Since the Brereton report’s release to the public in November, other more indignant responses to its findings have played out. Some have focused upon the recommendation that the Meritorious Unit Citation awarded to the Special Operations Task Group should be revoked.
The principle set out in the report – that a medal that honours a collective rather than an individual cannot stand where some part of that collective has committed disgraceful acts – was accepted by ADF chief Angus Campbell but proved far more difficult for elected politicians already struggling with the issue of suicide among veterans to stomach. General Campbell had to walk his decision back.
Other critics have asked whether “front-line operators … risking their lives” have carried the blame so that commanding officers can escape censure. Admiral Chris Barrie has gone so far as to propose a royal commission to look into the question of command responsibility.
The Brereton report addresses the issue of such responsibility at length, concluding that “the criminal behaviour described in this report was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed at patrol commander level, and it is overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides”. It also points out that Australia’s national commanders did not have operational command of the Special Operations Task Group, and that those commanders from allied countries who did “were strongly influenced by a[n] … attitude and strategy … focused on killing or capturing insurgent leaders”. Among the report’s recommendations is that such “devolution of operational command … should be avoided” in future.
The report does criticise Australian commanders for “‘abandoned curiosity’ in matters which ought to have attracted attention”, and we might wonder about the extent to which, having followed the United States into Afghanistan, our political leaders were themselves “asleep at the wheel”, as former SAS officer Mark Wales recently put it.
But “abandoned curiosity” is not the same thing as criminal conduct. In March 2012, after a US soldier massacred 16 Afghan civilians, secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared that “this is not who we [Americans] are”. But such a statement is true only if “we” are prepared to prosecute misconduct, support those officers and soldiers who come forward to expose it and in so doing act to repair our own disgrace.
It is in a court of law that questions of responsibility and challenges to the account set forth in the Brereton report should now be tested. Debates that distract from or delay that process sell us all short.
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