John Wellfare

In the rush to provide an organisational response to allegations of violent war crimes committed by its soldiers, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) risks applying an educational solution to a behavioural problem. This essay proposes instead to examine the triggers and contributing factors behind the behaviour, and to transform the practical training landscape to better prepare soldiers for the intangible pressures they face on the battlefield.

“In many ways the Digger is a study in contradictions.”

 – Patrick Lindsay[1]

The mythology of the Aussie digger has been forged over more than a century in battlefields as diverse as the South African veldt, the rugged coastal terrain of Gallipoli, the muddy trenches of the Somme, the North African desert, the jungles of the Pacific and South East Asia, and the complex insurgent theatres of the Middle East. According to journalist Patrick Lindsay, the mythological Aussie digger “doesn’t crave war yet he will fight with unequalled ferocity; he hates spit and polish but will hold his discipline under the most trying conditions; he is tough yet compassionate; he hates his enemy until he surrenders, then he is generous in victory; he despises histrionics but will cry unashamedly at the loss of a mate; he believes he’s invincible but he’s not afraid of death; he will refuse promotion but unhesitatingly take command in a crisis; he will poke fun at his leaders but defend them with his life; he represents an arm of the nation’s authority, yet he hates authority”[2]. Like all good mythologies, this iconic representation is partially based in fact and partially an idealised fantasy. Nevertheless, it is the mythology of the Aussie digger to which we in the modern ADF aspire.

This is why the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) Afghanistan Inquiry Report[3] shakes us to our core. In addition to the appalling implication that human lives have been needlessly ended, the report challenges our perception of our culture and ourselves, and calls into question our entitlement to claim a place in the Aussie digger mythology for our own generation. It is unsurprising that some have responded to this challenge with outright denial, preferring to maintain their faith in the myth. Others have reframed the myth to suit the situation, isolating battlefield success as the only worthwhile measure of soldiers’ value. The ADF does not have the luxury of either response. As an organisation, it must identify the shortfalls and take the steps necessary to address them.

“They had been taught this principle in training. They all knew it very well. But they could not force themselves to act upon it.”

 – LTCOL (US Army) Robert G. Cole[4]

It is not appropriate, nor is it the purpose of this essay, to assume the reliability of allegations contained in the IGADF Report, which are yet to be tested by the judicial process. It is sufficient that the Inquiry found “credible information” of breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)[5], and that the ADF has accepted the possibility that Australian soldiers may have committed such breaches, and may do so again in the future.

Given this possibility, the ADF has a responsibility to educate its personnel regarding their obligations under the LOAC and other relevant international legal instruments. This the organisation already does during basic and initial employment training for both enlisted and commissioned personnel, during promotion courses at various levels, and again in an operation-specific context as part of pre-deployment training programs. The ADF has already begun to implement its organisational response to the IGADF Report with the release of the Afghanistan Inquiry Reform Plan[6]. The plan is in its conceptual stage at this writing, so it is too soon to pass judgement on the merits of any particular initiative to emerge from these reforms. This essay aims to propose training improvements that may fall under the Reform Plan’s “modernising doctrine and training” subheading. A further objective is to steer the organisation away from a characteristic inclination to apply additional mandatory training burdens on the workforce in an effort to meet the Reform Plan’s goals. The Ethical Armouring package shows that this approach is already a reflexively engaged instrument in the Defence problem solving toolkit. The expertise and right intentions behind this package are indisputable, but to rely on this approach as the basis for the cultural and behavioural reforms demanded by the IGADF Report is to ignore the report’s own findings that “members were and are extensively trained on this subject, and the Inquiry did not encounter a single witness who claimed to be under any misunderstanding as to what was prohibited”[7]. As proponents of behavioural economics note, knowledge, logic and reason are not the driving factors of human behaviour, particularly in settings of high stress and uncertainty[8].

“Honestly rape is such an everyday thing. It got to be such an everyday thing over there that, you know, I don't really recall any specifics.”

 – SPECIALIST (US Army) Joseph A. Konwinski[9]

Defence’s response appears to group violent war crimes into the same category as other ethical standards breaches, such as rorting travel entitlements or sexual misconduct in the workplace. The Afghanistan Inquiry Reform Plan is reminiscent of the Pathway to Change[10] cultural reform initiative launched in 2012. It is not incorrect to regard violent war crimes thus – soldiers are expected to adhere to certain professional norms and ethical practices in war, and a violation of these norms certainly is a failure of ethical standards – however it may be ineffective in preventing future incidents. What if violent war crimes are less like other forms of ethical failure and more like other forms of violent crime?

