Tempering Tribalism

By Ben Wadham | 18 Oct 13

This article is a part of our October focus on Institutions – you can access more content from this issue here 

By Ben Wadham

Western militaries are unique institutions. They are total institutions that take civilians from their liberal lifestyles and turn them into soldiers and combatants. That process, the coalface re-engineering of citizens from civilians into soldiers, is one element that makes the military unique. It is an expression of a particular formation of cultural separations that start at the moment of entry and play out through different hierarchies of oppositions all the way to the top.

From civilian to military, section to section, platoon to platoon, officer to non-commissioned officer, arms to service corps, Navy to Airforce to Army and back to military and civilian these oppositions create insular, territorialised identities that generate a strong sense of self and other – which is functional for war-fighting but often dysfunctional for organisational modernisation and sustainability. This is best articulated as fraternity – or brotherhood: a heteronormative and masculinised domain.  It is a context that generates an intense potential for prejudice and human rights abuse, even though the military, paradoxically, justifies its existence in part as protecting civilians from these very things.

The pinnacle of this form is where the military is constitutionally separated from the state and sits under the control of civilian authorities. This is described as the civil-military culture gap. The question this raises is: “what is the potential for ‘others’ to participate safely and equally within this context?”

The Skype incident is not simply an act of a few bad apples as the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have often asked us to believe, but an enduring form of institutional practice.

The Skype incident as catalyst: from incident to affair

Over the past four decades or so the question of military culture has come under increasing scrutiny. We have seen it most clearly in the last two years with the cultural reviews mobilised by the Skype incident. But its history is as old as the military itself. The Skype incident, where seven men colluded to objectify and violate their female colleague, is emblematic of this history and of this separation.

On that occasion Officer Cadet Daniel McDonald arranged a mutually-agreed sexual encounter with a female cadet described as “Kate” by the media. Daniel communicated his success to his mate, fellow office cadet Dylan Deblaquiere, who suggested they set up a webcam and Skype the activity to an adjacent room where the fraternity of men would watch. Recently the two men were found guilty of acts of indecency and the use of a carriage service in an offensive manner. They will be sentenced next week.

On the ground the incident is an expression of the military ritual of fraternity, or more specifically fratriarchy – the rule of brothers. As the event played out through the media, government and military relations it evolved from the Skype incident – with a focus on the act of violation – into the Skype Affair – the broader public discourse about the ADF’s culture more generally. The practices of a group of young, newly militarised men became the source of a struggle between the state and the military – between two highly masculinised and male oriented institutions.

The Skype incident is not simply an act of a few bad apples as the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have often asked us to believe, but an enduring form of institutional practice. When it is argued that a few boys behaving badly is an aberration, or an expression of what ails broader Australian society, this decouples the young men from the institution, it permits the Command to argue it is not their responsibility. Former General Peter Leahy explains:

Members of the press and other commentators should reconsider their unwarranted insinuation that this is “defence culture”. The seven individuals involved have been at ADFA for barely two months. You don’t learn this sort of culture in that period of time. You bring it with you from your home, your school and the community. Australia as a whole is struggling with actions such as sexting, binge drinking and a general loss of the meaning of privacy, not just ADFA(2011).

But this military account itself is a closing of ranks, an act of the fraternity of military elites. The outcome is a process that scaffolds male heteronormative privilege in this domain and makes any form of serious reform to military culture radically difficult. Furthermore, as the history of ADF scandals, and the recent inquiry into physical, sexual and other forms of abuse within the ADF conducted by DLA Piper attest, military misconduct is a persistent and enduring institutional practice.

“Brotherhood” is the greatest barrier to women’s success in this domain. It is also the greatest threat to their safety.

Brotherhood and the inclusion of others

The Skype incident, and the way in which the military initially managed it, reflects the intense insularity and elitism of the military institution. The incident mobilised a series of cultural reviews into the way women are treated in the ADF, the history of physical, sexual and other abuse in the ADF, and the lifting of the “gender barrier” for women permitting them to serve in all roles in the military – including combat roles. Putting aside the stable of arguments about women’s physical capacity, questions of chivalry, team cohesion or feminine hygiene, I argue that it is “brotherhood” that is the greatest barrier to women’s success in this domain. It is also the greatest threat to their safety.

How then can we understand this brotherhood, or particular form of masculine fraternity? First, the Skype incident is fratriarchal – a specific form of fraternity or brotherhood. Fratriarchy is not unique to the military; it is expressed in male sporting groups, or in occupations like mining or oil rigging; contexts where the masculine principle is intense and singular. But it is intensified and practiced in institutionally unique ways.

