We all know the story of Harry “Breaker” Morant, who exhorted the firing squad to “shoot straight, you bastards”.
But while Morant might have been Australia’s first recognised war criminal, he’s far from unique in the annals of our nation’s military history.
The imminent release of a redacted version of a report into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan is expected to detail how our venerated special forces killed civilians and prisoners during the ill-fated Afghanistan campaign.
It will also make apparent that their actions were covered up and accepted within the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
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The truth is the ADF has a long, violent history, with crimes against the enemy, civilians and its own members regularly occurring. And it’s the question of ADF culture — its pattern of cover-ups, obfuscation and avoidance of responsibility — that risks being hidden by the shock of the details about to be released.
Misconduct is part and parcel of the ADF. The first incident occurred in 1913, when hazing and bastardisation was reported by the media at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. It was then that the ADF’s scandal doctrine was first enacted, a playbook we’ve seen utilised ever since.
First, deny, obfuscate, claim it was only a few “bad-apples” and point out that bad things happen also happen in the “civvie world”. Then note that fighting wars is hard, which means you need to be toughened up (a trope we should expect to see often in the special forces case). If the tactics fail, call an inquiry, promise to take action, and let it all just quietly continue. Rinse, repeat.
Duntroon, in 1969, was bastardisation, then again in 1983. The Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) had its darkest days in the 1990s, resulting in the Grey Review, which reported on bullying, bastardisation and serious sexual assaults. But the changes enacted at ADFA were not enough to stop the Skype sex scandal in 2011.
That was the catalyst for the most wide-ranging suite of inquiries and reviews into ADF conduct ever, including the Orme (2011) and Broderick (2013) reviews into culture and behaviour. But them we got the “Jedi council” scandal in 2014.
Perhaps a key difference this time around is that the special forces scandal is about crimes committed against others, while on a war footing, that will implicate heroes in murder.
The other big difference is the magnitude. The slow drip of details and expectation management tells us the response is going to be severe.
Or is it? Will we see real change, or is this merely the same scandal management doctrine we’ve seen so many times before — inquiries, reviews, reports and promises that things will get better?
The test of how seriously the ADF takes this will be in the breadth of cultural change promised and enacted. If it’s restricted to the “bad barrel” of special forces then we’ll know it’ll only be a matter of time until the next scandal erupts.
Next: in the military where command, control and the “networked” soldier are key, how could war crimes go unseen and unpunished for so long?
For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14, Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling is on 1800 011 046, and the ADF All-hours Support Line is on 1800 628 036.
Dr James Connor is with UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy and is an expert on military culture, scandal and abuse.