Friday, March 27, 2020

Australian SAS killing in Afghanistan - reflections in a time of crisis

As many of us find ourselves in self isolation as part of our nations’ response to the threat of COVID-19, there is an opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we stand for. 10 days ago, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published footage of what appears to be the cold-blooded murder of an Afghan civilian by an Australian special forces soldier in Afghanistan. I say civilian, because under the law of armed conflict that is what such a person is if they are not directly participating in hostilities. No doubt that is an issue which will be well canvassed in the months and years to come in the context of this particular case.

This case raises a number of disturbing questions for the armed forces of civilized nations and the governments they serve. Given that this footage seems to have been captured by another soldier’s helmet camera and the events happened almost 8 years ago, how is it that the soldier in question could have been exonerated by the initial military investigation? Why didn’t this footage, apparently indicating a murder, come to light until it was leaked to the media? What steps will the Australian Defence Force (ADF) take now? This is an Australian case, but these are not issues limited to the Australian context. There has been a disturbing tendency among the armed forces of civilized nations participating in difficult, dangerous and often lengthy peacekeeping or stabilization operations to “overlook” incidents of this type. In some circles, “support for the troops” translates into a desire for impunity. It can be seen as embarrassing or even unpatriotic to demand criminal responsibility for such actions, when they are carried out by our otherwise brave and loyal military personnel.

That kind of thinking really misses the point. Why do civilized nations put their military personnel in harm’s way in places like Afghanistan and Iraq? There is of course a large measure of self-interest – the hope that if we defeat the threat “over there”, it will not threaten us “over here”. But we are also there to stand up for (and hopefully propagate) the values that our societies stand for. Values like liberty, human rights and respect for the rule of law. It follows that our personnel must exemplify those values in their conduct on the ground. If they do not, we must ensure that they are held accountable. It is no answer that the “other team” does not respect those values. We are not in a race to the bottom. We are there to demonstrate the values on which our nations stand. If we don’t do that, then are we really any better than the “bad actors”? Quite apart from the inherent danger in such dilution of values for any disciplined fighting force, history is littered with examples of conflicts where mission failure becomes the inevitable outcome of a campaign that lacks (or loses) moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world and – most importantly – the citizens whose taxes fund it.

To end on a more positive note, one of Australia’s former Defence Force Chiefs, Admiral Chris Barrie, has spoken out clearly and publicly on this issue. That is important and suggests an appreciation of the values that I have discussed in this blog. The media might question why those comments are not echoed by the current senior command of the ADF. We do of course need to realise that Australia still has a court martial system which is located within and controlled by the military command. So senior Australian commanders need to be very circumspect while there is an on-going investigation. It is to be hoped that due process will now follow and justice will be done and seen to be done. The world will be watching.


  1. Much appreciation to Chris Griggs for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post.


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