Why we excuse Australian war crimes

Despite the outcome of his disastrous defamation case, plenty of Australians still support Ben Roberts-Smith. Look at any social media platform and underneath the articles detailing the atrocities revealed in court you’ll find post after post hailing him as a hero, a brave warrior betrayed by jealous reporters and gutless politicians.

The degree to which the sentiment extends into the real world remains difficult to quantify—it’s scarcely the kind of sentiment pollsters report—but right-wing media pundits clearly sense an audience for BRS apologism.

In the Australian, for instance, Peta Credlin contrasted what she called a ‘general pile-on’ from the media with the attitude of ‘large sections of the public’ who saw BRS as ‘a tough “soldier’s soldier”; a hero, even if very possibly a flawed one, whose excesses, if any, are understandable in the cauldron of war.’ Her colleague Greg Sheridan warned against the army becoming ‘woke’. The preposterous Henry Ergas pondered whether ‘Athena—the goddess of rationally conducted, disciplined warfare—could ever tame Ares, the “bloodthirsty marauder”‘.

Their readers lapped it up.

‘BRS is a hero,’ declared Marco. ‘Leave him alone.’

‘I’m appalled at the treatment and judgment being meted out against BRS,’ agreed Mike. ‘…Thank God we have tough no nonsense soldiers of the calibre of BRS on our side.’

‘When the politicians, and top bureaucrats, send their sons and daughters to war,’ wrote KJP, ‘and put them on the Frontline, and particularly the bureaucrats of the ADF, I will take what they have to say on board.’

‘We sent BRS to do a job,’ said Tony, ‘and should all thank him for doing it!’

Let us briefly consider the ‘job’ done by BRS, as per a defamation hearing instigated by the man himself.

The judge in the case found the allegations that BRS kicked an elderly, handcuffed civilian off a ten-metre-high cliff and then instructed another soldier to shoot him dead to be substantially true. He reached the same conclusion in relation to suggestions that BRS ordered the murder of a prisoner, machine-gunned a disabled Afghan man and drank from his prosthetic leg, and sent threatening, anonymous letters to his former colleagues, whom he feared would speak to an inquiry.

Why do so many Australians, then, consider him admirable?


Different nations justify their wars in different ways. In this country, the tropes come, invariably, from ANZAC, a rhetoric instilled in Australians since childhood. To understand the national mythology better, it’s useful to look at its genesis—not in the Dardanelles in 1915 but in South Africa between 1899 and 1902.

Australian participation in the Boer War coincided with Federation, and so shaped—and was shaped by—an emerging nationalism. Not coincidentally, the Boer War also gave rise to the very BRS-like figure of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, a soldier claimed by many as hero despite his undeniable record of atrocity.

As the Australian colonies moved to unite, they worried about the ongoing viability of a colonial settler state in the Asia-Pacific. Despite Federation, the project still depended, they thought, on backing by the Great Power. Without the support of the imperial fleet, how would a tiny outpost that understood itself as European fend off surrounding nations: better armed, more populous and (worst of all) decidedly non-white? Yet Britain showed a disturbing indifference to the edges of its far-flung empire, refusing to put antipodean priorities at the centre of its plans. In that context, many Australians concluded they needed a war.

The journalist AG Hales explained:

A nation is never a nation
Worthy of pride or place
Till the mothers have sent their firstborn
To look death on the field in the face.

A demonstration of national military prowess would—the argument went—impress the British commanders sufficiently that they would consider colonial troops as integral to their global strategy. Hales put the matter bluntly:

Are we only an English market,
Held dear for the sake of trade?
Or are we a part of the Empire
Close welded as hilt and blade?
If so, let us share your dangers,
Let the glory we boast be real,
Let the boys of the South fight with you,
Let our children taste cold steel.

His bizarre demand for young Australians to be bayoneted (what else could that last line mean?) presented the strategy explicitly as a blood sacrifice. Imperial protection required the death of local soldiers, a price Hales was willing (keen, even) to pay—so much so that his poem attacked the British for their perceived unwillingness to start the required war.

