Note: this collection of material grew from the flood of which David Stephens’ piece for Honest History on 19 November (‘Getting beyond “our heroes”: a War Memorial angle on possible war crimes’; click here) was one of the early rivulets. It does not attempt to be a complete coverage of what is a very complex set of issues. See also this attempt, scroll down to entry for 19 November updated, to extract a theme relating to the links between Brereton and the past and possible future of the War Memorial.
Detailed story for those who came in late.
‘Will secrecy trump justice for murdered Afghans?’, asks the author, and he goes on to look at the prospects for the post-Brereton investigation, the fact that Kerry Stokes is funding Ben Roberts-Smith’s defence, the alleged competing demands of having a fair trial and protecting ‘national security’, the suggestion that drones captured a lot of evidence in Afghanistan but the question where that evidence might be now, how all of this affects the morale of soldiers who did the right thing (will they wonder if their service was in vain?), politicians’ fears of political embarrassment, the question of how much senior officers knew of what was happening on their watch, and, finally, these concluding paragraphs:
Nothing much to commemorate or boast about, at the war memorial in particular, and certainly nothing justifying a high-cost low-rent military toy and medal theme park now being planned against the wishes of soldiers and most of the community. Afghanistan was a military, moral, social and economic disaster, having nothing whatever to do with freedom. It certainly has not secured it, and our involvement increased, not reduced, our exposure to Islamist terrorism. The $500 million indulgence to Kerry Stokes is but a down payment on the long-term cost to the nation, one which is the more terrible given the want of anything that could be called glory, or success and the shadow of war crimes trials. A vast toll of casualties, particularly men and women with post-traumatic stress syndrome, incredible suicide rates, give far better witness to the futility of war, and the long-term costs of our foolish, poorly led, military adventurism.
A fit subject for contemplation come Anzac Day.
Update 16 April 2021: With the war crimes unit getting to work, will Afghan victims be compensated and whistleblowers protected? And what is strange about the SAS?
Long article (‘Brereton’s unfinished business’) in Inside Story by Hamish McDonald. (Also in Inside Story insert in Canberra Times.) Takes the story beyond the Roberts-Smith ‘did he or didn’t he?’ angle to consider what happens next, including to the people who spoke up on what happened and for the people of Afghanistan, over whose country the war was (and still will be fought). Which raises the idea of ‘Other People’s Countries’ as a trope of Australia’s and America’s wars.
The piece also includes Peter Stanley talking about how the SAS is much different from Australian military forces of the past. And not much like the rest of us now, either.
Update 15 April 2021: ANU academic John Blaxland in The Conversation on whether Australia’s Afghanistan involvement was worth it
Incomplete strategy, niche contributions, high hopes dashed, says Blaxland, but some who went got to build their skills and experience, working closely with the Americans and using the latest military kit. Other options than the way it went could have been taken up during the 20 years but weren’t. Now, most of Australia’s work in civil reconstruction has been lost or will be, and there are traumatised veterans at home, victimised Afghans who helped the Allied forces, as well as refugees in Australia and elsewhere. Plus there is Brereton and its fallout, including what looks like serious tarnishing of the Anzac legend. It’s always difficult to talk about ‘sacrifice’ being in vain but we should in this case. See also Jared Mondschein in The Conversation.
Update 13 April 2021 updated: More revelations about alleged behaviour of Ben-Roberts Smith
Nine Newspapers. And again. And again. Sixty Minutes. Denial by Roberts-Smith. Roberts-Smith memorabilia and portraits to remain at War Memorial. William De Maria in Pearls & Irritations. Pip Hinman in Green Left. And again from Nine Newspapers. Canberra Times on new AFP probe, mentioned in Estimates. Crikey (paywall) but here’s a pdf from our subscription. Nine Newspapers on more legal wrangling.
Update 8 March 2021: Mark Willacy of ABC News reports on FOI material showing War Memorial Council support for Chair Stokes and attitude to the Memorial’s treatment of Afghanistan
The Council supported Stokes and set parameters for Director Anderson on Afghanistan post Brereton – just two days after shock jock Ben Fordham and PM Morrison had spoken out.
