Canberra Report - Lest We Forget - Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Canberra Report - Lest We Forget - Wednesday, 28 April 2021 Main Image

By Joel Fitzgibbon

28 April 2021

April 25 is our most solemn day and on Sunday, despite COVID-19 restrictions, we marked it appropriately. 

Honouring our fallen and all those who have served in the uniforms of the Australian Defence Force is critically important.  But so too is supporting and standing by our current generation of ADF personnel. 

This year, we paid tribute to our heroes in the dark shadows of two controversies. The first is the terrible and unacceptable rate of veteran suicide.  The second is the Brereton investigation into allegations of bad behaviour in Afghanistan.

The Government’s belated decision to hold a Royal Commission into veteran suicide is a welcome one. It’s an issue which demands no less a level of inquiry and scrutiny. Suicide is complex and dealing with it amongst both serving personnel and veterans will require many responses, a lot of effort, and plenty of resources. No process, tradition, or orthodoxy should go unchallenged.

The Brereton Report was disappointing and confronting. Any soldier who acted unlawfully while on deployment will need to have their behaviour tested. Not by the media or the court of public opinion, but by our legal system and all its protections including the burden of proof and the thresholds required for a finding of guilt.

But we must not allow the actions of a few to tarnish the reputation of the many. The overwhelming majority of our troops who deployed to Afghanistan did no more than put their lives on the line for our nation. In the coming months the Brereton Report is likely to resurface, and those who have served in our Special Forces will need our support.

For anything that went wrong in Afghanistan, politicians (including me) and senior Defence leaders must share collective responsibility.  We sent them to one of the most dangerous places on earth with vague mission objectives and without a clear plan to win.  They fought an enemy which wore no uniform and unlike our troops, were not constrained by laws or rules of engagement. 

We sent them on multiple and punishingly long rotations.  Too often they lacked sufficient medivac, close-air support, and other vital resources. NATO’s “capture and release” policy was both frustrating and psychologically challenging for soldiers who had risked their lives to capture bad guys only to see them walking free days later.  It’s no wonder some may have begun to take the law into their own hands.

We turn our SAS and Commandos into warriors.  We train them in the use of lethal force and authorise them to use it lawfully. They become battle-hardened and invested in their mission. In executing their orders, they need to know they have the support of their country and it’s for us to provide it. All of us.

Now we’ve officially withdrawn from Afghanistan there will be a long debate about the merits or otherwise of our involvement.  Certainly, 41 lives are an expensive price to pay.  And while Afghanistan still looks messy, we must ask ourselves what it might now look like without the intervention of the many countries which participated in what is now our longest war.

Would there have been more acts of terrorism in western countries? Would the persecution of ethnic minorities in Afghanistan have grown worse?  Would the Taliban now govern without any care for international community opinion or scrutiny? Would the country be more dependent on the illicit drug trade? Would Afghan women still be without the opportunities of education?  Would Afghanistan be without Australian-built schools and hospital facilities? Would the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police be less capable of enforcing the rule of law?  Would our alliance with the United States be as strong?  I’ve no doubt, the world is a better place for our actions.

Whatever your view, our troops performed magnificently in every task our politicians asked of them. 

Lest we Forget.