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

When details of the alleged war crimes involving Ben Roberts-Smith first surfaced in the Australian media in 2017, many found it inconceivable that their country’s most decorated living soldier, with a dedicated display at the Australian War Memorial for his service in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, was guilty. may be

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

But on June 1, he withdrew from the civil case in a Sydney court after Judge Anthony Besanko concluded he had “difficulty accepting the applicant’s evidence on the disputed matter” and ruled that the newspaper’s allegations hung on balance. Probability, truth.

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

“Roberts-Smith’s public image accords with the very underlying image of the Aussie hero and this gentle giant mythology,” says Keith Measham-Muir, professor of art in Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, and an expert on war and conflict art and visual culture. , told Al Jazeera.

“It says a lot about Aussie bloke masculinity and the idea of ​​’soft hearts and hard fists’. It made him very palatable as the public face of the Australian soldier, and he was seen above reproach.”

Australians have long revered their military and their heroes.

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

Ben Roberts-Smith stands at attention before an AFL game in Perth in 2013 as the last post is played.  He is in uniform.  Beside him is an elderly veteran in a wheelchair, surrounded by other soldiers saluting and a group of young women behind.
Judge finds Roberts-Smith was ‘involved in murder’ while deployed in 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 left thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers dead.

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

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

Experts say the idea of ​​honoring war heroes gained new momentum under John Howard, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2007 and promoted honoring the military as a new form of patriotism. Howard was also the prime minister who sent Australian troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, giving him the political interest to link national identity to overseas military operations.

Given the strong respect for the military, the Roberts-Smith case has polarized Australia, raising difficult questions about how the country’s national identity is tied to its armed forces.

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

“Details of these allegations were first published in a number of press articles and in an official inquiry by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Force, the outcome of which is known as the Brereton Report. To many in the Australian public, and to some international observers, the details of the Roberts-Smith case, and the Brereton Report’s description of the actions taken by Australian personnel, have seriously tarnished the reputation of the Australian Defense Force.”

The Brereton Report, which was published in heavily revised form in 2020 after a four-year investigation, shocked the Australian public after revealing unlawful killings, gruesome initiation rites and a culture of cover-up by the Australian military in Afghanistan since 2005. 2016.

The alleged war crimes are now in the hands of the Office of Special Investigators, which in March indicted a 41-year-old former Special Forces member for the killing — the first time a member of the armed forces identified as serving or former has been charged with war crimes.

tarnished record

Roberts-Smith’s defamation case involved four killings in Afghanistan, including two alleged killings that took place in 2009 at a compound known as Whiskey 108 where two local men were held in a tunnel.

After the unarmed men surrendered, the court heard, Roberts-Smith ordered a junior serviceman to shoot one of the men and knock the other, who had a prosthetic leg, to the ground before shooting him with a machine gun. The artificial rug was taken by another soldier and kept as a souvenir and used as a drinking vessel in an Australian bar at the Fat Ladies Arms – Special Forces base.

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

“For many Australians, the country’s military and its military history play an important role in national identity,” Aszkielowicz said. “Although Australia has been involved in difficult conflicts throughout its history, for the most part, the public regards the country’s war record as relatively clean, with some controversy surrounding the conduct of Australian personnel and the laws of war.”

Ben Roberts-Smith met Britain's Queen Elizabeth shortly after receiving the Victoria Cross.  He is in uniform.  Rani wears a blue dress and carries a white handbag on her wrist.  They look happy and relaxed.
Roberts-Smith met Queen Elizabeth in 2011, shortly after she was 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 appeared to be a divisive figure “regarded by most as a notorious war criminal and by others .the unjustly treated war hero whose actions have more to do with a failure of leadership and more to do with the exigencies of war”.

Roberts-Smith’s downfall is all the more acute for the acclaim he received and the esteem in which he was held.

In addition to the Victoria Cross and 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 Party has called for Roberts-Smith’s uniform to be removed and the paintings – one of which, Pistol Grip, depicts him in a fighting position – have been at the center of intense debate over whether they should. should be on display.

In the notes accompanying Pistol Grip, the work’s artist Michael Zavros is quoted as saying that when he asked Roberts-Smith to pose in a fighting pose, he “seemed to go into this whole other mode. He was suddenly this other animal and I immediately saw all these other things. . It showed me what he was capable of… it was in this flash”.

When contacted for comment by Al Jazeera, the Australian War Memorial posted a statement on its website from its chair, Kim Beazley. Everyone involved in the Australian community,” the statement said. It added that the memorial “considers additional content and context” to include on display items related to Roberts-Smith, including his uniform, equipment, medals and associated artefacts.

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

Ben Roberts-Smith walks out the glass doors of the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney in June 2021 after he sued three newspapers for defamation.  He wore a dark suit and carried a holdall.  A robed lawyer stands before him
Roberts-Smith was Australia’s most decorated living soldier when he took legal action against three newspapers after they published reports on alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. [File: Sam Mooy/Getty Images]

Mesham-Muir argues that even if portraits are temporarily removed, it is important that they remain on display for a long time.

“The portraits form the basis of a conversation about the representation 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 with our own reenactments of these stories.”

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