An SAS trooper takes up a position as Australian troops sweep through the suburbs of Dili, East Timor, in 2006. This elite unit is now under investigation for war crimes in Afghanistan. Photo: AFP

This is the second part of a two-part feature series. To read Part 1, which covered the differentiated nature of elite and special forces units, click here.

During World War II, elite Nazi Waffen SS armored divisions were shifted from one crisis at the front to another. And the recent inquiry into a very different kind of elite – Australian special forces (SF) – found that Canberra has over-used these units and under-used its line infantry in recent wars, with SF units undergoing multiple deployments.

Because they are often over-deployed, military elites are subject not only to physical trauma but also extensive psychological wear and tear. Under these conditions, stresses are inevitable. These stresses fray ethics, and frayed ethics can become entrenched in culture if not clamped down upon from above.

That command guidance can be lacking.

“I would have to say that as knowledge spread that they were exempt from prosecution for killings in the field, within certain SS units, a certain attitude developed,” said Douglas Nash, a retired US colonel and published expert on the Waffen SS. “They could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.”

Commanders were aware of what was going on.

“The SS chain of command certainly knew that indiscriminate killing was commonplace,” Nash said. “But unless discipline was compromised by cases of ‘wild, unsanctioned killing,’ little was done.”

Two of the most infamous Waffen SS mass killings were carried out on the initiative of, respectively, mid-level and low-level commanders: The liquidation of the villages of Yefremovka in Ukraine in 1943 and Oradour sur-Glane in France in 1944.  

Certainly, the scale of the atrocities committed by the Waffen SS and allegedly committed by the Australian SAS is vastly different. More than 600 people were massacred in Oradour in one day, compared with 39 captives killed during multiple deployments in Afghanistan.  

Still, Australia’s Brereton report similarly points to a lack of command oversight and related accountabilities. SAS units, the report found, were run by a hardcore of long-term, deeply a-cultured NCOs, rather than officers.

And even in small, close-knit SF units, leadership hierarchies are in play.

“SF guys tend to have a lot of mutual respect,” said Michael Yon, a former Green Beret who also covered the global war on terror as an independent reporter. “But even if you have a team of 12 alpha males, there will still be alpha alphas.”

Two Australian commandos – part of a special forces troop in Afghanistan – examine their medals for their military service. File Photo: AFP / Troy Bendeich

“Normally, these things [atrocities] happen when discipline is lax and supervision is non-existent, and it is amazing they thought they could get away with it,” added Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general who formerly led his country’s Special Warfare Command. “Once in a situation like that, they lose their sense of reality and consequence.”

Still, given the professionalism and discipline intrinsic to elite units, Chun expressed astonishment that an outfit as highly regarded as the Australian SAS could have gone so apparently bad.

“I understand that it can happen, but the surprising thing is that it was committed by men who should have known better,” Chun said.

Conversely, the highest-profile US atrocity allegation to emerge from recent Middle East conflicts was the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison. The unit responsible for that was far from elite.

“The incident with the prison in Iraq was by a National Guard unit that was not trained very well, and did not have the self-discipline of  regular and especially elite units,” said Alfred Johnson, a US airborne veteran and social worker who has made an in-depth study of violent crime.

Even so, while it may be rare, above-the-law behavior by rogue SF units and individuals is not unique.

In the 1969 “Green Beret Murder Case” a unit under the command of high-flying US Special Forces officer, Colonel Robert Rheault  carried out the extra-judicial killing of an alleged South Vietnamese double  agent.

Don Kirk, a veteran reporter who covered the Vietnam conflict, remembers the case well.

“Colonel Rheault was designed for the highest ranks of the army, he was a hotshot and got too big for his britches,” Kirk recalled. “[Then US commander in Vietnam] General Creighton Abrams was a hard-headed realist, and this colonel said, ‘This was a top-secret unit, we are special forces,’ and Abrams said, ‘No, you are working for me,’ and laid down the law.”

Rheault was court-martialed and retired from the army but lives on in popular culture. He was part of the inspiration for the “Colonel Kurz” character in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam film, Apocalypse Now.

And more recently, following incidents of racist cruelty in Somalia, Ottawa disbanded the Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1995.  

US and South Vietnamese special forces at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968. Photo: Wiki Commons

 ‘Othering’ the enemy

As noted in Part 1, military elites “other” themselves by differentiating their units from wider military organizations. This process is significant in removing them from operational and arguably moral norms.

But another type of “othering” also takes place in terms of attitudes toward the enemy. Soldiers differentiate their enemies, via dehumanizing lexis that reflects innate beliefs, also enables dire outcomes.

The Third Reich was imbued with a racist culture toward Jews and Slavs (Untermensch) and an ideological culture against communists (“Bolsheviks”). The Waffen SS was a standard-bearer of this culture.

While certain rear-area SS units were specifically tasked with mass murder, the Waffen SS was a frontline combat arm. But even its top-tier, armored units carried out war crimes, such as the liquidation of villages and the murder of Jews – crimes the SS and German political leadership overlooked.

