Se­cre­tive world of spe­cial ops

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Claire Cor­bett

Iam a sucker for boot-camp train­ing sto­ries in all their heart­break, bas­tardry and tri­umph. The first half of Stan­ley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket is al­most per­fect, only im­proved by the knowl­edge that R. Lee Ermey as the se­nior drill in­struc­tor was a real US Marine Corps drill sergeant. The an­swer to the oft-asked ques­tion, were Marine Corps drill in­struc­tors re­ally like that? Hell yeah!

That feel­ing of re­al­ity is also what makes these in­sider sto­ries of men with guns fas­ci­nat­ing. The Op­er­a­tor and The Killing School de­scribe US Navy SEAL (sea, air and land) and other Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions (Spec Ops) train­ing and op­er­a­tions car­ried out as part of the ‘‘global war on ter­ror’’ or the ‘‘long war’’ as the Pen­tagon calls it. Sons of God de­picts the his­tory of the Vic­to­ria Po­lice Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Group (known as Sons of God or SOG), Aus­tralia’s first SWAT team.

All three books de­liver the train­ing-of-elite­forces nar­ra­tive in full — and much more. They de­tail why the train­ing is so tough and show that no mat­ter how stress­ful, no train­ing can truly pre­pare sol­diers for com­bat or po­lice for shootouts with neo-Nazis.

Hav­ing said that, all three books raise ques­tions around as­pects of train­ing that cross the line into abuse and wastage of re­cruits.

The Op­er­a­tor is the most straight­for­ward story. Writ­ten in clear, un­pre­ten­tious prose, the book cov­ers Robert O’Neill’s Mon­tana child­hood, SEAL train­ing and his 400-mis­sion ca­reer. High-pro­file op­er­a­tions in­clude the res­cue of cap­tain Richard Phillips, ab­ducted from his ship by So­mali pi­rates, and the in­ser­tion of the team that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

In his de­tailed ac­count, O’Neill de­scribes shoot­ing bin Laden him­self, lead­ing to a per­sonal celebrity that did not sit well with fel­low SEALs. Their dis­ap­proval is per­haps to be ex­pected as all three au­thors em­pha­sise a code of hon­our in the spe­cial forces that shuns in­di­vid­ual hero­ics.

But O’Neill is not alone in be­ing ac­cused of cash­ing in on his ex­pe­ri­ence. Since 2001 it is es­ti­mated 100plus books have been pub­lished by for­mer SEALs. One of them, Bran­don Webb, has pub­lished sev­eral books based on his ca­reer. His lat­est, The Killing School, fol­lows the sto­ries of four elite Spec Ops snipers and links the tech­niques they use to the course Webb de­vel­oped for the SEAL sniper train­ing school.

The Killing School goes into grip­ping de­tail about the train­ing needed to cre­ate a mas­ter sniper, par­tic­u­larly the com­plex­i­ties in­volved in stalk­ing a tar­get and the in­tri­cate maths and physics needed to land a killing shot from a long dis­tance. Webb writes that ‘‘be­ing a Spec Ops sniper is rocket sci­ence’’.

Bul­lets in fact are minia­ture rock­ets and the con­di­tions af­fect­ing their tra­jec­to­ries in­clude the ob­vi­ous, such as grav­ity, an­gle, wind di­rec­tion and ve­loc­ity, as well as the tar­get’s own move­ment, but also the ef­fects of al­ti­tude, the ben­e­fit of warm­ing ammo in the sun be­fore use and (for a very long shot, say more than 3km) the ro­ta­tion of the earth.

The book leaves you in no doubt as to why snipers are so feared and ef­fec­tive: one well-hid­den sniper can pin down or elim­i­nate many enemy fight­ers over long pe­ri­ods of time. mo­ment any­one in the SOG steps over that line, all is lost.’’

This is a wel­come re­flec­tion. O’Neill and Webb also em­pha­sise the need for pre­ci­sion, par­tic­u­larly to avoid civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. Webb claims that snipers are driven by the de­sire to save rather than take lives.

These ac­counts of po­lice and sol­diers are per­sua­sive on the pro­fes­sional pride of these units and their split-sec­ond de­ci­sion-mak­ing in highly charged, un­pre­dictable sit­u­a­tions.

