The Afghanistan war crimes report is a nasty but necessary reckoning of a shameful recent history
The digger mythology that’s long sustained Australia’s self-image has been shaken by a murderous few with maximum firepower and discretion but minimum oversight.
Consequently, a nation that has cherished and so proudly celebrated its soldier heritage must now confront the fact that some of its military elite may be cold-blooded killers.
Nineteen from the Special Air Service Regiment and 2nd Commando Regiment have stained the distinguished service of their colleagues and eroded the moral authority of the Australian Defence Force.
Some decorated “heroes” now stand accused of being war criminals. It may take courts up to 10 years to decide their fate. Awards for valour, gallantry and bravery will be torn up.
In many instances it is the accused soldiers’ platoon colleagues who have dared to bear witness.
They are the brave. They have broken unwritten rules of brotherhood to declare where morality stands and where bloodlines end. Their actions might have saved the SAS being disbanded in its entirety; the honourable who called out the indecent.
This is a big national moment. It is a nasty but necessary reckoning of a shameful recent history.
Thirty-nine Afghan prisoners, farmers, adolescents and civilians allegedly murdered. Eleven other incidents are being investigated.
Regiment culture can’t be captured by a lens
For many Australians, it will be hard to believe. Some might argue these men of modern warfare — the best of the best, no less — shouldn’t be considered criminals when they have only acted in the most difficult of circumstances.
Over the next few years we will hear a lot about judgments made in the “fog of war”, the contention that actions on the frontline have greatest clarity to those who are there to see and feel it in real time.
Paul Brereton’s report eviscerates this argument in one short sentence: “None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle.”
The age of helmet cameras and sit-reps beamed live to Bungendore headquarters have sharpened back office oversight of the defence shopfront, but full visibility is impossible, and regiment culture cannot be captured by the dead eye of a lens.
Less ambiguous are the rules of war, even if the Afghanistan War lacked a consistent strategic objective or, as a group of serving and former SASR soldiers observed this week, a “clear definition of victory”.
But pursuing legal process, even in supposedly clear instances such as the killing of civilians or the summary execution of detainees, will have great complexity and strain the public’s tolerance for ugly truths.
Success was literally measured in blood
This is not an insignificant issue. It’s also one to which the Government is alert, knowing the experience of its allies.
In Britain, when a Royal Marine sergeant was found guilty of murdering an Afghan prisoner in 2011, the fact it appeared an open-and-shut case didn’t prevent significant backlash.
Sergeant Alexander Blackman was captured in footage from another marine’s helmet camera shooting a captured insurgent in the chest with his pistol at close range.
“There you are. Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us,” Blackman told comrades.
“Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention.”
Blackman’s life sentence sparked a major public campaign. Novelist Frederick Forsyth called it a “glaring miscarriage of justice” and the marine’s supporters claimed Blackman had been let down by his chain of command who didn’t properly appreciate combat stress.
The Ministry of Defence conceded Blackman’s overworked, undermanned unit was showing “moral regression, psychological strain and fatigue” that weren’t picked up by superiors. His conviction for murder was eventually quashed, and replaced with “manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility”.
Will similar arguments be heard in Australia? Undoubtedly.
To blame war atrocities on a handful of lone psychopaths would ignore the cultural problems that have been allowed to fester: an absence of moral leadership; the failure of an incurious command; the poisonous influence of “demigod” patrol commanders; the heavy demands placed on a few.
That’s not to diminish the responsibility of those individuals who used disproportionately and immorally used lethal force in Australia’s name.
But the high rotation of Australia’s special forces contributed to moral drift, as did a kill or capture system that incentivised and rewarded bad behaviour.
The Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL) was used by coalition forces in Afghanistan to hunt Taliban targets. The SAS were excellent servants of the JPEL objective which subsumed the regiment’s historic surveillance and reconnaissance role.
The awful reality is that under the influence of certain individuals, some SAS teams became kill squads that competitively tallied victims on “kill boards”.
Success was literally measured in blood.
The Anzac ideal is still worthy of veneration
The Government knows Australia’s international reputation will be tarnished by what Brereton has uncovered.
It fears Australia’s enemies may be animated by the report and domestic extremists encouraged. The Liberal-National coalition may also fret that parts of the defence community — which instinctively resists objective scrutiny — may resent the intrusion into its business.
It may be all of these things but the four-and-a-half year investigation into suspected war crimes was imperative.
To defend the name of the great majority who have served with honour and distinction, Australia had to admit its terrible wrongdoings.
There was no alternative. But the shock is in how horrific and extensive those crimes were.
Australia’s observance of the digger mythology is in crisis. The Anzac legend has collided with the sick culture of the self-centred warriors who have no respect for the democratic principles they were dispatched to protect and project.
The Anzac is supposed to embody all the “best” bits of the Australian character: egalitarianism, mateship, courage and sacrifice, guided by principle and unyielding ethics.
It’s an ideal still worthy of veneration.
And in this defining moment for the Defence Force and the nation, it’s this ideal that will have to be reaffirmed, even if some in uniform have disgraced it.