Violent so-called “road rage” incidents may provide an apt comparison. Road rage violence typically involves violence against strangers, the offending is often precipitated by a perceived “norm violation” by one or both parties, is escalatory in nature, and a significant proportion of perpetrators have no previous violent criminal convictions[11]. It is self-evident that violent war crimes typically involve violence against relative strangers. By applying the other three factors to known historical violent war crimes, it is possible to identify further parallels.

The offences alleged in the IGADF Report, being unproven and heavily redacted, are unsuited to this comparison. Historical examples of alleged Australian violent war crimes are likewise of limited value to this effort as they are, for the most part, poorly documented and many of the facts remain contested among the various parties either involved in the incidents or conducting historical research. Instead, this essay will make its comparisons using two historical examples that have been both heavily documented and proven through judicial processes: the murder of up to 500 Vietnamese civilians in the Son My village complex in 1968, as well as the 2006 gang rape and murder of teenager Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, and the murder of her parents and younger sister, in Yusufiyah, Iraq[12].

The mass murder of Vietnamese civilians in the village of Xom Lang – labelled on US maps as My Lai(4) – by the US Army soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry on 16 March, 1968, is arguably the most infamous and comprehensively explored violent war crime in history. It is the subject of more than two dozen books and countless investigative reports, and therefore offers ample material for analysis.

In the months preceding the infamous clearance operation at My Lai(4), Charlie Company lost several members killed and more than a dozen wounded to enemy mines, booby traps and snipers. It was widely believed by the men of Charlie Company that the civilians of My Lai(4) had advance knowledge of, and sympathies towards, Viet Cong actions in the region[13]. To US soldiers trained in conventional warfare and coming from a culture that values courageous forthrightness and fairness in battle, this underhanded means of warfare constituted a norm violation on the part of the Viet Cong, and by extension their (real or imagined) civilian supporters. This perceived norm violation triggered an increase in abuse, torture and murder of both Viet Cong prisoners and suspected sympathisers by members of Charlie Company in the weeks preceding the Son My operation. The soldiers didn’t immediately respond to the perceived norm violation with mass rape and murder, but instead escalated to it through an intensifying pattern of violence. This pattern of escalation accelerated sharply during the incident itself on 16 March, as the soldiers moved through the village complex[12]. None of the soldiers involved in the crimes at My Lai(4) had significant violent criminal histories.

The massacre at My Lai(4) and the 2006 Yusufiyah incident are ostensibly somewhat dissimilar, but nevertheless share some striking parallels. Like the Vietnam War-era Charlie Company troops, the five soldiers of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division directly involved in the crimes at Yusufiyah had lost comrades to unconventional insurgent attacks in the period preceding the incident[15]. They had also committed less serious offences in the previous weeks, including moving emplacements at a traffic control point to make the accidental shooting of a civilian by an NCO in the platoon appear justified[16]. Of the five, only Private First Class Steven Green had a criminal record, which was non-violent in nature[17].

Despite the broad similarities when compared with violent road rage incidents, there is a key difference. The cause of escalation in a violent road rage incident is typically defined as “threats to status”. The initial trigger may be a perceived norm violation, which then escalates through a mutual trading of threats to status, such as obscene gestures or other insults, before culminating in physical violence[18]. In the case of violent war crimes, such as My Lai(4) and Yusufyiah, the escalation is more analogous to group violence. The sharp escalation in brutality that occurred throughout the My Lai(4) clearance, for example, bears close resemblance to group violence escalation in rioting and mob situations, wherein one act of extreme brutality sets the baseline for an escalation to a further extreme[19]. The escalation over time leading up to the culminating atrocities seen in both cases supports the notion of a Broken Windows theory for violent war crimes. This theory, first proposed by sociologists George Kelling and James Wilson in a 1982 article in The Atlantic, suggests that no matter how rich or poor a neighbourhood, a single broken window left unrepaired will lead to subsequent broken windows and a general increase in petty crime[20]. Several studies in the subsequent decades have sought to isolate the causalities of this behaviour. One of the most notable, by Ariely et al., found that a demonstration of open, obvious, unpunished cheating by one participant in a puzzle-solving exercise would lead to a greater prevalence of cheating, as well as cheating to a greater degree, among the remaining participants, when compared with a control group given the same opportunity to cheat but no visible demonstration of the practice[21].

“It is of immense importance that the soldier, high or low, whatever rank he has, should not have to encounter for the first time in war those things which, when seen for the first time, set him in astonishment and perplexity.”

