How many civilians have Australian special forces killed in Afghanistan? We don’t know and may never know. But it is becoming clearer that war crimes of a scale not previously reported or acknowledged have been carried out by some in Australia’s most venerated military units.

Documents leaked to the ABC in 2017, a recent internal defence report and the work of investigative journalists indicate that events considered “isolated incidents” may be part of a more systematic culture.

The most recent allegations come from a report by defence department consultant Samantha Crompvoets. Some findings, and the testimonies of elite soldiers, published in Fairfax papers, are unnerving. They suggest, in the report’s words, “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations” amounting to “disregard for human life and dignity”.

There are allegations that a Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) soldier executed an elderly, unarmed detainee in a “blooding ritual” in 2009, and that another man with a prosthetic leg was also killed, his prosthesis later brought back to the Perth SASR base and used for drinking beer.

We have been told of a soldier kicking handcuffed detainee Ali Jan off the edge of a cliff in 2012 at the village of Darwan, Oruzgan province, before being party to a decision to “put him out of his misery”. The same soldier is alleged to have instructed an Afghan soldier to execute another unarmed prisoner a month later.

“It is understood the incidents are known to a long-running inquiry under the auspices of the defence Inspector General and led by NSW judge Paul Brereton”, wrote Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters, who broke the story. “But several serving and former SASR soldiers have broken ranks to brief reporters on this story because there is no guarantee the findings of the Brereton inquiry will ever be publicly tabled.”

They suggest that one small group of soldiers who “went rogue” are at the centre of the inquiry. 

Afghanistan is Australia’s longest war. Troops have been rotated through the country since 2001. Like other US-led wars, it has been a disaster for most people involved.

“You know, we don’t do body counts”, US general Tommy Franks said in 2002 during the early phase of the invasion. It seems, however, that some in the Australian special forces take pride in their kill counts.

“Unfortunately I did witness the development of a culture within a minority of operators within special forces who have operated with an apparent ‘weapons free’ mentality, seeking to ‘get kills up’ in some attempt to glorify themselves amongst their peers”, a multiple-deployment veteran of Australia’s Special Operations Command wrote at the ABC website last year.

“Without doubt this behaviour has led to the death of large numbers of innocent civilians during the course of special operations in Afghanistan.”

There are other incidents we know of, such as the flying of a Nazi flag from an Australian military vehicle in 2007 and an SASR soldier cutting off the right hands of two dead suspected Taliban fighters in 2013. The soldier last year was cleared of committing war crimes. 

In 2010, we learned that six civilians had been killed in a grenade attack by the 1st Commando Regiment in a night raid in Oruzgan province the previous year. Director of military prosecutions Lyn McDade charged an officer and two reservists over the killings – an unprecedented move in Australia’s military history. The case was later dismissed and, in the words of journalist Tom Hyland, remains “shrouded in mystery”.

There are many things that most of us will never understand about war: what it is like to be part of an unwanted invading and occupying army, what it does to a person to be trained to kill, how the act of killing changes someone, how repeatedly being placed in situations of extreme danger affects judgement.

Reactions to the reports of civilian killings since 2010 have been a variety of pleas for understanding, to not make moral judgements of people whose work situation is unimaginable to an ordinary citizen. 

These are not genuine calls for human understanding, but politically charged manipulations. And anything short of reflexive pledges to “support our troops” has brought furious reaction.

When McDade brought the charges against members of the 1st Commando Regiment, she was subject to a fierce and vulgar backlash. The mere suggestion that Australian soldiers may have had a case to answer led Herald Sun columnist Alan Howe to write that McDade “may well be the most dangerous woman in Australia”. 

Former major Charlie Lynn, writing in the Spectator, described the laying of charges as “a shameless act of betrayal by the Australian government”. Lynn favourably quoted US general George Patton’s words during World War Two: “You don’t win wars by dying for your country. You win wars by making the other bastard die for his country!”

Similar sentiments have proliferated online as the details of Crompvoets’ report have emerged. Many relate to her gender, political correctness allegedly gone mad and to weak politicians who won’t get out of the way and let soldiers get on with the business of killing.

The backlash is instructive in several ways.

First, those so-called defenders of the troops seem to be the same people who deem the greatest crimes of the century to involve teaching children to respect differences – differences in race, gender or sexuality. To give a child a rainbow flag is considered far worse than training them to kill strangers. One is a form of social engineering, the other some natural right.

The mood of it all feels reminiscent of the reactions of the Catholic Church and its defenders to early suggestions that there were, to put it mildly, “institutional problems”. Again we have a highly secretive and often unaccountable organisation fawned over by its disciples and the political class. Again we have documented instances of abuse, which suggest there is a culture of impunity. Again we have delayed responses, internal investigations and only later anything looking like an independent investigation. Again, perpetrators are called victims.

Second, the backlash displays the increasing valorisation of the Australian military, the result of a two-decade campaign of the political right not to “support the troops”, but to normalise the deployment of the armed forces. 

We need to be clear: the celebration of the armed forces is inherently reactionary. The Australian military is engaged not for the good of the Australian population, or to further things such as freedom and democracy, but to further the interests of Western imperialism. It is a killing machine, soldiers trained to murder on command. That the theatres it enters often are populated by people who don’t want it there and view soldiers, rightly, as invaders, makes its endeavours all the more deceptive and secretive.

Any undermining of public confidence would only add to the burden of convincing people to support the next deployment. That political consideration, not concern for the wellbeing of soldiers, is what motivates politicians and right wing commentators to put the military on a pedestal.

That the Afghan occupation seems endless, that it was groundless in the first place and has little chance of defeating the Taliban, which appears to have widespread support, are surely contributing factors to what looks to be a breakdown in elements of the Australian forces.

The first thing that should happen in response to the latest evidence of war crimes is the ending of Australian involvement in the occupation of Afghanistan. The second is that all evidence gathered should be made public.

The next time a government makes a case for war, we should remind ourselves what war is about. As general Patton said, it’s about “making the other bastard die” – whoever he or she may be.