an excellent unit. It has a hugely strategic value to Australia and it should be valued as it deserves to be valued.

I’ll wholeheartedly agree. As we already mentioned a couple of times, I’ve got a lot of friends who serve in those units now or have served in the past. Every one of those men that I know are certainly highly ethical, highly motivated, and joined those ranks for the right reasons. You did say something that was impactful to me. That’s what I’m trying to zero in on. One of the things that I’ve addressed previously and even with military ethicist and so on is this idea of bad apples. There’s something that doesn’t sit well with me with calling a few bad apples because nobody in my mind is born a war criminal.

Nobody in my mind is born with the ability to conduct things that we would ultimately demonize on. I’m not even talking about Australia now. I’m not even talking about RSAS. You rightly pointed out that every war has it, but you also made a strong point that resonates so strongly with me. It is that war is ugly. War is hell. War does something to people that no other human endeavour can do. Maybe we can zero in on that. In your view, having spent years in these types of situations, what does the environment of combat do to a soldier? How does it shape a soldier?

In the main, most people engaged in combat. I say there are bad apples. There are, but they’re very few and far between. All the time I’ve said in Rhodesia. Rhodesia was on a war footing. If you wanted combat for the sake of combat, you could join a unit that was constant, for example, the Rhodesia Light Infantry was engaged for fire force. That means it was ready to go on call out from teams in the field. Teams in the field would identify an enemy position, a group, and so forth, the RLI would generally jump in, parachute in, and helicopter in.

I know guys who did three operational jumps in one day into different combat environments. It might be small combat contact, a couple of here or ten there but coming down, they’re still coming under fire. If you wanted that, you could do that all the time. Within those units, there were no accusations of atrocities. The guys were very professional. When we had an incident and I put it in my book because I wanted to highlight how accidents can happen.

We had ambushed a group of 23. We’ve killed 17 of them and the other 6 who’d escaped were seriously injured and possibly died. We know that. We had a 100% kill and casualty rate on that, but we were told to stay in. Now, we’d been there. We took two casualties ourselves. We lost 2 of our men of the 12. We lost 2 and we were down to 10. It’s last light, rainy conditions, and hard to see. One of the stop signs saw a small group of three guys coming along and it looked right away. They had weapons over their shoulders. It turned out that were tools, and the ambush was initiated.

Now, if we were hard-hearted, we would’ve shrub our shoulders, collateral damage, and carried on. Of the 10 of us on that helicopter, when we pulled out, not one of us felt any joy or satisfaction. Every one of us was lost in our own thoughts. We felt guilty that this had happened. We were sad that we’d made this mistake. There was no, “Okay, fine. This doesn’t matter.” There was a hell of a sense of remorse across the entire ten-man team.

We got back to our forward base. We washed up very quietly, did our thing, then returned to Salisbury. Very little talk along the way. This was the way we responded to the killing by accident. It was very rare, by the way. It wasn’t a common thing. Our opponents would blame us for endless massacres killing of civilians and so forth, which they did themselves but they would blame the Selous Scouts and others because they were Black soldiers, but we weren’t like that.

I remember, every unit in which I served in Rhodesia, which was the SAS and the Selous Scout, we took great pains to protect people. We believed that we were working and fighting a war for a cause to protect our country. Mainly, the Black soldiers didn’t quite see it in quite the same light as the White soldiers but they were still loyal. Many of them felt that Mugabe and his henchman was a terrible option and Smith was a better option, so they were going to fight even though they were Black. We had the sense across both of those units that we were protecting the locals. I was deployed on a task to hunt down a group that had killed a White child.

In the most gruesome manner as well.

Yes. I was in Selous Scouts at that stage and someone had the audacity to say, “It was a Selous Scout call sign that did that,” which was a horrible thing to say. It was months later. I knew that it was unlikely to find that group but nevertheless, I found the group and they were taken out. My Black soldiers were as enraged by that killing as the White soldiers. They felt that this is yet another example of the horrors of war sure but the level of barbarity of our opponents. Whereas, we weren’t barbarous. There was nothing barbarous about us at all.

We believed in what we were doing. We believed in the cause and we went out to protect people. I would occasionally be on reconnaissance patrols. I would occasionally be discovered in the bush, compromised by local villages, hunters and so forth. People foraging in the bush. If I was a bad guy and took the view that I’ve been compromised. My life is at risk and the only way to preserve my life is to kill this person, then I would’ve done that but I would never have done that.

One person we kept him overnight then we released him that morning. On the edge of the helicopter and I could hear the helicopter, I said, “There you go. Go home.” He was a hunter, so he wouldn’t have been missed by his family anyway because they would go off in the bush and hunt for several days, a local member. We weren’t there to hurt people or to hurt locals. I came around the bend of a river during a firefight and was engaging the enemy in the bush.

