Opinion – Who Defends our Defenders?

Last week Defence admitted former Lt Colonel Karel Dubsky was an innocent victim of the Jedi Council witch hunt that terminated his career and left him a shattered man. That makes it hard to miss the irony that another of nation’s defenders was led to the scaffold last week in the shape of Australia’s most decorated contemporary soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG.


In an extraordinarily tasteless article, Fairfax Media alleged Mr Roberts-Smith was being investigated for unspecified “breaches of the laws of armed conflict” in Afghanistan. It was claimed this was part of Major-General Paul Brereton’s wide-ranging trawl through 15 years of service by Australia’s special forces soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By Fairfax’s own admission, this inquiry is supposed to be conducted behind closed doors. There are very good reasons for this, not the least of which is that many of the operations in question were and remain classified. Another is that the evidence of such crimes is notoriously unreliable, especially when if comes from possible enemies.

The greatest difficulty, though, is the nature of war itself. Combat pits men against each other in circumstances where the exigencies of battle, and the need for self-preservation, often take precedence over the rules of war. This has always been so.

Claims of Australian soldiers killing surrendering Germans in the First World War were so prevalent that even Bean refused to dismiss them, and cited the “primitive bloodthirstiness” of battle for soldiers performing unseemly deeds.

In “Storming the Falklands”, former paratrooper Tony Banks related the distressing scenes at the Wireless Ridge, where British troops made a night attack with fixed bayonets and were told to take no prisoners. A terrified young Argentine soldier surrendered, pleading for his life, and begging not to be killed. A brief argument occurred among Banks and his comrades as to who was going to kill the man before a tarpaulin was thrown over his head; he was shot and then bayoneted.

If these things happen in war between uniformed combatants, how much more difficult is it to strictly comply with the rules of war when the enemy deliberately does not? Insurgents do not wear uniforms; they stash their weapons to blend into the population and pull them out when it suits them to attack. They use non-combatants as human shields. It is easy in these circumstances for innocent civilians to die.

Add to that the frustration of seeing colleagues killed, dismembered and wounded, and seeing rescue helicopters shot at, or enduring renegade Afghan “allies” murdering Australian soldiers in their compounds. The moral certainty of Punt Road pundits is a luxury often unavailable to the Australian soldiers in combat zones.

None of these things was a deterrent, however, to the almost salacious way in which this most recent story was reported, including the claim Ben Roberts-Smith “declined to answer a series of detailed questions sent to him by Fairfax Media.”

Given this is a confidential investigation he should not have to. In fact, details of the investigation should never have been published until they were completed.

What is most disturbing is the frequency with which investigations of allegations against soldiers make their way into the media, when details of military operations do not. Even when investigators illegally seize soldier’s psychological records – which are supposed to be confidential – this rarely makes it into the press. It suggests the source of the leaks is not soldiers themselves, but powerful and deeply entrenched interests within Defence.

All of this leads many to suspect that political interests are triumphing over military imperatives. When two cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2013 streamed images of one of them having sex with a female cadet, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner was sensationally invited to conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the role of women in the ADF.

Although Broderick herself had no military service and no expertise in military operations, she took it upon herself to make sweeping recommendations about the participation of women in frontline units. Normally, decisions about the structure and composition of military units are determined solely by the nature of the enemy and what is necessary to capture or kill them. Disturbingly, her recommendations were accepted in spite of her total absence of military qualification.

Fears and suspicions of political agendas are now running rife throughout Australia’s service personnel. They fear the insidious attacks on their dignity by those who have always found reason to confuse service of one’s country with militarism. They fear all they stand for being sullied by cheap shots from moralising television hosts.

Most of all, many fear there is nothing to protect them against civil litigation by supposed Iraqi and Afghan “victims” bringing claims through Australian courts. In the United Kingdom, hundreds of soldiers have suffered years of torment before the courts and the Iraq Historic Abuse Team (IHAT) inquiry, with no end to their nightmares yet in sight.

The same could happen here. Our service men and women are all too aware that the Brereton Inquiry could be but the start of an avalanche of inquiries and investigations stretching years into the future.