Update 17 December 2020: Former military intelligence officer, Lance Collins, writes that the ‘casual cruelty’ endemic to Australia is the background to the Brereton report
Dr Collins, former Lieutenant Colonel, with service in the Middle East and East Timor, writes for Pearls and Irritations. He looks at the background of Afghanistan history and says this about Australia:
The emphasis has been on the vile deeds of a few SAS soldiers – all too easily explained away as the usual suspects, “a few bad apples”. But the murderous sub-culture in the special forces should also be considered against a predisposition to aggression in Australian society all too frequently portrayed in terms of loud, bellicose masculinity …
Such is the casual cruelty in Australia today: against the powerless and asylum-seekers; in live animal exports, and the steadily rising trends in aggravated and sexual assaults; and where police are increasingly taking on the appearance of swaggering paramilitaries testing the limits of civil liberties, backed by ever more legislation aimed at association, demonstrations and privacy …
In Afghanistan, 41 Australians were killed and another 261 wounded. From 2001, more than 500 serving, reserve and ex-serving personnel have committed suicide. Figures on the number of avoidable Afghan deaths from 2001 vary. The Watson Institute at Brown University calculated 157,000 killed of whom more than 43,000 were civilians (Afghan Civilians | Costs of War (brown.edu)).
Update 16 December 2020: Historian and Vietnam veteran, Greg Lockhart: Heart of Darkness: Our expeditionary imperial culture and alleged war crimes in Afghanistan – and elsewhere
Writing in Pearls and Irritations, Lockhart says, ‘Afghanistan adds a war crimes scandal to the long string of disasters that have come home to roost in the casualties and geo-political defeats that line our strategic history from Gallipoli, to the Somme to the fall of Singapore and of Saigon’.
Update 15 December 2020: We have been here before: Vietnam and Afghanistan
Mia Martin Hobbs in Australian Policy and History 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.
Update 14 December 2020: War Memorial does not need extra space larger than the MCG to tell the truth about Afghanistan and all our wars
It would be a tragedy if Anderson were to be thwarted [in his truth-telling] but, at the same time, the proposed $498 million extension to the Memorial went ahead. It would then be a case of more and more space being devoted to telling the same old simple, how we fight, “what heroes we Aussies are”, sanitised story rather than venturing into new, more honest subject matter …
The Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley, should have rejected the Memorial’s heritage documentation rather than approving it under the EPBC Act. The PWC [parliamentary Public Works Committee] should report to the Parliament that there is no need for the project. Other options for the future of the Memorial should receive more than the cursory skim the Memorial has given them. Truth-telling at the Memorial does not need more space.
Update 14 December 2020: The essence of war is to kill
It is one thing to sit in Australia and debate the aims of the Afghanistan commitment. As the true stories behind previous military adventures emerge, we find continually that governments embellish the facts and twist the truth to suit their own agendas. They lie about requests for assistance from host countries and from great and powerful allies. The reason they do this is plain enough: because we accept the Anzac myth so unquestioningly, governments believe they can play this card at any time by sending troops overseas. It then becomes unpatriotic to question foreign policy because it might sow doubts in the minds of our brave troops. This is a nasty, cynical, and deadly use of propaganda by desperate politicians …
There is little merit in debating the pros and cons of Australia’s commitment to strategic terms while we are blinded by the Anzac myth.
Update 10 December 2020: Lawyer asks what responsibility does Defence ‘brass’ have for what happened in Afghanistan
Update 8 December 2020: Kellie Merritt writes from a personal perspective about the War Memorial and how it does commemoration
‘How we memorialise war and the way we recognise those who have died, survived and suffered through war is a deeply personal and also a collective understanding and responsibility.’ Kellie Merritt writes in Pearls and Irritations. She is a social worker for a non government organisation. She has been a committee member with the campaign group, Australians for War Power Reform. Kellie’s husband was killed in Iraq in 2005.
Update 7 December 2020: Two historians say the Anzac legend has blinded Australia to its war atrocities and it’s time for a reckoning
We see two possibilities for how the current crisis will play out. The first is the alleged war crimes will slowly be forgotten, just as previous atrocities have been.
There are already signs this is happening. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week said he remained “incredibly proud” of the ADF and emphasised that the alleged crimes were committed by “a small number in a very big defence force”. He maintained the reputation of the broader defence force would be unaffected.
The other possibility is Australia will adopt a more realistic attitude towards its soldiers and the conflicts they fight in.
These conflicts are complex, and rarely conducted without some descent into the moral abyss. Some of our soldiers are not good people, and those that are good are capable of lapses. War is an ugly business, and we pay a price for tethering it so tightly to our national self-image.
As historians of Australia’s war experiences, we hope and wish for a national reckoning about our record of war atrocities. But as historians of Anzac, we anticipate that the great mythological behemoth will barely sway from its course in the face of these allegations.
Update 3 December 2020: Former War Memorial Director, Brendon Kelson, on ABC Podcast calls for truth-telling to apply to all Memorial exhibits, not just those about SAS and Afghanistan
Notes from the Podcast. Kelson hopes there is a mood for truth-telling at the Memorial in the future. There has been too much sanitising at the Memorial during its history. He commends Director Anderson and Minister Chester in this regard for their recent remarks. (More: update 2 December.) We need, however, to apply truth-telling to all the Memorial’s exhibitions. Talking about why we went into wars and the aftermath of them is the beginning of truth-telling.
