Small Wars Journal

Australia’s Special Forces Deserve Respect - Not Cheap Shots

Mon, 07/17/2017 - 10:55am

Australia’s Special Forces Deserve Respect - Not Cheap Shots

Deane-Peter Baker

Following claims by the ABC that their so-called ‘Afghan Files’ (hundreds of pages of leaked ADF documents) reveal ‘poor behaviour’, ‘deep divisions’, and even alleged war crimes among Australia’s special forces soldiers, it seems that pundits are lining up to put the boot in. Blogger turned ABC analyst C. August Elliott ties these allegations to his claim that ‘Australian special forces helped lose the war in Afghanistan’, the University of Sydney’s Megan MacKenzie tells us ‘how a special forces ‘band of brothers’ culture leads to civilian deaths in war’, while Ben Wadham of Flinders University contends that these allegations ‘shine light on [a] culture of impunity’ in Australia’s special forces community.

A closer look at what the ABC has revealed shows that this ‘analysis’ boils down to little more than innuendo and cheap shots against a community that is not in a position to publicly defend itself. The vast majority of the internal ADF investigations reported on by the ABC conclude that the soldiers under investigation acted within the rules of engagement. Yet MacKenzie confidently informs us that the documents claim ‘multiple cases of special forces soldiers deliberately killing innocent civilians.’ In case there is any doubt, let us be clear that no military of a modern liberal democracy would adopt rules of engagement allowing soldiers to deliberately kill innocent civilians. Yes, innocent civilians do get killed in war, and when that happens it is a terrible tragedy. But battlefields are complex and confusing, and life-or-death decisions must often be made in a heartbeat and with limited information. Mistakes happen, and those who make them must live with their actions for the rest of their lives. Unless there is actual evidence that these actions were unjustified, at the very least we owe it to our soldiers to withhold judgment.

The ‘Afghan files’ are purported to reveal ‘the alleged cover up of the killing of an Afghan boy and another alleged incident in which a father and son were shot dead during a raid’. Note that these are allegations, not proven facts. They may be true, but then again they may not be – certainly it is not difficult to imagine what motives there might be for making false allegations of this kind. Yet MacKenzie again doesn’t hesitate to draw a parallel between our special forces and the so-called ‘Kill Team’ of US soldiers who were convicted of murdering three civilians in Afghanistan in 2010. MacKenzie lumps this comparison in with the claims of a quoted ‘anonymous special forces veteran’ to conclude that there is ‘a deeply problematic culture within the ADF’. That’s a pretty strong conclusion to reach based on extrapolation, innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations.

The same ‘anonymous special forces veteran’ is quoted by Wadham, along with every allegation made against Australian Special Forces over the last two decades, plus pretty much anyone else he can think of. Sex scandals within the broader ADF and allegations made against New Zealand special forces are all in the mix, despite their obvious lack of relevance. Somehow, despite Wadham not pointing to anyone who has actually been convicted of any wrongdoing, we are expected to believe that all this ‘anecdata’ supports his claim that there is “a code of secrecy, and practices of cover-up and deceit in the theatre of war.”

If MacKenzie and Wadham’s allegations are disappointing, Elliott’s are, frankly, laughable. He bases his position on the premises that 1) the way to win a counterinsurgency is to win hearts and minds, and 2) Australian special forces didn’t do this and instead focused on raids designed to kill high-value targets (HVT’s), concluding therefore that 3) Australian special forces ‘helped lose’ the war in Afghanistan. To call this an oversimplification is an insult to oversimplifications. The counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan is not Australia’s, it is the Afghan government’s war – we have been seeking to help that effort. While no-one (least of all our special forces soldiers) thinks that killing Taliban HVT’s will – on its own – end the conflict, it simply doesn’t follow that raids designed to degrade the enemy’s operational capability and gather intelligence are somehow pointless or counter-productive. That’s just silly. Of course it’s easy enough to make this all look bad – just throw in (as Elliott does) some unsubstantiated claim about our special forces having a "shoot first, never ask questions at all" ethos, and - Voila! - cheap shot executed.

Portraying military personnel as trigger-happy war criminals is like accusing your neighbours of being pedophiles. They may be innocent, and may be found not guilty in a court of law (if they are ever even charged), but nobody will ever really believe that – the stigma is too strong. Am I saying that no war crimes were committed by Australian Special Forces personnel in Afghanistan? No, I’m not. I simply have no access to whatever evidence there might be one way or the other. And nor do Mackenzie, Wadham, Elliott and all the others who are currently jumping up and down on the reputations of our special forces soldiers. It seems to me that we should have enough respect for those who risk their lives on our behalf to hold off on criticising them until there is actual evidence of wrongdoing.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Deane-Peter Baker is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of School (Postgraduate and Research) in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra (Australian Defence Force Academy). From January 2010 to June 2012 he was Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Prior to that he taught in the School of Philosophy and Ethics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He holds a B.A. (Hons) and two master’s degrees (philosophy and political science) from the University of Natal/KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), and was awarded his doctoral degree in philosophy by Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia). A specialist in the ethics of armed conflict, Dr. Baker’s research straddles philosophy, ethics and security studies. From 2006 – 2008 Dr. Baker was Chairman of the Ethics Society of South Africa. He has served as a consultant to both the Reserve Forces Division of the South African National Defence Force and the South African Army Future Vision Planning Office. In the winter of 2007-8 Dr. Baker was a visiting fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University, and was Visiting Research Fellow at the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute from January through March of 2009.


J Harlan

Mon, 07/17/2017 - 9:39pm

"In case there is any doubt, let us be clear that no military of a modern liberal democracy would adopt rules of engagement allowing soldiers to deliberately kill innocent civilians."

I presume he means to deliberately kill civilians they know to be innocent. That's a relief but no one has accused them of that. They're accused of in some cases not caring which Afghans or Iraqis they kill. The shooting can be made to fit the ROE later.

Killing people who might be the enemy is of course allowed including the infamous ROE that allowed shooting at the "heavily weighted Toyota" or other signs of a suicide bomber.

A Canadian soldier shot Hamid Karzai's elementary school teacher (~95 years old) dead off his bicycle after he had passed through an ANSF check point on his way to meet his former student because he looked like a suicide bomber. There is film of Canadians running Afghans off the road (shooting near most and hitting one man) because they might be suspected bombers and then driving within one yard of the vehicle as they drive past. There are many other examples- MARSOCs killing of 19 innocent people in Nangahar. Wedding party bombings.

John Zambri

Mon, 07/17/2017 - 8:38pm

Dr. Baker, cheap shots indeed. But, quite frankly and unfortunately, to be expected. In my twenty three year military career (18 in the reserves), I have had the pleasure, no, the honor of having worked with and around some of her Majesty's special operations professionals at various points. British SAS, Australian SAS, New Zealand SF, and SF operators from several other countries. Without question SF operators, specifically Australian SAS operators, were some of the most professional and dedicated individuals I have come across. War is a dirty and nasty thing fraught with what old Carl von Clausewitz said was "the realm of uncertainty", a realm of which the home front, Larteguy wrote, "had no context". I can empathize.