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Ben Roberts-Smith and the murky debate over accountability in war


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More proof that you should probably never meet your heroes....

Ben Roberts-Smith and the murky debate over accountability in war​

Today in Sydney, Australia’s most decorated soldier, former Special Air Services corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC, was found by a civil court, on a balance of probabilities, to be a likely war criminal, a murderer, a liar and a bully.

Roberts-Smith is a huge man, towering over all around him. When he was presented alongside other Victoria Cross winners to the late Queen some years ago, he loomed over her by a good eighteen inches.

Can we ever fully understand what goes on in people’s minds in war?

His reputation as a battlefield soldier was fearsome. The mere sight of him charging towards the enemy must surely have intimidated the Taliban machine gun position that he single-handedly overran in the action for which he deservedly won his Victoria Cross.

In 2018, Roberts-Smith sued Australian newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, for running a series of extensive investigative reports on him. The articles covered his conduct on deployment in Afghanistan, and included documented allegations and witness claims that he murdered unarmed Afghan civilians and participated in the mutilation of Taliban fighters. These investigations followed Australian army investigations into possible war crimes by the Australian SAS.

Separately, Roberts-Smith was also accused of domestic violence and bullying. Unwisely in hindsight, he immediately resorted to defamation writs against the newspapers and journalists responsible for the stories.

After a lengthy trial, which effectively morphed into a war crimes trial in the public mind, senior Federal Court judge Mr Justice Anthony Besanko found that, on the balance of probabilities, there was truth to four of the six specific allegations against Roberts-Smith. That included killing a man with a prosthetic leg, and seizing the artificial limb as a drinking vessel for his SAS unit. Another allegation that was upheld was that Roberts-Smith forced a newly deployed soldier recruit to execute an elderly and unarmed Afghan man to ‘blood the rookie’.

The only allegations that were struck out were those relating to domestic violence in Australia.

The court upheld the claims that Roberts-Smith ‘broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement’, and therefore is a de facto war criminal. Tonight, he is a broken man, his reputation and integrity in tatters. After diligently attending throughout the trial, he has also been accused of lacking the courage to be in court for Justice Besanko’s verdict. Bizarrely, the Australian government tried to delay Justice Besanko’s judgement to ensure there were no national security implications in publishing it.

Roberts-Smith, meanwhile, was snapped lounging by a pool in Bali. The VC winner showed no inclination to face the music.

This verdict is a personal disaster for Roberts-Smith, who has been backed all along by one of Australia’s wealthiest men, Kerry Stokes. Now that he is liable for costs running into tens of millions of Australian dollars, subject to any appeal, the shamed and officially disgraced military hero, public figure and friend of prime ministers is alone, almost friendless and forever branded.

It is not only Roberts-Smith with a grave reputational problem. Australia’s elite SAS regiment – which is as tough as Britain’s and perhaps even tougher in desert warfare – has a huge blot on its ‘Who Dares Wins’ badge, after mud from previous investigations failed to stick.

It brings the regiment up against the United States’ Leahy laws, which prohibit US military cooperation with foreign units where there is credible evidence that unit was involved in gross violations of human rights, including torture and extra-judicial killing. It emerged last month that this possibility was raised with the Australians several years ago: now the Pentagon can point to the verdict against Roberts-Smith.

This was, however, a defamation trial, not a criminal one, with the required criminal burden of proof being beyond reasonable doubt. It was not a court-martial. Criminal charges may yet be brought, but in this instance Roberts-Smith has lost a civil defamation action that he very unwisely took on.

For many, the verdict also raises questions of how we apply civilian standards of behaviour to kill-or-be-killed battlefield situations. Brutal combat zones with constant engagement with an often-invisible enemy could brutalise any man, let alone a highly-skilled SAS soldier, trained to kill, like Roberts-Smith.

The judge, Roberts-Smith’s journalist accusers, and the barristers prosecuting the case have, like most of us, never gone to war, never been in battle, nor truly understand the stresses in battlefield situations. They, indeed we, can pass judgment, as happened today. But can we ever fully understand what goes on in men’s and women’s minds in a pitiless, brutal and vicious place as was Afghanistan in that awful, and ultimately futile, two-decade war?

Now it is up to Ben Roberts-Smith, his legal team, and his wealthy backers to decide whether he can appeal this damning verdict. Whatever happens, however, Australia’s most decorated soldier is now a hollow man: his reputation, and likely that of the regiment in which he was so proud to serve, is in tatters.

But there is one thing that this ugly trial has proved beyond doubt. War is hell.
Ben Roberts-Smith and the murky debate over accountability in war
Not everyone in war is a stand-up guy.

"I know of another guy - a former racketeer's bodyguard - who once found two Germans sleeping together to keep warm, remembered an old Ghoum trick, and slit the throat of one, leaving the other alive so he would wake up and see his bunkmate the next morning. Most of the doggies thought it was a good stunt, and it kept the Germans in his sector in a state of uproar and terror for several days." - Bill Mauldin, "Up Front".

(For the hard of thinking: the point isn't to excuse Roberts-Smith by muddling circumstances; the point is that some of the valuable people are the hard men, and they aren't Queensberry fighters.)