This review was first published in The Weekend Australian.
The publication of Mark Willacy’s Rogue Forces coincided almost exactly with the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The coincidence was a happy one, no less so for occurring in unhappy circumstances. For as Joe Biden called time on liberal interventionism, many commentators took the opportunity to rehearse the argument that the War in Afghanistan was a ‘just’ war lost for want of resolve. Though Willacy makes no comment on the rightness or wrongness of the war itself, he is here to remind us that, militarily and morally, it was a lot messier than that version of events would suggest.
Rogue Forces is a follow-up to Willacy’s award-winning Four Corners documentary, ‘Killing Field’, which featured allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan on the part of the Australian SAS, as well as footage of an Australian soldier apparently executing an unarmed Afghan. After that program aired in 2020, the ABC journalist was inundated with allegations of yet more crimes in Afghanistan, and Rogue Forces makes those accusations public, while also fleshing out the allegations made in the original program. As with the latter, it relies on interviews with servicemen and servicewomen, the principal sources being Tom (an ‘operator’ – i.e. SAS combatant), Dusty Miller (a combat medic), Braden Chapman (a signals intelligence operator) and Christina (a ‘Handheld Imagery Data Base Manager’). The book is dedicated to these four individuals.
Standing in contrast to Tom et al. are the SAS soldiers accused of war crimes. In particular, there are Soldiers A, B and C, who are accused of killing, or of enjoining others to kill, PUCs, or ‘people under control’, and thus of breaking the rules of war. There are also allegations of faked reports, the mutilation of dead bodies and so-called ‘throwdowns’, whereby SAS soldiers are said to have dressed the bodies of unarmed Afghans with guns, radios and military chest rigs (‘battle bras’) in order to make them look like combatants. According to Willacy, this last practice was so common that it became something of a running joke, with one gun in particular – a semiautomatic Makarov pistol – appearing in a string of photographs.
More generally, Willacy and his interviewees paint a picture of a regimental culture in which drunkenness and physical bullying are accepted. Some soldiers are so dehydrated from booze that they have to be ‘IV’d’ before operations, while open contempt for anyone not wearing the sandy beret of the SAS is positively encouraged by some patrol commanders, whose prominent role in the alleged offences was so ably described by Samantha Crompvoets in her book Blood Lust, Trust and Blame. Indeed, it is plain that in a number of cases the only soldiers not ‘under control’ were the ones who were supposed to be in charge.
There are thus two SASs in Rogue Forces, and the question arises of which of these cohorts Willacy regards as exceptional. On the one hand, the book seems pretty clear on this point: Soldiers A, B and C are ‘rogue’ elements – a disgrace to an otherwise noble regiment. But there is also something of a nod in the title to Ben McIntyre’s book SAS: Rogue Heroes, and thus to the idea that the Special Air Service attracts a certain kind of person: fearless, intelligent, and a little crazy. Could it be, then, that the exceptional nature of the SAS is part of the problem, leading as it might to an exceptionalism on the part of the operators themselves? Willacy writes that his book is ‘an attempt to explain the macro through the micro’, but whether ‘the macro’ refers to Australia’s role in the war, the SAS regiment, or one particular squadron isn’t always entirely clear.
This ambiguity does not detract from the book’s power. The principal value of Rogue Forces, after all, is its account of alleged war crimes within the SAS, which it will fall to future historians to synthesise into an account of the War in Afghanistan. My own hope is that this history will form part of a broader confrontation with the role war plays in Australian culture, and the creepy air of obligatory celebration that has grown up around the ANZAC legend in particular. The figure of the ‘larrikin’ digger no doubt has a basis in reality. But it wasn’t all Aussie egalitarianism and cocking a snook at the higher-ups. There was plenty of ‘rogue’ behaviour, too, much of it in the form of lethal racism.
In the meantime, this brilliant and courageous book should be required reading for anyone seeking to paint our most recent military adventure as morally unambiguous. As Willacy shows, the ‘moral injury’ sustained by many veterans was often a case of friendly fire.
Mark Willacy, Rogue Forces: An Explosive Insiders’ Account of Australian SAS War Crimes in Afghanistan (Simon & Schuster; $35; 406pp)