The Guardian • Issue #1949

McBride: the making of a whistleblower

“Something would have died inside of me” reflected Whistleblower Major David McBride this week, remaining vigilant that not revealing confidential military information about Australian Defence Force (ADF) war crimes in Afghanistan would have gnawed at his conscience. McBride faces his first day in court in May, confronting the possibility of an unlimited jail sentence, and has laid bare how his discoveries as an ADF officer and lawyer changed his perception of the Australian military and the role it plays in global affairs.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) released The Afghan Files in 2017 after McBride provided information about war crimes between 2009 and 2013 which included the murder of Afghan children and other civilians by ADF soldiers. Since then, an inquiry has been conducted which revealed more disturbing systemic crimes, such as “blooding” – where soldiers are ordered to kill unarmed prisoners by their superiors to “get their first kill in.”

McBride spent much of his professional life with a high level of integrity. He started working as a criminal lawyer in the early 2000s, but felt dissatisfied with the work because he spent most of his time trying to find the best result for guilty clients. He made the decision to join the ADF as a lawyer in uniform, and enjoyed feeling his work was for a good cause. He had attended military officer training in the past, where he explained “they teach you you’ve got to do the right thing and it’s all about integrity and putting others first.” He described himself as a “true believer” in the ADF, and only started to suspect foul play after his first two tours of Afghanistan.

“I began to suspect that the war had increasingly become a Potemkin village, where appearances were everything and the reality increasingly didn’t matter” McBride mused, while reflecting on how stories were made up, and medals were awarded to make soldiers heroes in order to gain popularity and benefit the ADF politically. He had also heard some disturbing stories, but at that stage, was waiting to see evidence and not jump immediately to conclusions based on rumours.

His suspicions were also highlighted by the surprising lack of concern for truth amongst the leadership. “Your satisfaction and happiness with that role depends entirely on the idea that your leaders are basically trying to do the right thing” he said. It became obvious to McBride that they were making a smokescreen to cover for something serious – such as the murder of thirty-nine civilians, as exposed in the Brereton report. McBride said he picked up on it as a lawyer because he knew his leaders were not following procedures or the law. They would say it was “above his pay grade.” He began to notice that this was a systemic issue, and a deeper problem within the defence force.

McBride was aware of many of the risks involved, but once he had strong enough suspicions, and access to more evidence, he was compelled to expose the crimes. He was annoyed that the ADF claimed to be a pillar of righteousness, while committing such heinous acts, in a similar way to the Catholic church covering up paedophilia in the 1970s. “It was soul destroying, because it was absolutely against what we are meant to stand for,” he said.

This did not mean the situation was easy for McBride once he released the documents to the ABC. At first he fled to Spain, but returned to Australia for the weekend to visit his daughter. He was arrested just before leaving the country again, on one charge of theft – enough to keep him stuck in Australia. After pleading not guilty to the charge, four more serious charges were brought in, which brought with them the possibility of life imprisonment.

The first few years were hard, frustrating and lonely for McBride. “I didn’t get anything except vilification and bullying – I went from being a pillar of the community to a criminal.” He was surprised that not one of his peers in the ADF would even admit to understanding his perspective. Regardless of this, he reminded himself that the institution was doing the wrong thing, and that he would have regretted not saying something in the long term.

When people started to contact him with support he described it as “like water in the desert – you first start to live again, and then you start to grow.” He expressed how far a small amount of support can go – “you just need some people to kind of ‘get it.’ ’’

McBride also recognised how systemic problems in the ADF are linked to Australia’s military alliance with the US. “We need to have a hard look at the so-called strategic relationship […] we will never clean up the defence force so long as we are just an adjunct of the US forces, because we have become hijacked as a force for American expansion […] and that means we don’t have the moral high ground when we go into Middle Eastern countries.” He warned that the participation in these wars has made Australia less safe, as it has become more of a target. He also explained that the Australia-US relationship serves to create worse trade relations with China, creating worse conditions for everyday Australians.

“I’d rather we were a country with a soul who actually stood for democracy and freedom, and we had to fight to the death, rather than be a sell-out slave nation to the Americans, relying on them to look after us. Why would we sell-out on a promise? And actually if you see how the Americans have dealt with their allies I wouldn’t place any huge bets on the idea that they will come to help us.”

McBride hopes to argue in court that he was only doing his duty as expected by a practicing lawyer and ADF officer. His trial starts in May and his best chances for a non-guilty verdict can only come from wide public support for his cause. For this to happen, the broad left need to form a united front in bringing awareness to the masses. A petition for the dropping of his charges can be found on at and you can donate to his GoFundMe for his legal defence.

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