Collateral murder in a militarised society

In March, the ABC published footage of an active duty SAS trooper, known to the public only as ‘Soldier C’, shooting and killing an unarmed Afghan villager who lay helpless and compliant in a field after being mauled by an SAS dog during an Australian special forces raid. The soldier, who was still on active duty eight years after the murder, was stood down when the video  aired, and an investigation was opened by the Australian Federal Police. A former member of the SAS, who was on the same deployment to Afghanistan in 2012, described the killing as a ‘straight-up execution’.

It has now come to light that ‘Soldier C’ is alleged to have committed at least one other murder during his time in Afghanistan, this time killing an intellectually disabled man who was ‘limping away’ from a surprise special forces raid on his village.

The footage and accounts of these crimes are shocking, but they are far from unique. The AFP is investigating a series of alleged war crimes and summary executions carried out by Australian forces during our participation in the Afghan War. Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith is currently under investigation for the alleged murder of an innocent Afghan detainee during a raid in 2009. He has been accused of kicking the man off of a cliff while he was hand-cuffed. At least one other Australian commando has confessed to personally executing an Afghan prisoner, and said that he has witnessed other Australian troops commit the same crimes.

Ex-SAS intelligence officer Braden Chapman has described a culture of planted evidence and cover-ups that accompany the pattern of ‘murdering people, and invading, and not [being] there to do something that is honourable.’ Dusty Miller, a former-SAS medic, has testified to the abuse of Afghan detainees and is assisting the authorities with ongoing investigations. An elderly Afghani villager, Haji Sardar Khan, was in the medical care of Miller before he was taken and summarily executed by an unnamed Australian SAS soldier, according to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission.

These investigations are likely to lead to the conviction and punishment of individual soldiers, and to recommendations for improving transparency and cleaning up cultures of abuse and cover-ups throughout the chain of command. However, there are few signs that the broader questions such crimes raise for the society that produces them will be answered.

The reality is that the murder of Afghan prisoners is not the sole responsibility of the soldiers themselves, or of the Australian Defence Force. While it is comforting to see former soldiers show the courage to come forward and advocate for justice and military reform, the root of the problem lies in a growing culture of complacent militarism that is permeating Australian society as a whole. This is a sense that political, ideological, economic, and social issues within the country can and should be resolved with military solutions.

This militarism has grown as a result of Australia’s direct participation in ongoing foreign wars. Australian soldiers have now been continuously deployed in wars in South Asia and the Middle East for almost twenty years. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were justified on the grounds that they would arrest the spread of global terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

WMD claims have since been revealed to have been at best a catastrophic error of judgment of intelligence agencies, politicians, and policymakers, and at worst an outright manipulation of information to fit an ill-considered and dangerous geopolitical agenda. For its part, international terrorism increased greatly after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of the victims of radical Islamic terrorism during this period have fit the same profile as the victims of the invasions themselves: Muslim civilians living in the Middle East and South Asia.  

The Taliban are now poised to regain control in Afghanistan after almost twenty years of bloodshed. Security experts draw a direct line of causation between the rise of ISIS and the American-led invasion of Iraq. A swathe of failed states and simmering insurgencies are the result of Western intervention across the region. The world is markedly less safe as a consequence.

Unfortunately, the lessons of blowback from intervention appear to have gone unlearned in Canberra, with the Australian government having this year deployed the Royal Australian Navy in support of Trump’s escalation of tensions with Iran in the Persian Gulf.  

Militarism has also risen within the economic, social, and cultural fabric of Australia itself. The Australian government is pursuing a $4 billion plan to position Australia as a leading global arms exporter. Under the plan, repressive governments like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been designated as ‘priority markets’ for Australian weapons exports, even as they wage what has been described as a genocidal war in Yemen.

In response, World Vision’s Tim Costello asked the poignant question: ‘the government says this is an export and investment opportunity, but we would be exporting death and profiting from bloodshed. Is that what we want Australia to be known for?’

The politicians who bend federal policy towards militarism often find themselves in lucrative defence-related positions in the private sector after leaving office. Former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne took an advisory role with the consulting company EY to expand its defence business just over a month after leaving his ministerial position, sparking a parliamentary inquiry into potential breaches of conduct. He now works as a lobbyist for a company with a list of high-profile defence clients.

