Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site
  • Home
  • Vol 30 No 23
  • The shadow of responsibility: Australian war crimes allegations in Afghanistan

The shadow of responsibility: Australian war crimes allegations in Afghanistan



In 2016, Australia’s Special Operations Commander, Major General Jeff Sengelman, was troubled enough to concede that, ‘A growing body of actual and anecdotal evidence from the past decade suggests that the personal and professional ethics of some [in the Australian Defence Forces] have been deeply compromised.’ He was particularly concerned by alleged misdeeds allegedly committed ADF personnel in Afghanistan.

Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) General Angus Campbell delivers the findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry (Getty Pool)

The findings of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry, a four-year investigation released last week, albeit in heavily redacted form, bore out much of those concerns. Compiled by a team of investigators led by NSW Supreme Court of Appeal Justice Paul Brereton, the inquiry found ‘credible evidence’ that 39 Afghan non-combatants and prisoners were allegedly killed by Australian special forces personnel. These findings involved prisoner executions, the planting of weapons upon the slain victims and cover-ups along the chain of command. Two others were reportedly also treated with cruelty while under the control of Australian personnel. The report recommends the referral of 36 ‘matters’ to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, spanning 23 incidents and the involvement of 19 individuals.

There had been many dress rehearsals prior to the report’s findings to reflect upon the nature of responsibility for such crimes. But after September 11 2001, the cult of Anzac and the elevated standing of Australia’s armed forces became an unimpeachable standard of public service. That such forces might have engaged in acts of cold brutality did not sit well with such ennobling mythology, being, in the words of the ABC’s political editor Andrew Probyn, ‘shaken by a murderous few with maximum firepower and discretion but minimum oversight.’

In view of such a shaking experience, the discussion in Australia as to how such atrocities are to be approached is telling. The call for responsibility has varied by degrees. Most tend to some variant of the rotten apple theory: a few particular fruits that may be isolated and extruded from the barrel. Culpability can thereby be confined, preserving the integrity of other military personnel and, importantly, political decision makers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, is doing his best to limit culpability: these alleged atrocities involved the ‘disturbing and distressing’ conduct of the abominable few. Thinking less of the Afghan victims, his concern has been for the innocent service personnel who have donned military uniform, that they ‘in no way feel reflected upon by the actions alleged of a number, a small number within our Defence Force.’

The Brereton report does its bit to sharpen focus upon the alleged criminal conduct of the few. The ‘fog of war’ defence, for instance, is dismissed, suggesting a narrow, criminal focus for a few steely killers. 'None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle.'

ADF Chief Angus Campbell has adopted a workmanlike, administrative line by promising to disband the SAS’s 2nd Squadron while referring individual personnel ‘alleged of unlawful criminal conduct’ to the Office of the Special Investigator. As for superiors and those along the chain? ‘Individuals alleged to be negligent in the performance of their duty will be managed through administrative and disciplinary processes.’


'One thing that the Brereton report does acknowledge, with logical force, is who is not responsible for the alleged crimes.'


Independent Senator Rex Patrick, himself a former ADF member, suggests holding individual perpetrators to account and ‘those in the ADF chain of command who were responsible for the units and operations in question.’ A bit broader focus than Campbell’s, but not by much.

Conspicuously absent in the broader discussion is the role played by Australia’s top military commanders and, importantly, the political decision makers behind deploying such troops. John Howard, the prime minister responsible for committing Australian forces to Afghanistan in 2001, was very quick in responding to the report’s findings by praising ‘the bravery and professionalism of those [Australian] forces’ while carefully underlining the abhorrent ‘behaviour of a small group of special forces personnel who, it is claimed, amongst other things, were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 Afghan citizens.’

Such methods of isolating the significance of military brutality has precedent. The killing of 500 unarmed women, children and elderly men in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai on March 16 1968 by soldiers of the US Americal Division convulsed debate on the depth, and extent of responsibility, in the United States. Despite complicity, officer cover-ups and institutional denial, only one conviction, that of First Lieutenant William Calley Jr., resulted. As international law academic and activist Richard A. Falk suggested in 1974, it was ‘clear that My Lai as a publicly condemned massacre was artificially isolated from the overall framework of the war.’

