How Australia’s leaders loved the SAS to death
It was 2008 when an enemy combatant reached for his gun to shoot Mark Donaldson. In self defence, Donaldson shot first. The man was the first fighter Donaldson saw die up close. Reflecting later, he was affected enough to wonder about the man’s family, where he had come from, who he had left behind, or if, in an alternative life, they have ever met in peace? After some soul-searching, Donaldson concluded that if he had been the victim, the other man probably wouldn’t be sitting around that night wondering about him and his family. The introspection surprised Donaldson, who hadn’t anticipated the full emotional consequences of such an intimate event.
By 2011, his second-last tour to Afghanistan, Donaldson had lost count of how many lives he and his SASR colleagues had been forced to take in combat. His squadron was being rotated in and out of the war at a relentless pace. The tempo of missions had increased from one or two a week to at least one a day. After one mission, he and his team made macabre jokes about the enemy. Having known Donaldson through this period, as the body count grew, I asked him if the humour was a self-protective mechanism. He couldn’t really say.
What he did know was that the intensification of fighting during those four years, and the repurposing of the SASR that he had originally signed up for, had changed him profoundly.
His acts were not war crimes, or anything like it. Donaldson and most of his SASR mates were as effective and honourable soldiers as Australians could hope to have. He received Australia’s first Victoria Cross since Vietnam for a 2008 act of incredibly brave mercy: he ran into a field of enemy gunfire to rescue a wounded Afghan interpreter. Donaldson accepted the VC on the condition that he could keep going to Afghanistan. He went four more times, by which stage there was growing talk within the unit of a small number of their mates losing control, possibly violating the rules of war.
I got to know Donaldson while helping him write his book, The Crossroads. Later, I had a similar relationship with Anthony ‘‘Harry’’ Moffitt, another SAS operator. He was a more introspective character who did not enthusiastically embrace the change in the regiment’s purpose from long-range reconnaissance to a kill-capture, warfighting, commando-style unit. He spent his last years in the SAS trying to leaven what he saw as a ‘‘warrior’’ mentality creeping in, after the sharp rise in targeting missions between 2008 and 2012.
Neither Donaldson nor Moffitt, or any other of the SAS operators who had been selected and trained into the unit in the 1990s and early 2000s, had made it because they were killers. The SAS’s reputation as the fabled ‘‘phantoms of the jungle’’ in Vietnam rested on their unconventionality and ability to think outside the military box. Uniquely in the Australian Defence Force – and in clear distinction from today’s reality television spectacle – operators were selected for their temperamental and psychological strengths.
The unit’s tradition was secret squirrel work, getting in deep behind enemy lines and gathering intelligence without being seen and then getting out. If an SAS patrol fired a shot, it failed. The type of people brought into the unit were independent-thinking individuals who didn’t fit into the disciplined army model. Some of them were very unusual freethinkers. Informed rule-breaking, or individual initiative, were, like nowhere else in the armed forces, valued.
During the Afghanistan conflict, however, Australia’s political and military leadership fell in love with the SAS. One of the key recommendations of the Brereton report – with its finding of 39 alleged murders by our special forces
– is one of the less conspicuous: that they no longer be treated as the default ‘‘force of first choice’’. That they had become so, at the direction of Australia’s highest political and military leaders, set the preconditions for what followed.
So effective was the SAS at what it did in Afghanistan, our leaders very quickly came to believe it could do anything. It was transformed from the phantoms of the jungle (or desert) into just another commando unit, working under the ‘‘Big Army’’ command, overlapping with the purpose-built 4RAR commandos.
Was this what the SAS was for? Was this the personality type that had been chosen for its ranks? No, but adaptability was one of the unit’s many strengths. By 2008, SAS patrols were conducting endto-end targeting missions several times a day, their reconnaissance purpose overtaken by openly combative work. Unprecedentedly, two SAS squadrons were in Afghanistan together in 2010.
Moffitt and Donaldson came from backgrounds in which they had developed a strong individualistic streak. This might not have suited them to most military work, but it made them perfect for the SAS’s mission of unconventional reconnaissance. In Afghanistan, they had to adapt into warfighters. Some adapted better than others. It would seem almost inevitable that among such unique personality types, there would be a few who, exposed to the constant stress of war-fighting, lost some sense of perspective.
Responsibility always lies with the individual and there is no passing the buck up the chain. But Moffitt, who built connections during each of his foreign deployments through games of cricket with locals, also sees a cricketing analogy. He mentions, though with much less at stake, with Sandpapergate, the scandal that enveloped Australia’s cricket team in 2018: ‘‘Pressure from above to win at all costs, exalted individuals feeling that they could get away with anything and make up their own rules as they went along, younger members being coerced to overstep the line, internal voices expressing concern being silenced or blocked, ‘performance’ being valued over ‘character’, and the rare cases of transgression not being passed up to the leadership, or being ignored by higher-ups.’’
Moffitt believes the SAS now has no option but to confront what Australians expect of them and how to regain the confidence shaken by the alleged actions of a few. ‘‘One of the hardest working organisations over the past decades will now have to work harder than ever to rebuild trust,’’ he says.
As a consequence of the Brereton inquiry, brave whistleblowers and also the investigative journalism of Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters at the Herald along with the ABC’s Mark Willacy, soldiers accused of war crimes will be held to account. The consequences for all SASR members and their families are severe. The consequences for innocents in Afghanistan were worse than severe.
Yet there still seems no consequences for those higher up whose decisions set the preconditions for criminality. Their blind admiration, which turned into dependence, changed the character of the SASR in the middle of a conflict, and resulted in the rulebreaking ingenuity of SASR thinking being twisted, in some cases, into free-thinking of a darker kind. Accountability will be borne by those who carried out the acts. When will there be accountability for those leaders, including our elected officials, who loved the SASR to death?
Malcolm Knox, a regular columnist, collaborated in writing The Crossroads (2013) with Mark Donaldson VC, and Eleven Bats with Anthony ‘‘Harry’’ Moffitt.