In a summary judgement against a defamation case brought by Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living soldier, the presiding judge found him to be a murderer who committed war crimes in Afghanistan, involving the brutal killing of defenceless civilians. The trial has revealed the depths of the rot in the Australian armed forces, including a ‘warrior culture’ and a reprehensible bloodlust among its elite units. Such cases are not isolated, but are a reflection of the rottenness of the whole institution.
Roberts-Smith’s crimes first came to light in the Australian media in 2018, when three newspapers published articles accusing the former member of the prestigious Special Air Service (SAS) of six separate murders of unarmed civilians during his time fighting in the war in Afghanistan. The newspapers also alleged that he had bullied and threatened to kill fellow soldiers, and additionally that he had physically abused a woman with whom he was previously having an affair.
Having sued the journalists for defamation, the trial, which came to an end on 1 June, concluded that Roberts-Smith, on balance of probabilities, had committed four of the war crimes, as well as the bullying he was accused of. The trial cost 25 million AUD and involved 41 witnesses, making it one of the largest and most expensive defamation cases in Australian history.
‘War hero’ or war criminal?
The Victoria Cross recipient’s crimes do not make for easy reading. Witnesses described him kicking an unarmed man off a cliff, as well as imprisoning and shooting an Afghan teenager in the head, calling it “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen”. Roberts-Smith is reported to have ordered the execution of civilians by his fellow soldiers in order to ‘blood’ them, as an initiation ritual. In one particularly harrowing case, witnesses spoke of him murdering a disabled prisoner in order to use his prosthetic leg as a trophy to drink from.
In addition, current SAS soldiers gave evidence that Roberts-Smith had on several occasions bullied them and threatened their lives, while serving alongside them. In 2006, he told a fellow soldier: “If your performance doesn’t improve on our next patrol, you’re going to get a bullet in the back of the head,” as part of what was described as “a campaign of bullying”.
Even during the trial itself, it was revealed that Roberts-Smith had taken steps to conceal evidence, including setting fire to his own laptops, literally burying classified information in his garden and threatening witnesses to keep quiet.
Yet, despite Roberts-Smith’s extensive history of barbaric crimes, until recently he was widely celebrated as a national hero in Australia, particularly by the right-wing press.
From being awarded “Father of the Year” in 2013, to being celebrated as a model entrepreneur, Roberts-Smith has long been hailed as a national hero. Even after the war crime allegations came out, he was invited for an all-expenses-paid trip to the Queen’s funeral last year, with the public footing the bill. Undoubtedly, he fit right in among the British royals.
The murderer and the media mogul
Among the most loyal defenders of Roberts-Smith have been news outlets owned by Seven West Media, Australia’s largest media business, run by billionaire magnate Kerry Stokes.
Stokes himself made a statement late last year, saying that “Ben Roberts-Smith is innocent and deserves legal representation… quote me on that,” adding that the accusations against him were coming from the “scumbag media”. On the day before the verdict was announced, Stokes’ The West Australian published the headline: “War hero’s moment of truth” and otherwise gave the trial minimal coverage.
After the trial came to a close this month, Stokes only cautiously backtracked, stating that the verdict does not “accord with the man I know”. Indeed, Stokes knows Roberts-Smith all too well, since the latter was parachuted into the position of General Manager at Seven West Media’s subsidiary in the state of Queensland in 2015. He held this position throughout his trial, only quitting once the verdict was announced.
Yet the ties between the war-hero-turned-war-criminal and the reactionary media go even deeper. Roberts-Smith’s entire legal costs – the aforementioned 25 million AUD – were paid for by Stokes’ business empire, which no doubt influenced Seven West Media’s sympathetic coverage of the whole affair.
A systemic problem
But it would be wrong to consider Roberts-Smith’s trial – as much of the media has – as simply an isolated debate over defamation laws and the role of investigative journalism.
While the journalists who brought the accusations to light have hailed the verdict as a ‘day of justice’, in reality the victims are not investigative reporters, falsely accused of defamation, but the countless men, women and children murdered and tortured by the Australian and other armies of western imperialism.
What has become clear in recent months is that Roberts-Smith was not simply one bad apple, even within the Australian armed forces. In March, former SAS soldier Oliver Schulz became the first Australian serviceman or veteran to be charged with the war crime of murder, for shooting an unarmed, disabled man during his service in Afghanistan in 2012.
Schulz was the first to be hit with war crime allegations since the 2020 Brereton Report found 19 Australian soldiers who likely committed war crimes in Afghanistan, involving up to 39 murders of unarmed civilians or prisoners.
Such was the extent of the crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan, that even the US military – themselves not unfamiliar with war crimes – wrote a letter of complaint to the chief of the Australian Defence Force. It was recently revealed that this letter, written in 2021, threatened to suspend US military activity with the Australian SAS, as they met the conditions to be in breach of the ‘Leahy Law’, which prevents US troops conducting joint operations with units who have committed “gross violations of human rights”.
It speaks volumes about the state of the Australian armed forces that even the US army has offered sanctimonious criticisms, but in Australia too, there is a palpable sense that Roberts-Smith’s guilty verdict is only the tip of the iceberg.
An article in The Sydney Morning Herald titled, “The reckoning over Afghanistan war crimes is only just beginning”, quotes Angus Campbell, the chief of the Australian Defence Force. He states that “very, very uncomfortable days” are coming for the ADF, and notes that he is braced for a flurry of war crime prosecutions in the coming period. Such is the confidence of the chief of the army in the conduct of his own soldiers!
This message was echoed by Peter Stanley, the former principal historian at the Australian War Memorial, who told the BBC that “the Ben Roberts-Smith episode is just a precursor to the major series of war crimes investigations, allegations, prosecutions, and possibly convictions”. The BBC writes that he added that Australian soldiers have “almost certainly” committed war crimes in the past without facing prosecution.
That high-ranking military officials and academics are openly preparing the public for a flood of war crime charges implies that the Brereton report and Roberts-Smith’s trial were just the beginning. In fact, the Office of the Special Investigator – which was set up in 2021 specifically to look into Australian war crimes in Afghanistan – has had to more than double its full-time staff in the last 12 months.
The Australian and western ruling classes more broadly haven’t a single drop of moral authority for accusing Russia of war crimes in Ukraine, when they are guilty of the most atrocious and heinous acts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Crisis of confidence
The Australian military has traditionally tied itself to the so-called ANZAC spirit, invoking the “unquenchable thirst for justice, freedom and peace” supposedly championed by Australian and New Zealander troops that fought in the First World War. Ben Roberts-Smith’s trial has stripped away this veneer of righteousness and has crushed the idea of the Australian army as the plucky, gentleman-soldiers that they are so often portrayed as.
The verdict is another blow to the prestige of an important pillar of the ruling class’ establishment in its period of capitalist decline. Who can feign surprise when a man lauded as a national hero for his role in barbarous imperialist adventures turns out himself to be a barbarous murderer? His crimes are the crimes of the whole system.
The coming war crime trials will only accelerate the decline in confidence in the military and with it the ruling class. The next period will not be an easy one for the Australian ruling class, as it is increasingly exposed for what it really is. What remains is to topple this rotten system and put an end to the crimes that it engenders.