Bringing the truth to light: My account of the review into Special Operations Command Culture

 

by Dr Samantha Crompvoets

 

In mid 2015 I was engaged by LTGEN Angus Campbell, then Chief of Army, and MAJGEN Jeff Sengelman, Special Operations Commander Australia, to interview members of the national security community and gather their perceptions on the role and capabilities of Australian Special Operations Forces. 

Contrary to what has been commonly reported in the media, this review was not an ‘investigation into war crimes’. It was about understanding culture, reputation and trust. However, where it ended was certainly a deviation from its initial objective. Submitted in January 2016, the report ‘Special Operations Command culture and interactions: Perceptions, reputation and risk’ detailed explicit allegations of misconduct and raised serious questions about the culture of some units within Special Operations Command (SOCOMD). 

 

The report triggered a four-year investigation into allegations of war crimes and serious misconduct amongst the SOCOMD community, led by supreme court judge, MAJGEN Paul Brereton.

 

The response from Army was not a ‘knee jerk reaction’, nor did it arise from political and/or public pressure. It was a considered response and they were not intent on rushing to a convenient end point.

 

A go-to catch cry for a certain group of commentators is that the ‘fog of war’ goes a long way to explain, justify, and possibly excuse the atrocities that have come to light. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one's own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.

 

‘Culture’ features heavily in analyses of ‘what went wrong’ in SOCOMD. Before, during and after the SOCOMD review I have examined Defence ‘culture’ and its relationship to capability in over 40 reviews and studies. Conducting research in similar organisations (such as emergency services) and in other militaries, has added to my thinking on the value of culture as a construct for understanding organisational or institutional issues. In my considered opinion, it is a ‘fog of culture’, not of war, that gives rise to many of these issues.

 

I am a military sociologist and Defence culture expert. A core part of my skill set is gaining very rich insights from interviews. Senior leaders engage me to tell the truth, no matter how ugly it is, and I take my duty to be ‘frank and fearless’ seriously.

 

 

The initial interviews

 

I interviewed senior people across the national security community who had worked with Special Forces over the years. The commentary contained vague implications and caveats like: ‘we sort of trust them, but not really’; ‘They’re good at what they do, but within boundaries’.

 

In order to better understand this context, I requested access to people internal to Special Forces. I asked them specific questions on their role and about being trusted to have an expanded role. The responses I received included disclosures about internal problems, and thoughts as to why Special Forces’ reputation might have been damaged, internationally, and nationally.

 

A snowball effect

 

As it became known that I was doing this piece of work, others contacted me independently. Some spoke on the condition of absolute anonymity. Some people sent me letters describing problems and issues and then it really snowballed.

 

My interpretation was that I was being told because, as someone independent from Defence and directly engaged by the Chief, I was in a unique position to do something about it.

 

The nature of what was described to me was particularly disturbing because it demonstrated the ‘normalisation’ of, and de-sensitisation to, certain behaviours. The chain of command appeared to be broken. Junior soldiers had too much autonomy over their actions and the ability and opportunity to conceal their behaviour.

 

The stories I was hearing came from multiple vantage points. They were corroborated.

The disclosures of alleged atrocities were potential war crimes. After four months and hundreds of hours of interviews, I submitted the report in January 2016.

 

Shortly following the submission of the report, LTGEN Campbell and MAJGEN Jeff Sengelman ordered the four-year IGADF inquiry into alleged atrocities.

 

A note on commentary

 

Eighteen months later I was contacted by journalists to say they had obtained a leaked copy of my report and they were going to publish it.

 

My work was out in the public domain but, with the investigation ongoing, I was unable to talk about it.

 

Surprisingly, the public discourse focused on the fact that I was a woman and had described myself as a feminist on my Twitter profile. I was trolled online and slandered on mainstream news and media. I was slammed for trying to ‘feminise Defence’ and people, who clearly had not read the report, assumed I was trying to ‘castrate’ Special Forces.

 

In reality, feminism was a huge enabler for my work because it gave me the confidence to tell an ugly truth to powerful men in a highly male-dominated organisation. Now that I am able to speak about these issues I would like to make it very clear: feminism is entirely consistent with Defence values, Army values, Navy Values and Air Force values. Those who decry feminism are likely to find it difficult to uphold the values of our Australian Defence Force.

 

My analysis

 

I am relieved that the IGADF’s investigation has now concluded. I’m proud of the work I’ve done and the role I was able to play in bringing truth to light.

 

I believe that the more secretive and cloistered a team is, the higher the risk that something can go wrong (without checks and balances in place). Special Forces are elite. The best of the best. But the more a group of people are told they’re ‘special’, and can have their own rules, the more segregated they become from accepted mainstream values and standards. 

 

Defence needs to now look at the big picture. They need to continue to look at who they’re selecting, how they’re training them and how they’re choosing their leaders.

 

Defence values integrity. It is the voices of individuals within SOCOMD itself that have been heard and validated by the IGADF’s report. Those within SOCOMD and the wider Defence organisation who brought forward and thoroughly investigated these issues deserve our respect and commendation. The profound impact on all Defence personnel associated with this matter, and their families, must not be underestimated. Just as it has affected me, and my family.

 

I have confidence in Defence’s ongoing response to these issues. Critical considerations for the future are: what accountability and transparency looks like for an organisation that has a capability requirement to be secretive; and ensuring processes are established to independently review whether any changes resulting from the investigation have met their objectives going forward. 

“The truth hurts, but silence kills” - Mark Twain

 

Independent organisational reviews are valuable because people within organisations have bias and agendas and it can be difficult to objectively see the truth. Any institution in which we put as much trust as we do in the Australian Defence Force has an obligation to a level of transparency and accountability.

 

I strongly believe that the truth has a powerful role to play in protecting our values and our humanness.

 

Support services are available to those affected by the Afghanistan Inquiry https://afghanistaninquiry.defence.gov.au/welfare-support

 

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