– Carl von Clausewitz[22]

If violent war crimes are like other violent crimes, then providing additional education on foundational ethics and the LOAC is unlikely to reduce the probability of future offences. Although many of the soldiers involved in the murder of civilians at My Lai(4) claimed to have been following orders, none were under the impression that their chain of command permitted rape in the course of a clearance operation, and yet multiple rapes occurred. Likewise, the soldiers who took part in the rape and murder at Yusufiyah clearly knew their actions to be criminal and actively sought to cover up their involvement in the crime.

Training soldiers on correct prisoner handling technique, or on the correct method to conduct an urban clearance operation, while certainly necessary in terms of tactical competence, is also unlikely to reduce the potential for future violent war crimes. The soldiers described in the above incidents experienced the motivation to commit a violent war crime in much the same way a driver would experience the motivation to commit violence against another road user. It is this experience that must be recreated in the training environment – and dissected in subsequent review activities – if the ADF hopes to reduce the potential for its soldiers to commit violent war crimes in the future.

WO2 Graham Robertson’s 2020 Jamie Cullens Writing Competition winning essay, The Ethical ‘Rubik’s Cube’, highlights a distinction between training and experiential learning: “Training is essential for ab initio skills to provide the foundation for employing a skill. Experiential learning involves acquiring knowledge through experience to employ the skills acquired through training in a range of complex and potentially ambiguous contexts”[23]. This is important because, as covered above, Australian soldiers are already “extensively trained” in the LOAC. War crimes occur, however, “in a range of complex and potentially ambiguous contexts”.

WO2 Robertson details efforts to incorporate experiential learning involving ethical decision making into four Defence courses. He makes a sound case for weaving these experiences into a range of exercises and training activities throughout the readiness cycle. This essay proposes to expand upon WO2 Robertson’s premise and work – to take ethics-based experiential learning up to the next level by taking it down to the individual level and seeding it broadly throughout the organisation, densely intertwined with other aspects of training.

Training to inoculate soldiers against violent offending in war should seek as much as possible to replicate the factors that cultivate such offending. Enemy and civilian role players should be strangers to the participating soldiers and should exhibit significant differences in dress and action to maximise their perceived “other-ness”. Role players should violate norms, not just of the rules of war, but potentially the rules of the training as well. And at least once in their careers, soldiers should be drawn into an escalating pattern of LOAC violations modelled by fellow soldiers whom they respect, with this experience later dissected to clearly identify the faults and behaviours that led to the escalation.

Achieving the sense of “other-ness” in civilian and enemy role players will require some investment. Australian soldiers wearing their own personal civilian attire and speaking fluent English with an affected accent do not meet the required standard. While it will often be necessary to use soldiers and not contracted civilians in these roles, they should be provided with attire that appears genuinely foreign to exercise participants. They should speak and understand limited or no English in acting out their roles, further broadening the divide and forcing the participating soldiers to communicate without using complex language, or work with an interpreter – important operational skills.

It is clearly impossible to recreate in training the emotional impact of losing a close friend to enemy action. It may be possible, however, to recreate the perception of a norm violation by an adversary. Enemy combatants who masquerade as civilians will provide valuable training in both tactical and ethical considerations. But to truly instil in participants a real-world sense of a norm violation, enemy role players might be disguised as exercise directing staff or range personnel to gain an advantage. Participants who face such an enemy will have some understanding of the sense of betrayal they may experience when facing insurgents. At the very least, for the sake of training discrimination in all use-of-force decisions, role play civilians should not confine themselves to a training area’s urban facility, but should instead move freely throughout the battlefield, both on foot and in vehicles, as civilians do in real-world insurgent battlefields. Soldiers should train to expect both civilians and the enemy at any time or place on the battlefield.

The mass murders at My Lai(4) and Yusufiyah may have been prevented if soldiers or commanders had recognised as warning signs the less severe offences occurring in the preceding weeks and months. To recreate this condition, NCOs and senior soldiers primarily participating normally in an exercise could be assigned as short-term role players for one specific phase or behaviour. Without the knowledge of superiors, peers or subordinates, the assigned individual might be briefed to participate in the exercise as normal, except that when given the opportunity to abuse a prisoner or loot a fallen enemy soldier, he or she is to act in violation of the LOAC. Obviously, planners must be careful not to seed such individuals too densely throughout the participating force, or the result would be chaos. However, if planned and incorporated seamlessly into a larger training exercise, such an action may allow junior soldiers to experience in a minor way the kind of ethical dilemma they will face if confronted with such behaviour on operations. Many will gain a first-hand understanding of the bystander effect[24] as it motivates their action – or inaction – in the moment.

