QED

Seeing Clearly Through Afghanistan’s Dust

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.

25 comments
  • Peter Smith

    “This will be difficult and hard news for Australians,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, warning people to prepare for “brutal truths”. Truths? What truths? Morrison is a disgrace. Let me stress: untested allegations have been made. Those accused have had no opportunity to put their case and/or to rebut the allegations.
    Peter this statement of yours – “If it occurred [blooding] (and I would be surprised if it turned out the Brereton enquiry got this wrong)” – surprises me. On what basis would you be surprised? I can imagine the ABC being surprised if allegations about George Pell turned out to be false. Personally, I prefer to wait to see how the allegations stand up before arriving at any conclusion. And, I am not sure what an incident “not being in the heat of battle” actually means in the context of SAS operations in Afghanistan.
    Finally, I don’t think anyone is “suggesting that we should turn a blind eye to these alleged crimes.” That is a straw man. What I, and many suggest, is that the great and good should not bucket our troops in the public square on the basis of untested allegations.

  • Wayne

    Peter Smith – hear hear.

  • Peter OBrien

    Peter Smith et al,

    I accept that we must wait until these allegations have been tested in court before we can say definitively that they occurred and that individuals can be punished. But the allegations have been around, in vague form, for some time and, until now, all authorities have declined to comment on them on the basis that they were being investigated by General Brereton. Now that Brereton has released his report these allegations are a legitimate subject for discussion. The situation with Pell was totally different because he was being investigated by forces hostile to him. Defence has been investigated by one of its own. I would think Brereton would be extra sceptical and would not find that ‘blooding’ occurred unless he had pretty solid evidence that it did. It is telling that he did not investigate incidents that occurred in the heat of battle. By the way ‘not being in the heat of battle’ means that contact has ceased (no more shots being fired), all enemy either killed or captured, the objective secured and all troops accounted for. It is a situation that occurs in all military operations and is the norm. As to my strawman argument, many people writing letters to papers, commenting to talk shows etc are advocating turning a blind eye. You have only to watch Alan Jones to see that. As to the great and the good (by whom I presume you mean Morrison, Payne and Campbell) I don’t believe they are bucketting our troops in public but I do accept, as I have said, that talk of apologies, compensation and withdrawal of citations is ill judged.
    In this forum most commentators have had no trouble believing and discussing that electoral fraud took place in the US election before those allegations had been tested in court or that Daniel Andrews is personally responsible for the catastrophe in Victoria before the Coates Enquiry has released its report. No-one subject to allegations is immune to having those allegations discussed and evaluated in the public forum.
    If you believe, in your heart of hearts, that Brereton got it so wrong and that these allegations will prove to be unfounded then, I’m afraid, you are a lot less cynical than I.

  • Peter Smith

    Alan Jones has been marvellous on this by repeatedly stressing that these are allegations. How can it be said that the accusations against a number of our soldiers are “brutual truths,” strip medals across the board, utter appologies, make moves to give compensation to those harmed unjustly and not, at the same time, be selling our troops down the river? It’s not possible.
    And, Peter, you don’t think that forces hostile to a warrior culture are alive and well among our current top brass. You haven’t been paying attention, if you think that.
    It is not a question either of what I believe or don’t believe in my heart of hearts. That has no evidential value.
    I think you have got this wrong. We cannot give any comfort to a lynch-mob mentality. We cannot go along with a prime minister and others around him shaming the nation and, also, predjudicing the minds of those who may in future be called upon to consider the evidence. Yes, I think Brereton might have got it badly wrong (as he himself effectively concedes in his report). He might not. He might have got some of it wrong. Whatever, we need to hear the other side. We need to reserve judgement until the legal process has played out. And yes, in my view, we need to take account of the circumstances within which the SAS operated. And I trust the legal processes will do that.
    Finally, of course, we all know what ‘not being in the heat of battle’ means, at some kind of high level developed by a committee.. The question is how to interpret it in the particular situations faced 24×7 by SAS soldiers in the field. If your legs are blown off by an IED, or you have good reason to think they might be, are you in the heat of battle? If you spot a young man in civilian gear who you think is a spy intent on running away and reporting your numbers and position to the enemy are you in the heat of battle?

