Chain of command breaks when esteem outstrips rank on the battlefield

Exposure of a war criminal within the ranks is an onerous and telling revelation for the Australian Defence Force. But the damage must be counterbalanced by the fact that Ben Roberts-Smith was actually called out by many of his colleagues, a reflection of the integrity and courage they displayed while the Victoria Cross winner was lionised and backed by some of Australia’s most influential men.

But his fall from grace after Federal Court Justice Anthony Besanko found he had murdered unarmed citizens while serving in Afghanistan has raised serious questions about enablers and the chain of command that allowed such war crimes to be committed and go unpunished for so long.

Roberts-Smith lost his defamation case this week against , and in a trial that was never going to address the question of command accountability. But as one of the reporters who broke the Roberts-Smith story, Chris Masters points out, there were insights on officers’ involvement, knowledge and responsibility from the testimony of the 41 witnesses.

Masters paints a picture of an SAS brotherhood where esteem on the battlefield outstripped rank, and the officers went along with it. The ADF’s 2020 Brereton report found 25 Australians were involved in killings that had been covered up, and it was sergeants, corporals and lower ranks who pulled the trigger in these incidents – feeling unencumbered by their official orders from above. Often these soldiers, particularly in the Special Air Services Regiment, had commendations and were respected by their units which gave them a sense of protection.

Despite the lessons afforded by Brereton and Roberts-Smith on the culture of cover up, it appears to have little impact further up the ADF food chain.

Just a day before the Roberts-Smith judgment, Defence chief Angus Campbell told Senate estimates the United States embassy had written in 2021 informing him that American forces are legislatively prohibited from providing assistance to foreign units accused of gross violations of human rights, which could affect future cooperation with the SAS and Special Operations Command. Somewhat incredibly, he confirmed to senators he had not advised Defence Minister Richard Marles or his predecessors about the letter.

Such army reserve was once confined to awarding VCs. More than 60,000 Australians fought in Vietnam, while only 26,000 served in Afghanistan, yet four VCs were won in each theatre of war. In a 21st century media culture desperate for modern-day heroes, the ADF army hyped the Afghanistan-won medals, and Roberts-Smith became its poster boy.

Now a figure of national shame, Roberts-Smith was delusional in undertaking such self-destructive court action. But the motivation of his biggest patron and enabler, Kerry Stokes, is less clear. A former chair of the Australian War Memorial with a penchant for collecting Victoria Cross medals, Stokes is the chairman of the Seven Network who bankrolled Roberts-Smith’s defamation case.

In 2017, as the Brereton inquiry was investigating allegations that a small group within the elite SAS and commandos regiments killed and brutalised Afghan civilians, our Nick McKenzie reports that Stokes passed a sensitive document to the Chief of Army in what can be construed as a clear attempt to alert the brass that the media was unfairly circling his own personal VC holder.

McKenzie enumerates a number of occasions when Seven employees and consultants attempted to halt our investigation or denigrate soldiers who alleged they saw Roberts-Smith’s war crimes. Just last year, at Seven’s 2022 annual general meeting, Stokes attacked “scumbag journalists” for reporting on Roberts-Smith.

As a media boss, Stokes should be backing journalism rather than aiding and abetting a war criminal.

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