I never expected to wake up that a special forces vehicle had been flying a swastika flag on operations in Afghanistan in 2007 and, I imagine, neither did the Australian public. We have entrusted these soldiers to defend us and our way of life, not to become the monsters we have fought in the past.
When I grew up I loved sitting on the laps of my grandparents, listening to their war stories. Granddad was a Royal Marine and said very little – apart from, “Don’t join the Army. All they do is march everywhere.” Oops, sorry Grandpa. I definitely did a lot of pack marches but it was worth it.
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My grandma was a little bit more open, telling me how she remembered waiting out bombing raids in shelters, seeing the Luftwaffe markings and, one time, even the face of a side gunner of a low-flying plane over London.
In a way, I’m kind of glad they aren’t here to see the recent rise of fascism and neo-Nazism in the western world. Conversely, I think it’s because we’re losing second world war survivors that we are slow to realise that some parts of western society are starting to glorify rhetoric and attitudes that mimic a certain 1930s German leader.
There has been a lot of criticism of the ABC and other perceived left-biased media lately for reporting on the issues of alleged war crimes. No doubt I will cop some flak for writing this. However, I do think that we need to play the ball and not the player with this issue, and it is important to get to the root cause of it and report the truth.
Having been one myself, I will always have a soft spot for the Australian soldier. The source of the problem here is not the individuals, it is the culture and leadership, plain and simple. I’ve seen first-hand how different leadership styles can have a direct result on soldier behaviour at home and overseas. I don’t think we should be looking for individuals to crucify over these issues, but we really need to be demanding that a fine tooth comb be run over the culture and the leadership at all levels of the Australian defence forces.
I remember in 2001 when the whole defence force was stood down to watch an actual video cassette of General Cosgrove handing us his after some unit-level bastardisation had come to light. He made it pretty clear then what was and wasn’t acceptable, and that we were all a team.
I was a new lieutenant at the time, things seemed OK. I was looking after my soldiers like it was impressed upon me at Duntroon. Over the years though, I started to see through the cracks in the system, where officers, especially, were careerists first and military officers and leaders of troops second.
It seemed to get worse the higher up you got. Officers became more risk averse and politically driven with each promotion, appealing to the hierarchy to notice them among their peers. The Canberra bubble is very real, as we have seen with a that racism was rare in Australia. The ADF is not immune from being caught in this bubble – the officers and those attempting to make it there, behave differently. It’s not about looking after your people and getting the job done, it’s about looking good and making sure there’s no negative media attention.
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As a former infantry captain, I’ve become concerned about a scary thread I’m seeing on social media. There are many who wish to deny that our ADF are a part of, and a reflection of, our culture. I have been using this very argument to explain why diversity is actually an important part of our military, yet the counter seems to be an argument that the ADF should somehow be some thuggish force of warriors who don’t conform to our normal societal expectations. This is something that I believe has developed over the past several years while we have careerists looking up rather than looking down. So I think we have had a perfect breeding ground for some of the nastier aspects of our society to take hold and fester in the junior ranks of our defence force.
The risk aversion and the wanting “to keep things quiet” culture always backfires when the truth comes out. We have to ask the people in our Canberra bubble, why are we this way? Lead from the front and take charge, stop this stuff from happening ever again. We have some pretty awesome young people in our defence force, and they are in desperate need of stronger leadership and better direction. This will cost us nothing and we will gain so much.
- Bridget Clinch is a former infantry captain