Veiled Valour: Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan and war crimes allegations
Author: Tom Frame
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Reviewer: Brian Morgan
How often do we hear that hindsight gives 20/20 vision? Well, by reading this book, it is so easy for us to recognise and become experts on the Afghanistan conflict. I had thought, for some years, that this was a conflict in which Australia could never hope to achieve its objectives and, now that the Taliban have returned to power, I am even more certain that I was correct.
This book does not simply focus on the involvement in Afghanistan of Australian Special Forces. For completeness, it traces the history of our armed forces from the time of Gallipoli, the development of Australia’s Special Forces, the evolution of the Taliban and, if I may use my own term, the role of those Special Forces in Afghanistan.
A book such as this, would not and could not be complete without reference to the Laws of Armed Conflict and the Rules of Engagement. To quote the author from page 210:
“Every Australian officer and soldier deployed to Afghanistan knew that some conduct was prohibited and illegal … civilians were not legitimate targets and could not be attacked under any circumstances … Australians were entitled to engage combatants, including members of insurgent groups, even if they were not in uniform”.
A former client of mine who served in Vietnam told the story of how their group were on RnR in Saigon and were served by a pleasant young man in a restaurant. A week or so later, they saw him but, this time, he was shooting at them.
I repeat this story (whether it is true or apocryphal) because of a major problem that I observed in reading this book, namely, the difficulty of identifying when a person was a “civilian” and when he or she was a combatant. I think this concept is also inferred in the title of the book in the use of the term, “veiled”.
The book examines the “context, explores the operations, and traces the events that led to Australian soldiers being accused of war crimes in Afghanistan”. The author has intentionally avoided discussing the Brereton report findings and ceases his observations the day before its release. Similarly, this book is not an attempt to visit the evidence in the recent long running defamation action by Ben Roberts- Smith.
What it does do is throw more light on why Australia was in Afghanistan in the first place; what its role was intended to be from time to time; and the negative effect of what appears to me to have been sensationalist and salacious journalism with often little to no evidence to support its allegations but which, over time, did uncover and publish apparently damning evidence including helmet camera video.
I do not think that any discussion of the Afghanistan war would be complete without identifying the sort of enemy with which one had to contend, both in the case of the Afghanistan army which, as allies, were, at times, unable to be relied upon, and in the case of the declared enemy, the Taliban, who were often farmers by day and fighters by night.
To give a greater understanding of what confronted soldiers in Afghanistan, the author took a close look at some allegations involving New Zealand elite soldiers and, specifically, looked at the UK matter of Blackman who killed an injured Afghani person but did so as a result of the pressure on him and his colleagues of multiple demands which, almost certainly, caused him to act contrary to his normal self and lose his self-control.
I found this part of the book to be very worrying. It reminded me of soldiers I have known who have been able to handle unreasonable pressure and others who have not been so successful and have suffered a physical or mental breakdown because their superiors refused to recognise their fragile condition.
Blackman spent more time in prison than many of the IRA members convicted of murder. There remained ongoing community concern at the lack of understanding of what drove him to take this action which was demonstrably completely out of character.
The author looks at the Canadian Special Forces who fought in Afghanistan and their political masters who seemed to me to be much more aware of the risks of misconduct arising when troops fight in an unpopular environment with less than adequate support.
By the end of the book, I think that you will, like me, accept that there were acts of misconduct by Special Forces (including Australians) but that these need to be placed in the context of people being sent on numerous tours of duty to a war where they were continually confronted by a hostile populace; given little support by their superiors; and, probably, wore the opprobrium of fighting in a battle in which no one, except their political masters, wanted them to fight.
This is an extremely well-researched and wellprepared book by an author with a deserved international reputation for historical analysis.
It makes for thought provoking reading whether you are or have been involved in the military or whether you simply want to obtain a greater understanding of what was expected, behind the scenes, of our elite soldiers in Afghanistan.
I thought the evidence was such that many of the allegations lacked substance despite being good fodder for journalists. However, as I said earlier, I could not help but accept that some of the allegations of misconduct appeared to be justified.
What conclusions would you draw?