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Ben Roberts-Smith: The Breaking of a Plaster Saint

It was an ugly case lasting five years with a host of ugly revelations. But what could be surprising about the murderous antics of a special arm of the military, in this case, the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, which was repeatedly deployed on missions in an open-ended war which eventually led to defeat and withdrawal?

Ben Roberts-Smith was meant to be a poster boy of the regiment, the muscular noble representative who served in Afghanistan, a war with sketchy justifications. Along the way, he became Australia’s most decorated soldier, raking in the Medal of Gallantry in 2006, the Victoria Cross in 2010, and a Commendation for Distinguished Services for outstanding leadership in over 50 high-risk operations in 2012. He came to be lionised in the popular press, even being named “Father of the Year” in 2013. 

A number of his colleagues, keen to take him down a peg or two, saw through the sheen. As did journalists at The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times. The deployments by the special forces to Afghanistan had not, as the narrative would have it, been paved with heroic engagements of military valour. Roberts-Smith, it seemed, was less plaster saint than ruthless executioner and bully. 

Some of the transgressions reported on by the papers were very much of the same type investigated by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force. The findings were eventually made available in the stomach churning Brereton Report, released in 2020. 

But even prior to that, a 2016 report by sociologist Samantha Crompvoets, commissioned by the Special Operations Commander of Australia (SOCAUST), noted body count competitions and the use of the Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL) among special force personnel sent to Afghanistan. The JPEL became what effectively amounted to a “sanctioned kill list”. Unsurprisingly, the numbers that were put forth were cooked, often featuring the gratuitous torture and killing of unarmed villagers.

Roberts-Smith, incensed by the reporting, commenced defamation proceedings against the three papers in question, and the journalists Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters and David Wroe. The use of such a civil weapon is often odious, a measure designed to intimidate scribblers and reporters from publishing material that might enlighten. While the defamation laws have been mildly improved since the trial’s commencement, featuring a public interest defence, the publishers here could only really avail themselves of the truth defence.

In the proceedings, three groups of articles featured, sporting a ghoulish succession of allegations. The first, published on June 8 and 9, 2018, are said to have conveyed three imputations: that Roberts-Smith “murdered an unarmed and defenceless Afghan civilian, by kicking him off a cliff and procuring the soldiers under his command to shoot him”; that he also breached moral and legal rules of military engagement thereby making him a criminal; and “disgraced his country Australia and the Australian army by his conduct as a member of the SASR in Afghanistan.”

The second group of articles, published on June 9 and 10 that year, were alleged to convey three imputations of murder, including the pressuring of a new, inexperienced SASR recruit to execute an elderly, unarmed Afghan as part of the “blood the rookie” ritual and the killing of a man with a prosthetic leg.

The third group of articles, published in August 2018, contain a whole medley of imputations including alleged domestic violence against a woman at Canberra’s Hotel Realm; the authorising of an unarmed Afghan’s execution by a junior member of his patrol; assaults on unarmed Afghans; bullying of one of the troops – one Trooper M – and threatening to report another soldier – trooper T – to the International Criminal Court for firing on civilians “unless he provided an account of a friendly fire incident that was consistent with the applicant’s”.

The trial ended in July 2022, after 110 days of legal submissions and evidence. During its course, Roberts-Smith, through his lawyers, dismissed the reliability of the eyewitness accounts. They were the bitter offerings of jealousy and mania, products of fantasy and fabulism. 

On June 1, the Federal Court Justice Anthony Besanko found against Roberts-Smith. The three papers, along with the journalists, had made out the defence of substantial truth of several imputations made under the Defamation Act 2005 of New South Wales. The defence of contextual truth was also successful on a number of claims.

Most damning for Roberts-Smith was the establishment of the substantial truth of the first three imputations: the murder of a defenceless Afghan in Darwan by means of kicking him off a cliff and ordering troops to fire upon him, breaching the laws of military engagement and disgracing the country’s armed forces. The newspapers had not, however, established the Particulars of Truth on two missions – that to Syahchow (October 20, 2012) and Fasil (November 5, 2012). Contextual truth was also made out on the allegations of domestic violence and bullying claims.

