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Sex scandals and SNAG soldiers


Kathryn Spurling, Cruel ConflictA young woman cadet, believing herself to be engaging in a private and intimate sexual encounter, was betrayed by her lover. He secretly filmed the scene, and the footage was seen by his mates and her work colleagues.

In my view this was sexual assault and group rape. even though at the time the victim believed herself to be engaging in a consensual act. She told investigators that, when shown a still of herself that had been circulated, she felt physically sick.

The media publicity given to this incident has unleashed community debate ranging from criticism of the defence force culture and allegations of a boys club, cover-up mentality, to broader questioning of our societal values. Listening to the top brass of the defence force wrangling about what to do about the 'female' cadet scandal is like taking a trip back into the 1940s.

Angus Houston, chief of the defence force, said, 'We have worked very hard on women and engaged many prominent women in order to get our act together as far as women'. Neil James, the executive director of the Australian Defence Association, lamented 'that with the wide ranging inquiry and publicity it will most likely be impossible to rehabilitate the career of the lass'.

In response to a call for women to have a broader range of roles in the defence forces, James responded that 'that is alright if it works ... and it depends on bio-mechanical capacities'.

Dr Kathryn Spurling, visiting fellow at the Defence Force Academy, has written and lectured widely on the issue of women in the defence force. She contends that there is an urgent need to address the 'warrior ethic' which at its worst is sexist and racist. She cites the case of a young woman who, having topped her year at Duntroon, was told she could not serve on the ground because she menstruates.

Dr Ben Wadham of Flinders University has described 'group solidarity' as positive, functional and protective in combat. But he adds that it can produce the collective neurosis of 'group think'.

Was this collective lack of empathy and conscience operating when the group of six watched the 'private' act of sex of an unknowing young woman?

Spurling and Wadham call for fine-tuning of the warrior culture. Spurling sees the opening up of women's ropportunities in the forces as at least part of the answer. I would add that men also need to be in touch with their feelings and encouraged to develop appropriate self-disclosure and empathy.

According to Jung, the 'Warrior strides in and conquers the villain or slays the dragon. The Warrior is proud and courageous. He stands up for what is honourable and right. At times he may see everything as black and white, and this may lead him to label others as 'Friend' or 'Enemy'.'

The warrior needs to be able to come home, however.

The armed forces training is an intense socialisation process that shapes and alters accepted ways of behaving in society. James says turning a civilian into a soldier is a process of preparing them for war, and war is always horrible. This is problematic. The thousands of men and women in the defence forces are predominantly aged between 18 and 25. Young adults, whose brains are still forming.

They are also citizens who must return to their communities, families, friends, partners and children. Soldiers are trained to be hyper-vigilant and to react instantly. Soldiers' wives often find that their partner suffers a short fuse, quickness to anger, impatience and restlessness.

The reality is that, despite 'humanitarian' purposes such as so called peace keeping missions, the military is a vast killing machine. Emotionally wounded warriors may return from wars in a state of heightened arousal; due, in part, to trauma, but compounded by the stoic warrior culture that makes it difficult for these men to seek help, recognise and talk about feelings, or admit vulnerability.

They may self-medicate with alcohol and find great difficulty in fitting back into civilian life. The women in their lives often tiptoe around them. They become the secondary victims of this unyielding warrior ethic that prepares people for war but not for peace. 

Lyn BenderLyn Bender is a psychologist and social commentator. She was the manger of Lifeline Melbourne and advocated for asylum seekers after working at Woomera Detention Centre.

Topic tags: warrior culture, military sex scandal, skype, Ben Wadham, Kathryn Spurling, Angus Houston, Neil James



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Existing comments

Agreed that the "the warrior needs to be able to come home" - a crucial issue. But maybe the time to do that is when "the warrior" is about to do so.
Defence forces are indeed "a vast killing machine" and until we know global peace it is naive to make such comments as if they are novel observations.
The issue of modern warfare is that "the enemy" is no longer visible, and that includes the normalising of what was once the less usual guerrilla warfare. We learned this in Vietnam and we are revisiting those ill-absorbed lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The huge psychological burden of fighting under such conditions is what we need to address - not only for defence force personnel, but also for their families and loved-ones.

Alistair P D Bain | 21 April 2011  

I don't dispute the problems that service men and women have when returning from the 'killing fields' to home, but they can hardly be used to excuse those involved in the recent incidents at the ADFA and on board HMAS Success most of who I suspect have never been in hostile action.

Ginger Meggs | 21 April 2011  

The most comprehensive discussion of the issue of women in frontline combat roles can be found on the issues index page of the ADA website at www.ada.asn.au

Lyn has misconstrued my concern for the female cadet victim. The ADA has, from the start, regarded the incident as a sexual assault (no matter what the eventual legal position is).

Knowing the group dynamics of tertiary institutions, and especially military ones, our concern has been to maximise her chances of continuing her military career (should she choose to do so). We do not believe her breaking of the ADFA no-fraternisation rule is relevant - both because of the severity of what was done to her and because she is only 18 and in her first ten weeks in the ADF.

The ADA also believes that the ADF does not have, and does not need, a so-called "warrior culture".

We also believe that Ben Wadham is mistaken in some of his more subjective claims.

Thr formal comment, letter-to-the-editor and media commentary pages of our website detail wgat the ADA has actually said.

Media coverage of this incident has been appallingly inaccurate and sensationalist, leading to much public confusion.

Neil James, Executive Director, Aust Defence Assn | 22 April 2011  

I believe we have reached a time in history when, as globalised and jihadised as we are, conventional warriors are an an anachronism and should be pensioned off. We don't need more of the same. We need a rethink of what sovereignty and safety mean.

graham patison | 24 April 2011  

I must say I am not as generous towards the perpetrators of this heinous crime as the author of this article.

I am utterly disgusted at the reports(if true) that the army will now allow women to fight in more dangerous situations.

As if that is going to heal the betrayal and pain of this very young girl.

Has there been a public apology, or for that matter a private one, to this damaged girl from all involved?

To my mind these men have committed a serious crime and need to be legally charged and accept the just consequences. What happens to those convicted of rape?

To be allowed to stay in the Army would be the ultimate insult.

Bernie Introna | 27 April 2011  

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