Today, I spoke with Mark Willacy, the journalist behind the ABC report ‘Killing Field’ as well as the recently published book ‘Rogue Forces: an explosive insiders’ account of Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan’. Even though I stated that I will recommence publishing new episodes on the 21st of February 2022, I am releasing this one as a Special Release as I feel that the contemporary relevance of this conversation warrants it. As you will hear, some of the topics Mark and I covered include the intent behind his journalism, his initial exposure to war and conflict in the Middle East, how ‘Killing Field’ and ‘Rogue Forces’ came about, the people who approached him, impact of the environment on our soldiers, impunity of politicians and much more.
On a personal note, this was by far the most difficult interview I have conducted because of the highly volatile and close-to-home subject. All I ask of my audience is that they take heed of my opening remarks before diving into the interview. This is an important topic that we need to talk about and do so respectfully.
Lastly, you can see my recently published article that I mention here.
Full show notes:
My guest today is Mark Willacy. Mark has been a journalist for more than 25 years and has reported for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia’s national broadcaster, from more than 30 countries. Mark is a seven-time Walkley Award winner and in 2020 he was awarded Australia’s highest honour in journalism, the Gold Walkley, for exposing alleged Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan. His winning Four Corners report ‘Killing Field’ made headlines around the world and sparked a federal-police war crimes investigation. Mark’s investigations provided evidence for 12 cases named in the Brereton Report, the independent Australian Defence Force inquiry into war crimes in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. Earlier in his career, as the ABC’s Middle East correspondent for four years, Mark also reported on the ground from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 2003 war in Iraq. He was also the Japan correspondent in 2011 when the country was hit by its most powerful earthquake in more than a thousand years. Mark has twice been named Queensland Journalist of the Year and in 2019 he won a Logie Award for his Four Corners’ world exclusive on the Thai cave rescue.
Mark has authored several books, including ‘The View From the Valley Of Hell’ a book about his time in the Middle East in the early 2000s, ‘Fukushima’, which is an account of the 2011 earthquake and the twin catastrophes of the subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown. And more recently, he published the book ‘Rogue Forces: an explosive insiders’ account of Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan’. He joins me today to discuss this last book, how it came about and its impacts.
Some of the topics we covered:
- Marks entry into investigative journalism
- His time in the Middle East in the early 2000s
- Motivation behind extreme violence in the Middle East
- Lessons learnt about human nature
- First encounters with the Australian SAS in Iraq
- How ‘Killing Field’ and ‘Rogue Forces’ came about
- Why Mark released the book when he did
- The sources of information for Mark’s book
- Impact of the environment on our soldiers
- Impunity of politicians
- Current state of the media
- Narratives surrounding Mark’s book
- Mark’s response to Heston Russell’s recent public complaint
- The way forward
Lastly, you can see my recently published article that I mention here.
Listen to the podcast here
Special Release: Mark Willacy – On ‘Killing Field‘ and ‘Rogue Forces
Last episode, I stated that I wouldn’t be releasing any new episodes until the 21st of February, 2022. I have changed my mind, and I want to explain why, as well as give some context to this particular episode. I’m releasing my conversation with investigative journalist, Mark Willacy, recorded on the 20th of December 2021. As many of my audience will know, Mark is the journalist behind the explosive ABC Report Killing Field, which showed extremely controversial images of Australian SAS soldiers committing acts that may ultimately account for war crimes. He’s also the author of the published book Rogue Forces: An Explosive Insiders’ Account of Australian SAS War Crimes in Afghanistan.
Unsurprisingly, both have caused a lot of controversies, both in the Australian Defence Force as well as the broader Australian public. Mark and I had originally planned to do this early in 2022, but there is a hard chance that Mark will be travelling very soon so we decided to do this now. Hence, given the importance and contemporary nature of this topic, as well as the likelihood that many will be discussing it with friends and family over the upcoming holidays, I have decided to release it now. Just before we get to the interview, I want to give its genesis some context and state my position clearly before we dive in.
I reached out to Mark some time ago in the hope of hosting him on the show to discuss both the origins of the ABC report and his book, as well as their impacts. As a serving member of the Australian Defence Force, I have witnessed the effect of Mark’s journalism. However, having watched the report and having read the book, I quickly became convinced that the debate about their contents has become skewed in my view, much like the rest of our public discourse on most topics nowadays slid off into the extremes. On one hand, we had a segment of the public calling for the immediate abandonment of the SAS and the damnation of the ADF as a whole. Not only was the competence of our forces called into question but also the moral compass of the entire institution.
On the other hand, we then had a loud minority dismissing Mark’s ABC report and book as near fiction, glorifying our soldiers as the harbingers of peace and stability to our nation who could never do any wrong. What’s fascinating to me is that most on both sides of this debate have not read his book and watched the ABC report through the lens of their own bias. In other words, both extremes of this debate had lost sight of the forest for the trees of their preconceived ideas. Unfortunately, given how broken our media and social media business model is, it is these skewed perspectives to dominate our social discourse.
My conversation with Mark seeks to counter that ever so slightly. By giving Mark the time and space to present the intent behind his reporting, I hope to give fuel to a more reasoned debate about what happened in Afghanistan. I hope to sharpen our focus on what’s important rather than fan the single-minded but very emotional and passionate flames of unreason that dominate our discourse.
Having spoken to Mark at length, I’m convinced that his true intent has been hijacked by those on the extremes of both positions, but who have ultimately not even read his book. Mark has served our nation for many years, much like the soldiers depicted in his stories and both deserve to be heard and understood properly.
Before we start, I’d like to once more state my position on the alleged war crimes. My fear has always been and remains that our focus and emphasis are on the wrong aspects of these cases. We are so set upon passionately debating the rights and wrongs of the actions taken by these soldiers of whom we have alleged evidence of committing war crimes. We need to let the courts do that.
What we should be asking is how we get to this point. Let’s take the video of the alleged execution of an Afghan National, which is the main focus of the Four Corners report. I have no doubt that anyone in Australian society, including in the Australian Defence Force and our special forces community who thinks about such things deeply, will come to the conclusion that what we see in that video is morally questionable, to say the least.
However, I think our attention on the specific soldier is displaced. What I think we need to do is explore how an Australian soldier came to think that pulling the trigger was the right thing to do. What are the circumstances that have led him to act in a way that to him seems justifiable? What are the context and circumstances that have led him to believe that such an action was the one to take? What has happened that an act like this was seen as acceptable? How did an act like this seemingly become part of the solution to the problems our soldiers faced? Therefore, the focus should not be on blame and punishment of the soldier, which we must leave to a proper and fair investigation in the court of law.
Rather than understanding what has led him to become so desensitised to violence and death that killing the man seemed like an appropriate course of action. We need to ask what impacts the loss of purpose or vision has had on him. What impact has operational fatigue, the catch-and-release policy on our troops, the pressure to perform, and the cultural shock of a place infused with value so foreign to our own had on our troops? What impact has our organisational mindset, our leadership and the tactical but also the operational and strategic levels had? What impact have fear and uncertainty had and the loss of a close mate?