  • Occidental

    Peter Smith@
    There is a vast difference between establishing individual guilt of a crime, and accepting that events occurred, and I am sure notwithstanding your post you understand the difference. Brereton is trying to acknowledge this in the passages you quoted in your previous article and is certainly not admitting he might have “got it badly wrong”. If you read his report he has no doubt or misgivings, and nor he should, given the eye witnesses which he had at his disposal, making admissions under immunity. Taken to its logical conclusion you are saying that discussion of all historical events must be prefaced by the word alleged until a court of law gives its imprimatur. Whilst you seem to have shown from previous articles a disdain for post modernism that argument is bordering on something Jean Baudrillard would be proud of. One can choose to deny anything, and famous holocaust deniers make a living out of it. Morrison was faced with the report of his own government, by an experienced jurist, where soldiers themselves (under immunity) admitted killing unarmed and captured individuals for inter alia the purposes of “blooding”, in Afghanistan. But don’t worry, for you Peter, it didn’t happen notwithstanding eye witness under immunity said it did, at least until there is a conviction. Unfortunately if Morrison tried that argument as a public figure he would be subject to ridicule, and rightly so. He did the only thing a sensible human being could do which was to show regret and a willingness to make right the events of the past.
    Lets move on to the next leg of your argument which is we as human beings not party to the events and circumstances can not sit in judgement of these “warriors”. What do we make of this position. Spouses are often charged with killing their partner, usually in circumstances where the accused claims the circumstances of the relationship forced them to do so. Surely it would be impossible for any jury to put themselves in the position of the accused. How could they imagine what took place in that household 24/7. Clearly however we will and for the benefit of community must judge. I have read most of Brereton’s report and accept it for what it is, a sad and sorry tale of some (very few) people going off the rails, behaving like murderers and not like soldiers.
    Finally you seem to come perilously close to validating or accepting any actions of soldiers, because they are in a field of conflict and are soldiers. Heaven help us if we (Australians civilians) are ever in a field of conflict under those rules. Believe it or not, despite atrocities in all wars, many soldiers rise above that low bar, and enforce to the best of their ability a more morally defensible position, more akin as best it can be, with the normal human condition.
    Peter, generally your articles and comments are sensible and well thought out. Unfortunately your position on this one, whilst appealing to the jingoistic (majority?), is poorly resolved, and has no support in logic, law, or for that matter Christian or humanist morality.

  • Peter OBrien

    Peter, despite what you say, it all comes down to belief. I always believed Cardinal Pell was innocent and I said so on numerous occasions in these pages. I don’t recall anyone here telling me to pull my head in and await the outcome of the trial. I believe that massive electoral fraud occurred in the USA. I doubt the courts will prove me right but nonetheless I expect I will persist in this belief.
    I believe that General Brereton would much rather he could honestly have reported ‘nothing to see here’. I believe that some or all of what he reported actually happened. Andrew Hastie, who should know better than most, clearly believes that also. I also believe that there is a serious dereliction of ethos within the higher Defence command with their emphasis on inclusivity and all the other garbage, such as putting women in operational command positions and denigrating the warrior culture. I said as much in my article.
    But what is being drowned out here is the seriousness of what is alleged. Alan Jones does not refer to it at all. And also being drowned out are the voices of those SASR soldiers who had the moral courage to come forward.
    The entire ADF is not being blamed as I tried to put out in my article but if you can point to a credible source that is doing that please feel free to point it out. By the way, it is not your job to interpret what being in ‘the heat of battle’ means. It is not the same as being at risk and all soldiers understand this. In any case, SASR soldiers are not at risk 24/7 – they spend more time in a secure compound than they do outside the wire. (I acknowledge that the security is not 100% as there have been a number of fatal green on blue attacks but this does not give SASR troopers carte blanche to blow away any Afghan soldier who looks sideways at them). You clearly do not understand the concept of ‘rules of engagement’ – they always include a contingency to allow them to be ignored if a soldier genuinely believes he or his mates are at risk. As to your example of the potential spy, I have answered that point in my article. That is not the heat of battle which is when shots are being exchanged.

