ADF revelations show war itself is the crime

November 26, 2020
The government's preferred image of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. Photo: Australian Department of Defence

We’ve heard a lot in the last few days about how “shocking” the revelations of these Australian war crimes are.

Some of us, though, have been less than shocked. Some of us understand what war means. We always understood that when Australia invaded one of the poorest countries in the world, one that had never attacked us, supposedly to “deny opportunities for terrorists”, then innocent people would be murdered, and murdered in droves.

We understood this because we understand that war itself is the crime.

From the moment that war was a reality, we knew that countless Afghans would lose everything — their lives, their loved ones, their livelihood, any semblance of a normal life — and that many others would have no choice but to become refugees and thereby make themselves targets in another brutal Australian war, the war against asylum.

Australia isn’t a major military power. We often focus on that, as a comforting way to minimise our very real capacity to visit calamity on people beyond our borders.

The ADF might be just a minor player in the great game of international warfare. But in its capacity for throat-slitting, kicking people off cliffs or gunning them down while they’re clutching their prayer beads in a field, it’s just been certified as world-class.

Justice Paul Brereton makes it clear that the conditions that allowed those sadistic executions to take place are systemic in the army, even if, as a senior Australian Defence Force (ADF) officer himself, he downplays that fact.

To some of us, that’s no surprise. The units responsible for these outrages are the same ones that flew a swastika flag on an army vehicle in 2007, or who had to be formally ordered not to wear death symbols, or who “blooded” new recruits by making them murder Afghans.

They not only went undisciplined for years; they have been decorated with the highest honours. When the Senate includes the “butcher of Fallujah”, Jim Molan, that’s not much of a surprise.

The depravity of ADF personnel now on the public record is hard for any normally constituted person to fathom. What do we hear in that chilling Four Corners video as an Australian soldier executes a young Afghan cowering in the field? No attempt to prevent a cold-blooded slaying, no outcry of horror, just the casual indifference of the soldier’s partner to whether another human is slaughtered or not. The only moment with a sense of urgency or emotion is when he calls off his dog, more concerned about the animal than about the life that’s just been terminated before his eyes.

Brereton’s report records 39 cases of murder and two of what he calls “cruel treatment” and that’s just between 2009 and 2013. How many other cases of murder and torture are there in the other eight and half years of Australia’s longest war, ones we don’t know about or don’t have usable evidence for?

The English language, in its richness, has a word for killers who gratuitously murder civilians and non-combatants for political reasons: “terrorist”. The term has been conspicuously absent from official reactions to Brereton’s report. But this report confirms that Australian terrorists in ADF uniforms were on a five-year rampage in Afghanistan.

Increasing the SAS deployment there in 2007, Howard said that “there is a lot at stake if terrorism acquires a safe haven again in Afghanistan”. Yet the safest havens, the ones that would never be attacked by Western helicopters, were in the ADF’s own bases in Uruzgan province.

This is the “warrior culture” that we somehow expected to “bring democracy” to Afghanistan. What an edifying demonstration we’ve seen of Australian democracy at work in the context of this report: journalists raided, whistleblowers persecuted with the full might of the state for courageously revealing just what this warrior culture meant, while the criminals and psychopaths responsible for it were routinely defended by politicians, and decorated by the highest Australian dignitaries.

Now, after the report, we’re witnessing the obligatory expressions of horror, part of a concerted attempt to preserve public confidence in the army and, indeed, the political establishment that’s so heavily invested in it.

It won’t be too long before the scandal is forgotten in the next vicious spasm of Australian politics, as Islamophobic and militaristic as it is mediocre. One thing we can be sure of is that, if, God forbid, a reprisal attack occurs on Australian soil, no part of the blame will be attributed to the SAS.

Less than 24 hours after the release of the Brereton report, The Australian was already tiring of the criticism of the army. On November 20, its editorial suggested that the report had gone too far in critiquing the SAS’s “warrior ethos”: that ethos “is vital”, the paper stated, and it should not be disparaged.

Further away from the far-right, Islamophobic gutter, in the supposedly progressive media, we’ve heard about how the actions of a few individuals “will damage the legacy” or “taint the contribution” of the tens of thousands of other Australian soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.

Shame on journalists and commentators who put their names to those ideas.

Australia’s role in Afghanistan wasn’t a “contribution” to the cause of global peace or democracy, but to the destruction of a country. Originally promised for the benefit of Howard’s re-election campaign in 2001, without the US asking or even always being enthusiastic about our contribution, it was later continued for the base political advantage, and the slavish US me-tooism, of the so-called leaders of Australian politics.

With Brereton’s report, those politicians have finally been forced to pull their head out of the sand. The “hear no evil, see no evil” charade that has surrounded the Afghan deployment for so long is now, in part, over.

But it’s important not to overstate the likely consequences of the revelations, and to read what Brereton himself has said about his report’s purpose: “Moral authority,” he writes, “is an element of combat power. If we do not hold ourselves, on the battlefield, to at least to the standards we expect of our adversaries, we deprive ourselves of that moral authority, and that element of our combat power.”

Brereton sees his report, in other words, as distasteful but necessary housekeeping, essential to allow the ADF to maintain future deployments overseas.

I think I can speak for people here in saying that we see things differently. We could have demonstrated today outside the commando regiment base at Holsworthy. But we don’t need to. We’re outside the Defence Department because we want no part in Australia’s wars overseas, whether they’re fought by commandos, the SAS or the regular armed forces, or whether the foreigners they kill are killed “legally” or not.

We refuse the idea that the crimes of the SAS are anything but the start of a long story. We refuse the idea that any country can impose peace at gunpoint anywhere in the world. And we demand not only that the SAS be disbanded, but that we divert the billions of taxpayer dollars currently lavished on war to the sectors of our society that our politicians see as less of a priority — social welfare, education, health, reconciliation — expenditure that might actually make this country a better, less vicious place.

[Academic and refugee rights activist Nick Riemer delivered this speech to a snap action called by Sydney Stop the War Coalition on November 23.]

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