Mar 8, 2012

Military ‘culture’: loyalty and inevitable malfeasance

The purpose of a military, once we ignore recruitment drives and feel-good advertising on humanitarian work, is to kill, writes Dr James Connor, a senior lecturer with the University of NSW.

After examining more than 1000 allegations of abuse within the Defence Force -- triggered by the Skype s-x scandal in which a female officer cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy was filmed without her knowledge having consensual sex with a male cadet -- the law firm DLA Piper yesterday released a summary document to confirm that at least 775 of those allegations fell within its terms of reference. According to Defence Minister Stephen Smith,  some of these allegations constitute serious criminal offences. The report's summary stated:
"We have allegations across every decade from the 1950s to date. The earliest date of alleged abuse is 1951 -- on a 13-year-old boy, now a man in his 70s. They are made by men and women in respect of conduct by men, women and groups. They involve minors and adults."
The release was one of seven reviews released in full yesterday. The ADF has committed to a cultural overhaul, including a "Pathway to Change" strategy to improve Defence culture, which includes S-x Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick's review of the treatment of women at the academy. But the Kirkham inquiry, the review concerning the Skype incident directly, remains unreleased in full. Yesterday it was revealed that the inquiry never actually interviewed "Kate" -- according to Smith, due to "circumstances relating to her well being". Kate has not returned to ADFA and criminal proceedings relating to the Skype incident are still continuing in the ACT Courts. Smith still commends the student for coming forward, as he told the ABC's PM yesterday:
"She has nothing other than both my sympathy because her career has been disturbed, but also my admiration for her coming forward. I've said previously that there should be no criticism of her for coming forward and indeed one of the extracts that I read to you from the work done by the chief and the secretary is that there does need to be a change of culture, which doesn't view dimly those people who come forward when they believe inappropriate conduct has occurred."
But Defence Force chief General David John Hurley remains critical of the decision to use the media. He told PM:
"You know the Defence policy in relation to people coming to the media inappropriately and so forth. This is a value judgement, the Minister's given a view on that; we would also reinforce through our culture review programs what we expect and the behaviours we expect. There are channels for people to go through and the media is not necessarily the first recourse."
For the military, it is a question of loyalty. Dr James Connor, a senior lecturer with the University of NSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy, recently published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics. He submitted this commentary to Crikey today in relation to the cultural overhaul announced by Defence ... Dr James Connor writes: The purpose of a military, once we ignore the recruitment drives and feel-good advertising on humanitarian work, is to kill. Kill those deemed to be the enemy -- that amorphous other out there who is perceived to be wrong. The fundamental training, socialisation and control problem in a military is that it is remarkably hard to actually get one human being to destroy another. To create a viable military force that will kill requires intense resocialisation of its members and a refashioning of their identity. In effect, militaries take a "normal" person and turn them into one that can fight. It is a tired trope that soldiers must stick together, fight for each other and support each other to be effective combatants. We see it in cultural representations of brotherhood (pick any war film) and through the formalised rituals of brotherhood, oaths of allegiance and affirmations of fealty. Soldier’s memoirs are filled with tales of brotherly fealty to one another and unit. Thus, the answer to this problem of killing and group solidarity is to create a powerful bond within the group that subsumes individual needs, desires and identity -- the group or pack becomes the most important. And members of the group are strongly pushed to be part of it and support it no matter what -- after all -- do you really want to be the one member of the platoon that no one likes? The military uses emotional manipulation to encourage soldiers to act in certain ways. In one respect this is functional for an organisation that has been tasked with taking people and turning them into subjects capable of killing. However, the effect of inculcating a strong emotional disposition to be loyal to the unit and fellow soldier is that it can overwhelm other emotional responses -- such as fear, disgust, anxiety and shame. In effect, doing what your mates are doing is what is most important, not what might be morally correct. Creating powerful group bonding leads the members of that group to see others as inferior -- even if at times those others are part of the military. Minorities in the military are often targets, be they women or ethnic groups, as they don’t "fit" the imagined idealised "white warrior male". There is a constant, moronic refrain that women should not be allowed in the military -- yet when these "arguments" are considered they are merely men trying to assert their power and position over women. There is nothing in the military that women cannot do -- yes, they can even carry packs and march, and shoot, and fly and drive and no, menstruating does not stop you fighting. This discussion over combat roles gives those who seek it an "excuse" to attack female military members as not being "worthy" of the uniform. Creating an us (men) and them (women) attitude. The fierce loyalty displayed by the military inevitably leads to appalling behaviour, where members think they can get away with anything -- as long as the group is with them. These behaviours are condoned and covered-up by the "leaders" further propagating a sick, unhealthy culture. No military is immune to this -- consider the Canadians in Somalia, Abu Ghraib, US kill teams in Afghanistan, and closer to home the plethora of inquiries into the Australian military. While overwhelming loyalty is the goal of training and culture in the military, the preconditions for appalling behaviour will always be there. When you are taught to believe that your group is most important -- then it should come as no surprise to the rest of us that at times that means denigrating others and covering that up. The challenge is that you also need soldiers to be intensely loyal to each other if you want a coherent fighting force. However, what is sorely lacking is the moral and ethical counter-point to this in-group loyalty. Militaries must change their training and cultural practices to account for and manage the risk fierce group loyalty poses -- or inevitably more murder, r-pe and scandal will occur.

