By Mia Martin Hobbs

In our latest article, Dr Mia Martin Hobbs finds important parallels between war crimes committed by the US and Australia in the Vietnam War and those alleged to have been committed by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan. These echoes, she argues, should cause our politicians to think carefully before sending fighting forces on counterinsurgency and anti-terror missions in the future. 

 

The recently released Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) Afghanistan Inquiry report documents horrific acts of violence by Australian Special Forces soldiers against Afghan civilians and non-combatants. The violations documented by the IGADF mirror those of another long counterinsurgency war, sadly renowned for atrocities: Vietnam. 

Sergeant John O’Keefe and his patrol from 1 SAS Squadron return to the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, May 1970. PR Handout Image. Credit: John Geoffrey Fairley, via the Australian War Memorial and AAP Photos.

The Vietnam War was, prior to Afghanistan, Australia’s longest war, and one dogged by allegations of war crimes. The US-led mission was plagued by a lack of clear purpose, ever-shifting goals for quantifying success, and the paradoxical logic of “destroying the village in order to save it”. One psychologist who worked closely with Vietnam veterans described the war itself as an “atrocity-producing situation”, in which soldiers were encouraged to kill civilians to achieve military goals of “victory”. The same is true of the Special Forces in Afghanistan: sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets, who first reported the rumors of war crimes to the Chief of Defence, explained: “war crimes do not happen in isolation… these behaviors become permissible and equated with being good and effective soldiers”.

Three alleged violations stand out in the IGADF report: throwdown, blooding, and wilful murder. These acts were calculated and deliberate, repeated frequently in the incident reports, and speak to a debased “warrior hero” culture. They each have echoes of Vietnam.

Throwdowns

“Throwdowns” involve the deliberate planting of weapons or equipment on dead bodies in order to document them as legitimate targets through staged photographs. In several incidents reported in the IGADF report, soldiers allegedly carried a backpack with materials specifically to plant them on non-combatants, demonstrating pre-meditated intent.

In the US-led war in Vietnam, soldiers took similar actions to meet the “body count”, in which the number of enemy killed became the only measurement of success. Thousands of Vietnamese civilians were wrongly counted as “enemy” to inflate US “victory” statistics. The My Lai massacre, for example, was initially reported as a “fierce fire fight” in which the US soldiers killed 128 “enemy”, justified by a recent re-categorisation of the area as a free-fire zone. The true death toll – over 500 civilians – and gruesome details of their slaughter were only exposed when concerned soldiers blew the whistle. The IGADF report notes, in its chapter on war crimes in Australian history, that there is evidence the ADF in Vietnam also used throwdowns to retrospectively justify killings of civilians.

The same perverse logic informed the use of throwdowns by Special Forces in Afghanistan. The IGADF report suggests the practice was a “strategy of avoiding scrutiny” when a killed Afghan “turned out not to be armed”. Throwdown morphed into a deliberate practice to conceal calculated murder, motivated by the same perverse body-count logic that drove the Vietnam War: the report acknowledges that Special Forces competed “to outscore other patrols in the number of enemy killed in action”.

Blooding

“Blooding”, where new soldiers were instructed to kill a prisoner to achieve their “first kill”, was often followed by a throwdown to stage a cover-up. Blooding is a way of inducting soldiers into a military elite through killing as a rite of passage. It is a collective practice that centres killing as the key to military legitimacy, which works to bolster soldiers’ sense of security in counterinsurgency operations where the enemy hides among the civilian population.

In my doctoral research, American and Australian Vietnam veterans explained how they learned how to think about killing in ways that were psychologically comfortable: chasing the taboo of sanctioned killing; drawing on anger over the deaths of friends; filtering actions through sanitized, techno-strategic language. These psychological normalizing processes also created reverence for killing. This reverence is the core of the “warrior hero” culture identified in the IGADF report: the notion that combat and killing impart special knowledge to those who “fire a shot in anger”, setting soldiers beyond civilian judgement for actions only knowable to those who were “really there”. This reverence for killing is then a way of avoiding scrutiny – as the IGADF report acknowledges, the “blooding” practice attempts to bind soldiers into a “code of silence” around their wartime transgressions.

Wilful murder

The most egregious violations in the IGADF report are the numerous allegations of wilful murder of unarmed Afghans under Australian duty-of-care. These killings indicate profound dehumanization of the very people Australians were supposedly sent to Afghanistan to protect. Blooding and throwdowns further demonstrate that the perpetrators prioritized their hazing rituals and unit kill-counts over Afghan lives. The IGADF report identifies a motivation among Special Forces perpetrators to “‘clear’ the battlefield of people believed to be insurgents, regardless of Law of Armed Conflict”, indicating that the soldiers viewed the entire population on “the battlefield” – Afghans living on their own lands – as the enemy.

A special forces soldier in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, in 2012. CREDIT: ADF. Via The Age.

The IGADF alleges that Special Forces deliberately misinterpreted the Rules of Engagement around “spotters” and “squirters” – people suspected of relaying information to Taliban, or believed to be running to or from a weapons cache – to justify killings. In doing so, they instilled fear among the local population, giving Afghans good cause to flee when they entered the area – allowing the Forces to claim further killings of “squirters”. This manipulation mirrors a US military practice in Vietnam, described by many of my interviewees, of shooting near civilians to “test” them and determine their guilt when they fled: “they were killed for being frightened. And of course they were frightened, because they knew they might be killed.” Broadening the scope of potentially hostile persons to anyone afraid of the occupying forces demonstrates a mindset where the people themselves were the enemy.

These echoes of Vietnam should serve as a warning. Well-founded fear of the occupying and allied forces in Vietnam nurtured civilian resentments, which the revolutionary guerrillas successfully tapped. In Afghanistan, the IGADF report acknowledges “the fear and terror which villagers experienced” during Australian Special Forces operations around their homes, undoing any goodwill fostered by “hearts and minds” initiatives. These violations undermine the anti-terror mission that Australia claims to uphold through its presence in the Middle East. With Afghanistan likely to return to Taliban rule in the near future, numerous war crimes allegations against the Coalition militaries should cause us to reflect on whether a military anti-terror project is feasible, or if it simply does more harm than good.

 

Quotes without links are either from the IGADF report or my interviews with veterans

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Mia Martin Hobbs
Mia Martin Hobbs

Mia Martin Hobbs is an honorary fellow, researcher and teaching associate at the University of Melbourne. She is an oral historian of war and conflict and her research interests include international history, peace and security, the War on Terror, the Vietnam War, memory, trauma and reconciliation movements. Presently she teaches in the areas of international history and modern American history. This year Martin Hobbs was a recipient of the inaugural Contemporary Histories Research Group Award in History and Policy at Deakin University for her oral history project on women and people of colour who served in the British, American and Australian armed forces during the War on Terror. She has published articles on veterans’ experiences in Australian Journal of Politics & History and written on contemporary veterans’ issues for The Conversation and Australian Policy History.