By Gwynne Dyer

“Guys just had this blood-lust. Psychos. Absolute psychos. And we bred them.” So said an Australian soldier about the war crimes committed by the Australian SAS (Special Air Service) when the scandal first broke in 2016. And the Australian Defence Force actually took the accusations seriously.

An independent inquiry led by Justice Paul Brereton delivered a damning report in 2020. It found credible evidence for the murder of 39 Afghans – prisoners of war, farmers and other civilians – by 25 named Australian SAS soldiers in 2007-2013.

So far, so good. The Australian Defence Force apologised to the people of Afghanistan, condemned the “shameful” and “toxic” culture that prevailed within the SAS, and made helmet or body cameras compulsory for special forces on future deployments.

It also referred the report to the Australian federal police for criminal investigation, including the names (redacted in the published Brereton report) of the 25 soldiers who were suspected of murder. That’s when it all broke down.

However, in August 2021, less than a year after the report was published, the puppet Afghan government and its army collapsed, all the foreign forces pulled out, and the Taliban took power. The process of gathering evidence for criminal prosecutions of the SAS killers suddenly ground to a halt.

An Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) had been created and more than 50 investigators and intelligence analysts assigned to the task, but none of them could go to Afghanistan to interview the witnesses to the atrocities.

So far there has been only one indictment of an SAS soldier (this March), but there is actually film of him shooting his victim. Most of the accused were a little smarter than that, and there was reason to fear that the whole process would run into the sand. Then former SAS corporal Ben Roberts-Smith inadvertently saved the day.

Roberts-Smith is Australia’s most decorated soldier, a genuine war hero. He is also a man who kicked a handcuffed prisoner off a cliff in Afghanistan in 2012, and then ordered a junior soldier to finish the man off.

Three years before that he murdered a disabled man with a prosthetic leg, then brought the leg back to the SAS base so his soldiers could chug beer from it. And lots more in the same vein.

His name was on the list of 25, and many people had heard about his ‘exploits’. A series of articles in three leading Australian newspapers even detailed them at length in 2018 – but the evidence was not strong enough for a criminal conviction.

And then the fool sued the three papers for defamation of character. That’s a civil case, not a criminal one, and the standard of evidence required is lower.

Last Friday Justice Anthony Besanko, after a year-long trial, found that the major allegations made by the papers – that Roberts-Smith is a murderer, a criminal and a bully – were proven to the civil standard.

He won’t go to jail, but any money he has will be swallowed up by the costs of the trial (tens of millions of dollars). Moreover, he may yet face a criminal trial, because this verdict will certainly reinvigorate the prosecution of the other war criminals.

Every country that sends its troops abroad to fight faces the same problem, especially among its so-called elite units, where a ‘warrior culture’ is often encouraged. The attempt to impose humanitarian rules on war will always fall short, but the effort must be made nevertheless. Australia is doing a lot better than most countries.