Australian Military Suffering Violence Amid The Culture of Silence

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If you believe the slick recruitment ads on television, a career in the Australian armed forces promises a mix of adventure and mateship. But last week an Australian parliamentary inquiry presented quite a different picture of military life: punishment beatings, intimidation and official neglect were common for the paratroopers in Alpha Company of the èlite 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Following a story by Time last August, which exposed a culture of violence in the unit, and subsequent botched prosecutions, the inquiry took evidence from soldiers, commanders and military top brass-including Chief of Army Lieutenant-General Peter Cosgrove. In its report, the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade documented a system of so-called "bastardization" that, says the report, "sullied the reputation of an outstanding and highly decorated Army unit. There were failures of character, command and process. In its entirety the episode was poorly handled."

As a result of the scandal the 50,000-strong Australian Defence Force was stood down (for the first time in its history) on Feb. 5 for a two-hour lecture on military justice; an internal ADF inquiry was launched; the military police were reorganized to make them more effective; fresh investigations into 3RAR's commanders began; the ADF legal office is being reviewed; and a new Inspector General's post is to be established. The inquiry found a "culture of silence"-imposed with violence-kept details of the bashings from leaking out, and a "culture of ignorance" had allowed the brutality to flourish. The ADF has been widely commended for taking action to address the larger structural problems. Still, the inquiry condemned the military for keeping the affair secret for two years, and criticized junior defense minister Bruce Scott, who had been "less than forthcoming" in parliament.

The 3RAR affair has been damaging to the defense force at a time when officer recruitment is in decline -in spite of a costly advertising campaign. A former Federal Court judge, James Burchett, is due to complete the service-wide inquiry into the ADF by the middle of the year. One Air Force serviceman, who claims beatings plague his unit, told the Seven Network's Sunrise in an e-mail last week that "the military justice audit was a sham," set up to appease the media. "There is a lot more to this than the general public realise," he wrote. Military insiders, however, are confident that nothing as severe as the 3RAR incidents remains to be discovered.