Irresponsible use of social media by a small number of soldiers serving in Afghanistan

Media and consequently public controversy about certain Facebook and YouTube postings by a very small number of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan needs to be put into perspective. Those seeking to excuse the soldiers' behaviour and those seeking to portray such behaviour as typical in our defence force are both guilty of adopting extreme opinions that ignore the facts and the context involved.

The ADA's executive director visited Afghanistan three months ago — including talking to diggers deployed well forward of Tarin Kowt. He was again impressed by the professionalism and maturity of our diggers. Most soldiers and officers of all ranks continue to talk to the ADA very willingly and freely (in confidence) because they trust the Association and know how often the ADA has defended them in public from ignorant claims in the media or by uninformed or biased members of the public.  They also know how much we stand up for them, when justified, in disputes with the chain of command, the Department of Defence bureaucracy and the Ministers responsible for defence matters. 

The ADA has been the national public-interest watchdog for defence (and related) matters since 1975. After nearly four decades of observing or working with defence force personnel, however, the Association also understands that every sailor, soldier or airman/woman is not always perfect and that failures in professionalism, personal behaviour, leadership and/or training do sometimes occur. The ADA therefore remains an independent public-interest watchdog for the whole community, not some apologist group that can never see fault in our defence force collectively or its members individually. 

It is worth noting that the ADA has received no feedback at all from ADF personnel in Afghanistan, or indeed elsewhere, disagreeing with our stance of criticising the soldiers concerned in this incident . We have instead received many emails and telephone calls from serving and former defence force members (including veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan) thanking us for once again being the “voice of reason” in this matter. 

Somewhat bizarrely, but not unexpectedly, we have also received vituperative and invariably anonymous emails from the usual cranks accusing us of being apologists for ADF misbehaviour. These cranks try to criticise the ADA because our remarks are perceived as not critical enough, or because the cranks believe that everything about Australia's lawful and balanced participation in the UN-endorsed international effort to rebuild Afghanistan war is always somehow illegal or immoral. 

The context of this latest incident where social media has been misused essentially involves six aspects: 

  • Australian sailors, soldiers and airmen/women have always used black humour to help cope with adversity and this is both understandable and legitimate; 
  • sometimes such humour might appear to be in bad taste to some civilians who do not appreciate the context or circumstances; 
  • defence force personnel fighting wars are under types of stress that civilians largely cannot understand; 
  • to an extent, soldiers in particular have always tended to dehumanise their enemy, including with nicknames (Ities, Japs, Nips, Jerries, Krauts, Charlie, Skinnies, etc) but this is not racism; 
  • successful combat, especially in counter-insurgency wars, largely depends on the teamwork of small groups, but in networks of such groups where you cannot possibly know everyone else but still need to be able to depend on them; and 
  • every soldier must be able to depend on the professionalism and commonsense of his mates.

In fighting a counter-insurgency war one of the last things that needs to happen is where some unprofessional idiot is so lacking in commonsense that he or she needlessly provides propaganda to the enemy by posting undoubtedly racist and ignorant remarks on Facebook or YouTube . Particularly when such an enemy is continually claiming that our soldiers (and indeed our citizens generally) are infidels who can be killed without compunction because we are somehow lesser humans. The last thing needed is to sink to the enemy’s level or give them evidentiary-standard ammunition of our supposed attitudes which the Islamist enemy can then twist, exaggerate or otherwise misuse worldwide and use to reinforce support at home. 

Members of the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) and Mentoring Task Force (MTF) in particular also have to work in the field with Afghan soldiers and police on a daily basis. This naturally requires trust, teamwork and the development of mutual respect, both professionally and culturally. Our diggers also have to win the trust of the Afghan people they necessarily work (and fight) amongst and are there to help protect. Even if, for argument’s sake you disagree with this, we still need to win the co-operation of most Afghans to better protect our troops from attack from other Afghans. This is why the comments and clips posted on Facebook and YouTube are so particularly stupid professionally even if you believe that such ignorant, juvenile, cowardly, racist tripe can somehow be otherwise excused. 

This is also why posting such offensive material on social media has long been a disciplinary offence and every digger is specifically warned about this during pre-deployment training. It is also why every digger receives comprehensive cross-cultural awareness training about operating in Afghanistan during their pre-deployment training. None of those involved can claim they did not know the implications of their foolish actions. 

Although the recent postings were by a tiny minority of soldiers, they do show, to differing degrees, definite personal and professional failures by those soldiers. They also probably indicate failures in leadership by those commanding them, especially at section and platoon level. 

Fighting wars remains a tough business. In this particular incident, the soldiers concerned have badly let their mates down by their lack of commonsense and professionalism. They have also let down Australia, the Army, the Afghans they work with, the Afghans they are there to help protect, and the overall UN-endorsed war effort. The comments and film clips posted go well beyond black humour in adversity and well beyond what could legitimately be justified as a result of stress. 

Given their published comments and beliefs in social media, they are not fit to be soldiers in the Army because their stupid behaviour has added to the dangers their mates face. And the dangers their replacements face over the long run. 

Finally there is the point admirably made by General Peter Cosgrove (Retd). Our diggers have done a lot of good in Afghanistan (and elsewhere). It should not be undermined on the ground and in the public mind back here in Australia and around the world by the stupid actions of a small minority of unprofessional idiots.