Reality television is bad enough at the best of times. Channel Seven’s bizarre new show SAS Australia, however, really plumbs the depths. Those behind the show are apparently unconcerned that their celebration of the culture of the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) comes hot on the heels of a string of revelations about war crimes committed by the SAS in Afghanistan. It’s as if a US network had launched a program during the Vietnam War in which B-grade celebrities were trained in the use of napalm. 

A four-year inquiry into the SAS’s crimes in Afghanistan is nearing completion. It’s likely limited findings will be released to the public, but several disturbing accounts have already come to light. The incidents vary in their details, but reports of torture, execution and cover-up surface again and again, with one special forces insider telling the Age of a culture of “sanctioned psychopathic behaviour”.

A confidential 2016 report by defence consultant Samantha Crompvoets, leaked to the media in 2018, is the source of many of the revelations. Crompvoets related countless stories of human rights abuses carried out by SAS troops.

According to Crompvoets, the troops would round up the men and boys in a village, tie them up and torture them under the guise of interrogation; when they left the village “the men and boys would be found dead, shot in the head, sometimes blindfolded and throats slit”. Crompvoets observes: “The gravity of these descriptions does not simply come from the details of particular events, it comes from the emphasis that most often accompanied these stories—‘it happened all the time’. They pointed to a disturbing regularity and normality”.

 “We’ve taken lives. We’ve saved lives. There’s nothing glorious about it”, says ex-soldier Ant Middleton, as he introduces himself to the contestants on SAS Australia. But despite Middleton’s dramatic declaration, the show is definitely in the business of glorifying the SAS. At every opportunity, the voice-over emphasises that “only those with mental strength, courage and pure grit” can pass the SAS selection course, which is designed to find “the ultimate soldier”.

In the first episode, contestants—including former rugby player Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins and Schapelle Corby—jump eight metres into water from a helicopter, crawl through mud and fight each other. This all seems a bit tame compared with what we know about SAS soldiers’ behaviour in Afghanistan. Then again, this is only the selection course; perhaps the training required to plant guns on the bodies of murdered civilians or to kill children and throw their bodies into rivers comes later.

In isolation, you might dismiss SAS Australia as just another piece of tasteless reality television trash—grotesque, certainly, but relatively harmless in itself. The show, however, is just one small piece of a broader promotion of nationalism and war. It’s a tawdrier version of what we see every year around Anzac Day, when the glories of war and the heroism of sacrifice are ritually celebrated by every major institution of Australian capitalism.

This continuous barrage of pro-war propaganda is made necessary because—as the revelations about the SAS crimes in Afghanistan reminds us—the reality of war is very different to the politicians’ portrayal of it. The military doesn’t exist to protect the safety and freedom of Australians. It is the violent tool of Australian capitalism’s imperialist ambitions, ready to unleash violence against those perceived to be a threat to the interests of the ruling class.

That Australia’s most elite military units would have a culture of “psychopathic” violence should come as no surprise. And neither should it be surprising that the reality of this culture is covered up by politicians and the media and portrayed in an entirely different, heroic light. It’s doubtful that many people would join Australia’s military adventures in Afghanistan or other far-flung corners of the world if these were advertised with the promise of participation in acts of barbaric violence against defenceless civilians. Better to dress it all up, as the Australian Defence Force does in its advertising campaigns, as a kind of “journey of self-discovery” for the hardy and idealistic few.

The self-betterment and self-actualisation angle is strong in SAS Australia too, a show which is little more than a pro-military ad campaign with a special forces focus. The contestants reveal, with slight variations in wording, their identical motivations for undertaking the course: to challenge themselves, to demonstrate that there’s more to them than people think, and to find out who they really are. The subtext throughout is that if the selection course alone is the most challenging thing the contestants have ever faced and is going to reveal their true inner selves, then the people who pass the real course and enter the special forces must possess unimaginable courage, wisdom and strength.

But the ever-growing list of war crimes committed by Australia’s special forces casts serious doubt over the idea that the military is the best place for self-discovery. So whether or not you’re a celebrity (or washed up former celebrity) like the contestants of SAS Australia, next time you’re looking for a challenge, consider taking a community art class or going hiking rather than joining the most brutal arm of an imperialist murder machine.