Review: The shock, horror and rage of Mark Willacy’s Rogue ForcesSep 26, 2021
Respected journalist Mark Willacy’s Rogue Forces is imperative reading for its detonating exposé of Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan and the systematic cover-ups at varying levels of the Australian Defence Force operations.
Willacy’s window on war crimes is narrow, focusing on three Special Air Service (SAS) members of Squadron 3; Soldier A, Soldier B and Soldier C who are accused of murdering innocent Afghan farmers in 2012.
It makes one wonder about the breadth of horrors that would inevitably be disclosed if ALL the Australian and Allied windows were flung open on the 20-year invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Awash with shock, horror, disgust, rage, as with his Four Corners documentary, Killing Field, the potency of Rogue Forces is Willacy’s skill in giving readers a vicarious presence as fellow eyewitnesses to the thuggish gung-ho component in the elitist SAS.
Willacy brings us face-to-face with participants; the deviant killers, their fearful complicit colleagues, the moral injury and inner agony of whistleblowers and we experience the intense immediacy of the patrols, the psychopathic racist atrocities, the premeditated cover ups and the forever shattered lives of the Afghan victims and their grieving families.
On reading, my initial impression of the tribal SAS culture was that of the rescued bully boys of Golding’s Lord of the Flies now grown up and prime candidates for the SAS.
“The rhetoric has always been that you are looking for similar features to a psychopath,” says a psychologist who was involved in screening Special Forces candidates.
Soldiers A, B and C are not fictional, but real bullies and killers who are variously described by their colleagues as “unhinged, psychopath, rogue, toxic, monster, thugs, sadist, mad, animal, bully, egotistical sociopath, shoot’ em up boys”.
It is helpful to know the nature of the psychopath; about 1–2 per cent of the population, psychopaths are born genetically without a conscience, empathy and remorse and with an underlying aggression that may become violent. Sociopaths however are not born but evolve from trauma.
The SAS deviants ride high on the heroic SAS reputation and hubris wrapped in impunity and the boys-own myths of Arthur’s Excalibur and the Knights Templar Crusaders who
“This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” George W Bush said.
Rogue Forces is not an easy read. By page 13, I was in shock and in tears and it got worse as the cold-blooded war crimes and cover-ups stockpiled.
The war crimes include the summary executions of unarmed, wounded, and disabled Afghan men and boys, the ritual of blooding that coerced the first kill of rookie soldiers, a kill count that was indifferent to innocence, the desecration of the bodies of the Afghan dead, the appalling racism and brutal beatings, the massacre at the tractor job, the planting of guns, grenades, radios and battle-bras on murdered innocent farmers (fathers, sons, brothers, friends).
Don’t for a moment think such dishonourable behaviour is about a few bad apples.
War crimes are inherent to and hidden away throughout ANZAC history; note the same Australian racism, drunkenness, the bloodlust, the brutal atrocites, indiscriminate violence, desecration of the dead, the looting, property destruction, the military cover ups by soldiers and officers, the formal compensation (admission of guilt) to survivor families of the Sarafand Massacre 103 years ago; an ANZAC brutality never displayed in the National War Memorial.
Let’s be clear there’s nothing noble about a “code of silence” which is a synonym for covering up crimes. The Rogue Forces cover ups, from the killing fields to Australian Defence Force headquarters spawned the impunity for ongoing barbarism.
On the field it was common knowledge that the mandatory photos of the kills were falsified by planting weapons on the innocent dead to look like combatants. These were added to fabricated reports “to justify lethal force”. There was a “running joke” that since 2010 the “Magic Makarov”, a Russian pistol, “appeared in photographs all over Afghanistan”. Post-operation debriefings called hotwash ensured the everyone was on board with the cover up.
It was common knowledge that crimes were prevented from leaking in the Special Operations Task Force; Christine, after reporting a potential war crime, was ordered to delete the evidence from the database and this order wasn’t a one-off from higher up.
It was common knowledge that inquiries looking into Afghan complaints were actually implicated in cover-ups: “We reported these things… the perpetrators were not punished, they were decorated.”
Back in Australia, Willacy’s Freedom of Information requests were denied.
The Brereton Inquiry (an internal trust-me military inquiry) actually exonerated the brass of “direct responsibility”. Yet even MP Andrew Hastie, a former SAS officer, challenged the leadership’s ignorance of war crimes. Ultimately Brereton’s dismissal of leadership accountability was lose-lose for the brass; if they didn’t know then they are grossly incompetent and should be dismissed.
The code of silence
For me, the ultimate merit of Rogue Forces is Willacy’s going beyond the crimes to explore complicity in the code of silence and its high personal cost to decent soldiers.
Willacy points out the reasons why decent fellow soldiers remained silent. There was herd compliance based on a loyalty to the SAS that overrode the Geneva Conventions, fear of isolation, losing a valued career, and justified fear based on psychopathic intimidation;
“I genuinely believed that if they’d have had the opportunity if we’d raised certain things, that they had the capability — they’d already proven it — to put a bullet in the back of your head and just turn around and say it was the Taliban.”
Further for consideration is the code’s endemic social programming; Australia has an anti-dibber-dobbing culture. Children learn it at school, and all of us are familiar with the code: “Everyone hates a dobber or squealer, or rat, rat fink, sneak, snitch, traitor.”
The code is rife; it’s in the military, the police (deaths in custody), the government, the churches, the banks, the media, sport, education (Tudge censoring our Black history), and among victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Ergo, perversely this code protects the bullies and multiplies their victims while perversely whistleblowers suffer e.g. Jeff Moss, Peter Fox, David McBride, Julian Assange, Witness K and Bernard Collaery who face social ostracism, lose careers, endure financial loss, death threats and are persecuted by governments to deter future whistleblowers.
Despite the profusion of depravity, from the ignoble darkness Willacy salvages the human soul — the repository of and the verve of our conscience, compassion, and morality and its insistent pressure on us to do the right thing.
“I could have and should have done more. Speaking up may have minimised or prevented more unnecessary and unlawful deaths. I hold responsibility for my silence and inaction.”
Willacy probes among his whistleblowers the effects of moral injury that their silence inflicts; PTSD, sleeplessness, nightmares, excessive boozing, “a deep well of shame”, “unquenchable guilt”, rage, grief, agonising memories, violence, pointlessness, feeling compromised, loss of trust in self and others, self harm, attempted suicide, self-alienation — “not the person I thought I was”, “I couldn’t look at myself anymore”.
By having reached a point “where the truth is more important” than self-interest, each of the whistleblowers are freed from the code’s in-built fears to testify to the truth that it was an unjust war, that the SAS violence was worse than the Taliban, “and see that we were the guys in there murdering and invading and not there to do something honourable”.
This is the point of courage, truth and integrity regained.
And we too must hold fast to our responsibility to speaking out and to act.