It was curious that when Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced a battery of inquiries into the sexual culture of the Australian Defence Force Academy earlier this month, he also announced the lifting of the prohibition of women serving in combat roles in the defence forces, which is one of the long-term goals of the feminist movement.
The problem of sexual abuse of women in the defence forces has been around for years, and there have been inquiries into sexual exploitation of women, most recently on HMAS Success last year.
However, it would be a mistake to see this as simply a problem of military culture. In the case of the people at the Australian Defence Force Academy, the misconduct was a direct breach of the academy’s rules, and the young people involved had been in the academy for barely two months.
The defence forces are affected by the prevailing culture in our society. As the Canberra Times editorialised, “Some may blame this case on what many regard to be the defence forces’ debauched and misogynist culture. Yet the alleged conduct is not a military problem. It is increasingly common for young people to photograph themselves and their partners in risqué and sexual poses. With technology’s aid, our society is becoming more openly sexualised. Many teens think little of sharing naked pictures of themselves and others by phone or online, blind to the consequences they may later suffer.
“Just last month, Sydney researcher Nina Funnell published the findings of a two-year study of these practices, known as ‘sexting’.”
The Canberra Times concluded: “These changes in youth culture are taking place rapidly. They deeply concern many people, especially parents. But there is no cure-all: the technology that allows it cannot be banned, nor can its use be controlled effectively. The best defence young people have against exploitation is a strong grasp of morality; the empathy to know how other people are likely to feel; and the courage to say no to conduct that may harm others.”
There is also a problem of physical and emotional abuse of male cadets. I recall newspaper coverage of instances of it in the early 1970s, and the defence minister of the time promised to change the culture.
Men and women serving their country are entitled to be protected from bullying and abuse; but the current defence minister’s decision to open all combat roles to women can only have the effect of perpetuating the problem.
There is a huge volume of evidence that throwing women into combat roles does not work.
In the euphoria of the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Jewish state put women into the front line in defence of their country. However, the experiment was a failure.
John Luddy, a defence policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, has written that “women have been barred from combat in Israel since 1950, when a review of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War showed how harmful their presence could be. The study revealed that men tried to protect and assist women rather than continue their attack. As a result, they not only put their own lives in greater danger, but also jeopardised the survival of the entire unit. The study further revealed that unit morale was damaged when men saw women killed and maimed on the battlefield.”
The United States military has encouraged women to serve in combat roles. Recently, Helen Benedict wrote a book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (2009), which exposed what really happens to women in combat.
Ms Benedict’s book, written from a liberal feminist perspective, showed that the experiment of putting women into combat has been a disastrous failure. It showed that women serving in combat units had been subjected to more or less continuous sexual harassment and frequent sexual assault. They emerged from war experiences traumatised and emotionally crippled.
A woman who served in Iraq, Chantelle Henneberry, wrote, “According to several studies of the US military funded by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 30% of military women are raped while serving, 71% are sexually assaulted and 90% are sexually harassed.
“The Department of Defence acknowledges the problem, estimating in its 2009 annual report on sexual assault, that some 90% of military sexual assaults are never reported,” she said.
It has been said, correctly, that war is hell. It is a regrettable necessity that men must be willing to sacrifice themselves for their country, and we are extremely grateful for their sacrifices.
But to put women into combat roles, in the interests of equality of opportunity, or gender equality, is a serious mistake.
As Dr Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in 2009: “The most important argument against the service of women in combat is moral. The decision to expose women to combat, to stretch and erase gender boundaries, and to normalise the exposure of women to violence represents a moral revolution”.
And it is a revolution that we in Australia must resist.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.