The report below by a female sociologist is one in a long line that judges wartime behavior by peace time standards. As such, it is typically unjust. It is particularly egregious however in judging the highest risk military situations by civilian standards.
I am a former Army psychologist so perhaps have a keener awareness of the issues than some. I have no field experience. All I know is what I could learn from talking to people here in Australia. But one thing I have learned loud and clear is that military experience greatly reshapes attitudes.
One of the reasons miitary veterans often refuse to talk about their wartime experiences is that they know how their wartime actions were guided by different standards than civilian ones. The heat of battle alters attitudes and attitudes alter behaviour.
And nowhere is all the more so than in special operations. Such assignments are super high-risk and big pressure and survival instincts are at their highest there. The stress is great and anybody acting under stress is likely to make different decision from peacetime ones. And that is acknowledged throughout the military. And it is that acknowledgement that leads to "coverups". People who try to apply armchair standards to wartime behaviour are seen as missing the point and are therefore sidelined as much as possible. It is exactly such sidelining that the lady below experienced.
It would so wonderful if war could be waged like a game of chess but that is never going to happen. To use a common cliche, war is hell and there are many demons in hell. Democratic societies do their best to exclude or expel the demons but that will only ever be a campaign with limited success.
"Hypermasculinity" has got nothing to do with the problem. All that is at work is the attitudinal response to the military situation. In social psychologist's jargon, what we see are "the demand characteristics of the situation".+
It is rather regrettable that the sociologist lady below abandoned that obvious social explanation in favour of a pseudo-psychological one.
As the most frontline of SAS fighters, all that applies particularly to Ben Roberts Smith. He tried to explain his actions under the highest stress by civilian standards but inevitably failed.
It wasn’t long ago that I had been a successful business owner with a string of government contracts.
For me, it all began on Australia Day 2016. That was the day I submitted a report to army chief General Angus Campbell that would trigger the biggest inquiry into war crimes in Australia’s history. It would also be the day that David Morrison, chief of Army from 2011 to 2015, would be awarded Australian of the Year. Chair of the committee that chose the winner was Special Forces soldier Ben Roberts-Smith.
The first time I heard mention of war crimes among Australian Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan was in 2014, in a small, partially furnished office in an Army barracks. I’m a sociologist and I had been contracted by the army to undertake a number of research projects. I was speaking with an army chaplain about domestic violence prevalence. The conversation went well beyond the initial topic. It was the first time I heard of the “serious misconduct” that was occurring within SAS patrols in Afghanistan. The chaplain described returning from deployment “a broken man”, having tried and failed to have his concerns taken seriously.
It wasn’t until late 2015, in one of the first interviews I did for a project in Special Operations Command, which oversees special forces units, that the chaplain’s story came back to me. That project began as an examination of Special Operations capability. It ended in a report on war crimes that led to the Brereton Report and news stories that resulted in Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith unsuccessfully suing this masthead for defamation.
The Federal Court last month found Roberts-Smith was a liar and murderer who engaged in war crimes. At the time of my initial report, I had no idea what that report would eventually cost me, personally and professionally.
For I now realise that what I was coming up against was more than the horrific acts of a few rogue soldiers. It was the cult of brand “SAS”; the cult of the male warrior. In this cult, unsanctioned violence is justified, encouraged and celebrated.
It seemed my report on the SAS had triggered a threat to some Australian men’s masculinity. I’d dared question their heroes. These loud voices would hound me for years. The attacks on me to be bashed, killed, tortured, and my livelihood destroyed came via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, email, text and phone call. Mostly the backlash came from those not in the military, but some were ex-military and younger white male soldiers – all of whom appear to idolise the SAS as a stronghold of hypermasculinity.
When the war crimes allegations emerged, then-defence minister Peter Dutton said he had made it “very clear” to Defence that I should not be awarded further contracts. That he did not want the military to be “distracted by things that have happened in the past”. My credibility was questioned repeatedly by Jacqui Lambie and reiterated in the Murdoch press.
It became politically inconvenient for me to keep speaking about the SAS issues. In 2021, I had written an essay about how misconduct becomes entrenched in organisations and how it spreads, and I used the SAS as a primary example. The Australian Government Solicitor unsuccessfully tried to stop my essay being published.
In a letter I received from the government solicitor’s office shortly after publication, I was told my conduct and public statements had “harmed the Commonwealth”. The result was that my ongoing work with the government was “terminated for convenience”.
The implications for me, my family, my business, and my staff were profound. The message had been sent to the department loud and clear that I was now a liability and a risk. No work would follow. Work in the pipeline was stopped indefinitely. I’d told the truth, so they cut me out.
After that my business collapsed and my mental health declined amid the endless stream of misogynistic threats through social media. Work from other organisations was not forthcoming. I gather this was because most businesses hire consultants to tell them what they want to hear, not uncover what is really at the heart of their problems.
I once heard Special Forces described as the “weeping sore” of the Army that no one was prepared to tend to. But there is a cost to organisations that leave issues to fester. It teaches others in the organisation that bad behaviour is acceptable, that those who engage in it will be protected, that to dismiss it is the norm. Such attitudes seep through an organisation and rot it. When the day finally comes that these problems must be addressed, the damage is far greater for all involved.
But the greatest takeaway from my experience is a personal one. That despite the cost, I would do it all again. I am grateful for the trust placed in me by soldiers and officers who gave accounts of egregious acts of violence and cover-ups. I have never taken it for granted and I have felt an unwavering duty of care to them.