Friday essay: why soldiers commit war crimes – and what we can do about it

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A member of the US’s elite counterterrorism force in Iraq, wearing a skull mask. Photo: AP via The Conversation / Khalid Mohammed

 

Mia Martin Hobbs, Deakin University

The following essay contains disturbing images and language.


In 2020, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force released the Afghanistan Inquiry into Australian Defence Force Special Forces atrocities in Afghanistan. The report – commonly known as the Brereton Report – resulted in a flurry of analysis debating how and why Australian soldiers could have committed war crimes.

Some commentators focused on “high operational tempos” that increased soldiers’ dependence on their teams. Others emphasised how operational independence among “elite” forces allowed “charismatic leaders” to influence teams with a “warrior hero” culture. A common thread was that counterinsurgency warfare made it difficult to differentiate allies, civilians and enemies among the local population.

While these factors are important, analyses focusing on unit problems tend to treat culture as a static and internal problem, rather than an ongoing practice influenced by broader society. Similarly, the stress on counterinsurgency warfare negates the fact that similar crimes are also well documented in trench warfare and in occupations in conventional wars.

For policymakers, military leaders and the general public, a deeper understanding of the nature of war crimes is crucial if we want to prevent them from happening again.

War crimes reflect social prejudices. They are shaped around wartime laws and policies, and are facilitated by cultural veneration of the military. Historical comparisons between general infantry forces in Vietnam and special forces in Afghanistan show that atrocities have at least as much to do with broader social, political and cultural fabrics as they do with tempo, leadership and internal culture.

Military leaders, policymakers and civilians should recognise that atrocities, far from being aberrations, are likely outcomes of warfare. By proactively tackling troop prejudices, anticipating the manipulation of policies in the field, and encouraging civilian engagement with the realities of warfare, we can reduce the likelihood of war crimes in the future.

Trained to dehumanise the enemy

Military recruits are commonly trained to dehumanise the race or ethnicity of their enemy forces. This dehumanisation facilitates combat and strengthens the collective identity among soldiers. By portraying an enemy group as fundamentally different – less valuable, less human – the group establishes unity within the “Self” and justifies violence towards the “Other”.

American and Australian Vietnam veterans, for instance, remembered their training as “bastardisation”, where “the loathing was hammered in”. They were “taught to hate the gooks, to see them as less than human. You can’t kill a Vietnamese, but it’s easy to blow away a gook or a slope”.

Troop racism is often an intensified version of prejudices apparent in broader societies. After 9/11, for example, Islamophobia in Australia became more pronounced, with overt discrimination, suspicion and violence towards Muslims.

Suspicion of Afghans flows through the Brereton Report into Australian war crimes in Afghanistan: “local nationals were presumed to be hostile”, and Special Forces aimed to “‘clear’ the battlefield of people believed to be insurgents, regardless of the Law of Armed Conflict”. This suggests that the soldiers viewed the entire population on “the battlefield” – that is, Afghans living on their own lands – as the enemy.

Racism in the larger Australian military allowed atrocities to continue unchecked: Australian Defence Force officers responded to Afghan complaints about Special Forces conduct with “a presumption, not founded in evidence, to discount local national complaints as insurgent propaganda or motivated by a desire for compensation”.

Similarly, militaries from patriarchal societies find misogyny among their ranks, manifesting in both institutional violence and war crimes.

Historian Christian Appy found that in US basic training for Vietnam,

the model of male sexuality offered as a military ideal in boot camp was directly linked to violence […] Drill instructors repeatedly described war as a substitute for sex or as another form of sex.

Sexualised descriptions of warfare are prolific in Vietnam War memoirs:

killing is sexual. Death too […] Someone once asked me to describe up-close combat in a nutshell. How about this? Pure pussy.

These links between masculinity, sex, violence and military authority produced atrocities. Journalists and scholars reported that the rape and murder of women was so widespread in Vietnam that soldiers coined the term “double veteran” to glorify perpetrators. In a war where combat soldiers felt vulnerable to guerrilla attacks, mines and booby traps, rape was frequently used to assert control, reinforcing soldiers’ sense of masculinity and authority.

Underlying gendered and racialised atrocities is a psychological drive to conquer through violence. Australia, like other Western nations involved in “the War on Terror”, saw a resurgence of white male supremacy in the 21st century. Indeed, the agendas of neo-colonial “West versus the rest” foreign policies “supercharged” white male supremacist movements.