Are we collectively asking these questions? If so, I don’t think we are doing it loudly enough to merely seek to demonise this soldier as one of the few bad apples is to miss a critical piece of this puzzle. Our soldiers are incredibly well-trained, but they are also human. They are imperfect like the rest of us, and to expect that they will remain immune to the warping and dehumanising impacts war has on every one of those who have experienced these horrors, be their survivors or participants, is to deny them the very humanity we accused them of having denied their victims.
As I stated in a published article that, “We shun these soldiers from our polite society so that we may go on dancing and singing into the night knowing we have upheld the moral standards of civilisation.” This is short-sighted, to say the least. What we should be doing is paying attention to upstream causes that make such acts not only likely but ultimately inevitable. I’m yet to be convinced that war has ever been fought that did not at some time contain what we nowadays call war crimes. Every war has war crimes. I take this to be a self-evident truth and the starting point of how I approach this debate. Therefore, if we are going to hold our soldiers accountable as we undoubtedly should, we must also hold those who send us to war accountable.
War is hell, as anyone who’s experienced it will tell you. We live in a society where those who send us to war and plan our wars do so with complete impunity. They, unlike our soldiers, are not held accountable even though they are the ones who ultimately set the wheels in motion for wars that we know will ultimately end up with acts that deviate from our moral compass. As you will read in my conversation with Mark, this is ultimately his view as well. Therefore, we ought to slow down, think and focus our efforts and energy on improving where the true problem lies.
Our collective apathetic and indifferent orientation towards war going towards should truly be our last resort as our beloved just doctrine will dictate. As we have seen time and time again in the past, this has not been the case. I say again, to merely hang our soldiers out to dry is to deny them the very humanity we cuss them of having denied their victims. These are our soldiers and they are a product of what we, as a nation, have helped create. They are our soldiers. They are us. With all that said, I hope this episode fuels further reason debate and I wish you all a safe festive season and a Happy New Year.
My guest is Mark Willacy. Mark has been a journalist for more than 25 years and has reported for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Australia’s national broadcaster from more than 30 countries. Mark is a seven-time Walkley Award Winner. In 2020, he was awarded Australia’s highest honour in journalism, the Gold Walkley, for exposing alleged Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan.
His winning Four Corners report Killing Field made headlines around the world and sparked the federal police war crimes investigation. Marks’ investigations provided evidence for twelve cases named in the Brereton Report, the independent Australian Defence Force’s inquiry into war crimes in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
Earlier in his career as ABC’s Middle East correspondent for a few years, Mark also reported on the ground from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 2003 war in Iraq. He was also the Japan correspondent in 2011 when the country was hit by its most powerful earthquake in more than 1,000 years. Mark has twice been named Queensland Journalist of the Year. In 2019, he won a Logie Award for his Four Corners world exclusive on the Thai Cave rescue.
Mark has authored several books, including The View from The Valley of Hell, a book about his time in the Middle East in the early 2000s. Fukushima is an account of the 2011 earthquake and the twin catastrophes of the subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown. He published a book, Rogue Forces: An Explosive Insiders’ Account of Australian SAS War Crimes in Afghanistan. He joins me to discuss his book, how it came about, and its impact. Mark, thank you for joining me on the show.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Before we get into the depths of your book and all its implications, maybe we can take a few moments to just get some of your background. How did you end up in investigative journalism? What motivated this career path years ago?
I grew up in the Western Darling Downs in Queensland. My dad was a diesel mechanic. Mum worked in a hardware store. They wanted me to do something that they thought was better in my life than what they had. I was encouraged to go to university. I was lucky enough to get an Engineering degree. I mocked about for three years on that and I don’t think I was doing very well. I was headed towards some failure. I thought, “I better do something I’m interested in because I’m not interested in this.” Journalism seemed like the way to go. It’s one of those jobs where you can meet interesting and notorious people. You can go to crazy places. I got into journalism. Luckily, I got picked up by the ABC just after I finished my degree.
The great thing about ABC, it’s the national broadcaster. It’s an amazing place to work. It’s got bureaus all over the country and all over the world. I ended up working in Toowoomba, Gladstone, Townsville, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Parliament House in Canberra. I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I was lucky enough to score a job in the Middle East as the Middle East correspondent based out of Jerusalem in 2002. That kicked off my love affair with war reporting and foreign correspondence.
Why foreign correspondent, particularly, why war? Have you got any family background in military service? What’s the interest that drew you towards it?
Both my grandfathers were in World War II. My paternal grandfather was up in New Guinea. No, I just found it interesting that I’d never seen anything like that. I landed in Jerusalem at a time when there were suicide bombings in cafes on buses. The Israelis were hitting back and there were airstrikes in Gaza. The invasion of the West Bank. I just found it intoxicating to begin with, anyway. It was war in the suburbs and out in the regions. We knew too as well that something was building in Iraq.
I knew when my wife and I arrived in Jerusalem, the ABC said to me, “It looks like the Americans are going to do something with Iraq.” We knew that that was going to happen as well. I ended up going into Iraq several times when Saddam Hussein was in power. When it all happened, that was the big war. It was great. I did four years of it. I have to tell you, by the end of the four years, I probably had my field in this conflict.
You went with the family. Is that fairly normal that journalists will take their families to these suicide bombings and so on? Is that fairly routine?
When I arrived, we didn’t have any kids in Jerusalem. By the time we left, we had two daughters. We had a third in Japan just before the tsunami. I’m very lucky that my wife is a pretty strong person. She’s pretty tough and she wasn’t fazed. She could hear the bombs go off and when a suicide bomber hopped on a bus. A lot of your readers know what that feels and not just sounds like.
It was pretty confronting. The Israelis, as the media rolled up to these suicide bombings, were very open about letting us film whatever we wanted because they wanted to show the world what they thought was Palestinian terrorism. It was quite confronting. It taught me that life can be very normal one minute and it can be over the next.
The whole suicide bombing piece is so distant to most of us growing up in the comforts of our homes because it seems counter-evolutionary. You are doing the very opposite thing that evolution is designed. That’s procreating, and you fight to live that you are effectively committing yourself to die oftentimes before having children as well. A lot of these young men mainly but also women. Did you have much experience, or have you explored that in your research and your journalism as well? What drives people to do these types of acts?
I did. I spent a lot of time, particularly in the West Bank. The groups doing the suicide bombings were Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. I made it clear early on. I wanted to meet these commanders who were sending these mainly young men and women to die. I got to meet quite a few of those guys. A lot of them didn’t last too long. The Israelis were pretty good at tracking them down too and killing them. It was a fascinating insight. From their perspective, the only weapon they had that could match the Israelis who had air superiority, missile superiority, and weapon superiority, generally, was the one thing they had which was their bodies. On the one hand, I could understand it, on the other hand, I found it grotesque.From the Palestinian perspective, the only that could match Israelis’ air and missile superiority is to use their own bodies for suicide bombings. Click To Tweet
When I went to meet these guys, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. That’s how they explained it. Whether we agreed with it or not, it was a tactic that terrified us. It’s terrorism. The Israeli population. The Israelis would hit back. I remember going to Gaza one day because the Israelis had taken out a top Hamas military commander by the name of Salah Shehade. To do that, they just destroyed a whole apartment block in Gaza. They killed children and civilians, but they got their man. I suppose the terrorism was being caused on both sides in some form.
