• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Band of brothers under attack from the social engineers

In a sense, this was never about a specific case of actionable behaviour.

The moment Defence Minister Stephen Smith publicly criticised the action of the commandant of the academy, Commodore Bruce Kafer, as “completely stupid”, he transformed a discrete disciplinary issue into an all-encompassing political one.

That even after Kafer has been reinstated Smith continues to defend his intemperate remarks only underlines the tawdry nature of this affair.

The political debate about who should apologise to whom obscures a far more fundamental issue, which is how Australia views its defence force’s internal culture.

For some critics of the nation’s defence culture, the Skype scandal speaks to an institution that is resolutely steeped in the values of the past and refuses to fall in line and embrace the values of the nation’s cultural elite. Many regard the ADF as too macho.

It is evident that political pressure on the ADF to distance itself from its traditional values has fostered a defensive and confused climate in the armed services.

A report, Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture, outlines a plan of action that would in effect transform this institution’s culture into one that prevails in non-military workplaces.

The report valiantly tries to reconcile the forms of behaviour and values required for a fighting force with the codes of conduct appropriate for people working in an office or a bank.

However, the army, navy or air force are not just another place of work. Forms of behaviour that are simply not tolerated in a normal business are routine in a military environment.

No office manager would dare shout at staff the way a sergeant barks at new recruits. Officers issue commands and rarely ask for input. And even in an era addicted to health and safety, military personnel are sometimes forced to put their lives on the line.

In an office, employees are entitled to feel stressed out, talk to their mentors, take a sickie and raise their “issues”. In a military operation, there are fewer opportunities for demanding such forms of individual dispensation.

In a world where direct confrontation and criticism are condemned as insensitive and offensive, many forms of undiplomatic behaviour characteristic of the military may be experienced as not just harsh but abusive.

Today, when solidarity is conspicuous by its absence, civilians often find it difficult to grasp the powerful sentiment that binds individual fighters into a coherent military force. Members of a military unit who have no choice but to rely on one another develop a strong sense of belonging to a particular group, with its distinct rituals and way of life.

Typically, an effective defence force has what sociologists call social capital and often relies on a robust internal network to make things happen. Such networks are not only characterised by their informality but by powerful internal pressure to be a team player.

When virtually every dimension of people’s experience is regulated and the workplace is subjected to numerous codes of conduct, the informal bonds that bind soldiers together appear as a blast from the past.

That is why, in Britain and the US, so-called “barrack-room” culture has been targeted as anachronistic and in need of reform.

For those on the outside, such informal networks may appear bizarre, even threatening. But for those whose lives depend on the informal, taken-for-granted relationship they have with one another, such customs are necessary for their survival.

At times, Pathway to Change shows an understanding of retaining the intangible esprit de corps that underpins a military organisation. The authors struggle with the dilemma of maintaining a military ethos when so many politicians and opinion-makers are suspicious of it. In the end though, they yield to the demands of the social engineers.

Consequently, they contrast the demands of “equity and diversity” with what the report calls the “nature of warfare and its physiological demands in the past”.

That’s another way of saying the military is wedded to its masculine culture from the past and now needs to accommodate to the needs of women personnel.

However, the cultural changes demanded are not simply about a more equitable relationship between men and women.

They are about the weakening of the informal bonds that bind soldiers together and replacing them with formal codes of behaviour.

So when the report points to “worrying attitudes that we must reshape”, it targets the practice of taking “group identity and loyalty too far so that it translates into an us and them mentality”.

What would the critics of the ADF culture make of the us and them mentality described by Shakespeare in his idealised account of the patriotic ethos that led to the English triumph at the battle of Agincourt?

Shakespeare’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” are definitely unacceptable to a new-model culturally correct defence organisation of the future.

In effect, the report aspires to changes already made in the US, which are vividly described by Stephanie Gutman in her book, A Kinder, Gentler Military.

Gutman argues that the American military is “struggling with reformers without and within who are trying to expunge their hierarchical, competitive, aggressive and generally masculine character - the kind of character that wins wars”.

The problem with the report is not that it insists on equal treatment of all members of the defence force. Equal treatment and eliminating discrimination is an important feature of any democratic military culture.

The problem with the report is that adoption of its recommendations will mean office politics trump the imperative of defence.

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