This can lead to a de­fen­sive tone, how­ever. It is only half­way through O’Lough­lin’s book that we learn that SOG has at­tracted ad­verse ju­di­cial find­ings and me­dia crit­i­cism for ex­ces­sive use of force in a few op­er­a­tions. At one stage SOG re­sponded by tak­ing me­dia per­son­al­i­ties, judges and other coro­ners to their train­ing base to put them through a se­ries of role-play­ing ex­er­cises, which pro­foundly al­tered at least some par­tic­i­pants’ per­cep­tion of risk and de­ci­sion­mak­ing while un­der at­tack. In a sense these books aim to give the reader a sim­i­lar in­sight.

All three books ex­press resentment of the in­tense scru­tiny spe­cial forces are sub­jected to fol­low­ing op­er­a­tions in­volv­ing lethal force. While these in­ves­ti­ga­tions may feel un­fair to those in­volved, such over­sight is cru­cial. We are re­minded of this by re­cent rev­e­la­tions of the on­go­ing in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the cul­ture and con­duct of Aus­tralian SAS forces in Afghanistan.

The strength of these books is their priv­i­leged ac­cess to their sub­jects. Sons of God ben­e­fits from the di­rect tes­ti­mony of the SOG men: we hear their ex­pe­ri­ences told in their own voices. But this close­ness is also a lim­i­ta­tion. These au­thors have axes to grind.

O’Lough­lin, for ex­am­ple, writes un­apolo­get­i­cally out of hero wor­ship of his father and de­fer­The qual­i­ties of great snipers of­ten in­volve NSW po­lice riot squad would be armed with ence to the courageous men of the SOG. And ap­ti­tudes de­vel­oped be­fore they join the mil­im­il­i­tary-style ma­chine­guns. the two SEAL mem­oirs have been cleared for tary, hunt­ing and spearfish­ing be­ing among the And now the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has an­pub­li­ca­tion by the US Depart­ment of De­fence; most im­por­tant. The abil­ity to hide, to stalk, to nounced its in­ten­tion to cen­tralise se­cu­rity they ob­vi­ously con­tain no cri­tique of US miliread ev­ery as­pect of the en­vi­ron­ment, to be pa­pow­ers in a new su­per-min­istry taryt tac­tics or strat­egy. tient while hun­gry and thirsty in scorch­ing or and pro­posed to in­tro­duce legisBoth SEAL mem­oirs do dis­freez­ing con­di­tions, to think like prey, to re­act la­tion to al­low the Aus­tralian play an oc­ca­sional aware­ness in­stantly, these are the skills that cre­ate a sniper. mil­i­tary to de­ploy forces dur­ing that US mil­i­tary strat­egy in the

The open­ing chap­ter of Sons do­mes­tic crises and pos­si­bly long war has so far failed, but ofo God il­lus­trates how ‘‘SOG em­bed of­fi­cers within state law of­fer no opin­ion as to why. The men’’ level of anal­y­sis never rises m and prob­lem-solv­ingdis­play sim­i­lar tough­nessin­ge­nu­ity en­force­men­tIt seems hard agen­cies.to be­lieve now

above the need to kill more o on the run. A SOG team pinned but back in 1986, SOG faced ‘‘bad guys’’. And yet, as histodown in open coun­try by three be­ing dis­banded to save money. ri­anr Yu­val Noah Harari points f fugi­tives is saved only by an opThe Rus­sell Street bomb­ing out­outo in his 2015 book Homo e er­a­tive reload­ing his weapon side po­lice Deus, ter­ror­ists have al­most no t u tac­tic he had never re­hearsed. and Queen street head­quar­ters­mass DD­ciut shoot­ingsin un­der­wa­ter in a freez­ing river, a March, fol­lowed by the Hod­dle ca­pac­ity to threaten a func­tion

ing state. The dan­ger comes Sub­se­quent chap­ters trace in 1987, put paid to that idea. most­lym from our over­re­ac­tions. t the his­tory of the SOG from its SOG quickly be­came ac­cepted ‘‘Whereas in 2010 obe­sity ori­gins as a tac­ti­cal po­lice counby fel­low po­lice of­fi­cers as an esand re­lated ill­nesses killed t tert­er­ror­ist unit set up in 1977 sen­tial tool in the arse­nal to han­about three mil­lion peo­ple,’’ un­der Harari writes, ‘‘ter­ror­ists killed a to­tal of 7697 u ence of the mil­i­tary com­mand vet­er­ans. and in­fluseries­dle ue ex­tremeof op­er­a­tions, sit­u­a­tions raids and and the stake-outs.book de­tails a

