Last week Defence admitted former Lt Colonel Karel Dubsky was an innocent victim of the Jedi Council witchhunt 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.