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22 thoughts on “Military ‘culture’: loyalty and inevitable malfeasance

  1. Brunswick Elaine

    How sad to see the future leaders of our defence force have stooped so low. The man in charge should have stood down the boys who committed the offence, instead he carried on with an unrelated issue for the young lady and the boys went on with their life. Another example of the gender divide. No Steven Smith you don’t need to say sorry, you at least tried to be fair in your assessment of the situation.

  2. sharman

    You do not have to tolerate paedophiles, racists and rapists to be a loyal member of a team. Being a loyal friend or colleague sometimes means giving someone a reality check when they are doing something that is out of line or wrong. The problem with the current military is that it does not have very high standards, they recruit drop kicks. I would not want any of the Skype crew defending me.

  3. Pamela

    Clearly Stephen Smith has not been inducted and brain washed into the sexist culture of the military mob and thank heavens for that.
    He can see what the Commander of the Academy cannot, that attacking a rape victim is unfair and cannot be condoned by any culture.
    For heavens sake – don’t any of these Bozos have daughters???

    Good on you Stephen Smith- not often we side with a politician these days.

  4. Robert Barwick

    Connor’s description of military training sounds accurate, but it also sounds as if he is saying that the group mentality is the way it has to be, to train killers. I don’t accept that. Whatever happened to the citizen-soldier? My grandfather was one of the raw, inexperienced and relatively untrained member of the CMF 39th Battalion that held back the Japanese on the Kokoda Track. He didn’t get manipulated into group-think to become a killing machine. If that’s is what is deemed necessary nowadays, it raises questions about how just is the cause we are sending these troops to fight. My grandfather knew he was defendning Australia. Do Australian troops in Iraq searching vainly for WMDs, in the quagmire of Afganistan, or in any number of foreign theatres thousands of kilometres away from home really believe they are defending Australia? I suspect that left to their own devices they would not, so is that why they have to be de-humanised? The real hero in “Platoon” was the soldier played by Willem defoe who denounced the civilian massacre, and was murdered by the leader of the “pack”. Is Connor revealing that in the modern Australian military the recruits are brainwashed to see it the opposite way?

  5. Mark from Melbourne

    The military leadership who suggest that the media shouldn’t be the first recourse miss the point entirely that there were over 700 serious complaints that have come out, predominantly due to that young lady complaining via the media. The number suggests that whatever other “recourses” the military would prefer are not very effective ones.

    Based on the evidence that appears not to be disputed – that the head of the academy allowed the hearing of another complaint to proceed against the complainant at the same time – he is guilty of insensitivity or stupidity or both as the Minister said.

    People who think the military are somehow special and above what we would regard as appropriate standards of behaviour of our society might do well to look at other countries where the military believe they know better and takeover the running of the country.

    My little experience of the military suggests that like the police corps, it used to attract a certain type of person for which this sort of rank behaviour is part of their makeup – in other words it isn’t specific to the military but more about the people. This “attraction” is multi-faceted. It maybe because they cant get a job elsewhere. It may be because the actual role of playing soldiers is the attraction. It may be because it is a tough and dirty job and therefore doesn’t attract a broader spectrum. Hopefully it is changing but until this is addressed the outcomes will continue to be the same.

  6. rossco

    I find it interesting that all the media focus is on whether the Minister should aplogise to the head of the Academy (he shouldn’t) and not on the long history of abuse and the victims. Where was the head of the Academy and other officers when the abuse was going on there. Did they genuinely not know about it (asleep at the wheel) or did they choose to ignore it as an accepted part of military culture?

