Isolation and Deviance in the Military

Antipodean audiences are no doubt disturbed by a slew of recent allegations that members of the Australian and New Zealand special forces were responsible for the unlawful killing of civilians during operations in Afghanistan.

The shock delivered to the cultural landscape of these two, geographically-isolated island-nations cannot be understated.

In both countries, ANZAC Day – a day of commemorative remembrance for the soldiers of the “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps” of World War One – is marked as a sacrosanct ritual in the national calendar. For Australians especially, the mythology of “the Digger” – the punchy but well-meaning Australian soldier – occupies an important role in the formation of the broader communal identity.

As a former Australian soldier myself, to think that my country’s most highly-trained Diggers would carry out atrocities while carrying a worn insignia of the Australian National Flag is to undermine a foundational myth about who “we” [Australians] are as a people – requiring an inward gaze that is at once too raw and atavistic for it to be comfortable.

And yet, as Erich Remarque once said of the horrors of the Western Front and as Churchill once said of “the truth” more broadly: “there it is” – and this is what has been done in our name.

Of course, given what anthropologists know about violence in human society – national myths like that of “the spotless ANZAC” are begging to be dispelled.

Unpleasant as it may be to stew on, ANZAC forces were the guilty party in at least two notorious episodes during World War One – one, a drunken riot through Cairo’s Wazzir district which left the place half-burned to the ground; the other, the premeditated massacre of more than one hundred Bedouin males in the Arab village of Surafend.

Rather than getting bogged down in the obvious however (that barbaric violence is not exclusive to one’s enemy) the key to understanding any act of wartime misconduct is to examine the specific cultural context in which it occurred. At the meta-level, the use of the word “crime” in the term “war crime” naturally implies deviance. But since the incidents in Afghanistan do not seem to have occurred in isolation, it makes sense to look at this kind of individuating behavior as a socialization problem as well.

On the whole, the majority of the allegations levelled at Western forces in Afghanistan pertain to incidents involving so-called “special forces” – the hand-picked cadres of shock troops styled as elite fighters in modern Western militaries. It therefore makes sense to focus on the cultural habits within these units themselves.

First and foremost, “special” forces derive their nominal adjective in that they are specially groomed for the most special and dangerous military tasks following a rigorous training process. This training process, often referred to as “selection” by members of these units, typically involves the completion of an arduous set of tasks designed to test a soldier’s physical and mental acumen.

Functioning as a rite of passage comparable to the agōgē curriculum in ancient Sparta – this selection process creates a closed-circle environment where credibility within the group is determined by a member’s “badged” status – proof that he is a graduate of the selection system. The consequences of the closed-circle environment that selection creates is two-fold. On the one hand, such units are able to break with the regimented methodologies of the conventional army – finding a space for lateral thinking and flexibility in the performance of military duties.

On the other hand however, by elevating and separating “special operators” from their regular counterparts, the end result is the creation of an effective “Army within an Army” which conducts its business at a distance, and sometimes in isolation of the rest of the force.

The word “isolation” is the operative word here, because in more ways than one, it is useful for describing the kinds of cultural and geographic spaces in which aberrant behavior like war crimes can occur.

From a geographic perspective, one of the whistleblowers in the ABC’s reporting, explicitly emphasized that Afghanistan’s “remote, isolated environment” provided a space in which the laws of war could be bent by “an influential minority” within special forces.

The imaginarium of “rural Afghanistan by night” also describes the kind of environment in which deviant behaviour might occur. Elementary human fears of the dark aside, the nighttime provides a domain in which potential witnesses are either asleep or numerically few – where the harsh detail of the light of day is hidden to prying eyes.