The adage of you have one man who is a terrorist and another man who is a freedom fighter. It applies in so many places. I guess it’s about the perspective. Where the observer is looking is what will shape how they will behave. I don’t mean to dwell on this point, but it’s an interesting one because it talks a lot about human nature. That’s what ultimately your book talks about and a lot of your journalism talks about. What did you learn from those four years in the Middle East, Palestine, Israel, and Iraq about human nature?
I learned that violence is something that can come easily to humans. It’s something that we often revert to too quickly. Covering the war in Iraq. I was in there before the Americans started bombing and moving in. It was clear to me, that the Iraqis were barely capable of running a state, let alone a weapons of mass destruction program. What it also taught me is that the stereotypical bad guy in this case, Saddam Hussein, isn’t always the one who starts the fight. In this case, that was George W. Bush and his team. That was a pointless war. I learned that we live here in Australia in a beautiful little corner of the earth, where we are pretty well untouched by a lot of this drama.
Coming home after four years, I felt great relief to come home. We are blessed with peace. We are blessed with natural beauty beaches. It’s a wonderful place for kids to grow up in. I saw lots of kids killed in the Middle East, Iraqi, Israeli, Palestinian, and Lebanese. It was something that I was determined that I wanted my daughters to live somewhere remotely peaceful. Thankfully, by virtue of our birth, we are lucky to be Australian.
I can’t echo that sentiment more strongly. As a child of the Bosnian War and as somebody who’s been adopted into this country, I call Australia home now and cherish that passport. People in Australia don’t understand oftentimes how lucky we are and how all-consuming war is to those who have to live with it every single day. I echo that.
I like that you open up and that response with violence comes easily because that’s what this show is all about. It is bringing to life the true costs of war through the voices of those who have lived it. Particularly in our cocooned Western democracies, to view war as something distant, something that happens over there. It happens to them.
We send our soldiers there, but we as a society don’t necessarily feel it. We see it through the news media which oftentimes becomes entertainment. Partisan politics, that’s how I see it. I do agree with that comment. That’s probably a good segue. That time would have opened your eyes to what war is like. I guess the raw inhumanity of war.
It was brutal. The forms of war that I saw in the Middle East were quite vast. The war zone, one morning could be a child’s school bus that gets ripped apart. It could be their home in Gaza that gets hit by a missile, or in Iraq, it could be just out in the streets. More traditional-style combat, if you like. I saw the Australians. In Iraq, I was out in the Western desert. We’d had to pull out and we were going back in just as the Americans going in.
I ran into the Australian SAS out in the Western desert. They were doing what I suppose was a blocking operation for remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, who were trying to escape to Syria and ran into the SAS out there. I have to say, they were doing a very impressive job in raiding. They were the first guys pretty well into Iraq, doing that traditional role. It was very interesting. They weren’t too keen for us to stop and chat with them. I can tell you that.
I understand that as well. Was that the first time you gained exposure to the SAS or had you done any work with the military before particularly SAS?
That was my first exposure to them out in the field. They had cars pulled up when I pulled through there. We tried to stop and talk to them, but they weren’t too keen on that. I’d had exposure to SAS personnel or guys who’d left the SAS who’d helped us with security in Iraq. Particularly, we never stayed in the Green Zone when we were in Iraq. The most dangerous time I have ever found wasn’t during the war. It was a couple of years after the war when the insurgency kicked off and there were up to 100 bodies a day being found on the streets of Baghdad every morning. It was crazy. The Shia and Sunni death squads were roaming everywhere.
We shared with the Japanese broadcaster, NHK, and we set up a house near the Tigris River. We had about a dozen Iraqi security guards, but the main coordinator of those security guards was a former Australian SAS bloke. I will call him Dave and he was fantastic and professional. I’d seen them briefly operating out in the Western desert of Iraq. Working with Dave and a second SAS guy who came in to replace him, was just thoroughly professional. Very understated. We had to tease stories out of him. These aren’t guys who tend to brag. Talking to these guys, I thought the SAS was something. Our military should be very proud of.
There’s one other thing about this violence that comes easily and I want to unpack your perspective. Based on what you have experienced in that part of the world or wars in general. What is it that makes war or violence come easily in war and become acceptable? For some context, speaking of my own experience, how easily one gets desensitised.
As a ten-year-old in Sarajevo under siege, the first time I heard of someone dying, I was devastated. I cried. It was horrible. Within weeks, you hear of somebody dying every day. It just becomes second nature. You become desensitised to what war does. I wonder if that’s something similar to that desensitisation that also comes with violence.
War inserts itself into the fabric of some societies. The Middle East is the crucible of much of our civilisation, but it’s also a place where the worst of human nature has manifested itself for generations thousands of years. I didn’t know anyone in Israel or Palestine who didn’t know someone who died in the violence. The saddest thing about it was, as a journalist, I was allowed to cross the front lines all the time. I could wake up on the Israeli side of Jerusalem. I could go to Gaza for the day and spend the day in Gaza. A Gazan could not leave and go to Israel and an Israeli couldn’t go to Gaza.
How do you stop the violence when two sides who live next door to each other don’t understand each other? Going into Iraq, I had these wonderful fixers, but they are local journalists who help you out. They translate for you. They find interviewees for you. They get you places. His name was Sadi. I got talking to him about his background and he fought in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, which was just a blood bath. He said he’d fought there. He’d fought in the first Gulf War against the Americans. He’s lucky to survive that as well. Now this new war was coming, which he supported. He wanted Saddam Hussein out. That lasted for years and the violence then kicked off within Iraq itself. Iraqis began killing Iraqis. It became part of that fabric. It was horrific.
He died. He was quite young. He was only in his early 60s. I spoke to his son when he died. His heart gave out. It was just too much. He just lived his whole life in war, literally. He had the scars on his body. He had this big gash in his head where a bit of shrapnel had hit him in the Iran-Iraq War. You hoped that the Bush War would probably bring peace and stability instead of bringing chaos and murder. I’m a bit of a pessimist if you ask me about the Middle East. I can’t see any resolution to what’s happening over there.
I’m a bit of a pessimist full stop. The drums of war are beating. I agree. I was in Iraq in 2018 as a civilian supporting development efforts as a consultant. The mind boggles how little we understand of the ecosystem that is Iraq. Not just to myself and my organisation, but also to many of the much bigger, larger, and stronger organisations like the UN or World Bank and so on. How little do we understand or still understand the actual local context which is the mind just boggles.
