‘I won’t be bullied or intimidated’: War crimes study author says fixing culture integral to national security

A military sociologist who helped expose alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers says she won’t be bullied or intimidated, insisting cultural change is needed within the defence force.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton last week suggested Samantha Crompvoets would be cut off from receiving future contracts to research military culture.

Melbourne-based academic Samantha Crompvoets says she’s unapologetic about raising issues she believes are significantly jeopardising the reputation and capability of defence.Credit:Dean Sewell

She had come under attack from some commentators and sections of the media over plans to publish a book titled Blood Lust, Trust and Blame about her research, which included interviews with special forces soldiers.

Dr Crompvoets was commissioned by the Department of Defence in 2015 to produce a report on culture within the special forces. Some of her inquiries led to members disclosing claims of unlawful behaviour including alleged war crimes.

A separate four-year inquiry by Justice Paul Brereton, which handed down its report last year, found credible evidence of 23 incidents in Afghanistan in which one or more non-combatants – or individuals who had been captured or injured – were unlawfully killed by special forces soldiers, or at least at their direction.

In a speech to an Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference in Canberra on Friday, Dr Crompvoets said what was intended to be a fairly straightforward project in 2015 became “something much bigger when individuals began disclosing to me alleged war crimes”.

“Those disclosures ultimately led to the Brereton inquiry and to the complex, sensitive and emotive context within which we are here talking about defence culture today,” she said.

“Within that context, I’d like to take the opportunity to clarify a few things. Culture reform in defence has never really been about political correctness, or a ‘woke’ agenda, whatever that is. It has been about ensuring that defence people – soldiers, sailors, aviators, public servants – are set up to succeed; to be an effective fighting force.”

“When framed as a social justice agenda, culture reform in defence is easily ridiculed. And I understand that. Defence, after all, is about fighting, protecting our national interests; shaping deterring and responding. However, there are significant risks to that war fighting capability being undermined.”

Dr Crompvoets said she was proud of the work she had done in defence over the past decade, from looking at veteran’s health and wellbeing to stakeholder relationships and illegal conduct on operations.

“I am unapologetic about raising issues that I see as significantly jeopardising the reputation and capability of defence,” she said.

“And for those who wish to silence me and my work I say this – I won’t be bullied or intimidated. Cultural change needs to happen, as everyone in this room knows. And it should be done sensibly with buy-in from all levels.”

Mr Dutton last week confirmed he had sought legal advice about the upcoming publication of Dr Crompvoets’ book, saying he did want the military to be “distracted by things that have happened in the past”.

Dr Crompvoets said her book had “somewhat bewilderingly” received a lot of attention and she had been criticised for daring to write it.

“But for a book for which I was paid nothing, and a decade of work by myself and my incredible team, I am reassured by the many messages I get from young members of the ADF who have reached out to me and who underline the criticality of this work – for speaking up, for speaking out, and for listening,” she said.

Dr Crompvoets said having worked closely with members of the Australian Defence Force for nearly a decade, she was “well practised and experienced in handling matters that could impact national security and Australia’s national interest”.

“To my critics, make no mistake: my record in this regard – particularly when highly sensitive allegations of war crimes were confidentially disclosed to me – speaks for itself,” she said.

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