SAS officers failed their men and Australia

Nov 24, 2020

The Australian Defence Force is one of the most secretive forces in the world. If our experience with Afghanistan is any guide, such secrecy produces moral failure. And while the much-despised media long ago blew the whistle on the behaviour of some SAS soldiers, the reward was the prosecution of the leaker.

Winston Churchill was a little better at accepting responsibility than the Australian officer class. After the fall of Singapore, he said, “I didn’t know. I wasn’t told. I should have asked.” But, he added later, “the possibility of Singapore having no landward defences no more entered into my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”

While Justice Paul Brereton has not exonerated the officers of the SAS regiments, in focusing on moral failure, he is all too kind. Ordinary management failures caused the development of a warrior culture that produced murders of civilians, sometimes so as to “blood” new members and bind them into a team. Managers must accept responsibility for falsified reports, planted evidence and troopers who despised their leaders — none of whom was “outside the wire” or physically close to the wrongdoing.

The villains – some psychopaths – developed and enforced the culture, concealing it from their leaders. These are the ones being investigated for the murder of 29 Afghan civilians. None of the alleged murders was in the heat of battle. In no case was there ambiguity about whether the rules of engagement or even army customs permitted what happened.

But the officers should have known what was going on. Most, we can take it, would have done their duty had they realised. But their ignorance was more than a moral failure. Officer neglect or ignorance is no small thing. The shame of their failures will hang over the SAS, the ADF, and the nation for many years.

This shame must also embrace an Australian War Memorial that turned some of the players into cult heroes, and accused anyone asking questions of undermining men and women who were simply doing their duty. As a result of the accusations it must fundamentally re-order its display.

Politicians are specifically exonerated. The failure was in the ADF, operational not political. But Brereton is again too kind. The culture was nurtured by political failures: ill-defined war aims, and not telling what was actually wanted fed to a generally tame defence media. The soldiers knew that no one – least of all in Canberra – cared.  It’s not easy to continually put your life on the line in such a cause.

Brendan Nelson, as minister for defence, was party to sending them there, as war memorial director was chief cheerleader for the Dirty Harry lone warrior culture, and is now a representative of the foreign arms industry that kills people on all sides. He should be the first to show his shame. He, and his enabling board, should disappear from public life.

Peppered through the reports is instance after instance of simple management failure — neglect of processes that ought to have disclosed the appalling situation at the sharp end; leadership failure — including fostering a reporting culture of sending bland, misleading reports upwards and never confronting the men about obvious breaches of discipline. Even the existence of a secret pub that could send elite warriors into action drunk.

Officers who thought they were not being loyal to their men if they asked questions, and who thought their primary role was to smooth the men’s path and protect them from intruders.

Officers who became cheer leaders for the cowboys.

Officers too low in the pecking order to be able to command, let alone walk beside, experienced and disdainful corporals leading patrols of six soldiers.

Slightly more senior officers who would chuck out (as poor leaders) junior officers who could not win the admiration of the cowboys.

And then even more senior ones resisted scrutiny, including media scrutiny. Creators of a secretive culture who hid behind alibis about national security, “operational reasons”, bland denials, and claims that “inadequate” (and sabotaged) investigations could not substantiate complaints. And an entirely false pretence that the Afghans were calling the shots, not the SAS.

The Australian defence force has long been hostile to media scrutiny – seen as a serious distraction at a time of maximum crisis. Media criticism, if informed, can undermine morale. Reporting can also unwittingly convey information, including sensitive operational information to the enemy.

No one could exemplify this broad attitude better than General Angus Campbell, Chief of the Defence Force. He coined the phrase “on-water matters” to withhold, on operational security grounds, details of how armed Australians were driving refugees from our shores. There is still no accounting, or independent review, of what happened under his command. A former SAS leader, but one allowed to blame “the culture” of non-coms for bad outcomes. Yet his culture of secrecy, or the managerial culture of complacency, was not to blame?

The ADF is one of the most secretive forces in the world. “Trust us,” lies behind the secrecy. “We know our duty, to Australia as much as our men and women.” That’s the real lie – the real shame, and the real failure.

If our experience with Afghanistan is any guide, such secrecy does not produce effective leadership. We get moral failure, whether from studied incuriosity or incompetence. We are all diminished by bland but false assurances, resistance to answering questions, and a default tendency to cover up.

Even those who eventually took action in 2016  – including Campbell – must ask themselves why it took an outsider investigating culture in the ADF at large rather than Special Forces in particular – to say what the dogs were barking.

The much-despised media had blown the whistle long before any officer did a thing. Or, to be fair, a thing that had any fundamental effect on what was happening. The reward was the prosecution of the leaker – a classic case of blaming the messenger. And the Chief of the Defence Force must take his share of responsibility for this.

The overall assessment of system failure is unfair on some ex-SAS officers who were talking to each other and officers still in charge about their fear of a new culture of the warrior.

People had expressed worries long before defence machinery began to grind. That it was so slow is perhaps not surprising, given the fact that governors-general, successive chiefs of the army, and even the odd parliamentarian have a background in the SAS.

And thorough as the Brereton inquiry was, its five-year lifespan means that offences will be prosecuted, if at all, more than 13 years after they occurred. No doubt the cheerleader lobby will argue that it is too late to prosecute and that we should let bygones be bygones.

Who was it who said there are no bad teams, only bad leaders?

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