Why The Front Line Matters


"Kate" went to the media following a sex tryst betrayal which involved being Skyped to a sad group of fellow male Cadets in another Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) room. The victim found herself further victimised by authorities and fellow Cadets and she was the one who was sent home to Mum and Dad as the "boys" remained at ADFA. What followed looked a lot like hysteria. The press had a field day, outraged citizens sent letters to editors and the Minister for Defence, an obviously angry Stephen Smith, announced inquiries into just about every facet of the ADFA and its parent ADF. 

Did the "Kate" affair warrant the attention it received? Was it all indicative of a virulent misogynistic culture within the Academy and ADF — at odds with Australian society? Is the position of women within the ADF untenable? What can be done to improve their situation? And would the latest inquiries resolve the situation?

It is difficult to address these questions in any brevity. Was the case blown up out of all proportion? Most definitely! The media preference for negativity has fostered a public misconception that damns the majority of serving members of the ADF; and diminishes the success and distinction with which female ADF officers and other ranks have served. Most of the young men and women studying at, or who have graduated from, ADFA, are among the brightest, fittest and most ethical of their generation. A career in the military is a demanding occupation, can be 24/7, and the remuneration and perks are pretty average.

But yes, the male Cadet involved in the sex tryst should have been immediately discharged from the ADF, and yes, the Skype affair was the latest high profile incident involving inappropriate behavior against ADF women. Even though condemnation is justifiable, Australians did not place this in the context of the wider Australian culture. Would a similar betrayal of trust occur in civilian universities? Would we hear about it? Would the press be interested?

Few asked how young men could be so corrupted in less than three months in the military, because that would suggest the responsibility really lay with the society in which they were raised for 18 years. It might make us admit that Australian society really does have a major problem with the celebration of masculinity, physicality, and misogyny, often exacerbated by our love affair with alcohol. Australia has one of the worst rates of domestic violence within the developed world. Women and their "traits" are undervalued. One needs to look no further than sport and the sycophantic attention given to men footballers and cricketers. Or to the numerous indiscretions perpetuated by sportsmen and the limp slap over the knuckles this bad behaviour incurs. These sportsmen continue to be celebrated as role models for young Australians, including those coming to ADFA.

It can be suggested that young men attracted to a military career are inclined to conservatism — but this is also often not the case. Why do women enlist? For much the same reasons as do the men: the opportunity of paid education and training; to serve their country (as corny as this may sound) and yes, for adventure.

As the media focuses on the negatives, the achievements of Australian servicewomen are ignored. Women have served at sea with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) since 1992, undertaking identical duties as their male peers. Only RAN Clearance Divers is closed to women. Since 1999 the RAN has deployed female officers and sailors on submarines. The United States and the United Kingdom are just two nations unable as yet to integrate women into submarines. Women command patrol boats and warships. A woman pilot has been a member of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) acrobatic team, the Roulettes; the massive C-17 Globemaster aircraft have had woman crews; and there are women navigators in our fighters. In the RAAF only Defence Guard is closed to women. Australian servicewomen are undertaking dangerous duties with frontline units throughout the world. Their success needs to be acknowledged — otherwise we contribute to their marginalisation.

Is it also true that inappropriate behaviour is endemic within ADFA and the ADF? Much has improved within the last two decades. Investigations and complaints have seen procedures improve, equity programmes introduced, and changes implemented. Inappropriate misogynistic behavior has been reduced but none should exist. Fundamental change is still needed, the "warrior ethic" which continues to be celebrated in certain parts of the ADF must be expunged — only then will bastardisation and sexual harassment be eradicated.

We must open the combat exclusion careers within our military — because only then can women begin to achieve the respect, promotion opportunities and numbers they need to be regarded as truly worthy ADF professionals. It is often cited that only 7 per cent of ADF positions are closed to women but this 7 per cent represented the pointy end occupations which carry the most status. These are the bulk of Australian Regular Army careers — Armour (Calvary), Artillery, Infantry, and Special Forces (SAS).

Only abortion and euthanasia evoke more hysteria than the topic of women in combat. Too often this debate concentrates on generalities and involves more emotion than logic. Opponents cite everything from military degradation to male sensitivities but the crux of their argument emanates from the belief that biology is destiny: women are the breeders and nurturers, therefore they do not, or should not, "make war". Men are the warriors, they protect women and children. That is how the rhetoric goes. You only have to look at the victims of war to realise that women and children suffer most. Resistance to women in combat has more to do with the threat to the status quo and perceived gender distinctions.

Nor will opponents accept that their arguments are rendered moot by the changed face of war. Modern conflict lacks the clear delineation of previous world wars — soldiers do not face each other in trenches; the bad guys no longer wear different uniforms; there is little demarcation between combat and non-combat duties. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that driving down a street can be deadly. Over a 100 United States and more than 30 other NATO military women have been killed there in "combat related duties" and hundreds injured. Women are already deeply integrated in our nation’s military — and "military effectiveness" has not been lost. Sensible consideration of standards required is necessary but women can undertake combat duty within the ADF — and servicewomen in the official militaries of twelve nations already do.

In 2000 the then minister for defence declared he would eradicate ADF bad behavior and that combat arms would be opened to women. Eleven years and several ministers later bad behavior in the ADF continues and women are still excluded from the combat arms. Inquiries run by civilians do not do well — internal military inquiry appears to resolve little. Women in the ADF continue to mark time.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.