For years, Australians have faced a steady stream of investigative media reports about atrocities allegedly committed by the country’s most elite soldiers in Afghanistan.
Yet, nothing could have prepared the nation for the breathtaking contents of the landmark report by Major General Paul Brereton into the actions of special forces, released last month after a four-year investigation. The reaction across Australia was one of horror and disbelief.
The inquiry found credible evidence to support allegations that 39 Afghan civilians were illegally killed by Australian soldiers, some having weapons planted on them to make them appear to have been combatants.
Prisoners were shot for reasons as obtuse as saving the need for a second helicopter trip. Others were allegedly killed in a practice known as “blooding”, in which new soldiers were encouraged to achieve their first “kill”. In one particularly appalling incident, special forces allegedly slit the throats of two 14-year-old boys and dumped their bodies in a river.
For most Australians, this is more than just rogue soldiers being found out for despicable behaviour. The depth of revulsion felt by many reflects the special place the country reserves for its armed forces, who have come to personify all that is best about Australia.
Where the Anzac legend originated
Military history sits at the heart of the Australian national identity — most visibly through the Anzac legend.
The word “Anzac” is an acronym for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”. It was coined during the early phases of the first world war, when Australians and New Zealanders were part of an allied force that landed at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey in April 1915.
The invasion, devised by Britain’s first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, was unsuccessful in its goal of reaching Constantinople and knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war.
But the young Australian nation, federated in 1901, took from the failed campaign a mythology of national birth.
Australia had been created during an age of elevated propaganda about empire, monarchy and the glory of battle. War was held to be the truest test of the character of men and nations.
In this era of “new imperialism”, the peaceful union of Australia’s six British colonies carried a taint of illegitimacy because no blood had been spilled (the frontier wars with Aboriginal peoples did not count). The British journalist Alfred Buchanan wrote in 1907 that he
pitied the little Australian […] looking to nourish the flame of patriotic sentiment, [for …] the altar has not been stained with crimson as every rallying centre of a nation should be.
So, by the first world war, it was believed that a good showing in battle would expunge the convict stain and prove Australians worthy members of the British empire.
This is why the date of the Gallipoli invasion, April 25, quickly became Australia’s most sacred national day. The young nation was drenched by a tide of khaki nationalism that has ebbed and flowed ever since.
War memorials and monuments were raised in towns and cities around the country, where citizens still gather each Anzac Day to engage in the rituals of what the late historian Ken Inglis called Australia’s “civil religion”.
How the Anzacs continue to be revered
Beginning in the 1990s, Australian politicians have also consciously and cleverly linked this nostalgia-tinted history to the work of the modern and highly professionalised Australian Defence Force.
When the honour of Australia’s revered soldiers is questioned, so too is the national self-image.
For example, a 2011 report into the culture and personal conduct of members of the Defence Force, prompted by accusations of sexual harassment and other indiscretions, noted the Anzac legend provided an exemplar for the current military.
Similarly, in his 2015 dawn service speech on the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott lauded the Anzacs for their qualities of compassion, perseverance and mateship.
In reverential tones, Abbott called them the “founding heroes of modern Australia”, said they set an example for modern day Australians to follow:
Yes, they are us; and when we strive enough for the right things, we can be more like them.
Poignantly, Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated contemporary soldier and among the men accused of war atrocities in Afghanistan, has also drawn inspiration from the Anzac legend.
Roberts-Smith has said that Gallipoli is “a big part of who we are as Aussies”, and reflected on his boyhood fascination with the Anzacs:
While other boys had posters of sporting heroes, I had posters of soldiers.
A history of misconduct in war
But the idealisation of this Anzac history has always required Australians turn a blind eye to uncomfortable truths.
Australian soldiers in the first world war killed prisoners, deserted in record numbers, caught venereal disease at phenomenal rates and outperformed all other Western Front forces in causing trouble.
In the second world war, Australians were often reluctant to take Japanese prisoners, choosing to illegally bayonet or shoot them instead. And Australian soldiers are known to have committed atrocities alongside their American counterparts in Vietnam, including “bloodings” and “throwdowns” (planting weapons on civilians after they were killed).
In recent years, we have become increasingly reluctant to see our Anzacs as killers, even when such killing is legitimate on military grounds.
As represented most famously in Peter Weir’s 1981 film, Gallipoli, the Anzac legend has become less about the combat ability of Australian soldiers and more about their suffering. It is war commemoration stripped down and refitted for the age of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Anzacs that our nation so often lauds are fictional creations, shorn of the malevolence and downright murderous behaviour they frequently exhibited.
The alleged SAS atrocities do not fit this kinder, gentler version of the legend. They upend the way Australians like to imagine their armed forces, and by implication, themselves.
