Alleged war crimes also puts the cult of the Digger on trial

Ian Bushnell 30 November 2020 16
Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial: not enough questions have been asked about Australia’s recent war history. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The revelations about alleged war crimes in Afghanistan by members of Australia’s Special Air Service regiment is a big wake-up call to those who have been drawn to the cult of the Digger in recent decades.

The Brereton report has shocked the Defence establishment and cast a shadow over an institution that has not just been held in high regard but revered to the point that any alleged wrongdoing is considered almost a slur on the national character.

It has divided the country, and is generating a backlash from veterans and their supporters.

As the son of a World War II veteran, you didn’t grow up in this country without being steeped in the culture of the returned serviceman and the sacrifice of those two great conflagrations.

The folly of Vietnam may have dented that image of the military and eroded the nation’s respect temporarily, but the recovery was swift.

When John Howard ended the Labor ascendancy in 1996, he assiduously cultivated the Anzac myth, wrapping his government in the flag, deploying troops to the Tampa to keep asylum seekers from our shores, and fatefully to Afghanistan as part of the US war on terror after the 9/11 attacks.

Where before there had been quiet, respectful understanding of the role of the military and of veterans’ sacrifices in defence of the nation, the Howard years began an amplification of Anzac and an uncritical lionising of the Australian soldier, and the nation’s experience in war.


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Brave, fierce and unmatched in battle, a larrikin but generous and good-hearted, the Digger was always divorced from reality, and an impossible ideal to live up to, given his stock and trade.

Afghanistan and later Iraq has produced thousands of veterans as Australian soldiers rotated in and out of these theatres over the years, but it fell to the SAS to do the dirty work, particularly in Afghanistan.

Special by name and special by nature, these are elite troops selected and trained for the sharp end, proficient at killing the enemy in the most inhospitable of environments.

Apparently, their feats also commanded special attention and the SAS were raised to an exalted position in the defence pantheon that may have contributed to a belief by some that they were untouchable, possibly leading to the alleged extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan.

But continuous rotations and exposure to battle in a military terrain where there are no frontlines may also turn superheroes to the dark side.

These are the cultural and strategic coals Defence must rake over, and the soldiers involved deserve their presumption of innocence, but the Brereton report also raises issues for our political leaders and the keepers of the flame at the Australian War Memorial.

If politicians want to see the military and our veterans respected then they should keep their distance and encourage an honest appraisal of Australia’s involvement in war, which since World War II has been mainly as an uncritical ally of the US in theatres where the lines were often blurred.

The uncovering of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, thanks to whistleblowers, the media and the integrity of Defence officials, is precisely why some have argued against former Memorial director Brenden Nelson’s push for the institution to expand so it can have the space to tell contemporary stories.

Engagements such as Afghanistan, they argue, need reflection and a passage of time in order for them to be portrayed honestly.


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Dr Nelson, a former Defence Minister, becomes deeply emotional talking about the experiences of veterans and has been accused of being too close to the veteran community, including the SAS, to have a clear eyed view of their service.

Perhaps the Brereton report will offer an opportunity for people to take stock of our relationship with war and for the more ”gung-ho” supporters of the AWM expansion to reflect on their motives.

The other argument to be wary of is the ”few bad apples” thesis whereby the actions of a few should not reflect badly on the whole organisation.

Obviously, what may have happened in Afghanistan should not be laid at the feet of all our servicemen and women, but simply labelling the soldiers involved bad people ignores the culture that nurtured them, the crucible of war that tested them and institution which sheltered them.

These are deep questions being asked of our leaders, and of us as a people.

War may be hell, but it is exactly where our better angels are needed if the civilised values we extoll are to survive.


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16 Responses to Alleged war crimes also puts the cult of the Digger on trial
David Brown David Brown 8:40 am 01 Dec 20

It was a very bad idea to become the only country in the world to prosecute our own army for war crimes in public. It should have been done, but very quietly.

    Mick Radojkovic Mick Radojkovic 8:42 am 01 Dec 20

    David Brown please explain why. America has publicly done so many times.

    David Brown David Brown 8:44 am 01 Dec 20

    Mick Radojkovic I don’t think so. The only one I know was Lieutenant Calley and that was an individual issue, not an entire Corps.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:36 am 01 Dec 20

It’s timely to remember the sinking of the Centaur and the comments the then Prime Minister made about the Japanese.

https://www.navyhistory.org.au/the-tragedy-of-the-centaur/

Luke Felton Luke Felton 9:41 pm 30 Nov 20

So OP suggests that the alleged actions of a very very small minority is a reflection of the institution blah blah. Yet, the proven actions of a much larger "minority" cannot be used to guide opinions on followers of that institution....

