EDITORIAL: Medal scuffle shows depth of the ADF’s disconnect

Editorial
The Nightly
A large group of veterans and serving ADF personnel are furious General Campbell received a cross for being ‘in action’ given he was never in a ‘gun fight’.
A large group of veterans and serving ADF personnel are furious General Campbell received a cross for being ‘in action’ given he was never in a ‘gun fight’. Credit: Mick Tsikas /Getty Images

As civilians, it’s difficult to imagine how it must have felt for the unknown number of Australian veterans of the Afghanistan war to receive letters from General Angus Campbell demanding they justify why they deserved to keep their medals.

Their boss, Australia’s highest-ranking soldier, issued them a please explain. Justify what you have done and why you did it. Decisions made in battle, under enemy fire.

The implication: you don’t deserve your nation’s gratitude.

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Now, it’s General Campbell’s turn.

Dozens of Australian Defence Force personnel — both retired and serving — have written to Defence Minister Richard Marles with a request of their own. To strip General Campbell of his distinguished service cross received in 2012 for his “distinguished command and leadership in action” during his command in Afghanistan.

Their issue, the words “in action”.

“Action”, to their understanding, means what they were doing. Putting their lives on the line in the face of a dangerous enemy.

Living and working in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Getting shot at, having roadside bombs exploding around them.

Not sitting 1200km away from that theatre of war, in the Joint Taskforce-633 headquarters at the Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

The letter to Mr Marles points out that General Campbell only spent 112 days in Afghanistan. One-third of the time he was in command. The group demands an explanation as to when General Campbell came into direct combat with a foe, when he came under fire. When he demonstrated this distinguished command and leadership “in action” for which he received the honour.

A group of disgruntled commandos with an axe to grind?

Perhaps.

But their extraordinary demand illustrates the depth of the rift left in the wake of the Brereton report, and the response of the ADF brass to that report, which found “credible information” that current or former Special Air Service Regiment personnel were involved in unlawful killings in Afghanistan.

All the blame for those alleged killings was put at the feet of soldiers and junior officers.

Those further up the command had no case to answer, according to Maj-Gen. Paul Brereton.

Following the release of that report, General Campbell was reported to have offered to hand back some of his own medals, an offer which was rebuffed.

It is perhaps telling that the words “in action” have since been replaced with “in warlike operations”. General Campbell was among the final recipients to receive his distinguished service cross under the former wording.

Some defence force personnel view that change with suspicion — a tweak to allow the top brass to continue patting themselves on the back and awarding themselves new trinkets but doing less for it.

All the while, the s..t keeps rolling down hill.

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