The focus on culture — the trendy word of the moment regarding Australia’s special forces and one used 122 times in the Brereton report — modifies the moral context of human agency. A culture suggests environmental control and contamination, not high-end command responsibility. Spot the culture; reform it. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sees it in such terms. ‘The Chief of the Defence Force now has the urgent responsibility to reform the culture of this units and their command structures.’

The gates of accountability, in other words, stop before Parliament, The Lodge and Kirribilli House. They lie in military ‘structures’, not political decisions that led to 20 rotations involving 3,000 personnel in a seemingly interminable war that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared was neither won, nor lost. The report states as much: ‘It was not a risk [the unlawful killings] to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted. Ministers were briefed that the task was manageable. The responsibility lies in the Australian Defence Force, not with the government of the day.’

This selective, and slanted view, proved unconvincing to those persuaded by the broader school of accountability. Western Australia Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John was clear that the line between the alleged atrocities in Afghanistan and Australia’s institutions is uncomfortably clearer than one might think, not merely the isolated blood-soaked work of a ‘couple of rogue SAS solders’.

According to the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, an institution can be seen to be the lengthened shadow of one man. If institutions are shadows of men, they are cast far and wide. ‘The politicians who sent [the special forces] to #Afghanistan & kept them there for over a decade,’ tweeted Senator Steele-John, ‘must be held to account, as must the chain of command who either didn’t know when they should’ve or knew & failed to act’.

One thing that the Brereton report does acknowledge, with logical force, is who is not responsible for the alleged crimes. ‘Perhaps the single most effective indication that there is a commitment to cultural reform is the demonstration that those who have been instrumental in the exposure of misconduct, or are known to have acted with propriety and probity, are regarded as role models.’ It took the tireless work of helicopter gunner Ronald Ridenhour to expose the atrocity of My Lai. It has taken the revelations of Major David McBride, aided by ABC journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, to bring the abuses of Australian special forces to light in a public forum. Yet McBride remains the target of prosecution, facing five charges of pilfering Commonwealth property and disclosing sensitive material to journalists. Reforming that punitive culture might be a start.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) General Angus Campbell delivers the findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry (Getty Pool)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, ADF, Australia, Afghanistan, SAS, Brereton Report



submit a comment

Existing comments

"the cult of Anzac and the elevated standing of Australia's armed forces": every year we ponder about what Anzac means to this nation. This is part of the reason Australians have been so shaken by these revelatory allegations. We envisaged our soldiers as, without exception, being able to withstand the unimaginable. It has been a proud tradition. A lot to live up to for our armed forces. Who ultimately takes responsibility for cold-blooded killing? Australians need to do some hard thinking about the culture of going to war and about the price we pay for doing so.

Pam | 24 November 2020  

Dr Kampmark's perceptive analysis of Australia's alleged war crimes does not stop there. All those who supported the Governments' commitment to the 'war' now have appalling outcomes to reflect on, and a lesson for the future, It's not culture. It's the crudest of politics.

brian davies | 24 November 2020  

Lots more on this in the Heritage Guardians campaign against the War Memorial extensions http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/petition-on-change-org-against-proposed-war-memorial-extensions/

David Stephens | 24 November 2020  

Frankly I think that Brereton's report should be sent unedited to an international war crimes tribunal. Take all of this away from Australia and get independent examination and justice and if needed, punishment.

Tim | 24 November 2020  

Dr Kampmark commences talking about “misdeeds allegedly committed.” Later, of “crimes” and “Afghan victims.” Paragraph 23 of the Brereton Report is clear: “…ultimately there may not be admissible evidence to prove the matter, beyond reasonable doubt, in a court of law…as in common experience with commissions of inquiry, it does not follow from a finding in this Report that there is credible information of a war crime, that there will be a prosecution, let alone a conviction.” One might have expected that those eager to pass judgement would have learnt some lessons from Cardinal Pell’s acquittal by the High Court. Apparently not. The ABC headline read, “Brereton report on Australian war crimes.” What about accountability along the chain of command? The same Defence Department that instructed RAAF pilots to employ a gender perspective on bombing operations, and encouraged a bearded navy recruit to paint his pinkie fingernail in the cause of gender equality, are now running for cover using the Sergeant Schultz defence, “I know nothing!” However, Australia is a signatory to the Yamashita Standard. General Yamashita was held accountable for the actions of soldiers under his command in the Philippines in WW2.