  • Peter Smith

    Occidental and Peter, I feel, as is often the case in debates that we are not actually engaging. We all have beliefs based on incomplete evidence. If we waited until all the evidence was in we’d hardly have beliefs at all. But having beliefs and expressing them on the public stage are two different matters. It is far safer to express a view that someone is innocent than he is guilty. The burden is heavier in the latter case. And the burden becomes heavier the more influencial you are and the more damage false allegations will cause. And Occidental, I can’t quite grasp why my insistence on waiting for due process for troops we put in harms way is somehow immoral, illogical or un-Christian; or jingoistic.
    In my view, the prime minister could have expressed deep concern about the matters raised in the Report and have give an assurance that they would be throughly investigated and as applicable, consistent with the evidence, that charges would be brought. Or something to that effect.
    Oh, and by the way Peter, I didn’t say that SAS soldiers were at risk 24×7, I said when they were “in the field.” And I do understand rules of engagment, and you make my point for me. We need to discover whether the soldiers accused of acting unlawfully believed they were at risk. And we haven’t heard from them. Yet, they have been damned. All of them.

  • Peter OBrien

    Peter, if the alleged incidents of ‘blooding’ did occur then there is no question that the soldiers concerned could have believed they were at risk. And we haven’t heard from the accused because their identities are being protected, as they should be.
    Morrison has said these are allegations that must be considered in court. He is criticized for talking about ‘brutal truths’. It’s not up to me to put words in Morrison’s mouth but there are, in fact, two brutal truths. The first is that there are allegations of serious, indeed sickening, atrocities committed by our troops. The second is that some of these have been found credible by a properly constituted internal enquiry. You are grasping at straws.
    On a different tack, I note it was reported on the evening news the ADF is now asking some of the accused to show cause why they should not be sacked. It is not clear whether they mean removal from the SAS or discharge from the Army. If the latter, that would seem to me to be a grave injustice ad a serious lapse of judgement. I also heard that they are digging in about the revocation of the unit citation.
    Here is the original concluding paragraph of my article which did not make it into print, but I’m sure Roger won’t mind my putting it here:
    “I have said that I don’t subscribe to the Yamashita standard but as Alistair Pope has pointed out, that is what we have right now and Generals Kelly, Cantwell, Campbell, Smith, Crane and, of course Morrison come under it. Campbell might claim that it does not apply to him because there were no substantiated incidents recorded during his time in command of JTF 633 but that’s not to say they didn’t occur and he was Deputy Chief of Army in 2012 and therefore in the relevant chain of command. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Campbell and co might consider themselves lucky if all they lost was their DSC.”
    I have since received some credible information that Yamashita has been superseded but I have not had time to check that out. Regardless of that it seems the height of hubris for these senior officers to retain their honours under these circumstances.

  • Peter Smith

    Peter I like your final paragraph and the second half of the penultimate one. As you say it’s not up to us to put words in Morrison’s mouth; at the same time, we have the right to criticise the words he uses; and I do on this occasion and roundly so. I find your take on his words somewhat of a stretch.
    As to ‘blooding’. Did it occur, first? Second, did it occur as described by those granted immunity? Third, if it occurred, under what circumstances according to those accused. We have an adversarial legal system for good reason – so that both sides can be heard and given an opportunity to rebut the case of the other side. I determinedly will form no conclusive view until the legal process is exhausted. I don’t always do that. In fact, maybe I don’t often do it. But I think it is right to do it on this occasion. At least for me.

