The Director of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), Dr Brendan Nelson, has inappropriately used his position to criticise Fairfax Media over its reporting of allegations that former Special Air Service (SAS) Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC has committed ‘war crimes’. The Director says the allegations are an attempt to ‘tear down our heroes’ and that ‘unless there have been the most egregious breaches of the laws of armed conflict, we should leave it all alone’. On recent reports of a domestic violence incident involving Roberts-Smith, the Director says they constituted ‘one of the lowest blows I have ever seen’.
Historians have recoiled from the comments saying: we ‘should look unflinchingly at the actions of Australian soldiers in war zones’; ‘we need to know the truth whatever it is’; ‘I am very disturbed’; and that ‘journalist turned war historian Charles Bean said truth is ‘‘fundamentally important”.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 2018). Yes, it is. And by attacking media freedom, the Director’s comments run the risk of promoting dangerous distortions in our military culture. But I don’t think it’s exactly a denial of the truth of what goes on in our war zones that has caused the Director’s comments. Neither should the media’s allegations of wrong doing by Roberts-Smith be uncritically accepted.
I believe for various reasons that the impressive military citations which describe sustained bravery by Roberts-Smith on two separate occasions in Afghanistan are essentially true. The first citation concerned the action on 2 June 2006 at Chora Pass in Oruzgan Province, for which patrol scout and sniper Roberts-Smith was awarded the Medal of Gallantry. The second citation covered the action on 11 June 2010 during his fifth of six (six-month) rotations through Afghanistan in Kandahar Province, for which Lance-Corporal Roberts-Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia. After his patrol faced the weight of ‘intense, effective and sustained fire from the enemy position’, the citation describes him killing at least three enemy while demonstrating ‘extreme devotion to duty and the most conspicuous gallantry … with a total disregard for his own safety ’ (See his entry in Wikipedia).
The press allegations against Roberts-Smith, which would only seem to stem from within the Special Forces community, include bullying his own men and the ‘potential war crimes’ of bashing an unarmed Afghan and, at Chora Pass in 2006, involvement with his patrol 2IC Mathew Locke in what some suspect was the unnecessary killing of an Afghan teenager.
In the absence of a major report by the Inspector General of the Defence Force’s Inquiry, in which the allegations against Roberts-Smith are apparently being included and which is ‘on-going’, we may first wonder why Roberts-Smith is being singled out rather than his superior, the patrol 2IC. Meantime, we can only presume his innocence, as should the press in exercising its duty to report responsibly on the matter. The same applies to the recent allegation of ‘domestic violence’, which the police are still investigating. This is especially as Roberts-Smith denies any wrong-doing and has filed claims for defamation against the Fairfax press.
Since late 2017 when Chris Masters published No Front Line, the allegations have gathered momentum. Masters described a strong natural leader and ‘polarising’ figure, whose high profile during and since his military service rankled with some in the Special Forces community. Given my soundings, I think it would be unwise to discount support for Roberts-Smith both within that community and in the army.
This may be reflected in the ‘on-going’ nature of the Inspector-General’s Inquiry. Since the allegations against Roberts-Smith must date back at least 12 years to 2006, we may well ask when, in view of his 2011 VC and 2013 Commendation for Distinguished Service, that investigation began? Has the Inspector-General’s Inquiry only given priority to these problems since the press recently drew attention to them – thus reminding us of the role of the press in a democratic society and the peril of trying to curtail it?
Whatever the case, written complaints by Special Forces people, sworn statements, media leaks from the ‘on-going’ inquiry and campaigns of personal retribution that have included sending anonymous letters and threats to one another are reported to be a part of the thick text. This seems extraordinary in what is usually a close-knit community and in view of the tight security usually surrounding official inquiries.
So, let us get closer to former corporal Ben Roberts-Smith’s predicament and Dr Nelson’s defence of him by realising that both are set in the tension between the official need to allow no deviation from the laws of war and what happens in the violently unstable battle space into which our leaders insert the soldiers – including the grey area around killing in war.
The points are: 1. It makes no political or military sense to make people hate us unnecessarily, or to condone any descent into barbarous behaviour, which our enemies might then feel justified in turning back on us; nonetheless 2. a tradition of acceptance of what dispassionate official reckoning today could only describe as war crimes is in fact built into the foundation narrative of the AWM.
Here is an example from that narrative in Charles Bean’s twelve volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 (1921-42). Relegated to a footnote on page 772 of Volume 4 (1933), Bean recounts a ‘terrible’ mistake made in ‘hot blood’ in the battle of Passchendaele on 20 September 1917. Some Germans in a pillbox had surrendered to some Australians, as other Germans in an upper tier of the pillbox, who were unaware of the surrender, fired briefly on the Australians. One Australian was killed. ‘Forthwith’, writes Bean, the Australians ‘bayoneted the prisoners’. And ‘one [Australian] about to bayonet a German, found that his own bayonet was not on his rifle. While the wretched man implored him for mercy, he grimly fixed it and bayoneted the man’. Finally noting that ‘the Germans in this case were entirely innocent’, Bean smoothed over with a platitude what he saw as the improper violence: ‘such incidents are inevitable in the heat of battle, and any blame for them lies with those who make wars, not with those who fight them’.
