ADF chief General Angus Campbell (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

“I know nothing” was the famous catchphrase of Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, used to cover up what he knew, or certainly should have known.

After the release of the Brereton report, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the favourite phrase of the officers in command of the special forces in Afghanistan.

It’s unfathomable that the officers in charge had no knowledge of any wrongdoing — and if they really didn’t, that’s just as bad. There was a clear pattern of problematic behaviour that should have raised red flags and needed to be investigated.

The first is that there were rumours of war crimes. Eventually this did lead to the investigation, but why did it take so long?

There were the complaints from Afghans themselves about crimes and rough treatment, dismissed at the time. The report also notes that the system of after-action review and reporting was manipulated and falsified. This should have been apparent to a commander who really wanted to look.

Then there was the culture and behaviours. Despite alcohol being banned on base (for obvious reasons), the special forces had their own bar, the Fat Lady’s Arms. This bar was supplied via the military system, despite being outlawed. It was also the location of numerous examples of misconduct and behaviour that should have indicated that something was rotten.

Special forces also got away with behaviors such as poor hygiene and dress standards. This might seem quaint in a warzone, but it speaks to the character of the soldiers and the decline in discipline. They also went outside the official supply chains and sourced their own weapons and ammunition. The report notes that drug use was rampant.

These conduct issues were explained away by the “logic of exceptionalism” — special forces were fighting a hard and dirty war and should be allowed to do what’s needed to cope.

But as standards decline, so does behaviour — this is the culture the report speaks of. The patterns of behaviour that occurred are well known to be risk factors for abuse and misconduct, yet the commanders failed to see it, or chose to look away.

You had all the warning signs, so you either ignored them or missed them. Either makes you culpable.

The report “exonerates” the officers from legal responsibility, but at least reflects that there’s also a moral aspect to command. As Brereton noted, “commanders are both recognised and accountable for what happens ‘on their watch’, regardless of their personal knowledge, contribution or fault”,

How many are actually held to account remains to be seen.

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.