The specifically nocturnal aspect of some of the alleged incidents cannot be ignored, not least because night raids by Western special forces proved to be an ongoing sore point in the relationship between coalition forces and Afghans at the height of combat operations. After a spike in killings associated with HVT operations in August 2010, the tempo of night raids remained steady country-wide until the death of Hamid Karzai’s cousin, Yar Mohammad Karzai during a midnight attack in rural Kandahar. Although data collected by the Afghan Analyst’s Network suggests that ISAF began “taking more care” following this incident, night operations – especially those conducted by special forces – continued until Karzai himself (responding to pressure by local Afghans) issued a wholesale proscription on actions at night by ISAF in April 2012.

Karzai’s ban notwithstanding however, a number of former SOTG members have since recounted that raid planners simply took the proscription in stride. For the most part, night raids continued with H-hour timed for “nautical first light” – an hour when only those equipped with night-vision equipment would be able to effectively conduct operations.


Why the spike in August 2010? (Source: AAN)

Elsewhere, other factors are also at play in what Dr Megan McKenzie has described as special forces’ “culture of exceptionalism”. The structural isolation from the rest of the army, while it provides special forces units a degree of autonomy, can also provide a space where governance over an individual soldier’s actions (especially his actions on the battlefield) ceases to be vertically-defined. In such an environment, where “rank is nothing compared to talent”, the possible implications vis-à-vis a special operator’s “freedom of action” are many (and perhaps self-explanatory).

Referring specifically to the loose leash given to special forces in Afghanistan, Chris Green, a British Army intelligence officer who served in Helmand stated that “the troops I worked with, worked under very very strict rules of engagement… it seemed to me that special forces did not have to apply the same rules in quite the same way”.

On the same topic, the ABC’s whistleblower speaks of a “lack of accountability”, “protectionism” (as in, protecting one’s peers from facing repercussions for unlawful behavior), “self-glorification” and a “culture of emulation” where other soldiers’ and other units’ “kill counts” are trophies to be envied. Bed Wadham, a former military investigator and sociologist at Flinders University neatly describes the entire phenomenon as “violent elitism”, arguing that unlawful deviance can occur as a result of “team cohesion in elite groups… who operate with the belief that they are above the law”.

Certainly, none of this should be surprising to anyone who has properly digested the semiotics of the title “Rogue Warrior” – the autobiography of SEAL Team Six founder Richard Marcinko. Today SEAL Team Six now stands accused of a post-mortem practice called “canoeing” – described as “a ritualised form of enemy mutilation”.

It’s important to point out that the autonomous and selective nature of special forces in and of itself, does not necessarily “cause” a war crime situation. Special forces selection courses specifically seek to identify professional integrity in an individual – meaning that the caliber of the average soldier may be higher than in a regular military unit (the definition of “caliber” here is of course up for debate).

Another factor to consider (but only in some cases) is that of exhaustion. Battle fatigue, as well as the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from over a decade-and-a-half of sustained combat operations might also play a role. When one considers that many of the soldiers in the reporting were involved in nightly raids six-days-a-week on up to eight back-to-back tours in heavily-contested parts of Afghanistan, it is possible to imagine a situation in which some soldiers simply “ceased being good”.

“Moral injury” – which social psychiatrist Brett Litz contends is caused by transgressions against deeply-held ethical and cultural norms – could be linked to the “un-truing” of a soldier’s moral compass. The relevance of combat stress and moral exhaustion is probably relevant for some perpetrators but irrelevant for others (for example, soldiers on their first tour to Afghanistan.

In any case, the causes of deviant behavior in wartime are complex and multifarious. Few of the mentioned causes, in isolation, seem sufficient to produce a war crime situation although “isolation” itself – both geographic and cultural – seem a necessary condition for a perpetrator to escape accountability and oversight.

Either way, a breakdown of discipline and a dearth in restraint is at fault here – two battlefield phenomena from which no one – least of all, a professionalised military with a reputation to maintain – stands to benefit. Ultimately, when violence becomes an end rather than a means, a military force will tend to find itself increasingly less useful to the government it serves. If the allegations are telling of the larger state of affairs within the units in question, Australia’s special forces are heading that way.

[Ed. – corrected in 2022 to depict the author’s updated views on “moral injury”]

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