While I applaud the ongoing campaign of support by certain conservative commentators and many private citizens for our Defence Force in the wake of war crimes allegations, I can’t help feeling the outrage is a tad overdone.
Let me explain. There seems to be an assumption that the entire Defence Force is being vilified and scapegoated and it is incumbent on fair-minded realists to leap to the SASR’s defence. But I don’t see any evidence of that, at least not from any credible media outlet, left or right. Here, for example, is the ABC’s Mark Willacy:
What struck me is that 99 per cent of the guys in the SAS are decent, honourable soldiers who didn’t do anything wrong.
PM Morrison has been castigated for assuming guilt and failing to stress that these are only allegations at this stage. Here is an excerpt from an SBS story:
In his first comments since the long-awaited findings were made public, Mr Morrison described the alleged war crimes detailed in the report as “disturbing and distressing”. “I think there has been a lot of courage shown by those who have come forward through this process, that would not have been easy,” he said.
On Saturday, he stressed that while the behaviour of a “small number” of soldiers was “disturbing”, it was important that other veterans weren’t tarnished by the findings.
“The other element I’ve been anxious about is ensuring that all our serving men and women, and all those who’ve served, in no way feel reflected upon by the alleged actions of a small number within our defence forces,” he said. “They have earned the respect which we rightly provide to them, and should.”
Overlooked in all of this is the nature of the alleged crimes. Most of the vocal but well-meaning armchair warriors seem to be suggesting that we should turn a blind eye to these alleged crimes on the basis that we who have never served should not judge those who have. In effect, that logic says the stress of combat serves to pardons actions we would not excuse in normal life. Or that, at the least, these matters should be dealt with quietly lest we tarnish the reputation of our ADF in the eyes of the world and provide grist to the mill of our enemies.
Those who have read the Brereton Report will know the incidents being investigated did not occur in the heat of battle. Brereton stresses this point. He also points out that his people investigated a total of 51 incidents, 28 of which were found to be unsubstantiated, while 23 are said to be supported by ‘credible information’. This was not a witch hunt.
I can imagine an officer turning a blind eye to an isolated incident (such as brutality) in the heat of battle or its immediate aftermath. One would hope he would quietly arrange for the transgressor to be moved into a non-combatant role. This would be easy in an infantry battalion, but less so, I imagine, in the SASR.
Let me deal at this point with a couple of red herrings we hear a lot. The first is the “potential bomb-maker”. The theory goes that “unarmed persons”, not actually in the act of making or throwing a bomb, might do so at some time in the future. ‘They do it to us, so let’s dispose of this potential bomb-maker, just in case,’ is the way that pernicious logic goes. It is an obscene proposition unjustified by the fact that we are involved in an asymmetrical conflict.
The second red herring is “the unarmed civilian”. It might be a kid, say, who spots the patrol while tending his flock and will likely alert the hostiles, allowing them to mount an ambush and kill Diggers. This situation is certain to arise regularly in the type of operations carried out in Afghanistan. It is expected and is dealt with in two ways: first, by means of general rules of engagement and, secondly, by the operational order for the particular mission. In this latter circumstance, the commander on the ground has four options, depending on the operational situation: to abort the mission; to delay it while arranging to temporarily detain the wandering goat herd or whoever; changing the operational plan, or simply proceeding with extra caution. He does not have the option of blowing the onlooker away in order to reduce the risk to his mission or his troops.
But we are not talking about these red herrings here. What we are talking about, and which few seem to be mentioning, is the alleged practice of ‘blooding’. For those unfamiliar with this term, it apparently involved a patrol commander (sergeant or corporal) ordering an ‘unblooded’ trooper to achieve his first kill by shooting an unarmed prisoner. If it occurred (and I would be surprised if it turned out the Brereton enquiry got this wrong) this is an unconscionable act. Firstly, since such an order would be illegal, it amounts to bullying, which these days we all hate so much. And secondly, senior NCOs are not only supposed to lead their men but also to protect them. I don’t care how combat-stressed the patrol commander might be, he always knows that killing unarmed prisoners is illegal act. To coerce a subordinate to incriminate himself in such a way is dereliction of duty taken to the extreme, unimaginably contemptible in anyone who purports to represent the proud ethos of the ADF.
We don’t know how many of the alleged 23 ‘credible allegations’ involve blooding. Regardless, it may be that the practice, by virtue of having its own name, could have been widespread. This poses the question: to what extent might this practice, if it occurred, have contributed to the high rate of PTSD and veteran suicide that we have been seeing emerge from this conflict? It is hard to imagine anything more traumatic for a young Digger, as physically and mentally tough as he may be, than being bullied into killing a defenceless human being. Could the psychological impact have some bearing on veterans killing themselves in numbers unheard of before? Perhaps, in the fullness of time, we’ll know more and have a better idea.
You can criticize the way the Prime Minister and CDF have handled the matter, but let’s not pretend it could somehow have been glossed over. It had to come out, and it must be dealt with.
Which brings me to the question of culpability and the now much quoted Yamashita Standard, about which Alistair Pope wrote for Quadrant Online. Let me say at the outset that I do not agree with the Yamashita Standard in the sense that the commander at the top, and presumably those at all levels in the chain of command, should necessarily be convicted of war crimes committed by their subordinates, even if they did not know about them and, if they did, could have done nothing to stop them. That standard does not apply in any other field of endeavour and should not apply in war, since the nature of war makes the occurrence of such crimes almost inevitable. Armchair warriors often opine that we should not tie the hands of commanders tasked to carry out difficult missions. The famous speech of Colonel Nathan ‘You Can’t Handle the Truth’ Jessop in A Few Good Men comes to mind. Nothing is more likely to inhibit bold command action than the idea that if something goes wrong — something over which one has no control — then the hapless commander could find himself in front of a war crimes tribunal.
The people who must bear the greatest burden of guilt, if convicted, are those individuals who committed these crimes.
That said, there must be repercussions for those in charge and they must go right to the top. While very senior Army officers were faffing around in high heels, emasculating our ADF by turning it into a kinder, gentler, more inclusive kumbaya collective, they also were presiding, apparently unknown to themselves, over a serious deterioration of morale and discipline, allegedly most evident in the SASR.
General Brereton has come in for much criticism, some of it unjustified. Some ask by what right does he, never having heard a shot fired in anger, “sit in judgement” of our troops at the pointy end. That is unfair. He is not sitting in judgement — that will be the job of others — and his military knowledge and legal qualifications make him eminently qualified to have conducted this investigation. However, his suggestion that responsibility for these alleged crimes stops at Special Operations Task Group level and below is questionable. He points out that:
Special Operations Task Group troop, squadron and task group Commanders must bear moral command responsibility and accountability for what happened under their command and control.
He goes on to say:
Commanders set the conditions in which their units may flourish or wither, including the culture which promotes, permits or prohibits certain behaviours. It is clear that there must have been within Special Operations Task Group a culture that at least permitted the behaviours described in this Report. However, that culture was not created or enabled in Special Operations Task Group, let alone by any individual Special Operations Task Group Commanding Officer.
Because Special Operations Task Group was a task group drawn from multiple troop-contributing units and multiple rotations, each Special Operations Task Group Commanding Officer acquired a mix of personnel with which he had typically had little prior influence or exposure. There was little opportunity for the Commanding Officer of any Special Operations Task Group rotation to create a Special Operations Task Group culture.
The position with the individual Force Elements was otherwise: each of the Special Air Service Regiment squadrons, and each of the 2nd Commando Regiment Company Groups, rotated in succession through Special Operations Task Group, many times. It was in their parent units and subunits that the cultures and attitudes that enabled misconduct were bred, and it is with the commanders of the domestic units who enabled that, rather than with the Special Operations Task Group commanders, that greater responsibility rests.
I don’t know who those unit commanders were, but you can be sure that some of them now occupy senior positions. His glib exoneration of the Commanders of Joint Task Force 633 has justifiably raised some eyebrows:
That responsibility and accountability does not extend to higher headquarters, including in particular Headquarters Joint Task Force 633 and Headquarters Joint Operations Command, because they did not have a sufficient degree of command and control to attract the principle of command responsibility, and within the constraints on their authority acted appropriately when relevant information and allegations came to their attention to ascertain the facts. First, Joint Task Force 633 was not positioned, organisationally or geographically, to influence and control Special Operations Task Group operations: its ‘national command’ function did not include operational command. While those who had operational command are rightly held responsible and accountable for the deeds of their subordinates, regardless of personal fault, the principle that informs that approach is that ultimately they command and control what happens under their command.
Without operational command, Joint Task Force 633 did not have the degree of command and control over Special Operations Task Group on which the principle of command responsibility depends.
Yet, as Alan Jones points out, the commanders during this time were awarded medals for ‘distinguished command and leadership in action’. That is a serious disconnect, a very jarring note.
Finally, let me address the handling of the issue by the government and CDF. Firstly, issuing apologies and talking about compensation this early in the piece was a serious lapse of judgement because it does suggest the issue was pre-judged. Some would say it might prejudice the fair trial of those accused. Secondly, the revocation of unit citations is definitely a step too far. In my day we didn’t do unit citations in Australia. Two units, the Third Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) and D Coy, Sixth Battalion RAR, were awarded US Presidential Citations for their actions at the Battles of Kapyong, in Korea, and Long Tan, in Vietnam. Those who served with those units at the time the award was earned were entitled to wear the emblem of the citation for life, issued as it was to recognise the gallantry of all involved in a particular action.
For those who had not been awarded gallantry medals, this emblem would have been worn with particular pride. It is difficult to see how General Campbell can reconcile his insistence that the vast majority of Afghanistan veterans served honourably with his recommendation to deprive these veterans of this much prized honour.