Update 2 December 2020: Political intervention in Brereton response seen to extend to War Memorial as well as to Meritorious Unit Citation; and a piece on command responsibility
Andrew Galloway in Nine Newspapers picks up the theme emerging in the 1 December entry below.
By rolling Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell over his pledge to strip meritorious service awards from thousands of Australian special forces troops who served in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister has demonstrated he will override the military if he feels it is not getting the politics right.
But, it looks like the War Memorial is caught also:
Morrison had already shown a willingness to participate in the debate about how to acknowledge the Brereton inquiry when he promised the Australian War Memorial council would have “oversight” of any move to reference the alleged war crimes, despite its director saying curators and historians would be given free rein to address the dark chapter.
Notes, too, the error that people are making that the initiative on the Citation would have meant thousands of individuals losing their medals:
[A]s Brereton pointed out, collective awards are for collective performance; their granting – or their revocation – is not a comment on an individual soldier’s performance.
The government seems not to have corrected the error. (Update 5 December 2020: individuals wear insignia or ribbon).
Then, academics Paul Taucher and from Murdoch University write in The Conversation about how senior Australian officers need to face some degree of accountability for any crimes allegedly committed by special forces in Afghanistan. This seems to be how the Prime Minister sees it.
The Defence Force has foreshadowed there will likely be administrative punishment for some officers, including possible demotions, stripping of medals or removal from service.
This is a start. However, Campbell and the rest of the Defence Force leadership need to begin a serious discussion about the accountability and responsibility of commanding officers in the military as they move forward from the Brereton report.
Update 1 December 2020: Government walks back the CDF decision to take away Meritorious Unit Citation from Special Forces. Is this a hint of what might happen to Afghanistan coverage at the War Memorial?
As discussed and foreshadowed by Michelle Grattan (entry for 30 November below) it seems the members of the Special Operations Task Group who served in Afghanistan are not to lose their Meritorious Unit Citation. The issues are discussed widely in media, for example, Michelle Grattan in The Conversation again, and Josh Butler in the New Daily. Plus Georgia Wilkins in Crikey looks at the powerful forces helping to walk back the decision.
There are arguments on both sides and there has been a furore and a petition. It’s worth speculating, however, whether something similar might happen at and to the War Memorial, where Director Anderson has suggested a wider view of Afghanistan is coming – the bad as well as the mostly good – but there have been warning shots fired by at least one shock jock and by the Prime Minister. Extracted from earlier post below: Update 25 November 2020: more from Director Anderson; Ben Fordham of 2GB is upset. PM responds. Anderson responds. More.
Update 30 November 2020: wide-ranging commentary, particularly in non-Mainstream Media (more to come)
If politicians want to see the military and our veterans respected then they should keep their distance and encourage an honest appraisal of Australia’s involvement in war, which since World War II has been mainly as an uncritical ally of the US in theatres where the lines were often blurred.
The uncovering of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, thanks to whistleblowers, the media and the integrity of Defence officials, is precisely why some have argued against former Memorial director Brendon Nelson’s push for the institution to expand so it can have the space to tell contemporary stories.
Michelle Grattan in The Conversation (‘How will ADF chief react if government insists Special Operations Task Group should keep citation?’) speculates whether stripping of Meritorious Unit Citation will go ahead.
Since at least the Vietnam War, Australia has been much too ready to follow the United States into conflicts which we should have avoided. We should have avoided those conflicts including because, in no particular order, Australian interests were not sufficiently at stake to justify intervention, in some cases, the intervention was likely illegal, the intervention was based on lies and deceptions, insufficient effort had been made to find alternatives to conflict, we partnered in the theatre of war with brutal strong men who were not obviously the white hats in the conflict, or in their own countries, there was no clear objective in the intervention, there was not a proper appreciation or assessment of the prospects of attaining whatever political or other objective was stated, we and our allies fundamentally misunderstood the situation in which we all elected to get involved, and there was no proper appreciation or assessment of the cultural and political environment of the intervention, which led almost inevitably to massive unintended negative consequences.
In Australia, LNP Governments have repeatedly committed troops to other people’s wars. Our Governments have been ever prepared to make speeches on Anzac Day and to take advantage of surprise battledress photo opportunities to Afghanistan or wherever, but they have fallen down badly in their OH&S obligations to the people they have sent to fight. They have failed both in terms of ensuring that exposure to the risks of e.g. PTSD are minimized; and that at all stages – to the end of life of the veteran – those veterans are given the very best of support that a wealthy country can provide. That remains the situation …
Fortunately, we live in a country where the military is subservient to the political leaders. Our Prime Ministers and other senior Ministers must bear the greatest responsibility for atrocious decisions to involve us in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. They have shown repeatedly that they are not up to the task.
