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Australia’s self-image shaken by disgraced war hero


When it comes to relations with America, Australia stands out in two particular ways.

Whatever the US military adventure or misadventure, Australia has reliably deployed its troops in support, fighting in wars from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq.

Equally reliable, whatever the conflict, the events have been covered by a battalion of scruffy Aussie journalists with a tenacity that has been a point of national pride since the days of Rupert Murdoch’s father.

These two qualities have collided in spectacular fashion over a scandal that has shaken Australia’s view of itself.

The shocking moment came in a civil case brought by Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living soldier, a giant former Special Air Services corporal who is often presented as meeting the late Queen Elizabeth.

Roberts-Smith had sued The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times over a 2018 series of articles claiming he had committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

His 110-day “trial of the century” culminated Thursday with a verdict that some of the allegations in the newspaper reports, and corroborated by witnesses who appeared at the trial, were true.

Anthony Besanko, the presiding judge, found the newspapers had provided substantial evidence that Roberts-Smith was involved in the unlawful killing of unarmed Afghan civilians, including a man with a prosthetic leg and a farmer whom he kicked off a 30-foot (10 m) cliff.

The ruling opened a new front in the public debate surrounding the actions of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. It follows the publication in 2020 of the Brereton Report, a four-year war crimes investigation that claimed 39 civilians were killed.

The trial of Roberts-Smith, who also worked in the media industry, has divided public opinion. Billionaire media magnate Kerry Stokes paid his legal fees and was among those quick to defend the actions of the disgraced war hero in the heat of battle.

General Angus Campbell said the US government warned after the release of the Brereton report that it might not be able to cooperate with Australia’s elite forces © Martin Ollman/Getty Images

The scandal could have had more serious consequences for the region. General Angus Campbell, Australia’s military chief, indicated last week how the war crimes allegations were already affecting relations with Australia’s main security partner.

He told a Senate hearing that the US government had warned the Australian military after the publication of the Brereton report that it might not be able to cooperate with Australia’s elite forces. That was because of the “Leahy Laws” that prohibit the US Department of Defense from supporting overseas forces involved in human rights abuses.

While cooperation was not curtailed, the unveiling of the warning in March 2021 showed that the storm was not a passing squall.

The Friday morning headlines left no fifteen minutes for Roberts-Smith, who had taken a huge risk in bringing the libel case. He did not immediately comment on the verdict, but the journalists at the center of the stories expressed their relief at their justification and justice for the victims.

Nick McKenzie, a journalist for The Age, likened the case to another high-profile star who filed an undeserved libel claim before finding out. “Someone described Ben Roberts-Smith to me as the Lance Armstrong of the Australian Army. I think we should now take that as truth.”

It was the second major win for the Australian media in recent months after Lachlan Murdoch dropped his defamation case against Crikey, a news website that had alleged that Fox News and the Murdoch family were “unindicted co-conspirators” in the riots in the US Capitol.

Still, the timing of the verdict proved awkward for a country that had to review its military status in the region.

In April, Australia announced its biggest strategic shift in military stance since World War II to counter China’s military buildup. Aukus’ security deal to acquire nuclear-powered submarines is just one part of a broader effort to exert greater influence in the region.

Marcus Hellyer, head of research at Strategic Analysis Australia, said “bad taste memes” from China had circulated about the SAS’s actions in the past and were likely to resurface in the wake of the court ruling.

He said the Roberts-Smith ruling was unlikely to damage Australia’s international security ties, but that the reputational damage – and possible criminal action in the future – would hasten the need for an ongoing “settlement” in the military over Afghanistan.

“We need to have that deeper reckoning,” Hellyer said. “We’re not perfect, but it shows the messy workings of a democracy in action. These things cannot be swept under the rug.”

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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