The allegations against rogue elements within the Special Air Service Regiment are, sadly, almost predictable: other, similar units in the military traditions of both Britain and the United States have succumbed to such behaviour in similar circumstances as those faced in Afghanistan. Indeed, they constitute a virtual template for the decline in discipline which is alleged. Equally, there are templates for what to avoid when investigating them, and the ADF, at present, appears to be scoring only two out of three.
From time to time and place to place and with a disconcerting frequency, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) becomes the focus of attention, usually as the result of what might be termed “scandals.” Presently, however, “scandal” will not suffice: what is at hand in accounts in the public domain over the last several months is a troubling record over a period of fifteen years beyond that description.
What is strongly suggested, but yet to be proven, is that, within the Special Operations Task Group, and especially within certain rogue elements of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), elements within the chain of command have been derelict, and thereby complicit, in tolerating: serious misconduct, a breakdown in military discipline (including the emergence of a toxic culture contrary to the declared values of the ADF), and a lack of accountability extending into impunity not only for these developments but also for actions which qualify as war crimes and atrocities.
In the last two years, and as a result of mounting evidence and representations, Defence commissioned two internal inquiries: the first has been referred to as a “scoping” investigation and this evidently established the basis for a second – ordered by the Chief of Army and to be conducted under the aegis of the Inspector-General. It is ongoing and focuses on alleged atrocities. In combination both appear to have created the need for a third, an inquiry to be conducted by Mr. David Irvine, into the overall handling of the situation, and post-2015 reform measures, by the Special Operations Command.
An initial, sad reflection of this is that the themes in the accounts to date are all too familiar. Mutatis mutandis, and very, very briefly, they are a reprise of the British Army in Yemen in the 1960s, Northern Ireland after 1968, and Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013; the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia in the early 1990’s; the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan in 2010; and the US in Vietnam (the Phoenix Programme and Tiger Force should suffice).
Context is extremely important for explanatory if not excusatory reasons. The wars in question were, from the start, wars of choice reflecting imperial power politics rather than principle – hence usually illegal, unethical, and unwise. Exacerbating this, they were in theatres of operation that were culturally and politically alien, against enemies difficult, if not impossible to distinguish from the general population, and in which the strategic objectives were either fundamentally unclear, unrealistic, or ridiculous.
Added to this, repeated deployments without victory created the military equivalent of the reality of diminishing returns coupled with mission exhaustion, and the conviction that victory was a mirage. And all the while the enemy’s strategy, which included a suite of atrocities masked as tactics, and for which they did not have to apologise, haemorrhaged what remained of the moral fibre of the intervening force.
The predictable consequence, for some, especially in the elite units and/or those famed for their audacity, and tasked with dangerous missions requiring exceptional skill, is the refuge in blood-crazed, self-delighting violence which offends even the criminal essence or war in the first place.
The Afghanistan experience, then, is no surprise. The country was never clay to be moulded by the hands of the West and its occupying armies. It is, rather, an ideal incubator for the developments which have necessitated the Defence inquiries.
While all three of these investigations reflect well on those who, according to reports, recommended or ordered them in the face of considerable resistance – former Special Operations Commander, Major-General Jeff Sengelman, and Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell – it is difficult to laud all three equally.
The first (“scoping”) inquiry, and the second, ongoing investigation by the Inspector General of the ADF, proceed logically from the mounting indications that things were seriously amiss. In the light of indications that the conduct highlighted by the first, and which gave rise to the second, had been known for some years, it is reasonable to conclude that Defence was tardy and thus acted late in the piece; but hopefully not too late.
The third, to be conducted by Mr. David Irvine, gives rise to several reservations, the first being that it fails the perception test, regardless of the appointee’s record of distinguished public service. This might best be illustrated by a question: in the matter of inquiring into the ADF’s handling of allegations of war criminality against certain members of the SASR, a unit which perforce operates under a veil of secrecy, how credible is it that the former Director-General of two intelligence agencies which also perforce operate under a veil of secrecy and, not infrequently, illegally and outright deceit, should be the inquirer?
More specifically, it is extraordinarily significant that during Mr. Irvine’s tenure as Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), his organisation, under cover of an aid project, installed listening devices in ministerial offices of the East Timor Government for the purposes of obtaining access to Dili’s internal deliberations and negotiating tactics, and through that, commercial advantage over a small third world country‘s claims to oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.
The proposition, therefore, is that an inquiry which goes to the core of the accountability, discipline, trust, and status placed in the ADF should be conducted by a person, or persons with a distinguished record, not of legally-mandated, government-authorised, professionally-sanctioned duplicity, but of professional, intellectual and professional transparency and sound judgement when deciding between competing claims and possibly ambiguous evidence.
To even allow the perception to arise that the inquirer is too close to those being investigated by virtue of previous professional dispensations is to taint the process – and the British Government’s tribunals and inquiries into allegations against the British Army in Northern Ireland – the Widgery Tribunal on Bloody Sunday, and the Parker and Compton Reports on torture being leading examples – provide both templates for a disaster and an emphatic caution against this recourse.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy international relations and strategy in the department of Politics, at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.