Australians should not dismiss war crimes scandal as just a few 'bad apples', expert says

The expert whose work triggered the Brereton inquiry has warned Australians against dismissing the Afghanistan war crimes scandal as the work of a “few bad apples” and expressed dismay at the tenor of the public debate since the report’s release.

The fallout from the Brereton report has focused in recent days on widespread anger over a plan to strip all special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan of their meritorious unit citation. Veterans have argued the collective should not be punished for the actions of the few.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has signalled he will have the final say on whether the citation is stripped and the Australian Defence Force seemingly backed down on Monday from its earlier position of recommending to the governor general that it be removed.

Dr Samantha Crompvoets – the military sociologist whose early internal report canvassed disturbing allegations of war crimes and triggered the Brereton inquiry – said she could not understand how anyone who read the report could come to the view that collective accountability was not needed.

“I just wonder how much people have read?” Crompvoets told Guardian Australia. “Some of the comments, I just think ‘Oh my God, have you actually read the report?’ I don’t know how you can read it and come away thinking ‘It’s just a few bad people’.”

Crompvoets said the meritorious unit citation was awarded for collective outstanding service, something that cannot stand in the face of credible evidence of war crimes and the alleged unlawful killing of 39 Afghan civilians.

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Any anger over the decision, she said, must be directed at the alleged perpetrators, not to defence leaders.

“The anger seems to be misplaced,” Crompvoets said. “This isn’t about the chief of the defence force or the chief of the army taking it from people. The anger needs to be at those alleged perpetrators who compromised that for everyone.

“It’s painful and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s the fault of those people who did that. The implications of what they did go beyond their individual merit. Like it or not, it has had far-reaching implications and it needs to be felt.”

Crompvoets said the report clearly showed that blame was shared well beyond the 19 alleged war criminals. Brereton’s inquiry found deep and systemic cultural problems, particularly within the Special Air Service regiment, that helped create an environment for alleged atrocities to occur and be covered up.

The pain and discomfort caused by the stripping of the citation may be necessary to address those more widespread failings, Crompvoets said.

“If we just say ‘Oh well it’s just those people’ and we move on … I just wonder does that pain and discomfort need to be felt quite extensively to make sure that this never happens again? To me, it seems reasonable.

“What does it really mean for us to now be arguing that that [citation] be upheld? What does it say about us as Australians or our values?”

On Tuesday, the Guardian revealed new images showing Australian special forces drinking from the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban fighter.

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The photographs show a senior soldier, still in the ADF, sculling from the leg in an unofficial bar known as the Fat Lady’s Arms. That bar was set up inside Australia’s special forces base in Uruzgan province in 2009.

Crompvoets, who spoke to the Guardian prior to the publication of the images, said the removal of the citation was not a disproportionate response from ADF leadership.

“It’s not about punishing everyone, it’s just one of the implications of the behaviour of a few.”



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