US marines pose with the SS flag.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

This resurgence is particularly apparent in the military, with groups of deployed soldiers bearing white supremacist symbols, including the Nazi and Confederate flags, Ku Klux Klan hoods and the Crusader’s Cross.

White male supremacy helps to explain atrocities that intentionally degrade victims: torture, rape and war pornography. For soldiers who see themselves as “crusaders” fighting a war for “civilisation” against “barbarism”, racialised and gendered violence are logical steps in maintaining racial and gender hierarchies.

Detainee in Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, 2003.
Public domain/Wikimedia commons

Political scientist Laleh Khalili notes that in the War on Terror, torture practices were frequently shaped around religious humiliation and emasculation, based on “an orientalist understanding of what is considered honourable or shameful in ‘Muslim culture’”. Similarly, the common tendency for soldiers to document their atrocities reflects a desire to exert total control over the Other.

Finally, degrading war crimes are often collective practices. Perpetrators enact and share power with one another, reinforcing values and establishing loyalty within the group.

How military policies shape war crimes

Soldiers who commit atrocities are responding to military policies: Laws of Armed Conflict (international law) and Rules of Engagement (country-specific policies). Some soldiers who commit war crimes interpret Rules of Engagement in contradiction to Laws of Armed Conflict. Some deliberately exploit the former to violate the latter. In both situations, crimes are shaped by the policies set out to prevent them.

There is strong evidence to suggest that military frameworks prevent soldiers from recognising violations of international law. Veterans often use techno-strategic language to describe torture during interrogations, corpse desecration, forced displacement and small-group civilian killings in free-fire zones, indicating that they learned these crimes as lawful tactics.

For example, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, Australian soldiers desecrated corpses. One Vietnam veteran remembered:

I blew up bodies […] It saved time digging a hole. They used to call it an engineer’s burial. I was well aware of the psych ops angle of it because they’d always try and take their dead away with them. If you understand the Asian mind, you know they all want to go to the happy hunting ground in one piece and have a proper burial.

So, by blowing the body to shithouse, it will piss off the ones that are still alive.

The veteran’s choice of words here – “they used to call it” – indicates this was not an isolated incident. Another veteran remembered a

policy of dumping VC [Viet Cong] bodies in town market squares or dragging them behind Armoured Personnel Carriers, in sight of the village children, both methods supposedly meant to draw out further VC sympathisers.

Similarly, the ABC’s Afghan Files revealed that in 2013, an SAS corporal severed hands from the bodies of three Afghan insurgents. When questioned, the corporal explained that it was “a tactical necessity” to collect fingerprints.

Vietnam veterans were also trained to think that mistreating and killing civilians was lawful under certain circumstances. The US-led pacification strategy to isolate rural civilians from revolutionary forces involved the forced displacement of civilians.

To secure the Australian base at Nui Dat, the nearby villages of Long Tan and Long Phuoc were destroyed and the villagers resettled by “clearing patrols”:

we’d put up huts and then we’d go into a village and say, “right, we are going to shift you into this lovely beaut place you’re going to live in”. And you’d take them out of there, take everybody out. Then you’d burn them [the villagers’ huts]. And then you start to hear screaming. And then they’d all come out, because some of them were Viet Cong.

Once the area was “cleared”, it was designated a “free-fire” or “restricted” zone, which soldiers were instructed to treat as “enemy territory”.

Free-fire zones are not a legal instrument of war. Nor is displacing civilians and destroying their property. Yet through these policies, soldiers justified mass killings and total destruction. “I flew infantry on helicopters,” one US veteran recalled,

and we did search-and-destroy missions. We would fly into a village, enemy village, and we would kill everything and every pig and chicken and water buffalo and burn down every hooch in the place, just because it’s enemy territory.

Killings in free-fire zones are the kinds of acts commonly referred to as “fog of war” incidents. Recent investigations into Australian war crimes deliberately avoided all “fog of war” accounts, because ambiguity around intention made them nearly impossible to prosecute.

Yet examining more ambiguous actions reveals that military policies can produce atrocities. Social anthropologist Heonik Kwon argues that displacement and “free-fire” policies led directly to massacres.

While Australian and American military understood that any Vietnamese in “free-fire” zones were the enemy, displaced civilians monitored the situation in their homes carefully, petitioning local authorities for visitation rights and travelling back and forth to tend to family farms.

“Safe” villages attracted returning civilians, but could be quickly recategorised as “free-fire” zones by military command without the villagers’ knowledge. In the case of the 1968 My Lai massacre, the villagers “considered the US soldiers in [nearby] My Khe to be friends”.

Soldiers also exploited ambiguity around “fog of war” incidents to commit atrocities. US Vietnam veterans described a policy whereby Vietnamese were deemed enemy forces if they ran away. Soldiers would shoot near civilians to “test” them, and kill them when they jumped or fled: “they were killed for being frightened. And of course they were frightened, because they knew they might be killed.”

Similarly in Afghanistan, the Brereton Report alleges that soldiers developed an expansive interpretation of Rules of Engagement around “spotters” and “squirters” – people suspected of relaying information to the Taliban, or believed to be running to or from a weapons cache – to justify killing. In doing so, they instilled fear among the local population, giving Afghans good cause to flee and allowing soldiers to claim further killings of “squirters”.

Military lawyers were aware of these “sanctioned massacres”, and tried to limit soldiers’ ability to kill by changing the Rules of Engagement, but soldiers “just got more creative in how they wrote up the incidents”.

Civilian murder is a direct result of “body count” or “kill count” measures of victory, where military success is equated to the number of enemy killed. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, soldiers competed to outscore other patrols in the count and deliberately planted “throwdowns” (weapons or equipment) on dead bodies to document them as legal killings.

The My Lai massacre, for instance – in which over 500 civilians were slaughtered, with many tortured and raped – was initially reported by the US military as a “fierce fire fight”, in which US soldiers killed 128 “enemy”, justified by the recent “free-fire zone” designation and three planted weapons.

In Afghanistan, the Brereton Report concluded that Australians’ frequent use of “throwdowns” originated as a “strategy of avoiding scrutiny” when a killed Afghan “turned out not to be armed”. It then morphed into a deliberate practice to conceal calculated murder, with soldiers allegedly carrying a backpack with materials to plant on non-combatants. The practice was widespread enough that soldiers “use[d] to joke about how the same serial number [of a gun] was in every single photo of a dead Afghani [sic]”.

The torture and murder of prisoners also demonstrates deliberate subversion of Laws of Armed Conflict.

Sociologist Samantha Crompvoets found “corroborated accounts” that Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan would detain men and boys in guesthouses in villages and torture them, depriving them of food, water and medicine, “do anything at all they wanted to”, and then kill them. These practices were justified as “interrogation”, an institutional as well as individual defence by Western forces in the War on Terror.

A common justification for the murder of prisoners is “medical termination”. An Australian Vietnam veteran described killing a wounded enemy in his memoir, and when later challenged claimed it was a “mercy killing”. More recently in Iraq, US Navy SEAL medics admitted that they killed a captured militant by doing “medical scenarios on him until he died”. UK and US soldiers confirmed no one they fought with ever wanted to save a wounded enemy combatant.

Culture, national myths and war crimes

The occurrence of these atrocities contradicts a widespread belief that combat soldiers exhibit an unwillingness to kill. Many civilians want to believe that soldiers can fight effectively, honourably and unwillingly out of duty. This belief allows civilians to revere soldiers who do the nation’s “dirty work”. Underpinning this admiration is a view that international law is abstract and idealistic, and that soldiers have their own “moral code” grounded in the realities of warfare.

“War is a messy business,” according to the former Australian War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson, who “question[s] whether the national interest is in trying to tear down our heroes”. A petition to “stop the witch hunt” against Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith described how Special Forces “deploy to the hottest hot spots [… to] do a job that the vast majority of people cannot do”, and claims that “you want men like this defending the country”.

Our cultural approach to war tacitly approves ultraviolence while avoiding any discussion of what it actually entails, entrenching the idea that combat and killing impart special knowledge and setting soldiers beyond civilian judgement. Ironically, the belief that “good” soldiers use violence unwillingly promotes the idea that killing is the key to military legitimacy.

