‘Poor moral leadership’ and our alleged war crimes

‘Australia’s SAS must be accountable for possible war crimes’ in Afghanistan, says Professor Philip Dwyer (P &I 27.7.20). Indeed, it must. We must emphasise also that individual soldiers have responsibility for their actions. And that we, our government and nation, are responsible too.

Credit – US marines official website

Professor Dwyer helpfully collates press on what we have known since February 2020: the existence of some 55 allegations that Australian Special Forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. ‘Rotten apples’ in those forces may account for a small number of the allegations. But not 55. There is a systemic and, even, cultural dimension to the problem.

On 29 June, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted former Special Forces Commander Major General Adam Finlay, who blamed ‘poor moral leadership’ for what happened. The same article reminded us that NSW Justice Mr Paul Brereton’s investigation into the allegations for the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been in progress since 2016.

The duration of the investigation reinforces the suggestion that it is not only looking into the alleged crimes, but into the command and control of the Special Forces, which should have provided the moral leadership. The enhanced ‘kill culture’ of those Forces in Afghanistan is likely to be another of the wider issues.

On 7 August, ABC News drip fed us another clue in anticipation of the ‘explosive war crimes report’ that is further said to be nearing completion and will be presented in the next few weeks. Apparently, a Major General Paul Kenny has been appointed the new Commander of the Special Forces to go on with the task of ‘important cultural reform’ in his Command.

What might such reform mean? It means that the reform stems from the perception of ‘poor moral leadership’. But where does the problem of moral leadership begin and end? Based on what we’ve been told, it seems that the investigation has been established to limit accountability for any crimes at both the individual and official levels.

‘Poor moral leadership’ raises the systemic dimension of the problem that would tend, in turn, to mitigate individual culpability in many cases – a tendency that appears pima facie to be justified. At the same time, however, cultural reform in the Special Forces tends to contain the problem politically by drawing a circle around the systemic failure in those Forces alone. On balance, it seems that the investigation has been set up to find as little as possible, particularly where it counts at the level of the government.

Is there not a national dimension to the issue of our alleged war crimes in Afghanistan that looks as though it will go unaddressed in the forthcoming report?

Will the report look above the ADF and address the political decision for and direction of the war? The question is most pertinent when it would be easy to argue that Prime Minister John Howard’s decision for war in 2001 has tended to undermine Australia’s national interests. We could show that Howard’s decision had no clear justification and, certainly, no win-strategy related to the defence of Australia. As such, we could stress that Howard’s decision completely neglected the duty of care that a government should exercise when committing people to something as serious – and as sordid – as a war. We could stress that, if a decision such as Howard’s is not itself a war crime, war crimes would certainly be minimised, if decisions like his weren’t made.

Will the report examine the absence for 19 years of a coherent idea of what a war on ‘terror’ might mean? Will it explain how official justifications for the Afghanistan involvement have habitually contradicted the political and military reality the soldiers have faced on the ground? Will it deal with implications of routinely placing troops in positions that inherently frustrate as well as endanger them? Will it deal comprehensively, for instance, with the confusion and rage soldiers can feel when they find that people who they have been told they are helping turn out to be enemies?

Will the report study the government’s protracted use of the numerically small ADF units, particularly its Special Forces? Some soldiers could do six six-to-eight-month rotations through Afghanistan and more. Will it look into allegations that the government has quite irresponsibly over-worked the Special Forces, as the deployment of its small, light sub-units is cost effective? Will it recognise that the stress generated by all these factors was always likely to frame some ‘bad’ behaviour? Will it ask if the political direction of the war also involved ‘poor moral leadership’?

We will see.

Meanwhile, a point to reiterate in no uncertain terms on the issue of moral leadership is that governments should be extremely careful about sending people to kill and die violently, especially in other people’s countries.

Killing, bashing and other behaviours that contravene the Laws of War and our values cannot be tolerated. At the same time, soldiers are ordered (not always as volunteers) to go to war to kill and die violently. In all our wars, as in Afghanistan, I have no doubt, many good soldiers will have seen or reliably heard of atrocities, some resulting from honest mistakes, some for other reasons, including revenge, hatred and bloodlust.

My earlier blog ‘Tearing down our heroes’ (28.8.2018) documents an example of the kind of savagery that will always be possible in the ‘sickening grey area’ around killing in war. At the same time, there are powerful reasons, including the overwhelming likelihood that no one in authority would believe them, why soldiers who are aware of improper killing and possible war crimes come to the usual conclusion: best we forget.

By contrast, a point about the 55 allegations is that core evidence for them comes from within the Special Forces community itself; that is, from people who refuse to forget. The questions thus arise: what explains the unusual surge of whistle blowing from within that community? and is there a relationship between that surge and the nature of the Inspector General’s investigation of the alleged crimes?

Why, indeed, was an inquiry into allegations going back to 2005 not begun until 2016? It would be reasonable to suggest that the uncommon pressure of the allegations emanating from within the Special Forces community finally forced the Inspector General to conduct an investigation, which the ADF and government had long preferred to forget.

This would partly be for the same reason that most soldiers would tend to forget most atrocities in most wars: it causes too much trouble and serves little purpose to do otherwise. In this case, however, it is reasonable to speculate that the government was finally forced to act, because the Special Forces community was especially unhappy about the extent to which governments have misused it in Afghanistan. We are talking about the relentless rotations of the numerically small forces, that would intensify the confusion soldiers felt about their unclear role in the meaningless war on ‘terror’. In this case, the very existence of the investigation would indicate that it has been constituted primarily to close down the main suspicion arising from all the whistle blowing, the feeling that, at a number of levels, our Afghanistan War governments have badly neglected their duty of care.

The official intention to reform the cowboy ‘kill culture’ that came over the Special Forces in Afghanistan is of course important. But it won’t stop war being an atrocity, and it won’t stop atrocities in war. Neither will it prevent further Australian Special Forces war crimes in Afghanistan; those Forces are no longer deployed there – the some 400 Australian soldiers remaining in Afghanistan are non-combatants. What an emphasis on cultural reform in the Special Forces would do, though, is to appease the press, while deflecting attention from important questions about the higher direction of the war.

The test of the investigation will in any case revolve around how it has addressed the stated problem: ‘poor moral leadership.’ Our military forces and individual soldiers must be held responsible for their actions. But they must be held justly responsible. And justly means that people at the highest levels of the political-strategic direction of the war must also be held accountable for their actions.

If any number of ‘rotten apples’ are found, they should be held accountable for their crimes. Otherwise, what our soldiers have done in our names in Afghanistan is something we all own; it is a national as well as an individual responsibility.

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Greg Lockhart is a Vietnam veteran and an historian. Formerly of ANU, he is author of Nation in Arms: the origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam (1989), The Minefield: an Australian tragedy in Vietnam (2007) and, lately, essays on Australian history.

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