These were not killings in the fog of war, unfortunate but inevitable. The Sydney court, in a detailed judgement published yesterday, found that Australia’s most decorated soldier was “complicit in and responsible for the murder” of three Afghan men and was not an honest and reliable witness in the trial.
Not only did the year-long defamation case reduce to tatters the reputation of Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, but in doing so has exposed to serious question the country’s revered legend of Anzac and the lionisation of Australia’s “brave, tough, but fair” soldiers, a myth one writer describes as “secular religion, one cherished and celebrated as core to our national identity”.
The truth is, as spelled out in a 2020 government report into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, that from the Boer war, through the world wars, and into Vietnam and beyond, Australian soldiers had been involved in many unlawful killings. It included “credible evidence” that 25 soldiers had been involved in the murders of 39 Afghan civilians.
But Roberts-Smith’s attempt to clear his own name of war crimes alleged by the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times backfired in a sensational trial that saw his own men testify against him and talk about a “warrior culture” in the unit.
Justice Anthony Besanko found that on the balance of probabilities, Roberts-Smith kicked a handcuffed prisoner off a cliff in Darwan in 2012 before ordering a subordinate to shoot the injured man dead. And in 2009, he ordered the killing of an elderly man found hiding in a tunnel as well as murdering a disabled man with a prosthetic leg during the same mission.
The judgment is a notable victory for the newspapers in a country whose defamation laws have been notoriously prone to favour plaintiffs. It will also redouble urgency into the investigation of war crimes – a government agency set up after the 2020 report is inquiring into over 40 allegations of criminal behaviour. The age of impunity is over.