Fall-out from the Afghanistan war crimes investigation will stain the Australian Army for years. The spotlight of blame very quickly has increased its glare to illuminate not only the privates, NCOs and junior officers directly involved, but also the higher commanders who failed in their leadership responsibilities. That’s as it should be.
But there’s another, pivotal element to this whole shocking business that’s gone largely unremarked. And that’s the ‘strategy’ of counter-insurgency warfare that our soldiers in Afghanistan have been supposed to execute.
For sixty years, the chorus line of soldier/scholars who populate our universities, academies, institutes and the media have been telling our politicians that we can win counter-insurgency wars, and for sixty years they’ve been wrong.
It still seems more than passing strange that, during the nine years between 2007 and 2016 examined by the Inquiry, no officer at the command and staff levels all the way to CDF, Minister for Defence and Prime Minister had a serious idea of what happened …
All those expressions add up to something more than the ‘arse covering’, ‘politically correct’, ‘stage-managed’ military command culture of ‘cover up’ often described for good reasons in the media. The central point is, indeed, that they add up to the larger problem of a self-serving command culture that has normalised self-deception within a wider set of societal and political norms…
Let us hope, at least, that the important work of the Brereton Inquiry will now boost the important work of Paul Barratt’s War Powers Reform Group. This Group has long been calling for parliamentary control of any decisions Australians make to go to war.
This would mean prime ministers working in secret with one or two others will no longer be able to send the country to war for private reasons. Such a change should force us to think about whether or not prospective wars have anything to do with the national interest. Rather than require our generals to be obedient political cyphers, parliament might also encourage cultural change by turning to them for professional advice.
For other Greg Lockhart material, search Pearls and Irritations or use the Honest History search engine for material on our site.
A Lockheed missile blows up a bus full of Yemeni children; in Australia Lockheed Martin gains kudos by sponsoring the National Youth Science Forum. BAE Systems sponsors underprivileged kids in Australia while being complicit in the killing of thousands of needy children in Yemen. All you see in industry marketing pitches is euphemism, with nary a mention of the word “weapons”.
This piece linked here to remind us of context: the ‘culture’ that normalises unnecessary military involvements, that sanitises how we promote and commemorate them, and that makes heroes out of men and women who are as much victims, is also the culture that apparently sees nothing wrong with gunrunners picking up brownie points by donating tiny proportions of their revenue to worthy causes.
For other work by Michelle Fahy, search Pearls and Irritations, Michael West Media, and use the Honest History search engine.
One of the best analyses we have seen of the many facets of this tragic story. Covers what Afghanistan was like, Brereton’s methodology and what might happen next, force structure, culture, effectiveness, management – and what commanders knew. But most importantly, from this website’s point of view, how Brereton should change the way we view the Anzac legend.
Nicholas Stuart also wrote this piece in the Canberra Times. And here’s another view on a possible useful future Anzac legend. And an earlier post on the War Memorial and Afghanistan.
Update 28 November 2020: commentary and vox pop – and Peter FitzSimons (probably some pay-walls)
Yes, Brereton appears to have the goods on a small number of psychopaths. Over the coming years some of these men might be dragged off to jail. Others may never get their appointment with justice and, of course, some may get off.
That will not be the end of it by any means. Huge questions will continue to menace us. Who trained them? Who looked the other way? Who lawyered up the incident reports? Who rebuffed soldier-whistleblowers when they brought stories to the chain of command? Who failed to support the young SAS captains from the bullying of the battle-blistered corporals and sergeants? Who were the commanders (majors and above) who failed to challenge reports from the field? Who were the commanders who valourised the warrior culture?
Sydney Morning Herald letters and Canberra Times poll (page 43): ‘Should the Australian War Memorial’s SAS exhibition acknowledge war crimes allegedly committed in Afghanistan?’ 66 per cent of 535 polled say ‘Yes’.
Peter FitzSimons in Nine Newspapers makes a link between ‘the monster’ Breaker Morant and more recent possible war crimes:
When it comes to the SAS allegations, let the process take its course but invoking Breaker Morant in support of the accused is outrageous. And I offer a prima facie salute of deep respect to those within the SAS who have risked everything to write their own j’accuse.
If your allegations are proven, you are the ones who truly honour what the rest of us understand as the Anzac tradition of decency and honour.