Ross Howard | 24 November 2020  

“Anzackery” has to end. It’s one of the great confidence tricks of all time. Australian politicians, industrialists and media barons waxed lyrical about support of the “motherland” in 1914. When the the cost, the horror, became apparent in 1915-18, a ridiculous myth of “winning our nationhood” and the uniqueness of the Australian soldier was cooked up by the same conniving set and, sadly, swallowed by the Australians of that time and their descendants. War is ALWAYS wrong. Training people to be soldiers requires the trainers to do “moral harm” (not my phrase that one) to the trainees. To be an effective soldier, you have to accept that deliberately doing physical harm, even fatal harm, to a fellow person is acceptable, even desirable. That’s immoral.

Gerard Hore | 24 November 2020  

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

AO | 24 November 2020  

It’s inexplicable but it’s true: from time to time, inexplicably deviant tares sprout among the wheat, in the Church, in the armed forces, in the police, in business, in politics, in the milieux of Epstein and Weinstein. The tares should be uprooted and burned. That they existed should be a subject of reflection. But, a pestering guilt-mongering that seeks to stigmatise in perpetual sin the various institutions in which the tares grew is excessive, given that the guilt-mongerers live in an “Australia” which once used to massacre Aboriginal peoples. Do those guilt-mongerers lash themselves daily as genocidists? If they don’t, why lash with collective guilt institutions which are mostly faultless? If they do, look up ‘cultural Marxism’, the goals for which it carps, and perhaps the phrase ‘useful idiots’.

roy chen yee | 24 November 2020  

Fifty years ago on Remembrance Day 1970, I was ordered to Vietnam as a 22 year old conscript, to fight a war that in hindsight, we should never have entered into. Like Iraq and Afghanistan, it was based on lies and misinformation.Since April 30th 1975, I have continued to ponder on the consequences for we Veterans ; more importantly the Vietnamese people, who did not want us there anyway. We have paid a very heavy price. The revelations of the last few weeks come as no surprise but are still very disturbing. I completely agree with you Binoy. I also support the opinions of Pam, Brian and Tim. Ultimately our political leaders who ordered us to go to these unsanctioned and illegal Wars at the behest of our so-called 'Great and powerful friends', need to be held responsible for the dreadful consequences we now see. Congratulations to those brave men who blew the whistle and the journalists who publicized in the public interest.They should be praised, not hounded by the AFP, ASIO and other government agencies trying to do a cover up.

Gavin O'Brien | 24 November 2020  

‘Individuals alleged to be negligent in the performance of their duty will be managed through administrative and disciplinary processes.’ So will Howard ever be held responsible for sending troops into Iraq on a known lie of Weapons of Mass Destruction? Blair had to face an enquiry in England. It looks as if the rogue SAS soldiers and Howard acted on the same moral rationalization of existential ethics.: "My mates were doing it so I joined in rather than risk losing the international/SAS mates. Forget about principles" And culture is vital. It eats rules and regulations for breakfast. Leaders hold central responsibility for the culture and cultural myths like ANZAC.. So one could predict that the further up the chain of command and political responsibility this matter goes the more the grunts on the ground will be blamed. I agree with Tim we cannot prosecute this matter it ought go to the international war crimes tribunal.

Michael D. Breen | 25 November 2020  

Astounding but hardly surprising to read Roy's lush poetical waxing about tares and the like. Who can disagree with him, given his particular specialisation in sea-law? But hark ye; what's this? The Commos are to blame yet again? Are there no limits to his skills, one wonders, in manufacturing new narratives of resurrection discourse? All of which seems to point to the adage: never miss an opportunity to distract readers of this Jesuit journal from confronting a sordid aspect of our recent past by pointing the finger towards an imagined enemy whom Roy's brand of theology and politics would instinctively hold responsible for this shockingly inhumane crime?