We grow weary waiting, England,
For the summons that never comes –
For the blast of British bugles
And the throw of British drums.
Our hears grow sore and sullen
As year by year rolls by …

For men like Hales, the Boer War constituted a heaven-sent opportunity to entwine Australia with the imperial forces.

A British victory mattered to Australia not for any reasons related to South Africa—a place few Australians knew anything about—but because of its local consequences. Early British military reversals (during the so-called ‘Black Week’) intensified concern about the implications for the Asia-Pacific of imperial defeat, with local powers emboldened to menace Australia by the perceived weaknesses of its imperial protector.

As Craig Wilcox documents in Australia’s Boer War, one Western Australian spelled out the issue: ‘If the British forces do not show to advantage against the Boers, there is little doubt but we will have to face France, Russia or Japan.’

For historian Barbara Penny, the war provided

a prickling reminder of Australia’s vulnerability and dependence on the British navy, and her growing uneasiness was shown in the fulsome expressions of gratitude to Britain for past protection. … [I]t was both Australia’s duty and in her interest to lend active support.’

The corresponding outburst of patriotism centred on the now familiar figure of the ‘Bushman’. As the William Willis explained in the Sydney Evening News no January 2, 1900, Australia’s participation would centre on the despatch of:

bushmen, rough riders, good shots, and men who could ‘rough it’ with the most, to use bush terms, leather-hided Boer on the South African veldts. … This class of men are in abundance in the country, and ready and eager to go. …

There are thousands of men scattered through our vast interior who can ride anything in the shape of a horse that was ever yarded, and pick off kangaroos up to 800 yards from the saddle, hardly ever missing; they are to the manner born, accustomed to be in the saddle from sunrise to sun-set, day in and day out, all the year round, never tiring, always ready for a gallop over country, often full of gaping holes on our baked and dried up plains …

Willis helped found the notorious tabloid Truth and so understood something about populism. In his rhetoric, you can already hear the distinctive notes of Anzackery. When, in 1916, Charles Bean compiled The Anzac Bookthe Bible of the new Anzac religion—he presented, as an example of an ‘Anzac type’, we a man known as ‘Wallaby Joe’. This fellow is described as:

in appearance the typical bushman. Tall and lean, but strong as a piece of hickory. A horseman from head to toe, and a dead shot. He possessed the usual bushy beard of the lonely prospector of the extreme backblocks … His conversation was laconic in the extreme. When the occasion demanded it he could swear profusely, and in a most picturesque vein … An endless amount of initiative showed itself in everything he did. … His training at the military camps of Australia and, later, in Egypt, combined with the knowledge he had been imbibing from Nature all his life, made him an ideal soldier.

Thereafter, that became the image of the ideal Anzac—a strapping young fellow from the bush, whose fighting prowess derives from his life on the land.

Yet the ubiquity of the Bushman trope obscures its weirdness. In 1900, when Willis lauded

men who live month after month in the bush, rifle in hand, and cartridge pouch at side, who only see civilisaton at some station to which they take a ten or twenty mile ride, or walk on Sundays to procure their rations, or see if there’s a letter or paper from home,

Australia was already one of the most urbanised nations in the world.

A few years earlier, the American statistician Adna Weber had specifically commented on the comparatively small proportion of Australians living in the bush. He instead noted the centrality of its cities—this, he said, made the country ‘representative of the new order of things, toward which the modern world is advancing.

So why not identify the national soldier with the urban life that not only characterised the country but in which it led the world? Why associate this supposedly representative figure with an ideal far more associated with other nations than with Australia?

The account given by George Witton, who fought with Harry Morant and later championed the ‘Breaker’s’ cause, sheds some light. In Scapegoats of the Empire, Witton explained:

The Bushman knows his rifle as the city man knows his walking-stick. He feels neither contempt nor awe for it. It is a commercial asset, a domestic property. Perhaps he keeps his wife in dresses by shooting kangaroos; perhaps he keeps himself in whisky by tracking wallabies. His equipment is scanty. He has a bandolier, perhaps a pouch, possibly a mess-tin, certainly a “billy.” When the parade-call goes he falls in with his fellows, and numbers off from the right somewhat sheepishly. On parade he is a unit and has to do as he’s told, and he isn’t quite used to submitting his will to those of others in authority.

