Australian Soldier Ben Roberts Smith: Hero or War Criminal?
For generations, Australian soldiers have been sent to commit war crimes in multiple wars of aggression against other countries. Yet they are told they are defending Australia.
When the Australian military’s Brereton Report accused its own soldiers of dozens of murders in Afghanistan, at the top of the list of those nominated was the country’s most highly decorated living soldier, Ben Roberts Smith.
Spin doctors in the Australian military and politics rushed to denounce Roberts-Smith as a ‘rotten apple’, saying he did not represent the best traditions of the Australian military.
And when Roberts-Smith started a defamation case, a preliminary bout to a possible war crimes trial, commentators claimed there was ‘no middle ground’: either the highly decorated soldier was “the ideal soldier … who made great sacrifices for his country” or the contrary “a murderer, an arrogant, overly aggressive soldier”.
This is a false dichotomy. Ben Roberts Smith well represents the disgraced and badly named Australian Defence Forces. The entire operation in Afghanistan – like those in Iraq and Syria – was a criminal enterprise, with no shred of a legal foundation.
For generations, Australian soldiers have been sent to commit war crimes in multiple wars of aggression against other countries. Yet they are told they are defending Australia. These are the operations for which they are trained.
As junior collaborators in wars against the people of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the Australian military has required a special kind of unthinking, brutal, and loyal soldier, people just like Ben Roberts Smith.
A strapping young hulk of a man, in his 20s Ben was sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight for causes he could not have understood in countries he had no interest in understanding. But he was loyal, capable, a well-trained killer ready to carry out orders.
The citations for his Victoria Cross and Gallantry medals, and for Distinguished Service, said repeatedly that his actions and behavior were “in keeping with the finest traditions of the Australian Army”. These commendations came from senior officers who were no fools. They knew the man, had trained him, and observed his work, over many years.
He cannot so easily be dismissed as an unrepresentative ‘rotten apple’. His behavior in Afghanistan was a product of his training, and the Brereton report made it plain that the murder of civilians and prisoners, abuse of Afghan culture, and of the victims’ bodies were systematic.
The Brereton report found that Australian soldiers had murdered 39 civilians, often killing them to “blood” junior soldiers, afterward planting weapons on their corpses.
Ben Roberts Smith was at the center of such operations, he embodied what the ADF wanted. His bosses said so, several times. Yet in one case he is alleged to have killed an innocent Afghan farmer, Ali Jan, by kicking him off a cliff then ordering another soldier to shoot him.
Academic commentators have pointed to Australian blindness to the criminal history of imperial wars – under chauvinist ‘national identity’ clichés, citing the ‘ANZAC tradition’. Crotty and Holbrook say that “the idealization of this ANZAC history has always required Australians turn a blind eye to uncomfortable truths”.
One of the consequences of this deceptive war-making is what we might call a ‘3rd AIF’ syndrome: a reaction by soldiers who are betrayed into thinking they are heroes yet, in their operations and after discharge, realize that they were the despised and expendable tools of shifty politicians.
This ‘3rd AIF’ refers to the First and Second Australian Imperial Forces, groups deployed to support the British Empire in the First and Second World Wars. In the 1950s, all Australian military forces came under an ‘Australian Defence Forces’ (ADF) tag. But ‘defense’ has never squared with their de facto status as an auxiliary to US imperial operations.
The double speak has grown; but many young men and some women, recruited as young as 17 years old, in breach of the UN convention against child soldiers, were ill-equipped to understand it.
Once out of the toxic but protective military culture and able to think for themselves, the behavioral reactions are often extreme. As with the war in Vietnam, there have been a raft of suicides amongst discharged soldiers – on recent estimates 18% above the general rate – while ex-military are imprisoned at double the general rate.
This is not just, as is often said because they have been trained to kill and have witnessed the horrors of war; it is because they have committed atrocities against people in countries to which they have not been invited.
They know, as has been admitted by many former imperial soldiers, that they and their mission are hated and they will never benefit the people of the countries they invade.
This is the centuries-old reality of the imperial soldier, but the ADF no longer teaches its soldiers that they are an imperial force. So they become cynical and contemptuous – as the incident in Ben Roberts Smith’s case shows – where soldiers laugh as they drink alcohol from the prosthetic leg of a man they have recently killed.
The alleged crimes of Ben Roberts Smith and his colleagues have been aired publicly but remain to be proven in court proceedings. However, he was at the center of a military culture which his own command has blamed for at least 39 murders.
Photos show that Ben and his colleagues were part of a crude culture that included making war ‘trophies’ of dead Afghans and holding ‘pranks’ which included Ku Klux Klan uniforms.
Ben’s billionaire sponsor, media mogul Kerry Stokes, clearly values the former soldier for his hero status, making him a handsome representative of the war culture Stokes’ Seven Network has backed.
Brereton recommended, and ADF head General Angus Campbell agreed, to strip ‘meritorious unit’ citations from 3,000 members of the Special Forces who had served in Afghanistan.
But this decision was reversed by Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who claimed: “we shouldn’t be punishing the 99% for the sins of the 1%”. The rotten apple theory lives.