There are several principles to fratriarchy. First it is tribal, constituted by men with a sense of license because of sport, militarism, elitism and a youthful aggression/exuberance. Military, or more specifically arms corps, fratriarchy is tribal, constituted by a sense of license well expressed in the popular and often used quote: “Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Secondly, initiations mark fratriarchies, as rites of passage, and the administration of hierarchy. The rituals are often profoundly brutal and humiliating but also further the intensity of group bonding. They are also often intensely sexualised and homoerotic. The Skype incident was allegedly implicated in the ritual of the trifecta. A male cadet scores the trifecta and the status associated with this feat by sleeping with a female cadet from the Navy, the Air force and the Army. The act of six men watching their mate have sex has strong homoerotic overtones.

In my own time in the infantry this was often described in terms of getting your wings and was extended to various population groups. At the Royal Military College Duntroon (RMC), Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), Kapooka, and other training institutions, bastardisation including woofering (placing a vacuum on the victims genitals), blanket bashing (placing a bar of soap in a blanket and beating the victim) or engaging in “the eagle drop” (dancing and dropping your pants to the Eagle Rock and forcing initiates to kiss the genitals of the higher class Cadet) are examples of this bonding and “Othering.”

Fratriarchies foster male domination in at least three ways: they bring men together, they keep men together, and they put women or others down. They force the “weak” to leave, further building the group solidarity.

The history of brotherhood

Over the past forty years alone the ADF has been consistently faced with scandals that express this cultural form. From the bastardisation scandals that began in 1913, the RMC Fox report of 1970, the Officers and Not So Gentlemen scandal reported in The Melbourne Age in 1983, to hazing and initiation scandals at RMC in the 1990s, tribal ritual abuse has persisted.

As women entered the military in the 1980s the matter of sexual harassment began to take on greater prominence. The first big scandal arose from male predation on the HMAS Swan in 1992, but ongoing cases arose from the ADFA, across the ADF with clear examples of tribal predation on the HMAS “Love Boat” Success, or the recent “Jedi Council” where up to 100 Army personnel across the country were engaged in an email sex ring rating, sharing and conversing about women for sexual conquest.

While the ADF removed barriers to gay personnel in 1992 there have been various cases over time, including the recent Gay Hate Facebook page, where a significant number of personnel have stalked and harassed gay personnel. We have also been exposed to soldiers dressing up in KKK outfits standing over their dark skinned “mates”, troops referring to Afghanis as dune coons, ragheads or sand niggers, or the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) Facebook page in 2012 describing all women as filthy lying whores and talking about lining up Muslims to be shot.

The reform of the military justice system has been an associated line of review and inquiry into an institution that has a poor record in reporting, recording and managing abuse and harassment. Indeed over the past forty or so years there have been roughly 35 inquiries and reports into what is essentially governing masculine fraternity and tribalism. It is this history that partially prompted Minister Stephen Smith to say “enough is enough” and intervene in the ADFA command’s mismanagement of the Skype incident.

Can the ADF widen its cultural frame?

There have been some significant rhetorical shifts in the last year emanating from the ADF Cultural Reviews. For the first time over the history of the military scandal the leadership have actively argued that the “bad apples” argument can no longer be used. Moreover, while some attempts to manage defence abuse, such as the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce (DART), have failed to adopt best practice the work of the Human Rights Equal Opportunity (HREOC) (Sex) Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has been genuinely ground breaking.

Broderick’s team adopted a victim-focused approach and perhaps because of their non-military backgrounds have been able to see the profoundly institutionalised character of access and equity issues in the ADF. It is perhaps this point which is the most powerful mechanism of managing defence abuse and breaking the hermetically sealed and bullet-proof culture of fraternity: independent scrutiny.

The HREOC Sex Discrimination Minister installed the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Response Office (SMPRO), and placed it outside of the Chain of Command – away from the insular fraternal organisational cultures across the diversity of defence. A similar recommendation was made in 2005, when 44 Senators on the Inquiry into the Effectiveness of Australia’s Military Justice System sought the establishment of the Australian Defence Force Review Board (ADFARB) – an agency to hear military redress of grievance outside of the Chain of Command.

That recommendation was rejected by former Prime Minister John Howard, the Minister for Defence Robert Hill and the Chief of Defence Peter Cosgrove. It was an opportunity missed, yet in this round of scandals that ground has begun to shift.

Mechanisms of independence scrutiny, that sit outside of the chain of command, that break the circle of brotherhood, at all levels, are one principal means of managing total masculinised institutions. In short “brotherhood” must be governed. Perhaps a Federal accountability organisation might be one answer to improve the ADF’s record on human rights and help it on the path toward modernisation.

Ben Wadham is a former infantry soldier and military police investigator. He is now a sociologist at Flinders University researching militarism and military cultures, with a specific focus on the Australian Defence Force and other Western militaries. He has been a prominent media commentator on military culture and the ADF over the past ten years.