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Federal

Apr 6, 2011

The dark side of mateship in Australian military ranks

Gender equity interventions alone cannot penetrate the hermetically sealed, and bullet-proof culture of group solidarity that soldiers are socialised into at training, writes sociologist and former military man Dr Ben Wadham.

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If you are interested in tales of sexual predation, the Australian Defence Force isn’t disappointing you at the moment.

In February the report into the culture of the HMAS Success was released. Defence Minister Stephen Smith explained modestly that it did not make good reading. It told tales of the high seas and a man’s culture of sexually predatory behavior, habitual binge drinking and bullying and intimidation of female personnel.

All in all an unsafe climate for women, isn’t it?

Just yesterday a new story of sexual misconduct surfaced, this time from the elite military training institution, the Australian Defence Force Academy. A male ADFA cadet has allegedly filmed himself having sex with a female cadet and broadcast it to his male mates in an adjacent room. We must ask the question: why? What do a group of young male ADFA cadets gain from this nefarious plot?

The 18-year-old female RAAF cadet was clearly traumatised. She spoke of her sense of betrayal and an overwhelming nausea when she found out from an ADFIS investigator. She is now concerned that she is tainted, that her career is determined by a case of perverse male behaviour.

These incidents are not new. In 1992, the s-x scandal aboard the HMAS Swan launched a Senate inquiry into sexual harassment in the services. Sexual harassment at Duntroon in the 1990s instigated a report into sexual misconduct at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Other incidents mark the reputation of the Australian Defence Force, too. Inquiries into gang rape, or the cases of women officers such as Robyn Fahey or Kelly Wiggins, tell of persistent practices of sexual depravity.

The ADF is seeking to increase women among its ranks. It does take such incidents very seriously. There is a zero-tolerance policy, the establishment of the Defence Equity Organisation in 1997 and a current gender equity education program being developed online. So what is wrong?

At least one failure is the blindness of the Defence command. Gender equity interventions alone cannot penetrate the hermetically sealed, and bullet-proof culture of group solidarity that soldiers are socialised into at training. These kinds of indiscretions are most prolific when that logic of group identity is most intense. It is most intense in training establishments and arms corps, or closed shops such as navy ships.

This culture is established around men and their ideas of manhood. Warfare is almost an exclusively male enterprise. The ADF is a predominantly male domain. When men seek to close ranks they exclude others and they use language and practices that marginalise, and subordinate those others. Perverse sexuality, racist terms, bullying and intimidation consolidate the boundary between a group of mates and “the enemy”. Binge drinking and sharing sexual adventures intensify the sense of being one. It is the dark side of mateship.

We are left with an inherent paradox of militarism. Military personnel, largely men, must work closely together to endure the hardships of combat and warfare. Mateship motivates bravery, courage and sacrifice, the stuff our national legends are built upon. But the flip side is an unrestrained potential for violation, exclusion and hostility that includes sexual predation, excessive alcoholism, racism and intimidation.

This is the challenge that is the responsibility of the Australian military command. Personnel will continue to transgress, and stories will continue to draw media and community attention, and the reputation of the ADF will remain sullied until the military command opens its eyes. It is time to acknowledge the foundations of military culture established through the creation of the soldier, seaman or airman in military training.

Without a close hard look, women will continue to remain skeptical of serving their nation.

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