General Sir Peter Cosgrove believes the SAS soldiers at the heart of the Afghanistan war crimes probe should be put through the most rigorous inquiry.
Speaking at Maitland Libraries’ Look Who’s Talking Program last week, the former decorated Army officer, Governor General and Knight of the Order of Australia, shared his views on the current situation while reflecting on his own wartime experiences.
As the former Australian Defence Force chief, Sir Peter said, when the Brereton Report unveiled the alleged atrocities, committed by at least 15 Australian SAS soldiers in Afghanistan, on 6 November, he was “horrified”.
At the launch of his second book You Shouldn’t Have Joined, Sir Peter reflected on his memoirs and offered an insight into a soldier’s psyche.
“I’ve known those youngsters in the Special Air Service Regiment for many years,” he said.
“Not all of them of course, because there are thousands that pass through those ranks, but I’ve seen them in full cry and they are some of the best soldiers in the world.
“And to find out that a number of them, a relatively small number but a significant number, have allegedly been involved in serious criminality was so distressing.”
Sir Peter said, after years of military training, the soldiers were well aware of the wrongfulness of their actions.
“They know the line and they know they crossed it,” he said.
“That was an inquiry, we now need a criminal investigation and put this before the court as is the treatment for anybody who commits a crime like that in Australia.
“I think people are too aware and will come to understand that there was a group who formed, for reasons that Justice Brereton has attempted to describe, became brutalised and became murderers, and concealed it, we now have to put them through the most rigorous investigation.”
While the soldiers’ reputation will be questioned, Sir Peter says he hopes this will not become a reflection of people’s opinions of the Australian armed forces.
“I hate the idea that the whole regiment and the thousands that have come through the ranks have been stigmatised,” he said.
“This is a matter for the police and the court system now but if I was the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of the Army, I’d be ministering to the rest of the SAS Regiment and the rest of the army to ensure that we make it crystal clear that these are legitimate forces that know where the line is and not to cross that line.”
Repeated deployments could be a contributing factor to alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, Sir Peter said.
“I think there is an impact on anyone that goes into extremely dangerous circumstances over and over again,” he said.
“Our history books are full of accounts of the impact on soldiers in the front line in the world wars.
“In World War I, it was confined trenches, massive artillery, all kinds of health risks, and shellshock.
“In a new type of war like Afghanistan, every time you’re outside the wire someone is trying to blow you up with a suicide bomb or with intense fire.
“The impact on the individual is immense. Very good soldiers do the job they do for months and get a year off.
“The first few months that soldier is home, his family are saying he’s uptight, it’s obvious he’s stressed.
“After a year you’re ready to go back, so for the back end of that year you’re starting to get on your toes again.
“To me, that sounds weary. My logic would be to send different people.
“Even though these soldiers are so highly trained, they can’t train their emotions to be impervious.”
In his book, Sir Peter refers to the detriment of soldiers returning to the ‘cauldron’.
“If you burn a candle at both ends it will burn brightly but soon you will have no candle,” he wrote.
There is little Sir Peter hasn’t dealt with in his 73 years.
His decorated career spans an extensive array of traumatic events, including the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Queensland’s Cyclone Larry, NSW bushfires and a global pandemic.
After being awarded the Military Cross in 1971 for his service in the Vietnam War, Sir Peter came to the attention of the Australian public when he served as commander, overseeing the peacekeeping mission in East Timor during its transition to independence.
His first-hand experiences of war forms part of his book.
“In battle, you’re thinking about doing your job and looking out for each other,” he said.
“I’ve never for one moment taken any delight in the fact that we’d taken other lives, but, on the other hand, I didn’t resolve from it.
“That was what we had to do in extreme situations.
“You couldn’t walk through the jungle yelling: ‘We don’t want to hurt you so surrender now’.
“We did what we had to do. I don’t know that anyone felt anything other than a sense of sombre acceptance that fighting involves people getting hurt and people getting killed.”
The book, his second of his memoirs to be published, took Sir Peter just six months to complete.
“Wayne Bennett, [the] now Queensland coach, said don’t die with the music in you,” he said.
“Once you’ve made a decision that you’re going to commit [to] something for the record, it bursts out of you.
“I found COVID banished the ordinary temptations to do other things. I watched the thing grow, thousands of words every day – it was quite satisfying.”
After 40-years spent in military life, Sir Peter and Lady Cosgrove are now looking forward to a quieter life.
“We’re going to drive up to Queensland and hang out with our Brisbane-based kids,” he said.
“The grandkids are growing up like weeds, and we’re conscious of missing that.”