Tethering war to national self-image
We see two possibilities for how the current crisis will play out. The first is the alleged war crimes will slowly be forgotten, just as previous atrocities have been.
There are already signs this is happening. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week said he remained “incredibly proud” of the ADF and emphasised that the alleged crimes were committed by “a small number in a very big defence force”. He maintained the reputation of the broader defence force would be unaffected.
The other possibility is Australia will adopt a more realistic attitude towards its soldiers and the conflicts they fight in.
These conflicts are complex, and rarely conducted without some descent into the moral abyss. Some of our soldiers are not good people, and those that are good are capable of lapses. War is an ugly business, and we pay a price for tethering it so tightly to our national self-image.
As historians of Australia’s war experiences, we hope and wish for a national reckoning about our record of war atrocities. But as historians of Anzac, we anticipate that the great mythological behemoth will barely sway from its course in the face of these allegations.
None of this is inevitable. Australia and China may not be best friends anytime soon, but they can reset the relationship.
Australia could make one big gesture and two small to improve its relationship with China. As federal parliament meets in Canberra, there is even an opportunity to start this week.
It’s the multi-billion dollar question: what could the Australian government do if it wanted to reset the relationship with China?
Sometimes when China has dealt out economic punishment, the desired result has been clear — such as pressuring South Korea to cancel a missile defence system. But in Australia’s case, China’s displeasure is not directed towards one policy. It’s more a sense Australia has been acting in an unfriendly, hostile manner and this has consequences.
Beijing’s 14 points
Out of the 14, there were only a few relating to what I see as non-negotiable interests. These relate to Australia’s criticism of human rights abuses in China, cyber-attacks and the South China Sea dispute.
Quite a few should also be interpreted as venting — such as China’s criticism of Australia’s foreign interference powers and Australia’s decision to exclude Huawei and ZTE from the 5G network over national security concerns. Realistically, Australia is not going to reverse these decisions.
Others on the list are gripes China knows the Australian government can’t do much about, such as “antagonistic” media reports or members of parliament making “outrageous” comments.
But the language used in the 14-points suggests many of the problems are less about the policy and more about how it’s been communicated, such as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing foreign interference legislation as “standing up to China”.
Australia may come to regret being stridently tough on China without thinking through the real-world consequences. It costs China very little to punish Australia economically in sectors where it has other suppliers or wants to encourage domestic production.
If the core problem is a perception that Australia is unfriendly, this suggests the best way to show a desire for better relations is through a big gesture — ideally one that is showy but low cost. China has said it wants actions, not words, so a speech alone won’t cut it.
The grand gesture
If Australia did want to signal a desire to be more friendly without changing any of its policies, what might it do?
The best candidate would be to sign up for the Belt and Road Initiative. There is zero chance this will happen — despite earlier neutral comments, the federal government has made this clear. But it meets all the criteria for a gesture to reset the relationship.
First, it’s entirely symbolic and doesn’t bind Australia to do anything. Australia can participate in individual projects or not as it chooses. Second, there’s no material cost to Australia, or any need to alter substantive policies. Yet it would be read as a significant gesture by China.
The fact that it’s not on the table shows how the range of options to pursue the national interest has been narrowed by priming the public to see China as an enemy, rather than as a challenge to be managed.
Two other options
There are two smaller options that are achievable and in Australia’s interests. And they are both before parliament.
First, the Senate is currently debating a bill to give the Foreign Affairs Minister the power to cancel international agreements entered into by state governments, local councils and universities. China has specifically named this in its grievances as “targeting” China.
I’ve argued in detail why it’s a terrible piece of legislation that would impose a large compliance burden and negatively affect Australia’s international engagement. It would be in Australia’s own interests to drop it and come up with a better, more targeted response.
Second, parliament is also looking at amendments to foreign investment rules, which China singled out at the top of its list as “opaque”. Foreign investment puts money into the Australian economy so this is an area of potential mutual interest.
China’s complaint is the lack of transparency about which investments get approved — it sees the process as ideological. The Australian government could, for example, postpone proposed amendments and consult with investor countries about how the process could be improved in Australia’s self-interest.
A diplomatic mindset
Some will say Australia shouldn’t do any of these things precisely because China might want them. And China is hardly helping its case by exercising subtle or effective diplomacy.
But deciding to always oppose lets China control your behaviour. We need a negotiation mentality. We need to find things we don’t mind giving that China values in order to get what we want. That’s not “capitulation” or “obeisance” — it’s acting in our own self-interest.
Australia has no ability to remake China into a completely different country. We need to live with it. This means both standing up to China and getting along — hardening our defences, while ensuring our economic prosperity. Without an economy, a country can’t pay to keep itself safe.
Australia is not under military attack, offensive as China’s “wolf warrior diplomats” can be.
