Photo reveals Australian soldier drinking beer out of dead Taliban fighter's prosthetic leg

Rory Callinan
·6 min read

Senior Australian special forces soldiers drank beer out of the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban soldier at an unauthorised bar in Afghanistan – with a photograph of the act being revealed for the first time by Guardian Australia.

A number of photographs obtained by the Guardian show one senior soldier – who is still serving – sculling from the leg in an unofficial bar known as the Fat Lady’s Arms, which was set up inside Australia’s special forces base in Tarin Kowt, the capital of Uruzgan province, in 2009.

Another appears to show two soldiers performing a dance with the leg.

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The sculling picture is the first to be published that confirms previous reports of the practice of using the leg as a drinking vessel.

Some soldiers say the practice was widely tolerated by officers at high levels and even involved some of them. This was despite the limb potentially being a war trophy – an item Australians soldiers were forbidden to remove from the battlefield, let alone keep.

The situation has angered rank-and-file soldiers who say they have been unfairly criticised in the Brereton report for embracing such a culture and practices despite officers being aware of them for years. The Brereton report found a “warrior culture” had contributed to an environment in which war crimes were allegedly committed.

The leg is believed to have belonged to a suspected Taliban fighter killed during an SASR 2 squadron assault on two compounds and a tunnel complex at Kakarak in Uruzgan in April 2009.

It was then allegedly taken from the battlefield and kept in the Fat Lady’s Arms, where visitors would sometimes use it to drink from.

Later it was mounted on a wooden plaque under the heading Das Boot, alongside an Iron Cross – a military decoration used in Nazi Germany. The leg travelled with the squadron at all times, one former trooper told the Guardian.

“Wherever the Fat Lady’s Arms was set up, then that’s where the leg was kept and used occasionally for drinking out of,” he said.

The soldier said senior commanders would occasionally visit the bar, especially on Anzac Day, and would have seen the leg and potentially the practice of drinking from it.

Rumours that pictures exist of high-ranking officers drinking from the leg have long been circulating in the Australian special forces community. The ABC and other media have reported of the leg’s existence and the act of sculling beers from it, although a picture of the act has, until now, not been published.

The unredacted sections of the Brereton report do not mention the leg or whether any soldiers were under investigation for taking war trophies, but the report does make reference to the Fat Lady’s Arms as being an example of how ethical leadership was compromised.

The report said of the unauthorised bar that this involved “the toleration, acceptance and participation in a widespread disregard for behavioural norms: such as drinking on operations, the Fat Lady’s Arms, and lax standards of dress, personal hygiene and behaviour – and not only on operations – which would not have been tolerated elsewhere in Army”.

Under section 268.81 of the commonwealth criminal code, the taking of property without the consent of the owner may be classified as the war crime of pillaging, which carries a penalty of 20 years’ jail time, former military lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz said.

Justice Brereton’s report recommended that 19 soldiers be investigated by police in connection with the alleged murder of 39 prisoners and civilians and the alleged cruel treatment of two others.

It also found “credible information” that 25 serving or former ADF personnel were involved in serious crimes or at least had been accessories to them.

The report states that it was less likely that Special Operations Task Group Headquarters and SOTG commanding officers would have been aware of war crimes due to the fact they were not out in the field.

After the report’s publication, the chief of defence, General Angus Campbell, announced that he would be accepting its recommendations which included stripping the “meritorious group citation” for the soldiers who served in the Special Operations Task Group between 2007 and 2013.

That recommendation has caused anger in some ranks, with relatives of Task Group members who died on the battlefield complaining that it was a blanket punishment and affected many who were innocent of wrongdoing.

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On Monday, reportedly after intervention by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the defence minister, Senator Linda Reynolds, the stripping of the citation appeared to be reversed.

Campbell issued a statement saying he had not made any final decisions on the report’s recommendations.

The Department of Defence was asked by the Guardian whether it was aware of the existence of the prosthesis photos and what action had been taken if it was.

A spokesperson referred to the Brereton report in its response.

“The report has been redacted to remove names and details that could identify individuals against whom the Inquiry has found credible information to support allegations of criminal wrongdoing or other misconduct,” the spokesperson said.

“Where there is information provided to Defence not addressed as part of the Afghanistan Inquiry, these matters will be investigated thoroughly and acted on.

The spokesperson added: “It is critical that all matters are considered carefully, and any actions are undertaken according to the ADF’s longstanding and well-established processes, ensuring the rights of individuals to due process and fair hearing are protected.

“Due to the Privacy Act, Defence is unable to provide information about current or former serving members without their written consent.”

The emergence of the picture of Australian armed forces drinking beer from a dead man’s prosthetic leg comes at a particularly tense time for the Australian government.

On Monday the Chinese government’s foreign affairs spokesman tweeted a doctored image of an Australian soldier with a knife held to the throat of an Afghan child with the words: “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace” underneath.

Morrison said the tweet was “utterly outrageous” and “repugnant” and called on China to apologise.

• Anyone affected by the Brereton report should call Hayat Line on 1300 993 398, a free and confidential line for those going through difficulties. In Australia, support and counselling for veterans and their families is available 24 hours a day from Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or www.openarms.gov.au and Safe Zone Support on 1800 142 072 or https://www.openarms.gov.au/safe-zone-support