OPINION: Andrew Hastie MP/ex-SAS – on Brereton Inquiry

Red rocky earth cut into our flesh, numbing our hands. It was well after midnight, perhaps 3am.  Floodlights lit up the group. Cadence push-ups on bleeding knuckles in the dead of night is the sort of misery that either consumes you, or clarifies your sense of mission.

Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, fresh back from the Battle of Tizak, towered over us, the 25 officer candidates on the 2010 SASR selection course. His displeasure writ large in his menacing body language. He switched out our hand position from palms down to knuckles.

‘You f—ing officers. You always take the easy option. Lower. Hold.’

An eternity passed as our fatigued muscles trembled close to the ground.

‘Raise!’

The irony might have been lost on him, but not on me. Humbling myself before Ben Roberts-Smith was not easy. Nor would be serving in the Special Air Service Regiment in the weeks, months and years ahead. SASR selection is an exacting experience. For an officer, your command, leadership and character is closely scrutinised for 21 days. They break down your body to see who you really are—what you are like when you’re tired, hungry and dejected.

Moments like this over the following fortnight thinned the ranks of officers. Men, gifted in command and planning, departed on their own terms—withdrawing quietly. Others were removed by the Directing Staff.

The rest of us pressed on, reaching a point of insanity in the final week. No food for days, almost no sleep, impossible physical tasks. What was the point of it all? The last week posed this question for those candidates remaining: when there is nothing left to give—who can go beyond and finish the mission? For the first time I understood Clausewitz’s dictum that war is a contest of wills. Finish the job, or fail.

We finished Selection on Friday 13 August 2010. When I called my wife to tell her, I wept. I was cold, shivering and spent. I’d lost 12 kilograms in three weeks and I had no emotional reserves.  That day SASR Trooper Jason Brown died bravely—under fire—in Afghanistan serving with the Special Operations Task Group. It was a subdued mood back at Swanbourne. There were no high fives.

Starved, physically exhausted and emotionally shattered, we sat around a radio cleaning our rifles the next morning. We quietly listened to the voices of our Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott express their condolences at the death of another digger in Australia’s longest war.

That day set a course for me. I served in the SAS for the next five years, deploying to Afghanistan as a Troop Commander in 2013 as part of the Special Operations Task Group. I did not anticipate that ten years later I would be a Member of Parliament, explaining how we found ourselves in a dark place.

Like all of us, I am grieved by the findings of the Brereton Report, handed down by the Chief of the Defence Force. There is much to be troubled by: the report details credible information regarding allegations of unlawful killings by Australian soldiers. Specifically, 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killings of 39 people, perpetrated by 25 Australian Special Forces soldiers, mainly from the Special Air Service Regiment.

The report is hard reading. It is comprehensive, detailed and unsparing in its judgement on those alleged to have committed war crimes. As a former officer of the SASR and someone who believes in Regimental honour, I feel great shame in what has occurred. We were sent to Afghanistan in a double trust—to defend Australia’s values and interests by force, but also to uphold those values in our battlefield conduct. Many good soldiers honoured that trust; a small number of soldiers did not.

Many people want to know: how did this happen? Here are some personal observations on the Brereton Inquiry that are shaped by five years of service in SASR and five years as a Member of the Federal Parliament.

First, we have forgotten basic truths about human nature that previous generations of Australians better understood. We live in a bent world. We all carry man’s smudge: people do bad things. Christians call it sin in a fallen world. Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant called it the ‘crooked timber’ of humanity. Whatever name we give our condition, we should always guard against the reality of people doing bad things when they are left unaccountable.

The Australian constitution aligned our system of government to this realist view of human nature. The drafters understood the importance of the rule of law, the separation of powers and the need for accountability amongst those who serve in government. Our soldiers and officers are no different: they need accountability and firm leadership in the degrading cockpit of war. It appears this did not happen from the very top to the bottom of the command chain.

Second, we ignored the true nature of war and sanitised it. We pretended it was no different to any other form of unilateral government policy. But the reality is that war is inherently violent, escalatory and degrading. It is a modern conceit to pretend that war can be managed with a set of safe technocratic hands. The brutal reality is that no plan ever survives the first shot. People lose their way and become hard of heart, especially after multiple deployments.

During the Second World War, the Churchill government commissioned Laurence Olivier to make a technicolor film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V to boost wartime morale. Olivier edited out one third of the play, excising Henry’s violent speech demanding surrender of the Governor of Harfleur. King Henry, understanding the nature of ‘impious war’ once unleashed, posed the question:

What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?

Shakespeare paints violent imagery of the ‘blind and bloody soldier with foul hand’ committing all sorts of atrocities. He saw that war has its own dark energy. He knew it consumes people in ways that modern society cannot comprehend, largely because we have packaged it up nicely for the evening news.

The Australian Defence Force was very effective at sanitising our longest war with its legions of Public Affairs Officers. The United Kingdom and the USA took a liberal approach, allowing reporters to see their soldiers at war. However, we stage-managed Australia’s contribution to Afghanistan through a carefully crafted information operation. This approach stifled public interest reporting. Perhaps with greater access for the Australian media, some of the events alleged by the Brereton Report might never have happened.