Hanging Australian service personnel out to dry now happens with distressing frequency. It certainly happened in service at home to Karel Dubsky. It has also happened on numerous occasions to Australian soldiers operating in Afghanistan. Consider the soldiers who spent years facing charges regarding the death of civilians in a night attack in Afghanistan, only to have the charges eventually withdrawn. There are other similar cases to which I am privy, each of which has brought untold distress to decent men and women doing their best in a morally vacant world.

Allegations of war crimes by Australian servicemen and women need to be seen through the prism of a war where front lines do not exist, and where it is almost impossible to judge the outcomes of their actions against the moral standards prevailing in leafy suburbs back home. At the very least, the media should abandon the sensationalism and scandal in which a small portion now revel.

Against this backdrop, it is only fair to ask, who defends our defenders?

Bill O’Chee is a former senator and a former officer in the Australian Army.



  1. Clive Mitchell-Taylor says

    Excellent article thanks for reposting Ted. Karel is pleased to have received the letter exonerating him from involvement in the Jedi Council fiasco and is resigned, as am I, to the fact that Morrison is far too morally bankrupt to ever apologise.
    It’s bad enough that many of our soldiers take their own lives because they measure actions they took many years ago during war, against the standards in peacetime Australia. To have others with no experience of war make such judgements is unconscionable.

  2. fred dobson says

    What happens on the battle field should stay on the battlefield.
    Decisions made in milliseconds that could mean you live or die, no one has time to weigh up all the consequences.
    If your not involved in the combat you have no right to question the moral capacity of those who were.
    These kangaroo courts are a waste of money and oxygen.
    God bless the men and women who defend our country and also defend those politically correct social justice warriors who aim to condemn them.

  3. Michael King says

    Well I suppose it’d be the exact same as comparing two lawyers, one who prosecuted & the scumbag who defends the scum of the earth.
    Brereton falls into the latter category.
    An accusation no matter how small defames the greatest of men.
    Sad but truthful……….

  4. Linton Solomon says

    What accurate result from what inquiry. There has never been an inquiry or otherwise that takes into account all the evidence now available in relation to RCB without peering in hindsight for inspiration. The bias is clearly weighted in the direction of the misinformation being peddled by Govt and its agencies. The same institutions that allow this sort of witch hunt to propagate. Well said Bill.

  5. Neil Churches says

    GEN Brereton is a respected judge of the Victorian Supreme Court and has extensive Reserve service. Your mistake in trying to single him out because you disagree with the accurate result of the RCB inquiry shows your own bias.

    • Chris Howells says

      That Brereton has failed to contain his investigation from the press is indicative of a slipshod approach to this inquiry. All inquiries seem to require victims, and this slipshod approach is going to guarantee it.

      Roberts-Smith is not a Geoffrey Rush or a Craig McLachlan open to any slander or innuendo at the whim of the press. Roberts-Smith is a valorous person who fought at our instruction and on our behalf. That his name has even been mentioned, should excise him from Brereton’s inquiry.

    • Russell Linwood says

      Here’s where YOU are wrong Neil. The RCB Inquiry is riddled with errors, omissions and blatant political posturing. Check the facts; we all now have access to them. The real threat is not individual senior investigating officers (although rank is not necessarily a weather indicator of ethical behaviour any more, if in fact it ever was). No, the real threat to a decent and ‘fair go’ is the collective manipulation of the real evidence by groups who are either research-incompetent when the primary data is blindingly obvious, or they are staff being directed to come up with a pre-determined outcome. Either or both of these issues lie behind so many disgraceful developments in military ‘support’ matters of late, including this issue regarding the alleged atrocities etc. Like all things, one needs to check the facts, and be fair dinkum about telling the truth. At least, that what the good guys taught me when I was responsible for soldiers’ lives and overall wellbeing.

  6. Michael Bevan says

    I don’t think suggesting the media not sensationalise it is going to have any effect. You may as well ask a dog not to bark. I agree whole heartedly with the thrust of this article, there are many out there with personal agendas and don’t really care who gets hurt or what the consequences are for the ADF.

  7. Matt Fawkner says

    What are Maj Gen Brereton’s qualifications to conduct this witch hunt?
    Is he another reservist (short on combat related experience like the reservist who enquired into RCB Butterworth conditions)? Who appointed Brereton and what were his terms of reference?