20 November 2020

Shocking revelations about ADF killings point to deeply embedded "toxic culture"

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Australian soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan

Australian soldiers on foot patrol in Tarin Kowt in August 2008. Photo: Supplied.

In the wake of revelations that Australian forces were involved in the unauthorised killing of 39 men in Afghanistan, a UNSW Canberra researcher from the Australian Defence Force Academy says that “root and branch reform” is fundamentally necessary to combat toxic cultural issues in the ADF.

The Brereton Report, released today, has revealed that 25 ADF personnel were involved in the deaths, but absolves senior Defence hierarchy from knowledge of the crimes.

Fifty-five alleged breaches of the laws of armed conflict were examined over a 10-year period after Canberra military sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets uncovered behaviours that were not consistent with the rules of engagement but had been “normalised” within Special Forces. The report includes incidents described as probably the most shameful in Australian military history.

Major General Paul Brereton began the inquiry in 2016, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged further investigation of potentially criminal matters. The Special Air Service second squadron has been “struck off the Army order of battle” as a result of the report.

But Dr James Connor from UNSW Canberra’s School of Business told Region Media that it was inconceivable higher-ranked officers did not know what was happening, even if formal reports were not made.

“There are two responses, one that is these revelations are awful and shocking,” he said. “The other is that, depressingly, we have heard it all before in 35-odd reports since 1969 that identify exactly these patterns of behaviour, especially within the SAS and commando units.

“It is Groundhog Day for me and anyone else who looks deeply into ADF patterns of behaviour.”

Dr Connor believes the problem primarily stems from tight, small group cohesion, an advantage in combat, but a major problem when the primacy of the group overrides all other loyalties and the group begins to perceive itself as beyond other authority.

The problematic patterns extend further when new group members are “blooded” to build loyalty. In Afghanistan, this could involve junior soldiers shooting prisoners to get their first kill.

Dr Connor says the problems coalesce among some senior NCOs who then become a law unto themselves. He is clear that many NCOs are invaluable leaders but says that in particular pockets of the ADF there is deep resistance to change.

“There is inherent conflict between a newly minted officer who is notionally in command but doesn’t have much experience and a senior NCO who may have been to Afghanistan three or four times and has much more knowledge and power,” he says.

“In that situation, you then get groups of men who ignore command and control processes – and get away with it.

“We want cohesion. We want good teams to work together because that’s how you fight wars. But when it goes too far, it becomes toxic cohesion and toxic loyalty.”

The Brereton Report identified “ethical drift” and a culture of “what happens outside the wire, stays outside the wire”, although everyone who was interviewed during the investigative process clearly understood that the killings were criminal in nature.

The report describes a code of silence among men in the field but Dr Connor says that there are no secrets in deployments and that patterns of behaviour are well known.

SAS and commando units sit outside the general Army hierarchy and have different posting cycles with little change of personnel in many instances, creating few opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and standards. But Dr Connor says that while the investigative focus has been on Special Forces, the preconditions for abuse exist throughout the ADF.

He suggests that the ADF needs to adopt zero tolerance on misconduct and a renewed focus on reporting culture.

“As these revelations go on, we will have more troopers come forward and say they flagged concerns but were ignored,” he says.

“One of the intrinsic problems in the ADF is that there is only the chain of command. If the next person up the chain isn’t interested where do you go? There are no unions, no OH&S officers, no human rights commissioners.

“There have been recommendations time and time again to enable whistleblowers to notify inappropriate conduct. But the widely held view is that ‘snitches gets stitches’.

“People raise these issues and report them, it gets back to perpetrators sometimes in a matter of days and you can imagine what happens next.”

ADF Chief Angus Campbell

ADF Chief Angus Campbell said “we are all diminished” by the actions identified in the Brereton Report. Photo: Supplied.

ADF Chief, General Angus Campbell, has offered an apology for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers.

“If we do not hold ourselves, on the battlefield, at least to standards we expect of our adversaries, we deprive ourselves of that moral authority, and that element of combat power,” General Campbell said this afternoon.

“We are all diminished by it.”