The net effect of the claims proven to be substantially and contextually true meant that the unproven statements had done little to inflict overall damage upon the soldier’s reputation. The plaster saint had cracked.

In the assessment of Peter Bartlett, law partner at the firm MinterEllison and also one of the lawyers representing the papers, “Never has Australia seen a media defendant face such challenges from a plaintiff and his funders. This is an enormous and epic win for freedom of speech and the right for the public to know.”

Fine words. Yet this murky case does little to edify the efforts of a unit that executed its missions with a degree of frightening zeal, let alone the commanders that deployed its members in the first place. Therein lies the uncomfortable truth to the whole matter. When trained killers perform their job well, morality beats a hasty retreat. Expectations of priestly judgment and pastoral consideration evaporate before the use of force. The ultimate saddling of responsibility must always lie higher up the chain of command, ending in the offices of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.   

Even now, the journalists involved claim they can find gemstones in the gutter, better angels among depraved beasts. According to James Chessell, managing director at Nine, which owns the three newspapers, the ruling was “a vindication for the brave soldiers of the SAS who served their country with distinction, and then had the courage to speak the truth about what happened in Afghanistan.” But did it really do that?


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  1. John Hanna

    This is what happens when we unleash the dogs of war. No-one should be the least bit surprised by this behavior. Prior to modern communication these things were in the past and forgotten before they ever had a chance to be publicised. I am not condoning just commenting.

  2. Lyndal

    If we are going to train soldiers to kill, if we are going to deploy men with equipment that has only one purpose, killing others, then how can we take this high moral stance and label some actions by soldiers in war zones as criminal. It is only soldiers on the ground, in personal confrontations that are even questioned about the morality of their actions.

    Apparently, bombing cities and attacking vehicle convoys from afar is okay, and the people who operate missiles and drones from a vast distance away go home at night to spouse and family, and sleep well. No criticism is laid on them even when it turns out that they have killed and injured innocents or destroyed a hospital.

    Destructive, murderous war is superseded. Now that we know how limited earth’s resources are, how wasteful is burning of fossil fuels etc, can anyone condone military adventures at all? .

  3. Ken Robinson

    The statement that NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW will now be tested in this case, these shocking events didnt happen by the actions of a few junior members of the ADF, they had to be known and sanctioned by senior officers and the political elite right up to the top, as this investigation progresses let us see if anyone is above the law?

  4. GL

    I wonder what the armchair warriors in the LNP are thinking now that their poster boy for war has been knocked off his undeserving pedestal.

  5. Canguro

    Not only knocked off GL, but smashed into a thousand pieces, such is the fate of a fallen plaster saint. One suspects that the future for BRS will not be one of comfort & commiseration from former friends & colleagues, let alone misguided billionaire employers, indeed, such is the disgrace at the now public naming & shaming of this psychopathic thug; murderer, war criminal, bully, liar, that the best he might be capable of is to dig himself into a foxhole somewhere out in the western Qld badlands where the crooks and thieves gather to spend their days in solitude and a slow sinking into the mists of madness, suffering the fate of those not fit to belong to a somewhat civilized society.

    And in a nod to Lyndal, above, with few exceptions all military forces are subject to being made aware of the Laws of War, obviously this includes the ADF. Actions labelled as criminal are very clearly defined and there is no ambiguity around this topic. Yes, soldiers are trained to kill, but they’re still subject to the rules of the game, however odious that game may be.

    You ask, ‘[how] can anyone condone military adventures at all?’ Perhaps the answers lie within the lizard brain. Who knows? We’ve been slaughtering each other for millennia, as one of mankind’s passions, evidently. Something deeply flawed within our psyches.

    re. drone operators sleeping blissfully, not so. There have been many accounts of PTSD amongst operators who must witness the results of their software manipulations via the screen; wedding parties blown to smithereens, hospitals, schools and other civilian targets destroyed by the Predators with their Hellfire missiles, the gory results on gray-scale on their screens albeit at height and from afar nevertheless impinged upon the psyches of the operators and eventually undermine their conditioned training to remain impassive in the face of their deadly efforts.

    Giving the final word to the ICRC. 10 things the rules of war do.

  6. New England Cocky

    This matter is among the best reasons for dumping the USUKA sub disaster, retaining Australian sovereignty and departing the proposed QUAD domination.
    When any country has the USA (United States of Apartheid) as an ally why is there any need for other enemies?

    Since 1945 Australia has been drawn into American wars of imperialism in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, only to be a big loser of military personnel and civilian infrastructure development at home with the monies wasted on this subsidisation of the American war effort. The only real beneficiaries have been the US NE Military industrial complex arms manufacturers in all those events and American multinational oil corporations in Iraq.
    Australia should become a member of the non-aligned block rather than pursue 19th century pipedreams of jingoistic nationalism.

  7. GL

    He’s resigned from whatever job he held at Channel 7.

  8. Caz

    Being at the top of the food chain, is why man resorts to killing not just for sustenance and survival but because he can We kid ourselves that we are civilised when actually we can be when we choose but so often we choose to behave as the lowest beasts. Not much has changed since we stood upright. Today we care more about our creature comforts than we do for the health of the planet, our homeless neighbours and living in peace. So I am not surprised at the behaviour of some men with guns. As for the rules of war, each and every one of us breaks laws every day of the week. Some don’t do much harm while pthers are same vein as PWC , Robodebt or Catholic Church Child Abuse. Seems it is easy to excuse our own failings until we are confronted with monstrous law breaking by others. In my 85 years I have seen the best of mankind and the worst. And it ain’t getting better.

  9. Harry Lime

    And this bloke got our highest military honor.Who nominated him,and where were his superiors?Were they all congratulating themseves in the officers mess? Or was this a political imperative to lend some justification to the backing of our ‘great friend’ in another, mindless,hugely destructive and immoral war?Our government needs to get out of the grip of the US as quickly as humanly possible,because the next war is going to wipe us out.
    Nuclear submarines? step right up.

  10. Stephengb

    This judgment is going to have profound impact on our ADF, and as a matter of fact I think not before time.

    The findings of this case is not the end, and rightly so, BRS is not just an isolated individual who acted wholy without reason, his behaviour and mind set must have been known to his officers in command of him, he was after all a mere corporal (clearly not ‘commissioned officer material). His yearly assessments must have revealed a man with at least an ego, perhaps even a bullying ability, just the sort of man to be a corporal.

    This will have repercussions for those who were is direct and direct superior officers, wha5ch while they come tumbling out of the closet to avoide scrutiny.

    Meanwhile anyone (with a modicome of sense) thinking of joining the ADF, will think again, forcing the ADF to drop their recruiting standards.

    As an ex serviceman subjected to the bs of those deemed superior to me I really hope that those commissioned and non commisioned officers who create the BRS, get their come uppance.

    Especially the clusterfcuk

  11. leefe

    “According to James Chessell, managing director at Nine, which owns the three newspapers, the ruling was “a vindication for the brave soldiers of the SAS who served their country with distinction, and then had the courage to speak the truth about what happened in Afghanistan.” But did it really do that?”

    I think it did, for those who spoke out. It takes courage, decency and genuine morality to break the bro-code, all the more so in such an organisation as the ADF. It would not have been an easy decision to make and the repercussions for those who did are likely to be long-term. One hopes that they have proper support from booth within and without the organisation.

  12. Terence Mills

    Anybody who ventures into a defamation courtroom and who refuses to settle out of court needs to be very sure of their facts and very well heeled : ask Oscar Wilde and Rupert Murdoch [and now Kerry Stokes].

    Kerry Stokes bankrolled Roberts-Smith and when the disbursal of costs is decided it is Stokes who will find it very distasteful to be reimbursing media competitor Nine for the bulk of their costs, which run into the millions.

    Remember when we were told that our troops in Afghanistan were carrying out training and building hospitals and schools ? What has now been revealed is that our venture into Afghanistan liberating the people of that country has left them hating us and their girls and women remain discriminated against.

