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Australia’s Worrying Reaction to the Special Forces War Crimes Report

CJ Werleman reports on how the Australian right-wing press appears to be minimising the shocking murder of 39 Afghans

Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) General Angus Campbell delivers the findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry. Photo: MICK TASIKAS/AAP/PA Images

Australia’s Worrying Reactionto theSpecial Forces War Crimes Report

CJ Werleman reports on how the Australian right-wing press appears to be minimising the shocking murder of 39 Afghans

A four-year exhaustive inquiry into alleged war crimes by Australian Special Forces operators in Afghanistan reached a damning conclusion on Thursday – that members of the country’s most elite units committed up to 39 murders, leaving 19 current and former soldiers facing criminal investigation, probable prosecution and stripping them of their medals.

There’s no question this episode leaves an indelible stain on Australia’s international reputation, one that’s already been dinged in recent times by its criminal mistreatment of refugees, refusal to address ongoing injustices against indigenous minorities, and obstruction of global climate action on behalf of its all-powerful mining and gas sector.

How the Australian Government and public responds to these findings, however, will go a long way to assessing the country’s moral character and commitment to international law, humanitarian law and democracy itself, a genuine challenge due to the anchoring role ANZAC mythology plays in the formation of the country’s national identity.

The coming months and years promise to be a national exercise in self-examination like none that has come before it in recent times, one Australia’s Rupert Murdoch dominated news media landscape will go out of its way to ensure the country fails, as it readies itself to excuse the butchering of innocent Afghan men, women and children with odes to the “fog of war” and “heat of battle,” but I will come to that in a moment.

The report released by military chief Angus Campbell found there was credible evidence in which one or more non-combatants were murdered from a total of 23 incidents, alongside other incidents in which soldiers summarily executed detainees and prisoners.

“When what the inquiry has found is taken collectively, the answer to the question, ‘Is there substance to rumours of war crimes by elements of the Special Operations Task group’ must sadly be, ‘Yes, there is’,” said NSW supreme court of appeal justice Paul Brereton, whose name is attached to the findings known as the Brereton Report.

The Possibility of Prosecutions

The full classified report will remain private for now, with the findings passed onto the Australian Federal Police and Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, but what has been disclosed thus far can only be described as graphic, horrific and deeply disturbing, with current and former soldiers testifying to have witnessed team members kill Afghan civilians “for sport” within a culture of impunity, including evidence patrol commanders demanded junior soldiers shoot detainees to achieve their first kill, in practice known as “blooding”.

Kicking detainees from cliffs to their deaths, slitting the throats of young Afghan boys and dumping their bodies into a river, and executing unarmed farmers in their fields are some of the known cases, with the enquiry finding no evidence any of these murders could be dismissed under the excuses – “heat of battle” or “fog of war”.

“The criminal behaviour of a few as commenced, committed, continued and concealed at the patrol commander level,” the inquiry found, including evidence soldier were involved in “site exploitation pornography,” or the practice of concealing deliberate and unlawful killings by placing weapons and other equipment alongside Afghan bodies.

Clearly, there’s a leadership crisis within the ranks of Australia’s most elite forces, but it’s equally clear these criminal and heinous actions represent the actions of a tiny minority of the thousands who have served in Afghanistan under the command of Special Air Services (SAS) and Commando regiments.

“We believe in the same legal principles that underpin the very fabric of Australian society, something that we have sworn to defend with our lives,” reads a joint statement signed by 12 former and current members of Australia’s SAS Regiment. “We support the removal from the regiment and legal prosecution of anyone found guilty of breaching the laws of armed conflict, the Geneva Convention or the rules of engagement. We outright reject and despise criminality in all its forms, especially in the context of soldiering”.

But whereas Australia’s military community welcomes a cleaning out of its ranks, the country’s right-wing media most definitely does not.

Reaction in Australia

Last night, Alan Jones, the former Australian Rugby coach and now Murdoch news standard-bearer for outrageous know-nothing-ism, racism, xenophobia and anti-science, attempted to steer criticism away from the country’s rogue and criminal soldiers by shifting blame to “woke pseudo-generals and media pundits” and lawyers who “poured over every contact [with the enemy] and shot fired”.

His defence of criminality and murder now echoes across social media platforms by those who take their moral and ethical cues from morally and ethically challenged individuals, specifically those employed by Rupert Murdoch to pollute the body politick with predictable divisiveness. 

On the Sydney Morning Herald’s Facebook page, a clear majority of posters expressed sympathy for the soldiers but disgust for the politicians who sent them to Afghanistan, with one posting: “Just leave these guys alone. They were put in extraordinary circumstances where they didn’t know friend or foe. They are heroes.” Another cried: “What a joke…fighting an enemy that has no rules and expecting soldiers risking their lives to fill in a questionnaire before shooting”.

Others were even more sanguine, calling the inquiry a “joke,” “embarrassment” [to the investigators] and “usual leftist do-gooder garbage”.

This kind of observation was typical of hundreds of comments posted under the article relevant to the Brereton Report, leaving one to wonder how each would reply were the roles reversed, with a foreign army invading, occupying and then slitting the throats of unarmed and non-threatening suburban Aussie kids. I very much doubt they’d invoke the “fog of war”.

It’s for this reason the alleged guilty parties must be prosecuted and charged under the full weight of civilian law. Murder is murder, whether the victim be an Afghan child over there or Australian citizen here – the rules of war, Geneva Convention and international law are meant be what separates the “us” from “them,” otherwise what would law-abiding Australian soldiers have fought and died for?

Australia must act like the world is watching, because it most definitely and measurably is.

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