A redacted version of the report is available at Defence.

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Ian Lindgren11:20 am 22 Nov 20

Australian’s really don’t need Dr Connor’s observations because his quotes tarnish the whole ADF, as opposed to the 25 who it is alleged committed criminal acts.

Breaches in the laws of armed conflict are unacceptable in all the ways that have been described in the past four days and must be investigated. People who may have committed alleged crimes are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Let’s look at this from the last paragraph upwards. The issue with whistle-blowers exists in all government departments. There is more than one chain of command in Defence, and if the boss isn’t interested, you go around them. If you can’t do that then toughen up princess because you’re in the wrong job.

No OH&S? In the barracks it was implemented heavily in the ADF in the 1990s, but more importantly on the battlefield, you don’t pick up your weapon without checking safety, and that is just the start.

In no way do I condone these activities, but if you start at the Boer War, which in the main was in conduct after Federation, Australian participation in placing women and children in concentration camps in Southern Africa and shooting groups of unarmed Boers is somewhat more shameful.

It was nice that Dr Connor had the time to do this while we were focusing on shielding Australian peacekeepers from emotive remarks like these. Warfare is a tough thing that is not conducted from an armchair in the UNSW Canberra’s School of Business. Leaders act with authenticity as the CDF has done by making this public. We need to protect the people that put their lives on the line in the interests of Australia, not get our jollies out of implying that the errors of a few apply to the whole ADF.

I think Jack Nicholson said it best in A Few Good Men.

“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to”.

Stephen Saunders10:24 am 20 Nov 20

Glad it is not my appointed APS duty to guard the AWM Afghan exhibit today. I think I would be physically ill.

But this is not Nuremberg 1945. The LibLab ministers and top brass know it will take the system a decade to work through the 25 nominated scapegoats. Any of them got a “smoking gun” as it were?

Toxic culture?
This has to be some kind of joke.
You take young men, and train them to be the best special forces soldiers in the world. You then send them to war, deep in it for at least 6 months at a time, against an enemy who doesn’t wear a uniform, has no rules of engagement, and constantly commit far worse “war crimes” like abducting and beheading journalists and aid workers on video.

These guys are being shot at on a daily basis, and killing regularly. The rules of engagement they are given is that if Abdul is shooting at them, then drops his rifle, he should just be allowed to walk off to either move to another position and start shooting again, or come back another day. You also can’t capture him and assault him, even though 5 minutes earlier he was attempting to kill you.

What is wrong with our defence force and it’s upper command that they would throw their men under the bus for fighting a war? Apparently a drone strike on a building full of women and children is fine, but shoot a military aged man who has decided to stay in the middle of a battle field (usually because he is an enemy combatant) after he throws away his rifle to appear innocent, and you’re a criminal.

I would say the toxic culture is the part where we put the enemy above our own men who are out there risking their lives. Absolutely shameful.

liberalsocialist12:07 pm 20 Nov 20

Wrong on so many counts. The ADF is accountable, and the actions taken by a few are reprehensible to Australians, the ADF and their units.
No, they’re not getting ‘shot at every day’. This isn’t a movie set. Yes, they are trained, and trained well. It’s evident there was no follow-up/ continuing training in this particular aspect by their Commanders.
The only place we “put the enemy above our own men” is if those Australian’s have gone against what they have been trained to do, have lost the capacity for reasoned judgement and commit warcrimes. In that instance, get them out of the SF community and out of any environment where they operate weapons – it’s not for them.
As for your comments on “so it’s fine to do xyz…” – are you suggesting we lower our standards to “Abdul”, as you so eloquently characterise it. We’re better than that. As soon as we start slipping down to their level, what has occured happens, and we’ve lost the reason for us going there.
Is it the men-on-the-ground fault entirely? Heck no. I’d suggest less than half, as all of them had commanders/ supervisors and all of it failed. But there are no excuses for what has been done.
For the sake of their units, the Army, the ADF, Australia’s reputation and – frankly – justice, these people need to be held to account, as every ADF member is. Is the standard higher than the enemy? You bet, and proud that it is.

Opinion immediately discarded.

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