As the Australian community and its government comes to terms with the extremely serious allegations against members of the SAS for their alleged criminal misconduct during the war in Afghanistan, deeper questions must be asked and broader context provided. To restrict the focus just to those servicemen accused of war crimes would be a mistake, as would too narrow a focus on the military itself.
We must probe more deeply. The deeper questions are about the role of the military in Australian society and culture. The military has a special place in Australia's DNA. The country rides on its back. War itself has been accorded a special place, too, in the story of Australia's coming of age as a nation. This makes the task of investigating personal, cultural and organisational deficiencies in the military during wartime, and perhaps bringing individuals to trial, especially difficult.
We must join the dots too, and not forget the string of controversies, inquiries and royal commissions into other sectors of Australian society over the past decade. Some of these have also touched on the military. Many of them, such as institutional responses to child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, corporate failures, health and aged care, and destruction of Indigenous heritage raise bigger issues. The same is true of government failures, like robodebt and sports rorts.
These bigger issues include political and organisational accountability, secrecy and lack of transparency to the wider community, ethical failures, dysfunctional cultures, education and training and racism and sexism.
Start with the military. You don't have to have ever worn a uniform to understand the place of the military in Australian society. It is not putting it too strongly to say that military service and military personnel are revered by Australians. Think Anzac Day and the Australian War Memorial.
These are special events and places. The former is often described as Australia's informal national day, celebrated in the smallest of towns and in big city streets. The latter is often described as the heart and soul of Australia. The links between past and present military service and valour are frequently made by our civic and political leaders. Disentangling the two, whether by the media or by ordinary Australians, is difficult to do without appearing disloyal.
Two other aspects of the military are relevant. First, its cultural power and influence is huge. Members of the military attain the highest offices in our land. Increasing numbers serve in Parliament, including as ministers and prominent backbenchers. Several recent prime ministers have displayed a special affection for the services. Our two most recent governors-general, Peter Cosgrove and David Hurley, are not only retired generals but former chiefs of the Defence Force, the top military leadership position currently occupied by General Angus Campbell.
Secondly, the military is a world unto itself, quite different from most civilian sectors. There are many aspects to this which impact on cultural change and governance. It is hierarchical and disciplined, which makes internal criticism and challenges to established ways of doing things harder. It is often a lifelong career which begins at an early age, frequently straight out of school. Training occurs in relatively closed environments, such as military academies and colleges. Trainees are taught to think of themselves as special and different.
One parallel is with religious organisations, in which priestly training takes place in seminaries. There are other parallels, such as the special uniforms and regalia which sets them apart. Military families often live in community life and barracks segregated from the rest of society. All this means that the details of military life, including titles, lines of command and internal structures, are not well known in the general community.
Finally, it must be noted that these SAS allegations come on top of other investigations into the military recently which have also gone to questions of culture and responsibility, including sexual harassment and the equal place of women.
Apart from the specifics, the allegations against the SAS raise big questions which have been raised frequently in other recent inquiries. These include the relationship between criminal offences and their cover-up (avoiding reputational damage), between individual and systemic failures (the bad apple excuse), and between the alleged perpetrators and their leaders (the "heads should roll" argument).
Those who are put on trial, literally and figuratively, will likely include not just those who are charged with direct responsibility, but those, middle-level and senior, who should have done more both to prevent these incidents from happening and to make the problems more widely known (rather than stopping those who tried). They were part of an organisation which trained these soldiers and repeatedly deployed them to Afghanistan. They operated within an organisational culture which allowed these incidents to happen. Those on trial were also ultimately the responsibility not just of their senior military leaders but of their political leaders. Several prime ministers, Liberal and Labor, presided over these events.
Dealing with these allegations and bringing them to a just and fair conclusion is the responsibility not merely of the military command itself but of the whole Australian community, including the government. Our military leadership must take responsibility, but so must the political leadership.
The community too has a role. At the very least we must insist on consistency between the way other sectors have been treated and the way we treat the military. There must be no special allowances made or deals struck. Comparability is difficult between crimes, such as paedophilia, murder, destruction of Indigenous heritage and corporate failures. But there are useful lessons to be learned and high standards to be set for our society and our nation.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.