  7. Edward James

    So should our Australian military turn on the dysfunctional government? Edward James

  8. Stevo the Working Twistie

    S-xual abuse was very much a part of the Navy in the 1970s, when cadets as young as 12 and 13 were basically gift-wrapped and delivered into horrific situations at naval bases and on-board vessels. I experienced it myself at age 13 on HMAS Nirimba, a land base in western Sydney. Adult ratings exposing themselves to cadets, forcing them to touch their genitals – and worse. Of course, in those days if you spoke up you would be crucified, so I didn’t. Looks like not much has changed.

  9. zut alors

    Predictably, Abbott is demanding an apology from Smith. And it comes as no surprise to Australia’s female voters.

  10. Sabre Bleu

    @Robert Barwick – If your grandfather fought on the Kokoda Trail, he would most certainly have been a killing machine. To survive in that theatre it was shoot first and ask second. And shoot to kill. And good on him since he lived so that you were eventually born. Your grandfather may have personally held a set of ethics and values that would be upheld as an example within society. I cannot comment. Only you know that. Suffice to say however that not all soldiers held a set of morals and ethics that would pass current measures of satisfaction.

    The mystique surrounding our “digger” forebears that they were all 100% ethical and moral in all ways is exactly that, a mystique. That they were brave is generally without question, as is the case with most soldiers who fight. Bit it must be accepted also that they drank, slaughtered, and socialised as soldiers have done since the formation of military forces. The result of that conditioning and the effect of the killing has played out clearly and traceably in society over the last 100 years. Drunkenness, Alcoholism, Family Violence, Post-Traumatic Stress, Suicide … and the list goes on, are common and frequently reported.

    Those societal issues do need to be addressed and doing so at source is the best place.

    This is a large task. Re-conditioning and re-positioning our military morals and ethics is not a binary switch. It takes time and in many cases will never succeed. As Dr. O’Connor makes quite clear, military forces are trained to kill. That is kill without question when required. Those behaviours don’t necessarily set up members well for running the local cake stall with the Country Women’s Institute. On the other hand that does not excuse behaviours as witnessed in the “Skype” issue at ADFA April last year. Those behaviours represent a lack of maturity, a lack of personal control, and an absence of a set of morals at the forefront of the mind. Things that are desired and required of military officers at all times. So should those individuals be disciplined and if found guilty dismissed? Most certainly. Bear in mind that in our modern military the rights of the individual exist equally on each side of an argument. Summary dismissal is rere these days. Summary execution has passed on.

    Other correspondents are clearly biased toward holding the military institution to account. Accountability is important, but the mechanism for doing this is an opportunity. What would be more productive is a critical analysis and commentary on the approach being taken by military chiefs to modify force culture over time. Assess the means to a new outcome rather than assuming that the inputs will make no difference. Holding the head of ADFA to account is matched by the Minister of Defence being accountable for his mistakes. He should as a minimum apologise for his erroneous statements. That would show balance in his own thinking and actions. His choice not to resile from a position that holds the military accountable is his right as the Minister. But he needs to show that he also is human and can make mistakes. He simply needs to demonstrate the same values that he desires from his own officers.

    The first most polarising event of modern military history in my lifetime was the orchestrated murder of 104 civilians at Son My by 2Lt. William Calley; “the My Lai massacre”, 1969. That action involved the distortion of soldiering with morals and ethics. That series of events resulted in my wanting to and becoming an army officer. I have and live by a code of values that respects life. So do the majority of military officers. That piece of the equation is not being considered in the media.

    Flick forward through the Cold War, South Atlantic, Middle East – 40 years to our current modern military in Australia; replace the country name with any other country, the story reads the same. The issue at play is one of politicians wanting to change the culture of the military without cognisance to the real purpose of a fighting force. The converse is a military hierarchy entrenched in the primal tribal behaviours required to kill without thought. Generally speaking of course. Not all politicians nor all senior military leaders are mindless in addressing the need to reposition the moral behaviours of our military as a whole,

    The current and recent ongoing beat up in the media on this subject is usually based on “the headline of the day” and results in the views expressed above. Those views are valid. They form opinion from individuals based on a sense of what is right and what is wrong, Additionally, the tarnishing of the many with the actions of the few is not uncommon. It is just disappointing that it continues.

    So within the discussion on what is wrong and what needs to change lies the dichotomy of a morals and ethics balance that meets an expected societal norm. The balance needs to be established within military forces as should be the understanding by politicians of how long those ethical standards take to instil, and how hard it is to maintain that position forever.

    The perspective from Dr. James O’Connor addresses this dilemma well.

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