Four years in the making. One hundred and seventy requests for information. Over 20,000 documents and 25,000 images accessed. Four hundred and twenty witnesses interviewed.
So finally ends a shocking journey into the dark heart of Australia's special forces. Paul Brereton, a judge of the NSW Appeal Court and a Major-General in the Australian Reserves, has bagged it. He and his small team of investigators succeeded where similar efforts to probe the depth of alleged war crimes committed by American forces under Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO forces (including the New Zealand SAS) under the International Security Assistance Force had failed.
The inquiry found credible information of 36 matters, covering 23 incidents involving 19 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel, in which one or more non-combatants or persons hors-de-combat (out of action) were unlawfully killed or tortured by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group, in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, could be the war crime of murder.
For all its forensic sharpness, the Brereton inquiry was a fishing expedition that left a lot of killer whales still out there. Special forces were never going to yield their secrets easily or quickly. Brereton said that the inquiry frequently encountered hostile witnesses using resistance to interrogation techniques, for which they were trained. The granting of (too many?) immunities to soldiers meant some serious fish may have swum away.
One soldier allegedly went on to commit a war crime so egregious, so wantonly sub-human, that Brereton could not allow it to be talked about publicly. The account of this soldier's alleged crime is completely blacked out in the now infamous chapter 2.50. Brereton could only say: "What is described in this chapter is possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia's military history."
Yes, Brereton appears to have the goods on a small number of psychopaths. Over the coming years some of these men might be dragged off to jail. Others may never get their appointment with justice and, of course, some may get off.
That will not be the end of it by any means. Huge questions will continue to menace us. Who trained them? Who looked the other way? Who lawyered up the incident reports? Who rebuffed soldier-whistleblowers when they brought stories to the chain of command? Who failed to support the young SAS captains from the bullying of the battle-blistered corporals and sergeants? Who were the commanders (majors and above) who failed to challenge reports from the field? Who were the commanders who valourised the warrior culture?
When we ask those questions, everyone involved does an amateur theatre impersonation of Sergeant Schultz ("I know nuuuuthing") from Hogan's Heroes. General Angus Campbell ponders whether he missed something. The Chief of the Army, Lieutenant-General Rick Burr, said on 60 Minutes recently: "Oh, I was sick. I was sickened. I was shocked by the extent of the alleged unlawful acts that were described in the report ... I heard nothing of these allegations. If I had, I absolutely would have reported them." Really? If Burr knew so little, his competence to command is in question.
Brereton has controversially exposed himself to the accusation that his historical report favoured what some would regard as the army's strongest asset, the officer class. He should have named names of commanders. Accountability is always roadblocked when misdeeds are not matched to names. We are not going to get anywhere as a nation unless the appropriate military commanders are held to account.
And then there are the political commanders. Brereton makes some delicate Jesuitical points that stop the waters of accountability lapping at their feet. We don't need to be so delicate. John Howard, never one to submit his decisions to deep moral reckoning, took us into Afghanistan. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard kept us there. Where is the evidence that they asked hard questions of the free-ranging Dr Strangeloves in Special Forces Command? There is none. It was a generals' war.
The five defence ministers during the relevant time were: Senator Robert Hill (2001-06), Brendan Nelson (2006-07), Joel Fitzgibbon (2007-09), Senator John Faulkner (2009-10), and Stephen Smith (2010-13). I have not heard from any of them lately. Have you?
There is only one mechanism guaranteed to hold to account more people than the shooters, in this, our My Lai moment.
Parliament, not the government (read, the army), should be orchestrating change, healing and (to pick up on a lost agenda) compensating the families of Afghan victims of Australia's war of shame. Brereton, to his credit, makes a strong recommendation for this.
Parliament is perfectly able to come together and explore how it should handle this point in our history. It has already done so with three current national issues: natural disaster arrangements, the abuse, neglect, and exploitation of people with disabilities, and the crisis in our aged care sector.
A royal commission into Australia's war in Afghanistan would make a lot of sense. We have never had one into a war. It would bring out voices that have not yet spoken. In fact, it could act as a massive enfranchisement. Big questions of national significance would get to fly.
How was it that one man, John Howard, could decide to take us to war in Afghanistan? Where are the checks and balances to this use of raw power? How did we make war when we got there?
What was done in the aftermath to correct the abuses, care for our damaged soldiers and make war reparations to the Afghan people?
It's worth thinking about.
- Dr William De Maria is a former academic at the University of Queensland. His next book, Australia's War of Shame: Afghanistan 2001-2013, is due out in 2021, the 20th anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan.