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Posted on 21 Sep 2023 in Non-Fiction |

CHRIS MASTERS Flawed Hero: Truth, lies and war crimes. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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In this account of Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation case, Chris Masters also examines the mental health challenges faced by veterans.

Let us begin with the proposition that war is madness, and explore it through the lens of a particular soldier named Ben Roberts-Smith. Ben Roberts-Smith served with the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) from 2003 to 2013. On tours in Afghanistan, he was awarded a Medal for Gallantry in 2006; a Victoria Cross in 2011; and a Commendation for Distinguished Service in 2014. Following his retirement from the SAS he was honoured with a series of awards and appointments. In 2013 he was named Father of the Year; in 2014 he became deputy chair of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s advisory committee on mental health and a spokesperson for mental health charities. From 2014 to 2017 he was chair of the National Australia Day Council. He was also associated with Rosie Batty’s campaigns against domestic violence. And media mogul Kerry Stokes appointed him general manager of Channel Seven in Queensland.

During the 2010s, rumours and information provided by whistleblowers circulated concerning war crimes committed by members of the SAS in Afghanistan. The Brereton Report, commissioned by the Australian Defence Force, investigated these claims and in 2020 it found that 25 soldiers had been involved in the killing of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners. Mark Willacy’s Rogue Forces (2021) provides an account of these events.

Rumours also circulated concerning possible war crimes committed by Ben Roberts-Smith. These ranged from bullying and assaulting other soldiers, to assaulting unarmed Afghans, pressing another soldier to execute an unarmed Afghan in what is known as ‘blooding’, and killing an unarmed Afghan. There were also claims of violence against a girlfriend that made a mockery of his work with Rosie Batty.

In June and August 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times published a series of articles by Chris Masters, Nick McKenzie and David Wroe that outlined war crimes alleged to have been committed by Roberts-Smith. Roberts-Smith claimed he had been defamed, and with the financial support of Kerry Stokes, commenced proceedings before the Federal Court of Australia against the newspapers and the journalists, seeking substantial damages. The journalists’ defence was based on a claim of substantial truth.

Hearings commenced on 7 June 2021, and finished on 27 July 2022. The proceedings were complicated by the difficulties the Covid pandemic posed for the appearance of witnesses, in addition to the logistical problems of Afghan witnesses giving evidence after the Taliban had resumed power in Afghanistan, and national security concerns over some of the evidence.

In all there were 110 days of hearings involving 40 witnesses; 26 for the newspapers and 14 for Roberts-Smith. A number of witnesses spent three or four days in the witness box being cross-examined. Justice Besanko handed down his decision on 1 June 2023 (Roberts-Smith v Fairfax Media Publications [2023] FCA 555). He dismissed Roberts-Smith’s application, implicitly finding he had committed war crimes and that he was a hypocrite in his behaviour towards women while simultaneously being a spokesperson against domestic violence. Both sides spent approximately $25 million each in legal fees in contesting this case.

Chris Masters was one of the journalists involved in these proceedings, and in Flawed Hero he provides an account of the background to the case and the hearings. His material is divided into three major sections. The first concerns different SAS personnel ‘drip feeding’ him pieces of information concerning Roberts-Smith and the alleged war crimes. The second section recounts the legal manoeuvres and technical niceties associated with the preparation of a case of this sort.

The third and longest section details the evidence given by the different witnesses for and against Roberts-Smith. The SAS witnesses were subject to rigorous cross-examination. Many did not want to give evidence but were required to under subpoenas. One of the more interesting things that Masters found was that, while they did not enjoy being cross-examined – one witness described a cross-examination as akin to being attacked by ‘a rabid dog’ – many of the witnesses found the process cathartic.

For Chris Masters, Ben Roberts-Smith’s fall from grace is a tragedy, a stain on the reputation of the brave men and women who serve Australia in defence of the nation, and on Australia and its sense of itself. In trying to understand how this happened, he examines the SAS and its culture and points out that it was not the reports of the journalists who brought down Roberts-Smith – it was 20 of his fellow soldiers who testified against him.

Masters is an admirer of the men and women who soldier on our behalf. He says that the SAS has a warrior code where its members do not boast or talk about what they have achieved on the battlefield.

In special forces a veteran who cashes in on his fame can quickly become persona non grata. From S[pecial]F[orces] drinking holes the world over, there are stories of transgressors being shunned and even physically ejected. Extracting profit from sworn duty is a no-no.

The evidence revealed before Justice Besanko revealed there were problems with the accounts of what Roberts-Smith had actually done in the actions for which he received awards. Masters says the SAS, Defence brass and politicians were on the lookout for a hero to show that Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan was worthwhile. The problem was that Roberts-Smith’s fellow soldiers did not share this view and didn’t see him as having the ‘right stuff’. He knew this and it ate away at him. Masters says:

There was no doubt Roberts-Smith was a brave soldier – but, up close, he was not always considered a good soldier. There was too much evidence of medal-hunting, bullying, scapegoating, ego and entitlement.

When veterans sit together on Anzac Day and make eye contact across the room, they want to see respect, expressed in a simple nod, a knowing look. Soldiers mostly fight for one another. That is the sacred bond, and it can’t be confected. They must return from war with their self-worth intact. It is an essential component of the next, often more challenging chapter: getting on with life.

And this is where it went monstrously wrong. Craving identity, Ben Roberts-Smith found the shape of who he wanted to be in the persona of the killing machine. The special forces operative, amped in popular media to superhero veneration, became a poster boy. We could not help ourselves. The seven-foot-tall bulletproof Anzac avatar assumed the pedestal.

The evidence given by the witnesses to war crimes makes for difficult reading. There is another aspect of the witnesses’ testimonies that should be highlighted. Masters reports that almost all of the witnesses are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They are or have been depressed and under medication, experienced suicidal thoughts, been under psychiatric care, alcohol and drug dependent and/or are experiencing relationship problems. There is something terribly wrong here.

On 16 November 2022, Matt Keogh, the Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs, reported that 1600 veterans and defence personnel had died by suicide between 1997 and 2020. The problem with being an Australian soldier is not so much being killed on duty but by your own hand when you come home. If nothing else, the account of the trial and the statistics on defence personnel suicides underlines the importance of the work currently being done by the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides that was established in July 2021. Clearly there is a need for Australia to train and employ hundreds of psychiatrists to attend to the mental health of these personnel. 

 If it is good enough for men and women to experience the horrors of war because our political leaders feel it is important to do whatever it is America wants us to do, then it is only appropriate that resources should be devoted to their mental health when they return home.

Chris Masters’ Flawed Hero: Truth, lies and war crimes provides an exhaustive account of this sad episode where a particular individual lost his way while serving in Afghanistan. It provides valuable insights into the nature of investigative journalism, legal processes and the culture and operation of the SAS. Here we are, after a war that achieved nothing and killed so many, finding ways to spend small fortunes in legal actions over war crimes committed by our forces.

Ben Roberts-Smith is appealing Justice Besanko’s decision and there are other war crimes and defamation actions in train. The circus of madness rolls on.

Chris Masters Flawed Hero: Truth, lies and war crimes Allen & Unwin 2023 PB 592pp $34.99

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

You can buy Flawed Hero from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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