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Parallels between the military and the church

  • 01 December 2020
The Australian community and its government are struggling to come to terms with the extremely serious allegations against members of the SAS for their alleged criminal misconduct during the war in Afghanistan. At the same time, we Catholics are experiencing a bad case of déjà vu as there are many echoes of how we felt when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RC) began in 2013. Just as that RC raised deeper questions and put the criminal charges against church personnel in a broader context so must further enquiries into the military. To restrict the focus just to those servicemen accused of war crimes would be mistaken without investigating military culture and governance.

The military has a special place in Australian culture. War has been accorded a special place too, including in Australia’s coming of age as a nation. This makes the task of investigating serious deficiencies in the military especially difficult.

We must not forget the recent string of controversies, inquiries and royal commissions into other sectors of Australian society. Many of them, such as institutional responses to child sex abuse, sexual harassment, corporate failures, health and aged care, and destruction of Indigenous heritage also raise bigger issues.

The similarities include political and organisational accountability, secrecy and lack of transparency, ethical failures, dysfunctional cultures and education and training.

You don’t have to have ever served in uniform to understand the place of the military in Australian society, just as you don’t have to be a cleric to understand the place of clergy in the Catholic church. Military service and military personnel are revered by Australians. Anzac Day and the Australian War Memorial are special. The former is often described as Australia’s informal national day, the latter as the heart and soul of Australia. The links between past and present military service, bravery and personal sacrifice are made frequently by our civic and political leaders. Disentangling the two, whether by the media or by ordinary Australians, is sensitive without appearing disloyal.

The military is a world unto itself, many aspects of which impact on cultural change and governance. It is hierarchical, closed and disciplined, which makes internal criticism and challenges to established ways of doing things much harder. It is often a life-long career which begins at an early age, frequently straight out of school. Training occurs in relatively closed environments, such as military academies and