The public version of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report went live on their website about twelve minutes ago. It’s some 465 pages long, so we would expect there to be at least twenty minutes more before the hot takes emerged.
The public reaction to reports like this tend less to be about their content and far more about validating existing beliefs. The issues are complex, difficult, and confronting, and probably not well suited to analysis by political editors whose bread and butter is theatre criticism of politicians. The question then emerges about how to get intellectual leadership in public debate. Academic experts outside of official channels have only had the report now for fifteen minutes, and social media is already abuzz.
One of the surprising findings of the Inquiry was that there was ‘no evidence that there was knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the commission of war crimes, on the part of commanders and troop/platoon, squadron/company or Task Group Headquarters level’ . But — and here’s the more interesting bit — the Inquiry was not ‘of the view that there was any failure at any of those levels to take reasonable and practical steps that would have prevented or detected the commission of war crimes’ . This was because ‘few would have imagined some of our elite soldiers would engage in the conduct that has been described’ .
There’s clearly a disconnect between the social media commentary currently going wild (even being encouraged by some journalists) and the findings of the report. One property journalist has just tweeted that the sort of behaviour described in the report is due to Howard spruiking ANZAC Day…
I’m going to pivot a bit here. I think that there is a real failure by the Government to help the public to understand what’s going on, what the issues are, and where the limits of reasonable opinion are. A heavily redacted 465 page document is not going to get ahead of the public opinion backlash.
That’s a problem for two reasons. First, it means that the public debate is not terribly well informed. Second, it means that people who should be engaged in this discussion have obstacles to participation. You shouldn’t need to read a 465 page document in order to get informed.
I suspect that we’re going to see the usual kind of reaction to this polarised public debate: the bulk of the population generally not caring that our elite soldiers engaged in conflict without regard for the laws of armed conflict. This is something we can test. The armed forces is consistently one of the most trusted institutions in Australia: will we see that drop in the next survey? Will people dismiss it as merely the behaviour of 25 people? Will people dismiss it as merely the sort of atrocity that is supposed to happen during warfare?
It’s for these reasons that you need intellectual leadership. You need a public that has a better understanding of the principles behind how we engage in armed conflict — that it’s not a case of all being fair in war. You need a public that has a better understanding of the sort of shame that I understand senior members of the armed forces are experiencing but have a very high likelihood of externalising to a few bad eggs.
Why do you need this? Because this is how democratic participation regulates the Executive. If people aren’t suitably outraged and don’t value holding people to account, then you allow a shift in acceptable behaviours from political elites.
For my part, the bits of the report that I’ve seen suggest a systemic problem. It’s not good enough for elite soldiers to talk about the culture that they need to do their job, and that civilians simply don’t understand the working environment they need to do extraordinarily awful work. It’s the opposite: elite soldiers need to understand the expectations of the informed and rational community. If the sort of culture can thrive that we see in the report, then there’s too much trust in elite soldiers to do the right thing and too little accountability.
I note, of course, that I stack the deck when I talk about the sort of community values reflected. There is a good chunk of the community that, no doubt, would not care how our elite soldiers behave so long as they win and kill bad guys. But this gets me back to the start of the loop: having the intellectual leadership to guide that public debate.
This is not a public discussion where we can get into the details of what is going on. This is, instead, a public discussion where we need to reflect on community values and have greater confidence that those values are being reflected in areas with reduced (or, as it seems, no) oversight.