Third, parliamentary scrutiny of Defence is broken and needs fixing. Politicians routinely visited Aussie troops in Tarin Kot. I first met Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop in 2009, on my first deployment with the 2nd Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force. I harangued a Labor MP in 2013 about Defence budget cuts when he visited the Special Operations Task Group. Each of them were interested and supportive, but it seemed they didn’t know what questions to ask. I now realise this is partly a function of a deficient Parliamentary Committee system.

There is no independent Joint Defence Committee where tough questions can be asked in a classified, protected space. Parliamentary scrutiny these days is surface level. It amounts to senior Defence leadership presenting a few PowerPoint slides and giving parliamentarians a pat on the head. This is an area of urgent reform. If we are serious about increased accountability and transparency, then we need proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force. Without it, our parliament can’t exercise proper civilian oversight of our military.

Fourth, the Brereton Report rightly condemns a warrior culture that fused ‘military excellence with ego, entitlement and exceptionalism’. Sometimes SASR operators carried themselves like modern incarnations of Achilles, Thor or Mars. I reject that culture, too. But I believe a warrior culture is an important part of an elite combat unit. It all depends on the beliefs and values you build that culture on.

When I posted to SASR as a non-qualified Captain in January 2010, I was befriended by the Unit Chaplain, a bloke by the initials of SB. He had an Irish temperament and liked to box, often with the operators. He was refreshingly confrontational, not a social worker in uniform. SB confronted what he called a ‘pagan warrior ethos’, shorn of any connection to the Just War tradition that has shaped our approach to warfare. As Saint Augustine wrote near the end of the Roman Empire, we must:

“In waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace.” 

Our boxing chaplain was right. The warrior ethos I sometimes saw was about power, ego and self-adulation. It worshipped war itself. It was the opposite of the humility that I expected to find at SASR.

But there was a competing, more positive warrior culture at SASR, it just wasn’t the prevailing one at the time. If you looked closely, you’d find humble, quiet operators. Tough as nails. Fiercely competitive. Supremely competent at arms. The sort of bloke that you’d want next to you in a gunfight. They never thought themselves bigger than the team or the mission. They were humble. They were committed to truth. They were the ones who blew the whistle and repudiated the dark toxic personalities that have shamed the SASR in Afghanistan. Many are still serving quietly in the shadows.

So before people cry for a repudiation of all warrior culture, they should first understand what you need in an elite special operations unit. You need people who run to the sound of the guns. Who are prepared to fight and destroy Australia’s enemies. Who will die doing so, if necessary. Those men exist. They are serving at present. They have done nothing wrong. We need to uphold them and their vital mission. They will not be helped by soulless modern cultural theory, derived from the academic ivory tower. It may well diminish our effectiveness if shoe-horned and institutionalised.

Fifth, in the hierarchy of virtues, moral courage remains paramount to physical courage. The public record doesn’t reflect this as our military honours and awards system preferences the recognition of physical courage. Acts of conscience are hard to write up in vigorous prose and people rarely thank leaders who make unpopular decisions.

Yet there were acts of command moral courage during the period investigated by the Brereton Inquiry. History won’t record these good deeds the way it will the battlefield criminality of a few, but there were junior leaders at SASR who made hard decisions to uphold the sacred trust reposed in them by the Australian people. Leaders who took responsibility for their command. They know who they are and we honour them.

Finally, despite the Brereton Report, I still believe the profession of arms is a noble one. In any case, a survey of history shows us that war is part of the human experience. Australia has fought wars in the past; we will fight them in the future. We must be ready. And we cannot afford to lose. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “I have seen much war in my lifetime and I hate it profoundly. But there are worse things than war, and all of them come with defeat.”

In July, the Prime Minister spoke of the post-pandemic world being poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly. We cannot afford to draw the wrong lessons from the Brereton Report. The mission of the ADF remains unchanged: to win our wars. We must prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead. But we must always hold ourselves to high moral standards. When wrong is done, we must hold ourselves to account.

That’s why I have supported the Brereton Inquiry: I love my country and want to protect it from those who would harm us from both without and within.

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Brian Hartigan

Managing Editor Contact Publishing Pty Ltd PO Box 3091 Minnamurra NSW 2533 AUSTRALIA

6 thoughts on “OPINION: Andrew Hastie MP/ex-SAS – on Brereton Inquiry

  • 17/12/2020 at 11:59 pm
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    The Report contains errors of fact and law to the point, I am in the process of submitting a complaint to IGADF on the sections that relate to Breaker Morant and the Anglo Boer war. I am concerned hy the section on war crimes history was included, to what point? Even if accurate, how is it relevant in assessing evidence of alleged crimes in the present? This question leads me to question why Government, CDF and CA are commenting on the allegations even though no one has been charged or facing trial. This is about ensuring the sanctity of the rule of law, presumption of innocence and how this is undermined by speculation and inflammatory statements that put at risk fair trials. SAS soldiers must question the politics that drives such behaviour and it is important that it is called out starting with the military hierarchy and its political masters.