Australia and China have disputes that can and should be managed diplomatically. It is not inevitable we must have a bad relationship – and it’s certainly not a sign of success if we do.
Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made clear he expects senior Australian officers to face some degree of accountability for any crimes allegedly committed by special forces in Afghanistan.
So far, however, others have been more circumspect. While Justice Paul Brereton’s shocking report last month called for 19 Australian soldiers to be referred to the federal police to be prosecuted for possible crimes, it stopped short of recommending commanding officers be held responsible.
Lieutenant-General Rick Burr, the head of the Army, cut short a news conference when asked whether he should resign in the wake of the scandal last week, and General Angus Campbell, the Defence Force chief, said commanding officers would be dealt with on a “case-by-case basis”.
The Defence Force has foreshadowed there will likely be administrative punishment for some officers, including possible demotions, stripping of medals or removal from service.
This is a start. However, Campbell and the rest of the Defence Force leadership need to begin a serious discussion about the accountability and responsibility of commanding officers in the military as they move forward from the Brereton report.
How commanding officers were dealt with in the past
This not the first time the Australian military has dealt with this complex moral and legal question.
After the second world war, Australia, the US, UK and other allies tried suspected Japanese war criminals under international law. These trials saw the first use of command responsibility.
This doctrine holds commanding officers responsible for crimes that are committed by their subordinates during wartime, when the commanding officers knew, or should have known, that they occurred. These crimes can include massacres, mistreatment of prisoners of war and murder.
Many Japanese officers were sentenced to death during the trials because they failed to prevent, halt or punish the crimes committed by their soldiers, even when they did not explicitly know the crimes were occurring. Other Japanese officers were more fortunate and received prison terms.
Why accountability matters
The claim in the Brereton report that Australian officers were not in a position to know — and therefore to act — on alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan has, in some eyes, absolved them of responsibility.
However, there seems to be an acknowledgement within defence circles that further actions could have, and perhaps should have, been taken by Australian commanders to address cultural issues within the SAS, and to impose greater scrutiny on units that were on high-intensity combat rotations.
Command responsibility is a difficult legal doctrine to grapple with. At the core, this is because officers could be held legally responsible for criminal acts they did not encourage, order or directly take part in under both Commonwealth military law and international laws.
Holding an individual criminally responsible for the actions of others goes against the personal responsibility that our criminal justice system is largely based on.
Nonetheless, it is important for several reasons that the Australian military holds its officers responsible for their units and subordinates.
For one, disciplining senior officers is critical for any attempt to reorganise and reform the Australian special forces following the explosive allegations put forth in the Brereton report.
The report revealed that some officers enabled a culture of heavy drinking, poor discipline and the pursuit of personal glory within the special forces. It is therefore critical these officers are removed from their positions to rebuild an effective, well-disciplined and respected special forces group.
Pursuing commanding officers is also important for the soldiers that served on the ground. The report has raised serious questions about how elite forces were pushed to their breaking point. Australia needs to know what role commanders had in that.
Of course, turning the focus on the moral responsibility of senior officers is not intended to absolve the alleged crimes committed by individuals. The point is simply that the military needs to demonstrate to the public, as well as to past and current members of the armed services, that senior officers cannot completely avoid responsibility for what happened.
Australia’s international reputation is at stake
Investigating senior officers, and where appropriate, taking action against them, is also an important part of restoring the reputation and credibility of the Australian military abroad.
The Australian Army has long been a respected member of international coalitions. It has built a reputation for working effectively with allies and partners, and for taking international law seriously.
It now faces an international scandal, and its reputation is at stake.
This is particularly the case in nations like Afghanistan, where the Australian military was instrumental in combating often brutal forces that held little regard for human rights. Counter-insurgency operations need to win the hearts and minds of the local population. For the Australian military to rebuild its reputation in countries where it operates, it needs to be able to hold itself accountable for its mistakes.
If we can’t do this, our position in the international rules-based system can be questioned, as it already has been. A failure to hold officers responsible also de-legitimises Australia’s questioning of foreign governments on human rights abuses, as well as the government’s calls for justice in other international crimes.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has demanded China apologise for – and Twitter remove – a highly offensive tweet depicting an Australian soldier with a knife to the throat of a child.
Morrison described the tweet as disgusting and utterly outrageous. Australia has protested to the Chinese embassy in Canberra, and a protest is also being made by Australia’s embassy in Beijing.
“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes,” Morrison told a virtual news conference from The Lodge, where he is still in isolation after his trip to Japan.
“Australia is seeking an apology from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from the Chinese Government, for this outrageous post. We are also seeking its removal immediately and have also contacted Twitter to take it down immediately.”
