Angus Campbell afghanistan inquiry war crimes
Defence chief General Angus Campbell (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Note: this story discusses sexual assault.

The last time we saw Defence chief General Angus Campbell he was displaying a great deal of stoicism in not commenting on⁩ reports in the Nine papers that whistleblowers in the Afghanistan war crimes inquiry risked being fired.

This week he re-emerged to tell Australian Defence Force trainees to avoid the “four As” so as not to become “prey” to sexual predators. The As he cited are “alcohol”, “out after midnight”, “alone”, and “attractive”.

Given the chance to withdraw, Campbell doubled down, telling The Canberra Times (via a spokesperson) that he stood by what he said because, after all, the entire class he was addressing was “young and attractive”, which is a “risk factor”.

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This formulation, as others have pointed out, shuffles responsibility for sexual assault like a deck of cards, putting the behavior of victims ahead of that of the perpetrators — who are recast as dumb beasts, powerless to control themselves.

It is one of countless reasons that most sexual assaults are never reported: the spectre of questions and speculation about what one was wearing, or how many drinks one had consumed.

Campbell has since — determined to keep digging until he has a trench — insisted that the statement he made and then stood by had actually “been interpreted by some in a way that I did not intend”.

Given the events of the week, it may seem that we’re missing one, maybe two, extremely obvious targets. But that’s sort of the point.

This week we have seen allegations of rape framed entirely in terms of how they affect a man’s reputation and career. We have seen the most powerful people in the country close ranks to protect that man from a proper investigation, including great swathes of the media. We found out another alleged victim had been thanked for going public by being loudly called a “lying cow” by her former employer. In this context, the grotesquerie of Campbell’s words and his contemptible refusal to reflect on why they are damaging comes into sharper relief.

While we’re supposed to be having a reckoning with sexual assault and rape, the head of one of our biggest institutions — with its own awful and very recent history of abuse — reverts to thoughtless and damaging rhetoric. These kind of statements have always thrown more mud in the water with the implication that an assault is no one’s fault — except, maybe a little, the victim’s.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.