As I came around the corner of this dry riverbed, there were civilians. Women in the riverbed, not knowing which way they were caught in the middle of it. One of them had been wounded in the leg and I stopped. I stood up during the contact and gestured to these women to get down. I was saying, “Get down.” I assume they understood the hand movement during the time and they got down on the sand. Once the skirmish is through and we reduced and eliminate the threat, we bandaged the woman’s leg, and she went back to her village.

We took pains. We went out of our way as a general rule and everyone I know, and I served with a lot of them. It was the same. We didn’t want to kill civilians. We wanted to protect their lives. This was the whole thing. It’s a little bit corny at times, but we’re protecting civilization. I know Smith played this card a little bit too strongly sometimes but essentially, that’s what you’re saying. We’re here to protect civilization. Look what’s happened to the North of it, Congo and so forth. We weren’t quite as corny as that but we believed in what we were doing. We were there to protect these citizens, Black and White. Where it’s possible, we didn’t want to injure or kill these people.

When we attacked the major camps in Mozambique over the years, they built camps often near civilian positions, villages, and so forth. They did it deliberately because they could be serviced by the women. They could be fed and so forth. They did it deliberately but they put these people at risk. They used them as barriers and hostages. It’s very difficult when you’re attacking a big camp and there’s a lot of fire, chaos, and confusing noise. Your adrenaline is pumping, your mouth is dry, you’re fighting through positions, then someone is shooting at you. You still got to have your wits about you. We didn’t kill people.

You made the point about Selous Scouts. It’s certainly a unit that’s renowned in many ways but also has received a lot of criticism about alleged crimes that they did. That was a question I had for you. It strikes me again as though the fact that you are protecting your home effectively plays a huge role. Also, therefore, it’s in your interest. The ethics of it implore you to look after the local population because that’s ultimately your neighbour and tomorrow, you will be living together.

It’s certainly against your interest to harm them in such a way that they would see you as the enemy. I wonder if that also then played a part in some of the accusations of Western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan because as you said before, you weren’t there to fight to protect your country. You were deployed. It was merely a job, rather than protecting your family.

Iraq was slightly different. The Iranians support themselves to a standstill for eight years and both believe that they fought themselves to a standstill because both armies were so good. The reality was far from the truth when the Americans came and cut through them like a hot knife to a butter a month later in Baghdad. From the point of view of achieving its first goal, it was done in a very quick time.

There were a lot of political blunders. Paul Bremer, for example, who was the overseer of the US forces, disbanding the Army. Anyone who had a membership in a bar was prohibited from serving. These absurdly created what is now served as very much the foundation of ISIS when these guys went and became insurgents in Iraq to resist the American occupation. It became a very difficult thing, then you had conflicts as well.

That goes back a thousand years. This was a chance for psychopathic killers to come out of the woodwork and start killing one other as cruelly as possible. Until people like David Petraeus came along and said, “We’ve got to win hearts and minds. We’ve got to change our strategy a little bit,” that then puts the American occupation on a better footing. All of that, the whole essence of ISIS and the cruelty and the incredible cruelty of these people, the barbarity of these, this all comes from bad decisions made in the early 2000s in Iraq.

Sometimes the West doesn’t understand the Middle East. I’ve said this many times, “We shouldn’t be there. Let them get on and solve their own problems.” Geopolitical is an entirely different thing and it’s not quite that simple. My view is we don’t understand the people, the environment, and the animosities to go back a thousand years. Look at you and your own. I remember being on a plane flying from London for Heathrow to Geneva, and David Owen, the foreign secretary, was on it. I was sitting up in the front in business class. I was working for the Saudis, so he always sat me in business class.

Sometimes, the West doesn’t understand the Middle East. That’s why the United States shouldn’t be there. We should let them solve their own problems. Click To Tweet

I was sitting up the front and I saw him, then I thought, “I should go over and point my finger at him and start talking about the way the Brit government has screwed up this whole Bosnia.” It was terrible, the Sarajevo and all of this. This was in my mind at the time. This was a contemporary event that was going on. You know better than I do about that region.

Your people, Bosnians, were all integrated. You were part of the same community for centuries and certainly decades. All of a sudden, the fragmentation of Yugoslavia. These ancient hatreds and animosities come to the forth. A Serb who’s married a Bosnia Muslim woman, all of a sudden, his auntie is Islam and his wife is kicked out. They’re out killing their neighbours. It’s crazy stuff. The Middle East is the same. Their animosities go back for centuries.

