Australians generally expect that when there are allegations of war crimes they will have been committed in a country far away and by soldiers or agents of another nation.
A spate of current war crime allegations are indeed centered on a country a long way from Australia – in Afghanistan – but it is Australia’s most elite troops who are accused of crimes in the 13-year Afghan war in which at least 41 Australians have been killed.
In one reported incident, an Australian soldier allegedly kicked an unarmed and bound Afghan man off a cliff near the village of Darwan before he was shot and executed.
In another report, a soldier on his first tour of Afghanistan was pressured to kill an elderly and unarmed detainee by higher ranking soldiers in what was an apparent initiation ritual.
Then there is the case of an Afghan man with a prosthetic limb who was killed by machinegun fire, with the artificial leg sent to regimental headquarters in Perth where it became a ceremonial drinking vessel.
These reported incidents are the subject of a two year investigation by a Supreme Court Judge and high-ranking Army Reserve officer Major Paul Brereton.
There are five alleged unlawful killings under investigation, all of them committed by members of the elite Special Operations Task Group.
Brereton’s review was sparked by an internal review by consultant Samantha Crompvoets, which claimed that Australian soldiers in Afghanistan carried out “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations which included disregard for human life and dignity.”
Last week another review was announced, to be headed by David Irvine, the former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) spy agency.
The terms of Irvine’s independent review are more centered on the culture of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), and he has a brief to determine “the effectiveness of reform initiatives” with culture at the heart of the issue.
Beyond unlawful killing, it is claimed that Australia soldiers took illegal drugs, drank alcohol to excess and acted in a culture of impunity and concealment, with no proper accountability to the rules of engagement.
Soldiers allegedly planted weapons on unarmed corpses on the battlefield to justify their killing, while some SAS teams were focused on “competition killing” which focused on kill counts instead of their true mission, which was counterinsurgency aimed at winning over the local population’s hearts and minds.
One team reportedly posted a “kill board” on their barracks door.
In this environment, Australian soldiers took to wearing controversial death symbols such as the pirate skull and crossbones and imagery inspired by Spartan warriors, in particular the film “300” which glorifies in bloody imagery the Battle of Thermopylae.
In a country which idolizes its military achievements, the allegations have been met with vigorous opposition.
That the reports have emerged in the same year as Australia’s achievements on the Western Front in 1918 were lavishly celebrated in France in April has added sting to the debate, and reignited questions about the dubious success of the Coalition’s deployment in Afghanistan.
Australian soldiers there, in the words of former SAS captain and now government parliamentarian Andrew Hastie, were “grasping for operational clarity in a fog of strategic uncertainty.”
It is a familiar story for foreign armies who have become involved in conflict in Afghanistan, from the British and the Russians in the 19th and 20th centuries and stretching back as far as Alexander the Great.
While Defense Minister Marise Payne has been careful to say the allegations are being “thoroughly examined, independently from the chain of command,” the letters columns of domestic newspapers have been full of outrage.
“Now many do-gooders and some journalists are falling over themselves to crucify some of our brave lads,” wrote a retired Lieutenant Colonel to the Canberra Times.
“War is not a Sunday barbecue: it is a down and dirty hard grind where our Diggers look the enemy in the face and try to kill him before they’re killed,” wrote another correspondent.
Meanwhile, military investigators have taken out advertisements in Afghan language publications in Australia, calling for details and additional information about wrongdoing by Australian forces in Afghanistan.
Still, the likelihood of prosecution in any war crimes case is still considered low. As a precedent, two Australian commandos were charged after the death of five children in Afghanistan in 2015, but the charges were dropped before they went to court martial.
Australians are mindful, however, of what happened in Canada in the 1990s, when members of that country’s Airborne Regiment were found to have murdered an unarmed teenager in Somalia.
The Canadian government’s response was to disband the regiment. If that was to happen to Australia’s Special Operations Task Group, it could spark a controversy almost equal to the war crimes allegations themselves.