Following the recent release of the Brereton inquiry into alleged atrocities by some members of Australian special forces in Afghanistan, the tweet was posted by Lijian Zhao, spokesman and deputy director general of the information department in the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
It said: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable”.
A line in the illustration said: “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”
Morrison said the repugnant post of a falsified image of an Australian soldier threatening a young child had come from an official Chinese government Twitter account.
It was “truly repugnant” and “deeply offensive” to every Australian.
“[To] every Australian who has served in that uniform. Every Australian who serves in that uniform today. Everyone who has pulled on that uniform and served with Australians overseas from whatever nation,” he said.
“It is a false image and a terrible slur on our great defence forces and the men and women who’ve served in that uniform for over 100 years.”
Morrison said while there were undoubtedly tensions between China and Australia, “this is not how you deal with them”.
Rather, the way was to engage directly in dialogue between ministers and leaders.
“And despite this terribly offensive post today, I would ask again and call on China to re-engage in that dialogue.
“This is how countries must deal with each other to ensure that we can deal with any issues in our relationship, consistent with our national interests and respect for each other’s sovereignty. Not engaging in this sort of deplorable behaviour.”
Morrison said he hoped “this rather awful event” might lead to a “reset” in the relationship, allowing a dialogue to be restarted where there could be sensible talk about issues — “because this type of behaviour is not on”.
Morrison sought to put the situation in a wider international context.
“It’s not just about Australia. Countries around the world are watching this. They see how Australia is seeking to resolve these issues and they’re seeing these responses.
“This impacts not just on the relationship here, but with so many other sovereign nations, not only in our own region, but like-minded countries around the world who have expressed similar sentiments to Australia about many issues. And so it is important that these things end and the dialogue starts.”
When he was asked why he didn’t write to Chinese President Xi Jinping directly, Morrison said, “You assume that there hasn’t been such interactions. We’ve constantly sought that engagement. This is not new.”
Asked about the controversial issue of revoking the Meritorious Unit Citation for Special Operations Task Groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013, which was recommended by the Brereton report, Morrison said no decision had been made.
This is despite the chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, saying when releasing the Brereton report that he would write to the governor-general asking for the revocation.
“No decisions have been made on that and were decisions to be made on that, that would only be following a further process. And that is where that matter rests right now,” Morrison told his news conference.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said he stood with Morrison in his condemnation of the China tweet. He said the opposition would not be asking about it in question time — the matter was above politics.
There was an immediate pushback from China – via Twitter – to Morrison’s attack.
Hú Xījìn, editor of the state-owned Global Times, tweeted:
“It is a popular cartoon that condemns the Australian Special Forces’s brutal murder of 39 Afghan civilians. On what ground does Morrison feel angry over the use of this cartoon by the spokesperson of Chinese FM? It’s ridiculous and shameless that he demanded China to apologize.”
The latest deepening of tensions in the bilateral relationship comes days after the Chinese imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine.
When he speaks at functions, Scott Morrison routinely pays tribute to present and past members of the Australian Defence Force.
It seems a very American thing to do.
But he is also putting the military on an extremely high pedestal. When some of those on that pedestal are found to have done appalling things, the shock is doubly great.
For many Australians, looking back on a history of war heroism, it will be hard to take in what the investigation by Justice Paul Brereton has found: 25 current or former soldiers, from the special forces, allegedly perpetrated, as principals or accessories, war crimes in Afghanistan.
A total of 39 people – Afghan non-combatants or prisoners of war – were killed, and another two cruelly treated. Some 19 Australians will be referred on for criminal investigation and likely or possible prosecution.
For the government and the military brass, the Brereton findings are not, or should not be, as surprising as is being claimed.
For a long time, there have been suggestions of bad behaviour by some Australians in Afghanistan.
Indeed, even when I was there way back in 2002, and Australia had 150 special forces in place, there was chatter among the international media that the Australians were fast and loose.
Before then, there were allegations of brutality by Australian special forces in East Timor in the late 1990s.
The military itself in recent years commissioned inquiries into the culture and operations of the special forces.
In a 2016 report on culture, Samantha Crompvoets wrote, on the basis of the interviews she conducted, of “unverifiable accounts of extremely serious breaches of accountability and trust”.
Most concerning were “allusions to behaviour and practices involving abuse of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations, disregard for human life and dignity, and the perception of a complete lack of accountability at times”.
David McBride, who served in Afghanistan as a military lawyer, blew the whistle on misconduct, and has been prosecuted for his public service.
In some excellent journalism, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC extensively documented alleged criminal behaviour.
Even so, Angus Campbell, Chief of the Australian Defence Force, said of the Brereton report: “I was anticipating it wouldn’t be good – but I didn’t realise how bad it would be”.