Witton’s description hints at an opposition between this natural warrior and those who would command him—a tension paralleling the relationship between colony and metropole. Australians depended on, and identified with, the British empire. But, precisely because they wanted Britain engaged in the Australian region, they sought a more aggressive, interventionist imperialism. If they relied on London, they also mistrusted its resolve, feeling that it lacked the stomach for the coming fight.

You can identify that tension in the common contrast made between the British soldier and the man from the Australian bush. For example, on 28 April 1900 the Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser asked:

[W]here was the agricultural labourer from Devon or from Kent, or the born Cockney to acquire the ability to lend for himself in the wilderness and the knowledge to meet the “slimness” of the Boer battle methods? He would go where he was told to go and try and do what he was told, even to the sacrifice of his life, but little use that where his enemy was invisible and protected, assailed him with deadly rifle fire: surprised, harassed, outrode, and outmanoeuvred him. … To meet these men and beat them at their own game Australians felt that no one would be better fitted by nature than our own bush dwellers. They had not had fighting [experience] — that is, fighting with men— but they have had to fight with nature.

The British were disciplined but that discipline constituted a weakness, given the foes they faced. The Bushman, on the other hand, was ready for the wily Boer. Unconstrained by the shackles of civilisation, he could do whatever had to be done, with methods derived not from military college but from the ‘fight with nature’.

The precise lessons from this struggle were not always made explicit. But though the Mail and Advertiser described the Bushman as lacking experience ‘fighting with men’, his origins on colonial frontier necessarily recalled the dispossession of Indigenous Australia.

The Boer War was, of course, deeply racialised. In its early phases, the nationalists of the Bulletin briefly identified with the Boers on the basis that the Dutch were also Europeans carving out a settler state. ‘The Australian who goes Boer hunting in Africa,’ the magazine warned on 23 December 1899, ‘ought to try and realise that he is risking his life to enable a hungry pack of German and Polish Jews to cut down white men’s wages and fatten on cheap nigger labour when the war is over.’

But the Bulletin could not suggest a credible alternative to Britain as protector and so, when Black Week raised the spectre of the Empire’s defeat, ‘anti war’ rhetoric gave way to a racial reappraisal of the enemy.

‘I believe,’ explained a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly quoted by Penny, ‘it is one of the laws of nature—a predestination—that the better type of humanity should displace the lower type. I have no hesitation in saying that the Boer is the lowest type of white humanity.’

The Melbourne Age of 16 May 1899 concurred: ‘[If the Boer] had the right to take the land from the natives in the interests of a semi-barbarous settlement,’ it explained, ‘Great Britain has the same right to supersede the Boer in the interests of a higher civilisation.’

It remained only for the Evening Telegraph to complete the argument:

The Boers are a discontented, selfish, obstinate people, ignorant in the extreme and self-opinionated to a fault. They are as lazy as the aborigines of Australia, and will never do the slightest work if they can possibly avoid it. There is not the slightest doubt, that if the Boers were now granted the franchise they would … breed more troubles for the British Government.

That was the advantage of Bushmen over ‘civilised’ troops: colonials understood what ‘fighting with the Aborigines of Australia’ meant and could bring that knowledge to South Africa.


The vast majority of Australians who fought in the Boer War did so as ‘irregulars’, what Craig Wilcox describes as ‘stateless auxiliaries recruited for six months or a year to help the army win the war.’ He goes on to explain that

European armies had long employed frontiersmen for their savagery as well as their fleetness; the volunteers with the army in South Africa were inclined or even expected to live up this tradition and the irregulars proved to be its most faithful adherents.

Breaker Morant was one such man.

He had arrived in Australia in 1883, claiming to be the son of an English admiral (though, like much else he said, that was probably a lie). A skilled horseman, he wrote bush verse for the Bulletin as he drifted throughout the country, before enlisting in 1899. He initially joined the South Australian Mounted Rifles but came to serve with the ‘Bushveldt Carbineers’: a group of irregulars intended as a counter-insurgency force but evolving into something more like a death squad.

