In early June 2018, The Age published extracts from a confidential defence inquiry into allegations of war crimes committed by cliques of elite Special Air Service Regiment soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
The report, which described “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations” compounded by a “disregard for human life and dignity”, was authored by sociologist Samantha Crompvoets and backed by incoming defence force chief Angus Campbell.
An unsettling compilation of eyewitness accounts of summary executions and other atrocities, the report relied on the testimony of principled SAS soldiers troubled that a small number of their own had taken the law into their own hands. It set off a chain of events that led to the extraordinary admission by General Campbell on Thursday that there is “credible information” 19 Australian soldiers murdered 39 innocent people.
General Campbell was speaking after finally releasing the public version of another damning report into SAS misconduct by the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force, retired judge Paul Brereton, who describes a “disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations”. Arguing officers higher up the chain of command should bear a "moral command responsibility" for a culture of compliance and cover-up within the Perth-based SAS, Justice Brereton says none of the alleged war crimes were committed “under pressure in the heat of battle”.
The crimes described in both reports aren’t just a failure of military standards. They amount to a betrayal of all Australians who are rightly proud of the bravery and professionalism of the overwhelming majority of our armed forces. Good men and women deployed in conflict zones are now in even greater danger due to the risk of retaliation. And the moral authority of an entire nation has been diminished.
The Age believes the release of the Brereton report is not a resolution. Rather, it is another step along a dark road. It began with Dr Crompvoets interviewing SAS whistleblowers and now leads to more investigations, criminal prosecutions and compensation payouts to the families of Afghan victims that will take years to play out in the courts. Along the way service medals are likely to be revoked. The mental health of SAS whistleblowers will be further tested. And the assessment of Australia’s involvement in the 19-year-old Afghanistan war, including the over-deployment of troops, will change, almost certainly for the worse.
In many respects it is a minor miracle the alleged war crimes are now on the public record given Australian legal officers in Afghanistan regularly ignored or whitewashed the complaints of locals and human rights groups asking about dead or missing loved ones. It was only after brave SAS insiders told their stories to Dr Crompvoets, or journalists such The Age's Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters, that rumour and speculation crystallised into an official investigation. This masthead is proud of the key role it played in exposing SAS wrongdoing, including its coverage of Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, whose alleged war crimes have been referred to federal police. It’s not easy telling an unpopular story even when it is in the public interest and other media outlets have attempted to discredit our reporting rather than examine the evidence.
Australians are rightfully sceptical about their leaders taking responsibility. But General Campbell has dealt with the allegations directly and apologised while Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has expressed "his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops", deserves credit for respecting the rule of law by setting up an independent investigator to prepare for prosecutions. Investigations into misconduct by US and UK soldiers have struggled, in part, because politicians in those countries have muddied the waters. We can at least be thankful our leaders have not chosen that path.
Earlier this year, McKenzie told the story of retired SAS medic Dusty Miller who was so overcome with guilt about what he had witnessed one of his fellow Australians do in Afghanistan in 2012 that he apologised to the children of a local farmer, Haji Sardar, who was allegedly stomped to death by another soldier.
“I want to say sorry,” a distraught Mr Miller said before the video conference. “And to tell them that I should have done more.”
The response from Hazratullah Sardar, one of the sons, was unexpected and extraordinary. He is a reminder that some kind of redemption is possible even in the darkest of moments.
“I am very thankful to Dusty for his help. And getting in touch with us and telling us what he did,” Mr Sardar told his interpreter as the call neared its end. “Please tell Dusty to look after himself. He has suffered enough.”
The Age hopes the forthcoming judicial process will see justice done for the victims and this awful chapter in our history properly addressed.
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