From there, you then spent some years in Japan. To maybe pivot towards the book, what then drove you? Sorry, I just make a point. I’m not dismissing your Japanese experience at all because I’m sure that would be interesting in the interest of time. What then brought you to Afghanistan and how did this book come about?
I got back from Japan and that had been an interesting time, given the earthquake and tsunami. The nuclear meltdowns. It had been quite a busy five years in Japan. I wanted to refocus my journalism. I’d done a lot of investigative journalism in Japan into what led to the nuclear disaster there. It wasn’t just a natural disaster. It was manmade as well because of corruption and negligence.
I was asked to join this new investigative unit when I got back from Japan in early 2014. The ABC was committing a lot of money to investigative journalism. I joined that unit. We were doing stories on everything from the biggest environmental contamination in Queensland to police corruption and criminal underworld gangs.
We had a team on the Afghanistan war crime story. The allegations were swirling around. They wanted some extra help. I was just another set of hands to help our team. How it all began is a colleague who’d gotten hold of a bunch of documents from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, from the period of around 2010 through to 2012 and 2013.
I got hold of these documents that are mainly in Pashto and Dari. I got them translated and compared dates and locations with what was publicly available about where the Australians were and what they were doing. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of publicly available information about specific operations. There was one that related to a village called Sarkhume.
I’d read about that in Chris Masters’ very comprehensive book, No Front Line, that there’d been these two Afghans killed in Sarkhume. The documents we had from the Afghan Human Rights Commission suggested that these two deaths were of insurgents or any Taliban and that these were civilians. One of them had been beaten to death, which sounded a bit strange to me.
With our unit, we don’t just publish unverified documents, even though they have come from an official human rights commission that’s affiliated with the United Nations. It’s a very well-respected commission over there in Afghanistan. We sent Afghan journalists to the village. We didn’t tell them what information we had. We just asked them to go and ask about a certain incident that happened in 2012. Give us some names and tell us what happened. They did that.
They came back. Again, they weren’t prompted, they weren’t given names, and they weren’t told how people were killed. They came back with the same anecdotes as were outlined in the Human Rights Commission investigation report. They came back with the same names. We thought that was interesting. We went to the Defence Force. We knew the Brereton inquiry was underway and the Defence Force would not comment while that was underway.
We ran the story, that these were allegations coming from Afghanistan, that civilians had been killed. One in particular, as I said, quite brutally. After that went to air, I received an email from an anonymous person, but it was very clear from this person and they stated it, that they had been at that village in that operation. They were part of a SAS patrol.
Was that a response to the story that had come out? The email came after that story, too.
That’s right. This person had read my story online. With each online story, we embed our email addresses. If you want to contact us with any more tips or information, you can, so this person has done that. The information that this person provided was extremely detailed. It went to some of the allegations that we didn’t put in the story that we couldn’t verify, but it matched them. I knew immediately that we were dealing with a source who was part of that rotation through Afghanistan, the SOTG, who knew the personality. I wrote back to the source. They provided more information. They provided photos from that rotation.
A relationship developed. I never pushed very hard with the source. I didn’t ask for their name immediately. I didn’t ask for any details. I just write back with a couple of questions and the source would write back and say, “I can tell you this.” The source is very upfront. If they didn’t know something, they said, “I don’t know what’s going on there. I didn’t hear that or I didn’t see that. I don’t know that person.” Something weird happened. Your worst nightmare is when you have interesting or informed sources and all of a sudden email stops. That made me very concerned. I reached out a few times and didn’t hear anything. I thought, “I have blown it.” I have maybe said something.
Then all of a sudden, an email came from a different email address. The source had simply forgotten. It was him. His login. It was something similar to that. We re-established contact and I thought, “I have had a bit of a scare there. Maybe it’s time to meet him.” I arranged to fly interstate and meet the source.
That’s the genesis of the book.
It was the genesis of the Four Corners story. I waited for the source. The source is quite happy for me to explain who that is now, and that was Braden Chapman. Braden Chapman was a signals intelligence operator who served on that rotation with three squadron SAS. He’d gone out on dozens of missions. A few of the guys that I’d eventually talked to, he’d come back from that particular rotation. Uneasy about some of the stuff he’d seen and a little bit disturbed.
He’d done another rotation the following year with the Americans at Bagram Airport. He went back to Perth. Eventually, he’s discharged. He provided me with a load of photographs and videos. He said that I could have a look through them and do what I want with them. That’s where the Killing Field, Four Corners came from.
I went through each of those videos meticulously. Frame by frame, I listened to every bit of dialogue. There was a lot to get through. After the first week or so, it was one Friday evening and I was in the office, and that’s where that particular video, sprang up like every other video. It starts with a patrol on a Blackhawk, they land. It ends with, “Do you want me to drop this?” You know what that starts with thin T ends in T, three times and then the killing of that Afghan in the field. That was the genesis of the Four Corners.
Braden Chapman agreed to go on camera, fully identified, and talk about what he’d seen as well. After that Four Corners, I just got inundated by people who’d served overseas, ex-SAS operators, medics, signals intelligence, and intelligence offices who’d served with SOTG. I suppose, the wealth of material that came through after that, meant that I kept reporting to the ABC. It was suggested to me, that maybe a book was a better way of putting it all down and trying to explore what it all meant.
One of the criticisms that I’m sure you have been already challenged on is the inevitable question. Why did you not wait to publish the book or the report given that the inquiry was already going on? Until we figure out what has happened on the ground in a court of law potentially because that’s one of the questions that many, certainly me, that I have spoken to in the ADF have about both the report as in the Four Corners’ Killing Field report, as well as the book.
That people are entitled to that. We are not called the Fourth Estate the media for no reason. If we don’t have journalists doing their jobs, then we don’t have the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Nixon. If we don’t have journalists doing their reports, we don’t have the Fitzgerald inquiry in my home state of Queensland that led to the downfall of Bjelke-Petersen and the reform of a whole political and police system.
I believe that journalism can operate in tandem with official inquiries. To be honest, without the Four Corners, the Brereton Inquiry does not have that footage. It does not have access to that footage and what comes out of that footage. We know that inquiry was helped greatly by that particular program and other stories that we have done.
The problem with justice is, that the wheels of justice turn very slowly. If you take the media out of the equation, I don’t think we are going to achieve everything that should be achieved in service of justice. If my journalism is irresponsible, then I will pay. I will pay either through the defamation suits that will follow, potentially, if I have defamed someone. If I’m in contempt, then I will be charged. If I have stolen things, then I’m sure the IFP could kick down my front door. Now, none of those things have happened either with the Four Corners or the book, because it was all done through the help of former regiment people, members of SOTG, and people who believe that this needs to come out.The wheels of justice turn very slowly. If you take the media out of the equation, there is nothing to be achieved in the service of justice. Click To Tweet
The media is one way of doing that. Brereton has done a pretty meticulous, complex and very good job. However, the Brereton report is not the be-all and end-all. It does not finish the process. As we have seen, it’s come out and said, “We think that there should be 39 killings. We recommend a certain number of cases.” It was 36 matters were investigated by the AFP. To be honest, that’s going to take years. I don’t think we can just pull down the shutters of journalism and go, “Let’s wait and see what happens.”