In August 1901, Morant ordered a prisoner shot in retaliation for the killing of one of the Carbineers. He later had a group of four Afrikaners and four schoolteachers murdered after their surrender, and then shot a missionary he feared might expose the crime. He also killed three Boer commandos after they surrendered.

At trial, Morant never denied any of the killings. He and one of the others arrested with him, Lieutenant Peter Handcock, instead claimed to be following orders, implementing Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policies.  They were both found guilty; they were both executed.

The poem Morant wrote after his trial explained his understanding of his actions. Entitled ‘Butchered to make a Dutchman’s holiday’, it contains the following verses:

If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot ‘em!
And if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!

And if you’d earn a D.S.O.,
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go

The lines present, in intensified form, a key element of the Bushman myth—the contrast between his rugged determination and the effeteness of his commanders. In Morant’s hands, the trope becomes a justification for murder: he imagines himself as victimised by a British establishment not prepared to countenance the steps necessary to win.

The Breaker’s interpretation of his mission does not mean every Australian committed war crimes. Obviously, they did not. Nor was the association of London with military restraint necessarily true. On the contrary, in South Africa, Lord Kitchener, the British commander, drew on the Empire’s long history of successfully waging colonial wars to formulate his policy. ‘It is hardly surprising,’ write Aidan Forth and Jonas Kreienbaum,

that British tactics, and the concentration camps that resulted, resembled the forced relocation of native Americans into reservations as a pacification measure or the use of guarded enclosures to settle and control the roving dacoits of South Asia.

The eventual British victory resulted from systematic atrocity, not least in camps in which close to 30 000 people died (some 22 000 of them children). Indeed, the traditional defence of Morant rests on his claim at the trial that he was following Kitchener’s ‘shoot-to-kill’ orders.

Be that as it may, Morant’s case illustrates how the strategic orientation of a colonial settler state—its fear that the imperial power on which it depends might be weakening—can give rise to a certain way of thinking about war, an ideological template that allows soldiers to see the so-called codes of battle as precisely as effete restrictions they pride themselves on flouting.

It’s worth noting, for instance, that in Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves says that, during the First World War, soldiers from Australia and Canada (a country with a not dissimilar colonial past) possessed ‘the worst reputation for acts of violence against prisoners’.

He records an Australian soldier boasting:

Well, the biggest lark I had was at Morlancourt, when we took it the first time. There were a lot of Jerries in a cellar, and I said to ’em “Come out, you Camarades!” So out they came, a dozen of ‘em, with their hands up. “Turn out your pockets,” I told ‘em. They turned ‘em out Watches and gold and stuff, all dinkum. Then I said “Now back to your cellar, you sons of bitches!” For I couldn’t be bothered with ‘em When they were all safely down I threw half a dozen Mills bombs in after ‘em I’d got the stuff all right, and we weren’t taking prisoners that day.

When Goodbye to All That first appeared, the Australian press objected to a description that they said besmirched the reputation of the diggers. As documented by Dale Blair in his book No Quarter, when Brigadier General John Gellibrand urged him to defend the honour of the troops, Charles Bean replied:

Candidly, I don’t know what to do … I am up against this, that one has so constantly heard our men and officers talk as if these things did happen, and laugh about them, that I am half inclined to think that they must have happened more often than we would like to believe.

Again, there’s no suggestion that Australians were alone in shooting prisoners, with battlefield executions common throughout the First World War. But you can see how a self-identity as manly larrikins scornful of legal niceties might lead, as Graves puts it, ‘most overseas men [to] make atrocities against prisoners a boast, not a confession.’

The ANCAC mythos, of course, proved astonishingly protean. Prior to the Second World War, the nation’s reliance on Great Power support meant an orientation to London. In 1941, however, Prime Minister John Curtin candidly assessed the British as no longer up to the job and re-oriented foreign policy from the declining British Empire to the ascendant American one. But the basic dynamic of Australian sub-imperialism—a willingness to sacrifice soldiers to keep the imperial protector engaged with the region—remained the same.

