Defence Force Behaviour and Reviews

A new inquiry into the treatment of women in the forces was announced by the Minister for Defence Stephen Smith and the Head of the Defence Forces, Angus Houston on Monday 11 April 2011. Headed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, it’s believed that unlike previous reviews, this one will be ‘an important step in initiating a cultural change program within the defence forces.’

Forgive my glibness, but pigs might fly as well.

Concurrent to this will be other reviews that will look at a range of issues from the management of complaints and whether or not complainants are vilified, bastardisation, complaints that have been filed as a result of the ‘Skype Scandal’ and the role of women on the frontline (for more on that, please see my Courier Mail column tomorrow).

In total, six reviews are happening. One might be forgiven for believing we’re on Broadway. Certainly, the spotlight is on specific individuals and their ability to perform.

Ever since an 18 year-old female cadet, dissatisfied with the response she had from senior officers after consensual sex with a male peer was broadcast on Sykpe, a Kangaroo Court has been in session.

While the young woman was in breach of defence force rules by fraternising with a fellow cadet, filming without her knowledge is a base and sordid act that’s worse than conduct unbecoming.

Instead of disciplining the cadets involved immediately for being neither officers or gentlemen and unworthy of the privilege of being at ADFA, the young woman, severely distressed and embarrassed, sought justice using her her generation’s weapon of choice: the media.

A war of words broke out and the defence forces became defensive.

At Monday’s press conference, Houston acknowledged that the armed forces are ‘not perfect’ and that there were ‘pockets in some areas’ which caused problems.

The Australian Defence Force Academy, as a mixed-sex training establishment where students reside and both study and are trained to be officers, is a very different environment to usual army postings let alone traditional universities.

While other reviews, and former and current soldiers, reveal a history of abuse, bullying, hazing and other kinds of tactics designed to oppress, subordinate and control, not only at ADFA but on other defence force bases, no long lasting changes to this dysfunctional culture have occurred.

On the contrary, a ‘harden up’ attitude, where selective blindness, vilifying the victim, and showing support for perpetrators and being ‘one of the boys’ (even if you’re female), lest you be seen as weak, thrives.

What has happened to the young woman is a disgrace. All the men involved do not deserve to hold rank or serve in our forces – in any capacity. They dishonour the uniform and the others who serve it well and with pride.

This is not the first time this objectionable behaviour has happened. ‘HMAS Success ring any bells?

There’s a huge difference between moulding a person into a tough, capable and responsible leader and member of a team, able to give and take orders, serve their officers, soldiers, troop, regiment and country unquestioningly – something they need to be able to do in crisis situations – and creating a monster.

While many officers and soldiers graduate to become worthy, contributing members of the forces in war and peace (look at those who rolled up their sleeves during the floods), there are those who abuse the power of their rank and the privileges that come with exercising it.

No-one should have to endure bullying tactics nor put up with the individuals who dish it out, regardless of their rank.

It takes the bravest of souls to expose these types of corrupt and sordid practices and people. It takes braver and bolder ones to make real and lasting changes to a culture that has produced both marvellous examples of courage, decency and honour as well as misogyny, abuse of power, sexism and racism – and I’m not just talking about the men.

But there are two issues that have been overlooked in the very public fallout, both of which are a sad reflection of our times.

The first is that the bad behaviour that this scandal has drawn attention to is not confined to the defence forces or ADFA alone. The misuse of social media, sexism and bullying are endemic in society. So is the abuse of alcohol by young people. The scandal at ADFA is simply a microcosm, reflecting and enhancing misconduct and bad behaviour across society.

The second is the sad fact that, in order to be heard, to get a result, the young woman had to go to commercial media. This is something else that’s intensifying as victims find their voices lost or suppressed in big organisations and their character discredited.

Cloistered environments, where different kinds of laws, behaviour and ways of thinking are standard and even regarded as necessary (having served as an officer for five years I can, to a degree, endorse that), shouldn’t allow for the kind of dysfunctional and unacceptable behaviour we keep hearing about. No society, military or civilian, has to tolerate it.

The point about the latest fallout is that we don’t.

But why do we need another review to tell us this? We all know what’s right and wrong. Surely, it’s time to act, following a combination of military and civil law, not simply review.

Waging a war with paper will accomplish what the other reviews did – nothing. And the only casualty will be the truth.


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