The view from Billinudgel

Warrior culture
The allegations of Australian war crimes have shattered the national digger mythology

Scott Morrison warned us that we would be shocked by the Brereton report’s allegations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, and this is one promise he has kept.

The Aussie diggers are revered figures, embodying the quintessential national virtue of mateship. But now we learn there is credible evidence that some 19 Australians allegedly murdered at least 39 unarmed Afghan prisoners and civilians, and then conspired to cover up these crimes.

How could this happen? All too easily, according to Justice Paul Brereton. The Australian Defence Force, and more particularly the Special Air Service Regiment, had simply lost control.

It had fallen into a self-centred warrior culture based on status, power and competitiveness. Short cuts became common, and then rules were deliberately broken. And once the law had been swept aside, it was open slather.

Perhaps the most appalling example was the practice known as “blooding” – presumably adopted from the barbaric English pastime of fox hunting – where young initiates were urged or even ordered to shoot prisoners in order to make their first kills.

This is the kind of savagery that the Geneva Convention was supposed to have wiped out, but over successive conflicts those rules of war have been ignored or eroded, with violent acts undeclared or hidden behind propaganda campaigns.

We knew at least some of what went on in Vietnam and Iraq, where torture and atrocities were condoned, mainly by the Americans but at times with the connivance of their allies, including Australians.

It seems that killing was not only acceptable but celebrated, and beneath it was a belief that it’s better to go out in a blaze of glory than to shirk danger.

This, of course, is the attitude that wins Victoria Crosses – there is always a large element of recklessness in the sort of courage required to continually submit oneself to unimaginable peril. And it is why we are so ready to forgive the actions of soldiers in warzones. This is in no sense an excuse, but at least part of the explanation is that, from whichever angle you look at it, war is hell.

But this time it has gone much too far. The ADF chief, General Angus Campbell, has drawn a heavy line, apologising to Afghans and Australians alike, and promising repentance, reparation, recompense and ­– when the investigation is completed – retribution.

It will take more than the odd press conference to renew the once honourable reputation of our diggers – who, as Campbell rightly says, are just as horrified as the rest of us at what has been revealed.

It is to the credit of the ADF and the SAS, and to the whistleblowers, the investigators, the media and, yes, to the politicians, that the disasters have been confronted openly and firmly, and there is a determination to deal with it.

And for this, at least, Australians can be justly proud.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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