I don’t intend to be combative because I have stated my position on all of this quite clearly through an article and in my show. One of my biggest personal concerns is that I don’t think we can ever fight a war without war crimes. I don’t think there has ever been a war without war crimes. That’s just the nature of war. As we alluded to in the Middle East in particular, violence comes easily and we become desensitised to war. This is more of a disclaimer for my audience that I don’t mean to throw out those in the videos under the bus. I want justice to take its course and for them to answer what they need to answer too.
One of the things that I also want to touch on is speaking about the environment. It strikes me as though in the book, a lot of the characters in the book are part of the unit, but are not fully fledged qualified operators. Did you get a chance to speak to qualified operators? What were their thoughts on the general narrative that the book projects? Why didn’t you have more operator voices on the pages?
I spoke to a good half a dozen operators. One of the main characters was Tom. He’s throughout the book. I talked to one of the operators who is accused of crimes, and I spent a bit of time with him. I made sure that when I spoke and wrote about him, it wasn’t just Black and White. As you said, every war attracts or generates war crimes. I found him a fascinating man and I gave him plenty of space in the book I have spoken to. I suppose Andrew Hastie was another operator I spoke to. I spoke to at least three others for the book, who’d served during that period but who didn’t want to be named. I did reach out to as many as I could, and as you’d appreciate not everyone was a fan of what I was trying to do and what I was trying to get to the bottom of, so you are right.
There were at least, I’d have to say, 6 to 7 operators who helped me out with the book, both on the record and off the record. One of the other main characters, Dusty Miller was a SAS medic not very qualified. Braden Chapman signals intelligence operator, is not very qualified. However, what I found interesting is that it was the support staff from SASR who had a particular view and who seemed to be the most burdened by what they saw. I will quote Andrew Hastie here, and I think he answers the question. This is not across SASR, but these are this is 2012 and 2013 when things didn’t go very well.
This is what I expected when he joined the SAS, were people who were exceptional soldiers who were able to think outside the box and were prepared to circumvent the chain of command like David Stirling did in the Western Desert during World War II to fill a mission. I get there, and it feels more like a bikie gang. There is no freedom of all at all. You are treated like garbage if you don’t conform. There was the idea that the culture had been hijacked. To me, it is interesting that the support staff were the ones who on a lot of occasions blew the whistle.
I will ask you the question as opposed to my interpretation. How do you explain that it was them?
I think they weren’t part of the bikie gang culture that Andrew Hastie mentioned. Hastie wasn’t the only one who used the phrase “bikie gang culture.” I had an intelligence officer who served over there, who was very close with the SAS, who used it. I had even a former general tell me that’s what he thought the culture had become.
These guys sat outside the culture because they were not very qualified. They are not treated like one of the gang if you like. From their perspective, they stood outside that culture and therefore were more independent witnesses. I think it’s very tough for people who were operators to blow the whistle. I asked one operator, “Why didn’t you blow the whistle?” I will quote him, “I was in fear for my life.”
They were talking about throwing members out of the helicopters because they weren’t toeing the line. If they can shoot an innocent man in the back of the head just for the sake of killing someone, they can throw you out of a helicopter. I turned to another SAS member who was with him that day, and I said, “Come on. Surely that’s a little bit over the top.” This other SAS member said no. There were a few guys there who were unhinged was his word. Now, the vast majority of SAS operators and support staff, any member of the SAS, I found honourable, decent professional people of integrity. I have no problem with that.
The problem was, was that these few individuals, generally, at the patrol commander level were so corrupt. I think that they were able to poison the culture, particularly on those couple of rotations that we talked about in 2012 and into 2013, I think that’s when things went off the rails. That’s been well-documented, not just by me, but by Brereton and by other journalists, Nick McKenzie, for example, and Chris Masters.The vast majority of SAS operators and support staff are decent professional people of integrity. The problem lies with the patrol commander level that poisons the culture with their corruption. Click To Tweet
I echo a lot of what you are saying, particularly the notion that most SAS people that I have ever met are nothing but noble and inspirational. Some of my closest friends have and still lose service in that unit. I can certainly echo that sentiment. I was also in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, and I have worked in support of SOTG myself, so I can also understand some of the other elements about not being part of the club. I wasn’t exposed to any of the less appealing sides of the unit, because I was an outsider. I can certainly empathise with some of those sentiments.
My concern again is that we focus on the few bad apples. In my experience and the way I see the world, I find that that is almost perhaps making the problem seem too little because I’m a firm believer that we are a product of our environment and that there’s a path that one gets to. Watching the video Killing Field, I have no doubt that anyone in Australian society who thinks about such things deeply will come to the conclusion that what we saw in that video is morally unjustifiable. However, just focusing on that individual soldier misses something. We need to, as a society, explore how an Australian soldier came to think that that was okay.
I have heard it 1,000 times. There are circumstances where we need to understand what circumstances have led him to act in a way that for him then seemed justifiable. It’s not about the focus on the soldier per se to blame, punish, cast out, and banish him. We need to invest time and effort to understand what has led him to become so desensitised to violence, war and death that pulling the trigger at that point in time seemed the appropriate action. This is what we need to explore. I don’t know how you feel about that. To what extent do you think your book accounts for the environment that our soldiers live and breathe, particularly our soldiers like the SAS? Do you think that the book touches on that sufficiently or how do you see it?
It does. The book gets into culture. It gets into that desensitisation. It gets into what are the conditions that created the ability for that guy in that field to go, “Do you want me to drop this three times?” Not only that. Looking back at that footage, that guy is no threat. If he was a threat, he’d be dead. If he was a threat, why did that soldier swivel around, and take his eyes off him at least two times? It was poor soldiering on top of being a war crime in the end. The fact that the book gets into not just the killings, but guns, radios, and icons being planted on the bodies after the killings. This is something that goes beyond a war crime. They are covering up for war crimes.
It talks about, “How did they think they could get away with this? Why were they getting away with it? Why was the culture that tight so no one could blow the whistle on them?” The other thing about it the book looks at the other issues here. I agree with you, that we need to look at it very broadly, but if you look at something like blooding that Brereton pulled up, this is when your target compounds are secured. The local nationals have secured their pucks persons under control. According to Brereton, the patrol commander would take the puck and the junior member of the patrol and would then be directed to kill the person under control.
This is not what Australian soldiers stand for. Yes, war crimes happen in war, one thing flows from the other. The book tries to understand and tries to paint a portrait of why this happens. If we take the Killing Field video that we saw, the strategic flow on effects of that were profound. The guy that killed in the field that day had a fourteen-year-old brother, his name was Jamshed. His immediate reaction was to go out and try and join the Taliban. Now, the Taliban said, “Boy, you are too small. You are too young. Come back.” He did. He went back a few years later and he’s now a commander in Uruzgan. These acts have consequences. It’s not just the taking of a life, it’s the creation of these monsters.