These crimes were “….excused as merely overenthusiastic elimination of the Third Reich’s enemies,” said Nash, whose latest book, From the Realm of a Dying Sun, covers the Waffen SS Death’s Head and Viking divisions.

The ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, France, a village liquidated by troops of a Waffen SS armored division in reprisal against partisan activities. More than 600 men, women and children were killed. The village was never rebuilt and today it serves as a memorial. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Troublingly, these “othering” behaviors and lexical cues are not restricted to Nazis.

British and American troops have psychologically enabled their killing by dehumanizing enemies through use of racial (“gooks,” “dinks,” “ragheads”), racial-nationalist (“Japs,” “Krauts”) or ideological (“Reds”) terminology.

“The troops demonized the enemy in Vietnam, they called them ‘gooks’ and ‘slopes,’” recalled Kirk. “That gets reflected in behavior.”

“It is normal – I am not saying it is good or bad,” added Yon. “The Taliban called us ‘goats.’”

But things have changed since Vietnam. Given the dehumanizing nature of these terms, Western soldiers are forbidden from employing them.

“American and British soldiers are admonished for calling people names,” Yon said. “They are admonished for a very good reason. You are leading yourself to a war crimes trial. You never hear a commander say, ‘Let’s kill some ragheads,’ it’s ‘Let’s kill the enemy.’”

But even Yon – who, based on direct personal experience, angrily insists that recent war crimes allegations against British troops in Basra, Iraq, were groundless – admits that a gap exists between military regulations and ground-zero reality.

“Does it still happen?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course.”

Yet dehumanizing is not exclusive to soldiers. It is also done – at least verbally –  in civilian life.

“People tend to do it a lot,” Yon pointed out. “Look at the US now – everyone who supports Trump is called a racist. It is dehumanizing.” 

Combatant or non-combatant?

Still, combat zones are, by definition, deadlier spaces than debate forums. And murders of civilians in war zones are not simply a product or racial or ideology othering. The format of combat engaged in also has an impact.

As restive civilian populations rose against Germany and partisan activity increased, SS units liquidated villages in Italy and France, suppressed the Warsaw Uprising with medieval brutality and murdered civilians in the Ardennes.

These atrocities were a result, not just of murderous desperation, but also of how particularly Germany’s military despised partisans and those who they believed supported them – including women and children.

Again, this dynamic is not restricted to Nazis.

Since World War II, the troops of Western democracies have murdered civilians in campaigns wherein combatants and non-combatants were difficult or impossible to distinguish.

These include the massacres of Asian civilians by US infantry units at Nogun-ri in Korea and My Lai in Vietnam. Both these incidents were conducted by regular – arguably, sub-standard – infantry troops who were operating in conditions of command de-control.

However, other atrocities have been carried out by elite units.  

These include the widespread torture deployed against civilians by French paratroopers in Algeria, and the shooting of civilians by British paratroops on “Bloody Sunday’ in Northern Ireland.

There are also widespread allegations of atrocities conducted during the “Phoenix Program” of the Vietnam War, which encompassed the torture and assassination of Viet Cong officials. The program was overseen by CIA officials and both American and Australian SF troops.

What unites these cases is the unclear nature of the enemy force – who did not wear uniforms. Kirk, who covered the My Lai massacre, remembers the deadly frustrations counter-insurgency warfare engendered among US troops.

“There was a feeling that you did not know where the hell the enemy was,” he said. “He could be with the civilians – the enemy was everywhere.”

That dynamic also related to Afghanistan. The enemy militias and terrorist groups encountered in Afghanistan, such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda, were also – bar foreign fighters who served in Al Qaeda – able to blend with the civilian population.

Prisoners being guarded by Canadian troops in Southern Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / John D McHugh

Heart of Darkness

For the Australian SAS, the Australian Army and Australian society, the upcoming prosecutions of their finest soldiers look set to be wrenching. Even so, the transparency of the probe into its most elite troops by Canberra bespeaks both accountability and rule of law.

That Canberra has been rebuked by Beijing for the alleged behavior of its elite troops gets short thrift from Yon, the ex-Green Beret.

“They use information as a weapon daily,” he said of China. “They have negative credibility.”

Meanwhile, Western civilians may assume that legal protocols, rules of engagement and simple moral decency makes atrocities by their troops rare – and indeed, the allegations against Australian SF are highly unusual.

Safely removed from the desperate, extreme and confused conditions of war zones, civilians may also take comfort in the belief that such atrocities cannot be replicated in the civil sphere.

In fact – absent rule of law – slaughter has not been humanity’s exception; it has been it’s default norm for all of pre-history and most of history, one expert noted.

Murderousness against “the other” is “a generalized human capability expressed under certain conditions rather than an aberration or instance of pathological behavior only brought on when a group has become somehow ‘toxic,’” warned Johnson.

“Only very recently in human history has such behavior been seen as ‘unusual’ in human conflicts,” he said. “Only recently have large parts of the human community insisted on more ‘civilized’ and humane behavior during warfare.” 

Australian soldiers of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force stand guard at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Tirin Kot, Afghanistan,, 17 February 2007. Photo: AFP/Shah Marai