The Brereton report into war crimes committed in Afghanistan by Australian special forces soldiers has been released by Defence Chief Angus Campbell, corroborating allegations of blood lust and the murder of civilians. Thirty-nine homicides have been confirmed in 23 separate incidents, and 25 soldiers—some of whom are still serving in the ADF—have been implicated following the testimonies of 350 different witnesses. Thirty-six matters involving nineteen individuals have been referred to the federal police. The second squadron of the Special Air Services Regiment (commonly referred to as the SAS) will be disbanded, and some soldiers will be stripped of medals and awards received since 2006.
While the second half of the report, which details the specific crimes, has not been released, many stories are already in the public sphere. In 2017, the ABC revealed two fourteen-year-old Afghan boys had their throats slit by SAS soldiers in 2014. Their bodies were then bagged and thrown into a nearby river. Braden Chapman, a former SAS soldier and whistleblower told Four Corners this year that an elderly Afghan man, Haji Sadr, was beaten to death by an SAS soldier during a raid on his village, Sarkhoum, in 2012. Last month, a US Marine revealed that Australian special forces shot and killed a prisoner because he would not fit on an evacuating helicopter.
It is remarkable that these crimes have managed to see the light of day. The SAS and other special forces are highly secretive organisations within the military. Formed in 1957, the SAS is made up of small squadrons of elite soldiers who undertake a gruelling recruitment process that less than 10 percent reportedly pass. They operate on the frontlines of the Australian war machine, dropped into foreign territories heavily armed and working autonomously, or “off radio”. They locate and kill targets with little oversight. This is the first time in its 60-year existence that the SAS has faced serious scrutiny.
In 2015, defence consultant Samantha Crompvoets was commissioned to investigate cultural problems that had led to feuds between different groups within the special forces. As soon as she began interviewing soldiers, she heard stories of systematic, heinous war crimes. Crompvoets submitted two reports: a sanitised summary of the general culture for broader release within the military, and a more detailed documentation of war crimes sent only to Major General Jeff Sengelman and Chief of Army Lieutenant General Angus Campbell. The second report has only recently been sighted by the media, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age publishing excerpts last month.
The excerpts confirm the pattern of civilian murder, torture and cover-ups. “Comparisons were made to My Lai [a massacre of civilians in Vietnam] and Abu Ghraib [the US torture prison in Iraq]”, Crompvoets writes. Australian soldiers “would take the men and boys to these guest houses and interrogate them, meaning tie them up and torture them” one insider recounted in an interview. “[T]he men and boys would be found dead, shot in the head, sometimes blindfolded and throats slit.”
The report indicates that the culture ran deep among the soldiers, who “would do bad stuff to fit in”, according to one insider. “It becomes part of the banter”, he told Crompvoets. “Guys just had this blood lust. Psychos. Absolute psychos. And we bred them.” This accusation was repeated by another SAS soldier, who described the conduct of the special forces as “sanctioned psychopathic behaviour”.
The crimes were no secret among the special forces. One soldier interviewed by Crompvoets said: “[I]f they didn’t do it, they saw it. And if they didn’t see it, they knew about it. If they knew about it, they were probably involved in covering it up and not letting it get back to Canberra”. In her comments to General Campbell, Crompvoets emphasises that the crimes were sanctioned from above, writing, “[W]hat was really disturbing to hear was that, at least according to the people who approached me, a lot of behaviour goes largely unchecked ... and there is intense pressure not to report things up”. One soldier reported that he “was told that to intervene would mean getting sacked”.
This report prompted the four-year inquiry headed by New South Wales Supreme Court Of Appeal Justice Paul Brereton. Initially, establishment figures rallied behind the special forces as allegations of war crimes came to light. In 2018, former director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson admonished those trying to “tear down our heroes”, arguing: “Unless there have been the most egregious breaches of laws of armed conflict, we should leave it all alone”. The federal police raided the Sydney headquarters of the ABC in 2019 after journalist Dan Oakes was put under investigation for reporting on a leaked dossier of military reports about war crimes in Afghanistan.
Now that the evidence supporting the allegations has proved overwhelming, elites are changing their tune. In early November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned the public that the Brereton report would contain “difficult and hard news”. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has said that it would “make some very significant findings, ones that I’m certain will make many Australians uncomfortable and also dismayed at”. Weeks before the report was released, the government established a special investigator’s office within the Department of Home Affairs to assist the federal police investigating the allegations.
Unable to reject the allegations, the government is downplaying the findings as isolated to a few bad individuals. Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester told Sky News that only “a relatively small number of people” were implicated, and that “it’s important we maintain our confidence and our pride and our respect for the men and women in uniform who keep us safe”. Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has indicated that the next stage of inquiries could take a decade to complete.
But testimonies of current and former SAS soldiers suggest that the problems run much deeper than the individuals singled out for war crimes; many others condoned the actions through covering them up and ensuring that the perpetrators didn’t face any consequences. A Four Corners investigation in March aired footage of an unarmed Afghan man murdered at close range by a SAS soldier in 2012. He was cowering on the ground, holding nothing but red rosary beads, after being mauled by a military dog. An internal investigation cleared the soldier of any wrongdoing, concluding that he had been firing in self-defence from fifteen to twenty metres away and that the man had been holding a radio (a legal ground to shoot a suspected enemy combatant). The footage released by the ABC was taken from an SAS headcam. Crompvoets’ report quoted a soldier claiming that some ADF lawyers had “drunk the Kool-Aid”, and “any investigation into alleged misconduct was ‘set up’ to find the person not guilty”.
The crimes committed by the SAS members singled out in the report are certainly shocking, sickening acts of violence and slaughter. But they are not surprising. Special forces soldiers are given superhero status within the military and broader society, and their squadrons are trained to carry out the most gruesome acts of war. Another insider told Crompvoets that “the rules are different” in the SAS. In Afghanistan, while making up only a tiny portion of total military numbers, the SAS and the commandos were responsible for most direct combat. They are cultivated into killers by a training process that dehumanises their victims; it’s not hard to see how that stretches to dehumanising civilians in the countries they invade.
But the most distorting aspect of the Brereton report and the response of Defence Chief Campbell is the assertion that these war crimes are an aberration from an otherwise just and heroic wing of the military. The special forces were created to be the sharpest weapon in Australia’s imperialist arsenal; their entire history is one of invasion and murder. The SAS was first deployed in 1965 to Borneo, where the Australian military was engaged to stop Indonesia from gaining new territory. From 1966, SAS squadrons began rotating through Vietnam, where they were dropped into the jungle to kill peasant soldiers resisting one of the most shameful acts of Western imperialism in the twentieth century.
In the late 1990s, the SAS was deployed to Bougainville and East Timor in efforts to shore up Australian business and political interests on islands experiencing civil unrest. SAS troops boarded the Tampa in 2001—a Norwegian shipping vessel that had picked up 433 refugees after their boat sank—to make sure none of them would reach Australian shores during then-Prime Minister John Howard’s war on asylum seekers. And then came the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to more than one million deaths in the quest to maintain the hegemony of Western imperialism in the twenty-first century.
Only 39 of these deaths have been noted by the Brereton report. But all of the deployments were criminal, and the politicians who authorised them are just as complicit as the special forces who carry out the killings on the ground. Even if the rules of war were followed to the letter, the special forces and the military in which they serve would be guilty of vicious crimes. The individuals identified in the Brereton report should face justice. But they are only the tip of the iceberg.