And – By whose standards shall we judge them?


Note: This article, in a slightly different form, was first written by me and published in September 2018. I think it is worth another look. It has been slightly amended.

We know, because we have read about it, watched the lurid details on television news and discussed it, in this, the Local Paper, that there is an enquiry into the battlefield behaviour of Australian troops on the field of combat in Afghanistan.

It is a matter of national importance as it strikes at the heart of who we are and how we all imagine ourselves to be as Australians.

We also know that the troops in the frame are the soldiers of the Australian Special Air Service.

We also know that the enquiry has been conducted by the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force and that a Report of the findings of his investigation has been delivered to the Commonwealth Government and the Chief of the Australian Defence Force.

We do not know what is in the Report because it is a confidential document – although, we are told, by senior Government Ministers that the details are shocking.

Well, we should not be surprised at that, because most things that happen on a battlefield are shocking, bloody shocking!

We know that the investigation, carried out by the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force, had its genesis in the secret Report from a Canberra sociologist who conducted covert enquires into the actions of returned soldiers from Afghanistan to discover the “ culture “ of these men.

Now, that is a bloody good start. An enquiry based upon the secret testimony of a Canberra sociologist. No military background, no association with the Australian Defence Force and a PhD from Australian National University into the treatment of women with breast cancer.

Nothing I say here is critical of the Doctor. No ridicule is directed towards her qualifications – I am merely stating the fact that this was the person who wrote a secret report into the activities of troops on the battlefield in Afghanistan, based upon her discussions with returned soldiers, who were, apparently unaware of the purpose of her enquiries.

I reckon, right from the start this matter was a ‘ bit’ messy.

I attended a public meeting at hotel in South Queensland, where the respected author and journalist, Chris Masters, conducted a discussion, amongst serving and retired members of the Australian Defence Force, about matters he had covered in his book- “ No Front Line “ – a book about Australian troops in Afghanistan.

It is, as you would expect, a well-written book and well-researched. It raises matters about attitudes and actions on the battlefield in Afghanistan. I have formed my own opinion about these matters; it is for you, the readers, to develop your own opinions.

I question, why not release the Report of the Canberra sociologist?

The ADF says that these matters may create controversial public comment. Well, may be. So what ? There is plenty of controversial public comment about now – and the ADF has no answer to the criticism made about their conduct of diversity training classes, PC classes, pink fingernails, unbalanced recruitment targets – so a little more public comment? So what?

But, in all these comments and investigations and reports, what standards are we using to judge these men?

I know what happens on a battlefield. Military combat is a brutal business, and there are no trays of oranges at half time. I would not want a civilian sociologist conducting an enquiry into what I did and thought whilst in Vietnam, and I would not want anyone rifling through the actions of my soldiers.

We were in Vietnam to kill communist soldiers, and, that is what we did. The only regret I have from that sad place is that, at that time and at the place I was not able to destroy more communist soldiers.

Is that grounds for a secret enquiry? I bloody well think not!

So. We move on.

The secret Report has now resulted in an investigation which has appointed another Investigating Officer and may well take ten years, note that, ten bloody years, to be completed.

Do we judge these men by the standards of the society in which they fought?

We know what standards apply in Afghanistan society, so we can’t judge them by their standards.

Do we use the Internation War Crimes Commission? A body which has its house in the Netherlands and spends much of its time condemning Israel and the United States for actions those nations take against international terrorists.

The possibility of using IWCC standards in making a judgement against our combat soldiers indeed exists. However, there is serious doubt about this bodie’s capacity to deliver a fair and reasonable assessment of what happened in Afghanistan some time ago.

Do we then judge them by the standards of our own society? Their alleged activities occurred in a war zone in another country, with most of the current evidence apparently hearsay.

That would be an interesting legal adventure.

In my years in the military, it was impressed upon me, indeed driven into my soul mercilessly, by Instructors at various levels. There is an iron rule in the Australian military, a law that stands unchallenged – “ there are no bad Soldiers, just poor Officers.”

And, in my experience, it is so.

We can explore that in the context of this opinion piece.

The troops under investigation had a different command structure than all the other Australian soldiers in Afghanistan – at least that is what is reported.

This structure may have been imposed upon them by political requirements, by a desire to keep some of the SAS activities ring-fenced from other Australian Army sections, who knows?

What I do know, and military experience tells me so, is that once you begin to make ‘ special command arrangements’ for individual elements of a deployed military force, the integrity of the command structure is affected.

So, did we make our own problem?

Yes. I believe we did.

And, I believe that we must be very, very careful how we attend to this matter; for Australian soldiers are decent men and women, they do not torture, they do not commit murder, they do not act as battlefield thugs. They are, as they should be, tough and hard minded.

To paraphrase the words of the US Marines – Australian soldiers are ‘ no better friends and no worse an enemy. ‘

By what standards would you judge them?

I know how I would judge them.

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