Australia army uniforms

Pleading to be prosecuted. That is what this man is doing. He served his country. He did what he was told. Then he became an accomplice to murder, and he can’t live with that.

Sergeant Kevin Frost has gone public with his personal account of hiding the unlawful execution of a prisoner of war. Frost told the ABC last week:

“The particular incident that I was involved in resulted in the POW that I had captured actually being executed, murdered.

“I can’t remember if he cut the cuffs off first, or if he cut the cuffs of after he shot him. That’s the one point I can’t remember there ’cause I wasn’t looking. I didn’t want to look.

“I turned around and the guy was dead. He’d been shot through the forehead”.

The incident happened in 2009 on operations in the province of Helmand, neighboring Uruzgan, where they were based. A time when Australian forces were conducting continual capture or kill operations against suspected Taliban insurgents.

Alcohol, drugs, psychologists. I’d bet he has tried them all to try and bury this. Endless revisitations of that event can’t remove that act from his soul. He wants it done. He wants it gone, but they, Defence, who employed him, paid him and sent him to do this, won’t let him. To do so would open up a box they would rather keep closed. It is the taped-up box that is Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan — what did we do? Why were we there? What did it mean? And now this man is treated as damaged goods.

Australian soldiers are tough, well trained, competent and smart — more than any other troops I dealt with in four trips to Iraq and six trips to Afghanistan at the height of Australia’s involvement in both conflicts. They tended to be a bit more aware of the dynamics of the situations they were put in. In Afghanistan especially, they were more in touch with their environment than the Dutch, the Canadians and the US troops they were working with. But here we have one man who cannot live with his conscience. That death of an unnamed Afghan shot through the forehead will not go away for this fellow.

[The grim, deadly reminders that the war in Afghanistan has failed]

He says he cannot remember whether the guy was “cuffed” or not when he was shot. Executed, really. The jargon refers to those little plastic clasps used by the military to secure a detainee’s hands. They are actually designed to bite deeper into the skin if you struggle, and if you struggle too hard they could cut off circulation and ultimately lead to amputation. They are designed to restrain and hurt. It is an important point. Was the Afghan a threat? Was he executed for no reason? Was it revenge in the heat of battle? Had one of the commando’s mates just been killed or wounded? Or were they essentially very well-armed and well-trained troops put in a position to kill people? That was their job. It is a central question to how and why we conducted that war. But yeah. It is war, and people get killed.

I suppose that is the point of the exercise, and why Australia spent so much for so long (10 years of real commitment in Afghanistan) to fight for a province that is back to being as controlled by the Taliban as it was when I first went there by a local taxi in 2006. I can’t look a young Australian soldier in the eye, across a beer at a random pub — where I often meet them, by the way — and say it was worth it, because I just don’t know if it was.

It is 10 years now since I started covering what the Australians were doing in Uruzgan. Ten years. A whole decade. The Australians are no longer there. I read the local Afghan press reports, and the Taliban are attacking the same posts they were in 2006, just a few kilometres from the provincial capital Tarin Kowt. I can’t go to Uruzgan. Too dangerous now, as it was then, but I was too young and stupid to realise that then. The burnt-out trucks on the side of the road are a testament to the dangers of travelling those highways. The scared locals. The impunity of the local Afghan police and military, who we paid, trained and facilitated, sickened me. I felt we were just playing one bunch of “bad guys” against another. But I held my tongue. To report honestly was to be branded anti-war — an enemy, someone to be blocked for access to a military operation those who were conducting were ashamed of. My job depended on that access.

I get it: you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you drink because it is legal. Whatever you have to do to get through the day you do. But it is always there. The social isolation. Because what you have done and what you have gone through is so foreign to your family and your friends. If you don’t just carry on with daily life you are just damaged goods, unable to deal with the mundanities of life.

[He saved my life in Afghanistan. So why did Australia want to send him to Nauru?]

When you do dream at night, when you sober up enough, you dream of death, fear and body parts. Bits of people in the street — literally, pieces of people torn apart by bombs. It is beyond awful and it does not go away. Counsellors, drugs, whatever. That is what I think Sergeant Frost is going through. His brief appearance on the ABC last week gave a glimpse of what our servicemen and women have gone, and are going, through. It is not pretty. And those who employed them would rather it not be so. But that is war, and that is what it does to people.

So where are we now? This man, his face lined with the fatigue of sleeplessness, anxiety and guilt, appears for a few seconds on the ABC. He was a commando. It is not easy to be a commando. It is hard work to get through that training. But he has had a gutful. What we, as a nation, have made him do has made him sick. He is basically going on national television saying what they asked him to do was wrong. He stood by and watched a man executed and then lied about it, because he thought that was what was expected of him.

Defence has responded by saying no prosecutions are outstanding against this man. They want to bury it. There are probably alarm bells going off in Canberra over this case. But the response is no, he has not been prosecuted. Keep it in the box. What is done on tour stays on tour. Sometimes you can’t keep the box shut, and that is what has happened this time. He opened the box and said, “I can’t handle it”.