The standard left-wing narrative about Australia getting suckered into foreign wars thus entirely inverts reality. As General John Wilton explained about Vietnam, ‘it wasn’t a question of us being dragged in by the USA, it was us wanting to have the USA dragged in.’

The experience of Vietnam led to an important evolution in the digger mythos, exemplified by the re-discovery of ‘the Breaker’ as a nationalist hero in the 1980s. Bruce Beresford’s film Breaker Morant appeared in 1980, one year before Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. Both movies reflected a new consciousness of the horrors of war in the wake of the huge opposition to the Vietnam conflict; both movies grafted that consciousness onto a very traditional understanding of Australian war.

That is, Hales’ call for children to ‘taste cold steel’ strikes the modern reader as bizarrely callous. By contrast, after Vietnam, the new nationalism did not sanitise war. Rather, it dwelled, in great detail, on the suffering of soldiers. Yet it used the horrors of combat not to raise political questions about how wars started and how they might be prevented but rather to emphasise the extent of the nation’s sacrifice in them. In both Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, war features as undeniably brutal but also, in some senses, inevitable—an ordeal that young men must endure rather than a social crisis that could and should be prevented. The movie didn’t deny Morant’s atrocities: rather, it presented his behaviour as the consequence of the circumstances in which he had been placed, so that the horrific acts he performed became almost another aspect of the sacrifice he made.

The re-badged version of the mythos proved entirely compatible with Australian involvement in all manner of dubious conflicts, embraced by governments keen for more bloody down payments on the US alliance.

In 1990, for instance, Bob Hawke lied to the public about a US request for an Australian contribution to the Gulf War. In reality, Hawke offered to send ships but then ‘asked George HW Bush to say that Australia was invited, rather than Australia invited itself.’

It was the same in Iraq in 2003. A secret 2011 report by Defence’s own Directorate of Army Research and Analysis concluded, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald’s David Wroe, that ‘Howard joined US president George W. Bush in invading Iraq solely to strengthen Australia’s alliance with the US.’

As for Afghanistan, Australia became involved after 9/11 through the ANZUS treaty—invoked by John Howard (rather than George Bush) immediately after the terror attack and before the Americans even explained precisely where they intended to attack.

Given that context, the popular support for Ben Roberts-Smith becomes much less mystifying.


From the Australian government’s perspective, the consequences of the war for Afghanistan itself mattered little. Australian troops invaded to bolster the US alliance and strengthen Australian influence in the Asia Pacific region. That’s why the political class showed such indifference to the outcome of Australia’s longest military engagement.

Yes, the war ended in an ignominious defeat and that might be bad for American hegemony but, on the other hand, Canberra proved to Washington its willingness to fight, with the commitment to the Afghanistan war providing the backdrop to the new AUKUS agreement.

In that context, the old tropes can easily stretch to cover BRS. Here was a man who went to a foreign country and did what had to be done. ‘The Australian when he fights, fights all in,’ said Bean at Gallipoli. Wasn’t that what BRS showed?

In the most popular, though almost certainly inaccurate, account of the proceedings against Morant, the Breaker supposedly faced down his accusers: ‘As to rules and sections,’ he snapped, ‘we had no Red Book; and knew nothing about them. But remember this. We were out fighting the Boers, not sitting comfortably behind barb-wire entanglements; we got them and shot them under rule 303.’

The passage illustrates how neatly the old distinction between the manly digger and his tut-tutting critics maps onto contemporary culture war and its opposition between suburban patriots and inner-city elitists. That’s certainly the context in which the apologias for BRS have appeared: a conjunction in which almost any depravity will find defenders determined to ‘own the libs’.

Yet the long history of Australian militarism reminds us that the necessary condemnations of Ben Roberts-Smith and the SAS need to be situated in relation to the country’s sub-imperial ambitions. ‘Are we a part of the Empire / Close welded as hilt and blade?’ AG Hales asked. As the tensions between the United States and China grow, that determination to weld Australia into Empire only becomes more dangerous.


Image: Ben Roberts-Smith speaks at the Australian War Memorial Anzac Day dawn service, 25 April 2013. Wikimedia Commons.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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