That’s a spot-on assessment and this is such a huge interest in the show and of my studies and research. How does this happen? You mentioned Bosnia. How does a neighbour go and exterminate a neighbour? One of the things I’m finding as I’m maturing and trying to wrestle with some of these issues is, ultimately, we’re all people and everybody’s capable of these things. Anybody who tells me otherwise is dreaming, which is why I keep saying no one is born a war criminal. Their bumpers hits along the way that shapes you. You’re predisposed. You have certain character traits.

Psychiatrist assessments help with that. If the right conditions are such, then anybody is capable of any of these acts. What I find fascinating is talking about the idea of purpose in embracing narratives. Why can a Bosnian Serb go and kill a Bosniac Muslim? It is because he has somehow embraced an identity that is so tied and affiliated to the history of the narrative.

Not even the history. Not even a true history but the narrative that is presented of the Serbian people or a Serb nation. It therefore embodies that. Somehow, if he doesn’t stand up and fight for it, everything he represents, thinks, feels, and believes, somehow gets blown out of the water. Therefore, he finds himself questioning who is he. If he doesn’t stand up now, when is he going to stand up? This comes back to what we talked about, the importance of believing in the cause because that is also a protective mechanism.

If you don’t believe in a cause, you’re far more vulnerable to residual costs but I couldn’t agree. I cannot agree more about the importance of understanding the environment you’re operating in. It’s something I discuss on the show quite a lot. We use Afghanistan quite often as an example. I often say, “We never fought the war we thought we fought,” because we didn’t understand as much as we were effective. We didn’t understand the ecosystem that we were now part of. We didn’t understand the internal machinations between the various tribal groups and so on. That’s the point you’re trying to make.

I was up in Kurdistan two and a half years ago. I was doing some work in Sulaymaniyah. I was dealing with the president who came from that group. The president came from the Sulaymaniyah group, and I was dealing with that group. We’ve done some training options and so forth. Constantly, I was told it was better in the old days. Saddam was a bad guy but Saddam laid down rules. He said, “If you don’t interfere in my politics and what I’ve imposed down in Baghdad and across the country, I will leave you alone.” Essentially that’s what it is.

The guys would say, “We could drive from Sulaymaniyah down to Erbil, then we would drive all the way down to Baghdad. No checkpoints along the way because we all went to university down in Baghdad. We had a great time. There were great cafes and bars and so forth. Life was great.” The Americans came and overthrew Saddam. Look at the mess we have now. I see the same thing across North Africa with Libya. They moved in.

I remember clearly Kevin Rudd, who was Prime Minister at the time. He’s not quite banging the table, but going on about, “We must impose a North live zone over Libya. This is a terrible indictment of the ruling class. The Gaddafis are terrible people.” I was thinking, “What would you know about North Africa, Kevin? If anything, you’re a China specialist. You’ve never been to North Africa. Don’t impose solutions on people you don’t understand.”

That’s what happened. When everyone said, Gaddafi was a bad guy, I went to Libya. I went to Libya in the early 2000s. Life was great for most people. There was an oppressive sense about it. He played one tribe off against the other but they were tribes who were used to this. Even to this day, it’s tribe against tribe over big tribes.

When you come in and overthrow this thing, the cement that kept all of these non-cohesive groups together is gone. You have this horror story now of this lunatic in Belqasim Haftar who was a colonel in the Libya Army or the Gaddafi Army, goes off to the States for twenty years, becomes probably a CIA asset. He comes back and makes himself a field marshal and says, “I’m going to attack Tripoli.” Thousands of people are killed because of that.

That has direct phone calls with Trump. It’s interesting you mentioned Libya because I interviewed, Jason Pack, who wrote an amazing book, Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder and he uses Libya. He’s a Libya expert. He has spent many years there, and was led businesses and so on and so forth in Libya. One of the things that he talks about, and he uses Libya as the case study, is that Libya perfectly represents the confused state of the current geopolitics. You had the French and Italians effectively working against each other in Libya.

VOW 57 | Special Forces
Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder

You had Turks on one side and Qatar. You had UAE on the other. You had French Special Forces deploy on secret missions. US, UN, and UK supporting the government in Tripoli but then you had Trump jump on a call and talk to Haftar, which again creates this complete madness where nobody knows what they are ultimately fighting for.

It’s crazy, but not only that. There’s a whole evolution of the war across the Sahel. The thousands of people who’ve been killed, the hundreds of thousands who’ve been displaced, the billions of dollars that have been spent by the French and other European nations trying to bring order to chaos across Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and so forth. I read something about Benin and Ivory Coast. This all came about because when Libya fragmented, a bunch of quarries had been in the Libya Army. They looted all of the armour that were there. All of this weaponry ended up down in the Sahel, then you have your liberation groups, then you had your Islamic groups come along as well and pre-empt everybody else and knock them around and take charge.

