Less than two weeks after the release of the shocking Brereton report that revealed allegations of war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, the political resolve to confront one of the country’s most shameful chapters has already started to shift.
Despite the defence force (ADF) initially backing the report in full, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have now intervened in a key recommendation to strip all 3000 Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers who served in that war of their medals.
The intervention follows a rigorous campaign led by a vocal group of SAS veterans as well as Senator Jackie Lambie.
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Reynolds denied political interference in military decisions, saying she and Morrison had a responsibility to listen to Australians and “to express an opinion to the chief of the defence force”.
But the intervention goes some way to undermining the independence of the Brereton report, and reveals more powerful networks behind Australia’s elite fighting force.
How did we get here?
The Brereton report recommended the medals of all 3000 SAS soldiers who served in Afghanistan be revoked in a show of “collective responsibility”.
But a petition to stop the “persecution of ‘the many’ who served with honour” was launched last week, and has received more than 55,000 signatures.
The petition was launched by Voice of a Veteran, an organisation set up by Heston Russell, a former SAS soldier-turned-motivational speaker.
At a press conference outside the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on Sunday, Russell spoke against medal stripping, saying it undermined the sacrifices made by SAS soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Voice of a Veteran describes itself as “a platform for veterans to speak and be heard. To take action to stop other veterans from suffering in silence and being misunderstood”.
According to documents lodged with the corporate regulator, the organisation was registered as a business on November 2, two weeks before the Brereton report was released. Russell is listed as the only shareholder.
But despite being a relatively new organisation, the petition has received steady media attention.
On Monday, The Daily Telegraph launched a “Save our Medals” campaign in support of Russell’s petition, with a front page headline declaring “let them R.I.P.”. Russell has also appeared on Sky News, 2GB and the Seven network speaking out against the move.
It’s not the first time Russell, who was platoon commander in Afghanistan, has spoken out in defence of SAS soldiers. In October he appeared on the front cover of The Daily Telegraph, vehemently denying allegations made in an ABC report that claimed an Afghan prisoner was murdered because there weren’t enough seats on a helicopter.
A matter of trust
The petition highlights the powerful networks behind Australia’s elite fighting force.
As Crikey reported last week, Kerry Stokes and a group of powerful Perth identities including Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest are behind a fund that could be used to bankroll the legal defence of the SAS soldiers accused of war crimes.
But there’s another trust that raises questions about the connections between some of Australia’s most powerful people and the military’s elite soldiers.
The Commando Welfare Trust was set up in 2011, shortly after the Stokes-backed SAS Resources Fund came into operation.
Its goal is to support the families of serving and ex-serving members of Special Operations Command units who have been killed or injured in the course of their duty.
Among its early backers was Lachlan Murdoch, whose family’s News Corp empire has been vocally backing calls for SAS soldiers to retain their medals from Afghanistan.
It’s unclear whether Murdoch is still directly involved in the trust, and a spokesperson for the trust did not respond to questions.
The trust’s board also includes Brendan Nelson, the former director of the Australian War Memorial, where Stokes is the chairman.
The outrage and indignation over the behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan is already being diluted by these campaigns. The question now is whether it will undermine the independence of the Brereton report, and any prosecutions that flow from it.