  • Peter Marriott

    Peter Smith. I agree with your position on this. Any killing of the enemy in the trenches might be sickening to those on the outside, but not to the soldiers fighting it out when their blood is up, and that’s the way it has to be if we’re to have any sort of fighting force worthy of the name. That’s what it’s all about, killing the enemy, not parading around looking cool in a uniform, remember, I read we took very few prisoners on Gallipoli….and neither did the Turks. As to supposed non combatants in Afghanistan, well, I wonder how you tell them ? They may as well all be part of the Taliban as far as their appearances go. There used to be a time when you had to have a uniform on, with a serial number otherwise if you were caught within a bulls roar of the action without a very, very good excuse….you could be shot as a spy. It used to be in the Geneva Convention rules of war I think ? Making up ones own rules of engagement sounds incredible to me, they could be made up any old how, and no doubt changed any old how. Needless to say of course the Afghan warrior culture seems to remain the same today as it was 100, 200 or no doubt 2350 years ago when Alexander the Great passed through, i.e. they mostly kill all their prisoners in any old way they feel like, and couldn’t care less about any rules of war….and they’re proud of their culture I believe. All in my opinion of course.

  • Kyle

    I don’t understand the context of this article. I understand a simple platitude about high heel wearing commanders and how it dilutes the authority of the uniform. I read or thought that the article states that mid-level commanders bear some responsibility because they [sic] should know better and they should better educate the unwashed rabble before they carry out the dirty work of their governments. Maybe I misunderstood the article but I’m going to consider myself triggered here at what I have read. The feeling I felt on the ground at the time albeit in a much lower tempo area with general infantryman was that doing a good job was their objective. That might involve never firing a shot but using intellect. I have no idea about blooding and that’s the first time I’ve heard of it, but the soldiers recruited for this difficult job aren’t recruited for their physical prowess or their desire to kill but for the “X-factor” they hold and to solve problems in the simplest way which often if never using a weapon.
    I’ve got no idea about what went on in these cases but it seems overly simplified. And I feel triggered that these points can be so easily condensed into borderline legal and moral issues of senior commanders throwing their hands up feigning culpability saying I should have educated them better and simultaneously pleading ignorance.
    It’s in important job which is being corrupted. I don’t know yet whether this post is contributing to the corruption but I had to put my thoughts on paper. (TLDR: These are smart kids, the issue has been oversimplified, if you comment against it you’re an armchair warrior, people are fundamentally good and there’s still hope

  • Occidental

    Peter Smith put plainly, not accepting the content of Brereton’s report, until a court of law finds guilt of the soldiers, is illogical. Brereton was never tasked with determining the guilt or innocence of a soldier charged under the Crimes Act. He was tasked with investigating whether ( in reality ) certain events occurred. A conviction or acquittal of a soldier for murder will only be the courts verdict, not of the events having occurred but whether the law’s thresholds for proof have been satisfied. Just as in Cardinal Pells case, it is not some gold standard of truth. I can assure you the investigation that Brereton has conducted from what I can see is far more likely to reveal an accurate picture of reality than any criminal trial. Prosecutors rarely give indemnities, and when they do the indemnified witness will have his credibility attacked, witnesses are far more likely to be candid in answering the questions of a superior officer, in the military environment than in a civilian court. Do you apply this standard to all enquiries. Are you still waiting for convictions before you believe the general findings of the Inquiry into Institutional responses to child sexual abuse. I could accept you combing through the report, redacted though it is, and showing weakness in it’s process, bias in Brereton’s conclusions, or some other circumstance validly impacting its cogency, but you haven’t said any of that. Your position is simply I wont accept it until a court in criminal jurisdiction finds it so- which it never will, because that will not be it’s job.
    My comments about your position being unsupported by Christian or humanist morality have to do with your comments regarding the civilian (by which I assume you mean non combatant) that you “think” might be a source of intelligence for the Taliban, whom by the way, has been captured and is no threat as Brereton’s report makes plain. Brereton’s report quotes a passage from the Old Testament – 2 Kings 6, merely to show the antiquity of moral thinking regarding the treatment of captured enemy (as opposed to civilians). Your example is justification for killing every civilian who has the misfortune to observe or lay eyes on an Australian soldier whilst on a mission. How might you determine that the 10 year old girl will not tell the Taliban, or the 80 year old grandmother. Is anyone not a potential target in your eyes? Can you not see how your example can be so stretched, and why it appears so immoral?