All of that weaponry that’s floating around the Sahel at the moment comes from the Libyan magazines and armouries that were plundered. Gaddafi was a bad guy. Saddam was a bad guy but who are we to say they shouldn’t be? If their people don’t like them or don’t want them, then they will rise and overthrow them. They don’t need NATO to come down and start. I saw Tripoli after the NATO campaign.

There was huge damage across the city. They were more selective than the Russians are with Ukraine because Russian warfare is entirely different. They’re lunatics there, but they were selective but you always missed targets. I was sitting in Tripoli at the Radisson Hotel. Here’s a five-star hotel. This is how surreal it was. When there was a huge explosion, I was talking to a Libyan pilot. I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “It’s probably another NATO thing.”

Apparently, there were two consecutive bombings several minutes apart. The next morning, it was Ramadan when I was there, it turned out that they’d hit a Ramadan breaking of the fast meeting of a group. They were at a mosque and they killed 85 or 87. When the people came to help, they hit them again. They said that was a military target. It turned out because eventually, they did investigate this and realized, then NATO apologized. It was a US aircraft that did that. They apologize. They did acknowledge that it was an error but there were nearly a hundred people killed because they were flying around dropping bombs on innocent people. You keep out of it.

I couldn’t agree more. I interviewed Marc Garlasco, who was the Target Chief for the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He openly says, “Of the 50 attempts at dropping a bomb at Saddam, every one of them was unsuccessful but every one of them kills civilians. That’s collateral damage and you crack on.” There’s another point that you’re making that strikes me as highly relevant. Not only should we stay out of it but we also need to understand or explore how did we, as in the global community, contribute to the people like Saddam and Gaddafi?

They sustained also because of either support, inadvertent or otherwise from various powers. Not necessarily just Western powers but none of them existed in a vacuum. They all existed in an ecosystem that was feeding off each other. None of them exist on their own. There’s an action-reaction going on. To merely say, “Saddam was a bad man or Gaddafi was a bad man. We need to go in and do stuff,” misses a big piece of the pie. I want to double-click on the fact that neither of these were good men.

It’s very selective in whom they choose to overthrow. We should have learned from Iraq. They should have learned in Libya. Gaddafi said during the bombing campaign, “If I fall, basically the gates to Europe will be pushed open because people will come and cross the Mediterranean. You’ll have a huge influx of people. Some of whom will be Islamist terrorists.” It’s proven true. This is no longer a barrier. People jump and get as far as the Med. They come from as far south as Nigeria. They cross the Sahel and many of them die in the process. Those are tougher to get to get to the Med.

They get on their little rubber boat and off they go. It’s a crisis and it costs billions of dollars across Europe. It’s challenged the cohesion of some of these European states. Look at the Italians, for example, they were very angry about the number of refugees landing in Italy. They were trying to push them onto the rest of Europe. Angela Merkel said, “We’ll take a million of them.”

Opening the floodgates.

There’s a lot of flow on issues from this. What about Saudi? I work for Saudi. These are civilized people but this is an archaic royal system. There are like 6,000 people in the inner Royal Family and they’re all sucking from the teeth of Saudi oil. They can be quite oppressive but they went into it. They thought and believed that they could bomb the Houthi simply because the Houthis are supported by Iran. They go and say, “We can bomb these people back to the stone age,” without understanding that these are mountain tribal warriors who would take all of the hardship and continue to fight, which is what’s happened.

It’s cost Saudi billions of dollars and international credibility. They’re still trying to bring the Houthi to hill with air campaigns. It’s ridiculous. Now they’ve opened up their own airspace to miss arms from the Houthi. The UAE said, “You start getting drones landing in Dubai,” and they’re so dependent on tourism. “Do you think tourists are going to go and stay in a five-star hotel if they think this five-star hotel might be targeted by bloody drones?” They’re not. They’ll go elsewhere. When people have their once-a-year holiday, they don’t want to go to a place where they are at risk.”

They don’t want headaches.

No, they don’t. They’ll say, “We’ll go further. We’ll go to Thailand or we’ll go to Singapore or whatever. We’ll go to Australia. We won’t go to Dubai. We’ll just go through Dubai.” It’s a selective moral outrage. I was in Baghdad during the regrowth, rebuilding, or reconstruction phase. That’s in 2004 or 2005, when we were doing the elections and post-election. People were saying to me, “It was much better for the honest, normal civilian, the local person. It was much better under Saddam. We had electricity, water and safety. We can walk down the street. Now you walk down the street and you can be dragged into a black car and have an electric drill push through your knees for a couple of hours, then shot in the head.” This is how brutal it became.

I was in Iraq as a civilian contractor. On my third day, working for a British consultancy and I had to deal with a credible threat of life to one of my local female staff members. This is not something that people were familiar with in the pre-invasion days where murder and executions were the norm. Those were occurring very regularly with impunity. I’m conscious of the time but if you’re happy to chat for a little longer. While I have you, you’re a fountain of amazing experiences.

One of the things is you did spend a lot of time after your battle-hardened part of your career. You then worked for a Sheikh and also worked in Brunei, which was to call it the high life or the high rolling life would probably still be an understatement given the luxury and opulence that you would’ve observed. I think it was even 6 or 9 years in total. What am I trying to ask you is seeing that opulence and that perverse luxury in some instances, particularly when you’re talking about Brunei, what is the taste that they left in your mouth? Did it in any way influence how you view the world or people or the power or money?

Once I moved, I must have for the first couple of years that I was with Yamani. I was seduced by the lifestyle. Make no mistake. When you’re getting a DCA that’s commercial and it’s configured for twenty passengers, there are beds, showers, and all the other stuff. Your section of the plane at the rear is better than anything you possibly get commercially in first class. You’re flying around and you’re going through VIP gates. You don’t have to go through normal immigration processes and so forth. You’re driven up to the door of your plane. You’re living the high life in five stars. You do get seduced by that.

For the first two years, I was with Yamani, I was still engaged in negotiations with the Sri Lankans about going back to train them. It was only because I had continuity and a guarantee that I’d be paid every month when I was with Yamani. Whereas, I was uncertain about Sri Lanka. I didn’t think that they wouldn’t pay me but I always thoughts I need the payment monthly. Were living hand to mouth in those days month to month. We weren’t making a huge amount of money.

I eventually chose the luxury and the lifestyle of Yamani but I always felt disgruntled there. I always felt that I wasn’t doing anywhere near what I could do. He didn’t undervalue us because he’d been abducted from the OPEC conference in Vienna. We understood the necessity of good security, which is why he paid for his own security. When he was back in Saudi, he had to go under the National Guard Security because of the Royal Family. They couldn’t bring his own security into Saudi because he was under the protection of the King. When he came out of our Saudi, we were there. If we went to Saudi, we might fly with him but fly out with the aircraft because he never stayed there.

I never felt that I was doing anything valuable. When he started travelling in the early days, he was travelling very much on his own. He had a purpose in life still. He was no longer a minister but he still had his interests and he was travelling the world. Pakistan and Venezuela, these are places I went to within Cairo and it was good. I felt he was at risk here and I’m earning my dollars here. When the family started joining him and started slowing down, and the children were travelling all the time and his wife, in the end, we became simple caregivers to his children and his wife.

In the end, I was answering telephones, loading bags in cars to take to aircraft and flying off with them but never felt a threat in Boston. There was a threat in Pakistan and Karachi, for example. It’s shopping trips galore. You’d get to Italy in summer, for example, European summer. He’d be there and they all remember by then. His kids are early teens, mid-teens. They want to go to discos. You’re sitting in a disco set with this poor man in his 70s then and he’s making out. He’s enjoying himself and his kids are up dancing like crazy. He’s not in any great comfort but you’re doing this job because this is what he wants you to do.

When I had my falling out with his wife and was told to leave, the fury I knew in my head because I’d surrendered so much to work for him. I’d sacrificed time with my family. I was away for a long period of time. I was doing a job that I knew was never going to test me and yet, I’d been dismissively gotten rid of because his wife and I had had disagreements about certain things. I thought, “Where’s your loyalty?” I also understood. He was a non-confrontational man and he was never going to pull me aside and say, “John, this is not working. My wife doesn’t like you here anymore. You have to go but I’ll look after you. I’ll pay you off a couple of months and give you time to get a decent job.” He didn’t do that so that added to the fury.

I was very fortunate that a friend of mine who’d left who worked with Yamani who came earlier had gone to Brunei. He heard very quickly that I’d been dismissed and rang me. I was in Perth at the time and said, “How would you like to come to Brunei?” I said, “That’d be great.” That’s how I got up there. Brunei is like Cinderella land. It’s not a real country. It’s massively wealthy. It’s run by an archaic system. I’m not going to criticize it but Brunei are lazy people because they’re well looked after. They’re not challenged.

Jefri had an inner circle of people who had been well-educated from overseas, internationally educated. They were smart guys but they knew what buttons to press to make sure their jobs were secure. They were making plenty of money out of the Royal Family. It wasn’t challenging at all. By then, I was trying to make money. My focus then had to be, “I’ve got to make money. I’m getting into my 40s now, going to war and training. You’ve got to stop being a gun-slinger sooner or later.” I still look at some of my friends now in their 60s trying to get gun-slinger jobs. I’m saying, “Why? Why are you doing that? You’ve move beyond that.”

