The contributors named below were junior Officers, NCOs, or Diggers in Vietnam. We served in combat roles with 2RAR/NZ (Anzac) Battalion May 1970 to June 1971, experiencing the horrors and triumphs of armed conflict. We understand the ongoing effects on ourselves and our comrades. We wish to record our disappointment and distress on how the allegations of atrocities in Afghanistan have been addressed by the Prime Minister, and in particular the Chief of the Defence Forces.
Prior to the release of the report the Prime Minister created an expectation of horror, with at least an impression that the contents were proof of criminal conduct by members of SAS Regiment. On the release of the report his obvious rage supported the impression he had given the week before. To confirm that impression he advised that he had formally apologised to the Government of Afghanistan. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the various addresses adopted a 'Presumption of Guilt', contrary to Australian Law and the UN Charter.
The Chief of the Defence Force essentially echoed the words of the Prime Minister. He compounded the issue by not only adopting the "presumption of guilt", but by announcing outrageous initial retributions that would be imposed. The Chief of the Defence Force then offended many veterans and current service members by restating the unfortunate observation in the report that "no officers were involved" in the various activities. No mention of the other 26,000 armed service personnel who served there, many of whom sacrificed life and limb and mental health, and insulting many officers who consider that they are an integral part of the unit they serve or served with. His address was insulting, inappropriate, self-serving, and extremely poor leadership. The Chief of the Defence Force may well be a person to bear part of the responsibility for the numerous failures obvious in the conduct of the conflict.
The Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force were intense in their moral indignation, clearly intended to represent their responses and behaviour as virtuous. Having clearly adopted and encouraged the Presumption of Guilt, then promised all accused an independent investigation and a fair trial.
It may be the case that no officer has been identified as being involved in any of the events. To suggest that for a period of more than five years and thirty nine atrocities, not one officer was close enough to his troops, or had access to the usual boozer gossip to at least be aware of some allegations, is simply not credible.
Official reports inform that in the period 2001–2016, a total of fifty six Australian service personnel were killed in action, and three hundred and seventy three of the veterans who served in that period committed suicide. The suicide rate was seven times more than battle casualties. What more warning was required to the Government and the military hierarchy to thoroughly investigate the causes of suicide and develop appropriate responses? To our national shame the suicide rate has increased and is more likely to be ten times above battle fatalities, with another nine suicides in the last few weeks. If the same proportions applied to all wars we have been involved in, we would have experienced over one million suicides. Unimaginable.
It may be that with the retirement of General Peter Cosgrove, the army lost the last Commander who had any serious and life-threatening battle experience. Those who followed were undoubtedly qualified academically, but may not, and probably could not, have a meaningful understanding of the psychological impacts of battle, including the impact of over exposure to traumatic experiences, the initial paralysis of fear, the horror of loss or mutilation of comrades, and the images that will never be erased.
It is a simple reality that soldiers dehumanise their immediate enemy combatants. Any one of sound mind could not callously take the life of another non-combatant human being, yet innocents have been massacred in every war in history. It is only when the perpetrator dehumanises an entire country or a section of a country, that this will happen, and has happened throughout history, and continues in many conflicts today. The focus for Australia, at least from 2016, should have been on the origins of mental health issues, starting with the initial recruitment, basic and corps training, leadership, tolerance assessment, and over exposure to battle.
Many SASR soldiers have served multiple tours of Afghanistan. Up to six or eight tours is not uncommon, with one reported as having had sixteen tours. In time spent in actual operations on six tours, it would equate to the actual time spent in operations that a digger would have served in the entire WW2. Sixteen tours would equate to the total time spent in operations in all wars since Federation. How the hierarchy could have approved and encouraged that level of multiple tours, especially after the 2016 report, is incomprehensible and requires explanation.
The Australian Defence Forces senior management, including the Chief of the Defence Forces, will eventually have to answer for their failures.
We do not in any way condone any violations of the Geneva Convention, notwithstanding that in both Vietnam and Afghanistan our enemies were not distracted by any such niceties. We are however determined to ensure that all relevant matters required to give a complete perspective are canvassed, and that the accused are not sacrificed at the altar of the bureaucracy.
Any of those accused who are of sound mind and are found or plead guilty will have seriously diminished the proud reputation Australians have earned in battle since Federation. They will receive no sympathy.