The following was supplied to the ABC by an Australian special forces veteran who believes the public should be fully informed of the actions of some special forces soldiers in Afghanistan.
The veteran, with more than a decade of experience as an elite soldier, says he can no longer remain silent.
I have deployed on multiple occasions to the Middle East and other regions and have witnessed the diversity of the daily operations of the majority of the individual units that make up Special Operations Command (SOCOMD). I have what is best described as a middle management role, but have remained operational – or “on the tools” – during this entire time.
What the problem is
During the past six to eight years of heightened operational tempo in special operations I have witnessed the emergence of an insidious, infectious and influential minority that indulges in self-glorification at the expense of the greater reputation of special operations.
This behaviour of the few is threatening the very values for which special operations command stands and is potentially contributing to an increasingly dangerous battle space for our troops.
These individuals have participated in questionable combat behaviour which often involves the “flexible” application of Rules of Engagement (ROE), where what was being reported was not consistent with what was actually occurring on the battlefield, which led to the killing of non-combatants.
In war there are generally four levels of death:
- A good kill. This is the removal, by whatever means deemed appropriate, of an individual from the battle space who has knowingly engaged or prepared to engage in hostilities against friendly targets.
- Collateral damage. This is the consequence of an unforeseeable or unavoidable circumstances that has led to the death of a civilian. At a higher level these deaths may be foreseeable but considered acceptable given the strategic objective.
- The third level of death is what can only be described as the killing of innocent civilians due to the reckless behaviour of soldiers who are acting in a manner that has no regard for the value of human life.
- The last level is murder. The malicious intent to seek out and kill another human being in a circumstance that is not self-defence or defence of another. I have never personally witnessed this within the ADF or special operations command.
Unfortunately I did witness the development of a culture within a minority of operators within special forces who have operated with an apparent “weapons free” mentality, seeking to “get kills up” in some attempt to glorify themselves amongst their peers. This is the third of the categories above.
Without doubt this behaviour has led to the death of large numbers of innocent civilians during the course of special operations in Afghanistan. Deaths which are unjustifiable and serve no strategic or tactical value.
Deaths that only ensure a greater level of hate and mistrust towards the Australian military by the local population of the areas in which we operate.
How this culture started
In 2009 there was a widely-publicised incident in which reservist commandos killed a number of Afghan civilians, including children, with grenades.
It is the treatment that they received post-incident, culminating in being charged criminally with various degrees of manslaughter, that initiated a culture of “protectionism” amongst some elements of special operations command.
Commanders at all levels would not permit their soldiers to be dragged through the courts for unavoidable yet tragic incidents. The charging of those men was one of the darkest days in our military’s history, and I firmly believe a contributing factor to the shift in the culture that has emerged.
This protectionism, or non-reporting of CIVCAS (civilian casualties) incidents, led to a development of the ability to act with impunity, where some members capitalised on this “freedom of action” and the lack of accountability.
Concurrently the measure of success within special operations shifted towards enemy body count. This was never made official, but was widely accepted.
There also grew up a culture of emulation, whereby units would mimic the actions of others who appeared to be racking up the highest body counts.
The use of weapon and helmet-mounted cameras also grew over the years and this allowed the operator to capture the moment they were in combat.
These images and videos would be compiled into a movie at the end of the rotation for that patrol, team or element. There would no doubt be hours and hours of video imagery, some of it needlessly angled directly towards the person wearing the camera in what can only be described as self-glorification.
How to fix it
To achieve cultural change we must admit there is a problem and seek resolution within. Additional oversight is not the answer. More restrictive control of the freedom of action of special forces would lead to a compromising position on the effectiveness of special forces in Australia which potentially has a strategic implication for the security of this nation.
Measures that seek to punish the many for the actions of a few are not warranted nor effective.
This is a period in which special forces needs leadership. We need to make it known that this behaviour is not acceptable, not welcome and risks the reputation of the majority of members who have sacrificed so much and worked so hard to get where they are.
I have the privilege of working with some of the most professional and experienced soldiers that this nation has ever known. It is these men and women whose reputation is at risk from this emerging culture.
We need to address the attitude of the minority that seeks self-glorification. Video recording equipment has limited place on the battlefield and should be utilised only by commanders to record specific incidents.
Operators should not be allowed to run around freely with cameras strapped onto the helmets and weapons.
Steroids or other performance enhancing drugs have no place in special forces or the ADF except as prescribed for medical conditions or injuries. People who use steroids are trying to get bigger, to look tougher, but what purpose does that serve if not only vanity?
If this inquiry (into the conduct of Australian special forces in Afghanistan) does identify beyond all doubt a few key players responsible for this culture development than without a doubt they should be removed immediately from special operations but we cannot allow it to end there.
There needs to be a shift in the mindset of what being in special forces is about. It’s not about being the cool kids on the back seat of the school bus, it’s about hard work, commitment, teamwork and respect – respect of one’s self, respect of those you work with and respect for the men that have fallen before and beside us.
Why I am speaking out
I, like many others, have sat back and watched this culture emerge and develop for too long now. The IGADF inquiry has merit, but it’s not the best method to implement change. This must come from within.
Ethics lessons or oversight are not the solution. I don’t want to see special operations command develop further into a unit I am not proud of.
Special operations command or the ADF as a whole is not the most receptive organisation to reflective constructive criticism. There is no avenue internally to express these views that would not lead me to being forced to point fingers, name names.
I could sit back and remain silent and allow this to go on, but at what cost? I seek only the best for special operations command and we need to be mature enough and honest enough to admit things haven’t gone as well as they could.
But let’s have enough fortitude to change and stop the infectious spread of this damning culture before it claims the reputation that precedes special operations command within the ADF and within militaries around the world.
Header photo: Margaret Burin
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