I recognized in my 40s that I didn’t want to be a gun-slinger anymore. I was happy to be a manager, build a business, and I’d be the boss. I’d employ guns slingers. Precariously, I would enjoy the challenge through them. They’re the guns slingers but it wasn’t for me. That’s how it came about. When Brunei imploded financially because of the circumstances with Jefri plundering Brunei Investment Agency funds to the tune of billions of dollars went missing on unapproved investments and so forth.

He disappeared. He took the easy route and ran away to London and went into self-imposed exile for a while and let his business collapse around his ears. It was dismantled gracefully by professional people. I was paid enough money to keep me going. I came back to Perth where I hadn’t lived for a long time. I had a house I hadn’t lived here. My wife and youngest daughter came back as well. I was up at the SAS and that’s where I met my partners who were retired offices from the regiment.

I’d been around a lot. I was introduced to these guys and we found harmony in what we wanted to do. That’s how we started the business. My period with the Yamani and Brunei Royal Family were eye-opener in the fact that you see the luxury, the ostentatious wealth around these people. It also shows you the horrible side of people. The hanger is on the people who do anything to make a buck. The backstabber and the ones who kiss ass just to move up in the system.

Wealth shows the horrible side of people. They become ambitious and backstab just to move up the system. Click To Tweet

It’s quite horrible to see and money does do that to people. People get ambitious. They want to make money and all of a sudden, they think they’re capable of being the PAP to someone like Sheikh Yamani. Therefore, they’re worthy of a salary of $300,000 or $400,000 or $500,000 a year when you wouldn’t employ them much beyond picking up your suitcases.

I wasn’t impressed with that world and it’s not real. You see this wealth and ostentation. I see it and you see it now. It’s so bad now. It’s horrible to see. The world seems to be focused on influences and things and selling crap that people don’t want. Someone goes on some second-rate TV show like Marriage at First Sight or something, then they go off and make a career influencing people to the tune of $10,000 for something, endorsing one prize. It’s ridiculous.

Money to me has never been the motivating factor. I always felt you have to have a cause. You have to believe in something. When I was with Yamani and the Brunei Royal Family, I didn’t believe in the cause. All I believed in was that I was building a nest egg for my family. I was building a lifestyle so I could look after my family. That was the only reason behind it but there was no sense of sacrificing myself for a cause of it. It was years wasted.

It speaks to much of what we talked about regarding the importance of purpose. Two more questions, if I can, noting the time. One thing that stood out to me and I speak a couple of languages and I’ve lived in different environments through circumstances mainly. Not because they’re necessarily by choice but I found it amazing and interesting insight that in the book you’ve written, you forced yourself to take time out of your busy schedule to learn languages like Italian, Spanish, French, and even Thai. Why did you do that? What was the impact of that learning on your professional career but also your personal relationships?

With Yamani, it was a convenient thing because we were travelling. For example, when we get to Sardinia, he employed local staff, cleaners, and maids that keep looking after the kids, and none of them could speak English. To communicate with them, I had to learn as best I could. Now, I would sit with a dictionary on duty and I’d go through them. One of the girls would walk by and say, “Good morning, Sir.” I’d say something to an Italian and ask if that was the correct pronunciation. It encourages you to do more.

I remember being up in the Red Sea and I picked up an Arabic book. I started learning Arabic, which was Egyptian Arabic because it was in Egypt. I went to Jordan. I was in Amman and I started talking to a taxi driver in what I thought was good Arabic and he started laughing at me. I said, “What are you laughing at?” He could speak English. He says, “Your accent is so bad. You’re saying words. We don’t say that word.” I said, “This is what I learned.” He said, “That’s Egyptian Arabic. It’s different.”

When people discourage you by laughing at you, I threw the book away. I thought, “I’m never going to learn this.” When I was in Brunei, the bulk of the workforce was Thai. They were craftsmen and tradesmen. These were guys from the villages. Not a word of English amongst them. There were 10,000 of them at one stage across all of these different companies. There was a lot of industrial unhappiness about wages and the way they were treated because a lot of the line managers were Chinese.

The Chinese can be very arrogant. This is like Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese and some Brunei Chinese. They would talk down to the Thais and the Thais would get up in arms. The Thais are an aggressive nation. They’ve got a great army. They’ve got a good history. They might be tradesmen and craftsmen but they’re a proud country. I had a security guard who spoke very good English. I said, “You are now with me. You’ll help me with my pronunciation,” because Thai is a tonal language.