    We were lied to again by the rodent !

  13. paul walter

    As it it matter to Stokes.

    Stokes used him for his own ideological and publicity purposes and has now sacked him.

    I saw the word “psychopath” used elsewhere, but if Australian psychopaths, massed, could fly the skies would remaiin black.

    I’d like deeper issues, showing the stubborn refusal of the armed services to reform over decades and whether the SAS in particular in fact recruits ONTHE BASIS OF psychopathy tackled.

    Smith is copping deserved shit, but I bet there is a raft of others, starting with the likes of Kathryn Campbell on her $million a year,.for bad stuff not committed under pressure , but with glee, backed by sado-nutters ever further up.

  14. New England Cocky

    @ paul walter: You make some good points about the chain of command being able to avoid responsibility for actions that they obviously approved, either by consent or omission, and there are too many such instances recorded when Australia foolishly chases pipedreams of jingoistic 19th century empire as lap-dog to the USA (United States of Apartheid).
    Think the Mi Lay massacre in Vietnam where a recently trained young American officer was sent to eliminate a Vietnamese village to be imprisoned alone among the perpetrators of the HQ Command officers. Or Abu Graib prison in Iraq where a lady officer was ”exposed” as the perpetrator of the long standing policy of totally inhumane treatment of prisoners amounting to torture that was conducted there by simpleton American ORs for their personal amusement. In neither case have I seen any reports of HQ Command officers being either investigated or tried.
    There is little need for any other enemies when any country is an ally of America. Remember supplying armaments and carpetbagging are the optimal policies for any war participant.

  15. Steve

    I see Seven West Media did not even bother with running a story on B.R.Smith.
    Not one mention from their supposedly truthful and honest reporters / presenters .
    Is this not in the public interest ?
    Did Seven West Media brake the Conflict of Interest rule ?
    If so , take away their broadcasting license .

  16. Steve

    The deceptive lie that never gets called out .
    ” 7NEWS goes deep on issues of national significance ”

    Straight from their website
    Deceitful lies that are allowed to run whilst making extraordinary money from government funding

  17. Harry Lime

    Steve,Stokes will be seriously smarting,having allowed the Anzac myth to cloud his judgement on a bloke that is obviously not that smart.A corporal in the army managing channel 7 in Brisbane? Really? A lot of loot down the drain to bask in some imaginary reflected glory.

  18. GL

    I wonder when the Libs are going to decant old caterpillar eyebrows from his formaldehyde jar to gibber on about how Ben is so being so unfairly picked on and what a hero and credit to the nation he was.

  19. Sherwood

    Steve, you will have to forgive Ch7, they are still on their training wheels.
    Things might be improving though as one of their wheels, David Koche, is about to fall off.

  20. paul walter

    Thanks, NEC.

    Those comments are heartening.

    I really doubt whether all of this will overcome the inertia.

  21. Stephengb

    How right you are, Leefe.

    Swimming against the current is hard, deliberately jumping in to do it takes courage.

    My own experience in the RAF taught me a lot about clusterfcuk even before Clint Eastwood used the name.

  22. Canguro

    Evidence put to the court quoted Roberts-Smith, on his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2006, saying, (with apologies to anyone who might take offence, but it is a quote from a national paper)…

    “I just want to kill c^nts. I don’t give a f^ck. I just want to kill c^nts.”

    A legitimate question might be: how did this psychopath ever get through the screening process in the ADF to be allowed to carry weapons and be set loose in a conflict zone? Or doesn’t the army do any screening to exclude murderous thugs who just want to immerse themselves in the gore of a killing spree? Is it, to the contrary, that they see such asymptotic misfits such as this dangerous criminal hooligan as ‘good soldier material’?

    The same may well have been asked of the NT Police recruitment office when they offered Zachary Rolfe a job.

  23. The AIM Network


    Apologies for your comment being held for moderation.

    The system does that by default for the ‘c’ word, even if abbreviated.

    All good.

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