Opinion – Who Defends our Defenders?

Last week Defence admitted former Lt Colonel Karel Dubsky was an innocent victim of the Jedi Council witch hunt that terminated his career and left him a shattered man. That makes it hard to miss the irony that another of nation’s defenders was led to the scaffold last week in the shape of Australia’s most decorated contemporary soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG.

 

In an extraordinarily tasteless article, Fairfax Media alleged Mr Roberts-Smith was being investigated for unspecified “breaches of the laws of armed conflict” in Afghanistan. It was claimed this was part of Major-General Paul Brereton’s wide-ranging trawl through 15 years of service by Australia’s special forces soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By Fairfax’s own admission, this inquiry is supposed to be conducted behind closed doors. There are very good reasons for this, not the least of which is that many of the operations in question were and remain classified. Another is that the evidence of such crimes is notoriously unreliable, especially when if comes from possible enemies.

The greatest difficulty, though, is the nature of war itself. Combat pits men against each other in circumstances where the exigencies of battle, and the need for self-preservation, often take precedence over the rules of war. This has always been so.

Claims of Australian soldiers killing surrendering Germans in the First World War were so prevalent that even Bean refused to dismiss them, and cited the “primitive bloodthirstiness” of battle for soldiers performing unseemly deeds.

In “Storming the Falklands”, former paratrooper Tony Banks related the distressing scenes at the Wireless Ridge, where British troops made a night attack with fixed bayonets and were told to take no prisoners. A terrified young Argentine soldier surrendered, pleading for his life, and begging not to be killed. A brief argument occurred among Banks and his comrades as to who was going to kill the man before a tarpaulin was thrown over his head; he was shot and then bayoneted.

If these things happen in war between uniformed combatants, how much more difficult is it to strictly comply with the rules of war when the enemy deliberately does not? Insurgents do not wear uniforms; they stash their weapons to blend into the population and pull them out when it suits them to attack. They use non-combatants as human shields. It is easy in these circumstances for innocent civilians to die.

Add to that the frustration of seeing colleagues killed, dismembered and wounded, and seeing rescue helicopters shot at, or enduring renegade Afghan “allies” murdering Australian soldiers in their compounds. The moral certainty of Punt Road pundits is a luxury often unavailable to the Australian soldiers in combat zones.

None of these things was a deterrent, however, to the almost salacious way in which this most recent story was reported, including the claim Ben Roberts-Smith “declined to answer a series of detailed questions sent to him by Fairfax Media.”

Given this is a confidential investigation he should not have to. In fact, details of the investigation should never have been published until they were completed.

What is most disturbing is the frequency with which investigations of allegations against soldiers make their way into the media, when details of military operations do not. Even when investigators illegally seize soldier’s psychological records – which are supposed to be confidential – this rarely makes it into the press. It suggests the source of the leaks is not soldiers themselves, but powerful and deeply entrenched interests within Defence.

All of this leads many to suspect that political interests are triumphing over military imperatives. When two cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2013 streamed images of one of them having sex with a female cadet, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner was sensationally invited to conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the role of women in the ADF.

Although Broderick herself had no military service and no expertise in military operations, she took it upon herself to make sweeping recommendations about the participation of women in frontline units. Normally, decisions about the structure and composition of military units are determined solely by the nature of the enemy and what is necessary to capture or kill them. Disturbingly, her recommendations were accepted in spite of her total absence of military qualification.

Fears and suspicions of political agendas are now running rife throughout Australia’s service personnel. They fear the insidious attacks on their dignity by those who have always found reason to confuse service of one’s country with militarism. They fear all they stand for being sullied by cheap shots from moralising television hosts.

Most of all, many fear there is nothing to protect them against civil litigation by supposed Iraqi and Afghan “victims” bringing claims through Australian courts. In the United Kingdom, hundreds of soldiers have suffered years of torment before the courts and the Iraq Historic Abuse Team (IHAT) inquiry, with no end to their nightmares yet in sight.

The same could happen here. Our service men and women are all too aware that the Brereton Inquiry could be but the start of an avalanche of inquiries and investigations stretching years into the future.

Hanging Australian service personnel out to dry now happens with distressing frequency. It certainly happened in service at home to Karel Dubsky. It has also happened on numerous occasions to Australian soldiers operating in Afghanistan. Consider the soldiers who spent years facing charges regarding the death of civilians in a night attack in Afghanistan, only to have the charges eventually withdrawn. There are other similar cases to which I am privy, each of which has brought untold distress to decent men and women doing their best in a morally vacant world.

Allegations of war crimes by Australian servicemen and women need to be seen through the prism of a war where front lines do not exist, and where it is almost impossible to judge the outcomes of their actions against the moral standards prevailing in leafy suburbs back home. At the very least, the media should abandon the sensationalism and scandal in which a small portion now revel.

Against this backdrop, it is only fair to ask, who defends our defenders?

Bill O’Chee is a former senator and a former officer in the Australian Army.

 

Opinion – Murky waters of SASR allegations

IT WAS ironic that on the 22nd anniversary of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment’s most costly disaster the regiment was facing allegations of serious misconduct. The allegations made against some SASR personnel who have operated in Afghanistan are that they encouraged, tolerated or concealed what might in some circumstances be considered unlawful acts.

The facts of those allegations are in dispute, and those who may be formally accused remain innocent until proven guilty.