I would walk around with this tiny little dictionary with a couple of thousand words and phrases and so forth. I’d say, “This is what I want to say to these guys now.” He’d say, “Say it like this.” I’d put it together and essentially, there’s no fluency in what I was saying but these guys would sit and talk back to me in Thai. Where I didn’t quite follow it, then my interpreter would help me. It built bridges across these guys.

I never had any issues with these guys. The same with my workforce. I had guard force and these guys couldn’t speak English. When they were recruited, they were supposed to have had a basic level of English. Being able to communicate with people was very important. I remember being in Sardinia one day and we were pulled over. I was in the second vehicle in the front vehicle, Yamani was driving himself, which we didn’t like him doing. He was a terrible driver but anyway, he has the Saudi ambassador to Rome. He was his mate and he was down in staying with Yamani. He was a passenger.

They’re driving. As we’re driving, they were pulled over by a police car with those little sticks that they waved. I jumped out of the car and I ran forward. I started talking to these guys. I said, “You need to leave these people alone because they’re diplomats.” As soon as I said diplomat or something, these guys say, “Okay.” Off we went. The ability to talk to people and get a message across, I found was quite important.

I remember being across the border from Geneva and France. I was saying to some of the Brit guys on the team, “None of the local staff would speak English.” They’re quite proud of their French. “No, you must learn French.” I said, “You should learn a few words. No, they can learn our language. They must learn ours.” I said, “No, you’re in France.” Sometimes the attitude’s not there.

I did learn, but the Spanish side, because we were going to Tenerife a lot with Yamani at that stage. I was also looking to try and get a job in Colombia, which was in those days with DSL, I think it was. They had the BP contract. I thought, “To stand out from the crowd, I should be able to speak a bit of Spanish.”

I bought one of these US diplomatic courses in Boston, which was quite a good course. It was taped in those days. I would sit and walk around when I was off duty with the tape playing in my ears until eventually, I started to get the pronunciation properly. It would come more easily. I could pitch up at an airline desk in Tenerife, for example, and yabber away in Spanish about what seat I wanted. People would respond as quickly thinking I could speak good Spanish. You live out there.

Something that’s important in what you’re saying that resonates with me is that every anecdote you’ve mentioned now and how your language helped you or languages, you’ve humanized the other. You’ve built a bridge and you’ve seen the human behind the circumstances, which allows you to empathize with them, to ethically connect and morally connect to those people to understand their circumstances, to embrace and embody their purpose, represent them, and understand their purpose in life, which is invaluable as a professional soldier like you were, and for all of our soldiers.

The reason I brought that up is because that’s certainly something that I discussed quite a lot in the show, this idea. Culture is a big word thrown around a lot. I support a couple of courses that deal with culture and inter-cultural understanding in the Australian Army now. I believe that to understand, even if it’s an enemy, call it an enemy. To understand your enemy, you need to understand the ecosystem, how they view the world. Language is one of those lenses. If you don’t have that lens, you cannot connect to that world at all. You’re blind to it and that makes a distance.

You have to empathize with people and you have to be able to relate to people. If you’re arrogant, leave the arrogance of the door. Leave it behind the door when you go through the door. Arrogance gets you nowhere. You have to deal with people. This is what I didn’t like about the wealthy world. There’s a pecking order. You are in a certain position. Don’t think you can move out of that pecking order. That was the feeling I got so often from people. Whereas, I would never do that to people. The lowest, most humble person in my experience, I will talk to him as I would to Sheikh Yamani or Prince Jefri, courteous and empathetic.

That’s the way it has to be. I still have communications from people in Sri Lanka who served with me as my students and still contact me to this day and say, “The best training we ever had. You were the best guy we ever had over here. We loved working for you and with you. We could rely on you.” You have to be able to relate to people and respect them. Respect is critical. It’s tourism. You treat people the way you want them to treat you and everything is tickety-boo. There’s no problem there. If you start treating people looking down on them or condescending in some way or another, now you’re creating more battles for yourself, and more obstacles along the way.

If you start treating people condescendingly, you are just creating more battles for yourself and more obstacles along the way. Click To Tweet

I couldn’t agree more. We’ve just ticked over two hours, John, but I do have to ask you probably the most important question. That is about your family, Cass and your three daughters. You talk about in such a nuanced way. It is a continuous read thread throughout the book. There’s a lot of love there. Also, you represent Cass in a very strong and stoic light but also your daughters. Undoubtedly, 40 odd years of marriage to Cass, through what is an extraordinarily exciting life for you but also one that is turbulent. You’ve moved around the world and in many ways, she was making the nest at home, so to speak. How did your career impact Cass? How did it impact your daughters over the years?

Cass travelled with me on operations, particularly when I was with the South African Special Forces because that was an undercover role, and then when I moved across to the National Intelligence Service, which was more strategic. Cass was with me both times. Both times we’re put at risk. Not so much risk when we were a member of the Rhodesian Army because she was safe at home. We were defending the borders. That was the course.