peo­ple across the globe, most of them in de­velThe rise of counter-ter­ror­ism The tough­est chap­ter to read cov­ers a siege op­ing coun­tries.’’ He notes that for the av­er­age p po­lice units in Aus­tralia and in a kinder­garten in which four chil­dren are per­son in the af­flu­ent West, soft drinks pose a world­wide since the 1970s has only in­ten­si­fied soaked in petrol and held hostage in a toi­let for far dead­lier threat than ter­ror­ists. dur­ing the long war. seven hours. Au­thor Heath O’Lough­lin’s father, In its fi­nal pages, Sons of God quotes Vic­to­ria

Along with in­creas­ing do­mes­tic surveil­lance, Doug O’Lough­lin, chief in­spec­tor of SOG from Po­lice Chief Com­mis­sioner Gra­ham Ash­ton on the pur­suit of do­mes­tic counter1 1981 to 1998, de­scribed that op­erthe Lindt cafe siege and whether the army ter­ror­ism may be lead­ing to the a ation as the big­gest chal­lenge of should have been called in. Le­gally the mil­i­tary mil­i­tari­sa­tion of po­lice forces. h his ca­reer. could have been called in, Ash­ton says, but this Per­haps we should be conA riv­et­ing ac­count of the Port could have led to de­lays — and he be­lieves ‘‘the

out­come would have been the same’’. long cerned war that are be­ingthe tac­tics de­ployed AAlof the on like Arthur the mas­sacre­nat­u­ral and cli­max siege of feels this

Ash­ton says SOG al­ready trains closely with our streets. the SAS: ‘‘The mil­i­tary might be train­ing this This process is bbr­more adrather­book. It than should trail­ing­have ended­off into there,a

stuff ev­ery day, whereas our SOG is ac­tu­ally vanced in the US, where po­lice g grab-bag of less con­se­quen­tial do­ing it ev­ery day.’’ It is not clear, then, what forces are buy­ing up ex-mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions that add noth­ing new dif­fer­ence Mal­colm Turn­bull’s re­cent anequip­ment and at­tend­ing semit to our un­der­stand­ing. nounce­ment about an ex­panded role for the nars on ‘‘war­rior polic­ing’’. The Martin Bryant siege il­lusAus­tralian De­fence Force in tack­ling do­mes­tic

In April 2017, The New Ret trates per­fectly the very dif­fer­ent ter­ror­ism will ac­tu­ally make. pub­lic linked this phi­los­o­phy to op­er­at­ing en­vi­ron­ment and rules It may be that fur­ther merg­ing of the po­lice an in­creas­ing num­ber of fa­tal of en­gage­ment fac­ing po­lice as and mil­i­tary risks giv­ing rise to ‘‘war­rior cops’’ shoot­ings of ci­ti­zens by po­lice. op­posed to mil­i­tary spe­cial for­who, in the words of The New Repub­lic, ‘‘re­gard That same month, the first bill ces. The chief dif­fer­ence is that the com­mu­ni­ties they serve as ter­ri­tory oc­cuseek­ing per­mis­sion to weapon­con­trary to some pop­u­lar mispied by po­ten­tial in­sur­gents’’. ise po­lice drones was pre­sented to the Con­nec­ti­con­cep­tions, po­lice are not try­ing to kill gunIn the seem­ingly end­less quest by our politi­cut leg­is­la­ture. men but at­tempt­ing to bring them to jus­tice. cians for bet­ter se­cu­rity, is this re­ally a fu­ture

Aus­tralia ap­pears to be head­ing in a sim­i­lar SIERRA, the Vic­to­rian sniper who helped we want? di­rec­tion: re­cent de­vel­op­ments in the wake of cap­ture Bryant, twice made the call not to take the coro­ner’s re­port on the 2014 Lindt cafe siege the ‘‘head­shot’’. ‘‘If I had taken his life,’’ SIERin­clude last month’s an­nounce­ment that the RA said, ‘‘it wouldn’t have been jus­ti­fied. The ma is a writer and critic. Her new novel is Watch Over Me.

A woman runs into the arms of po­lice dur­ing the 2014 Lindt cafe siege

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