The issue has ignited passionate debate within the wider defence community, which would be well advised to moderate open discussion, particularly on social media.

Ross Eastgate

The West Australian Editorial – Many Dangers Exist in Sitting in Judgement of the SAS

Modern war is like nothing that has gone before. The opposing sides do not line up in clear sight of each other, one army in red and the other in blue, and march at each other. No, today the fog of war weighs heavier than ever. So those who would sit in judgment of the special forces soldiers who fought in Afghanistan should keep a few things in mind.

Firstly, everything that you may have read in some media reports are purely allegations or accusations. It must be remembered that nothing has been proved against any members of the Perth-based Special Air Service Regiment. The reports have come from unnamed sources on one side only. We haven’t heard from the other side. We simply do not know the intimate details of what really went on — what these highly trained soldiers were really facing.

Secondly, these men were fighting to maintain the freedoms that we enjoy in this country — the key word here being “fighting” . They were in a war. It was a war unlike any other fought in history — a war in which the enemy was often almost impossible to identify. An enemy that may have masqueraded as a friend one day only to try to kill them the next. It is very easy to sit in our comfortable lounge rooms in the safety of Australia and pass judgment on situations that happened in circumstances many of us can’t , for a moment, even start to understand.

Thirdly, these men who fought for our way of life have now had unproven accusations hanging over their heads for many years. Why our top military leaders think this is an acceptable way to treat these men is incomprehensible. And what about the effect this is having on the soldiers’ families, who have had to sacrifice so much.

Former defence minister and head of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, has said he was increasingly worried for the welfare of soldiers caught up in the investigations and their families.

It is now recognised how poorly our country treated our soldiers when they came back from the Vietnam war, and how that had such a detrimental effect on their wellbeing. Surely our country has learnt enough not to treat another generation of soldiers the same way?

Are we a country that is going to tear down the very people who have put their lives on the line to maintain the life we so cherish? Is this the sort of country we want to be?

12th June 2018

SAS General Urged Troops to write of Abuse

The SAS became so concerned about alleged misconduct by its elite troopers that in late 2015 then SAS commander Major General Jeff Sengelman invited every member of the regiment to write to him personally about alleged misconduct.

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The extraordinary meeting ­was convened amid an atmosphere of deepening anxiety about alleged battlefield excesses, poor practices and a toxic culture within Australia’s special operations community.

General Sengelman, who declined The Weekend Australian’s request for an interview and who has since left the military, is understood to have become so concerned about mounting allega­tions of abuse, misconduct and even battlefield war crimes, that he resolved to personally petition the troops for information.

Former SAS captain turned Liberal MP Andrew Hastie was among those asked to write. He said yesterday “many good men and women had served in the SAS” but he supports an ongoing investigation into allegations of war crimes while Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson cautioned against “seeking to tear down” the SAS.

Mr Hastie said: “War is a terrible, degrading thing. Our soldiers have had to make tough decisions in complex, dangerous and uncertain environments. People are imperfect. But I also believe that everyone who wears the uniform is accountable to the Australian people. That is why these grave allegations of war crimes must be ­answered.”

See Andrew Hastie’s full statement on the allegations here.

Dr Nelson, a former defence minister, said SAS troops “for ­almost two decades have been sent repeatedly into dark places others dare not go with lists of terrorist insurgents to capture or kill” and that many had paid a heavy price, physically and psychologically. “To the nation, I say, ‘be careful. Be very careful in passing judgment on them’,” Dr Nelson said.

“Whatever wrongs may have been done, let us not become a people unworthy of the extraordinary courage of these young Australians. If anyone bears responsibility, let it be the political class, including me who sent them and the military leadership tasked with­ ­adherence to the truths by which we live.”

General Sengelman is understood to have addressed the troops at Campbell barracks at Swanbourne, Perth, with the ­imprimatur of Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, then chief of army. It is understood about 200 SAS operators attended the meeting and General Sengelman ­received about 200 letters in reply.

None of the letters contained allegations of criminal behaviour, which the army would have been obliged to report. Instead, they ­revealed a tsunami of drug and ­alcohol abuse, violence and bullying, reinforcing a concern already widespread in the army that the SAS’s elite and secretive culture had contributed to a breakdown of professional standards.

General Campbell would go on to ask Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin to call in the Defence Inspector-General to investigate the more serious allegations, partly based on feedback from the troops. Those allegations form the basis of the Inspector-General’s inquiry, which is due to finish later this year. One source familiar with the inquiry said General Sengelman’s appeal to the troops was a well-intentioned attempt by a commanding officer to sort gossip from fact.

“Angus’s starting point was very simple,’’ a source with knowledge of the inquiry told The Weekend Australian. “There’s just too much of it for all the allegations to be wrong.”

See the statement from the Australian War Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson here.

News of the letters came as ­reports emerged of a 2016 report into the SAS commissioned by General Sengelman. The report, conducted by defence consultant and sociologist Samantha Crompvoets, drew on interviews with serving SAS troopers who spoke of “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations”, as well as a culture of drug and alcohol abuse.

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James pointed out that General Campbell and Deputy Chief of Army Rick Burr were ex-special forces. “The two of them initiated this inquiry. If the two of them ­initiated this there would have to be a bloody good reason. Neither of them are idiots and they’re straight as a die,” Mr James said.

Air Chief Marshal Binskin said it was not appropriate to comment during the investigation.

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