Culture warriors are wrong to make soldier allegations their latest battleground


I also stand with Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie, whose exhaustive research emphatically confirmed stories that have been circulating among members of the special forces community over a period of years. Since the formation of Special Operations Command as a discrete entity, under then Major-General Duncan Lewis, I have known every one of the two-star officers who has held that post, having worked for all of them in a variety of appointments. (Though not in a special operations environment, I worked as an interpreter with the Commandos during the civil disturbance in East Timor in 2006.)

Every one of them is a man of integrity and an exceptional soldier. These allegations cannot be lightly dismissed. And it seems beyond doubt that there have been multiple incidents of excessive use of force and breaches of the laws of armed conflict by our special forces, especially in the latter part of the war in Afghanistan. That the most vital evidence has been provided by special forces soldiers speaks well of the command’s truest values.

Former commander of Special Operations Jeff Sengelman ordered the inquiry.

Former commander of Special Operations Jeff Sengelman ordered the inquiry.

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The retired commander of Special Operations Command Jeff Sengelman, who initiated the internal study into his command, is not a feminist academic. He is a soldier’s soldier. He is a traditionalist who enforces the highest standards, who leads by example. He has been supported by the incoming Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, a beret-qualified Special Air Service veteran, and the next Chief of Army, Major-General Rick Burr, a former commanding officer of the SAS Regiment in war. If they think there is a cultural problem inside the special forces, then I defer to their judgment ahead of that of the culture warriors.

However, I firmly reject calls for the disbandment of the special forces as argued on this page earlier this week. That would be a gross over-reaction. Our special forces are the best we have and frankly the only rapidly deployable land forces at the disposal of the government. I cannot reveal the full extent of their capabilities here, but for their vital domestic counter-terrorism role alone they are indispensable. This war has changed their culture in a way that I believe is undesirable but not irreversible.

Our Special Air Service drew its founding ethos from its British counterpart based at Hereford. The word “special” does not connote that they are supermen, though the physical and mental demands placed upon them during selection and training are incredibly exacting. Rather, it refers to their mode of entry to the battlespace. Every member is a qualified free-fall parachutist, while a smaller number are qualified high-altitude, low-opening parachute operators. They also maintain specialised mountaineering and amphibious capabilities. All of these skills permit clandestine insertion into hostile areas and reconnaissance behind enemy lines.

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The use of the Special Air Service for strike operations in larger formations than their basic five-man patrols, plus their intimate collaboration with the American special forces, has changed its culture in the Afghanistan war. Before this conflict, contact with the enemy was a measure of failure. Covert, long-range surveillance from concealed lying-up places was their preferred tactic. Because they operated in small groups, their basic action on discovery was to urgently break contact with the enemy and seek extraction.

The casualty aversion of the government and a lack of any clear strategy for the Afghanistan war led to the misemployment of this highly specialised force in larger-scale, decapitation operations against designated Taliban leadership targets. Not all were comfortable with this role. One commander, on his return to Australia in 2009, told me: “We are just mowing the grass. We kill leaders and new ones emerge immediately. They are more dangerous because they have no tactical acumen but are more fanatical than the guys we have killed.” He also conceded that he suspected that many of the kills undertaken by the coalition were based on dubious intelligence provided to exploit our troops by orchestrating attacks on tribal and family rivals.

Perhaps instead of looking to Hollywood for inspiration, the Spartans of Swanbourne may care to examine the real history of Leonidas and the battle at Thermopylae.

On top of the burial mound there is an epigram attributed to Simonides. One translation is: “Go tell the Spartans thou who passest by. That here, obedient to their laws we lie.” The armed forces of a liberal democracy must be subject to the rule of law. That, we boast, is what separates us from the monsters who attacked the twin towers in New York and initiated this ugly interminable conflict. Let the law run its course. The full force of the law must fall on anyone who has killed innocent civilians.

Catherine McGregor is a Fairfax Media columnist.

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