Dutton’s reversal on honour misses point
When Major-general Paul Brereton’s report into allegations of war crimes against the SAS and Commandos was released in November, it considered what should be done regarding honours given to members of those regiments for service in Afghanistan. ‘‘The cancellation of individual decorations affects status and reputation, and is likely to require procedural fairness in each individual case,’’ it stated. ‘‘Themeritorious Unit Citation is a collective award to a unit . . . and the same difficulties do not arise.’’
The recommendation that the unit citation awarded to the men and women of Task Force 66 be revoked was publicly accepted by Defence Force chief Angus Campbell, only to be called into question by his political superiors, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison. This week Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced the unit would keep its 2015 decoration for ‘‘sustained and outstanding warlike operational service . . . from 30 April 2007 to 31 December 2013’’ – a period during which 39 murders are alleged to have been committed by up to 25 Australian soldiers. He said ‘‘we shouldn’t be punishing the 99 per cent for the sins of 1 per cent’’.
But Brereton’s argument for withdrawing the citation was drawn from something traditionally military: ‘‘There is a collective recognition and commensurate responsibility on the part of all the members of a unit . . . they are a team, in which each member bears some responsibility for holding the others to the standards and values of the ADF and the Army.’’
While it is an unprecedented step, removing the citation for a unit which was credibly linked with war crimes and other poor behaviour should not be seen as a punishment so much as a vital correction of the record.