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You’ve watched the films, read the books, and have an SAS poster on your wall. You finish school and join the army, desperate to become one of the best of the best. After years of exemplary service in the regular army, with hours spent doing extra training, you attempt to join the SAS.

The 21-day selection course is as demanding as you can possibly imagine — physically, emotionally and mentally shattering. Perhaps 20% get through. You’re one of the lucky ones.

You spend another 18 months training and then you get the call — deployment to Afghanistan. Finally, you can prove yourself.

Put a fork in them, the election is almost done.

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The patrol commander is a decorated, charismatic senior NCO, you desperately need to impress him.

It is early on that you are “blooded” — the patrol commander tells you to shoot a prisoner. Get that first kill out of the way, don’t worry, we all do it.


The Brereton report is as shocking as we were led to believe. A cadre of senior NCOs effectively led a murder racket, and were allowed to get away with it for years.

The report identifies the unique nature of the special forces, and a culture that became one of glorified warrior bloodlust, more akin to a gladiatorial arena then a professional military.

The overwhelming culture of the special forces meant that you either became one with the dominant group norm or were hounded out. Even now, despite everything, the report notes that some soldiers still can’t admit nor accept that there was wrongdoing, so encompassing is their misplaced loyalty.

While the report rightly focuses on the core group of wrongdoers (these are the ones who will be criminally investigated), it also clearly demonstrates a toxic culture that was condoned, enabled and recreated both at home and on deployment. The “us versus everyone else” belief led many soldiers and some officers to go along with activities that were designed to hide crimes.

In his address yesterday, defence chief Angus Campbell focused on culture, as if it were some sort of shield against the reality that our troops committed war crimes.

The idea that this was “all the fault of culture” is both a cop-out and correct. Culture frames actions, giving us a sense of what we should do and how. Yet culture does not exist as something separate; culture is what the soldiers and officers of the special forces did every day.

The report notes that unit and small-group loyalty, poor command, lack of oversight and a dearth of ways to report wrongdoing also contributed. It highlights a breakdown in command and respect between officers and corporals/sergeants (patrol commanders).

Farcically, it also suggests that there was a lack of education and knowledge around the laws of war, as if our most highly trained soldiers with in-theatre lawyers assisting them didn’t understand that shooting a prisoner is a crime.

What is most depressing is that we’ve seen these reasons for abuse and crimes before, identified by the defence force (ADF) itself. Since 1969 we’ve had numerous reports, inquiries and investigations. When they admit fault at all (and don’t fall back on the bad apples defence), they inevitably list the same causes: culture, followed by the same set of reasons spelled out in the Brereton report.

These same problems have also been identified by our allies. The US had My Lai, Abu Ghraib and their own crimes in Afghanistan. The Canadian Armed Forces has their experience in Somalia in 1993, where their elite airborne regiment was involved in a murder and subsequently disbanded.

The ADF knew what created the conditions for abuse and crimes, and have known for a long time. So why were the special forces allowed to get away with it? Where was the oversight? Why was there not sufficient due diligence to the set of risk factors that we know leads to crimes?

Creating a military fighting force always brings with it the risks of malfeasance. It’s about time the ADF took responsibility for not paying sufficient attention.

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.

How can the ADF take responsibility for the culture described in the Brereton report? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.