Military historian Tom Richardson reviews FitzSimons’ book in Nine Newspapers and gives it a mixed report. ‘Still, for all its flaws, Breaker Morant might be FitzSimons’ most valuable book to date.’ FitzSimons on Late Night Live with Phillip Adams. For other Honest History reviews of FitzSimons’ books, and commentary on his work, use our Search engine.
There is no foundation myth more heavily entrenched, perhaps even overused in the Australian psyche, than that of Anzac and Gallipoli. It says a lot about us that we tend to see it as an Australian experience.
Update 27 November 2020: commentary
The [War Memorial] council is chaired by Kerry Stokes, a businessman who has undertaken to help SAS members accused of war crimes and is currently bank-rolling a defamation action against Nine (owner of this masthead) by Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith. Professor Peter Stanley, the War Memorial’s former principal historian and a leading military historian, has called on Stokes to resign, arguing that he is “discredited by his uncritical association with the accused”. The council also includes former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott. Otherwise, its governing body comprises mainly military or ex-military personnel. There is nobody with specialist historical or museum expertise.
Update 26 November: commentary continues
The ANZAC legend itself makes it easier for governments to go to war and makes it difficult for sceptics to carry out appropriate assessment when the diggers return. War is thereby normalised as something which we Australians routinely engage in and we always acquit ourselves well. How rarely we engage in serious assessment of what our assorted wars have achieved.
To restrict the focus just to those servicemen accused of war crimes would be a mistake, as would too narrow a focus on the military itself.
We must probe more deeply. The deeper questions are about the role of the military in Australian society and culture. The military has a special place in Australia’s DNA. The country rides on its back. War itself has been accorded a special place, too, in the story of Australia’s coming of age as a nation. This makes the task of investigating personal, cultural and organisational deficiencies in the military during wartime, and perhaps bringing individuals to trial, especially difficult.
Heritage Guardian, former president of Honest History, and former War Memorial historian, Peter Stanley, says Memorial Council Chairman Stokes should stand down over his public and private support for soldiers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Stokes, says Stanley, has been ‘discredited’.
Professor Stanley said the War Memorial’s expansion should also be halted because of the actions of Mr Stokes and former director Brendan Nelson in publicly supporting soldiers accused of war crimes.
He said he did not believe the War Memorial should rush to put up exhibits acknowledging the Brereton report because the allegations had not yet moved to prosecutions or convictions.
He said any premature move to acknowledge the report would be repeating the mistakes the War Memorial made in putting up an exhibit about the Afghanistan War when the conflict was still ongoing.
Also quotes from Professor Frank Bongiorno, and from the Prime Minister on the Memorial’s proposal to give a broad coverage of Brereton.
On that last point this, extracted from our 19 November post below and augmented:
The new Director, Mr Matt Anderson, has promised a different approach, having the Memorial looking at the ‘why?’ and ‘what difference?’ questions (pdf from our subscription). We shall see. (Update 20 November 2020: Memorial is to look at Brereton and see how to work it in. (Hansard of Mr Anderson’s Senate committee appearance is here.)
Update 25 November 2020: commentary continues
Katina Curtis in The Age had more on the War Memorial’s future plans to cover all aspects of Afghanistan. Ben Fordham in 2GB complains about plans for a ‘hall of shame’ at the Memorial. Prime Minister hoses it down, stressing there is a sensible Council in place, and it is early days yet.
That period [recent years] has coincided with the war memorial becoming something more akin to a giant military theme park than a solemn place of commemoration, with major defence and surveillance companies queueing up to be “corporate partners”. That has culminated in the absurdly over-the-top half-billion dollar “philistine vandalism” of the memorial — to use the words of another former director — initiated by former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson when AWM director.
The gates of accountability, in other words, stop before Parliament, The Lodge and Kirribilli House. They lie in military ‘structures’, not political decisions that led to 20 rotations involving 3,000 personnel in a seemingly interminable war that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared was neither won, nor lost. The report states as much: ‘It was not a risk [the unlawful killings] to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted. Ministers were briefed that the task was manageable. The responsibility lies in the Australian Defence Force, not with the government of the day.’
Update 24 November 2020: commentary continues
Rather than embodying Charles Bean’s vision of a solemn temple of reflection honouring service and sacrifice – ‘Here is their spirit’- over time, the Australian War Memorial has morphed into a theme park of war souvenirs, half-truths and omissions …
The corruption of the AWM’s vision can be seen as a contributing factor to the toxic culture that ultimately infected our combat forces in Afghanistan. Any path to redemption must, therefore, include reforming the Memorial. Three relatively straightforward changes would have an immediate, positive and far-reaching effect. Cancel the $500 million extension; replace the current Council with a representative selection of Australians; and tell the true story of our war experiences.
