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Warrior Brothers: My Life in the Australian SAS

Warrior Brothers: My Life in the Australian SAS - Keith Fennell This was a fantastic read, but I was surprised to discover the sentence that moved me to tears didn’t chronicle deaths of comrades or depictions of men with spirits broken by fear but:When the most remarkable and powerful friendships you will ever have in your life become severed by distance – both in geography and lifestyle – it feels like the death of a friend.By this stage, the author had completely exposed himself on the page. I’d seen his dedication to task, the obsession to learn unfamiliar skills, the concern he has for those whose lives he is responsible for, so I knew how true those words were.“Warrior Brothers” is marketed as memoirs of a member of the Australian SAS Regiment, but it is so much more than that. It also covers the time after the author left the SAS and worked as a security consultant in Iraq and later in Indonesia after the tsunami. It’s not a boys-own tale of battle and gung-ho heroics. Before that quote, it related only two depictions of contact with opposing forces. East Timor and then Afghanistan.These are the only instances where he describes his involvement in a fire-fight. So, any reader expecting blood-thirsty tales of close combat and heroics will be disappointed. Instead we learn that life for a soldier is really about being: “thirsty, hungry, fatigued and sexless.”After the death of Joe, a colleague from his years in Afghanistan and Iraq, the author received an email from his closest mate, Kane.“At times we may drift from our true selves but at heart we are warriors. Sadly many warriors die. It’s what we do for a life that separates us from those who never know the honour or companionship associated with that price.”The book succeeds in giving a glimpse into this brotherhood. Not the ‘bro’ of the ghetto, but the ones who laugh at a joke, take the piss out of you, challenge you in the gym or a cross-country run and, more importantly, are there when you need them in battle or simply if shifting house.Other books have been written about the SAS. But rarely from the viewpoint of an insider. There is almost an unwritten rule that you don’t advertise the fact that you are or were a member of the Regiment. Faces of serving members are obscured by masks or digital smudging. They are referred to by first names only.He recounts a few SAS operations he wasn’t involved in, but this book only gives first-hand accounts of the above two (he doesn’t let on how many more cases of contact there were – if any).His first deployment occurred when the Australian Government finally responded to a request from the recently declared independent East Timor for protection against the Indonesian backed militia who were trying to stir up trouble. Here, Keith describes how he came to kill another human being and captures the slow build up and confusion before the encounter that is the culmination of his years of training and, just as demanding, simulations. Afterwards he talks about what it felt like to take a life, contrasting it to the feelings he had after shooting rabbits and kangaroos as a youngster. Interestingly, he found that the latter unsettled him more. The man he killed was armed and trying to kill him. An important distinction. It still kept him awake at night for a long time afterwards.The other encounter he describes in detail was in Afghanistan. Here, what he doesn’t say is just as interesting as what he relates. You have to read about the same incident in Ian McPhedran’s book [b:The Amazing SAS: The Inside Story of Australia's Special Forces|10552516|The Amazing SAS The Inside Story of Australia's Special Forces|Ian McPhedran|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1349078447s/10552516.jpg|15459172] to get the full picture. Much to their frustration, the author’s six-man patrol was not actively involved in the actual fire-fight but one of his best mates belonged to a similarly sized patrol that was. Keith’s patrol’s main concern was dealing with prickly leaves constantly blowing into their observation post while, only a few kilometers away, the other patrol was surrounded by eighty men out to capture and/or kill them. The group had to hold them off, killing a few in the process and survive under fire for hours until a rapid response force came to their aid. It was possibly the aftermath of this which may have played a part in the author’s decision to leave the SAS. He doesn’t exactly state that (and I may be wrong) only sayingThe men were courageous but there are many fogs to war.Ian’s book gives more details of how one of the men snatched up a hat and rifle from an enemy corpse and was subsequently severely reprimanded. Instead of being hailed as heroes, all the men in the patrol bore the brunt of the top brass. Some left the SAS, some were kicked out and one later committed suicide (a fact that Ian’s book fails to mention). He, too, described it as an unfortunate byproduct of “the fog of war.”No doubt, the way the incident was dealt with had a profound effect not only on those involved but other men in the Regiment. I’m sure other factors were involved in Keith's decision to leave something he so obviously loved, but the sheer omission of more detail suggests problems. It’s like a chapter was removed from the book.What does get included is a statementThe end of our tour of Afghanistan arrived with an overwhelming sense of futility. How best could we think about our role there and what we’d achieved when it felt like such a drop in the ocean.In the next chapter is the followingUnless one’s country is being invaded, a soldier’s loyalty is, first and foremost, to his mates. A patriotic duty to one’s country is commendable, and everyone is aware of the larger picture, but this is not what holds soldier’s together in battle.Everything in life occurs for a reason. Part of his SAS training involved six months intensive study to learn Bahasa, the national language spoken in Indonesia. As usual, the author went over and above the call of duty and became as fluent as he could be. This would prove invaluable when working in Aceh Banda. His ability to speak to the locals in their language allowed him to gain greater insights into their tragedy.Other skills he learned will no doubt come into play as his life evolves post SAS. Apparently, he is finding transition difficult. But, he would not be alone in finding that. At one stage, he says that in covert operations, there are long segments of time when you have to be quiet and still and it is only the quality of your imagination that can make these interesting. He includes poems he has written as tributes to fallen comrades. Since leaving he has immersed himself in a creative writing degree at the University of Wollongong. This has given him the skills to tell the tale, just as surely as all the runs up the hill behind the Enoggera barracks with a fully laden pack on his back helped him get into the Regiment in the first place.Hopefully, other soldiers who have been-there-done-that will benefit from this book and understand they are not alone in this alienation when they return to civilian life. Likewise the families and friends of these men may get a better insight into their moods and disconnectedness.As for the wider community, no one would argue with the need for a defence force. At one stage the author makes the statement “Ineptitude kills.” If boarding illegal fishing boats with overwhelming force gives men in training real life simulations, then isn’t that better than sending untried, untested youngsters into the battlefields as they did in World War 1, 11 and Vietnam? Ignorance is not bliss, it’s bloody dangerous.All through the book, you get the picture of the might of the US army. The trucks carrying not one but multiple tanks rolling along the highways of Iraq. The gunships appearing over the horizon and scattering an oncoming thousand-strong force just by their reputation alone.If training covert elite forces who can ultimately save lives by ensuring subsequent battles are as efficient as possible, isn’t that a good thing? Sending small units into hostile territory seems foolhardy, but a small undetected force, relying on stealth and discipline can prove invaluable in getting to know an enemy’s strength and weaknesses.At least by getting up close and personal they are reminded that their enemy are people first and foremost and not just statistics or targets in a drone’s scope.In his reminisces about providing security for a private organization providing new fresh water in Aceh Banda after the catastrophic tsunami, you can see that witnessing death and destruction on that scale makes it difficult to cope with the petty complaints most people have.The trouble is that once you’re SAS, you’re never “most people.” The tales the author recounts are probably just a small sample of his encounters and were closely vetted by the powers-that-be, but they still give a wonderfully moving picture of the life of an elite soldier. Its ups and downs. But more than anything there remains that image of a band-of-brothers. People who will put their life on hold for one another in peacetime and while on active duty.I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone and, if you enjoy it, read the accompanying book on his training and more of his transition back into a “normal” life with a side-salad of a trip on anti-pirate patrol in the seas off Yemen. It is not a me-as-the-hero tale but a tribute to the lives of those he’s served with, especially those who died before their time.