On the way to work most days, I drive past RMC, ADFA and the Australian War Memorial.
Some days my route takes in the huge Defence complex at Russell, which backs onto Mount Pleasant, resting place of the only Australian to be killed in Gallipoli and buried in Australia, Major General William Bridges.
Mostly these places just pass by as a familiar background. But there are times you might stop at the lights on Fairbairn Avenue to let a troop of cadets in heavy backpacks trudge across the road on physical training, or note the chairs being put out at the memorial for an upcoming commemoration. On those days, you're particularly reminded Canberra is a defence city, as much as it's other things.
Thursday's revelations about war crimes allegedly committed by special forces soldiers in Afghanistan were so shocking, all Australians should have paid notice. But within the defence community, they would have been felt most intensely.
As political reporter Harley Dennett wrote on Thursday, "Many in Canberra know members of Defence, or are current or former members themselves. They know that the criminal actions revealed on Thursday are abhorrent to ADF members."
The report's central allegation that 39 Afghans were murdered by 25 members of our special forces came with chilling explanation of how weapons were planted on dead bodies and photographed to make cold-blooded killing seem like self-defence, and how villagers running away from helicopters had been known as "squirters", an appalling dehumanisation of them, and treated as fair game for soldiers competing for the most kills.
Perhaps most chilling was a redacted section described as "possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia's military history".
The grim-faced ADF chief General Angus Campbell slated home these crimes to a "distorted warrior culture" in which experienced patrol commanders were feared and respected as "demi-gods".
"Rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed. And once that rule was broken, so to, for some, was any further restraint," he said.
Some might have feared that Thursday's long-awaited reveal of a report the Prime Minister had last week braced the nation for might have come with more excuse-making, or pleas for civilians to understand that terrible things happen in war.
Certainly over the past four years, while the Brereton report has been compiled, and stories have been published detailing some of the alleged actions of Australians in Afghanistan, there have been strident defenders of the special forces and critics of those who have raised concerns about their conduct.
Criticising reporting about allegations against decorated former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, who has denied those allegations and is suing media organisations for defamation, then head of the war memorial and former defence minister Brendan Nelson said in 2018: "War is a messy business ... but as far as I'm concerned, unless there have been the most egregious breaches of laws of armed conflict, we should leave it all alone".
Dr Nelson wouldn't offer comment on Thursday, though there is no suggestion he too wouldn't be appalled by what he had read.
It's the "leaving it all alone" aspect - and to be fair, even after today there will be those who retain the view that what happens in combat should stay in combat - that warrants discussion here.
The truth of this drawn-out story is that, were it not for the bravery of some within the ranks of the special forces, and for the commitment of some whistleblowers and journalists at places like the ABC and The Age, we would never have learned these terrible truths.
Anyone who wanted to put a dent in the reputation of the most revered group of Australian soldiers of the modern era had to do so against bullying and victimisation from within, or public disparaging.
As gravely disturbed as the Prime Minister might have looked and sounded last week, let's not forget that the laws of the land and the actions of those in charge are set hard against the kind of disclosures of truth that have finally, somehow, made their way to the surface.
This is one important aspect of how we should consider this story.
But there are many others, including: the suffering of the families of the victims in Afghanistan, and the hope justice is served to them quickly; the terrible effect these crimes will have on the overwhelmingly good, honourable members of our defence forces, including extraordinarily brave special forces members past and present; the legacy these crimes will have on how we consider and commemorate the Afghanistan war (of course, including here at the war memorial); how and why political and military masters became so dependent on special forces soldiers to fight this war and how this may have fed the hubris and perversion of principle laid bare by the report.
This appalling story, truly a stain on our nation, should not and, if the defence force chief is good to his word, will not go away for a long time.
Thanks for reading,
The Canberra Times managing editor
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