Training of this nature will not be effective – in fact it risks greatly impairing a soldier’s understanding of, and willingness to abide by, the LOAC – if it is not followed up with detailed analysis and explanation in the after-action review (AAR). Soldiers’ attention should be drawn to the norm violations of the enemy, or the LOAC violations of their colleagues, and they should examine their own feelings and responses to these actions. The Ariely study shows it is entirely possible that soldiers who witness a demonstrated LOAC violation early in an exercise may go on to violate laws themselves. Such behaviours will need detailed after-action discussion and exploration of the soldiers’ motives and understanding in order to achieve a valuable training outcome. Soldiers will make mistakes, and this will provide priceless material for dissection in the AAR process.

“You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest, for your deeds will follow you down through history.”

 – LTCOL (British Army) Tim Collins[25]

The value of realistic experiential training in preparing soldiers for combat is openly acknowledged across the organisation. Despite the physical risks, it would be deemed entirely inappropriate to replace realistic, live-fire manoeuvre training with a series of videos and an online quiz. The current comparatively low operational tempo, and typically low occurrence rate of war crimes among Australian soldiers, mean the organisation can comfortably brand as successful any initiative it implements through the Reform Plan, with no need for further action or introspection. Those of us currently serving in the ADF will not suffer the consequences of any failed approach – it is the innocents among whom we deploy the next generation, and those future soldiers themselves forced to live with the mental scars of their own wrongdoing, who will pay the price for our reluctance to truly prepare our people for the realities of war.

[1] Lindsay, P., The Spirit of the Digger: Then and Now, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2003, p. 20

[2] Ibid.

[3] Australian Defence Force, Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report, Commonwealth of Australia, 2020, available at:

[4] Marshall, S. L. A., Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, 1947 (original publication). Quotation taken from 2000 edition, University of Oklahoma Press, p. 72 (quoting CO 3rd Bn, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment and Medal of Honor recipient LTCOL Robert G. Cole)

[5] Ibid. p. 27, pp. 60-67

[6] Australian Defence Force, Afghanistan Inquiry Reform Plan, Commonwealth of Australia, 2021, available at:

[7] Ibid. p. 28

[8] Ariely, D., Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, p. 211

[9] Peers, W. R., LTGEN (US Army), Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident, Volume II, Testimony, Book 24, 1970, p. 554, available at:

[10] Australian Defence Force, Pathway to Change, Commonwealth of Australia, 2012, available at:

[11] Carroll et al., An Investigation into Serious Violence Associated with Motor Vehicle Use: Is ‘Road Rage’ a Valid or Useful Construct?, Australian institute of Criminology, 2020, pp. 49-51, available at:

[12] Selection of the Yusufiyah incident: The choice of this incident over the better-known and more comprehensively reported detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib was made due to the complicating factor of alleged high-level official support for the abuse, which may render the comparison incompatible with the nature of war crimes Australia expects to prevent.

[13] The My Lai Massacre: The History of the Vietnam War’s Most Notorious Atrocity, Charles River Editors, 2015, loc 300-305 (Kindle e-book edition)

[14] Peers, W. R., LTGEN (US Army), Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident, Volume II, Testimony, 1970

[15] Frederick, J., Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Plunge into Madness in the Triangle of Death and the American Struggle in Iraq, Pan Macmillan UK, 2010, loc 2171-2220 (Kindle e-book edition)

[16] Ibid. Loc 1974-1989

[17] Ibid. Loc 1208-1226

[18] Carroll et al., An Investigation into Serious Violence Associated with Motor Vehicle Use: Is ‘Road Rage’ a Valid or Useful Construct?, Australian institute of Criminology, 2020, p. 50, available at:

[19] White, R. Swarming and the Social Dynamics of Group Violence, Australian Institute of Criminology Trends and Issues Report, October 2006, available at:

[20] Kelling, G. and Wilson, J., Broken Windows: The Police and Neighbourhood Safety, The Atlantic, March 1982, available at:

[21] Ariely, D., The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, Loc 2447-2483 (Kindle e-book edition)

[22] Von Clausewitz, C., On War, 1832 (original publication). Quotation taken from On War: The Classic Book of Military Strategy, translated to English by COL J. J. Graham, published 2009 by Military Strategy Books, p. 40.

[23] Robertson, G., WO2 (Australian Army), The Ethical ‘Rubik’s Cube’, The Forge, 2020, accessed at on 10 Jul 21

[24] Bystander effect: individuals are less likely to engage in socially responsible action if they think other bystanders, especially passive bystanders, are present.

– Latané, B. and Darley, J., Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1968, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 215-221, available at:

[25] Collins, T., LTCOL (British Army), CO’s speech to 1st Bn, Royal Irish Regiment Battle Group, 19 Mar 03, available at: