Australians are not always good at picking their folk heroes. Ned Kelly is still seen by many, and not just by the bogan element, as a rebel against oppressive authority, rather than as a petty criminal from a family of petty criminals who turned into a cold blooded murderer and hostage taker.
Similarly, Breaker Morant, executed during the Boer War for murder, has been seen by many as a martyr and a scapegoat for the failings of British imperialism. Few look at the details of what he did, and what his legal defence was.
The accusations on which Morant was charged included the summary execution of a wounded prisoner of war, four other prisoners of war, and of the killing of at least four civilians. His defence did not centre on his innocence of the guilty deed, but that he was following orders to ‘take no prisoners’ issued by Lord Kitchener.
This defence, some five decades later, would become infamous as the Nuremberg Defence.
The trial of Breaker Morant and several of his fellow officers, for what effectively were war crimes, is one of the few times that any Australians have been accused and held to account for such abhorrent conduct. That he has, despite his deeds, been seen since that time as a scapegoat and a martyr rather than as a war criminal is indicative that there is a lesson in this episode that we have not learned.
This is a particularly salient point this week, on the release of the Brereton Report into alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan which has found that at least 39 civilians or prisoners have been murdered by Australian special forces troops, and recommended that criminal charges be brought against 19 soldiers.
How could this happen? Australia has a great affection for its defence forces, and for the tradition of citizen soldiers who have volunteered for duty in defence of the nation in two world wars, a tradition which makes up a great part of the foundation history of the Australian nation. Our firm belief is that our soldiers fight fair, despite the brutality of war, and that we protect civilians.
When did we stop being the good guys?
The Brereton Report does not come as a major surprise. In recent years, various journalists have run stories, based on allegations made by former soldiers present, of war crimes committed in Afghanistan by various soldiers. One of those, the VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith, has taken court action for defamation against the Fairfax press on allegations made against him. He has in the past day announced that he has put his medals up as collateral to fund his legal defence, coming forward as one of the men likely to face charges as a result of this report.
There appear to have been some very significant shifts in culture within the special forces, as well as some serious failings in leadership that have led to this situation. Whilst patrol leaders (ie NCOs) appear to have been the ring leaders in the actual perpetration of those war crimes, such activities do not occur in a vacuum. The leadership of special forces, as anywhere else in the Army, lies with commissioned officers. What were squadron and regimental commanders doing whilst SAS patrols were systemically committing acts against unarmed civilians or helpless prisoners? At the very least, they were not sending the right messages, or setting the right tone, for the culture and the behavioural expectations of their units.
More worryingly perhaps, many of these former special forces officers have since progressed into the higher levels of command in the Army. Whilst they are not accused of complicity in war crimes, the failings in their leadership of the special forces is something for which they need to be held to account professionally.
This is perhaps where the issue of Breaker Morant comes right back at us. He committed war crimes, and the complicity of his senior officers, including Lord Kitchener, was never established, despite his attempt to argue that he was simply following orders. Whilst it goes without saying that officers of the Australian Army would never, in this day and age, give such unlawful orders, the failure of their leadership to prevent such behaviour from occurring, or to take action on it much sooner than has been the case, is a matter of grave concern. Whilst it is unlikely, given the findings of the Brereton Report do not accuse any officers of misconduct, that any unit commanders are going to face court over the actions of their subordinates, there is a need to admonish those commanders for those failings in leadership.
Maybe it is time that the Defence Forces stop valuing and rewarding service in the SAS so highly amongst its officers. Leadership of the Defence Forces needs to fall on the shoulders of those officers who are capable of leading in an honourable way, and of inspiring their troops to behave honourably, not upon those who turn a blind eye or deaf ear to a toxic culture.