May 27, 2008 / 3:57 AM / 10 years ago

Australian troops want to see real action in Iraq

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian infantry troops are ashamed of their “second rate” role in Iraq and Afghanistan and want to see combat as well as protection and reconstruction roles, according to an army major who served in Iraq.

In an article titled “We Were Soldiers Once” in the latest edition of the Australian Army Journal, Major Jim Hammett, who served in Iraq, Somalia, East Timor, and Tonga, said some infantry soldiers were ashamed of wearing the Australian uniform.

“The restrictions placed on deployed elements as a result of force protection and national policies have, at times, made infantrymen ashamed of wearing their Australian uniform and regimental badge,” Hammett wrote.

“(They) have resulted in the widespread perception that our army is plagued by institutional cowardice.”

In a second article in the journal, Captain Greg Colton, second-in-command of Sydney’s 3rd battalion, said troop morale had deteriorated because infantry were kept away from frontlines like “downtown Baghdad, Basra and Helmand province”.

“There is a growing sense of frustration within the ranks of the infantry that regular infantry units are only receiving perceived second-rate operational taskings,” wrote Colton.

Australia is a staunch U.S. ally and was one of the first to commit troops to the Iraq war. But it placed only special forces on the ground, not infantry, as well as supplying support forces, ships and aircraft.

Australia has almost 4,000 soldiers, sailors and air crews serving overseas, in Iraq, Afghanistan and seven other deployments. But it has only 500 frontline troops in Iraq, which it will withdraw later in 2008 and whose main role is force protection and training, and 300 special forces in Afghanistan.

Australia’s former conservative prime minister, John Howard, who committed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, said Australia’s military contribution to the U.S.-led war on terror was crucial and any troop withdrawal would be a sign of defeat.

But Hammett said frontline troops dismiss Howard’s claim.

“At the coalface ... such sentiments are dismissed as political rhetoric, as serving members from the United States, Britain and Canada lay their lives on the line in support of their governments objectives whilst the Australian infantry appear to do little more than act as interested spectators ...,” he wrote.

The government policy of using special forces only for combat and keeping the infantry away from the fighting had exposed Australian troops to “near contempt” from other allied soldiers serving in Iraq, said Hammett, who interviewed infantry troops.

“In the opinion of many infantrymen, the lauding of their contributions to recent operations does not ring true,” he said.

“The ongoing inaction (in Iraq) ... has resulted in collective disdain and at times near contempt by personnel from other contributing nations for the publicity-shrouded yet force protected Australian troops.”

Hammett, now studying at the Australian Command and Staff College in Canberra, said Australia’s infantry, which makes up about a third of the army’s combat forces, had not been assigned major offensive actions since the Vietnam War.

In contrast, the United States, Britain and Canada which contribute the bulk of foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, are using infantry troops for combat operations.

Hammett said a constant question being asked in Australian barracks and messes is: ”Why, in an era of global operations and unity of purpose against common enemies, are Australian infantrymen conspicuously absent from the fighting, whilst our allies are engaging in sustained combat operations?

“Today’s Australian soldiers have been imbued with the proud history of their forebears, their fighting spirit, their tenacity, their battle honors,” wrote Hammett. “The infantrymen of today want to be proud of their own actions.”

Editing by John Chalmers and Alex Richardson

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