Brereton documents how a culture of compliance, intimidation and silence in the field hushed up crimes, and he highlights the “warrior culture” of Special Air Service Regiment commanders in Australia.
Patrol commanders on the ground were culpable. “The criminal behaviour in this Report was conceived, committed, continued and concealed at patrol commander level, and it is overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides,” Brereton writes. To a junior SASR trooper, “fresh from selection and reinforcement cycle, the patrol commander is a demigod, and one who can make or break a trooper’s career”.
But those up the chain did not know what was going on, Brereton found, although they bore a “moral command responsibility”.
The key question is, how could this be so? We are talking about multiple crimes of murder and brutality, practices such as “blooding” (patrol commanders requiring a junior soldier to shoot a prisoner to make his first kill), and planting false evidence on victims.
If senior officers did not pick up gossip and whispers, surely they should have been enough aware of the broad special forces culture to know that extensive checks should be in place to guard against the ever-present threat of misconduct.
In 2011, Campbell was appointed Commander Joint Task Force 633, responsible for Australian forces in the Middle East including Afghanistan.
Asked on Thursday for his response to those who might say the report had let people like him “off the hook”, Campbell admitted “I wonder was there something I walked past, was there some indicator I didn’t see?”
Having not done enough many years ago to ensure Australia’s special forces were best prepared to meet proper standards of legal and ethical conduct, the ADF more recently began reform and is now in overdrive to make amends for the atrocities that have been committed.
The government is trying to keep as much at arms length as it can (and remember this inquiry stretches back through Coalition and Labor years, with the worst behaviour concentrated in 2012-13). But it has quickly and properly set up a special investigator’s office that will undertake further work to gather and prepare material for criminal actions.
Campbell has accepted all Brereton’s recommendations. He has made a public apology to the Afghan people. He’s been in contact with the head of the Afghan military. Australia will pay compensation to victims’ families.
In Canada, after a major scandal, the unit concerned was disbanded. That is not happening here, but a SASR sub-unit has got the chop.
While Thursday’s release of the report was a huge moment, it actually marks the middle of a process.
The military is some way down the track in dealing with its consequences, and the preparations for the prosecution process are advancing. The government is particularly anxious to be seen to be pursuing wrongdoers vigorously: it wants them to be brought to justice under Australian law, not to go to international justice.
The Meritorious Unit Citation that was awarded to the Special Operations Task Group will be revoked – which is appropriate though it will be hard on soldiers who performed commendably and bravely and without fault – and meritorious awards won by individuals will be reviewed.
The redacted report does not name those it says should be referred for criminal investigation; hopefully they’ll be successfully bought to justice but it will be a difficult, long road, given the report is not a brief of evidence and much work will have to be redone.
With so much redaction, there is still a good deal we don’t know about these events. When the official history of the time is written some years on, it will include the unredacted material.
The affair has torn at the heart of Australia’s military reputation. It has not destroyed that reputation, but the repair effort must be comprehensive and, above all, transparent.
And it should always be remembered that the military can be as fallible as any other group in society, and a small minority of individuals as reprehensible as other criminals, and to assume otherwise is to be blind in the name of false patriotism.
The inquiry into Australian Special Forces’ misconduct in Afghanistan has found evidence of war crimes involving 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel.
The inquiry found “credible information” of 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or prisoners of war “were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group, in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would be the war crime of murder”.
In a further two incidents, a non-combatant or prisoner was mistreated in a way that would be “the war crime of cruel treatment”.
Some incidents involved one victim, and in some there were multiple victims.
The inquiry found a total of 39 individuals were killed, and a further two cruelly treated.
The 25 current or former ADF personnel were perpetrators “either as principals or accessories” some of them on a single occasion and a few on multiple occasions.
None of the alleged crimes involved decisions made “under pressure, in the heat of battle”.
The inquiry has recommended the Chief of the Defence Force refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, relating to 23 incidents, and involving 19 individuals.
The inquiry, which examined conduct by the Special Forces between 2005 and 2016 was conducted by Justice Paul Brereton. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week announced the establishment of a special investigator’s office to prepare material for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
While the report is damning specifically for the special forces operation in the prolonged Afghanistan war, it will cast a pall over the Australian military more generally.
It recommends Australia immediately compensate families of Afghan nationals unlawfully killed, without waiting for criminal liability to be established.
“This will be an important step in rehabilitating Australia’s national reputation, in particular with Afghanistan, and it is simply the right thing to do,” the report says.
It says although many members of the Special Operations Task Group showed great courage and commitment, and the group had considerable achievements, “what is now known must disentitle the unit as a whole to eligibility for recognition for sustained outstanding service.”
“It has to be said that what this Report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Forces’ professional standards and expectations.”
The inquiry has recommended revoking the award of the Meritorious Unit Citation, “as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability” of the group as a whole.