Michael Leonard FURTADO | 25 November 2020  

Very little seems to have been said about the real "culture" now at work in most militaries around the world: that which is inculcated in training even regular troops. Let us not mince words: commando and other "special force" units are highly trained assassins. One can argue to what extent assassination is ever morally justifiable. Is there some principle of double effect, for instance, as in medicine (to discern alleviation of suffering in extremis from outright euthanasia)? Must one kill if that is the only possible choice for incapacitating an opponent and safeguarding others? I was always under the impression that the first recourse in battle is to disable an enemy, not to kill. In the hackneyed "fog of war" scenario, this is of course an ideal practically impossible to meet, and most of us except convinced pacifists can live with that. Yet what does one read of modern military training? That killing an enemy human being outright has now become the first, not the last, resort. How does that square with the laws of war? I can't help remembering the film "Sink the Bismarck" when the WREN deep under the Admiralty in London, after the signal of Bismarck's sinking is read, remarks "I thought I would be cheering by now, but somehow I can't" - and the chief of operations answers "I know what you mean. It's always like that." What has happened to that level of moral discernment in the professional formation of our hardened, sharpened, deadly modern armies (not just Australia's)?

Fred Green | 25 November 2020  

Thank you for your insightful analysis of the shameful actions of a number of ADF personnel in Afghanistan. For those who have seen the film footage of these crimes on TV news, there is no doubt about the criminality involved and it is to be hoped that the appropriate action will be taken against those who perpetrated them I fully agree with Binoy that reforming the punitive culture against whistle blowers like Major David McBride, Bernard Collaery, Witness K and Julian Assange by the current government needs to stop. These people took a great risk to ensure that crimes committed were exposed. They are not criminals and the determination by AG Christian Porter to pursue them is vindictive persecution of the highest order. This should be condemned along with the crimes that these people revealed. However, I think that there is another matter that this issue should force our leaders to review. Gavin O'Brien's comments about the wars our political leaders involve us in is very important. The wars he listed - Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and there are others - had nothing whatsoever to do with Australia's security. They were wars started by US leaders under the influence of the US Military Industrial Complex (MIC) to take resources from other nations, to increase the profits of US corporations and to extend US political power. Many Australians believe that we have to do what the US wants us to do in order to protect our national security. There are great moral implications involved in such reasoning as it has involved many of our young people in unjust wars and has tarnished Australia's image in the world at large. It has also made our nation vulnerable to military attack - eg on US bases such as Pine Gap from where US killer dromes are guided - and to acts of terrorism.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 25 November 2020  

A nicely written article. Borrowing from Matthew 11 "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces." I don't seek to condemn nor defend the soldiers or their actions, these remain allegations until tried by law; putting a weapon in a someone's hand while they are constantly under real threat of personal danger then expecting always judicious outcomes from them would seem naive. Probyn's "murderous few..." has a salacious savagery ring to it but doesn't seem to consider that the weapons were forces - issued and required to be kept by the soldiers whereas a murderer arms themselves of their own volition.

ray | 26 November 2020  

Michael Leonard Furtado: “never miss an opportunity to distract readers of this Jesuit journal from confronting a sordid aspect of our recent past by pointing the finger towards an imagined enemy” This being a non-canonical issue, you may well be correct that the enemy is imagined, but the first thing to do is to be clear on what it is that is being imagined. Is this a case of a failure within an institution or, as seems to be suggested by others here, that the institution itself is a failure?

roy chen yee | 26 November 2020  

These war crimes, the ones we know about are shocking, and the culprits should be brought to trial and rooted out. But we live quite hypocritically. Australian society and authorities obsess over a handful of military murders by our elite forces while not lifting a finger to protect Julian Assange who had the infrastructure to tell us so much more about other war crimes much larger, that should also be brought to light. If we are fair dinkum about war atrocities and justice and other illegal activity by governments or others, let us maintain a broad focus and not try to salve our consciences by scapegoating. Of course we have to deal with these crimes within our jurisdiction, but let us also protect one of our own innocent sons who also has justice as an interest.