  • Doubting Thomas

    What the CDF is doing to the troops is shameful. Whatever happened to natural justice?

  • Peter OBrien

    I thought the following extract of my response to an observation of a friend of mine, might be of interest.
    “The SASR was established to provide long range recon, not offensive operations. That is why it was structured the way it was, operating in small patrols and giving considerable responsibility to junior NCOs. Sometime in the past 30 or so years it has morphed into an offensive role. Why that happened is beyond since we already had an offensive SF capability in the Commandos. I suspect it was a case of SASR COs seeking a more glamorous role and lobbying accordingly. The role has changed but it seems the structure and ethos, in which officers and junior NCOs shared the same status in the unit, has not. It’s no co-incidence that Brereton found much less problems in the Commandos. He thought it could be due to one of two factors – a more effective code of silence or that officers have much more involvement in combat. I am firmly of the view it is the latter and I think the former conjecture is unworthy.

    And I believe the continued deployment of SF in roles that should have been carried out by conventional forces eg infantry battalions, was a cheap expedient way of paying lip service to our commitment to support our allies. It is also the main reason that these problems (alleged atrocities and inordinate veteran suicide rates) have arisen and all senior ADF officers who recommended, or went along with this course of action, must be equally held to account.”

    But again, I state that, if the incidents alleged did occur, then those that perpetrated them must pay the main price. If the alleged incidents occurred as described (I am being careful not to incur the wrath of Peter Smith), those involved cannot claim to have been unaware that they were illegal. We like to claim that our Diggers are among the best in the world, and I believe that they are. If that is so, then we expect them to be able to maintain their moral compass and to retain their humanity.

  • Peter OBrien

    On the very disturbing subject of veteran suicide, here are some thoughts and suggestions I shared with my local Veteran’s advocate:

    “We are told that 500 vets committed suicide in the last ten years and these are overwhelmingly non-serving. That puts them in a cohort of about 60,000 people – about 6,000 people leave Defence each year I believe. That is an astonishingly high rate of suicide – much higher than the 2.2 times rate of suicide in the general population that is normally quoted. And much higher I believe than previous wars. It would be interesting to know the correlation between these deaths and multiple deployments – because operational intensity is the only reason I can think of that might explain this.
    The survivors of many, if not most, of veteran suicides talk of feeling let down by Defence. This is understandable but I think, probably in most cases, unfair. There is much I find disturbing about current trends in the military but I doubt that lack of concern for the welfare of members past and present is a systemic failure. But there is no doubt that if this deplorable rate of suicide is to be brought under control, action must rest initially and overwhelmingly with the Department of Defence and DVA. Here are some suggestions, in no particular order, that might merit consideration.
    What about establishing a DVA cell, possibly under Defence administrative control, at all major bases to manage all issues of resettlement, training, job placement, housing, physical and mental health? Not to do all the work but to ensure that the vet is put into contact with the appropriate agency on all these matters. He does not get his discharge clearance until all items are ticked off by DVA. There would also need to be follow-up to ensure that the vet has committed to the program.
    Much of the angst reported by troubled vets or their survivors seems to relate to separation. It seems to me that no servicemen should be discharged within a minimum of six months (preferably twelve) of return from active service. I accept that this would cause manning problems etc but I’m sure they could be overcome with some flexibility. One way around this would be to insist no serviceman to be deployed on operations unless he has adequate residual service after his return.
    There is a mental health program available to servicemen and women post operational deployment. Perhaps a similar program, possibly compulsory, should be undertaken pre operational deployment.
    A limit placed on the number and frequency of operational deployments for any one individual servicemen, unless, say, we are under invasion. For deployments such as Afghanistan or Iraq, Defence should insist that the government find the necessary manpower, possibly through national service or some other incentive to get more people to volunteer. Part of this would be to reduce our reliance on special forces and to structure our support to allies around deployment of conventional forces as we did in SVN.”