Military veneration produces soldiers who are attracted to service because it allows for “state-sanctioned violence”. In post-Vietnam “professional” Western militaries, violence is linked to status: the most elite soldier is one whose work “outside the wire” is dangerous and taboo.

In 2018, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Campbell, had to issue a ban on “death symbols” among deployed troops who expressed their military identity with “violent, murderous and vigilante symbolism”.

Fascination with violence manifests in atrocities that perform brutality: stomping, beating, or “crushing the life” out of people; collecting body parts as “trophies” of military prowess; “blooding” new soldiers with the murder of a prisoner to achieve their “first kill”.

Blooding establishes killing as a rite of passage for a military elite, binding perpetrators into a code of silence. Crimes that perform brutality reinforce military veneration and fascination with violence: Australian perpetrators were “equated with being good and effective soldiers”.

National narratives that celebrate “good” soldiers as the pinnacle of national identity also shield perpetrators of war crimes. In Australia, a central theme of the Anzac legend is that Australian soldiers are innately superior to those of our allies. This narrative is frequently deployed to deflect allegations of Australian atrocities.

During an admission of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, one soldier added that “whatever we do […] I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse”. Another theme is the idea that Australian soldiers are so good at warfare – so formidable, yet honourable – that other groups recognise and respect them.

Media coverage of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan emphasised that Australians were “feared red beards fighting a fierce but just campaign”, idolising soldiers even as they reported alleged atrocities. The term “red beards” is actually used by Afghans as a pejorative for special forces across Western militaries, because of their mistreatment of civilians.

In this reverent cultural context, war crimes allegations in Australia just don’t seem to stick. Afghans have repeatedly accused Australian soldiers of atrocities throughout the 20-year War on Terror, but although “many atrocities have been documented in the media”, they “seem to disappear shortly after they surface”. Cultural mythologisation of Australian warfare allows soldiers to get away with murder.

De-radicalising the armed forces

Soldier atrocities reflect the social and cultural fabric of their home nation, and crimes are shaped by military policies intended to prevent them. These factors are often interlinked; the process of the blooding of a soldier (cultural) requires both the dehumanisation of the local population (social) and the exploitation of Rules of Engagement to cover it up (policies).

What can we do about war crimes? The first step is acknowledging that they have happened throughout history, and that they are happening now.

Ongoing impunity suggests that these actions are not only considered justified in the context of war, but morally acceptable. Civilians and journalists should critically evaluate how the historical narratives they deploy around Australian war-fighting erase wrongdoing and perpetuate fascination with violence.

The military also needs to learn from the devastating results of dehumanising enemies in past conflicts. They need to urgently implement de-radicalisation in recruitment and training processes. This must go beyond ineffective cultural sensitivity training. Prospective defence members should be screened and soldiers continuously evaluated for prejudices.

These prejudices must be taken seriously, with the connection between prejudice and atrocity made explicit to soldiers. More broadly, Australians ought to question foreign policies that reflect and encourage racism in our communities, which will inevitably be reflected in our institutions.

To avoid future atrocities, military leaders must anticipate that strategies and tactics will be subverted in the field to commit crimes. They should explore “fog of war” incidents to understand how military policies can produce atrocities, drawing lessons from war crime allegations. Leaders should pay attention to how psychological operations against “the enemy” engender brutality against “the people”.

The history of war crimes shows us that atrocities are a likely outcome of warfare. The Brereton Report claimed that “few would have imagined some of our elite soldiers would engage in the conduct that has been described”. Yet for anyone who had paid attention to the unfolding War on Terror, the allegations came as no surprise.

If preventative actions seem beyond the scope of possibility, we must question whether our military can serve its purpose. The Brereton Report acknowledged that in Uruzgan province, where Australians were based with the mission of “improving the conditions of the Afghan people”, Australian Defence Force operations were counterproductive: “it is plain that [raids] were a terrifying experience for villagers.”

Violent counterinsurgencies engender deep resentments, undermining local authorities who cooperate with occupying forces and weakening resistance to insurgent movements. Long-contested territory in the War on Terror, Uruzgan was among the first provinces to fall to the Taliban in August 2021. The “fear and terror” our soldiers instilled in the local population surely played a role.

This is an edited extract from Lessons from History: Leading historians tackle Australia’s greatest challenges, edited by Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity and David Lowe (NewSouth).The Conversation

Mia Martin Hobbs, Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.