Our Proud Military Tradition Is Tarnished


As the findings of the DLA Piper Review were released, Stephen Smith, the Minister for Defence, warned the allegations of abuse within Australian Defence Forces would "shock some people". The Minister was correct. The findings will shock those who have no military service, but nobody who spent time in the ADF.

The vast majority of us were fortunately spared the worst but behaviour unbecoming any military did take place. Too many who entered the ADF for all the right reasons were subjected to all the wrong behaviour.

You are motivated to enter the military for a host of reasons. Some of these alter with the era. The reason which remains universal is that you wish to serve (protect) your country. This may appear unfashionable, but volunteers don’t become soldiers for wealth or fame. ADF service involves giving up personal freedoms and semblances of a life most Australians take for granted. And it is not just the serviceman or servicewoman, but their families who are affected.

Australia has a proud military tradition and many thousands of our best citizens have died wearing Australian uniforms. Unfortunately, all too often this tradition has been invoked to justify and safeguard behaviour that has no place in Australian society, let alone the ADF.

The review, sparked by the "Skype sex scandal" at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2011, received complaints from 847 people, many containing more than one allegation of assault. The reported incidents occurred between 1951 and 2011. It was found that the "overwhelming majority" of allegations were plausible.

The review team said resistance was encountered from current and former leaders of the ADF. Their report said it was possible that male cadets who raped female cadets in the late 1990s, and others who witnessed the assaults and did not intervene, may now be in middle to senior management positions.

The Grey Review into the Australian Defence Force Academy, undertaken in the 1990s, identified 24 cases of rape. None of these went to trial. A 1998 military investigation identified 26 cases of rape between 1994-1997 — only two went to trial. This is not male on female rape only, these included male on male rape.

The DLA Piper review reminds us of a 2001 army survey conducted by Michael Power, Directorate of Strategic Personnel Planning and Research, which found one in every 25 female soldiers said they were victims of attempted rape and one in 14 had experienced "sexual threats" that they would suffer duty and promotion deprivation if they refused to agree to sex.

What do you say to a woman who tells you her soldier father raped her and her sisters when they were very young and then brought home other soldiers to do the same? What do you say to a woman who remains traumatised many years later after her air force career ended? She was raped by her Sergeant. She was strong enough to report the rape to the next-in-command who removed her to a hotel away from the perpetrator, only to return the same night and rape her himself.

These women were told not to prosecute "because no one will believe you" and "no one will back you up" and of course, "you must have been asking for it". What can you say to the family of a young man who just wanted to serve his country but was so severely bastardised he committed suicide? The abusers protected one other and were allowed to hide behind the military code of silence.

What do you do when you are told of someone who abused those in his command and how he was promoted and moved so "he could be someone else’s problem"? What can you do when a Commanding Officer has acted criminally and friends in higher places allow him to leave the ADF to avoid prosecution?

It is no small wonder that so many who have been subjected to the very worst behaviour feel betrayed by the system. They needed to be believed at the time; they needed their grievances seen to sympathetically, rapidly addressed, and the perpetrator dealt with swiftly and punished. They needed care and an apology. Instead they were treated much worse than those who had no right to remain in uniform.

This attitude began a very long time ago. It started with the lenient view towards servicemen "sowing their wild oats". It was obvious when women volunteers were hastily removed from the military when pregnant, without any support from the ADF — whilst the male member of the tryst paid no price for the "inconvenience".

It continued when the underlying ADF culture was allowed to be dominated by a particular definition of masculinity and physicality. It prospered when too many turned a blind eye to criminal behaviour rather than break a perverted code of military loyalty. Those in power remained mute lest any scandal impede their own career and future promotion prospects.

Everyone entering the military is hazed; but while it can be innocuous and sometimes testing, it should never be life-threatening and criminal. Some have justified bastardisation as "character forming" — this is rubbish.

Extreme physical and mental hardship are not necessary to produce a competent member of the ADF. It is totally unnecessary to assert the harshest rendition of a virulent all male brotherhood to maintain Australian security and fulfil its defence and humanitarian responsibilities.

A unit can bond without formalised bullying. Most have. But a warped sense of loyalty and poor leadership have allowed a pervasive culture of misogyny to destroy individuals and tarnish the reputation of the ADF. There have been so many reviews, and so many Ministers for Defence. Will the DLA Piper review be just another ignored report? Or will finally something be done to eradicate a culture within the ADF which destroys individuals tarnishes the service of the majority of good soldiers?

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.