Australia has prostrated itself for too long at the altar of Anzac mythology at the expense of other national foundation truths …
Canvasses many reasons for this Anzac hero-worship and concludes:
Is it any wonder, given all this, that a small group of mostly young vainglorious specialist soldiers could come to believe their own shit to such an extent it mutated into such unforgivable (alleged) violence? To see themselves as beyond the laws of warfare, beyond answerability to their comrades, beyond any obligation to humanity when they ventured beyond the wire?
So, as everyone asks, “who is responsible?”, let us just pause and use this moment to reconsider how the nation has come to shroud our military and all its actions, now and since colonisation, in some all-mitigating exceptionalism.
What has just happened is a potential watershed. A crossroads. A chance to alter direction.
[Dr Brendan] Nelson said some time ago of alleged special forces war crimes, “We want to believe in our heroes.”
If that’s so, it’s high time we were much more careful about who we venerate in the first place.
Update 23 November 2020: still more commentary (some pay-walls)
Nick McKenzie on Sixty Minutes interviews Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Burr, on aspects of the Brereton report and the fallout. General Burr is also an ex officio member of the Australian War Memorial Council and says he will continue there. (He said he is an ‘invited’ member but the Memorial’s Annual Report 2019-20 shows he attended all four meetings of the Council during that year, as did the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Noonan, and the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Hupfeld, also ex officio members.) He made no comment on potential Stokes conflict of interest: being Chair and being seen to back those who are potentially undermining what the Memorial commemorates.
McKenzie, Masters and Galloway in Nine Newspapers on how the silence was cracked by Brereton’s work.
The war in Afghanistan was one that many Australians had lost track of. It had dragged on for 15 years after the September 11 attacks first led to a Western coalition invading the battle-weary nation. As the war’s progress stagnated, the bravery of individual elite special forces soldiers on capture and kill missions informed the public narrative pushed by defence and successive governments. Much of it was true.
But while Brereton’s inquiry would concentrate on the actions of a relatively small number of soldiers who allegedly went rogue – 25 soldiers are allegedly responsible for 39 murders – it would inevitably risk tainting Australia’s entire Afghan contribution.
Our political leadership will never be the subjects of the Office of the Special Investigator or the Australian Federal Police, nor, therefore, will they ever be charged. Indeed, in their exaggerated innocence they will display only the inevitable hypocrisy of the failed war-maker: a passion for condemning others and a total unwillingness to accept responsibility for their role in their crimes.
It will take more than the odd press conference to renew the once honourable reputation of our diggers – who, Campbell rightly says, are just as horrified as the rest of us at what has been revealed and the tarnishing of their prized names.
So it is to the credit of the ADF and the SAS, and to the media, the whistleblowers and all the investigators, and yes, to the politicians, that the disasters have been confronted openly and firmly, and there is a determination to deal with it. The swamp has not yet been drained, but a genuine start has been made. And for this, at least, Australians can be justly proud.
A balanced coverage but an interesting concluding paragraph or so:
How to adequately acknowledge this stain on Australia’s military history at a place that mostly lauds it? Apart from the wide-reaching ramifications for the ADF and for Australia’s narrative surrounding the country’s role in overseas conflicts, the report and its findings have made the chief justification for the memorial’s expansion a far darker and more complex proposition.
It could well end up undermining it altogether.
What the Brereton report reveals, however, is that the government’s strategy in Afghanistan was bankrupt. It relied, critically, on special forces teams taking out enemy commanders. They weren’t. Instead a corrosive, separate and deadly culture was allowed to develop in the white compound that was wired off and forbidden to journalists in the base at Tarin Kot. We knew something was happening there but no idea what …
Will prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott be cross-examined and questioned? How it was that our forces were committed to an impossible war? Who accepted that executions would be embedded into policy? Look in the mirror. Can you really absolve yourself from any blame for what happened?
Update 22 November 2020: catching up with further commentary (some pay-walls)
Certainly over the past four years, while the Brereton report has been compiled, and stories have been published detailing some of the alleged actions of Australians in Afghanistan, there have been strident defenders of the special forces and critics of those who have raised concerns about their conduct.
Criticising reporting about allegations against decorated former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, who has denied those allegations and is suing media organisations for defamation, then head of the war memorial and former defence minister Brendan Nelson said in 2018: “War is a messy business … but as far as I’m concerned, unless there have been the most egregious breaches of laws of armed conflict, we should leave it all alone”.
Dr Nelson wouldn’t offer comment on Thursday, though there is no suggestion he too wouldn’t be appalled by what he had read.
It’s the “leaving it all alone” aspect – and to be fair, even after today there will be those who retain the view that what happens in combat should stay in combat – that warrants discussion here.
