By Dale Blair

The allegations of atrocities committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan may be shocking, but they suggest continuity rather than rupture with our military past. In this article, Dr Dale Blair outlines Australia’s past involvement in war crimes, and the exalted status of Australia’s soldiers and official patronage that have obscured the truth.

 

Image credit: Corporal Raymond Vance, PR Handout Image. Via Australian Department of Defence and AAP Photos.

The long-awaited report on the inquiry into Australian Special Forces’ misconduct in Afghanistan is now a matter of public record.[1] The report by Justice Paul Brereton is damning. Twenty-five Australian Defence Force personnel are alleged to have been involved in the unlawful killing of 39 Afghan prisoners of war and non-combatants. Chillingly, none of the killings were made “in the heat of battle”.

While Australians should rightfully be outraged by these murderous war crimes, they should not be surprised. The nation’s colonial and post-Federation history provides ample proof of similar heinous behaviour.

Crimes against Australia’s Indigenous population, committed by the British Army, settlers, and colonial police are well documented throughout every state and territory. The University of Newcastle’s map of indigenous massacres is a sobering reminder of how widespread the practice was, one that continued deep into the 1920s.[2] And with not a hint of embarrassment, White Australia blithely and faithfully recorded these shameful episodes by appending descriptive names to the killing sites such as Skull Creek (Northern Territory and Western Australia), Murdering Gully (Victoria), Massacre Waterfall (New South Wales), Butchers Creek and Skeleton Creek in Queensland.[3]

Australia’s new-found national pride that came with Federation was quickly besmirched in South Africa when Australian soldiers of the Bushveldt Carabineers committed a series of murders. They killed six civilians in mid-1901 and murdered one of their own who was suspected of potentially spilling the beans. A few weeks later eight Boer civilians and a Boer prisoner were shot. A German missionary, Reverend Daniel Heese, and his African servant next fell victim to the killing spree which ended with the murder of another three Boers.[4]

Lieutenants Harry Morant and Peter Handcock would be executed for their part in these war crimes and their story would be eulogized as a miscarriage of British military justice in Bruce Bereford’s film Breaker Morant (1980). As a consequence, a strong public anti-British sentiment surged around the notion that these Australians were acting on orders from higher up the command chain and were sacrificial lambs to cover up British culpability. That these men were, in the opinion of Boer War historian Craig Wilcox, engaged in ‘cold blooded slaughter’ and that they were ‘closer to serial killers than soldiers’ is incidental to the popular narrative.[5]

Those questions posed in Morant’s defence echo over a century on. The degree to which senior officers were aware of the unlawful killings in Afghanistan is already being asked, despite Justice Brereton’s findings that the fault lies ostensibly with non-commissioned officers at the patrol level.

The executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, has alluded in the Australian to what he considers ‘a jarring contradiction between Brereton’s conclusion that commanders from troop and platoon levels all the way up to Defence’s top leaders’ had no knowledge of what Brereton termed ‘reckless indifference to the commission of war crimes’. Jennings points to the assessment made by Professor David Whetham of King’s College London that reflected on the leadership and ethics in the Special Operations Command. Whetham had access to inquiry interviews and his report was included in Brereton’s. Whetham noted that ‘many people spoke of how widespread the knowledge of wrongdoing was’.[6]

One of the aspects that Justice Brereton identified as being significant in the blinding of senior officers was the misrepresentations being made in the operational reporting. In a nutshell, these field reports were doctored to obfuscate the truth of what had occurred. Similar methods were used in the world wars. In the First World War, unit reports that cited high body counts of the enemy often described the resolute and dogged resistance of their foe, yet their own casualties were few and little reflected such tenacious defence.[7] A favoured explanation for the death of Japanese prisoners in unit diaries of the Second World War was that they had been shot while attempting to escape, despite the fact that most were in such an emaciated condition that such claims were difficult to believe.[8]

The ‘blooding’ identified in the Brereton report, whereby new recruits were made to or prevailed upon to kill, was also evident in the First World War. A 3rd Battalion soldier who reported to his sergeant that he had discovered a German soldier in a shelter was told to ‘fix’ him. When he said he could not kill a man that way, his sergeant replied ‘Go on, you haven’t killed one yet. I’ll give you one more chance and then I’ll fix him myself.’[9]

Image credit: Corporal Raymond Vance, PR Handout Image. Via Australian Department of Defence and AAP Photos.

That sort of peer pressure is central to claims of a flawed culture within the Special Forces that has allowed war crimes in Afghanistan to be committed. One thing that feeds such abhorrent thinking is the propaganda created on the home front and imbibed by soldiers serving overseas. Soldiers of the world wars were fed a diet of propaganda about the bestial Hun and sub-human Jap that undoubtedly fuelled their propensity to transgress the rules of war. The mantra since the Twin Towers attack in New York that ‘All Muslims are terrorists’ is one that has possibly played out in Afghanistan too.

A troubling aspect of the whole sordid Afghanistan affair is the molly coddling of the Special Forces by people holding positions of influence. When, in 2010, Brigadier Lyn McDade, Director of Military Prosecutions., commenced the prosecution of two soldiers for manslaughter over the death of five children during a botched raid in Afghanistan, she was subjected to a torrent of public abuse and extraordinary pressure from the Minister of Defence, Stephen Smith. Tony Abbott, Federal Opposition leader at the time, weighed in suggesting that the troops had been betrayed and that they were being asked to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.[10]

Currently we are faced with the ethically dubious situation, as reported by Age journalists Katina Curtis and Anthony Galloway, of Kerry Stokes, chairman of the Australian War Memorial council, funding the legal costs of former SAS corporal, Ben Roberts-Smith, who is suing various media outlets for the reportage of his alleged involvement in war crimes in Afghanistan.[11]

What is certain is that while we continue to participate in wars such incidents will occur again, irrespective of the soul searching and adjustments to military protocols and to the continued existence of international conventions that outlaw no quarter, for war is in itself an atrocity that fosters barbarity and insensitivity in the hearts of men.

[1] https://afghanistaninquiry.defence.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-11/IGADF-Afghanistan-Inquiry-Public-Release-Version.pdf

[2] https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/mar/17/so-many-australian-place-names-honour-murderous-white-men-and-their-violent-acts

[4] https://www.smh.com.au/national/breaker-morant-was-no-digger-hero-20060426-gdnfej.html

[5] Dale Blair, ‘The nonsense of universal “fair play” in war’ in Craig Stockings (ed) Australia’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2012, p. 114.

[6] Australian, 21-22 November 2020.

[7] Dale Blair, No Quarter: Unlawful Killing and Surrender in the Australian War Experience 1915-18, Ginninderra Press, Charnwood, ACT, 2005, pp. 35-36.

[8] Dale Blair, ‘The nonsense of universal “fair play” in war’ in Craig Stockings (ed) Australia’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2012, p. 130.

[9] Dale Blair, No Quarter: Unlawful Killing and Surrender in the Australian War Experience 1915-18, Ginninderra Press, Charnwood, ACT, 2005, p. 37.

[10] Dale Blair, ‘The nonsense of universal “fair play” in war’ in Craig Stockings (ed) Australia’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Myths of Australian Military History, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2012, p. 114.

[11] Saturday Age, 21 November 2020.

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Dale Blair
Dale Blair

Dale Blair is a freelance historian and author of No Quarter: Unlawful Killing and Surrender in the Australian War Experience, 1915-18, Ginninderra Press, Charnwood, ACT, 2005.