    I now wonder what role alleged atrocities might have played in this appalling situation.

  • pgang

    Peter your article dovetails nicely with commentary from Andrew Hastie, who also takes these allegations seriously.
    One really important comment Hastie made was concerning the virtual media blackout of the Afghan war for the Australian audience. He claims that the ADF were ‘managing’ the media far more than any other nation’s forces were. In Australia, it felt as though this war wasn’t happening. I have known two or three vets who are the only link I have to the conflict, and it cast a shadow over all of them. This seemed odd, given that according to the media there was nothing to write about.
    Is it any wonder then, that the culture may have gone sour (in combination with the discipline, morale and structural issues)? Where was the scrutiny? Who was scrutinising the scrutineers? This decision by the ADF stinks to high heaven and suggests a leadership that has ventured down the rabbit hole. And where were the politicians speaking out against such a terrible policy? I guess the fact that this began under the faux-totalitarian leadership of Howard says a lot.
    In 1918 Lt General Monash was pressing for all the media attention his soldiers could garner, despite massive casualties. That’s because he knew there was a story that needed to be told, and that the feats of his men deserved to be publicly acclaimed (and it would also bolster support for recruitment). Where is the acclaim for our soldiers now? We finally get some news from the war, and it’s about criminal activity. Don’t expect the public to start caring now.

  • pgang

    Also Peter in relation your comment on veteran suicide I wonder if the disconnect from Australian society, due in large part to the media blackout, also resulted in a sense of isolation which contributed to their despair. No non combatant can ever relate to the personal experience of war, but at least a nation can share in carrying the burden brought home.

  • Peter OBrien

    Here I am again, this time on the subject of rules of engagement, which commenters clearly do not understand. Here is a primer.
    The Rules of War, as codified in the Geneva Conventions, govern the way in which enemy combatants can be killed and how they must be treated if captured.
    Rules of Engagement set out the conditions in which action can be initiated against an enemy or potential enemy.
    They do not supersede the Rules of War.
    ‘Making up ones own rules of engagement sounds incredible to me, they could be made up any old how, and no doubt changed any old how’ as Peter Marriot opined, demonstrates this confusion.
    Rules of Engagement are specifically designed for each operational situation. For example, they would be different for a peace keeping mission than they would for the deployment in Afghanistan. They are designed precisely to balance operational commitments, security of our own troops and protection of innocent civilians, as required under the Rules of War. If you like they are a practical Rules of War manual tailored for a particular operational situation.
    Without Rules of Engagement, soldiers would be at great risk of infringing the Rules of War.

  • Occidental

    Peter OBrien, notwithstanding the gravity of the allegations which have surfaced, you must be taking some pride in the overall determination and openness which the army is showing in dealing with the matter. For what it is worth I have gained even more confidence in the Army as an institution as a result of what has taken place than I had before. I hope that the public recognise the stresses under which some elements of the Army have been under during the last 20 years. I also hope that some sections of the Labor Party (for surely it will regain office in the not too distant future), and some of the brass, begin to understand that soldiering is not like policing, border protection, or for that matter any other branch of government, with which you can tinker in pursuit of a socially progressive agenda. That might be a forlorn hope.

  • Simon

    I’m with Peter Smith on this – 100%. This smacks of the appalling ABC (who else?) ‘investigation’ in RAN torture of failed asylum-seekers.

    The fact that the person making the complaint was being escorted back whence he came, having lost his $9,000 people-smuggler fee, should have been all that was necessary for the ABC to know the story was highly suspect.