Our shame must embrace an Australian War Memorial – which not so innocently – turned some of the players into cult heroes, and accused anyone asking questions of undermining men and women simply doing their duty. It must do more than “deal fairly” with the accusations. It must fundamentally reorder its display.
Politicians and ministers are specifically exonerated. The failure was in the ADF, operational not political. But Brereton is again too kind. The culture was nurtured by political failures: ill-defined war aims, not telling what was actually wanted beyond puff pieces fed to a generally tame Defence media. The soldiers knew that no one – least of all in Canberra, cared. It’s not easy to continually put your life on the line in such a cause.
Brendan Nelson, who as minister for defence was party to sending them there, as war memorial director chief cheerleader for the SAS warrior culture, and now representative of the foreign arms industry that kills people on all sides, should be the first to show his shame. He, and his enabling board should disappear from public life.
Those who will not be put on trial as a result of investigations into Australian operations in Afghanistan will be those most responsible – the ministers who committed Australian troops to a protracted war where our forces could not readily distinguish friend from foe.
Equally disturbing is the attitude of the Australian War Memorial Chair, Kerry Stokes, vowing to help any soldiers accused of war crimes. He has already extended a $1.9 million loan to Ben Roberts-Smith to cover his legal costs in possible legal actions.
The Australia War Memorial’s role is to commemorate sacrifice and service and to help us remember. It is not to glorify war and war toys as with its planned expansion. Nor is it the role of the Chair, any Council member or former Director, such as Brendan Nelson, to effectively insert themselves into the chain of command by attempting to influence the outcome – and make no mistake money supporting legal costs can be a significant influence – of legal actions against soldiers …
The legal processes should be allowed to continue without interference in any way. If Kerry Stokes wants to get involved he is entitled to – but, if he does, he should also step aside from his role at the Australian War Memorial.
Mr Morrison also said he was “puzzled” by criticisms levelled against Australian War Memorial chairman Kerry Stokes who has vowed to support members of the Special Air Service Regiment accused of war crimes by using a special fund set up two decades ago to bankroll legal costs.
Update 21 November 2020: further commentary (some pay-walls)
Former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, tells Nine Newspapers the War Memorial Council should be cleaned out and displays of SAS exploits pulled.
Mr Barrie said the council should be “fundamentally changed” because of the connection between their push for a controversial $500 million expansion of the institution and Mr Stokes’ support for the SAS.
“They all need to go. That’s something the government can do tomorrow,” Mr Barrie said. “Kerry Stokes is paying the money to defend Ben Roberts-Smith, and is a chair of the War Memorial council.”
The Government has committed half a billion dollars to expanding the Australian War Memorial at the cost of our cultural institutions like the National Gallery and National Museum which face funding cuts.
The expansion plans, overseen by former Memorial head Brendan Nelson, sound a little sick now, as they were justified as being necessary to better tell the story of modern conflict. There’s just a tad of Disneyland about it all, with the plans to house “planes, helicopters and armoured vehicles” inside galleries.
Lots of links to other ABC articles, including by Mark Willacy (who has won a Walkley for his coverage):
The men of the SAS and commandos have been held up as heroes and role models by our political leaders, and some have been showered with awards and decorations. Yet, here were some of them — a small minority, it has to be said — being accused of the most heinous of crimes, including the murder of innocents.
Tweet this morning by David Stephens of Heritage Guardians:
#honesthistory Anzackery, built around simple stories of ‘heroes’ & ‘service & sacrifice’, lies beneath billionaire Stokes @AWMemorial hobby, his & former Dir. Nelson’s support for SAS, & desire to build $498m Brendanbunker to do same stuff bigger & better. Time to pull the plug.
What matters is our complicity in these killings — not the suddenness of battlefield deaths, or accidents, or even heat-of-the-moment stuff, but the terror of death and the pain of torture meted out to teenagers, slow and grinding, under cover of a pointless war the Coalition had no moral concern over (by the Coalition’s very nature) but that Labor could have got us out of at any point between 2007 and 2013.
Now rendered as accusation, as confession, for us to consider at our leisure, or bury beneath a half-billion-dollar war memorial, and the shouting and the trumpets of our annual “mateship” celebrations.
Update 20 November 2020: some commentary on the release of the Brereton report (some pay-walls)
Paul Daley in Guardian Australia: ‘[T]he Brereton report highlights the folly of the [Australian War] memorial exhibiting on contemporary and current combat operations while the dust of battle is lingering. Only time, consideration of the full record and diligent history can bring real perspective. Let the researchers and the curators do their work properly. The hot take – as the memorial has demonstrated – is worthless for its glaring omissions when held up to the unflinching eye amid full exposure.’