One message is that, far from the strategic horizons of political and military leaders, battle for any soldier is, as the thoughtful military historian John Keegan once put it, ‘a very small-scale situation that will throw up its own leaders and will be fought by its own rules – alas often by its own ethics’. This reality, which breaks down into a realisation that Roberts-Smith would not be human if his over 50 high-risk operations and multiple legal killings had not left him with some demons to manage, has an important implication. Namely, his outstanding service should be weighed against any formal finding that the allegations against him have any substance.
The second message is that the current AWM Director’s call to overlook all but the most egregious Australian breaches of the law of war – war crimes – can be seen as a continuation of Bean’s indulgent AWM foundation narrative on the issue transposed into the wars of alliance we fight today.
Press checks on such official acceptance of ‘local rules’ in battle have changed since Bean’s time. The more highly professionalised nature of the military calling in the more highly politicised age of asymmetrical warfare has also tightened command and control. But still, Nelson wants to do much what Bean did: protect Australian soldiers from allegations of war crimes that insufficiently acknowledge the sickening grey area around killing that may be limited by education and discipline but never entirely eliminated in war.
Bean did what he did without difficulty, as he was building the Anzac myth. Why then has Nelson misused his official position to do it in the teeth of both the cast iron official commitment to the laws of war, which he should be upholding, and the responses from historians and journalists who not unreasonably assume he’s trying to mute the truth about Australian war crimes?
It seems that, like other public figures, Dr Nelson empathises genuinely with the imposing, articulate, former SAS patrol scout, sniper and junior leader. Nelson and others, including businessman Kerry Stokes and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have then facilitated Roberts-Smith’s civilian career. Hence, in significant measure, the super soldier’s meteoric rise to general manager, Seven, Queensland, his directorship of a consultancy and a company, his appointments as Chairman of the National Australia Day Council, Deputy Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council for Veterans Mental Health and so on.
Yet it is also the case that, like the former Prime Minister, the Director of the AWM has had a considerable political investment in the iconic Anzac image he has helped to create. In brief, the shining Roberts-Smith VC brand helps the state to normalise and glamorise for public consumption the bloody strategy that has driven the endless string of unwinnable wars in support of the US alliance anywhere in the world in the hope that the alliance will provide us with eternal security in our region.
It seems that the larger-than-life-figure has, for whatever reasons, led some in the Special Forces community to want to isolate him. Yet those reasons are contestable and there is little doubt that the unhappiness in that community extends beyond Roberts-Smith to wider issues. I am, for instance, unaware that the Inspector-General has yet delivered any findings on the 3 September 2012 report by Amanda Hodge and Jeremy Kelly in The Australian, which was recycled in 2017 by Masters, that several complaints of the SAS manacling, hooding, beating and stealing from ‘shopkeepers and tailors’ with no connections to the Taliban had reached Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai.
The story gets bigger. If such bad behaviour occurred, it has to be linked to an important political-cultural consideration: since Vietnam, the government has continued to send Australian forces into combat zones where it is not always clear to the Australians who the enemy is. Beyond this involvement in wars, which the government is unable adequately to explain, there is something else that falls especially hard on the Special Forces.
Some 30,700 people strong, the Australian Regular Army is smaller than the New York Police Department, some 38,400 uniformed people strong. Regular Australian infantry, combat engineers and others have been rotated through Afghanistan since the involvement began in 2001. But the Special Forces, which are a relatively small component of our small army have, because of their nature, taken the brunt of the war.
Roberts-Smith did six rotations. I have heard of someone doing fifteen. As well as getting killed, men get exhausted and their families strung out. It is thus reasonable to think that the government’s relentless and, some would say, irresponsible exploitation of the small army in far-flung wars, including Afghanistan which the government has failed to explain adequately for seventeen years, frames the discontent in the Special Forces community.
To return to Dr Nelson’s public defence of former SAS Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC. For historians and journalists, who rightly say we need to look ‘unflinchingly’ at what goes on in our war zones but generally refrain from unflinching comment on why we are in those zones in the first place and then have little idea of what can’t be controlled in ‘hot blood’, the ‘truth’ of what Roberts-Smith did or did not do might not be as accessible or as simple as they think.
In misusing his official position to berate the media for ‘tearing down our heroes’, Dr Nelson has probably empathised with Roberts-Smith and can be seen to have incorporated the relaxed AWM approach to Australian breaches of the law of war. As the head of that public institution, which plays a crucial role in nurturing the dependent culture of our alliance strategy, he has also had a political interest in making Roberts-Smith a contemporary Anzac star. The implications of his outburst are not then limited to its support for hobbling media freedom and weakening legal constraints on improper violence in military culture. They include a defence of hero worship that distracts us from discussing burning questions about how and why we go to war.
Greg Lockhart had a military career in which he served in the Pacific Islands Regiment in Papua New Guinea and the Australian Army Team, Vietnam. After completing a BA (Hons 1) and PhD in History at the University of Sydney, he was a school teacher and then, for fifteen years, held research posts at ANU and UNSW. He is author of two histories, Nation in Arms: the origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam (1989) and The Minefield: An Australian tragedy in Vietnam (2007). He has also had a life-long interest in the Great War.