  • Peter OBrien

    Occidental, thank you for your comment (and your support of my position) but I’m not sure I would go that far. I have great pride and respect for the diggers, NCOs and junior officers. Andrew Hastie certainly comes to mind. But as far as the way in which Defence management is handling the issue, the furthest I can go is to argue that, contrary to some claims, they have not tarred all soldiers with the same brush. But they are now managing a disaster of their own making and have no choice but to do so. As far as openness is concerned that was always inevitable – the cat was out of the bag years ago. And your very valid point about the pursuit of a socially progressive agenda is, in my opinion, a large contribution to this current mess. On the whole I have a fair degree of contempt for senior ADF management.

  • Peter Smith

    Yes, I had moved on from this thread but am drawn back by Occidental having complete faith in an inquiry which largely based its conclusions on testimony from Afghans and from soldiers given immunity. Both are suspect in my view. Defence lawyers will make hay and rightly so. “I can assure you the investigation that Brereton has conducted from what I can see is far more likely to reveal an accurate picture of reality than any criminal trial.’ Really, on exactly what do you base that assertion? How about the “Bringing Them Home” (Stolen Generations) inquiry. How reliable was that tendentious piece of propaganda. The absence of real courts in the space tells you how reliable it was. As an aside, I have no faith at all in a higher command which on hearing rumours appoints a female sociologist to examine the culture within the SASR. Lots of toxic masculinity no doubt found. Why didn’t those in command do their job if they thought something was amiss. What are they paid for?
    Another by the way, Peter I think we do all understand what rules of engagment are. We also understand, in all walks of life, that rules don’t cover everything that happens on the ground. In the end result that’s maybe why AI won’t take over from humans. Exactly how do the rules tell a soldier whether a bystander has or has not hostile intent?
    Now, as this is my last comment, I will restate my position. The allegations in the Brereton report should be investigated and charges brought as applicable. I do not regard the report as gospel. I want to hear the other side. And, unlike most other matters, when it comes to our warriors who we put in harms way to protect us sheep, I tread warily. I take account of circumstances as much as I can sitting in my armchair. I give them the benefit of the doubt until reasonable doubt is removed. I do not support broadcasting to the world that they are war criminals (monsters). I do not support stripping medals away willy-nilly. I do support holding those at the head of command accountable, if unlawful activity is proved. To repeat myself, I wonder what they think they are being paid for.

  • Peter OBrien

    Peter Smith, you are being obtuse. You ask ‘Exactly how do the rules tell a soldier whether a bystander has or has not hostile intent?’ That shows that you do not understand the concept. The question implies that, in doubt, the soldier should just shoot first and ask questions later. As I said the rules are there for the protection of the soldier as much as the innocent bystander. As you observe they are not perfect and the result of holding fire in accordance with the rules may result in the death of one of ours but that is the nature of the game. These men are volunteers and they understand the risk they are taking – that is why they get the plaudits on ANZAC Day. A commander can decide to ignore the rules in a particular situation that is not black and white, but he’d better be right or be able to mount a credible case for this decision. Yes, rules of engagement constrain soldiers and can put them in danger. But in what way is that different from a platoon commander ordering his troops to mount an assault on an enemy position? He is putting them in harms way and there will be casualties. And don’t tell me the situations are different because, in the case of the assault, there is a specific objective that must be attained but not so in the hypothetical case you describe. The objective in that case is that we should not indiscriminately kill civilians, particularly if we are trying to win them over to our side.

    And in any case, the incidents that concern me most are the bloodings. Rules of engagement do not come into play here. As far as ‘heat of battle’ infringements of rules of engagement are concerned I, personally, would be inclined towards the broadest application of benefit of the doubt and, I suspect, that that has been the experience in Afghanistan.

