Lieutenant-General Burr, can you stand up. We can’t see you!

In Burr’s regiment were many of Justice Brereton’s bad boys. That so many of them were able to mask their incubating psychopathology reflects badly on the psychological assessment tools Burr’s people were administering.

Last week, Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, won the inaugural Khaki Shulztie. This award is named after Sergeant Shultz (“I know nuuuthing!”) from the TV show Hogan’s Heroes. The award recognised General Campbell’s ignorance in the face of overwhelming information.

This week the second award goes to one of his colleagues. Lieutenant-General Rick Burr, the Army chief, also knows nothing about the dark moments in Uruzgan Province.

“Oh, I was sick. I was sickened. I was shocked by the extent of the alleged unlawful acts that were described in the report,” he said on 60 Minutes last week. “I heard nothing of these allegations. If I had, I absolutely would have reported them,” he added.

A senior commander recently told me that if Burr knew so little, then his command should be in question.

In 2002, one year into Australia’s intervention in Afghanistan, then Lieutenant-Colonel Burr was one of the first SAS leaders into Afghanistan. He arrived in July with 2-Squadron.

A mixture of braggadocio and bad intelligence meant the war scene was completely misread in this period. The Taliban was stockpiling weapons, cultivating local resentment, recruiting, planning, and planting more opium poppies. Some genius in Russell Offices in Canberra advised the government to announce that there were too few tasks to warrant keeping SAS assets in Afghanistan. As a result, Burr’s 200-strong taskforce was withdrawn in November 2002 when allied operations shifted from combat missions to what was euphemistically called “reconstruction activities”.

The next month, the disgraced governor-general Peter Hollingworth awarded the now disgraced Special Air Services Regiment the Meritorious Unit Citation for the year-long deployment.

Burr then became the commanding officer of the SAS Regiment in Perth from 2002-2004. The SAS did not return to Afghanistan until September 2005. As regimental CO, Burr was responsible for force readiness. In other words, ensuring that the very best men, men of stamina, valour and honour, came into the regiment and then went on to theatres of war.

How did Burr get all that so wrong? In Burr’s regiment at the time were many of Brereton’s bad boys. Soldiers who would go on hunting trips in the Badlands of Uruzgan. One of Burr’s soldiers would commit a war crime so egregious, so sub-human, that Brereton could not allow it to be talked about publicly. The account of this soldier’s war crime is blacked out in the now infamous chapter 2.50. Brereton could only say “what is described in this chapter is possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history…”

The SAS Regiment is not some vast corporation. Burr could get to know all the men under his command. He read their assessment reports. He was able to monitor their progress.  He formally dined with them. Yet no red flags? That Brereton’s bad boys were able to mask their incubating psychopathology reflects badly on the psychological assessment tools Burr’s people were administering.

Burr remained close to the Afghanistan action. By February 2008 he was back in Afghanistan along with a 300-strong special operations task group. Now with the rank of brigadier, he was chosen to be the first leader of the NATO coalition’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This was a theatre-level multinational command position. As we now know, ISAF was an outstanding failure. All the coalition partners, one after the other, tapped the mat and released themselves from an unwinnable Taliban resurgence.

Brereton has controversially exposed himself to the accusation that his report favoured what some would regard as the Army’s strongest asset, the officer class. This is what he said about the Special Air Service Regiment.

“A substantial indirect responsibility falls upon those in Special Air Service Regiment who embraced or fostered the ‘warrior culture’ … Some domestic commanders of Special Air Service Regiment bear significant responsibility for contributing to the environment in which war crimes were committed, most notably those who embraced or fostered the ‘warrior culture’ and empowered, or did not restrain, the clique of non-commissioned officers who propagated it. That responsibility is to some extent shared by those who, in misconceived loyalty to their Regiment, or their mates, have not been prepared to ‘call out’ criminal conduct or, even to this day, decline to accept that it occurred in the face of incontrovertible evidence, or seek to offer obscure and unconvincing justifications and mitigations for it.”

Nominations for next week’s Khaki Shultzie are now closed after an overwhelming response. The front runner is current Governor-General. General David Hurley was Chief of the Defence Force in the worst killing years, 2011-2012.

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William De Maria’s next book, Australia’s War of Shame. Afghanistan 2001-2013, is due out in 2021, the 20th anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan year.

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