(Image: AAP)

It was November when the Brereton report dropped — a comprehensive, highly redacted account of dozens of alleged civilian murders and a toxic warrior culture among the elite echelons of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan.

But months later that moment is all but forgotten. When reports dropped this week that Special Air Service soldiers facing the sack after the report had been quietly given a medical discharge, they barely made a ripple.

It’s a classic example of how quickly the report, with its powerful assessment of a cultural malaise deep within the SAS, has been forgotten. And that’s probably just how the ADF likes it.

How quickly we forget

In the days after the report was released there was a brief moment of hand-wringing. Then politics started getting in the way. At first it looked like Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell was going to strip the SAS of its meritorious unit citation. But after backlash from veteran groups, political pressure from the prime minister, and a media attack from The Daily Telegraph (called “Save our medals”), the ADF backed down.

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Then outrage moved on from the report itself to a familiar target: China. Just weeks after the report was released, China’s foreign ministry attack dog Zhao Lijian tweeted a (clearly doctored) image depicting an Australian soldier cutting an Afghan child’s throat.

The fury over Zhao’s “shitpost” from senior politicians and some gallery journalists drowned out anger over the alleged war crimes. Despite the performative anger the post was a “gift” for the government, Australian Defence Force Academy Associate Professor James Connor says.

“It allowed them to reframe the narrative and thus avoid dealing with the serious issues in the actual report,” he said.

Since then, the report has faded from view, as seemingly bigger news stories took centre stage and as new (or old) culture wars took over. Now it’s barely mentioned.

“Silence. It’s really weird, it’s just gone,” Connor said.

Monash University Associate Professor Kevin Foster, author of Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, the Media and the Afghan Conflict, says the narrative after the report amounted to a clean-up — a flurry of outrage followed by a pivot to recharacterise Australian soldiers as the true victims.

“There’s been victim shifting and outrage shifting: the victims aren’t the Afghans; the victims here are all the soldiers,” he said.

Where have all the soldiers gone?

Ever since the campaign to save the medals there’s been one voice conspicuously absent in the silence around the report: that of veterans.

Veteran and Flinders University military sociologist Associate Professor Ben Wadham says while the response from the community has been mixed, there was always a general feeling — even before the report landed — that the Diggers would shoulder the burden while the command come off unscathed.

“I think amongst most of the veterans sector there’s a wounding — this isn’t us, this isn’t what we do. It’s not in our DNA,” he said.

The response from those involved in the allegations documented has been one of denial — some told Wadham they earnestly believed they were doing their job, just following orders.

“To me that’s a bit divorced from the volume of barbarism,” he said. “There’s still a level of denial I guess, amongst the lads on the grounds, and the hero worshippers.”

Breaking through the silence from veterans’ groups are anecdotes about soldiers’ children being harassed, heightened mental health problems, a feeling among some that young men won’t sign up while the government doesn’t have their back.

For Wadham, the quiet is a reflection of a broader distrust of civilian institutions among military institutions.

“When you’re a soldier, there’s a sense you’re doing a difficult job that nobody will do, that people in society don’t understand,” he said. “It’s: ‘Why would we engage with society on this?’ “

ADF wins PR war

The broader trajectory of the Brereton report, from the apologetic fronting up to the current silence is a classic example of how the ADF deals with reputational challenges, where much of the reform work is hidden from public view.

“There’s a quiet, barely discernible reputation-management,” Foster said.

And there’s a good reason for some of that quiet. A special investigator appointed by the Morrison government in the days after the report’s release is looking into potential criminal prosecutions. It’s a criminal process which will be inevitably opaque, but which could deliver a disappointing outcome.

Wadham agrees that while the response to the report has been typical military deflection, there were some positive noises from Campbell about scrutinising the culture, rather than pinning the full blame on rogue individuals.

“It’s always been the bad apples arguments,” he said. “What we’re moving from now is bad apples to bad orchards.”

Still, it’s undeniable that media coverage of the SAS and the report has dwindled since November. And what little there is tends to frame the ADF far more positively than the report. A recent story in The Australian about a veteran’s widow which described the children of SAS soldiers being bullied after the report. This week’s medical discharge news also furnished the narrative of soldiers being victimised by the process.

“On the one hand you want to be very supportive and not minimise veterans’ mental health,” Connor said.

“But the question you wonder is whether [the discharge] is about what they did in Afghanistan, or the investigation into it. It almost starts to look like a tactical ploy.”

But there is one challenge to the ADF’s stage management of the fallout: the upcoming defamation trial of Ben Roberts-Smith, who is alleged to have been involved in war crimes while on deployments. Roberts-Smith denies the allegations.

This week, lawyers for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed in a court submission they have details of two more alleged incidents of serious criminal conduct. Roberts-Smith’s former wife will now give evidence against him.

The army, says Foster, is “trying to PR their way out of” Brereton. But Roberts-Smith, once their golden boy, might get in the way.