Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan, isn’t just embroiled in a defamation case. By launching legal action against journalists, he's effectively put himself on trial for war crimes. At the heart of the case is whether he murdered six Afghan prisoners of war in 2009 and 2012—and revelled in their killing. If that were true, it would be the act of “an ostentatious psychopath”, his barrister, Bruce McClintock SC, declared in his opening address in court this week. Indeed.

This man should be in the dock of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Instead, for a cost that must be $20,000 per day or more, he’s taking his enemies to court, bringing defamation proceedings against the outlets that published investigative articles by Nick McKenzie, David Wroe and Chris Masters that revealed the accusations.

If Ben Roberts-Smith loses, he won’t go to jail. If he wins, he’ll seek the largest payout of aggravated damages ever in an Australian case, potentially pocketing millions of dollars. An outcome like that would send a message: report on war crimes at your peril.

Defamation proceedings are a weapon in the arsenal of the rich and powerful. Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits are wielded to intimidate journalists and their publishers. But in this case, the publishers’ decision to run a “truth defence”—which means that they’ll argue that the articles weren’t defamatory because they were true—will make this trial more like the public truth commissions of past wars. Of course, it will be run by elite barristers instead of dissident veterans and anti-war activists. Nonetheless, the testimony from 21 former or serving soldiers about what happened in these six incidents has the potential to further expose the myth that the war in Afghanistan was to liberate women and bring democracy. 

McClintock has drawn the battle lines in the courtroom over class. The allegations, he says, are motivated by jealousy. It’s a trope that Liberal and Labour politicians sometimes employ: “the politics of class envy”, they call it. But revealing the despicable behaviour of our so-called superiors, who are usually protected by networks of powerful people with ways of making people fall into line, isn’t a sin: it’s laudable behaviour.

Most ex-soldiers don’t lead the lifestyle of Roberts-Smith. Upon retiring from full-time service in 2013, he was offered a scholarship to study business at the University of Queensland. Rarer still for any undergraduate, he was offered a job as a general manager of Seven Media Queensland outfit twenty months before he graduated.

Roberts-Smith is no rank-and-file grunt: he’s the son of Major General Len Roberts-Smith, also a former justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Like so many scions of the ruling class in Western Australia, he attended Hale, recently famous for its debating team champions who later entered politics. Coincidentally, his father was appointed judge advocate general for the defence force in 2002, making him responsible for reporting on disciplinary action against service personnel. Nowadays, Roberts-Smith junior is the protege of Seven Media chief Kerry Stokes, who hired him to a management position and is bankrolling the trial. 

The testimony of the 21 soldiers who are willing to subject themselves to cross-examination and tell their stories is an important event. It can lay bare the horrors of Australia’s crimes in Afghanistan. But even here, access is restricted: if you can’t stay in the courtroom all day, transcripts cost $2,000 for a day’s worth of material. So much for open court.

McClintock’s opening notably quoted a line attributed to Winston Churchill: “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those would do us harm”. It’s the classic defence of killing as the moral price brave soldiers pay so that we yellow-bellied, civil rights-loving civilians have the luxury of asking questions like “Were unarmed Afghans murdered?” The message is that soldiers—and, by extension, war—should be above question. 

In this case, the rumours of atrocities committed by a group of SAS soldiers in Afghanistan were so compelling, they prompted an internal Defence investigation led by Major General Paul Brereton, a former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal. Brereton’s report found that 25 soldiers committed war crimes, resulting in the deaths of 39 Afghans. (It’s during this investigation that Roberts-Smith allegedly obtained disposable “burner phones” to communicate with witnesses, and sent threatening letters to others.)

The crimes seemed so widespread that the military hierarchy intervened to strip the unit of its honours. Yet Peter Dutton as defence minister intervened to reverse the Army’s decision. The message is clear: Dutton will make sure that the government throws its weight behind the perpetrators of systematic, sadistic murder in war. 

The defence of Roberts-Smith and the murderous SAS goes hand in hand with whitewashing and rehabilitating the very concept of imperialist war. Take another strong supporter of Roberts-Smith: Brendan Nelson, John Howard’s old defence minister, who is now tasked with redeveloping the War Memorial in Canberra. War memorials are contradictory places. The long list of names brings home the horror of the slaughter of so many working class people for the imperial ambitions of the rich. That horror is manipulated into a “national spirit” that papers over the class division at the heart of war. A name on a wall is a consolation that the sacrifice will be remembered—and was worth it after all.

War museums can be places where people learn the history of savagery that our rulers are prepared to carry out to assert dominance in a region that matters for their position in the global market. The war museum in Ho Chi Minh City is full of photographs of US atrocities committed in the Vietnam War. It’s impossible to leave without thinking that the US military should never be allowed to deploy its troops ever again.

But Brendan Nelson has a different vision for our war memorial: he plans to install a museum of all our biggest, coolest military hardware. Where war is presented as a set of technical considerations of battle tactics and technology, it means we don’t see it for what it is: an atrocity perpetrated by our ruling class and their political servants. Just as key figures in the ruling class recognise that the outcome of the Roberts-Smith trial is another iteration in the battle to legitimise war, it should be of interest to all those who work to expose its true imperialist nature.