Australia confronts the ‘war hero’ myth after Ben Roberts-Smith

Adeyemi Adeyemi

Global Courant

When details of alleged war crimes involving Ben Roberts-Smith first circulated in the Australian media in 2017, many thought it inconceivable that their country’s most decorated living soldier would be given a special display at the Australian War Memorial for his service in East -Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, could be guilty.

After reports appeared in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times newspapers, Roberts-Smith launched a libel suit in an apparent attempt to clear his name.

But on June 1, he emerged from a civil suit in a Sydney court with his reputation in tatters after Judge Anthony Besanko concluded he had “difficulty accepting the applicant’s evidence on a disputed matter” and ruled that the allegations of the newspapers, on the balance of opportunity, where.

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The former special forces corporal was “compliant and responsible for murder,” the judge said in his full verdict released a week ago.

“The public image of Roberts-Smith is consistent with the very entrenched image of the low-key Aussie hero and this gentle giant mythology,” Kit Messham-Muir, a professor of art at Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry , and an expert in the art and visual culture of war and conflict, told Al Jazeera.

“It says a lot about the masculinity of the Australian dude and the idea of ​​the ‘soft heart and hard fist’. This made him seem very palatable as the public face of the Australian soldier and was seen as beyond reproach.

Australians have long revered their army and their heroes.

Anzac Day is one of Australia’s most important national holidays.

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The judge ruled that Roberts-Smith was “an accessory to murder” when he was deployed to Afghanistan (File: Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Anzac, which stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, originally referred to the ill-fated World War I attempt to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915, which killed thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers.

But the holiday now commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions around the world, built on the idea of ​​heroic sacrifice for a greater good.

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Messham-Muir says Anzac Day commemorations have grown in popularity in recent years, even as the number of veterans from World War II and other major conflicts such as the Vietnam War had declined.

Experts say the idea of ​​honoring the war hero gained new momentum under John Howard, who was prime minister between 1996 and 2007, encouraging respect for the military as a new kind of neo-patriotism. Howard was also the prime minister who sent Australian troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, which led him to become politically interested in linking national identity to foreign military adventures.

Given the strong reverence for the military, the Roberts-Smith case has polarized Australia, leading to tough questions about how the country’s national identity is linked to its armed forces.

“The Roberts-Smith defamation case is the latest and most startling episode in the ongoing saga of allegations that Australian personnel committed war crimes while deployed to Afghanistan,” said Dean Aszkielowicz, a senior lecturer and fellow at the Asia Research Center at Murdoch University in Perth. said Al Jazeera.

“Details of these allegations first appeared in several press articles and an official inquiry by the Australian Defense Forces Inspector General, the result of which is known as the Brereton Report. For many in the Australian public, and some international observers, the details in the Roberts-Smith case and the Brereton report of actions allegedly taken by Australian personnel have seriously tarnished the reputation of the Australian Defense Force.

The Brereton Report, released in 2020 in heavily redacted form following a four-year investigation, shocked the Australian public after revealing a culture of unlawful killings, gruesome initiation rituals and cover-ups by the Australian military in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2005. 2016.

The alleged war crimes are now in the hands of the Office of the Special Investigator, which in March charged a 41-year-old former member of the Special Forces with murder — for a killing in Afghanistan — marking the first time a serving or former member of the the armed forces had been charged with a war crime.

Tarnished plate

The Roberts-Smith defamation case involved four murders in Afghanistan, including two alleged murders that took place in 2009 at a property known as Whiskey 108 where two local men were found huddled in a tunnel.

After the unarmed men surrendered, the court heard, Roberts-Smith ordered a junior serviceman to shoot one of the men and throw the other, who had a prosthetic leg, to the ground before machine-gunning him. shot. The prosthetic leg is said to have been taken as a souvenir by another soldier and used as a drinking cup in the Fat Ladies’ Arms – an Australian bar on the special forces base.

Roberts-Smith was also charged with kicking an unarmed Afghan villager named Ali Jan, who was handcuffed, off a cliff into a dry river bed in Darwan village. When the man was found to be alive, Roberts-Smith reportedly ordered a junior officer to shoot him – a claim the judge also found, on the basis of probability, to be true.

“For many Australians, the military and the country’s military history play an important role in national identity,” said Aszkielowicz. “While Australia has been embroiled in difficult conflicts throughout its history, for the most part the public views the country’s war record as relatively clean, with few controversies regarding the conduct of Australian personnel and the laws of war.”

Roberts-Smith met Queen Elizabeth in 2011, shortly after being awarded the Victoria Cross (File: Anthony Devlin/AP Photo)

He noted that while some high-profile media and political figures tried to defend Roberts-Smith’s reputation when the allegations against him first emerged, the former corporal appears destined to be divisive “considered by most to be a notorious war criminal and by others as an unfairly treated war hero whose actions have more to do with failures of higher leadership and the need for war.”

Roberts-Smith’s downfall is all the greater because of the accolades he had received and the esteem in which he was held.

In addition to the Victoria Cross and the Medal for Gallantry, the soldier was the subject of a special exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, including his uniform and two specially commissioned portraits.

Since the libel verdict was announced, the Greens have called for the removal of Roberts-Smith’s uniform and the removal of the paintings – one of which, pistol gripdepicts him in a fighting stance – were at the center of a fierce debate over whether they should remain on display.

Pistol Grip notes quote the artist of the work, Michael Zavros, as saying that when he asked Roberts-Smith to pose in a fighting stance, he “seemed to go into this whole different mode. He was suddenly this other being and I saw all those other things right away. It showed me what he’s capable of… it was just there in this flash”.

When approached for comment by Al Jazeera, the Australian War Memorial referred to a statement by its chairman, Kim Beazley, posted on its website. all involved in the Australian community,” the statement said. It added that the memorial is “carefully considering the additional content and context” to be included in displays of items related to Roberts-Smith, including his uniform, equipment, medals and associated artwork.

“The Memorial recognizes Afghanistan veterans and their families who may be affected at this time,” it concluded.

Roberts-Smith was Australia’s most decorated living soldier when he filed legal action against the three newspapers when they published reports of war crimes in Afghanistan (File: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Messham-Muir argues that even if the portraits are temporarily removed, it is important that they remain on display in the long term.

“The portraits form the basis of a conversation about representations of our military in contemporary art and how our overseas institutions give back to us,” he said.

“They tell a really interesting story about how we create heroes and what we do through our own retelling of these stories.”


Australia confronts the ‘war hero’ myth after Ben Roberts-Smith

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