July 1, 2022

Australian Defence Force

Ghosts in the war machine

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Image via Alamy 

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

In an idle moment in April, between his appearances in the Federal Court, Person 35 – a former SAS comrade of Ben Roberts-Smith who had been called to testify on his friend’s behalf – scrolled through Instagram. There he found and liked a meme, featuring a woman dusted with cocaine and labelled “SAS whistleblowers” and a smiling man labelled “Fairfax Media”. Beneath were these words:   

When some fuckwit in a suit starts questioning your integrity using his fucktard snake logic he learnt getting his tonsils bruised by some lecturer’s spotty dick at their non-binary law school, remember one thing, that this cunt will be one of the first to be held down and drowned in a muddy puddle for his fancy jacket when society crumbles.

If/when society crumbles, it will be thanks to him and people like him thinking we all live on fucking Sesame Street and everyone adhering to their putrid way of thinking.

Person 35’s seeming endorsement of the above was immediately discovered, and read into the court transcript. He was asked if he agreed with it. Suddenly, the ex-soldier’s conviction faltered a little. But he did say that the scrutiny of returned soldiers was inappropriate, and conceded that he had previously liked other memes referring to defence whistleblowers as “rats” and “snitches”.  

Let’s look at the meme’s words, making no assumptions about its authorship. It offers the soldier as a kind of Batman figure: “society” is ruled by vacant cowards, but it’s quietly protected by noble men patrolling the shadows. It’s in those shadows that the “real” world exists, a primordial theatre of violence that few have the skill or courage to enter – or, in fact, to even acknowledge.

This perspective won’t admit that it might be more psychological than philosophical, that some men are personally attracted to blood and lawlessness; to mortal stakes and exotic clanship. That would diminish it. Instead, the misanthropy and bloodlust must achieve rhetorical grandeur.

And so all violence becomes valorous, and its scrutiny unjust. Lest society “crumble”, vengeance must be used to uphold it. Exterminate all the brutes. It doesn’t occur to the author that they might be the ones doing the crumbling.

Just how, precisely, do alleged war crimes in Afghanistan help protect Australia? I mean, the war’s champions can’t convincingly answer how our longest war has even helped Afghanistan.

Read that meme again. If it’s not already obvious, there’s no real love in it for the “society” it pretends to care about. Consider the contempt for the law; the pungent homophobia; the implicit hatred for pluralism, foreigners, accountability, rules of engagement. Consider its fetishisation of violence. It contains the pheromones of fascism.

I don’t believe this is a prevailing view in the Australian Defence Force, but ASIO is sufficiently concerned that last year it warned in its annual report that members of the extreme right were seeking to join the military. Late last year, the ADF announced it was sharpening its vetting procedures to filter out extremists.

It also goes the other way. A conspicuous number of former soldiers inhabit the far-right fringes, as reported in Nine’s investigations last year. And large numbers of ex-soldiers comprised Wilson Security’s controversial private security force in our Nauruan refugee camps. Some of these security guards were accused of assaulting refugees, shredding documents, spying on visiting Australian senators, and were antagonists of volunteers and Save the Children teachers in the camps. In fact, it was these security guards who were the source of spurious allegations – slanderously amplified by Scott Morrison at the time – that those teachers were coaching children to self-harm. “Wilson Security is in effect the on-island Gestapo,” a former guard, Jon Nichols, told me back in 2016. “[Local police apathy means that] Wilson becomes the be-all and end-all. You take ex-military members just returned from Afghanistan, Iraq and put them in charge of care for the same people they were fighting six months before and expect them to be compassionate? You’re an idiot.”

Which raises the question: how much hatred and suspicion was generated in the theatre of war? What unnecessary death, trauma and moral injury was visited upon soldiers in a seemingly endless war with confusingly shifting goalposts? And just what did we think we were doing there? Scrutiny must extend to those who commit our troops to war, but so far there’s been very little political accountability.

In a widely ignored paper published in March (Karen Middleton, in an exclusive story for The Saturday Paper, is an exception), Major General Andrew Hocking cautiously explored, in more than 100 pages, the “key organisational lessons from the Afghanistan campaign”.

He writes: “An unbalanced concentration on the top and bottom of the Defence enterprise can lead to a lack of education and investment at the operational level. Failure to invest at the operational level generates increased risk that sacrifices made at the tactical level will not align with or contribute to desired outcomes at the strategic level.”

The revelation is almost obscured by the jargon. This use of jargon may be partly instinctual, but another part, as Middleton notes, is the understandable difficulty in explicitly declaring to bereaved families that loved ones perhaps died “for no strategic benefit”. This grossly aggravates an already profound trauma to families, and they deserve vastly more from our political leaders.

To cap one section of his report on ADF culture, Major-General Hocking approvingly quotes Wynton Marsalis, an American jazz trumpeter and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves.”

Hocking might be open to truths revealing themselves, but the previous defence minister was not. Peter Dutton had little to say about the war crimes allegations, was belligerent about his critics, overturned the ADF’s own recommendation that SAS troops return their medals, and refused to table in parliament – as his predecessor Linda Reynolds had promised – any of the six updates he received from an oversight panel regarding reforms flowing from the Brereton report on alleged war crimes.

Richard Marles is now defence minister, and we can only hope that his responsibilities are prosecuted with vastly greater humility and transparency – and that the ADF is not treated as a giant political wedge, or an inflection point for the culture wars.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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