Soldiers vs warriors

What’s the difference between a soldier and a warrior? And in what environment is the distinction in danger of being lost?

The significance of the difference and distinction in the alleged war crimes of SAS soldiers in Afghanistan is apparently due to a significant difference in the chain of command.

As the Defence Inquiry into the allegations found- Australian national leadership “did not have the degree of command and control over Special Operations Task Force Group” but were instead accountable to the International Security Assistance Force Special Operations Command which effectively meant the Americans.

Most people would assume the definition of a soldier is just someone whom serves in an Army. Yet when we look at historical definitions the emphasis is on concepts such as service, acting in particular ways. Even 500 years ago, as the OED cites, being soldier-like was based on the notion (if not always the reality) of being appropriate to, worthy of, becoming or befitting a soldier. Warrior in contrast is simply someone who is warlike.

For many civilians the distinction probably seems irrelevant or perplexing but to a modern professional army it represents the difference between being disciplined, focussed and professional and behaving like a Viking on a smash and grab expedition to gather some more slaves.

Ironically, it is in the US Army where the warrior emphasis is strongest, despite only 10% of their forces ever seeing combat. On top of there are US staff who are ‘at war’ although actually at war  from air-conditioned comfort in the US while executing drone strikes on perceived enemies as if playing a video game.

People who have served with US troops are familiar with being told that the US Army is the greatest fighting force in history although, despite easy initial ‘victories’ in Iraq and Grenada, they have not actually won any other of their post-WWII wars.

The culture, language and behaviour of US troops is conditioned by this warrior-like approach. It is also compounded by a willingness to use massive indiscriminate force in an attempt to subdue an enemy. In Vietnam Australian troops patrolled constantly and, while using air strikes and artillery, sought to engage with the VC and NVN troops.

In contrast the US military were more likely to target a map grid square for a B52 air strike along with constant bombing of civilians in North Vietnam.

All of this in no way excuses any crimes allegedly committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. But it does make it more comprehensible when we put it in the context of the different tactical and strategic approaches of the two militaries. It also has to be put in the context of using special operations troops in frequent rotations in situations where mainstream units might have been better employed.

It is all made harder by the fact that nearly all recent Australian military operations, other than some peace-keeping operations have been conducted in conjunction with US forces and there is increasing emphasis on inter-operability.

One of the most disturbing elements of the alleged crimes is the apparent role of NCOs. It appears there were fewer problems with officer led units which is the usual practice with Commando groups.

It’s disturbing because, while officers are critically important to leadership, NCOs have been the backbone of the Australian Army. Every young officer has at some stage or other been eternally grateful for the support of an experienced NCO.

Equally disturbing is the attitude of the Australian War Memorial Chair, Kerry Stokes, vowing to help any soldiers accused of war crimes. He has already extended a $1.9 million loan to Ben Roberts-Smith to cover his legal costs in possible legal actions.

The Australia War Memorial’s role is to commemorate sacrifice and service and to help us remember. It is not to glorify war and war toys as with its planned expansion. Nor is it the role of the Chair, any Council member or former Director, such as Brendan Nelson, to effectively insert themselves into the chain of command by attempting to influence the outcome – and make no mistake money supporting legal costs can be a significant influence – of legal actions against soldiers.

Australian soldiers have committed atrocities in the past and recently lots of references have been made to Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant although he was unlucky to be punished as an example given the many atrocities committed by British troops during the Boer War let alone the official policy of setting up concentration camps.

Nevertheless, while honour, service, leadership, respect are often thought of as old-fashioned words in an era of Trump and lying, corrupt Australian politicians the Australian military has sought to live by those standards – as when they told the inconvenient truth about the children overboard.

The legal processes should be allowed to continue without interference in any way. If Kerry Stokes wants to get involved he is entitled to – but, if he does, he should also step aside from his role at the Australian War Memorial.

Declaration of interest: The author served in the Royal Australian Artillery in Vietnam.