  • Occidental

    Peter Smith, I understand you have moved on, and may not read this post, but you asked the question so I wont ignore it. But of course I will do my best not to introduce anything contentious hence you will not need to reply.
    I can understand why you regard government Inquiries and the reports produced with a jaundiced eye. To a large extent I share that disdain. The Inquiry I mentioned in my post (into child sexual abuse) is in fact an example of a report I mostly reject, but not because alleged wrongdoing has not been tested in court, but simply because it lacks intellectual discipline, and like the report you mentioned instant, bears all the hallmarks of a feel-good exercise. One quick read of Brereton’s report is enough to satisfy myself that it is a different animal. Firstly it is the report not of a committee, (a structure so beloved by bureaucrats) but of a single person. Secondly the author is a serving Supreme Court judge, and it is rare for such individuals to be duds (though I admit in recent times with progressive appointments we are witnessing a drop in standard). Thirdly the investigation has not been rushed, in fact the opposite criticism could be made. Fourthly and it is unique to inquiries in the defence forces (so far as I am aware) that witnesses (all defence force witnesses) are compelled to answer questions without the common law right not to self incriminate, but this is balanced by the existence of an immunity (to all) in respect to the use of the evidence so given. Fifthly as is apparent from the report witnesses where re-interrogated, some on a number of occasions, and some for up to three days. Just so you are aware in a trial there is always a clock ticking. Every trial costs the community a bucket load of money. Often judges will press both the prosecution and the defence to get to the point, refuse to allow them to go over a line of questioning that has already occurred. But often as an advocate it is not until a day or a week later you realise the question you failed to ask, it is the moment you join the dots, but the trial is over. Sadly I have had a number of clients convicted who like Pell were entirely innocent, and I have had clients walk when they should not, such are the frailties of justice, but I don’t know overall a better system for deciding guilt or innocence. Here investigators could gather evidence, cross reference data, clear up anomalies, sit back, think and ask again, and none of this to convict anyone but merely to find out what happened. This report reminds me to some extent of the report of The Presidential Committee into the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Inquiries done well are a beautiful thing. They show what can be done by human intellect not distracted by bias or incentive, conducted by individuals with the forensic skills needed, and given the necessary resources- to me the sits alongside those reports. The fact that its revelations are so disappointing, is beside the point. I accept the core of its findings that in the SASR there emerged in some units a criminal, abhorrent practice of executing captured individuals (Taliban or otherwise) for a variety of reasons. Even if no one is convicted the report in my view is enough to establish that.

  • Doubting Thomas

    I repeat, the behaviour of CDF and, perhaps, Chief of Army has been shameful. May I suggest that people review the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. Section 13 and others thereabouts are germane.

    The verbal diarrhoea emanating from Fort Fumble is incredible. Exactly how does the Brereton Report, and any “administrative” action based upon it, satisfy the criteria of natural justice and administrative law?

    It’s 32 years since I retired from the RAAF, but before that, and for another five years afterwards on the Active Reserve, I had a lot to do with staffing applications for redress of wrongs (grievances) from people who believed they had been unfairly or unlawfully treated. Many cases of administrative decision making were ultimately overturned in circumstances startlingly analogous, if not similar, to the Army’s decision to administratively discharge people based on the recommendations of the Brereton Report.

    There are some basic steps that need to be taken by decision makers BEFORE they arrive at a decision. First, and most importantly, they must take into account all relevant considerations. They must not take into account any irrelevant considerations. The person whose responsibility it is to make the decision cannot be directed by higher authority to make a specific decision. And, unless I’m grievously mistaken, that’s just administrative law.
    As far as military justice is concerned, who is Brereton? He’s just an investigator. He really isn’t qualified to act as judge or jury, and certainly not to have his recommendations taken on board as to the treatment of individuals. For the Army to act as if the troops have been tried and convicted by a properly constituted court of law is outrageous and proves beyond all doubt that the top brass are shameful cowards for rolling over like whipped dogs and taking the apparently easy administrative way out.
    A decent lawyer will wipe the floor with thm.

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