TRUTH, LIES AND WAR CRIMES
Allen & Unwin. RRP $34.99
On 25 May 2023, after a defamation hearing of 110 days, Federal Court Justice Anthong Besanko announced that he had found that VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith had committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
It was a stunning reversal for a hitherto war hero who had sued Channel Nine and others, including the author of this book, after stories had been published suggesting that he had committed, or was involved in the murder of innocent Afghani civilians, and had behaved badly in other ways.
The marketing blurb accompanying this book says this of Masters:
“Chris Masters PSM is one of Australia’s best-known, highly respected, and most influential investigative journalists. His stellar career has won him five Walkleys, and he has produced over 100 investigative reports, mostly for Four Corners….
He spent a total of three months embedded with Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2010, including with special forces in 2011.”
Masters’ brilliance as a top-quality journalist is on display in this detailed and brilliantly researched analysis of the way that Roberts-Smith reputation ended up in tatters. And detailed this work certainly is, which means that it requires some real commitment from the reader, but it is worth it.
The book begins with an explanation of how the author was embedded with the Australian Special Forces at Camp Russell in 2011. It was his third embed and he explains how some soldiers thought it unthinkable that a journalist would be provided with such access. He was the first and the last journalist to be given such a privilege and he suggests that the explanation was “trust”. Because of this trust, over time, some soldiers were prepared to share some of their concerns about Roberts-Smith with him.
We hear about how Roberts-Smith had bullied and denigrated two junior soldiers, including punching one and threatening to shoot another, whilst also being awarded the Medal for Gallantry and the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest military award for valour. The contrast between Roberts-Smith poor conduct on the one hand, and his reputation for bravery on the other, is a major theme of the book.
Another theme of the book is the way that certain people were unwilling to listen to the evolving evidence about Roberts-Smith conduct, even suggesting that it was inappropriate for journalists to examine the behaviour of soldiers during war. One example is the way that the head of the Australian War Museum, Brendan Nelson staunchly defended Roberts-Smith, as did certain sections of the media, particularly the Murdoch media.
Early in the narrative the author says this:
“Within Roberts-Smith own patrol there was discord about the merit of the VC, but at this stage the broader disquiet seemed to be more about whether the character matched the honour. As public adulation for the newly minted war hero grew, so did private grievance among his detractors. As one observer put it, ‘There is an overwhelming contrast between his public persona and reality.’ To Roberts-Smith and his supporters, the griping was simply jealousy and envy.”
The book goes into some detail about the various incidents which ultimately were used as the basis for the court to dismiss the defamation action. Masters describes a disturbing phone call that alerted him to what had shockingly happened in a remote part of Afghanistan in August 2012. We are told:
“’ He kicked this bloke off a cliff. As his face spun down, it smashed against the wall and his teeth sprayed out. The bloke who saw it can’t get the image out of his mind. He said he had to get away from Roberts-Smith. It was not the first time he said this stuff happened. RS is a bloody psychopath.’
Shocking but unreportable, this information rated less than second-hand. The cliff kick was being talked about by a small group of SAS operators in Perth who were concerned for the first-hand witness, who was not coping.”
After being kicked off the cliff the victim was shot. The murdered Afghani, whose name was Ali Jan, was no Taliban insurgent. He was the innocent father of three who had been collecting firewood for his family and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Roberts-Smith callously kicked him off the cliff.
During the trial Roberts-Smith denied any wrongdoing.
What is interesting is the way some of Roberts-Smith former comrades felt compelled, or perhaps pressured, to support his version of events because of some perverted code of silence, whilst quite a few others found the moral courage to tell the truth.
Bringing a defamation action is not something for the faint hearted. They are nearly always prohibitively expensive and can blow up in the plaintiff’s face, as this one certainly did. And a trial of this length, 110 days turned out to be obscenely costly. It was only because Roberts-Smith was supported by billionaire Kerry Stokes that he was able to engage a legal team consisting of three senior counsel. The defence case was funded by Channel 9.
This trial was made even more complicated by the fact that most of it took place during covid restrictions. It began on 7 June 2021 and judgment was delivered on 1 June 2023. The estimated costs of both sides were $25 million.
The book goes into some detail about all the pre-trial skirmishing and then leads us through a blow- by-blow account of the evidence of the various witnesses where we are given a summary of each witness’s evidence-in-chief, cross examination and re-examination. Perhaps some readers will feel that they are being deluged with a bit too much detail. It takes over 300 pages of the book.
What particularly impressed me about Masters’s book is the way the story is told without exaggeration, emotion or sensationalism. He certainly doesn’t set out to do a hatchet job on Roberts-Smith-he just lets the facts speak for themselves, which is why it has such a powerful impact.