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Kevin Foster

This week’s ABR Podcast features Kevin Foster’s straight-shooting review of whistleblower David McBride’s memoir The Nature of Honour, which begins: ‘Sometimes, for the faithful, it doesn’t do to look too closely into the life of your chosen idol.’ Foster’s books include Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, the media and the Afghan conflict (2013). One of his current research projects – about social media and the military – is funded by the Australian Army Research Centre. ‘The lives of the saints: David McBride’s ethic of self-interest’ is published in the January-February issue of ABR.

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Sometimes, for the faithful, it doesn’t do to look too closely into the life of your chosen idol. Saul of Tarsus had been an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians before his spiritual detour en route to Damascus. St Camillus de Lellis, patron saint of nurses and the sick, to whom we owe the symbol of the red cross, spent his early life as a con man, a mercenary, and a compulsive gambler – little wonder he went far in the Church. Where our secular martyrs are concerned, matters become still murkier. Mahatma Gandhi tested his chastity by sleeping naked with nubile young women and girls – one of whom was his grand-niece. And as for Julian Assange ...

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Diplomat and musician Fred Smith’s memoir of his time with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) at Kabul airport, and later in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), processing Afghan evacuees fleeing the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, opens with a richly symbolic vignette. On his first visit to the North Gate, one of only three public entry points to Kabul airport, Smith is confronted by a nightmare vision of the country’s collapse. Amid a cacophony of screaming and gunfire, thousands of Afghans jostle, push, and kick one another, waving passports, holding babies aloft, as they fight their way towards a narrow gap in the razor wire entrance to the gate, guarded by a human wall of US Marines. Every thirty seconds or so somebody squeezes through the scrum to safety, emerging discomposed, bloodied, and bewildered.

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On this week’s ABR Podcast, Kevin Foster reviews Crossing the Line, journalist Nick McKenzie’s account of the defamation trial, Ben Roberts-Smith versus Fairfax. Kevin Foster is Associate Professor at Monash University and the author of numerous articles and books on the Australian media’s treatment of Afghanistan. Listen to him read ‘Nick McKenzie’s bracing reportage’, published in the August issue of ABR.

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When Justice Anthony Besanko released his judgment on the Ben Roberts-Smith versus Fairfax defamation case on 1 June, there was a lot more riding on his decision than the reputation of the principal parties and who would be landed with the eye-watering legal bills. Had the verdict gone against Fairfax, its reporters, Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters, and, to a lesser extent, Dan Oakes, would have struggled to return to or resurrect their careers. Defeat would have had a chilling effect on genuinely probing investigative reporting. In the face of such a decision, media organisations and editors around the country would have thought long and hard about letting their journalists pursue well-connected and well-resourced public figures, let alone defend their findings in court. But there was more at stake than that. The ‘defamation trial of the century’ was also widely, if inaccurately, regarded as a war crimes trial by proxy. While Roberts-Smith was not on trial for any of the crimes McKenzie and Masters alleged that he had committed or facilitated, had Justice Besanko found that the reporters had defamed him it would have made the pursuit of war crimes charges against Roberts-Smith more unlikely, or more difficult. The sense of relief at Besanko’s judgment was near universal. It not only emboldened the nation’s investigative reporters and their editors but also opened the way for the full and free pursuit of those members of Australia’s Special Forces credibly identified by the Brereton Report (2020) as having committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

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We’ve all seen the video. The black and white images are washed out, almost solarised, by the heat and glare of a Baghdad morning in 2007. As the men walk and mingle on the street, we can make out the length of their hair, pick out the skinny from the stocky, and identify what they are wearing, loose trousers, casual shirts – one with distinctive broad stripes. Mercifully, we cannot discern their individual features. All the while, the Apache helicopter hovers, unseen and unheard, its cameras trained on the men below. The crew exchange terse messages with US troops in the area and their commanders back at the flight line. Having identified weapons that the men carry and confirmed that they are not coalition forces, the crew request and receive permission to engage, manoeuvring the gunship to get a clearer shot. 

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Unlike in the United States and several other Western nations, Australian governments are under no compulsion to consult parliament before sending troops to war. In Subimperial Power: Australian in the international arena, Clinton Fernandes argues that this reflects, and furthers, Australia’s longstanding ambition in foreign affairs, which is to demonstrate its usefulness to the United States. In this week’s ABR Podcast, Kevin Foster, an academic at Monash University who has published widely on war in the Australian media, reviews Subimperial Power

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When the Howard government committed Australian troops to fight in Afghanistan in 2001, and later in Iraq, it did so without recourse to parliament or the courts. Not only can the prime minister sanction the despatch of the nation’s forces to fight overseas, he or she has no need of parliamentary approval. Indeed, there is no requirement to debate such a proposal before a decision is made. Australia has no equivalent of the US War Powers Resolution of 1973, which limits the president’s freedom to make war. 

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Almost fifteen years ago, struck by the paucity of information in the media about the ADF deployment to Afghanistan, I edited a short collection of essays that posed a modest question: What are we doing in Afghanistan? (2009). I wish I had known then half of what Tom Frame reveals about the ADF’s activities in Central Asia in his new book, Veiled Valour.

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On 19 November 2020, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, released the findings of the Brereton Report, so named for the New South Wales Supreme Court Judge and Reserve Major General Paul Brereton, who led the investigation into war crimes allegations against members of the Australian SAS. The report had been a long time coming – with good reason. Over four years, Brereton and his team scrutinised more than 20,000 documents, examined 25,000 images, and interviewed 423 individuals – Afghan victims and their families, eyewitnesses, whistleblowers, and the alleged perpetrators. The final eight-volume, three-part report came in at 3,251 pages. Everybody knew it would be bad, but few had anticipated quite how confronting its findings would be.

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