The release of the Brereton Report has confirmed an open secret: Australian soldiers in Afghanistan are suspected of murdering at least thirty-nine unarmed civilians. The authors of the report have gone to great lengths to stress that these slayings — whose victims include children — were driven by “blood lust,” “competition killing,” and sickening “rites of passage.”
The Australian government this week referred the matter to a special investigator. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the public to prepare for “brutal truths.” Media outlets near-unanimously described the report as “shocking.”
In truth, the allegations — while certainly grotesque — shouldn’t have come as a shock. Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001. Within less than a year, reports of sadistic violence started coming out from Afghanistan and later Iraq, and they haven’t stopped appearing since. Sometimes the reports detailed atrocities carried out by lower-ranking soldiers from the US-led occupation forces. But just as often, the crimes were implicitly or explicitly sanctioned by those higher up.
Gladiators in the Forever War
The so-called forever war in Afghanistan has no actual long-term objectives. Senior military and political figures confirmed this in originally classified interviews, released last year by the Washington Post. Officials have consistently lied to the public and misled them for nearly two decades about the purpose of the invasion and any possibility of ending the conflict.
Alongside this rigorous disinformation campaign, Western governments have also worked hard to build a macho media aura around the elite soldiers deployed to fight forever. Perhaps the most garish example came in 2019, when Donald Trump pardoned and celebrated Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher — who allegedly boasted of murdering a schoolgirl and other children — as an “ultimate fighter” and “a great warrior.” In similar fashion, former Australian defense minister Brendan Nelson defended a Special Air Service (SAS) soldier accused of murdering a teenager as being “by any standard, one of the greatest Australians in terms of heroism the country’s produced.”
As one lieutenant colonel reported:
The hyperbole surrounding the contribution of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan makes the soldiers feel entitled to be treated as Roman gladiators.
Snouts in the Trough
In addition to the symbolic strengthening of the Australia–United States alliance, the cozy relationship between Australian politicians, big business, and the weapons industry goes some way toward explaining the nation’s involvement in this endless war.
Defense industry giants like Thales donate generously every year to both the Labor and Liberal parties. And in recent years, Australian defense ministers have developed a habit of scoring cushy jobs in the private defense sector upon their retirement from public life.
Brendan Nelson oversaw Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan as defense minister from 2006–7. During his brief tenure, he controversially purchased twenty-four Super Hornet jet fighters from defense giant Boeing for $6 billion. In February this year, Nelson became the president of Boeing Australia.
As minister for defense industry from 2016–18, Christopher Pyne helped usher in a $200 billion military spending spree. After briefly serving as defense minister, he left that post for a job with consulting giant Ernst & Young’s defense business. His role? To help the company take advantage of Australia’s newly flourishing defense expenditure.
The “you scratch my back” culture in the defense industry isn’t limited to politicians. Media baron Kerry Stokes, who served as chairman of the Australian War Memorial while Nelson was director, hired former SAS soldier Ben Roberts-Smith as general manager of his Channel 7 Queensland operations in 2015. Roberts-Smith has since been accused of murdering several civilians in Afghanistan. Stokes has vowed to pay for his legal defense.
Peace as Risk
Christopher Pyne’s new employer Ernst & Young describes the defense industry as “a complex ecosystem of players under constant pressure to maximize profitability.” The description couldn’t be more fitting. It also couldn’t be further from ordinary people’s intuitive understanding of war as a terrible last resort.
In its 2017 risk report on the defense industry, Ernst & Young gleefully declared that “the post-Cold War peace dividend and the Afghanistan drawdown are now history and across the globe, defense budgets are increasing.” In this topsy-turvy world, a lack of violence and conflict is a “risk.”
Over the years, it’s not the war profiteers who have been arrested, imprisoned, slandered, and attacked as traitors — but those who have spoken out about war crimes. David McBride, the man who is responsible for bringing the current allegations to light, is currently still being prosecuted for his courage. Police raided the offices of ABC journalists who published early reports of these crimes in 2019. Until last month, these journalists were still under threat of prosecution. When Scott Morrison was politely accused of having worked with the Federal Police to cover up war crimes, he simply declared that “no one is above the law.”
Even the suggestion that nonwhite people are worthy of remembrance as victims of war has been treated as suspect and treacherous throughout these long two decades. It almost beggars belief that Andrew Hastie, one of the Coalition MPs who lined up to accuse writer and presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied of “trashing who we are as Australians,” was actually present at some of the atrocities under investigation in the Brereton Report.
No End in Sight
Reading the Brereton Report’s chilling accounts of murder as a bonding exercise, it’s hard not to remember Chelsea Manning’s 2013 description of the war crimes that led her to blow the whistle as “similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”
The debate and backlash that will follow these latest revelations will focus on gruesome details and the dubious character of the individuals involved. John Howard, who kickstarted Australian involvement in the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, has already “utterly condemned” the individual perpetrators.
But if this war is ever to end, we need to focus on stopping those who classify peace as perilous, truth as treachery, and “foreigners” as fair game. As long as the establishment fosters endless violence in order to maximize industry profits, there’ll be many more Brereton Reports to come.