Australia’s special forces unlawfully killed farmers and civilian prisoners for the purpose of “blooding”, whereby a soldier takes a life for the first time as a rite of passage, the long-awaited report investigating war crimes has found.
The bombshell report into the conduct of Australian Special Forces Soldiers in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016 was released on Thursday.
It said junior soldiers had been required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice known as “blooding”.
None of the killings took place in the heat of battle, and they all occurred in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would constitute the war crime of murder, the report found.
Among the prisoners alleged to have been killed were farmers and other civilians.
The report has been released after a four-year inquiry that interviewed more than 400 witnesses and inspected thousands of documents as part of a probe into the conduct of special forces soldiers.
The report said credible evidence heard by the inquiry included that of a soldier forcing an unarmed local to the ground and shooting him in the back of the head at the direction of another soldier, despite the civilian posing no threat.
An item was then placed by the local’s body to conceal the circumstances of what happened and “deceive” any future inquiry into how he died, the report said.
Afterwards a soldier went on to give a false account of the events to another soldier conducting a quick assessment of what happened.
The inquiry also heard of another incident where a soldier and members of a patrol “wilfully engaged and killed” unarmed civilians before planting a weapon at the scene to make it seem like those who had died were combatants.
Soldiers were also in competition to outscore other patrols in the number of enemies killed in action.
“If they didn’t do it, they saw it,” one anonymous soldier said.
“If they didn’t see it, they knew about it. If they knew about it, they probably were involved in covering it up and not letting it get back to Canberra”.
Another described his fellow soldiers as “psychos”.
“Guys just had this blood lust … absolute psychos, and we bred them.”
Another soldier explained the patrol commanders were “treated like God by young guys”.
“Patrol commander level is the worst, they were responsible for the worst of it,” an unnamed soldier said.
The inquiry heard evidence that an unidentified member of the Force Element wilfully and unlawfully killed a person who was unarmed and under the control of soldiers.
The member was “directed, urged or encouraged” to do so.
The report found there was credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 soldiers.
It found that none of the 23 incidents were “disputable decisions” and recommended that they be referred to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation.
But the inquiry did not recommend any further action be taken in regards to unsubstantiated allegations including:
• a person being struck with an AK-47 in the course of tactical questioning, in an endeavour to get information from him, rather than with a soldier’s M4 in self-defence
• a knife being held to a person’s testicles
Australian Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell said the report found none of the alleged unlawful killings happened “in the heat of battle”.
“None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken,” he said.
“And every person spoken to by the inquiry thoroughly understood the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement under which they operated.
“These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values.”
The report found a “warrior culture” was fostered within the ADF, based on “a misplaced focus on prestige, status and power”.
“It turned away from the regiment’s heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service,” he said.
“The report notes that the distorted culture was embraced and amplified by some experienced, charismatic and influential non-commissioned officers and their proteges, who sought to fuse military excellence with ego, elitism and entitlement.”
General Campbell said some of those allegedly killed unlawfully were adolescent Afghani men.
“It is alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands, rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed,” Mr Campbell said.
“Once that rule was broken, so too, for some, was any further restraint.
“I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era,” he said.
“That is one of the most damaging aspects of this report … and it does undermine the Defence Force’s moral authority.”