David McBride: the Army whistleblower. Read the full interview hereJan 18, 2023
“When a soldier dies, the one thing we need to be able to do is to look their widow in the eye and say, “Your husband didn’t die in vain”. If that is bullshit and their husband died for nothing, then that is an outrage.”
Former military lawyer David McBride disclosed classified documents to the ABC that led to the war crime revelations set out in the 2017 report The Afghan Files. He is facing charges that carry up to 50 years imprisonment. and remains the only one charged years after release of the Brereton Report.
In this interview, David McBride shares his views with anti-war activist Susan Dirgham. Fifty years ago, Susan’s brother faced imprisonment as a draft resister.
Susan: David, could you explain why you are prepared to go to prison for your views?
David: I became a whistleblower and gave documents to the ABC because I believed the Australian leadership were habitually misleading the Australian people about the war in Afghanistan.
I’m prepared to go to jail because I think unless someone makes a sacrifice we’re going to continue to mislead the Australian people and take them to war unnecessarily. When you are a soldier you swear on the Bible to – if necessary – sacrifice your life for your country. I see what I am doing as an extension of my military oath.
If the government is prepared to put me in jail even though all I’ve revealed was documented – none of it was falsified – and is not prepared to charge or jail any one of note involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, then there is something wrong with the system.
Susan: What links do you see between your whistleblowing and anti-war activism, if any?
David: I would never be an anti-war activist per se. I’m an anti-corruption activist. And the older I get and the more I look into it, it’s hard to see too many wars – certainly none lately – that haven’t been artificially created.
I do believe these days war is misused, Paradoxically, it is a vote-winner. Labels are put on people and those labels are exploited as if the war is somehow going to make the world safer, but usually – if not all the time – those wars are actually fought for a combination of financial and political gain.
It’s a presidential thing to drop bombs on other countries. It’s seen as a sort of a masculine demonstration of will power. But actually if you look into the various reasons why we are at war and why we continue to go to war, it’s increasingly never for the reason that we say.
It is hard for me to see that that will change. So I’m slowly coming around to being a specific anti-war activist. All the wars I can foresee – the war over Ukraine, a war over Taiwan – would be wars fought on false pretences against the economic rivals of the United States.
In all the conflict zones at the moment, none of our wars are truly defensive. They are all offensive wars and they are usually a result of deliberate needling in order to provoke war. As a professional soldier, it sickens me that we would sacrifice the lives of our soldiers for some sort of hidden political benefit or hidden benefit for donor companies.
Susan: As an antiwar activist I identify with the general public in Syria. Who do you identify with?
David: I have an identification with Afghanistan. I went there in the year 2000 when the Taliban were in charge. I knew a little bit of the country’s history. I knew something about the context of the Taliban taking over. And I also knew a little bit about the real atmospherics in that country.
I went back there as a soldier in 2011 and again in 2013. I could see that a lot of lies were being told – a lot of lies about the situation the West created.
The West effectively destroyed Afghanistan because we saw it as a way to hurt Russia. We were never trying to help the Afghans in the 1980s. We were simply trying to kill Russians. We used Afghanistan as a venue to do so. And we were incredibly cynical. We flooded the place with weapons. We gave bounties to anyone who would kill Russians. And then we just suddenly left as soon as the Russians left and we wondered why it became a hell on earth. And it was because of us, because of the West.
We totally dehumanised the Afghan population. We didn’t have any respect for their history and their traditions or their claims to sovereignty.
Afghanistan has always been used by the West for their own purposes. It’s not new. One of the things which enraged me after reading a book called ‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk was that the situation in the late 1800s was much the same as it is today. Then British spies talked up the idea that the Russians might invade and conquer India through Afghanistan. There was no real prospect of the Russians sweeping through Afghanistan and India, yet, despite that, the promoters of war won out and they were fighting a war which didn’t need to be fought. And a lot of Afghans died. It had been talked up by people with vested interests and with overblown imaginations.
That sickened me because a lot of what was said about Afghanistan this century was never true, just like it wasn’t 200 years ago. We used Afghanistan as a political football and the people who really suffer the most are the Afghans.
And it’s bad for the West, bad for a professional soldier, bad for anyone like me that believes in our democratic institutions and the role of the West. It takes away our credibility that we would have cynical wars in other countries, that we would kill the local people, we would effectively install puppet governments. We do this for our own domestic political effect, and then we mislead our own people.
