opinion

BEN HARVEY: Defence chief Angus Campbell should turn his head in self-shame when a real war hero passes

Headshot of Ben Harvey
Ben Harvey
The Nightly
Ben Harvey
Ben Harvey Credit: The West/ AAP/The Nightly

“The first noise I heard was the screaming. The vehicle was completely eviscerated. The man who had been sitting at the rear of the car, facing backwards, had now propped himself up, 20 feet away where he’d landed, silently and fastidiously applying a bandage to a small cut on his shin while torrents of blood poured unnoticed from his neck onto the front of his armour.

“And still the screaming, the top gunner its source, staring in disbelief at the pulp where his right thigh had been moments earlier. Our medic, quick to his side, working rapidly, asking him to rate the pain and him screaming, ‘10, 10, 10’ over and over and over.”

The account by former SAS commander Ben Pronk of what happened in the seconds after a roadside bomb exploded near Australian vehicles in Uruzgan Province makes for tough reading.

Sign up to The Nightly's newsletters.

Get the first look at the digital newspaper, curated daily stories and breaking headlines delivered to your inbox.

Email Us
By continuing you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.
Image from Dr Dan Pronk, Ben Pronk and Tim Curtis' new book The Resilience Shield
SAS commander Ben Pronk. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

Ben was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service in Afghanistan. The explosion under a long-range patrol truck as it headed back to base in 2008 was not the only reason for the medal and certainly not his only encounter with the horror of war.

Ben’s brother Dan survived four rotations in Afghanistan. The army doctor was 36 hours into a fierce gun battle during one of them when he came across blood-soaked drag marks in an alley.

“As I entered the roofless mudbrick room my vision fixated for a brief second on a large chunk of burnt flesh on the dirt floor before moving a few metres past it to the first casualty.

“Shredded stumps occupied the spaces where limbs had once been, the blood loss stemmed by the effective placement of arterial tourniquets by his teammates. Glistening white bone contrasted starkly with the blood-soaked dirt below. As I knelt at his head end my sense of smell was assaulted by the coppery stench of blood mixed with burnt flesh and cordite.

“The casualty’s wandering eyes meeting mine briefly before closing for a final time, the groaning sound of his last exhalation before breathing ceased.”

Dan didn’t get a Distinguished Service Cross but did receive a Commendation for Distinguished Service (for combat actions).

I don’t know whether this is a sore point not to be brought up at the Pronk family Christmas lunch but suspect it isn’t because both men are comfortable in their own skins.

Take a moment to re-read those two battlefield accounts and then ask yourself how those heroics can possibly be compared to the actions of outgoing defence chief Angus Campbell, who spent most of the Afghanistan war in an office in United Arab Emirates.

General Campbell received his DSC four years after Ben Pronk watched his top gunner screaming and 12 months after Dan Pronk held the shattered body of a dying soldier in Helmand Province.

Image from Dr Dan Pronk, Ben Pronk and Tim Curtis' new book The Resilience Shield

Pictured - Ben Pronk
Ben Pronk - An image from the new book The Resilience Shield. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

General Campbell never came under enemy fire during his 369-day command in Afghanistan yet is considered to have exhibited as high a level of “distinguished command and leadership in action” as one Pronk brother and even higher than the other.

Does General Campbell have the self-awareness to at least blush when he looks at that medal?

Does he have the good grace to glance away when he walks past other recipients?

There weren’t too many raised eyebrows when he received the award in 2012 and there probably wouldn’t be today had Australia’s defence chief not moved to strip Afghanistan War decorations from 3000 special forces personnel.

That decision in 2020 pissed off a lot of soldiers, who felt they were being tarred with the same brush used on the troops accused of war crimes.

The bit that really boiled their piss was that the man holding the brush had never been in the shit with them and had been absolved of responsibility by the Brereton report into war crimes despite being in command of the theatre of war.

Those aggrieved men and women are now going on the offensive, saying the Government should forcibly revoke the DSC honour because it was fraudulent.

Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) General Angus Campbell delivers the findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry, in Canberra, Thursday, November 19, 2020. A landmark report has shed light on alleged war crimes by Australian troops serving in Afghanistan. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) General Angus Campbell delivers the findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry, in Canberra, Thursday, November 19, 2020. A landmark report has shed light on alleged war crimes by Australian troops serving in Afghanistan. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

In a series of letters sent to Defence Minister Richard Marles they asked how the General could have been “in action” when he spent most of his time not in Afghanistan but at the Joint Taskforce-633 headquarters in the UAE.

With the understated precision of a King’s Counsel they inquired “precisely how, when, and where” he was physically present in direct combat during his 34 visits to Afghanistan; “where and when” he was in proximity, or under fire of an adversary; and whether he truly believed he could have been lawfully awarded the DSC if he was never “in action”.

I have no idea what Ben and Dan Pronk think of General Campbell’s DSC. I doubt they would tell me if I asked because their respect for the chain of command, and the need to keep certain matters private, runs deep.

The brothers will be mortified that I have mentioned them in this column especially so because I used the “h” word. Real heroes don’t like that descriptor.

These are men who can kill with their thumbs, so I don’t take their wrath lightly.

Regardless of their view, it must have been an excruciating read for General Campbell when he was passed the letters written by the men and women he commanded, which I am certain he was.

He knows he was lucky that his military career was rarely punctuated by scenes of “glistening white bone contrasting with blood-soaked dirt” and that his senses were seldom assaulted by “the coppery stench of blood mixed with burnt flesh and cordite”.

So surely he must have squirmed, at least a bit, when he was accused of never popping his battlefield cherry in Afghanistan.

Comments

Latest Edition

The front page of The Nightly for 22-07-2024

Latest Edition

Edition Edition 22 July 202422 July 2024

Desperate Democrats look to comeback queen Harris.