The investigation found that while commanders on the ground were involved, those higher up the chain did not know of the war crimes being perpetrated.
Among the evidence, the inquiry found credible information that “junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the sliders first kill, in a practice that was known as ‘blooding’”.
It also found “throwdowns” (weapons and radios) would be placed with the body as a “cover story” for operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny.
“This was reinforced with a cone of silence.”
The report laid blame on culture, condemning the “warrior culture” of some SAS commanders in Australia.
The Chief of the ADF, Angus Campbell said at a news conference he “sincerely and unreservedly apologised” to the people of Afghanistan for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers.
Campbell said he had accepted all 143 Brereton recommendations, dealing with culture, governance, and accountability.
Australians will be disheartened by the inspector-general of the Australian Defence Force’s report on war crimes committed by our special forces soldiers in Afghanistan. But they should not be surprised.
The demands placed upon the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and Commando Regiment have stretched our soldiers to the point where some have failed themselves, each other and the Anzac tradition. They may not deserve our sympathy, but we do need to understand what brought them to this point.
Specifically, we need to consider if these crimes are an aberration or part of a systemic cultural problem in how the Australian Army trains, debriefs, deploys and then redeploys special forces soldiers in war zones.
Importantly, the SASR badly needs to examine how it relates to the Australian Army, of which it is a part.
Selected for relentless ‘kill and capture’ missions
In Afghanistan, special forces soldiers were fighting a war within a war. Selected through recruitment courses to stand out and stand alone, the SASR distinguished itself – even from the commandos who shared the burden of Australia’s war-fighting missions.
Drawing on a few hundred soldiers and two units from an army of tens of thousands, only a small body of troops was selected for relentless “kill and capture” missions of Taliban militants.
They fought with the constant reality of potential death or maiming through close-quarter combat, IEDs and “green on blue” attacks by Afghan allies. Special forces saw the very worst of their enemy, and eventually of each other.
Other Australian service personnel were constrained by strict rules of engagement in projects ranging from school construction to counter-intelligence operations to building trust with local warlords. Meanwhile, SASR and 2 Commando returned again and again to combat. This likely desensitised, then dehumanised, some of the soldiers.
The army command offered too little by way of integration of SASR and 2 Commando with other units. SASR even demarcated its own compound within the confines of the larger Tarin Kowt base.
There was also inadequate rotation away from the battlefield, and no significant or complementary support from other units (such as regular infantry battalions). There was no mandatory rest and renewal for soldiers who might thrive on operational adrenalin, but at a long-term cost to their physical and mental health.
‘Throwdowns’ and ‘blooding’ in a ‘warrior culture’
The redacted findings in Justice Paul Brereton’s report are painful in their detail and damning in their conclusions. It finds special forces personnel unlawfully killed 39 non-combatants – prisoners, farmers, civilians – between 2009 and 2013. The report also recommends 36 matters to the AFP for criminal investigation.
The report found “credible information” about two practices that make for particularly distressing reading. The first is a “throwdown”, which involved soldiers planting equipment on bodies. The report says:
This practice probably originated for the less egregious though still dishonest purpose of avoiding scrutiny where a person who was legitimately engaged turned out not to be armed. But it evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings.
Second, is the practice of “blooding”, where unit commanders encouraged junior soldiers to execute unarmed prisoners as their first “kill”.
Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member would then be directed to kill the person under control. “Throwdowns” would be placed with the body, and a “cover story” was created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence.
Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell accepted all 143 recommendations from the inspector-general’s report. He acknowledged the findings were a “bitter blow” to the morale and prestige of the ADF.
What to make of it all?
Beyond reputational damage, defence needs to undergo a rehabilitation of culture. This includes organisational deficiencies, which Campbell acknowledged extended beyond special forces and into the wider organisation.
Among a toxic competitiveness between SASR and 2 Commando, which he termed a “disgrace”, Campbell acknowledged a “reckless indifference” to the rules of war among junior commanders at unit level, sanitised and misleading reporting, and inadequate oversight from operational command, among a systemic failure of unit and higher command.
In defending the need for special forces capability, he stressed ongoing reform within SASR. This included disbanding an SASR squadron which, he argued, bore “collective responsibility” for unlawful unit culture.
He noted measures to strengthen ethical standards and enhanced levels of oversight and governance across the army.
The winding down of operations in Afghanistan and changes in serving personnel might offer special forces a chance for cultural change.
But long history suggests issues of character and culture are a tough nut to crack.
Perhaps unlike any other institution in contemporary Australian society beyond the priesthood, the military is distinctive in recruiting young, with virtually no external points of entry or cultural comparison until retirement.
