The shocking truth

Last week the shocking news broke that 19 SAS soldiers were being charged in relation to 39 murders committed during their tours of Afghanistan. Some of the details were horrific. The cold-blooded nature of the killings struck at you. This was more than murder, it was perversity.

There were the usual platitudes amid the outrage. Many, probably quite rightly, pointed out that these were bad eggs, and that the majority of Australian troops served honourably. Some, very predictably, call it un-Australian, as if that absolves the rest of us of any responsibility.

I’d like to think it un-Australian much in the same way as I thought ball-tampering was un-Australian, but I think there was more justification before.

Going all the way back to the Boer War, Australian soldiers have had a reputation for being ruthless. In the WW1 particularly, they were often guilty of not taking prisoners. It was the flip-side of the dash and aggression they showed in attack. But then, it was in the heat of battle mostly, and they were not the only troops to do it. Not to excuse it, but it’s been happening since ancient times.

This is different. Some of those they murdered may well have been Taliban sympathisers, but all were civilians. In the cases I’m aware of, the murders were all committed coldly, the battle done and dusted. There are stories of Afghan civilians murdered by the newbies in the squad to blood them. More often, it was a cavalier after-thought – it was easier to put a bullet in someone than take them in as a prisoner. And then there were the teenage boys who had their throats casually cut on the off-chance that they might report to the Taliban.

To read of these things is to observe a deep disconnect between the world they inhabited, and ours. These are the very elite of troops, superbly trained and highly proficient in the arts of war. They’re different from you and me because their job is perilous, but I don’t think that excuses a different morality.

Some, in muted defence of the accused, said the problem was that they are sent on tour after tour of duty. They’re exposed to the harrowing and raw nature of the battle zone for years on end. I can imagine how the nature of their mission makes the effects more insidious – dealing with shadowy, unseen, fleeting opponents, rather than an enemy army in the field. They become cynical, they become jaded, they become burnt-out, and the values they grew up with supplanted with a kill or be killed mentality.

There is no excuse for what they have done, but perhaps there are reasons we can begin to understand. The blame for this is much greater than the men accused.

It’s strange to think that all of this could’ve gone on without anyone in authority knowing about. I find that hard to believe, and in either case, it represents a failure. They should know and be accountable. And if they knew and did nothing, then they are equally at fault. Military command, who have expressed dismay at these happenings, have also been very careful to draw the line and decline responsibility.

The fault goes all the way to our politicians. This was a political war from the start, and much of it conducted for the optics. It’s a cynical and ugly battle that has gone on for over 15 years. Our government sent them off again and again so as to be seen as a good ally, and for the privilege of claiming to the electorate that we stood for good.

All the while, they were bleeding our combatants dry. And, very cynically, betraying the principals they sought to espouse.

I understand there’s much bitterness in the military community about how our government has treated the Afghan allies our troops have served beside. Promised the opportunity to immigrate to Australia, they’ve been denied instead and left to the mercies of the Taliban and punished because of it.

This whole story reads like a moral inversion. Terrible things have been done. In some cases, it may be as simple as that. I can’t help but feel though that this is a manifestation of a deeper and more complex betrayal.

The murdered civilians were betrayed by the men who were sent to protect them. But those men, perhaps, were betrayed by their commanders, and by a political leadership that cared not one whit for their welfare. This is the result.

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