Review of Blood Lust, Trust and Blame

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian (Review).

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Though Monash University is named for a soldier, I’ve no doubt at all that this important offering from its In the National Interest series – Blood Lust, Trust and Blame, by Samantha Crompvoets – will be labelled by some as unpatriotic for raising a number of uncomfortable questions about the functioning of Australia’s military. The scope for controversy in this area is limitless: a tweet expressing reservations about the ANZAC legend, for example, can lead to a tsunami of outrage, as opinionistas who would otherwise rail against the rise of cancel culture become suddenly, loudly censorious. Crompvoets has already been attacked by a group of pinheads on social media, and publication of Blood Lust, Trust and Blame was held up by Minister for Defence Peter Dutton on rather speculative national security grounds. Commentators from non-military backgrounds are advised to tread very carefully in this space. It’s a minefield. Except, of course, it isn’t.

In fact, Crompvoets’ excellent essay is not an indictment of Australia’s soldiery, or even an exposé of war crimes of the kind that led to the ADF’s Afghanistan Inquiry, or ‘Brereton report’, which alleges that between 2009 and 2013 Australian Special Forces unlawfully killed thirty-nine Afghan nationals. As a sociologist who has prepared reports on military ‘culture’ in the past, Crompvoets has indeed exposed (or happened upon) such incidents, and there is a direct link between her own report to the Department of Defence in 2015 and the setting up of Brereton’s inquiry. But the focus of Blood Lust, Trust and Blame is not what happened (or didn’t happen) on the ground in Afghanistan, but rather how the subsequent inquiry was set up – how all such inquiries are set up – in a way that misunderstands the relationship between culture, power and responsibility.

It is the first of those words on which the policy class (as Crompvoets doesn’t call it) tends to fixate. Rejecting the ‘bad apples’ excuse, it invites its inquisitors to consider the orchard, and to describe instead, in general terms, what conditions led to the apples going bad. For Crompvoets, however, the concept of culture is too abstract and unwieldy to get to the bottom of what is going on within a particular organisation, not least because it has now become ‘an objectified tool of management control’, of a piece with ‘linear change journey maps, neat stakeholder matrices [and] key performance indicators colourfully cascading down an Excel spreadsheet.’ It has gone from being ‘something an organisation is to something an organisation has’, with the result that inquiries stressing culture will end up treating the symptoms of the disease rather than the causes of it. We are left, writes Crompvoets, riffing on Clausewitz, with ‘a cultural malaise – a fog of culture’.

For Crompvoets, then, it is on the space between individual soldiers’ responsibility and the ‘collective’ responsibility emphasised by General Angus Campbell in his response to Afghanistan Inquiry that the effective report should focus its attention – not on the bad apples, or on the faulty orchard, but on the attitudes and practices linking the two. In particular, it should focus on the question of power and how it operates, formally and informally, between different levels of the institution. Moreover, and given that relationships of power don’t always align with hierarchical structures, it should focus on the often complex relationship between power and authority. As Crompvoets writes, in a crucial passage:

In the case of Special Forces, it could be that the soldiers on the ground had responsibility, whereas the higher chain of command had accountability, as they provide the scaffolding that sets everything up for success or failure. However, this framing does not take into account authority relative to influence. As was established in the Afghanistan Inquiry, and described in my related reports, in the context of Special Forces, power was concentrated at the lower rank of patrol commander.

As Crompvoets suggests, this finding is consistent with other sociological studies, which show that ‘internally well connected and globally isolated parts of a network are likely to engage in misconduct’. For this reason, she continues, the successful report will tend to focus less on the culture of the organisation as a whole than on the ‘climate’ that exists in various bits of it. It is only then that targeted interventions – interventions that actually work – can be made.

This conclusion, of course, has a general relevance, and Crompvoets brings in a number of reports and inquiries from outside the military sphere in order to illustrate her case. But I did find myself wondering whether the armed forces are uniquely challenging in this regard, and if I have one criticism of Blood Lust, Trust and Blame it’s that it doesn’t quite address this question. The military, after all, is a world in which workers are subordinate in a way that few workers are – to the point where even to call them ‘workers’ feels like a category mistake. They are servicemen and servicewomen – people who agree to subject themselves to near-total institutional power, in order to prepare themselves to face power on the battlefield, and to wield power on the battlefield, in the form of lethal violence. That’s a very different set of circumstances than the ones that led to the Financial Services Royal Commission. Nevertheless, Crompvoets’ book is a hugely important intervention in a debate that some Australians would rather didn’t take place at all. Crucially, it changes the terms of engagement in a way that I’m sure Sir John Monash himself – a creative thinker, after all, militarily and institutionally – would have found enlightening. There is a lot more to be said on the issue, and some of it will be very uncomfortable to those who take the war memorial and ANZAC Cove as places of worship rather than sites of commemoration. But this book provides an excellent start.