The most high-profile defamation case in Australian history has concluded. Former Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) soldier Ben Roberts-Smith has failed in his attempt to sue media organizations for publishing details of his war crimes in Afghanistan. Today’s outcome was not the conclusion of a criminal trial, but of a civil case initiated by Roberts-Smith himself. It was one of the most expensive trials ever held in Australia.
Investigation of Roberts-Smith’s alleged war crimes is still ongoing, but the Federal Court in Sydney found that, on the balance of probabilities, Roberts-Smith did do most of the things the journalists reported. His actions included the murder of unarmed civilians.
Roberts-Smith has become the face of bad behavior on, around, and after the battlefield. But his fall from grace has raised some uncomfortable questions about the cozy connections between big business, the military, and parliament. As a consequence, the political elite now finds itself in an awkward position, simultaneously pondering criminal charges against former soldiers and trying to prepare the Australian public for a new war with China.
“But Were I Not Better Than You….”
Shadow Minister for Defense Andrew Hastie, who served alongside Roberts-Smith in Afghanistan, testified that Roberts-Smith once walked past him after killing two prisoners and said “just a couple more dead cunts.” He removed the prosthetic leg of a murdered prisoner, then drank beer from it at the Fat Lady’s Arms, an on-base bar.
In a spectacular own goal, Roberts-Smith’s lawyer attempted to discredit witnesses during the trial by arguing the allegations were too awful to be true. “It’s like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now,” he scoffed, “It’s Colonel Kilgore on ice. It’s insane. It’s the sort of thing that would be said by an ostentatious psychopath.” Indeed.
Roberts-Smith did not act alone. Despite his comeuppance in court today, the larger question of Australian war crimes and the dangerous culture of the “elite” special forces is far from resolved. Witness testimony at the trial, the government-commissioned Brereton Report, and corroborating news stories paint a grim picture. Australian troops abroad have engaged in murder for both sport and bonding, massacres of women and children, racist theatrics, and blind hero worship.
Footage has emerged of soldiers flying the Nazi flag over Australian tanks, and using the Confederate flag to show helicopters where to land. Several, including Roberts-Smith, sported crusader patches on the battlefield — symbols of a Christian war to dominate the Muslim world. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) admitted that neo-Nazis groups have and are infiltrating the armed forces. As one soldier present at the time told investigators: “Guys just had this bloodlust. Psychos. Absolute psychos. And we bred them.”
The Battlefield-to-Boardroom Pipeline
Many Australians will now have questions about how someone as clearly dangerous as Roberts-Smith was so celebrated and protected by the political establishment.
The Seven Group — whose subsidiaries have enjoyed lucrative Department of Defence contracts — hired Roberts-Smith as a general manager in 2015. Owner Kerry Stokes subsequently bankrolled Roberts-Smith’s legal costs for the defamation trial, and lambasted investigative reporters as “scumbag journalists.”
One of Roberts-Smith’s defense witnesses was former Liberal Party defense minister — now head of weapons manufacturer Boeing Global — Brendan Nelson. Nelson defended Roberts-Smith as “one of the greatest Australians in terms of heroism the country’s produced.”
As recently as September, Roberts-Smith attended the Queen’s funeral. Due to the ongoing trial, he was not given a free ride on the prime minister’s plane. The assistant shadow minister for defense, Phillip Thompson — who was a soldier in Afghanistan at the same time as Roberts-Smith — was furious. He demanded that any public servant who expressed doubts about Roberts-Smith be sacked because they “do not uphold Australian values.”
There will probably be a few red faces in board and party rooms around the country this week. But temporary embarrassment will not alter the extremely cozy relationship that has been built between Australian billionaires, politicians, the military, lobby groups, consultancies, and large defense corporations.
Swallowing Cold War Pills
In March this year, Oliver Schulz became the first Australian to ever be charged with war crimes. Schulz was a fairly low-level soldier. As one of the investigative journalists sued by Roberts-Smith put it, the Brereton Report suggests that no Australian between the rank of lieutenant and lieutenant general knew anything about war crimes in Afghanistan. This has generated widespread skepticism. If none of the remaining eighteen men referred for criminal investigation are charged, those at the top will look even more suspicious.
The political establishment is happy to throw some grunts under the bus if it has to. But it has a dilemma on its hands. In 2011, the Australian government was told that the Taliban was no longer the main security priority. Desperate to contain China with its own “pivot to Asia,” the United States insisted that US troops be stationed in Australia’s north on permanent rotation. While Roberts-Smith was committing war crimes in Darwan, Afghanistan, the first US troops were settling into their new posts in Darwin, Australia.
In the decade since, many more bricks have been laid in the path that could lead Australia into war with China, such as the escalation of the Talisman Sabre war games and the AUKUS nuclear submarine procurement deal. Disappointingly, publications like the Sydney Morning Herald, which determinedly exposed Roberts-Smith’s crimes, have become brook-no-dissent cheerleaders for war with China.
But a majority of Australians think the country should remain neutral if there were to be a conflict between the United States and China. The prospect of war will hardly become more popular if criminal courts begin a marathon session exposing Australian military cruelty and incompetence.
There is clearly some uncertainty about what to do next. The government’s last-minute attempt to delay the ruling on national security grounds suggests it is nervous. Prosecutors will no doubt be watching the public fallout from the Roberts-Smith trial outcome to decide on their next move. Compounding their hesitancy is a US law that forbids its military from helping foreign forces who have committed war crimes. The United States is annoyed that guilty verdicts might accidentally criminalize Australia-US cooperation in the event of a conflict with China.
The elite are now in a catch-22 of their own making: prosecute and erode trust in Australia’s institutions, or don’t, and erode trust in Australia’s institutions. But with public confidence in politicians already at an all-time low, there’s not much faith left to betray.
Twenty years ago more than half a million Australians took to the streets to warn of the dangerous consequences of the forever wars. They were ignored. Today’s result is yet more proof — if any were needed — that they were right.