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 suggested.
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 highlighted 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.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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