Phil Coorey in Australian Financial Review (paywall): ‘Today, the Australian War Memorial is in line for a controversial $500 million upgrade so it can tell the stories of modern conflicts such as Afghanistan – which, due to the secrecy of the Australian Defence Force, we’ve never really known much about.’
‘Getting beyond “our heroes”: a War Memorial angle on possible war crimes’, Honest History, 19 November 2020 updated
It will be for others to parse at length, and closely, the Brereton report, and follow what happens next, probably over a long time (see links above for the first burst). Honest History does not claim to have tracked every phase of the story, but we have kept an eye on the approach taken by the Australian War Memorial to the Afghanistan War and possible war crimes there. (Long-term followers will know that the Memorial and how it does things has been a sharp focus of the Honest History and Heritage Guardians enterprises.)
Our incomplete collection is here, under the title, ‘Specially Forced? Odd outburst from Director of Australian War Memorial’, reflecting that our interest was first piqued in November 2017 by the strong support by the then Memorial Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, for his close friend, Ben Roberts-Smith VC. (Dr Nelson was critical of the time being taken by the inquiry instituted by then Chief of Army, now Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell.) Mr Roberts-Smith has been since 2015 an employee of Kerry Stokes, chairman of SevenWest Media and of the War Memorial Council.
Dr Nelson’s activity to 2018 was summarised in this Age piece by Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters. Dr Nelson asked rhetorically more than once where lay the national interest in ‘tearing down our heroes’. Meanwhile, Mr Stokes has paid $1.9m worth of legal bills for Mr Roberts-Smith’s defamation actions (pdf from our subscription).
In 2017-18 the Memorial ran a temporary exhibition, ‘From the Shadows: Australia’s Special Forces’ (‘Their activities are secret. Their missions are classified. Their identities are protected.’) A large portrait of Mr Roberts-Smith, ‘Pistol Grip’, by Michael Zavros, originally unveiled in 2014, hung at the entrance to the exhibition area.
Zavros observed [on the Memorial’s page about the painting] that when he asked Roberts-Smith to pose in a fighting stance, “He went to this whole other mode. He was suddenly this other creature and I immediately saw all these other things. It showed me what he is capable of … it was just there in this flash.”
The ‘heroes’ that Dr Nelson admired are the epitome of the Memorial’s sharp focus – pretty much unchanged for nearly 80 years – on how Australians fight, not on why they do or with what effects. The heroes are the best and the bravest at fighting.
One of the best summaries of what is not properly addressed by the ‘heroes’ approach is by historian of the Vietnam War and former soldier, Greg Lockhart:
In brief, the shining Roberts-Smith VC brand helps the state to normalise and glamorise for public consumption the bloody strategy that has driven the endless string of unwinnable wars in support of the US alliance anywhere in the world in the hope that the alliance will provide us with eternal security in our region …
In misusing his official position to berate the media for “tearing down our heroes”, Dr Nelson has probably empathised with Roberts-Smith and can be seen to have incorporated the relaxed AWM approach to Australian breaches of the law of war. As the head of that public institution, which plays a crucial role in nurturing the dependent culture of our alliance strategy, he has also had a political interest in making Roberts-Smith a contemporary Anzac star. The implications of his outburst are not then limited to its support for hobbling media freedom and weakening legal constraints on improper violence in military culture. They include a defence of hero worship that distracts us from discussing burning questions about how and why we go to war.
This complex set of issues – ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what for’, as well as ‘how well’ – is something that the cheer-leading of the former Director only occasionally addressed. The new Director, Mr Matt Anderson, has promised a different approach, having the Memorial looking at the ‘why?’ and ‘what difference?’ questions (pdf from our subscription). We shall see. (Update 20 November 2020: Memorial is to look at Brereton and see how to work it in. (Hansard of Mr Anderson’s Senate committee appearance is here.) Update 25 November 2020: more from Director Anderson; Ben Fordham of 2GB is upset.
The broader question of whether we should go to war as often as we do and for such dubious pretexts should be addressed also. If governments did not make unwise decisions about starting and persisting with overseas deployments, soldiers would not be put in positions where some of them commit war crimes.
Meanwhile, the recent Jon Kudelka cartoon above reminds us from the War Memorial angle that everything is connected to everything else. Nelson and Stokes over the same time period spruiked for the Memorial project and defended Roberts-Smith against war crimes allegations.
For other material on Afghanistan, use our Search engine with the search term ‘Afghanistan’. This review of a Chris Masters video set may be of particular interest.
* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians campaign against the proposed $498m redevelopment of the War Memorial. None of the above suggests or implies that any individual is guilty of a war crime or war crimes.