Diggers need just a little slack

WAS EVER so much nonsense spoken as when politicians, journalists and feminist and ethnic icons vie with ancient generals, clergymen and academics to condemn the latest evidences that our soldiers, sailors and air persons are profane, cynical and somewhat racist and sexist young men and women?

The fact that they are is, of course, deplorable. It would be far better if all young men and women were humourless, sexless, and entirely devoid of unworthy feelings, least of all in relation to the opposite sex, people of other sexual orientations and people of other creeds or races.

Likewise it would be far better if they did not drink, and fight with each other or with civilians (as opposed to Her Majesty’s enemies). With no opinions other than patriotism, love of family and friends, and kindness to animals.

I have, perhaps, led a sheltered life but it is my experience that the men and women of the nation’s armed services are a fair average quality sample of the nation’s youth, and that their collective vices – however heinous they sometimes seem – fall into a pattern not amazing dissimilar to the wickedness of ”yoof” at large. In mufti it is hard to tell them from their peers, whose individual or collective conduct excites no focused feelings at all.

But I do not ascribe all appalling behaviour by 20-year-olds to the ANU, or UC, or even TAFE, or to systemic deficiency in recruitment policies. Nor do I expect the vice- chancellor or principal of any of these to jump to action if one of them misbehaves.

It is not for me, particularly in a matter sub judice, to dilate on the boorishness of skyped-sex, walks of shame, or elaborate humiliating rituals visited on classmates or supposed friends and comrades. Yet I have heard of atrocities far worse, and more frequently, in the average university hall of residence – and without there being newspaper editorials, sermons from the pulpit, statements by ministers, inquiries by prominent busybodies and public discussion of the future of national institutions, and dinner table conversations about whether the Army, in its modern form, is morally fit to be sent to kill our enemies.

By and large, indeed, the average soldier is considerably better trained and better motivated, and has, on average, a far better knowledge and understanding of the cultures, the languages and the histories of any of these countries than ever our uncles, aunts, parents or grandparents did. And, whether inclined to vote Labor, Liberal, National or Green, they are, on average, more liberal and tolerant in their general attitudes to each other, to people they meet, or people they see at the other end of a rangefinder.

They are, on average, more PC than their military seniors, even as they pretend, in private conversation, that they find a good deal of discussion of racism, sexism, bullying, bastardry or social ostracism tedious and overly politically correct. The outsider will think they are far more like their peers in attitudes about such things than they are like people of the generation above, including, for that matter, officers wearing stars.

But they are young people, and, like many young people, they drink too much, spend too much time in each other’s company, obsess about status and relationships, are defensive when criticised and often aggressive to outsiders or critics, and sometimes show-offs or people who are acting out. That they live in a highly disciplined environment most of the time increases the tendency for some of misbehave spectacularly when the shackles are off. This tendency was noted and deplored at least 1000 years before Julius Caesar, but no one has found a way to do anything much about it. For what it is worth, the most puritanical Roundheads, professed Knights Templar and our Australian heroes of Gallipoli, when in Egypt, were among the worst recorded offenders over that time. By comparison, the misbehaviour of our modern soldiers is pretty tame and manageable.

Ask any old digger down at the RSL, when he is not pretending that he spent his entire war thinking that the flag must never be changed. Invite any old digger, indeed, to reflect on how, during one deployment involving tens of thousands of Aussies, the number of cases of venereal disease being suffered by our diggers exceeded the number deployed by a factor of five to four. (Multiple ”wounds”.)

This week’s ”scandal” involved a closed (password protected) chatroom for current and former members of the Royal Australian Regiment. Breathless ABC reporters discovered that some present and former members of RAR exchanged sexist and racist jokes. The Chief of Army, General David Morrison, was required to look abject and ashamed, forced to again acknowledge that some of his lads and lasses are not completely sensitive to the new age.

The banter on the chatroom, however deplorable, seemed to me a good deal tamer than one would hear any day in the average RSL club, public bar or, for that matter, student union or parliamentary dining room. Indeed, I have heard more sexist jokes from prominent feminists; more racist jokes in Aboriginal settlements.

For some folk (not me) indeed, an internet chatroom is much like an RSL or a public bar. Were we to send sensitivity counsellors into such places, they would be ejected, to public acclamation, in the name of freedom of speech. About a closed chatroom, I would feel much the same.

Once, as I commented in a book review yesterday, men would never swear in front of women, and if they did, accidentally, would apologise profusely. But they were quite profane (as well as racist and sexist) in the pub, the club, or the all-male workplace.

Perhaps we need new manners for modern days and modern ways. But I very much doubt that a new era of sensitivity among our trained warriors – any more than our athletes, footballers, cops or criminals – is going to be achieved merely by lectures, sermons, harangues, humiliations and periodic exposures of bad cases. It’s a learning process, and our warriors are learning much like us all. I rather prefer the argument that making sardonic semi-public (and not very funny) jokes about Muslims is letting down serving comrades, because exposure of the fact of such joke-making actually brings down violence on them. That’s probably a more effective disincentive than an appeal to principle, or threat of a fine.

I have a cynical suspicion that some recent defence misbehaviour stories are being spoon-fed to media sources as part of a softening up campaign to excuse the according of a want of natural justice to the ADFA principal Commodore Bruce Kafer after a recent ADFA scandal. A report on the treatment of Kafer is now overdue. It is reported to be critical of Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Perhaps a vigilant media might understand the minister’s overreaction better if they understood the ”accidental” shooting of Kafer as a regrettable but possibly unavoidable collateral injury in hot pursuit, by the minister, of a tenacious and wicked enemy. In due course, maybe, we can strike up a medal for Smith’s refusal to be deflected from his duty.

Jack Waterford

The Canberra Times

March 4, 2012