One of the most poignant things I have heard and it came out of the tapes I got that I listened to. I have been out in the green for a long hard slog of a day, and they are out in a plane. It was four Black Hawks worth of SAS patrols. They are sitting around waiting for the Black Hawks to come and pick them up. One SAS operator turns to another and just says, “We are not trying to win the war anymore.” Now, that comment probably explains more about what went wrong than any strategic report written by a general back at headquarters.
That’s my issue. Right there you are saying, because I keep saying that in this show. I have addressed this point so many times. I often say that we never fought the war we thought we fought. From the soldier’s perspective, we don’t account for what impact the soldier’s mental state and the loss of purpose or vision had on them. We don’t talk about that. That frustrates me a little bit because what we hear right now in the media is hanging out these few bad apples. We need to punish them because then the rest of us can sit here on our moral high horse professing our civility. What we don’t do is we don’t look at those who send us to war.
Under what conditions did they send us to war? What mission did they give us? What rotational setup did we have? How many hours of sleep did our soldiers have? We know the impact sleep alone has on our moral compass. We know what impact the loss of somebody close to you has on your moral compass. We know from decades of research what impact war and the surrounding of war has on somebody’s moral compass. We don’t talk about that. That scares me as we will have a few soldiers. They will go and get tried in a court of law. They will go and serve whatever if they are found guilty and we just crack on.
It feels as if we are missing a key piece of this puzzle. What I try to argue in some of my discussions is that if we understand that in war shit will happen. If we accept that as an axiom or as a self-evident truth we know that in war, bad crap will happen. Soldiers will do bad things that then behove us to go upstream and do everything possible to prevent the need or the want to send our soldiers to war.
Despite all of our Geneva conventions or of our beloved just war theory, time and time again, we know that the longer you are in war, the more exposed you are to war, and the more desensitised you are to war. Therefore, the more likely it is someone will do something that just doesn’t go well with our moral compass. We do that from the comfort of without understanding that context.
That’s a fair point and I made the point in the book. It’s the guys that pull the triggers are the ones that always going to comment. I will read it to you. “We elected successive governments who sent these soldiers back to Afghanistan. We pinned medals on them and sent them back again. The war broke them and we sent them back again. Those governments as always escaped the blame for conflicts like Afghanistan for the civilian casualties, for the shattered lives of Afghans and Australians alike. The Brereton inquiry’s terms of reference could never extend to the role or responsibility of these successive governments in contributing to the conditions that term some soldiers into murderers.”
“Not a single former defence minister who was in office during the Afghanistan conflict stuck their head up in the wake of the Brereton reports release. We in the media must also wear our fair share of the blame. Sections of the media glorified the Special Forces holding them up to be invulnerable superheroes they could never be. We wrote and broadcast puff pieces about valour and victory about selflessness and sacrifice. We exalt the virtues of a war that had long ago lost its strategic and moral imperative.” Those points are very valid and they have to be raised.
Where are you quoting that from? That’s beautiful. Is that in the book?
That’s in my book from Rogue Forces.
I love that. I have read the book and I have tagged dozens of pages. I apologise that I didn’t recognise it immediately. I couldn’t agree more with that.
The government exploited our soldiers in Afghanistan. They were very keen to turn them into superheroes to pin metals on them when the brown stuff hits the fan, which it has with the allegations of war crimes in Brereton. Where is the government? Where is the former Defence Minister sticking his hand up saying, “Under my leadership as Defence Minister or as Prime Minister, we should have looked harder at how we’d lost our way in Afghanistan.” That’s the problem, and again the media as well. Some of the greatest damage in the media done to our veterans isn’t done by investigative journalism. It’s done by that mainstream media that puffs things up and turns everyone into a hero. You are a hero, and you can’t question anything about these soldiers.The government exploited the soldiers in Afghanistan. They were keen to turn them into superheroes to pin medals on them. Click To Tweet
Do you know who does a disservice the most? Are those soldiers who have had the courage to come back to this country and say, “I saw things that were unacceptable, and I’m now going to call them out.” Those soldiers get no support from the media because that media doesn’t want to hear anything bad. I have been called the vilest things under the sun, and I have got thick skin sticks and stones. Every time I hear that about me, I think, “Hang on. What about those soldiers, the operators, signals, intelligence guys, and medics support staff generally who had the courage to speak out and to say, ‘This isn’t what Australia represents, and these things that happen shouldn’t have happened?’”
That’s our clickbait culture. I will ask you as a journalist, is our fourth estate broken? Especially, because of that very point you just made that we chase headlines and sound bites. We need to release before time. I’m not here talking about investigative journalism. I’m talking about our mainstream day-to-day journalism that creates the narratives that propagate in our social discourse.
Most of it is broken, and most of it I don’t even bother to read anymore. It’s offensive to your intellect. To be honest, chasing ratings and clicks is not always the healthiest way to gauge what good journalism is as you appreciate. You throw social media in there.
It finds you in your pocket. You don’t even have to go looking for it. It beeps at you and it tells you, “Look at this, read this.” That’s something already addressed and we will continue particularly to address that very point, the dangers of social media. I do. I just want to come to that point because I want to highlight something. That is this last piece we talked about, the upstream causes that ultimately lead to what we know will at some point happen that we don’t address. I blame myself here. I feel guilty for not having picked up and highlighted that quote from your book because, in my view, that should be the headline of the book.
The discussion is that this is the consequence of our failure up to the top here. This is what leads to it. What happened to your book correct me if I’m wrong here, I have read it. It’s a horrible way to say, I enjoyed it, not in the sadistic sense, but I enjoyed it because of the illuminating nature it has and the powerful impact that I hope it will continue to have because these are raw stories that need to be discussed. We need to have these discussions. What I’m seeing is that there are two narratives. There’s a narrative in your book that people don’t want to even touch it. We have seen the social media posts of people burning your book and hiding it in bookstores and all that stuff.
There’s the other side of things, which almost embraces the book as a, “Here’s our proof that Australian soldiers are murderers and that we shouldn’t be going to any of these wars. The ADF is bad.” Oftentimes a lot of those people haven’t read the book either which I find fascinating that there are competing narratives, and these are the ones that have been captured in media and social media, but a lot of those haven’t read the book, which is just beyond me. I find that people who have read the book, those that I have had a chance to speak to who have read the book have had a far more nuanced approach to this and a far more reserved response as opposed to a mere emotional response. What have you found so far?
I can tell you I have been contacted by former and serving SASR members. They have all described from operators to support staff who have said, “I have read your book, it hurt to read, but I thought it was fair.” I had one who was an operator say to me, “I thought it was sympathetic.” That’s the thing that bothers me. People burning books, one guy shuts the cover of it, and everyone is hiding in bookstores. I have no problem with you burning my book or shutting it up if you have read it. Please read it. If you still think it’s the most skewed biased piece of reportage you have ever come across, then feel free to do what you want with it.
