Chief of Army address at the book launch of The Dust of Uruzgan by Fred Smith
Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
I am delighted to be here at the RG Casey Building today to launch Fred Smith’s new book, The Dust of Uruzgan, published by Allen and Unwin.
I was particularly pleased and honoured to be invited to speak because I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary debt of appreciation I personally feel for our diplomatic service, especially those who willingly shared the dust and heat of Uruzgan, the snows of Kabul, and more generally the hardships of operations, with our soldiers, intelligence officers, police and other officials, in the service of this nation in conflict.
Apparently my staff are also delighted to be here, but for more mundane reasons – they tell me that the coffee is vastly superior to that which can be purchased at Russell!
In a keynote address to the Lowy Institute in August last year, then Secretary Peter Varghese, said: “The grammar of chaos theory finds a distinct echo in foreign policy, even if charting the chain of consequences is more art than science.”
I think the writing of The Dust of Uruzgan validates Peter’s assertion of artistic chaos. But even chaos theory would have trouble accounting for an Australian working musician, supporting a diplomacy habit, in a remote Afghan mountain valley, with several hundred soldiers, while living in an armoured box, and composing songs about Dutch men doing unspeakable things in public conveniences.
Fred was the first Australian diplomat to be sent to Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan. And he was the last leave. Building on his previous deployment alongside the Australian Defence Force in Bougainville, Fred served two years with Australian and Coalition Forces in Southern Afghanistan. The Dust of Uruzgan is one of the many good outcomes of Fred’s time in Afghanistan. It is essentially a personal memoir. The story of an individual’s journey and an eventual home-coming. As Fred acknowledges; “every one of us experienced a different Afghanistan, and this is only my account of what I saw.” (p398)
And what a textured, insightful and worthy account it is. The authentic man and his ‘voice’ ring true. The dry and unassuming wit; the ‘Fred Smith’ you get in personal conversations is evident throughout. As in this wry observation about working with the Australian Army:
‘Cheerful indifference’ has always been my approach to working with the army – it saves your sanity while no one can accuse you of having an attitude problem. (p.280)
Witty and oh so true.
The account in the book also rings with honesty in a way that many memoirs struggle to do. Fred’s reflections don’t spare his pride. He owns up to ‘stuffing up’ and shares the personally awkward moments life throws at you.
So I hear you thinking, Australian book shelves are full of witty, self-deprecating memoirs. Publishers bring them into bloom each year just before Father’s Day (this Sunday) and Christmas. Why this one? Well, for a start, it’s a book about the Australian experience in Afghanistan that isn’t written by a reporter, an ex-special forces soldier or a retired General.
It speaks to an important and perceptive experience of that war – the diplomat at-large.
The book presents the Afghanistan experience through fresh eyes and with a fresh perspective. I think this is very important. Nothing I could do, surrounded by a bubble of security, or our soldiers could do, bearing the weapons of war, can compare.
A few years ago, Allan Gyngell, another DFAT Alumnus, said something of the Australian Public Service I think is also aptly directed toward the Army:
[The Australian Public Service / The Australian Army] is as talented and effective as any in the world. However, it is also small, highly collegial, prone to unnecessary secrecy and, if left to its own devices, as opaque as the windscreen of a ute on a dusty road in February.
The gritty detail and layers of our story, of we Australians in Uruzgan, and Afghanistan more broadly, has been largely opaque to the wider Australian community. Fred opens up more of that story to our people and the world.
The Dust of Uruzgan has several distinct narrative threads, but the quality of writing and editing support their harmonious co-existence.
The first narrative is that of an artist – a musician and his songs. Indeed, and I doubt I am revealing any great secret here, the reader will occasionally be challenged to decide whether Fred is a diplomat with a passion for music or a musician with a diplomatic habit he is trying to kick.
I think Fred’s musical sensibilities help us ‘see’ a different view. As that noted philosopher, Billy Joel observed:
“Artists - musicians, painters, writers, poets - always seem to have had the most accurate perception of what is really going on around them, not the official version or the popular perception of contemporary life.”
Fred himself offers a more sanguine, less idyllic, view of being a musician:
“The reality of being a self-managed artist in Australia is not that glamorous: I spent a lot of time at home sending emails to venue bookers and writing hyperbole about myself for the media. Its lonely work and also self-referential – the risk of disappearing up one’s own jacksy was very real. You can become embittered quickly, many do.” (p.270)
A second narrative thread is that of a diplomat working in the field, on contemporary problems, within an Australian ‘whole of government’ context. This is the story of: diplomat, observer, raconteur, confidante, and sometime translator/conciliator between warring Australian bureaucratic tribes.
The public’s knowledge of what our diplomats do on deployment is virtually unknown.
Although the photos of Fred’s Panama hat may reinforce that unfortunate stereotypical view of ‘our man in the Hindu Kush’.
The ‘lived’ experience of the coalition presence in Uruzgan emerges strongly. As well as the ups and downs of partnership in our motley coalition; Fred’s narration of the heat and dust, the tedium of FOB life, and sharing a containerised housing unit, with 10 of your ‘new best mates’, accurately captures the zeitgeist of life in Tarin Kot.
Particularly poignant are the moments of sorrow and loss we all shared; the farewells, memorial services and ramp ceremonies.
A strong and welcome feature of the narrative is the introduction of Afghans as real people, rather than distant villagers or the dreadfully de-humanised terminology of ‘fighting age males’ we see in many other recent stories.
Interpreters, police, soldiers, musicians, local politicians, bureaucrats; Fred’s story personalises our Afghan partners, in a manner all too routinely expunged from official correspondence.
Whether through Fred’s friendships, working relationships or keen observations, the people of Uruzgan cease being the unknowable ‘other’, they enter the reader’s imagination as ‘ordinary’ people who share in our humanity.
The Dust of Uruzgan is well-written, interesting and a thoughtful contribution to the narrative record of Australia’s longest war. Yet, it is much more than that.
Ostensibly framed as a story about a body of work, musical and professional, over a period of time, set against the backdrop of Afghanistan, it is ultimately something else.
It is a story about a man’s journey to find himself, and come home, to the people he loves and who love him.
I am grateful that Fred was open to taking us on that journey.
And I am pleased to offer the view that I think he found what he was looking for.
I will conclude with a quote from the 19th century German author Berthold Auerbach, which captures the sense of what Fred conveys through his music, so well described in the book. Auerbach simply said, “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
I acknowledge Fred’s service to our Nation, and that of his colleagues from this great department of state, for which I am sincerely grateful.
And I enthusiastically commend The Dust of Uruzgan to you.