MARK WILLACY Rogue Forces: An explosive insiders’ account of Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
In Rogue Forces journalist Mark Willacy documents the disturbing truth about war crimes committed by Australia’s SAS forces in Afghanistan.
Lord Acton is the one who said ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ He added, ‘Great men are almost always bad men.’ These are sentiments Acton expressed in regard to politics. Unfortunately, they also apply to the results of investigative journalist Mark Willacy’s examination of the activities of Australia’s Special Air Services Regiment (SAS) in Afghanistan. The SAS were deployed in Afghanistan in three periods: 2001 to 2002, 2005 to 2006 and 2007 to 2013.
For some time Willacy had been working on allegations of war crimes – and let’s be clear here, what he means by this is unlawful killings, cold-blooded murder – by the SAS in Afghanistan and had produced a number of reports when he was contacted by a whistleblower in October 2019. The whistleblower provided Willacy with an SD card with hundreds of photos and dozens of videos of SAS activities in Afghanistan. The SAS have cameras on their helmets that take videos, and they also take photos of their operations – captures and kills – which are compiled for debriefings and intelligence purposes.
One of these videos showed an SAS soldier killing an unarmed Afghan lying on the ground. This footage was used in a Four Corners program, ‘Killing Field’, broadcast on 16 March 2020. Following the program, other whistleblowers came forward and provided Willacy with additional material. Rogue Forces is an update and extension of the material contained in ‘Killing Field’. Willacy emphasises that he wishes to maintain the anonymity of his sources to protect them from abuse and physical harm. He is also at pains to point out that what he has uncovered does not apply to the overwhelming majority of those who serve with the SAS. He is only concerned with bringing to public attention those who have committed war crimes.
Rogue Forces attempts to tell the story of what went wrong in Afghanistan through the lens of one SAS squadron during one deployment in one given year . It is an attempt to explain the macro through the micro. I hope it provides the reader with an understanding of how one of the world’s most elite and honourable Special Forces units could normalise deviance.
He does more than examine the events of 2012. He also looks at the culture of the SAS, not the propaganda that is fed to us, but what exists among the men on the ground, those who are trained and rewarded for their ability to kill – what former British commander Sir Robert Fry describes as ‘elegant unpleasantness’. Willacy also describes the background to the events that prompted the Australian Defence Force to investigate rumours of war crimes, the creation of the Brereton inquiry into those rumours, and an account of its redacted report, which detailed at least 25 former and current SAS members who were allegedly involved in war crimes.
Willacy documents how, in case after case, long-serving non-commissioned officers (NCOs) – the sergeants in charge of ground warfare – hijacked the SAS and imposed a culture of destruction that included killing defenceless Afghan civilians. In the process they corrupted other soldiers they fought with, at a minimum getting them to turn a blind eye to what they were doing, or worse, encouraging them to kill an Afghan in what is described as ‘blooding’.
After the kill they would plant a ‘throwdown’ – a piece of military or electronic equipment such as a mobile phone – on the body, and take a photo to demonstrate that the killed Afghan was a member of the Taliban. Another reason for a ‘legitimate’ kill was if the person murdered had run away (from soldiers with guns, military equipment, attack dogs in full battle gear with a reputation for murder and destruction) in the wrong manner – i.e. not a straight line.
The culture of what Willacy describes as an ‘NCO mafia’ dealt harshly with those who did not fit in, and intimidated those responsible for monitoring their performance to doctor and delete records of wrongdoing. This culture included a strong attachment to alcohol, and back in base after patrols and at headquarters in Perth, this included drinking to the point of becoming paralytic and sometimes needing to be rehydrated on drips the next day. Junior officers who tried to enforce standards were mocked, threatened and not backed up by top brass. Those who pointed out to their superiors that something was amiss did not have their concerns followed up. Willacy points out that:
Not only were some of the soldiers who were doing the wrong thing not punished, they were decorated. What message did that send to the younger, less experienced and more impressionable operators?
Willacy reports on the conclusion of a senior officer who believed the SAS had become dysfunctional. Paraphrasing the officer, he says:
Many of its officers opt for mateship over leadership and turn a blind eye to bad behaviour by their subordinates. No one is held accountable, and this further undermines discipline and the chain of command. If anything, management of the regiment has become bottom up. The battle-hardened NCOs, veterans of multiple Afghanistan tours, are running the show. They have become the tail wagging the SAS dog. There is also a smug elitism rising from the ranks, and a deep sense of entitlement rooted in their Afghanistan heroics. There is an arrogance of exceptionalism and self-glorification around the place that would be unacceptable anywhere else in the Defence Force. The culture and values of the Regiment are seemingly adrift, and many fear that deviance has been normalised.
Rogue Forces makes for difficult reading. At each chapter I steeled myself for another example of a war crime and debasement of the human condition. It is not clear, however, that everything Willacy examines is in fact a war crime. What are we to make of the situation where the SAS killed an Afghan with the same name as a Taliban by mistake? Or when six- and eight-year-old boys were killed because those shooting rockets from above misread the map coordinates; nothing more than an tragic error? What are we to make of those the SAS killed due to intelligence provided outside normal channels by Afghan warlords who fingered rivals and/or those not prepared to play by their rules? Is this helping to build relations with an ally?
Willacy displays great skill in taking us into the culture of the SAS’s NCO mafia, revealing the anger, hatred and bloodlust that drives them. He also provides a chilling account of the patrols, the dangers, and the killings that took place.
Willacy also employs an interesting literary device which enhances the devastating message of what he has uncovered. In the final chapter he examines the post-Afghanistan life of various of his whistleblowers and the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that they continually feel for having witnessed, and being coerced into covering up, war crimes and, in one case, being subject to domestic violence by an SAS soldier. This results in an inability to sleep, difficulties in finding a purpose in life, suicidal thoughts, an inability to maintain relationships and feelings of moral degeneracy.
As he obtains extra information from his whistleblowers, from the families of the Afghanis killed (provided by Afghan journalists on Willacy’s behalf), or reports on the activities of the Australian Army investigators and the Brereton inquiry, Willacy returns to the war crimes he uncovered again and again. This repetition captures the PTSD, nightmares, distress and despair of his whistleblowers and presumably all of those in the SAS who served in Afghanistan.
A 20-year war, for what? Almost a quarter of a million people killed, over 70,000 of them civilians, and the collateral damage and cost of corralling, caring for, and protecting those who participated in this carnage, and the investigations into and prosecution of war criminals, with its only certain result the financing of holiday homes for teams of lawyers.
As Willacy quotes from the Brereton Inquiry:
We embarked on this Inquiry with the hope that we would be able to report that the rumours of war crimes were without substance. None of us desired the outcome to which we have come. We are all diminished by it.
Mark Willacy Rogue Forces: An explosive insiders’ account of Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan Simon and Shuster 2021 PB 416pp $35.00.
Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things. He recently completed a review article on the Supreme Court of the United States and a report on a domestic transfer system in Australian soccer.
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