Why has the government, with the high command, effectively declared war on Australian soldiers who served in Afghanistan, including those who died?
Before young Australians decide to join our armed forces, it seems they must now confront not only the enemy but the politicians. A halt must be called to this appalling mess. Above all, a Good Friday deadline (2 April, 2021) must be imposed. Not one more prosecution based on the Brereton Report than those already listed for hearing then.
There has been more than enough time over the last four years to collect material for any indictments, representing four years out of the lives of far too many soldiers.
This is a disaster entirely of the government’s own making.
Against elementary common sense and a decent respect for our soldiers, they should not have published the Brereton Report, and especially before all prosecutions were heard.
Worse, in taking this unwise course, as noted here, the prime minister should not have referred to it as containing ‘brutal truths’, thus signally that the presumption of innocence could be ignored.
Australians are a forgiving people, and will put up with a lot from their politicians, more than other people. But the government defence record is poor. They still insist on throwing away a vast part of the defence budget on acquiring a useless fleet of Turnbull-class submarines, submarines which will be obsolete well before we see them at some distant time in the future. In addition, selection criteria have been imposed which discourage the enlistment of young men.
But with the targetting of our soldiers, the denial of the presumption of innocence and now the totally unacceptable imposition of collective punishment—the very badge of dictatorship — there is a wave of outrage across the country. True, the usual elites who despise or at least look down on the armed forces are delighted. They are a small, unhappy minority.
Because of the government’s action and its damaging words in publishing the report, the reputation of Australian soldiers has been damaged around the world, just as the reputations of our athletes were in 2013..
Having made us dangerously trade dependent on China, to the enrichment of many in the Beijing lobby, the politicians feigned suprise when the communists predictably misused the report to force us into subservience.
Not only are apologies and possibly damages being offered to the families of those claimed to be victims, Defence Chief Angus Campbell is actually writing to the governor-general to strip the Meritorious Unit Citation awarded to Task Force 66, Special Operations task groups who served during the period 30 April 2007 to 31 December 2013.
According to much decorated 2nd Commando Regiment Major Heston Russell, this will affect over 3,000 Special Operations personnel including the families of those heroes who died in combat. Few would disagree with his comment that stripping medals, including those from the families of fallen soldiers, is a national disgrace. The public, he said, were right to be outraged. Indeed, so outraged that a petition against this on his site, voiceofaveteran.org, was signed by 40,000 soon after opening.
Added to that outrage and consistent with the withdrawal of the presumption of innocence, Chief of Army Rick Burr has actually disbanded the SAS second squadron.
And now, it is reported that ten serving SAS soldiers have been served with ‘show cause’ notices initiating an administrative punishment process that can result in anything from formal warnings to discharge. This follows a recommendation in the Brereton Report for such action where there was ‘credible information of misconduct which either does not meet the threshold for referral for criminal investigation, or is insufficiently grave for referral, but should have some consequences for the member’.
This action, for which the civil government must accept total responsibility, must stop. Now.
It is always difficult and it is entirely inappropriate for anyone who has not seen combat to make judgments about what soldiers should do in the field. Soldiers should only be judged by their peers, those who understand what they have lived with. Difficult choices have to be made, as veteran and commentator Alistair Pope demonstrates by reference to VC Albert Jacka’s admission that he had to shoot several prisoners (including wounded ones) as he could not guard them and fend off a new German attack that was being mounted at the same time.
The lesson is that alleged crimes should be handled immediately through the chain of command. They should never be accumulated to be considered en bloc by some grand inquisition. That is how they were handled in the two world wars. And as Alan Jones has been tenacious in pointing out, the Yamashita standard confers absolute liability on the command for crimes committed by soldiers under their direction. This principle has been adopted by the International Criminal Court, which, against the strong counsel of many of us, the Australian government had insisted on our joining in 2002. Yet the Brereton Report is dismissive of any command liability at all even in relation to the matters investigated. Perhaps that too should be tested before a series of courts martial.
Absent a Good Friday deadline, our soldiers will have even more years taken from their lives, years of further torture while teams of soft lawyers leisurely decide in air-conditioned offices whom to prosecute. Their lives will be in suspense, and unlike the politicians they are not on generous superannuation and all manner of highly paid jobs ‘for the boys’
In the meantime, the sad fact is that we will be losing more of our former soldiers who find the pressure and persecution too much to live with.
Adopting a Good Friday deadline and ending both the persecution of our soldiers by collective punishment and the abusive folly of the Turnbull submarines are essential first steps to restoring the rights of our soldiers and the attraction of a military career.
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