The long-awaited Brereton report has rocked Australia, alleging the murder of 39 innocent civilians by troops fighting in Afghanistan. While the whistleblower faces life in jail, there seems to be no rush to punish the killers.
Australians are hanging their heads in collective shame as the full extent of the brutality and savagery our elite SAS troops unleashed on the Afghan civilians they were supposed to be protecting sends shockwaves across the country.
Having taken four years to compile, the 465-page Brereton report, which found 39 instances of the murder of innocent civilians, blames the killings in part on a ‘warrior hero’ culture and a “bloodlust” among special forces. It recommends criminal investigations against 19 people and sweeping reforms of Australia’s military.
Yet in the middle of this national disgrace, arguably the blackest day in Australian military history, the country’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, finds it appropriate to deny making an apology in a phone call he made to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in advance of the report’s release.
A spokesman from the Afghan Presidential Palace said that Morrison “expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan”. Government sources told The Australian newspaper that he did no such thing.
And therein lies the problem. A boneheaded, pig ignorant, tone-deaf lack of awareness that piles the shame on even further when a self-confident, more compassionate man would have shown some degree of humility and apologised without delay.
The failure to do so – and then to deny claims that he had – by the PM would seem to indicate that he feels there’s no need to express remorse. Really? And this clown is our national leader!
Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell hit the right note in announcing the abolition of the most notorious unit in the SAS, the stripping of medals from more than 3,000 troops who had served in Afghanistan, and saying all special forces soldiers in future would have to wear body cameras when on deployment. He offered a “sincere and unreserved” apology to the people of Afghanistan for wrongdoing by Australian soldiers.
The long-awaited report from Justice Paul Brereton, which has taken four years to complete, doesn’t paint the full picture. Heavily redacted, the second part of the report has been withheld from public release in full as it contains the names of those alleged to be guilty of war crimes under the Geneva Convention.
But whether those men ever face criminal prosecution or those families of the innocent Afghan civilians they slaughtered receive justice is not a given. The SAS regiment’s second squadron is to be disbanded, but that doesn’t solve the problem. Bearing in mind some of the incidents in question date back to 2006, with others in 2012-13, thanks to that passage of time it’s hard to pretend that justice has really been served.
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It has taken four years to arrive at this point since the investigation began, and now Morrison says he is to appoint a “special investigator” to explore the allegations of war crimes further. More foot-dragging at this point makes a mockery of the perseverance and bravery of those who contributed to the report, both in providing the chilling testimony through lengthy interviews and in investigating the shocking claims as they arose.
To add a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy between the report and criminal court hearings of the accused will simply draw out indefinitely any further investigation into those offences, which in some cases are already more than a decade old.
The Australian public needs immediate action against those troops who have forever stained our reputation internationally in the same way that American soldiers blackened the name of the US military at the Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam.
And it should be noted that while the Brereton report did manage to expose evidence of wrongdoing among some elements of the SAS, it did not give the rest of the regiment a free pass, commenting that it may simply have been less effective in breaking the military’s “code of silence” elsewhere.
So where do we start with making good and restoring the reputation of not just the majority of blameless troops in the SASR, but of the nation as a whole and the trust that we, as Australians, have in our armed forces?
Cash payouts by the Australian government to the families deprived of fathers, sons and brothers are a meaningless and clumsy token attempt to make everything better. While money might provide some financial assistance to a family deprived of its breadwinner for the last 10 years, after he was shot in the head as part of an Australian trooper’s “blooding”, it is too of-the-moment and does nothing to compensate for their unimaginable hardship of the past decade.
Anyone who thinks the parents of the two innocent teenage boys who had their throats slit by passing Australian troops, and their bodies thrown in a river, would be satisfied with a compensatory cheque from the Australian Defence Force knows nothing of real justice.
While the aftermath of the revelations about this shameful and humiliating chapter of Australian armed forces serving overseas will rumble on, there is one very easy thing that the government can do to show that it is prepared to treat this matter with the utmost probity. And that is to drop all charges against the whistleblower, David McBride, without whose selflessness, we would have known nothing of this egregious behaviour.
An Afghan veteran himself, as well as a lawyer, McBride currently faces life in prison if convicted at his trial next year. Having been stonewalled up the entire chain of command when raising his concerns about battlefield behaviour that was being ignored or unreported, McBride eventually chose to take his case, as detailed in classified documents, to a journalist at the national broadcaster, ABC, which aired his allegations of war crimes and cover-ups in 2017.
What followed was a series of stormtrooper-style raids on the homes of several journalists where records were seized and charges laid of leaking classified documents, although they have all since been dropped, the most recent just last month.
But not David McBride. He must face his day in court. Unless the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions sees sense, admits his prosecution is not in the public interest and abandons the government’s attempt to jail him.
All Australians owe McBride a debt of gratitude. Unlike those soldiers stripped of theirs in dishonour, this man deserves a medal, not a prison term.
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