Be brave, strip soldiers’ medals, says expert who sparked war crimes inquiry

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The sociologist who triggered the Brereton war crimes inquiry has urged Defence Minister Richard Marles to stare down veterans’ groups by stripping medals from soldiers who oversaw alleged wrongdoing in Afghanistan, saying it will reflect poorly on the nation if no action is taken.

Samantha Crompvoets, an expert on organisational culture, was commissioned by the Department of Defence in 2015 to produce a report that led to military personnel disclosing claims of unlawful behaviour including alleged war crimes.

Samantha Crompvoets says she has paid a high personal and professional price for her work exposing alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. Credit: Danielle Smith

In her first interview since a Federal Court judge found Ben Roberts-Smith to be a murderer and war criminal when dismissing his defamation case last week, Crompvoets said the decorated former soldier should lose his Victoria Cross for bringing the Australian Defence Force into disrepute.

Crompvoets said Australians should prepare to hear confronting allegations at possible future criminal trials flowing from the Brereton inquiry.

“Ben Roberts-Smith is not necessarily the worst offender,” she said, based on hundreds of hours interviewing Afghanistan war veterans including special operations commanders.

“We’ve not seen the worst of it is what I’d say.”

As well as facing calls to strip Roberts-Smith of his Victoria Cross, Marles is considering whether to remove distinguished service awards from a small number of Afghanistan war commanders.

Crompvoets said: “If the medals are removed, it sends the message that leaders are accountable and responsible for what happens below them, that there is no honour being associated with alleged war crimes and that when one person commits an atrocity it stains the entire unit.

“If they don’t remove them, they will be giving in to the vocal few people who remain wilfully ignorant about what happened in Afghanistan.

“It will reflect poorly on us as a nation, and it will not be looked upon kindly by history.”

Defence Minister Richard Marles is considering whether to remove medals from some Afghanistan War veterans.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Crompvoets acknowledged this would require bravery because the prospect of revoking military honours has already attracted a backlash from veterans groups including the Returned and Services League (RSL) and the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) Association.

“Removing the medals is a courageous thing for the government to do and would draw a line in the sand about what they believe in terms of accountability and ethics,” she said.

Explaining why commanders should be held accountable for alleged wrongdoing by more junior soldiers, Crompvoets used the analogy of a relay team that is stripped of its Olympic medals because one member was found to be using performance-enhancing drugs.

Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell wrote to several Afghanistan war veterans last month to inform them their honours for distinguished and conspicuous service could soon be cancelled if Marles accepts his recommendation to do so.

Veterans groups are aware of at least seven veterans, all of whom served at a squadron leader or lieutenant commander level, who have received these letters.

A spokeswoman for Marles confirmed Campbell had provided him with recommendations on command accountability.

“The deputy prime minister in his capacity as minister for defence is considering the recommendations and seeking advice as appropriate,” the spokeswoman said.

Crompvoets said some soldiers had told her the culture inside the SAS had improved since the Brereton inquiry, but she added: “Where is the transparency from Defence about what changes have been made and why? Where is the thought leadership, the speeches and essays on what has been learnt?”

She said there was still a hypermasculine “cult of warrior worship” in the military that needed to be questioned.

“I’m not reassured by someone like [Opposition Leader] Peter Dutton coming out and saying the culture of the SAS has changed,” she said. “We know it takes a lot of time for culture to change.”

Crompvoets said her work for the federal government, her main source of income, evaporated after Dutton criticised her type of research in 2021, with the then-defence minister saying he did not want the military to be “distracted by things that have happened in the past”.

.Credit: Illustration by Matt Golding

“There has been an enormous personal and professional cost because of the backlash I received from my work on this,” she said.

She added she was the target of misogynist abuse in online veterans groups where her phone number was published.

Crompvoets first heard accounts of troubling behaviour by Australian troops in Afghanistan when she was commissioned to write an unrelated report on the role of special forces in responding to domestic terror attacks following the 2014 Sydney Lindt Cafe siege.

In a subsequent report delivered to senior Defence officials in 2016, Crompvoets identified a number of “deeply concerning norms” within the special forces, including “competition killing” and “blood lust”, the inhumane treatment of prisoners and cover-ups of unlawful killings.

Her work led to the Brereton inquiry, which found credible evidence to implicate 25 current or former ADF personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others.

One soldier has since been charged with a war crime offence, and the Office of the Special Investigator has said it is investigating around 40 other matters.

Martin Hamilton-Smith, the chair of the SAS Association, said Marles would set an “extraordinary precedent” if he accepts Campbell’s recommendation to remove medals.

“We strongly disagree with punishment of any kind, including the removal of medals, being administered before the soldier in question is found guilty by a court of law,” he said.

Hamilton-Smith said there was a risk of an “over-reaction” to allegations of war crimes and the estimated 30,000 Australians who served in Afghanistan should not be painted as war criminals.

“Our soldiers are not police officers and the battlefield in Afghanistan is not Kings Cross on a Saturday night,” he said.

He questioned why high-ranking officers including Campbell – who received a Distinguished Service Cross for overseeing Australian troops in Afghanistan – did not face the prospect of having their medals stripped.

If you are a current or former ADF member, or a relative, and need counselling or support, contact the Defence All-Hours Support Line on 1800 628 036 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

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