Defence assumes, as it must given the reality of constant unit rotation, an equivalence of character and capacity based largely on military rank and duties.
In Afghanistan, the influence of some warrant and non-commissioned officers over more junior ranks, as well as the (often younger and less experienced) officers who were ostensibly their superiors, promoted a dysfunctional and finally criminal culture that unit or higher command never confronted or challenged. Beyond mere negligence, such an obvious ethical failing in an organisation that relies on an explicit chain of “command and control” is unforgivable.
Improving SAS culture is no quick fix
In the closed culture embraced by the special forces and enabled by army leadership, a lack of objectivity was always at risk: the soldier to your left was at once your therapist, emotional crutch, brother-in-arms and (oftentimes damaged) arbiter of right and wrong.
But this type of role demands a clear, fully formed moral compass and a constant measure of external regulation.
As a series of Department of Defence inquiries over decades make clear, cultural change requires unending toil. The Australian Army is in constant flux; it changes with every intake of young soldiers who will eventually sign on for special forces training.
Good culture requires many things, among them:
an unrelenting clarity and consistency of expectation in matters large and small
constant internal and external review of practice
a willingness to accept that so-called “troublemakers” are often in fact “truth-tellers” who need to be protected, and indeed honoured, as agents of change
better training of soldiers in the ethical demands and responsibilities of “lawful violence”
counselling and psychological support both during and after operations.
All of this requires more than just recommendations in a report; it requires unbending political and institutional will and close scrutiny of organisational leadership.
Scrutiny of those at the top matters, too
Some army leaders are to be commended for their willingness to drill down into SAS culture with an eye to change. However, it was the courage of Australian journalists and SAS and commando whistle-blowers — not the actions of politicians or army leaders — that pushed these alleged crimes into the national conscience.
If military honours are to be stripped from soldiers, a thorough examination of unit command and delegated authority is vital, extending to the very top. This includes the actions of those highly decorated senior officers who provided command during the Afghanistan campaign.
Over the past few decades, a strong orthodoxy has evolved, wrapped in the mystique of “Anzac” nationalism, that any criticism of the ADF is taboo. This has served as a convenient cloak to obviate harsh public examination of everything from politically driven procurement deals to massive spending overruns.
But, in choosing to investigate and possibly prosecute alleged war crimes, Australia is stepping out onto ground resisted by our “Five Eyes” allies, who have avoided similar interrogation of their own special forces.
T.S. Elliot long ago observed that humanity could not “bear very much reality”. By definition, fighting wars is a murderous business. Beyond apportioning blame, or any new recommendations on how to change the culture of our special forces, we have the chance to reflect on the painful truths of war.
Now is also the time to reflect carefully on what we ask of, and how we best support, those soldiers who serve in our name.
As expected, the report by Justice Paul Brereton is highly confronting and deeply concerning. However, despite widespread condemnation of the behaviour identified in the report — from the highest levels of the military and government — the next steps are far from straightforward.
The report, from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF), found evidence of 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 Afghan civilians by Australian special forces personnel. There are a further two incidents of “cruel treatment”.
This involved a total of 25 current or former Australian Defence Force members who were perpetrators, either as principals or accessories.
Some of these incidents took place in 2009 and 2010, with the majority occurring in 2012 and 2013.
ADF Chief General Angus Campbell said he was shocked by the revelations, which he described as “damaging to our moral authority as a military force”.
I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era.
Blooding, throwdowns and executions
The inquiry has found “credible information” that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice known as “blooding”.
“Throwdowns” — other weapons or radios — would be planted with the body, and a “cover story” was created.
This was reinforced with a code of silence.
The report is damning about a “warrior culture” within the Special Air Service Regiment, as well as a “culture of secrecy”.
The inquiry has recommended the chief of the defence force refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. Those matters relate to the 23 incidents and involve a total of 19 individuals.
Numerous obstacles to prosecutions
However, last week, in preparation for the report’s release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a “special investigator” would be appointed to further examine any allegations of war crimes.
Campbell confirmed those who are alleged to be involved in unlawful criminal conduct will be referred to the special investigator.
After gathering evidence on specific allegations, the Office of the Special Investigator will refer briefs to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. Morrison explained such a task would “significantly overwhelm” the AFP, hence his decision to appoint a special investigator.
Despite these mechanisms being put in place, there are still serious questions about how potential criminal prosecutions would work.
Investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes of this nature is incredibly difficult due to the passage of time, fading memories and inconsistency of witnesses. There are also practical challenges obtaining evidence in a country with a fragile security situation.
It is also important to note any statement or disclosure made by a witness to the IGADF inquiry cannot be used as evidence against that person in any subsequent civil or criminal trial or court martial.
