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Chasing Bandits in the Badlands

Australian Soldiers adjusting attitudes in Somalia 1993


Bob Breen

Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2023

Paperback 264pp   RRP: $29.99


Reviewer: Mike Arnett, May 2024


Bob Breen, a well-known historian of recent Australian military campaigns, has written a detailed, insightful and easily read account of the  deployment of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australia Regiment (1 RAR) to Somalia in 1993. This was the first deployment of an infantry battalion group on warlike service since Vietnam and was commanded by David Hurley, who of course went on to be Chief of the Defence Forces and is our current Governor General.

The operational experience of Somalia was very significant in the context of the Army moving from a long period of peace-time training and multi-national UN peacekeeping operations to what proved to be the beginning of a long era of complex stabilisation and warfighting operations, either under UN auspices or as part of coalition operations led by the US.

Breen picks apart the complexities and challenges inherent in commanders achieving mission success in a broken society riven with lawless gangs and factional warlords, while also attempting to protect the Australian force elements, both physically and reputationally, in a very confused and uncertain environment.  There are some fine character studies of both the senior leaders and those at the pointy end of the mission, and their flexibility and adjusting attitudes as they learnt on the job is instructive and broadly reflects well on all those in Somalia, at whatever level.  Breen reflects less positively perhaps on the orders and directives from home throughout the deployment that were often ambiguous, unrealistic or just plain unhelpful to the command team in the field.  No surprises there some might say !

As mentioned the detailed accounts of the performance of individuals, from the Commanding Officer to the so called “strategic corporals” and a host of characters in between are balanced, insightful and informative and clearly based on extensive primary source research and the analysis and reflection of a writer who has the lived experience of military life. The still-evolving understanding of the techniques and imperatives of low-level stabilisation and security operations in a contested environment is well portrayed in Breen’s work and is particularly interesting for those who served during this period and like me perhaps, knew or served with some of the individuals involved.

While especially pointed in some places, Breen clearly feels that the First Battalion Group performed very well in a new and uncertain environment, with great adaptability as well as creative flexibility and junior leader decisiveness on the ground, often in the absence of useful higher doctrine or guidance. They did not always get it right first time but they were quick learners !

The author makes it clear he believes the unit deserved higher recognition than it received and that the root cause of this was a lack of understanding by senior Army and Defence leadership at home of the true nature of the operational environment and the challenges that all ranks had to grapple with, both collectively and at their respective levels.

Seeking Bandits in the Badlands is an insightful and fitting tribute to an Australian fighting force that broke new ground for the ADF in the post-Vietnam journey from deep peace to the higher intensity stabilisation and war fighting operations in joint and coalition settings of recent times.


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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