The people I trust most, and the people whose opinions count most are the people who have either served on the SOTG rotations or with SASR. I thought it was a bit unfair, but the vast majority have been very supportive. It’s part of what the regiment needs. The regiment is seriously something worth celebrating within the ADF and Australian society more generally. Like any institution, it lost its way there for a little while. There’s no doubt about that. What organisation had a Cock of the Year award in which they could humiliate some member of their team and the offices and the generals all cheered along?
That to me represents a pretty obvious breakdown that things are heading in the wrong direction. Something that could have been a bit humorous and a bit of a piss take has turned into something toxic, nasty, and something you’d see in Mean Girls. I’m pretty happy with the response I have had to the book from people who count. A lot of others have thought it pretty funny to go hide it in bookshops and burn it. To me, that’s a very juvenile response and that’s more reflective of them than anything I have done.
I couldn’t agree more. Juvenile is the right term for it because it removes you from the discussion straight away. It makes you look like a tool. It does because I don’t think you deserve a seat at the table. After all, all you are doing is you are fuelling these narratives of the extreme. One of the problems that we have is that this is so closely tied to identity, and when you are attacking people’s identity, it could be people in SAS could be people in uniform more broadly. The moment and what this book does is create a perception of targeting the identity of the people in the unit or the ADF more broadly. It’s very easy for people to respond non-rationally. That’s what we are seeing.
The example you bring up about the Cock of the Year award, I don’t know about that. I have never been to the unit. I have never served anything like that. I know from people in the unit that I’m sure, and much like other things in the ADF that have a positive genesis of creating a more egalitarian chain of command, having poking fine at the leadership, which in a jovial sense is oftentimes a good part of a unit.
I was part of a unit that very much embraced those types of things where soldiers were okay to have a dig at the offices and so on. It never went to that point but there was a positive aspect. What you are highlighting is there is this sliding scale downwards. If we don’t have checks and balances in place, that ultimately will lead to behaviours that we don’t condone.
You are right. In all organisations, you can have a bit of a piss take, and people in authority have got to wear it that’s part of these little rituals. The Cock of the Year became a weapon that the NCOs would use. In one case, it’s in the book a junior officer was humiliated because he’d called them out while in Afghanistan. He wasn’t happy with some of the standards, and he was upset by the drinking. It was used as a tool of revenge. The gulf between doing that and just having a bit of fun at the end of the year had moved too far. That was why the Cock of the Year award had come to symbolise some of the things that had gone wrong.
That makes absolute sense to me. One of the other things that I want to pick up on, and I’m ticking these things off because I want to be fair to those whom I have spoken to in defence who have highlighted what they thought were their concerns. I thought I would use this opportunity to speak to you as a member of the defence to ask you some of these questions because it is a touchy subject and one that I want us to have a conversation about. I’m wearing some risk here as well because I’m trying to straddle a rather sensitive subject whilst inside ADF, and I wear the uniform. What do you think is the legacy of your book?
I hope the legacy of the book is that we can learn the lessons of how the most elite of the elite can slip. There are a number of reasons for that. The other thing I’d like people to take out of this is I’m not just blaming the trigger pullers, the guys who are accused of these crimes, as you have highlighted yourself. Where was their patrol leadership, their squadron, the regimental, the ADF, and the political leadership? Where is the media’s responsibility here?
It’s a great case study to show that if you let a few toxic individuals behave in the way they behaved in Afghanistan that can have massive repercussions for the entire organisation. Also, there were conditions created in the regiment whereby if you tried to raise these issues or you even hinted that something was wrong, then you were the one who was punished. That was the theme that kept coming at me.
The book represents the good people who are truly at the heart and the ethos of the SAS, and that’s the vast majority of them. If people read the book, once they close it, they finish that final page. If they are reasonable and rational-minded people, they will think, “This is a great organisation, but it lost its way, and the time has come to reform it.” We know already that those reforms are underway and that there are good people in the organisation trying to do the right thing. The SAS will again be something that we should be extremely proud of in this country.
Many within the organisation or special forces more broadly are throwing a bit of mud your way about the alleged impunity that you were able to publish things that are unproven still in the court of law and because of that, you have destroyed countless lives. I have seen some of this criticism on your social media profiles. How do you feel about that or what would you say to those people?
I’d say that everything in that book is extremely well-sourced with multiple sources. If not all, I’d have to double-check the incidents that are recounted in that book, and have at least one, if not more eyewitnesses who were there. The other thing is we discount the Afghan side of things too, so they are definite eyewitnesses to every incident.
I have spent nearly two years investigating each of those incidents. We need to remember again, and as we talked about this a bit earlier, that the media does not have to get anything to a criminal standard of proof where a jury will convict. That is the role of prosecutors, the director of public prosecutions investigation services. The media has a role in this country to shine a bit of light on some of the darkest corners that we have.
That’s what this book does. The other thing I would say, too, whilst if you have served in SASR, you probably have a fair idea who most of these characters are the ones who have chosen not to be named. I have also deliberately not named anyone who is accused or alleged to have committed a war crime in the book. They have been given pseudonyms, whether it’s soldier, A, B, or C.
I realise that people within the regiment will know who they are. However, I again, have sourced it as well as I can, and I’m confident in everything I have reported. I have not received one defamation written out of this. The publisher has not received a single letter saying anything is inaccurate in the book. People are free to bring that up with me or the publisher if they believe it is.
I can say with great honesty, which you alluded to at the beginning of your introduction the stuff in this book has created investigations that are still ongoing and credible that if there wasn’t a certain standard of proof, the AFP or the Office Special Investigator, Brereton, or whoever it is would not have embarked upon those investigations. I stand by everything in that book.
That pleases me to know when to hear that you haven’t had formal complaints or defamations and so on about the book. That speaks to the existence of these competing narratives on rather extreme narratives that, in my view, missed the point that almost a background noise. I do have to press you on one point and that’s not in the book, but November Platoon with Heston Russell. I know Heston, I can’t say we are mates or close mates or anything like that, but I know him.
He’s been quite public and refuted some of the allegations against the report that it was you and a few other journalists made about his November Platoon alleged assassination of a prisoner before they went onto a chopper. Media Watch was quite critical of you as well because the backbone of the story is not eyewitness, it’s hear witness evidence from a US loadmaster on the chopper. How do you feel about that whole story? What’s happened there?
Media Watch made some mistakes, which we will be asking for correction in 2023. Specifically, one of the main issues that I will bring up with Media Watch and Heston Russell is that if people want to read that story, can someone point out in the story where I accuse the November Platoon of killing the prisoner? That is something that Heston Russell outed himself with after the story went to air. That’s interesting in itself.
At no point, the only reference to November Platoon in that story was a member of two commandos in Oscar Platoon saying that the Drug Enforcement Administration, the DEA that was running those counternarcotics operations after 1 or 2 missions or after a while didn’t want to work with November Platoon, which was something I had confirmed in the United States. That’s the only reference.