This means some of the evidence contained in the IGADF inquiry — however compelling it might be — may not be available for a criminal prosecution, as the right to remain silent would be available to a person being interviewed by the Special Investigator.
Also, the standard of proof required to convict an individual “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal trial is quite high, meaning any successful prosecution might require stronger evidence than what has been included in the IGADF inquiry.
Therefore, for any prosecution to proceed, any evidence obtained by the special investigator will need to be evaluated against this higher criminal standard to determine if it is sufficient for a person to stand trial.
It is important to note the same higher standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) will need to be met for a successful prosecution, regardless of whether any trial takes place by court martial or in a civilian court.
Public perceptions of war crimes allegations
The reaction of the Australian public to the report will be interesting to observe. As journalists have revealed the shocking details of many of the allegations against SAS soldiers in recent years, some have defended their actions as having taken place in the “fog of war”.
In his comments on Thursday, Campbell spoke plainly about the report’s findings.
None of the alleged unlawful killings were described as being in the heat of battle […] The unlawful killing of citizens and prisoners is never acceptable.
Of course, it is important to recognise Australian soldiers faced significant difficulties in Afghanistan. Most notably, they were dealing with an enemy that was not easily identifiable and did not abide by the laws of war.
For instance, some Afghan civilians directly participated in conflict against Coalition soldiers. The so-called “farmer by day, fighter by night” has been a constant feature of operations in Afghanistan ever since Australians were first deployed there.
If civilians directly participated in hostilities against foreign forces, regardless of whether they were armed or not, they would lose their protected status under the laws of war. The death of any civilian taking direct part in hostilities, therefore, would not necessarily be unlawful under the laws of war and Australian domestic law.
Understanding and applying this aspect of the laws of war is a potential complicating factor for the special investigator.
That said, as Campbell pointed out, the challenging circumstances faced by coalition forces in Afghanistan do not allow soldiers to commit war crimes. The laws of armed conflict are very clear in this regard.
A transparent and open investigation process
There was a clear need for these allegations to be properly investigated in an impartial manner. This has happened with the Brereton inquiry.
In appointing a special investigator, the government has shown it is taking these findings seriously and wants those soldiers who are proven guilty of crimes to be held accountable.
The ADF must also be open and transparent about the actions it is taking following the completion of the IGADF inquiry.
By doing this, Australia’s military can show that it has learned from this sorry tale and made whatever changes are necessary to ensure compliance with the laws of armed conflict is understood and practised by every member of the ADF — regardless of the difficulty of the operating environment.
The government is setting up a special investigator office to examine the findings of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force’s inquiry into alleged misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
The office will assist and coordinate Australia Federal Police criminal investigations into matters raised by the inquiry, gather evidence and where appropriate refer briefs to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Ahead of next week’s release of the redacted report, prepared by Justice Paul Brereton, Scott Morrison warned it would be “difficult and hard news” for Australians to hear.
He said the Australian Defence Force had served in Afghanistan “with great sacrifice, while dealing with significant challenges”, and more generally, he was extremely thankful “to every Australian who chooses to put on our uniform”.
But “we need to ensure justice is truly served by illuminating the conduct of those who may have acted in ways that do not accord with the high standards expected of our ADF and those expectations held by the serving men and women of our ADF and their veterans community, past and present.”
Morrison said the conduct covered the time-span of three governments. “Our responsibility is to ensure now that we deal with this in a way that accords with our Australian standards of justice, that respects the rule of law, that provides the relevant checks and balances through this process, that upholds our values and standards and the respect that we have for our Defence Forces that they have earned and deserve”.
He stressed the need to “protect the vulnerable whether serving currently or who are in our veterans community who have no part in this ”.
While those accused of misconduct must be held accountable within the justice system and the Australian rule of law “responsibility must also be taken by leadership to ensure the lessons are learned and these events are never repeated”.
The inquiry has examined a raft of alleged breaches of the laws of armed conflict, including claims of murder and mistreatment, involving non-combatants and those being held prisoner.
The report covers not just specific allegations, but also the culture that allowed misbehaviour.
The government is also establishing a panel to oversee Defence’s broader response to the inquiry, covering cultural, organisational and leadership change. It will report to the defence minister.
Its members will be Vivienne Thom, a former inspector-general of intelligence and security, Robert Cornall, a former secretary of the attorney-general’s department, and Rufus Black, an ethicist and vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania.
The special investigator will be a senior counsel or retired judge. The office will sit in the Home Affairs portfolio. It will have investigative staff from within the Australian Federal Police, state police experts and legal counsel.
The investigations would normally be handled by the AFP but the volume and complexity of the task is too great.
Morrison said it would operate as long as necessary.
Ben Roberts-Smith, a VC recipient in Afghanistan, who has been subject to allegations in the media, issued a statement on Thursday night.