John Whitehead | 27 November 2020  

Binoy, I agree the whistleblower should be exonerated. With a son about to join the navy (currently reading a book on SAS survival) I cautioned him about this "culture" bravado only this week. There is a big difference between kill or be killed in combat and murder in cold blood, especially if the cover up included planting of weapons. And Calley's massacre at My Lai is well documented on the wall of the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh city. If it is proved that the members of the SAS committed these crimes, then they should spend 10 years in goal reflecting on the incidents. And Roy has a point. Tares among the wheat. Wolves among the sheep - especially in our church. And very very few plucked out or dealt with by the Bishops (shepherds) who guaranteed the safety of the children and then turned a blind eye to their rapes and suicides. Made token reparation through NRS and BS apologies after decades of studied ignorance of the problems when their real objective was to protect reputation, preserve lifestyle and plunder collective church property. Roy also has a point about our Colonial massacres and there were hundreds of those. Just goes to show why the British settlement of Australia was a conquest. George III (George William Frederick; 4 June 1738 – 29 January 1820) was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of the two countries on 1 January 1801, after which he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death in 1820. Back then it was the notion of racial and cultural superiority. Guns and canons against spears and boomerangs. The quaint notion that the Irish were pigs. That aboriginals were prey to be hunted for sport. Not much has changed. You'd have to ask, how does a child defend itself against a pedophile or a bullet? And Roy, as to collective guilt lashing, maybe we should all take the blame and do something about it.

Francis Armstrong | 28 November 2020  

In 2006 General Sir Michael Rose called for Tony Blair's impeachment for taking Britain into Iraq. Quite correctly, there was the Chilcot enquiry into Britain's participation in the Iraq War. In Australia we have not had an enquiry into any of the wars we have participated in since and including Vietnam. Ross Howard is right, any allegations of crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan will have to be tested in our courts of law. I do not share Gerard Hore's view that 'War is ALWAYS wrong'. These days those who defended their lands against colonial invaders would rightly be regarded as waging a just war. When George W Bush launched the so called 'War on Terror' it was redubbed 'The War on Islam' in the Middle East. It led directly to the birth of ISIS. Whatever wrong we from the West commit in the Islamic World will come home to haunt us. The way we deal with Iran will have severe consequences. Acting sensibly in foreign policy, this includes the wars we wage, is common sense. It might even lead to a better future.

Edward Fido | 30 November 2020  

Having served may years in British SF. I find this very disturbing and insulting to the International Related Regiment. What has happened is not on and has to be stopped immediately. As such those found guilty of these atrocities, being aiding and abetting to or in anyway trying to cover these issues up should be sentenced to the full extent of Australian Military Law. The NCO Patrol Commanders should be charged with every offence its subordinates are charged with. Likewise the CO Troup Commanders and CO Squadron Commanders if "in country" at time of events, should be charged with every offence its NCO's and Troupers are charged with. Once found guilty the NCO's and CO's being in country at the time should be sent to Kabul for sentencing and punishment.

Olesarge | 01 December 2020  

I do not agree with Olesarge. Service personnel who allegedly committed serious crimes in Afghanistan should, in my opinion, be tried here and as much as possible under the normal Criminal Law, rather than in military courts. This is a matter of national dignity and honour, not just a military matter. The accused should also be given every opportunity to tell their story, including the horrors they were forced to confront on a repetitive basis. The SAS were used for purposes they were not trained for and often returned to action repeatedly. Anyone who knows war will realise how completely unhealthy these rotations were. The blame here should be slated home to those in the command structure responsible for this. Thought should be given to their being court martialled, dishonourably discharged and forfeiture of medals. Sacrificing those at the lower levels without following the chain through to the higher echelons responsible is both hypocritical and irresponsible. This is not a time for victimisation; 'military bashing' or defaming the dead of previous wars. I would contest that WW 2 was definitely necessary to fight Fascism. Certain actions, such as those in New Guinea, really did save Australia. God help us, if in these parlous times, we do not possess the forces necessary to defend the country and participate in peace keeping. Our men and women in East Timor did us proud. Some of what was done in Afghanistan for education, health and improving the status of women was laudable. We need to proceed firmly, but with caution.

Edward Fido | 02 December 2020  

Olesarge, if they implemented that they might decimate the entire contingent.

Francis Armstrong | 02 December 2020  

Similar Articles

Are we respecting our elders?

  • Cristy Clark
  • 26 November 2020

This past weekend, I visited my grandparents in their residential aged care home. As usual, it was both lovely and utterly heartbreaking. Lovely, because I feel so lucky to be able to spend time with them, that they are still alive, their home is accepting visitors, and they still remember who I am. But, also, heartbreaking, because aging is tough, and living in residential aged care is tougher still, and this year, well, this year has made it all so much harder.