An investigation into civilian killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan raises various troubling questions
In the latest blow to the moral credibility of US-led military coalitions in the Middle East, evidence has surfaced that Western soldiers have been murdering locals in conditions far removed from the fog of war.
The allegations cover deliberate shootings and even throat slittings of captured personnel, so different from the various “collateral damage” killings by poorly aimed fire or mistaken airstrikes that have plagued coalition operations.
And the perpetrators were not just any soldiers, but troops from one of the most highly trained and respected units in the Western alliance.
In the wake of multiple allegations that soldiers – largely from the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment, but also two Commando Regiments – had unlawfully killed civilians in Afghanistan, the results of a four-year investigation carried out by Major General Paul Brereton were recently released by Canberra.
According to the Brereton inquiry, a toxic culture formed among SAS troops, who – untrammeled by higher command – went on a murder spree, killing 39 captives. Some 25 perpetrators have been identified. Of these, 19 are likely to be referred to prosecutors.
While no trials have yet taken place and no soldier has been found guilty, the allegations appear to have solid foundations.
And while veterans might seethe about ignorant oversight by civilians unfamiliar with the “Big Boys’ Rules” governing deadly combat, it important to note that the steps underway are being directed by the military.
Early research on the matter was commissioned by the then-commander of Australian Special Forces. And the Australian Defense Force has already acted, permanently striking the SAS Regiment’s 2nd Squadron from the army’s Order of Battle.
A nation that has taken justifiable pride in its soldiery since its troops won renown for their toughness in World War I is reeling from the allegations. China and Russia have already sniped, drawing rebukes from an embattled Canberra.
The controversy raises troubling questions. Did the elite and semi-secret nature of the units and related lack of oversight enable murderous behavior? And more broadly, how and why do troops from prosperous, sophisticated and “civilized” Western nations murder non-combatants?
Answers may be found in the tribal dynamics of closed military cultures, the ideological and racial dehumanizing mechanisms utilized by combat soldiers and the nature of counter-insurgency warfare.
The good news is that such incidences in modern militaries are extremely rare. The bad news is that there are linkages – in substance, albeit not in scale – between modern Western militaries and the blackest corps in modern history.
SAS commandos rappel from a Black Hawk helicopter during an Australian counterterrorism exercise in 2003. Photo: AFP
The “gold standard” for murderousness by Western soldiers in recent history was set by the Third Reich’s Waffen SS (“Armed SS”).
In popular culture they are often considered elite troops – and in a sense they were. The SS (Shutzshtaffel) was originally formed as a paramilitary bodyguard for Adolf Hitler. Under the aegis of the Nazi party, the organization expanded massively and Waffen SS units were formed as distinct from the regular Germany Army or Heer. With the primacy of armored warfare clear, the leading Waffen SS units morphed into panzer divisions.
As the fortunes of war turned against Germany following the catastrophe at Stalingrad in 1943, the leading Waffen SS panzer divisions were relentlessly deployed as “fire brigades,” spearheading the Reich’s offensives and rear-guarding its retreats in murderous battles such as Kharkov, Kursk, Cherkassy, Normandy and the Ardennes.
Since 1945, controversy has raged over the Waffen SS. Corps veterans, apologists, the hard right and some historians have painted the organization as distinct from the broader SS, which manned the roving death squads (Einsatzgruppen) and conducted the Holocaust at liquidation camps in Poland.
The Waffen SS, according to their theory, were “soldiers like any other.” Current research, however, tends toward the view that these politicized troops were responsible for a greater range of atrocities than the Heer.
Their brutalities ranged from massacres of Allied prisoners of war in the French campaign, to the casual murder of civilians and the liquidations of entire villages in the USSR, Italy, France and Belgium.
The Waffen SS were clearly not the Heer. They boasted their own military academy and their own rank structure. Although they served under Heer command, they ultimately answered to SS leader Heinrich Himmler.
They sported distinct black parade uniforms and combat camouflage emblazoned with a dual lighting flash on their collars and deaths head badges on their caps.
Troops of the 1st Waffen SS Division advance through Taganrog, USSR, in 1941. Photo: Wiki Commons
Australia’s SAS, hailing as they do from a liberal, democratic society, are a vastly different breed from the Nazis’ SS. They are also a far more specialized kind of soldier.
Rather than being armored quick reaction forces, they are “Tier 1” special forces (SF). Unlike the Waffen SS, whose divisions boasted strengths of 19,000 men, elite SF unit manpower tends to number in the low hundreds.
Most millennial Western SF units trace their training, tactics and heritage to the British commandos, and their more specialized spin offs, such as the SAS, of World War II.
Commandos made a fetish of physical fitness and skill-at-arms. Ruthlessness was at a premium. In Winston Churchill’s words, commandos were “specially-trained troops of the hunter class,” using “butcher-and-bolt” tactics.
Competencies extended well beyond light infantry tactics, to include skillsets – such as tracking, surreptitious movement and wilderness survival – required by hunters. And commandos employed weapons more commonly associated with gangsters than soldiers – explosives, tommy guns and stilettos.
Modern SF units follow not just these training protocols, but also a uniform practice of commandos with distinctive green berets to differentiating themselves from regular units with specific insignia, awarded after grueling selection processes.
And due to the specialized nature of their missions, they often come under separate command than regular units.
All this suggests that while SF units differ from the Waffen SS in terms of size, skillsets and missions, both represent – in terms of culture, appearance and chain of command – distinct intra-military tribes.
‘Othering’ the unit
The qualities that differentiate SF units from regular units are known to both.
“They are different and they know they are different and everyone else knows they are different, so are they treated differently,” said Michael Yon, a veteran of the US Special Forces, (“Green Berets”). “They are qualifiably different.”
Groups differentiated from their wider organization may operate beyond that organization’s norms.
“They can become isolated. They are special or think they are special, that the rules don’t apply,” said Alfred Johnson, a retired combat veteran of the US airborne forces.
Placed in hazardous situations, “it is a small tribe trying to survive,” said Johnson, who worked in social services with a specialization in violent crime after retirement from the military. “Norms change.”
That certainly seemed to be the case for the SAS units deployed in Afghanistan. And a common feature of hunte-warrior tribes is initiation rituals.
“All human tribes had these rite of passage rituals and they are dangerous as hell – jumping off hundred-foot cliffs into water, running through desert with a mouthful of water,” said Johnson. “When you begin to get into those rituals you are not living in a civilized world anymore.”
Initiations exist in the modern world in societies ranging from college fraternities to criminal gangs. Military units, too, have informal rituals that recruits are compelled to undergo that are distinct from official training/selection protocols.
“The more elite you get, the more extreme the initiation is going to be,” Johnson said. ”If you are a Navy SEAL, it is going to be extremely rough.”
The Brereton report alleges that SAS initiations were taken to a lethal extreme. Newcomers to the unit in Afghanistan were compelled to shoot prisoners. The process was dubbed “blooding” – a term originating in hunting – to acclimatize the soldiers to the act of killing.
This is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 will examine how military units “other” their enemies with racial or ideological terminology.
In preparation for D-Day, commandos in April 1944 practice close combat. Fitness, skill-at-arms, ruthlessness and “dirty tactics” – such as this knee to the groin – were priorities for these elite troops. Photo: AFP