Heston Russell came out in The Daily Telegraph after that and said, “He’s talking about my platoon and me and whatever.” The ABC is working through a complaint that Heston Russell lodged with the ABC, and that’s fair enough. One thing I found a bit disappointing is that Heston Russell lodged that complaint and then went on 2GB and all over social media without giving ABC an opportunity to respond to that complaint. We will respond to that complaint and we stand by the story. There were multiple sources for that story including the US Marine who was a door gunner at the time. Other sources in the United States and Australia. The other misnomer here is that that is not being investigated that incident.
That was a little bit of misinformation spread around by I don’t know whom, that the defence is not investigating. The defence is not investigating. The defence has no role in investigating alleged incidents in Afghanistan. I can say with 100% certainty that the incident is being investigated. Other than that, Heston Russell deserves from ABC’s point of view to have his criticism of his complaint answered properly. That’s still being worked through. I won’t go into any more detail other than to say that we stand by the story.
I appreciate you saying that. I feel somewhat sheepish that I haven’t looked at insufficient detail because the narrative surrounding it is the claim was that it was a member platoon, which speaks to the bigger problem. I prepared for this interview as much as one could think, but I failed to prepare sufficiently. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to throw myself under the bus here. I’m just trying to highlight the point that is unsurprising, therefore, that most in the general public have a misunderstanding of what’s going out there and what is credible information.
It’s very easy to muddy the waters here. The other thing that I found interesting is that the story went to air in October 2020. I believe ABC got the complaint from Heston Russell in November 2022. About a year after the story went to air. It’s a very long time to elapse before a complaint comes in. Normally people who feel they have been hard done by wronged, defamed, or whatever lodge a complaint much sooner than that. I will note that Heston Russell has declared operating a political party and running for public office. I don’t know what that all means, but I did find the timing of the complaint rather curious. That’s something for Heston Russell to explain, perhaps.
I have read a response to why he delayed, and it was on the ABC website the correspondence thing. It’s not my place to cast doubt on Heston. I wish him all the best. The ABC and you, as you highlighted, are doing the right thing in responding to all these things because it shedding light on all of these things, as I’m hoping to do here in this discussion is what we need to do. We need to give people the time and space to have a dialogue about these things unless we find ourselves in a situation where we don’t even know what we are talking about. The story has come off the rails so much that we are not even arguing about the point that’s important.
I highlight your attempts now and in the past and in the book to build a bridge with the Special Forces community. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily what I’m hearing in the social media space because you are rightly highlighting the issues that these are merely the consequences of issues that we have, which are far more upstream.
Also conscious of our time, and I don’t want to keep you much longer, but while I have you, I must exhaust my opportunity. Looking at our institution of defence, in your view, based on your understanding as an investigator journalist, there is somebody who’s been around Canberra around now war for many years, conflict defence. Firstly, what is our biggest problem from your view, and how do we fix it? How do we improve the noble institution the defence is?
I, for the book, wanted to sit down with the Chief of Defence, Angus Campbell, and the Chief of Army, Rick Burr, and talk through these sorts of issues. After I put in my formal request to speak to them and to visit some facilities, I was told that they would politely decline all of my requests. I found that disappointing. Maybe that hints also at a little bit of why there are problems. There seems to be, I suppose, a little bit of inertia amongst the defence leadership on some of these issues. I know the greatest anger surrounding Brereton, and while most people think the Brereton inquiry did a good job. I’m one of them.
This isn’t my criticism, but the main criticism that people had of the Brereton report was that no one up the chain of command or any responsibility other than perhaps alluding to the fact that there were too many rotations and people were sent back when maybe they shouldn’t have been. Maybe all of those people in those very senior positions should have put their hand up and said, “In hindsight, we didn’t get this right.” That lack of accountability is something that’s annoyed a lot of people, particularly within the regiment and Special Forces more broadly. How to fix ADF? I don’t know. That would be a very thick book to write. All I would say is a lot of people down the chain feel let down by those higher up.
I will echo that. I’m cautious of what I’m saying here. I also have to acknowledge that I’m a serving member and my show is defence approved. I have said my thanks in an episode to the ADF and Army in particular for not putting a leash on whom I can and cannot talk. Perhaps that might be an indication of defence realising that these are important conversations and we need to have them.
Maybe while we can’t publicly acknowledge it at least in the discussion I’m having in my circle of peers, we are talking about these points. We are trying to unpack not just Afghanistan, but more broadly, our relationship to conflict and war. Our government’s relationship to the ADF and our government’s ability to send our soldiers forth with effective impunity.
All of these things are important and we need to discuss these because if we don’t, we find ourselves in situations like the one you so skilfully highlighted. On that note, I do want to thank you, firstly, for giving me the time but also for giving me the trust to come on. Regardless of how this interview goes, I know I will get criticism from members of my communities that I didn’t push you hard enough on certain things or that I let you slide here or there, and that I should have asked you this. I have read the book. I respect what the book is trying to do. I respect what the intent behind the book is. I also appreciate how certain members of the defence community are taking the book.
We, as a society, need to read the book and discuss its true intent, and I will stress again, as opposed to feeling like all we are doing is hanging a few bad apples out to dry so that the rest of us in our highly civilised and ethical society can sit back and wash our hands and say, “We have done our civil duty by throwing those a few bad apples into jail.”
It’s much bigger than that. It’s a much bigger war and a much bigger topic than such a simple narrative and supposed solution. I do want to thank you for being brave to push it out there and to face the criticism. Before we wrap up, I do want to ask. You have made the point that you have tough skin, but how are you managing all of the heat that you are getting for the book and the report? I suspect you have had a lot.
The social media abuse, the messages are in the 1,000s. You never like to see videos of your book being burnt, hidden in bookshops, shut, or whatever it is. I don’t feel so much sorry for myself or down on anything personal like that, I feel more disappointed that people would respond like that. We are a very lucky country, and that luck and this wonderful place that we live in have made us a little bit lazy intellectually and a bit apathetic. Therefore, when something challenges your worldview, rather than trying to absorb it or understand it, in the case of the book, we burn it. We have had a guy charged for threatening my family, leaving a voicemail message on my phone, and threatening to cut my wife’s throat.
I just think that stuff disappoints me from the perspective that I thought, as a nation, we were bigger than that. If we don’t agree with ideas, then we don’t agree with them, but at least we have read them or we have talked about them, or we have debated them. Unfortunately, the thing that gets me down the most is that some people have a very loud megaphone these days called social media, and they will broadcast their ignorance and stupidity to and sundry when perhaps they should just sit down and read the book.Some people use social media as loud megaphones to broadcast their ignorance and stupidity to the world. What they need to do is sit down and read a book. Click To Tweet
That’s a wonderful note to end on, not just your book but any book, that’s time well spent rather than browsing social media. Thank you so much. I appreciate you giving me so much of your time and having a chat about this all-too-important topic.
Thanks. It’s been good. I appreciate your time.