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Military Accountability Post-Afghanistan: Australia's War Crimes Controversy and its Repercussions

In the often-tumultuous theatre of war, clear lines of responsibility can blur, challenging the very core of ethical and legal norms. This rings particularly true when examining the contentious issue of military leadership responsibility for war crimes, an issue that has recently come to the fore in the context of the Australian SAS's involvement in Afghanistan.

During the course of their deployment, the elite troops of the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) faced extreme conditions and life-threatening danger. Yet, amidst tales of bravery and comradeship, a darker narrative has emerged—one hinting at egregious violations of the very laws these soldiers swore to uphold.

In this piece, I will take an in-depth look at the strategic implications of the alleged war crimes committed by the Australian SAS in Afghanistan and critically analyse the chain of command's responsibility in these incidents.

In subsequent sections, I will re-examine my thoughts on the potential hypocrisy of command responsibility and discuss the far-reaching implications of these issues. To better understand the context, there are three main perspectives that need to be explored:

  1. The experiences and reactions of the veterans themselves, with a specific focus on the proposed revocation of medals. Click here for more information.

  2. The legal proceedings surrounding these allegations, especially the defamation case involving Ben Roberts-Smith. Read more about it here.

  3. The viewpoint of the Senator who suggested Defence Chief Angus Campbell surrenders his medal. You can find more on this here.

For many veterans, the events of the last few days have brought out many questions relating to public perceptions of the ADF and how the political system, both within and surrounding the ADF, has yet again left our most vulnerable veterans behind.

Veterans' Voices: The Medal Revocation Controversy

The battlefield is a place of courage and sacrifice, with soldiers putting their lives on the line for their country. This sacrifice is often commemorated in the form of medals, tangible symbols of service, and valour. Yet, for some veterans of the Australian SAS and supporting units deployed in Afghanistan, these symbols have been put under threat.

In a deeply unpopular move, General Campbell, the Defence Chief, proposed to revoke the meritorious unit citation of the Special Operations Task Groups that served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013. This decision has been met with fervent resistance from the veterans, many of whom view it as a sweeping indictment that fails to distinguish between those involved in the alleged war crimes and those who served honourably.

As the uproar over the Medal Revocation Controversy continues to surge, the narratives of alleged war crimes that underpin the decision echo in another, equally controversial arena: the courtroom. The dispute surrounding the medals is not an isolated incident but forms a significant part of a larger narrative that implicates the Australian military in a complex web of legal entanglements. Among these is the high-profile defamation case involving Ben Roberts-Smith, which casts uncertainty and suspicion over the leadership of Australia’s military's operations in Afghanistan.

Legal Entanglements: The Ben Roberts-Smith Defamation Case

Ben Roberts-Smith, a decorated Australian SAS soldier, became a figure of controversy amidst the allegations of war crimes. Roberts-Smith, a recipient of the Victoria Cross and Medal for Gallantry, vehemently denied any involvement in war crimes and subsequently brought a defamation suit against three newspapers for their articles accusing him of such crimes.

The defamation case has captured national attention, both for its high-profile defendant and the grave nature of the allegations. This legal battle goes beyond an individual's reputation - it is interwoven with the broader narrative of war crimes allegations and the integrity of the Australian military.

Navigating from the legal intricacies of the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation case, the narrative of alleged war crimes and their effect on the Australian military finds another stage: the realm of political discourse. The spotlight now shifts from the individuals at the heart of the controversy to the broader structures of power and responsibility that they represent. Emanating from this shift is Senator Lambie's echoing call for Defence Chief Angus Campbell to relinquish his own medals, a call that embodies the nuanced dynamics of command responsibility, individual recognition, and the profound symbolic value of military awards. This new turn in the discussion prompts a reflection on the broader question of shared responsibility within the military hierarchy in light of the continuing war crimes allegations.

Shifting Medals and Responsibility: Senator Lambie's Echoing Call

In the midst of passionate debates over war crimes allegations and their impact on the Australian military, Senator Lambie has added her voice to those within the veteran community calling for Defence Chief Angus Campbell to surrender his own medals.

Campbell had earlier suggested revoking the meritorious unit citation of the Special Operations Task Groups that served in Afghanistan, a proposition met with significant backlash, particularly from veterans. Senator Lambie, resonating with the voices of criticism, has suggested that Campbell should lead by example by surrendering his own medals first.

The proposal has been interpreted by some as an act of solidarity, a symbolic gesture acknowledging the shared responsibility of military leadership for the actions of their troops. Supporters of the Defence Chief, however, argue that this approach risks simplifying the intricate issue of command responsibility and could potentially undermine the value of individual military awards and recognitions.

The Greater Responsibility of Generals and Politicians

The accountability for actions in war zones should not fall solely on the shoulders of the soldiers on the front line. While it is these soldiers who may directly carry out actions, they are often operating under directives from high-ranking military officials and politicians, many miles from the theatre of operations.

Generals, and other senior military leaders, play a significant role in shaping the culture of their units. They are responsible for setting the standards of behaviour, enforcing discipline, and ensuring that their forces comply with international humanitarian law. They also have the responsibility to foster an environment that encourages moral courage and critical questioning of orders that may seem unethical or unlawful.

Politicians, on the other hand, have a duty to ensure that their military actions are both strategic and moral. They must consider the potential ramifications of their decisions, including the risk of war crimes, and should work to prevent such atrocities from happening in the first place.

In many instances, decisions made in bunkers or offices many miles away from danger can have far-reaching impacts, dictating the course of engagements and influencing the behaviour of soldiers. Therefore, generals and politicians arguably bear a greater responsibility when it comes to the prevention of war crimes.

The legal action and criticism directed at front-line soldiers may be perceived as unjust if the leaders who provided the directives, cultivated the culture, and set the operational context are not held accountable for their part in alleged atrocities. It is vital for the health of any military organisation and the integrity of international law that responsibility is assigned appropriately and comprehensively.

Therefore, it is not merely enough for soldiers to bear the brunt of legal action and criticism while their generals and politicians escape scrutiny. To ensure justice and deter future crimes, all levels of command must be held accountable for their actions and decisions, especially those that may contribute to the occurrence of war crimes.

In this context, it becomes clear that military leadership and political oversight are not just about directing actions from a safe distance. They come with a responsibility that extends beyond the immediacy of the battlefield, reaching into the very heart of ethical and legal conduct during war. Something, it appears, that the current CDF is yet to reckon with.


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