We have shamed ourselves in the eyes of the Afghans by showing ourselves to be liars and cheats and untrustworthy. The idea that we have trashed our reputation in that part of the world bothered me. We are meant to be better than that. We are meant to be the good guys of the world.
Susan: What do you think should be done to support the Afghan people?
David: This is a very controversial topic but it’s something quite dear to my heart.
I believe that engagement and diplomacy will achieve far more than threats, bombs and sanctions. I think leaving a vacuum in Afghanistan as we did in the 1990s was a big mistake that invited the worst elements to go there. And while we read endless negative news stories about the Taliban, the fact that we don’t agree with a nation’s policies is not a reason to not negotiate – it is a reason we should try all the harder.
The only time I think you should break off diplomatic relations with a country is when you have reason to believe they are actively planning to attack you – that’s not the case with Afghanistan.
I think it was a huge mistake for the West to take money reserved for the government of Afghanistan simply because we didn’t like the Taliban coming to power.
It was particularly duplicitous because the US administration had actively made peace arrangements with the Taliban and power sharing agreements with them for ten years – it started under Hillary Clinton’s stewardship. So it was no surprise that they eventually took power.
If thousands of women and girls die every year because of famine and because of sanctions – and more will die if there is another war – promoting peace is the way to go. We can leave women’s education off the table for the moment – while we first consider basic humanitarian needs like food, water, and shelter.
And we could earn their trust by doing positive things and seeing if they will move towards us – which they are more likely to do if we at least engage with them in human terms.
We saw what happened in the 1990s and a belligerent encirclement did not work well for the West – unless of course you consider more war ‘well’. Some cynics would say we are goading them into a repeat of 2001 because it brings with it huge defence spending. But the problem is it has terrible consequences for the Afghan people, who we should be caring about.
There are so many levels of deception in relation to the West’s treatment and attitude to Afghanistan. And those levels of deception only do us harm. They harm our soul. If we were honest and transparent and helpful we would achieve a lot more than hate speech and bomb dropping which only makes the problem worse.
Susan: How do you live in Australia when so few people can connect with you, what’s in your heart, what’s in your mind?
David: Well, I have to stay in Australia because they’ve taken my passport. But it’s hard and it’s easy. It was hard (last year) going into the courtroom, because no matter how much you believe in yourself and no matter how many supporters you have outside the courtroom, once you get in the courtroom you’re very judged. There was, without exaggeration, twelve lawyers, some from the Director of Prosecutions, some from the Attorney General’s office, who were just there to try to shut down the information. And you feel very judged. You do feel like a criminal when the government has got that many people out there to prove that you are a criminal. So it did take me a while to recover from that hearing.
I do have a lot of support, though. And I’ve never really been a hyper-patriotic Australian. But I have come to love Australia at a deeper level because I do get contacted by a lot of people. Everyday, people around Australia say, “You’re a champion. You’re a hero. I really admire you”.
So I’m divided. If I think about it too much I believe all the government departments are corrupted; I believe they all work for the publicity and the polling of the government minister rather than working for the good of the country, the good of Australia. And I think that is a real problem. I think it is prevalent, as I said, everywhere, even defence.
I don’t believe we could win a war against anybody at the moment because our defence force is so over-politicised that they cannot do their core job anymore. The ministers get them, largely, to do good news stories. Lots of photo opportunities, lots of glossy brochures are put out, but the substantive issues are never solved. They are not intended to be solved and this is one of the reasons why Afghanistan wasn’t solved because the energy wasn’t going into doing a good job. The energy was going into putting out good news stories. Again, that sickened me.
I have low moments, but in my best moments I think, “Well, you’re going to win this. You might have to go to jail, briefly at least, to win it. But when you do win it, it will be a tremendous victory because you will have, with the help of your team, you will have made a difference in Australia in that the government will be wary of lying to the public”.
Hopefully, there is some sort of official judgement from judges who eventually hear my final appeals and they will hopefully set things right in this country. And then I will have achieved something. Then I will be happy to say they have looked at the government departments; they’ve looked at who’s in charge and why those people are in charge. And looked at the idea of phoney national security as opposed to real national security. And I would be very proud if I get to achieve real change.
It may not happen. But if I can’t get a fair trial because the various government agencies make up technicalities, saying, ‘Oh well, he may have complained about something being not right in the defence force; however, he’s still going to go to jail and we are going to throw away the key’, now that must be wrong and I’m prepared to go to jail to demonstrate that fact.
Something needs to be done, and if not me, who, and if not now, when? I’m proud that I’ve had the courage to do this: to stand up. I wasn’t sure that I did. I haven’t always done the right thing in my life. This is my time to do the right thing. And I’m quietly quite proud of myself because it has been a long haul. It has taken a terrible toll on my marriage and on my family and I lost what was the best job in the world for me. So everything comes at a cost, but it’s a cost I’m prepared to pay because these issues are really important.
False information increasingly rules the world. There’s lots of effective censorship. If you read the mainstream media, you would have a really slanted view of the world. No one really thinks, as I didn’t years ago, that the major journalists in Australia don’t report facts on war accurately. But my sad conclusion is that they don’t. There is a slant on everything. Things are represented to help the government. And again, I would like to help change that.
I don’t believe a change would actually make Australia less safe. I think it would make Australia more safe to be independent of the US.
But I have to now prepare for my jury case as best as I can. And see, if after that, I can do something really useful for this country with the help of my already existing supporters and new supporters to come. And that makes me happy. Even if I fail, people will come after me, people will come after them, and I believe we will win in the long run. And I’m very grateful that I have the opportunity to stand up and be counted for my country.
Susan: Sometimes I’ve approached groups of soldiers in local cafes and said, “I’m an anti-war activist. Here’s my card”. I feel I’m in the same business as they are – trying to protect Australia – in my case from wars. The soldiers are always polite and respectful. What do you think they might be thinking?
David: And you are trying to protect the lives of soldiers. That is true. I think a lot of people in the defence force now sympathise with me. They know the casino is rigged. We’re not getting the real information; we’re not going to war for the right reasons. Most of us joined up because we actually wanted to defend Australia. And there was a certain amount of idealism in us. Unfortunately now we’ve become part of the American war-making machine. We go to war when America tells us to; we stop war when America tells us to. There is no difference between America and us and that is okay if you trust America.
Soldiers might dislike the words ‘anti-war activist’, but they wouldn’t have any problem because they are just words. What is needed is an anti-corruption campaign (so we can) make sure our leaders do things for truthful reasons rather than made-up reasons.
I’ve had people contact me who are in the defence force and be very supportive and have their own problems with defence. It is not over the idea of going to war but the idea that once they are at war, the government presents misleading statements and misleading facts. They feel very angry about that.
What is being called ‘moral injury’ is a problem. Soldiers who loved being soldiers and loved the idea of fighting for their country can still get very angry and disillusioned that within those organisations we have lies and corruption which affect their service for the country. They wouldn’t mind, for example, seeing generals and politicians that make up reasons to go to war to go to jail.
In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people were killed for a reason that turned out to be a cynical lie. Now if you are a soldier you should be very angry about that. Because when you put your life on the line for your country you don’t want to do it thinking that there are no limits to the lies and that cynical politicians and generals can just use you as cannon fodder.
The implied undertaking in that contract you have with your country is that you are giving everything that you have. And if they dispose of your life it is only done in true emergencies; that they do it with integrity; and that they tell the truth at all times. That they look after you.
It’s a big thing for someone to commit their life to the service of their nation and they should never be taken for granted by the politicians and the leadership. And all the soldiers (you approach) would agree with you in the sense that we shouldn’t be going to war for false reasons. We shouldn’t be going to war for corporations or cynical changes of government policy. For example, Saddam Hussein had been an ally of the Americans in the Middle East – he’d probably been put in power by the Americans.
Now that is highly cynical and no soldier wants to go to war on spurious grounds and possibly die or kill others in order to get a politician a higher approval rating. Taking a soldier’s life is some sort of holy thing and you only have to go to a military funeral and see the grieving widow – and there generally are widows – and to think that the one thing we need to be able to do with this widow is to look the widow in the eye and say, “Your husband didn’t die in vain”. And if that is bullshit and their husband died for nothing, then that is an outrage.
So, in some ways, soldiers who want good governance, good leadership and anti-war activists are the same. They want the same things. They might not necessarily see it but they do want the same things.
There’s not much difference between myself and an anti-war activist because I see that all the flash points are all not what they seem – for example, Ukraine and Taiwan; Syria is another good example, and Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. A hundred percent of wars are not being fought for the reasons that we claim. Those wars are not making the world safer – they are making the world less safe.
So you would be an anti-war activist once you know that because it is all a charade and no patriotic young man or young woman should have to die for a charade.
Readers can support David McBride by contributing to his legal fund.