The biggest news story in Australia today is the reported findings by Justice Paul Brereton that 29 current or former Special Forces operatives committed war crimes in Afghanistan, including the murder of 39 non-combatants or POWs. This will no doubt shock the public in a country where soldiers have been placed on a pedestal ever since our lacklustre efforts in Gallipoli, but it will definitely vindicate those brave few who have dared to question our hero worship of killers or, ever rarer, the culture of the killers themselves.
If you discount 1788, this country has never been invaded. We have always involved ourselves in conflicts which arguably had nothing to do with us. Whether answering the call of Empire or brown-nosing to the US, our soldiers have practiced their dark arts exclusively on foreign soil since our earliest days. We take perverse national pride in how effective we are at killing people in their own countries, and every 25th April commemorate the killers who didn’t come home from killing predominantly ill-educated, poorly trained and equipped men, women and children overseas.
Sorry for using the ‘c’ word, I know it’s un-Australian. Just spare me the theatre: the head-shaking, furrow-browed looks of disbelief and disappointment that we’re getting from the top echelons of the military right now. As every current or ex-soldier will tell you, nothing happens on the ground that command and control don’t know about. So when looking for scapegoats (already begun) why not start with a few grey scalps from the top. The wilfully blind guys. The digger who ended an Afghani in a grassy field back in 2012 will get his day in court; how many troop captains (let alone squad majors) will ever face a jury?
Yes, that’s cynicism. As a former MP we were constantly pulling diggers out of pubs for serious assaults. Rarely — never, in fact, in my four years as an MP — was anyone charged. Soldiers love going the knuckle with locals who want to test their skills, but when the call went out for a commando or possible Tier 1 SF operative tossing yokels around the front bar, we waited for backup. Depending on their BAC, there was always a chance the operative might not take a knee. Even with seven years of martial arts behind me, wrestling a guy trained to kill with his bare hands was a task. They might spend a month polishing taps at DFCE Holsworthy, but no soldier in my time ever saw the inside of civvy gaol.
I know what ‘dead ground’ means: it’s that place in every barracks where cover and concealment permit very bad things to happen to those who ‘go jack’ on their mates. In this cult of complicity, what an you expect when soldiers who get green-lighted at home are taken off-leash on deployment? Especially with a nod from above to consider the entire shithole country as dead ground? By the time Operation Slipper kicked off I would have been a soldier for six years and primed for a tour or two. Lucky to get out when I did. So while this reckoning is welcome, it’s decades overdue, and I strongly doubt it will go anywhere near the top.
Lest we forget.