    Giles Tranter Giles Tranter 11:49 pm 30 Nov 20

    We're both talking about Christianity here, right?

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:35 pm 30 Nov 20

“Where before there had been quiet, respectful understanding of the role of the military and of veterans’ sacrifices in defence of the nation, the Howard years began an amplification of Anzac….”

Not quite, as this obituary of Alan Seymour reminds us –

https://www.smh.com.au/national/one-day-of-the-year-that-changed-writer-alan-seymours-life-20150324-1m67qx.html

Where we are now looks like another swing of the pendulum, as we go on avoiding the real issues set out in these acute observations from Geraldine Brooks on Q&A five years back –

“Yeah, I think that the question that we need ask is – it’s very natural after the kinds of atrocities we have seen, not just in Paris last week, also in Beirut, also with the downing of a jet full of people on vacation in the Sinai, it’s natural to want the hot satisfactions of revenge. It’s natural to want to see a government act but I think that you should ask a personal question. I always ask myself: would I want my son or daughter to go and fight in that war? And if the answer to that is no, then why would I send somebody else’s kid. And if the answer is yes, that this is so evil and so existential that I would be prepared to see my son go, then let’s have conscription and let’s be all in. I think it’s been very corrupt what we’ve been doing for the past 15 years, which is putting the burden on a very small group of young men and women, while the rest of us just go shopping and I think that’s why it hasn’t been effective. You can’t do that to people. You can’t have a small part of the population bearing the entire burden.”

https://www.abc.net.au/qanda/racists-extremists-and-economists/10653662

John Moulis John Moulis 2:32 pm 30 Nov 20

This whole cult of the digger, and the glorification of the Anzac myth and faux patriotism which has grown up since the 75th anniversary of Anzac in 1990 is appalling. I grew up with the Vietnam War (legalised murder we called it), and I remember every Anzac Day “old diggers” on the radio and TV saying that the younger generation was soft and useless.

The Afghanistan war was one of the biggest follies in our history. A knee-jerk reaction to 9/11, no wonder soldiers went there thinking there were no rules and that they could do (and kill) everybody and everything they liked.

It is high time that this glorification of war and war crimes ended. It has gone on for too long, it is jarring and embarrassing. I’m over it and it is high time we faced reality and removed the BS and rose coloured glasses when looking at this grubby and shameful part of our history.

    jwinston jwinston 5:16 pm 30 Nov 20

    “glorification of the ANZAC myth”?

    “The Afghanistan war was one of the biggest follies in our history. A knee-jerk reaction to 9/11, no wonder soldiers went there thinking there were no rules and that they could do (and kill) everybody and everything they liked.”

    You have proof? The allegations against the soldiers haven’t seen a court room yet and you’ve found them guilty.

    You obviously have no idea what stresses our men and women in the ADF had to endure in the they’re of war since WW1. The biggest decision you’ve had to make is “Do I wear the extra small tshirt or just go topless?”.

    And the reason you can make such an important decisions are because of those who fought, and died, in these wars.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:31 am 01 Dec 20

    Your comments about the way the Australian Anzac legend has been commercialized are valid but at the same time remember that the wartime actions, sacrifices and deeds of our troops, as repugnant as they may have been have preserved our democratic freedom so that people like you and me can continue to make such comments.

Steve Ross Steve Ross 12:16 pm 30 Nov 20

Reading this reminded me of Dirty Harry’s quote about opinions. 🤨

    Gen Ryan Gen Ryan 2:47 pm 30 Nov 20

    Steve Ross because we're not allowed to have opinions about this? Or because we're not allowed to ask questions about it? Interesting that the usual "freedom of speech" keyboard warriors seem very, very quiet about this.

    Gen Ryan Gen Ryan 8:46 pm 30 Nov 20

    Steve Ross sooo.... your opinion is the best, then? OK. Answers my question about whether the rest of us are allowed to talk about this. I guess not.

Rob Thomas Rob Thomas 11:01 am 30 Nov 20

Didn't some SBS sports journo mention Aussie ww2 war crimes on Anzac day a few years back and the nation flayed him alive?

    Matthew Soall Matthew Soall 1:26 pm 30 Nov 20

    Rob Thomas That they did, no one should be above the law, NO ONE. It's time that all Aussies get on board with that notion.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 8:19 am 30 Nov 20

For me, the right kind of war memorial is the sober VC plaques, all along the highway to Sydney.

Close down the Afghan exhibit at AWM, and replace it with the 140 year Frontier Wars. It doesn’t get much more Aussie than that.

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