When we moved, she participate. She became part of my cover. I regret having done that but it was the way it was. It evolved like that. Cass was fine with it and I sacrificed a lot. She gave up a very good job because Cass is a very good artist. Quite well-known here in West Australia and exhibits regularly and through watercolour societies and so forth. She gave up a good career in Joburg to return to Zimbabwe.

When I was posted there, I was under the SAS South African SF Centre. When I got compromised, she and our two children were put at risk when I went to grab them from the house. We ran off into the rural areas so we could get hot extracted. She came back with me from Zambia to Lusaka when I was at the NIS. Again, I put her life and liberty more than anything else. Also. the comforts of the South compared to living in the horror time in Lusaka.

You couldn’t get anything. It was a difficult living environment. She sacrificed a lot. Once I moved on to a different, like the circuit because after the NIS, that’s when I moved into the commercial side of it with the Sri Lankan job. I was the first one on the circuit and we relocated to Australia then. She became very independent. She led her life because I was away for so much time that she controlled the purse strings back in Perth. The money was there. She managed well, managed the family, and raised the girls on her own, essentially putting all of the input was hers.

She became very independent. Not that she could have done without me. I don’t want to say that or even go further or I don’t want to even think that but she probably could have. She lived a very independent life. When I would come back from places like Sri Lanka, I would be very cautious about how I move things around in the fridge, for example, because they have a system of things.

That’s my life now. We’ve lived in the same house for ten years.

When the children grew up, she developed, moved, and refocused on her art. As I said, she is quite well-known here in the West at the moment now. She’s evolved in that. That’s given a certain strength. At the same time, she did tell me and there’s no doubt about it. She said how lonely her life was while I was away. She dealt with endless loneliness. I probably could say, so did I but at the same time, I knew that I was pretty active and busy. Particularly in places like Sri Lanka. Not so much with Yamani but loneliness was a part of our marriage for a long time.

The marriage struggled. Nothing is easy in a marriage. There’s a lot of give and take and compromise. Cass compromised more than I did probably. We are now coming up to 46 years of marriage. We’ve known one another for nearly 50 years. I love her. I’m quite happy to admit that. I’ve always said she was the foundation of everything I did. She was the anchor for me. She kept me anchored to the necessities of life, and what I had to do. Without her, who knows where I would’ve ended up?

She’s a critical part of my life. Now as we reach semi-retirement, half-hearted retirement, the relationship is very good. We have our own lives as such. She’s gone out for a meeting with some of her Zimbabwean friends. We live here now. She has her art, meeting, and exhibition, and I have my own life, which is probably not as exciting as hers because I’m five years older and my head is now 70. I’m thinking I’ve still got a couple of things I’ll can and want to do but I’m in no hurry to do them.

What are those things, John? Out of interest. I can’t see you retire given everything you’ve done in the true sense of the word.

I still have a company. I do run a company, which is not very active at the moment but the structure is there. I still present proposals by invitation. People contact me and say, “We are looking at a training program for a small Special Forces unit in Somalia. Could you do something?” I’ll put the proposal in and I know that 9 times out of 10 or 95 times out of 100, if it’s an African inquiry, it’s going to go nowhere but it keeps me focused. I’ll write up a proposal. I’ll cost it and I’ll say, “This is what I can do and I can find a team of five guys pretty easily. If you want it, here it is.”

As I said, a couple of years ago, I was going a year and a half, I was talking to Mozambicans but they didn’t have the money. I was talking to elements in Burkina Faso and the government before was overthrown in the coup. I’m still in touch with a couple of elements in Mogadishu about the training team, but they admit they had no money. If I could source a fund like the US Department of State or something, that’d be great. They’d give me all the support. I still look to those things but it’s all half-hearted. I don’t need it. I’m not that keen on travelling at the moment. I’ve been locked down here for two years with the COVID stuff and it’s given me a sense that I don’t need to travel anymore. I can do a lot online and I have people here and there.

For example, I have a delegation coming down from an African country to Joburg. I have somebody in Joburg who can host that meeting. I don’t have to go if I choose not to go there. It’s like that. It’s more hands-off stuff. I’m writing a second book, which is more prequel to The Fading Light as to what motivated me and more coverage of the Australian SAS. We’ll see where that goes.

That change of pace has also given us The Fading Light, which I must say is an amazing book. I’ll put a link to it. John, thank you so much. You’ve given me way more time than I would’ve ever hoped but it was a fascinating discussion.

Thank you. Good talking to you. We might catch up for a beer one day, face to face.

I certainly hope so.

Thank you, mate.

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