    Reply
  • 01/12/2020 at 9:09 am
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    Dear GJ,
    You seem to have completely misunderstood what I was trying to say, or maybe I didn’t explain my point well enough. As a former long standing police officer and in the past a prosecutor I fully understand the rules of evidence which is why I made my point in the first place. My points still stand, Justice Brereton in his recommended that all members including the tough, humble, committed to the truth whistle blowers be stripped of their citations is wrong. There is no aspect of justice there. The ABC are already saying that members of our Special Forces have committed murder, not are, “accused of murder”.
    We can’t afford to taint all our Special Forces, past and present (and future) as mad, corner-cutting killers. Commentators must use reasoned, proper language with respect to the rules of evidence, else we damage the possibility of a fair trial, should there be one. But equally we damage our armed forces, just as out enemies would have us do.

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    • 01/12/2020 at 11:00 am
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      I think if I were you I’d be reserving my opinions on what the Judge is basing his findings on, my reading of the report (as redacted as it is) and the unprecedented step of removing the name ‘2 Squadron SASR’ from the orbat is an indication that there was something far more serious occurring for much longer than was made public along the lines of ‘common purpose’ and ‘misprison of a felony’ that would negate the awarding of distinguished conduct awards.

      These events have been an open secret for years and the videos made by the members of the Squadron have been circulating for the same time all professionally spliced together with soundtrack.

      Citations are just bumpf anyone who marches into D Coy 6RAR gets one for something they had no involvement in and were neither alive to earn it, I hear what you are saying but its not sufficient to ignore the reality of what has happened.

      Mud sticks, yep but it washes off with time.

      Reply
  • 30/11/2020 at 3:12 pm
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    Unlike some commentators I do not wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of Andrew Hastie. For background, my father served in the RAAF, I served in the Army as has my son. Currently I am retired from many years serving in the Victoria Police.
    I cannot sit by any longer. Major General Brereton is NOT judge jury and executioner. He conducted an inquiry into allegations of wrong doing, as do police. Imagine if police conducted an enquiry/investigation into a group, some of whom may have committed an offence and the police recommended in their brief of evidence and before any court case that all in the group be sanctioned in some way. Shame on you Major General Brereton you have moved our justice system to guilt by association.
    Andrew Hastie has used the phrases, “I feel great shame in what has occurred.” and, ” Many good soldiers honoured that trust; a small number of soldiers did not.” Wow suddenly I am unsure if I am in a Westminster Parliamentary democracy or not. Are not both these influential people expressing guilt before any trial or tribunal?
    With commentary like this and from many in the media who should know better, what chance of a fair criminal investigation and a fair trial, should it come to that?

    Reply
    • 30/11/2020 at 4:12 pm
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      so the helmet cam videos and the photographic evidence should be ignored?

      There is a reason Brereton’s report released to the public is 98% redacted and it does NOT include the direct evidence list, witness statements and Military Police investigations, AFP investigations that he relied on to reach his conclusions….its a judicial inquiry not a trial and its a legitimate step in the judicial process, he has established that there is sufficient evidence to support the crimes.

      You should be happy that he has taken the course he has because the public evidence is so tainted that it will be unlikely (except in the most extreme cases) that anyone will see the inside of a cell.

      You as a former Police officer should understand the rules of evidence and be able to make that assessment yourself.

      Reply
  • 29/11/2020 at 4:46 pm
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    While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of Mr Hastie’s op-ed, the issues are far more complex than a ‘few bad apples’ when members of the SASR and Commando Regiments call themselves “Operators” they are confirming and reaffirming the culture that encourages a belief that they are no longer soldiers they are an entity all of their own, a culture somehow separate from the ethos and accountability of the wider Army and a system of rigid unit and individual discipline that would have ensured these crimes would not have occurred.. Accountability and oversight are the true defenders against any individuals or units going rogue, with ultimate power comes the burden of ultimate responsibility.

    After leaving the peacetime Army I moved on to service with the Police spending 25 years in tactical and high risk operational duties, coming into contact with a number of agencies both Australian and Foreign, and at times working with TAG West and then East. One of the things that struck me was how oblivious to the realities of violence and death both the command and individuals were, not innocence but a total lack of any concept of what real violence can be .

    As a police officer I was routinely exposed to the worst humanity are can do to each other (like we all are) the difference being the psychological preparation was realistic, comprehensive and designed to ensure you could identify the warning signs in yourself and others.

    With experience comes wisdom and the knowledge that no matter how rigorous your selection procedures may be the reality of violence and death affect the individual as differently as their personalities are infinite. Some thrive, some fall, others endure, some go rogue, but it is NEVER a case of train them, unleash them and forget them.

    There are many failures here from Government reliance on the secrecy provisions deploying SOCOMD in an infantry role in a guerilla campaign without oversight or review, failures in Military command and discipline from the CDF down to the trooper on the ground……each has a role and responsibility in ensuring that nobody loses control to a point where the mission becomes a series of war crimes.

    What happens from here is what the nation needs to address, accountability both individually and politically and a model of practice that returns our warriors to the level of professionalism that prevents this ever happening again.

    It is not who we are as a people and we as the custodians of those who serve us need to ensure that we have a professional Army that reflects societal values.

    Reply

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