David Morrison and Professionalism in the Military

I was going to write tonight about the “slippery slope” argument, but that got derailed by some quality television

Tonight, on SBS’ The Observer Effect,, the most excellent Ellen Fanning interviewed Lieutenant General David Morrison. Morrison is the Chief of the Australian Army, and has recently achieved a modicum of fame for his brutal video in which he speaks out against the systemic culture of violence against women in the Australian Armed Forces:

On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out.

The interview was an excellent piece of work by Fanning, and a great way to experience Morrison in a way that carries though his outrage and no-holds barred fury, and commitment to change.

Three of Morrison’s responses, I thought, were really significant.[1] First, Morrison demonstrated, by way of actually attending to the experiences of female service members, that he had abandoned the time-honoured explanation that the systemic mistreatment service members by those in positions of privilege, be that by virtue of their rank, race, or gender. Though holding one’s breath for radical change is unwise, it is certainly heartening to hear a senior official that this isn’t simply a matter of disciplining offenders. This is a systemic issue, and one that needs to be dealt with in a systemic manner.

I taught at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in the fallout of the 2011 Skype Scandal, and encountered a widespread belief among the students at ADFA that violence against women was only about individuals, rather than being an issue of culture. It was a frustrating experience; that Morrison talks about violence against women in the ADF as a systemic issue is great to see.

Next, Morrison critiqued the “ANZAC myth,” noting that the image of the Australian soldier as a white, male, ocker larrikin is outdated. In a speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference (written by Lt Col Cate McGregor), Morrison stated:

…the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. Many Australians have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough hewn country lad – invariably white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms. This is a pantomime caricature. Every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is. [2]

It is a powerful reminder that the modern Australian military is sophisticated, professional, and diverse, with an increasingly sensitive set of operational goals. Our armed forces—including the Reserves—are engaged in operations as much humanitarian and policing as they are soldiering. Our service simply cannot rely on its old image, born of a time when being an Australian soldier meant dying for a far away power’s strategic desires.

This dovetails into the point Morrison makes most forcefully—in the interview and  the video—that eradicating violence against women[3] is a matter of institutional integrity. Any professional institution that seeks to represent, as the military does, the interests of a nation must fulfil that role or be deemed deficient as an institution. Morrison made it clear that being unable to treat any member of Australian society with respect is against the national interest. He also spoke about rape as a weapon of war, and made it clear that there was no place for sexual assault of any kind, in any capacity, in the ADF.

Making that connection is significant, because Morrison is stating that if you perpetuate or condone sexual violence against women as a member of the ADF, you are not just a reprehensible human being. You are deficient as a soldier. Respect is and ought to be a hallmark of the military profession, and anyone who can’t manage that is a failed professional. That’s a gutsy claim for Morrison to be mounting, but I’m glad to see it made, and by someone in his position.

It’s a great interview, I’m hoping it makes curriculum this coming semester. Let’s hope the words turn to actions, and some changes get made.

  1. These aren’t in order they appeared, but as I’m remembering them.  ↩
  2. Speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference, New York, 8–9 March 2013.  ↩
  3. Morrison also mentioned violence against people of colour in his interview, though due to the content of the video that made him famous, the interview was primarily about violence against women.  ↩

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