“Don’t go Jack” — it’s a phrase that every defence force member knows well but is lost on the rest of us.
It means never dob in your mates, don’t admit who might have been responsible for bad actions, and always have each other’s backs. This mantra is excellent to build small group cohesion, esprit de corps and fighting capability.
However, it also begins the process of subverting command, encouraging bad behaviour and compelling fellow members to cover up incidents and protect wrongdoers.
Looking out for your mate starts on day one of basic training in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). As a new recruit, you’re assigned a “battle-buddy”, with whom you do everything.
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Crucially, you’re responsible if they stuff up. Uniform out of order? Barracks not spotless? Socks not folded with a happy face? You, and then the whole trainee group, will face remedial training.
In the old days that included physical punishment; today it will be drill, exercise or repetitive pointless tasks. This is to bind you to the group so you realise that your own survival depends upon everyone else. This bonding becomes even stronger in elite units, where the training is long and arduous.
The special forces have a sense of exceptionalism trained into them, marking them as different from the regular army. It’s only a short step to then think you can do anything you want — because you are better than everyone else.
Yet despite the risks, it seems some from Australia’s special forces have spoken up when their comrades went too far in Afghanistan — but their concerns went nowhere. It also appears that junior commanders that challenged senior NCOs were hounded out of the SAS, with no support from senior command, as the ABC reported yesterday. This is why it’s imperative that we investigate the commanders as well.
Who knew what and when? It’s unfathomable to believe that the leadership was unaware. Indeed, one suspects the culture became one of a “wink and nod” to questionable actions, including encouraging to “drop weapons” (planting a gun on a body to justify a shooting).
Take the SAS helmet-camera footage that appears to capture an unlawful killing. Command will have seen this, yet no action was apparently taken. Every patrol is reviewed afterwards, including footage and reports — even the clandestine special forces are observed. The only explanation is that the leadership turned a blind eye to the evidence. This culture then becomes the driver of behaviour, with misconduct normalised.
For the few who might have wanted to take the allegations further there really is nowhere to go. The chain of command is rigid and unforgiving of attempts to bypass it. Troopers would have also known that any complaint up the chain would have returned to them and their unit, marking them as targets for reprisal.
The chaplains are the only other way they could have spoken out, but again, they are part of the group and relatively powerless. Then there’s anonymous defence hotlines — can you imagine dialling in from Afghanistan?
The lack of ways to voice concerns has been found repeatedly to be a core problem for whistleblowers. The ADF knows this full well, as it was one of the contributing causes to the prevalence of injuries and diseases suffered by RAAF members and contractors taking part in the F111 de-seal/re-seal program.
In a 2011 review of the military’s culture General Craig Orme explicitly noted that reporting problems is an administrative nightmare for a complainant. The review failed to realise that perhaps making it hard to report is in the best interests of the ADF — what stays unreported never happened.
The toxic combination of administrative hurdles and extreme loyalty means that speaking up labels you a traitor. Command at best tacitly condones and at worst encourages the behaviours this system produces. As the ADF’s long, sordid history of scandal and violence shows, it has failed to address the fundamental components of military cultural practices that create the conditions for abuse and war crimes. The entire culture needs to be addressed, not just the special forces.
Tomorrow: What have we learned from the release of the Brereton report?
For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14, Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling is on 1800 011 046, and the ADF All-hours Support Line is on 1800 628 036.
Dr James Connor is with UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy and is an expert on military culture, scandal and abuse.