For the few people in this country tracking the war crimes fiasco non-jingoistically, the latest episode to drop in what appears increasingly like reality TV is an on-air spat between the government and military sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets, in an episode titled "That escalated quickly".
Crompvoets, who was previously employed by Defence to help bring about cultural change, and played a key role in bringing to light the alleged murders of 39 civilians and prisoners by Australian forces in Afghanistan, is publishing a book, Blood Lust, Trust and Blame.
The Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, says he has concerns about the book and has sought legal advice. He also says it's unlikely Defence will continue to engage Crompvoets' company in future contracts.
How in Morrison's name did Crompvoets go from lauded cultural shaman to being accused of strategic witchcraft? The answer lies at that almost immediately encountered policy fork in the road that was the politically driven order to rescind the revocation of the SAS's Meritorious Unit Citation. The army and Crompvoets initially shared middle ground on policy recommendations when it came to culture - namely that cultural surgery within the SAS was the way forward, rather than euthanasia. That plan had two prongs, the disbandment of 2 Squadron SASR, and the removal of the citation.
When the army released the Brereton report into the war crimes allegations, it made sure to include an annex on its website of emails exchanged with Crompvoets, in which she stressed (therefore making it not the army's idea, of course) that the Canadian example of total disbandment of the elite unit in question was perhaps not applicable (despite Australian special forces having been involved in almost 40 times more alleged murders). However, she was steadfast in her opinion that these killings were not a case of isolated instances, but rather a systemic phenomenon.
Both Crompvoets and Brereton advised collective punishment, the kind the army is ironically founded and run on. Consider if a soldier is late to drills; the whole unit is collectively punished with push-ups. For us plebs, a good comparator might be if a civilian driver is found to have a passenger not wearing a seatbelt - the driver is still fined ("principles" that seem to fly out the window once one reaches a certain military rank, we see now).
The problem came when the Australian public, not understanding the nuances of the affair, instinctively pushed back against medal rescindment, whipped up by certain astrategic veterans and politicians alike. Once again, widespread general strategic ignorance, long cultivated by governments of all persuasions, came to the rescue of nominally democratic politicians.
Theoretically, the whole affair has now been dropped at 2 Squadron's feet, though of course the Brereton report found all squadrons to have potentially committed war crimes. Effectively, what this means is that the SAS will parade every Anzac Day with a Meritorious Unit Citation for exemplary and uniform conduct during the war in Afghanistan, while the war crimes wing at the Australian War Memorial is tucked away in a corner, both physically and legally speaking.
And so she has walked off the reservation, determined, despite the cost, to sacrifice herself in the fires of truth and give the public what information she can, outside of non-disclosure agreements and self-serving national security laws. It poses the question: just exactly who is the democrat and patriot here? As a sidebar, it is technically illegal to consider non-commercial factors in Defence procurement and R&D contracts - so unless Crompvoets is found to have actually breached an NDA or federal secrecy laws, something her publishers would have already considered, Dutton is potentially on shaky ground.
We are seeing no less here, 100 years on, the same kind of character assassination and censorship certain journalists at Gallipoli endured - in contrast to the very open trial of Breaker Morant. Reading the political winds, the government appears now determined to bury this affair at all costs. The expedited closure of the Australian embassy in Kabul this past week also fits this narrative. Usually, so as not to display weakness, Western embassies close only in the face of actual violence - and so Occam's razor would dictate this is a political move to stop the likes of investigative journalist Nick McKenzie returning to Afghanistan.
Ultimately, the actions detailed in the Brereton report have torn Australia apart politically - the real power of terrorism. All this will go on until the SAS is disbanded, and a line is drawn under the abhorrent affair. Individual culpability is a unicorn in war crimes cases due to the pall of national security, and the effect is only multiplied by the distortion of time.
To Dr Crompvoets I would say only this: carry on. This game isn't checkers, it's chess. The truth outlives all, as does integrity. More pertinently, only you can now explain to future generals why the Australian Army, for all its educational resources, its technical superiority and its comparatively abundant wealth, just lost a war to an enemy with one textbook. The real victim here is victory, because only through truth can you fight wars.
- Dr Allan Orr is an Australian counter-terrorism and insurgency expert.