Politics

Australian Defence Force

Distortion nation
Why are we more outraged by cheating cricketers than alleged war crimes in Afghanistan?

Image via ABC Four Corners

Think of the most recent event that galvanised the Australian public in an explosion of moral protest and outrage. The event that most recently caused such a dramatic reappraisal of a national institution that it threatened to spill over into an examination of the national culture and character itself. The event that caused even Australians without any direct interest or concern in the people and institutions involved to express deep misgivings and anguish for something like the health of the national soul.

This event should have been the public release of the Brereton report, which occurred nearly a month ago now. After a four-year investigation into allegations about the behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, Justice Paul Brereton found that Australian soldiers had regularly planted “throwdowns” – weapons and other equipment, including radios – on civilians they’d killed, so as to create the false impression that the dead civilians were actually enemy combatants (who could be lawfully killed during battle). He found that many of these civilians had been killed by Australian troops acting intentionally: in other words, that Australian soldiers murdered civilians, often in cold blood. He found that senior soldiers often “blooded” their subordinates by ordering them to murder prisoners to notch up their first “kills”. And he found that there was a culture of cover-up in the Australian Defence Force that prevented officers above the level of patrol commander from knowing anything about these practices.

In short, Brereton found that Australian soldiers in Afghanistan committed war crimes: perhaps the worst of all crimes. The kind committed by such monsters as those Japanese generals who ordered the massacres of Australian prisoners of war at Parit Sulong (in what is now Malaysia) and on the island of Ambon (Indonesia) in 1942, or during horrific civil wars in other places like the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Sri Lanka. Now, Australia’s soldiers are the monsters.

Yet, although a Guardian Australia headline declared that Brereton’s report “shocked Australia”, I’m not so sure it has. Yes, the report was covered extensively by that outlet as well as by The Australian and the ABC. Yes, the report’s release caused some difficult moments for many in the ADF, from chief Angus Campbell down. But even Campbell simply apologised for any “wrongdoing” and promised to “set things right”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison established an official investigation. But the condemnation was limp. It was almost as if Brereton had produced merely one more report of systemic failure, like an annual Closing the Gap report. The public response has been curiously muted.

Much less muted was, for instance, the national response to “sandpapergate”, the revelations that the captain and vice-captain of the Australian men’s cricket team green-lit a plan to unlawfully tamper with the ball during a test match in South Africa in March 2018. Steve Smith, the captain and the world’s best batsman, was formally sanctioned by the International Cricket Council by way of a single-match ban. But Cricket Australia and Australian cricket fans converged in a rare unity: a single match was nowhere near harsh enough, given the damage Smith and co had done to the mythic “tough but fair” reputation that the national team had forged for itself over decades. Fans and non-fans took to Twitter, talkback radio, anywhere really, to express their disgust, their dismay, their fury. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, declared the event a “shocking disappointment” and called for the strongest possible sanctions. Eventually Smith and his two co-conspirators were forced to serve an entire year’s suspension from all forms of the game. Somehow, sandpapergate felt more shocking, more challenging to Australia’s national psyche, than what Brereton unearthed in the sands of Afghanistan.

Australians have been led to believe a number of things about what Australian forces have been doing in Afghanistan. That the initial invasion, within a month of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States by mostly Saudi Arabian men, was not conducted in self-defence and was not sanctioned by the United Nations – and was therefore illegal under international law – was very quickly forgotten. Rather, Australians were encouraged by our political leaders, most notably by then prime minister John Howard, to subscribe to President George Bush’s narrative, encapsulated in the codename “Operation Enduring Freedom”. Australians, and the forces who served in Afghanistan and then Iraq, were told they were both defending the free world from the scourge of Islamist terrorism and liberating impoverished populations of Middle Eastern countries from evil dictators. How, then, did they come to execute civilians in the desert? And why did those who blew the whistle, such as David McBride, and the journalists he spoke to, become the primary targets of criminal investigation?

The most fundamental, almost axiomatic belief is that Australia intervenes on the side of the good and the right. This is what we routinely believe about Australian military involvement. Charles Bean’s dispatches from Gallipoli and the Western Front even generated a myth that transcended ordinary martial nationalism to acquire the status of a “legend” about the national character. If there were any doubts about what the new nation was doing in an imperial war among European powers between 1914 and 1918, they were dispelled by our heroic defence of freedom against the Nazi and Japanese threats after 1939. The myths entrenched in the two world wars have endured ever since, through Korea, Timor, the Solomons and the Gulf, and have been strong enough to paper over the real concerns about exactly what Australians were doing in South Africa between 1899 and 1902, and in Vietnam. The sacred status that Anzac Day has increasingly assumed in the secular nation since the 1980s depends, I think, on an a priori assumption that the human sacrifices have been noble.


The ADF continues to benefit from the myths created a century ago, but the images those myths evoke – perhaps the slopes of Gallipoli, or the trenches of Pozières – seem very far away from the activities and the behaviour of the SAS in the hills of Afghanistan. Given the ADF’s protected status in the nation’s cultural politics, we might have expected Brereton’s revelations to provoke a response similar to, and perhaps even more furious than, those that followed the exposure of cheating cricketers. So it’s worth asking why they have not.

That Brereton’s report came at the end of this particular year might be significant: perhaps our muted reaction is a reflection of our collective COVID weariness. But that doesn’t seem right. When a Chinese government official tweeted the (digitally altered) image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodstained knife to a child’s throat, Morrison’s reaction, and that of large sections of the media and the public, was swift and ferocious – much more so than to the war crimes revelations themselves. We must know that the tweeted image is not the problem, but the symptom. The war crimes described in Brereton’s report – their sheer number and scale – haven’t just caused headaches for the ADF. They’ve become the latest and greatest evidence that Australia can no longer claim the high moral ground it presumes. How can Australia condemn human rights abuses by China if its elite troops are shooting civilians dead in cold blood?

Perhaps our muted reaction is because Brereton’s findings still have the status of allegations, not yet proven beyond reasonable doubt. No doubt Campbell and Morrison are mindful, in their public language, of the presumption of innocence for individual soldiers, as they should be. But that doesn’t stop them, or the rest of us, from asserting the conscience of the nation. That’s what was there in the public reaction to cheating cricketers that seems missing in the response to the Brereton report.

Sixteen years ago, Robert Manne, with his student David Corlett, wrote about what they called “the new politics of indifference”. Their subject was Australia’s remarkable new approach to the treatment of refugees who had arrived by boat, an approach that adopted indefinite administrative incarceration in remote and then “offshore” prisons, then the secretive interdiction of vessels in Indonesian waters, and then the actual return of refugees to their home countries, in many cases to be tortured or even killed, thus violating the most fundamental principle in the Refugee Convention: the principle of non-refoulement. Within a few short years, Manne and Corlett observed, Australia had shifted from a country that had welcomed nearly 5000 Indochinese “boat people” between 1976 and 1994 to one that had become by 2004 entirely and determinedly indifferent to people fleeing war and persecution from the very places – Afghanistan and Iraq – where its troops were fighting, apparently for freedom.

The Australian indifference to refugees who have arrived by boat has endured, to the point that we’ve long since stopped even pretending to care about the physical and mental health of the people we imprison. The politics of indifference has spread, to the jobless, the homeless and the incarcerated: consider robodebt, or the appalling rate of the JobSeeker payment, or the skyrocketing numbers of Aboriginal prisoners. The Australian nation is no longer moved by human suffering, which if anything makes us more resolute: asylum seekers who self-harm are not suffering unbearably, but are instead trying to manipulate our good natures. The Sri Lankan family snatched from Biloela in March 2018 is preparing to spend its third Christmas in detention on Christmas Island. Nor are we moved by appeals to what Tony Abbott used to refer to as “the better angels of our nature”. Gone, surely, is any vestige of the mythic sympathy for the underdog that we once liked to believe defined the national culture.

There’s a harsh and hardened callousness, now, to the national culture, which infects everything from legislation to public opinion. We shirk moral responsibility in all domains, from the climate emergency to foreign aid. Where appeals to empathy are made, it’s on behalf of those who abuse their power rather than the powerless, as when NT police commissioner Jamie Chalker asked the public this week to “walk in the footsteps” of officers who abused a 12-year-old child. Self-interest and strategic alignments are our only reasons for doing anything beyond our borders. There are very few leaders and institutions that are even capable, anymore, of providing moral leadership. Compare, for instance, Jacinda Ardern’s moral leadership on a range of issues – following the Christchurch massacre, on climate change – with the succession of recent prime ministers in Canberra. The most basic prerequisite for political leadership in this country seems to be one’s ability to say the word “unapologetic” as often as possible.

In this moral environment, is it any wonder that our collective response to Brereton’s findings has been subdued? The ADF is currently searching inwards for the source of what Campbell called the “distorted culture” that produced senior SAS operatives so morally bankrupt that they could routinely murder civilians – the people for whom they were supposedly fighting – and cover it up. But the distortion extends well beyond the boundaries of the ADF, to the broader culture of the Australian nation.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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