Soldiers deserve a full and open hearing

 smh.com.au  8/12/2018 9:04:36 AM  3

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The SAS is a globally respected fighting force that does its job under some of the most difficult of circumstances imaginable. But as a special operations unit, its operations are necessarily less open to scrutiny than ordinary forces. Its serving members often work in small patrols and cannot be identified.

Yet failing to run rigorous checks on improper conduct is not the answer. This is also a battle of hearts and minds rather than just bombs and bullets. The concept that there are no rules when it comes to war is wrong. Investigating allegations of impropriety helps soldiers on the battlefield.

It is far better, moreover, for Australia to look into its own affairs proactively with all the operational facts rather than wait for some external agency to take matters into its own hands.

Full public discussion is also crucial for understanding how to ensure mistakes are not repeated.

The SAS must understand how its soldiers are handling the acute new pressures of wars where it is almost impossible to distinguish between civilians and enemies. Accurate reporting of incidents and analysis of conflicting reports is crucial to make sure - that even in these extraordinarily difficult circumstances - the rules are respected.

Mr Roberts-Smith's concerns should be balanced against concern for the servicemen who have come forward to talk about incidents involving alleged misconduct.

It has taken them years to start dealing with the issues they have raised. If these matters are never given a proper hearing they will also feel alienated. Too many soldiers carry the horrors and doubts of war inside them out of a sense of solidarity to their comrades and then pay by suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unfortunately, Mr Roberts-Smith has attacked the very existence of the inquiry commissioned by the inspector general. He has claimed that airing these issues prejudices the outcome of the inquiry.

Yet the issues raised are exactly those which form the basis of Justice Brereton's inquiry. He is unlikely to be swayed. There is no jury involved. Significant sections of his completed report should be made public.

Mr Roberts-Smith has also alleged that public discussion of these matters is a threat to the SAS secret operations. Yet the issues arise from events five years ago. Discussing them will have no impact on what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan today.

It would be foolish to underestimate the pressure faced by elite soldiers who must make life-and-death decisions in a matter of seconds in the midst of a long and complicated war.

But it would also be unwise to conflate the careful reporting of allegations of improper conduct on the battlefield with a condemnation of the entire SAS and the difficult job it performs. The Herald’s interests lie in ensuring modern warfare - where combatants do not always wear easily identifiable uniforms and the rules of engagement are not always clear - is held up to fair, proper and responsible scrutiny.

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