About ten years ago I was doing a job for the Army. Some of my books were on the reading list at the Defence Force Academy and every now and then some colonel or brigadier would get in contact to ask if I’d come and give a talk or run a training day. If you’re wondering what the hell I’d be doing training a bunch of military officers, you’re not alone. I’d have the same thought myself as we tucked into the corned beef and white sauce at the Officers Mess. But there was nothing unduly weird about it. I was mostly just running hypotheticals or scenarios. You know; imagine you’re part of a multinational task force and you get sucked through wormhole back to 1942 and you have to fight Hitler. How do you do that without GPS or Uber Eats?
After one session at the Land Warfare Development Centre down at Puckapunyal, a man in a sandy beret took me aside and asked whether I’d like to go to Afghanistan. I honestly didn’t think I’d done that badly.
Turned out that a few of the officers in that training block had done a few tours of Absurdistan and they were worried that there were stories which needed telling, but which would never be heard because of the way the government had dropped the entire deployment into a black box. This was in 2009, when the first stink of something going bad was just beginning to creep through the SAS, but a couple of years before the now disbanded 2nd Squadron really turned.
Looking back, I suspect that the invite to join the deployment and tell their stories was motivated more by a desire to have good work acknowledged than to see any darker aspects of the war revealed.
I didn’t go, of course. I had better, safer things to do. (Those damned aircraft carriers aren’t gonna suck themselves through time traveling wormholes, you know).
And honestly, I don’t imagine the presence of a single reporter would have made any difference. Not with the way successive governments, both conservative and Labor, had colluded to keep secret as much as they could about Australia’s military involvement in its longest war.
They had their reasons for this mostly bipartisan policy. Some of them were solid, but many were a septic sludge of bullshit and melted booty cheddar. We sent Special Forces because although such capabilities are expensive to maintain, they’re not as expensive as sending ten times as many dog soldiers in mainline infantry battalions. Not in dollar terms, and not when it comes time to tally up the butcher’s bill.
The Howard government, followed by Rudd, Gillard, Rudd again and Abbott all calculated that not only would a small commitment of better trained and lavishly equipped operators mean fewer casualties—and, just importantly, fewer stories about casualties—it would mean fewer stories altogether. Every government of the last twenty years assumed it could meet the costs of alliance management with the US, and amortise the political price of making war within if not against the Muslim world, by sending bespoke detachments of special operators who would work in secret with minimal risks of blowback.
Yeah, nah, not so much.
Canberra created the black box. It’s a bit fucking rich to play act shock and horror at what happened inside it.
You’re going to hear a lot about how the atrocities committed in your name were the sole responsibility of the men who pulled the trigger. So much cultural capital has been invested in embiggening post modern Anzac mythology that it would be impossible for those who made that investment to simply write it off.
But it can’t be written off.
A country which is happy to take pride in its military achievements cannot then wave away the consequences of moral failure and depravity by elements of that same military. As Major General Brereton, the author of the report into the war crimes committed by the SAS has written, “Moral authority is an element of combat power.” An element now much diminished in Australia’s arsenal.
There is little doubt that the ADF, and the army in particular, will move to address its complicity and purge its shame. Just as there is zero doubt that within a few years a new generation of politicians will ignore everything we just learned about fighting wars in secret. If either party was looking to address their own very real complicity in 39 murders they could start with the national security laws they both supported which makes it a crime for journalists to report on exactly these sorts of atrocities.