Pyne followed in the footsteps of Peter Reith, defence minister under John Howard, who also enjoyed a lucrative post-parliamentary career in defence lobbying. This revolving door also occasionally swings the other way. Current Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds was formerly Director of Strategy Development at Raytheon Australia, the local branch of the world’s third largest arms manufacturer. 

Arms manufacturers have successfully ingratiated themselves as patrons of a large number of institutions of Australian civil society. They are major financial contributors to various foreign policy think tanks that influence national media discussions on foreign policy and international affairs and they are increasingly embedded within Australia’s universities. Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Thales, Raytheon, and BAE systems are all engaged in partnerships with various leading Australian universities in research, engineering scholarships, and industry placements for students. The Chancellor of Sydney University, Belinda Hutchinson, is herself Chairman of Thales Australia, the local branch of the largest French multinational arms manufacturer. Under her leadership, the University has negotiated a memorandum of understanding with Thales, to together ‘develop new technologies and capabilities.’

Columnist Paul Daley has spent years documenting the spread of militarism through Australia’s cultural institutions. One of his major focuses has been the purposeful centring of Gallipoli and the ANZAC legend as the cornerstones of Australian identity. This has not come about spontaneously through organic historical memory: the Australian Government spent $470 million on its centennial commemoration of the First World War, five times what was spent by the UK government, and 17 times more than our ANZAC partners in New Zealand.

The political marketing of Australian identity around war provides fertile ground for the proliferation of militarism today, and also conveniently sidelines the less savoury facets of Australia’s foundation and early history. This dynamic was perfectly highlighted when Prime Minister Scott Morrison added his personal thanks to Australian military personnel to a traditional Indigenous acknowledgment of country ceremony last year.

Corporate money also plays a role in how we remember our war dead. Displays at our most hallowed site of remembrance, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, are sponsored by multinational arms manufacturers. Meeting rooms and conference facilities, like the ‘BAE System Theatre’, carry their branding. The Medical Association for the Prevention of War, whose parent organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize, has criticised the sponsorship for turning solemn remembrance into audio-visual and virtual reality entertainment.  

Dr Susan Wareham, who heads the group, has described the effects of arms manufacturer-funded remembrance:

The weapons companies don’t have any interest in us learning about the circumstances around our wars … The war memorial story that’s being told or proposed in the new expansion is more about weaponry. It’s about how we fight our wars. It’s not about why we fight our wars and what all the impacts are. This would suit the weapons companies very well.

It is the creep of this kind of militarism into the everyday fabric of Australian society that creates the permissive environment necessary for the deployment of Australian soldiers in faraway wars. Without such deployments, and the persistent framing of Muslims as a cultural, religious and existential enemy of the West, the crimes alleged to have been committed by SAS personnel currently under investigation would simply not occur.

There is hope that some form of justice will be delivered to the Afghan victims of Australian war crimes. But to ensure that such deadly crimes are never committed in our name again, we must examine the role that creeping militarism plays in our society – and give priority to civil institutions that strengthen our resilience against the profiteers and architects of war.


Image: Flickr

Stuart Rollo

Stuart Rollo is a researcher in international relations at Sydney University.

More by Stuart Rollo ›

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  1. Good analysis. More to be found on . What Rollo describes is what we have called ‘the military industrial commemorative complex’ – ADF relying on arms manufacturers; senior military on War Memorial Council; revolving door eg recently Brendan Nelson, Defence Minister-War Memorial Director-member of arms manufacturer (Boeing) board; arms manufacturers making small change donations to War Memorial as part of their ‘community responsibility’; extensions to War Memorial currently getting under way will feature retired military vehicles, effectively an advertisement for the makers.

  2. In the context outlined so convincingly by Stuart Rollo it is possible to reconsider the multiple effects of including ‘Aboriginal resistance’ in the ‘Frontier Wars’ in the national military heritage. We have been urged to make the national military heritage more inclusive in this way as a gesture of respect and recognition for Indigenous patriotism and as a way to remind ourselves that violent invasion was an essential part of the making of modern Australia. I support this revised way of thinking about Australia’s military history and heritage, as long as it it does not omit to mention the Native Mounted Police (a troubling complication of the story of invasion and resistance). But Stuart Rollo’s article makes it clear that this inclusive gesture is part of Australia’s continuing investment (in all senses) in the values of a martial culture.

  3. Really nicely written. Let’s hope that both reassessment of our ‘offensive’ (in both senses of the word) defence strategy and the accountability of those in military is achieved before the nations credibility is lost.

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