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The uniquely Australian violence of the Brereton war crimes report

Australia represents itself as the innocent abroad. But is that just to shield us from the fact that we may be worse than most, as our overseas wars tend to be a projection of unfinished violence at home?(Image: AAP/Australian Department of Defence)Like all such documents, the Brereton report on alleged war crimes by SAS forces…

The uniquely Australian violence of the Brereton war crimes report

Australia represents itself as the innocent abroad. But is that just to shield us from the fact that we may be worse than most, as our overseas wars tend to be a projection of unfinished violence at home?

sas soldier war crime afghanistan
(Image: AAP/Australian Department of Defence)

Like all such documents, the Brereton report on alleged war crimes by SAS forces in Afghanistan changes nothing and changes everything.

We have known ever more of these events year on year for some time now. The events themselves are not surprising to anyone with a clear-eyed view of the military, any military. But none of that is the same as having it spelt out in an official document with the force of the state, or part of the state, behind it.

The document, with its stories of execution of Afghan civilians — the sadistic torture, the killing of teenage boys, the slitting of throats, the walking of young men to their deaths — is hideous, sickening, shaming to be Australian.

Shaming, not because one expects Australians to be “better” or even simply good — shaming to be associated with it by common citizenship, to be connected with it coming into the world. For the state to be speaking of these acts as accusation and confession all at once.

What the Brereton report has identified as the proximate context of the systematic terrorism, of 39 killings (at least), was a culture of performative death, of cabal and myth, right-wing memes and heavy metal imagery, all in the wider context of the Afghan war’s pointlessness — the strike against a Taliban regime sheltering Al-Qaeda, turned into a two-decades fiasco of heat and dust, initially, ostensibly, to shore up the corrupt, clannish Kharzai government.

And then…? Then simply to project power within Western politics — for the right to assert an idea of the West, for Labor and others not to be outflanked on national security. A war without purpose, except to be a war, absent from TV screens or any awareness of it over here, where it is a cipher.

A war whose fronts, battles, movements we know nothing of because there appear to be none. Just one endless grinding uncompletable occupation, which turns every civilian into an enemy and anyone trying to stay neutral into a collaborator.

The death cult the report alludes to was essentially fantasies of violence, projected onto real violence to give it meaning, a sure sign that there was no meaning at all.

One saw this in some of the earlier reports on the ABC a decade or so ago, when Australian soldiers were still being referred to as “our diggers” in stories that were little more than recruiting posters. It was the swagger, the tatts, the wraparound shades, the thick music blasting from the APCs, a war being stylised by its own participants, in its endless, historyless unspooling.

That could be said to be a universal feature of modern colonial wars, and the lack of inquiries by other nations into their own conduct may simply be because they are not interested in exposing it.

But it’s also worth asking whether there’s something uniquely Australian in all of this. We’re so accustomed to representing ourselves as the innocents abroad, our overseas forces as the armed wing of Contiki, to shield us from the fact that we may be worse than many, or most, because our overseas wars tend to be a projection of unfinished colonial violence at home.

Our “larrikin” image, acquired during World War I, may have less to do with a democratic spirit than that our troops in the Middle East were far more willing to terrorise and kill Arab and Turkish civilians than were the British or others — because such treatment was simply a continuation of the frontier wars at home.

If our propensity to terrorise black and brown people in a dusty outback has reappeared in Afghanistan now it’s because it simply reproduces the increasingly bitter stand-offs between certain sections of the white population and a colonised people.

This sadistic abuse of a native people may be far more “natural” to our troops than to others — simply what you do. If this is the case, then the cultural and social factors which the Brereton report has identified as motivating factors are the mere means to a deeper purpose, the lethal acting out of an unresolved violence at home.

That may not have occurred to, or be recognised by, our own leaders. You can be sure that in some form or another, that is how it will be recognised in Asia. We have to hold off lecturing the continent about human rights, just for a while.

But that’s not the most important matter in all this. What matters is our complicity in these killings — not the suddenness of battlefield deaths, or accidents, or even heat-of-the-moment stuff, but the terror of death and the pain of torture meted out to teenagers, slow and grinding, under cover of a pointless war the Coalition had no moral concern over (by the Coalition’s very nature) but that Labor could have got us out of at any point between 2007 and 2013.

Now rendered as accusation, as confession, for us to consider at our leisure, or bury beneath a half-billion-dollar war memorial, and the shouting and the trumpets of our annual “mateship” celebrations.

Peter Fray

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