Australia’s special forces and the ‘fog of culture’

As Australia comes to grips with accusations that some of its elite soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan, a catch cry for certain commentators is that the ‘fog of war’ explains, justifies and possibly excuses the alleged atrocities that have come to light. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, the adversary’s capability and the adversary’s intent during an engagement, operation or campaign.

The fog of war is woefully inadequate to explain alleged war crimes that were deliberate, targeted and repeated.

‘Culture’ will feature heavily in analyses of ‘what went wrong’ in Australia’s Special Operations Command (SOCOMD).

In 2015, I commenced the SOCOMD review. Over the past 10 years I have led more than 40 reviews and studies dealing with many aspects of the ‘culture’ of the Australian Defence Force and broader Department of Defence. Conducting research in like organisations (emergency services, for example) and in other militaries has added to my thinking on the value of culture as a construct for understanding organisational or institutional issues.

Does a focus on culture provide clarity or obscurity? Does it lead to, or is it a barrier to, accountability? How do you know when you’ve achieved cultural change? In what other ways can deeply entrenched organisational issues be analysed and addressed?

This ‘fog of culture’ has created a barrier to achieving the desired cultural change that Defence has sought for some time.

This fog is made up of uncertainty about what culture and cultural change mean to all of the people involved. The fog has led to a diffusion of accountability, where cultural problems, so entrenched and based in history and tradition, are inherited but not owned. It has also led to an inability to ask the right questions, and confusion about what to measure and monitor in order to capture and evaluate change. Emerging from the fog of uncertainty surrounding culture are the loudest voices, the ‘hot’ issues, and individual change ‘champions’. But these do not necessarily lead to sustained, or ‘successful’, organisational change.

This fog is not unique to Defence. It is experienced by many organisations seeking to overturn outdated, yet entrenched, organisational practices, structures and norms.

With a decade of solid effort focused on changing Defence culture following the Skype scandal, why did the harmful aspects of special forces cultural issues remain out of sight and unaddressed?

Before the ‘culture problems’ of special forces were centre stage, gender, or more specifically the treatment of women, had been Defence’s signature cultural change focus.

The treatment of women, as a minority group, has undoubtedly been a systemic Defence issue. But more difficult problems, of which women were but one component, revolve around the systemic and symbolic marginalisation of all who fall out of a very small percentage of ‘pointy-end warfighters’—those who are ‘othered’.

In 2013, the then chief of the army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, publicly urged those who treated women disrespectfully to ‘get out’, but he never said that to those who treated reservists poorly, nor did he advocate on behalf of bullied Defence public servants. Those are much harder cultural issues to understand and change, and their root cause is not merely a lack of critical mass. Their manifestations are insidious and so deeply entrenched that they were not even mentioned as cultural issues among the suite of eight ‘culture reviews’ conducted in 2011–12—the same time that some of the worst atrocities were occurring in Afghanistan.

What was interesting in those reviews were the silences—about the reserves, the lack of cultural and linguistic diversity, the privileged norms of special forces, the sometimes toxic relationship between the ADF and Defence civilians. These issues have continued to frame the organisational culture yet have remained on the periphery for consideration.

Issues of gender are critically important. But what has been missing is an underpinning theory of change. Strategies and approaches that view women as a ‘problem’ to be solved are themselves deeply problematic. And the fervour with which gender became the focus had a price: a narrowed view of the cultural landscape.

The first question I ask when approached to do a culture review is for the problem to be described without using the word ‘culture’. The word becomes an easy proxy for the hard to articulate problem, which is usually something that is deeply ingrained, or political, or otherwise too hard to see from an internal vantage point. It has come to mean everything, and therefore nothing.

Abuse of power and the normalisation of deviance are at the heart of the ‘cultural issues’ that have plagued the ADF and militaries more broadly. In fact, this can be said of all institutions grappling with the same problems: histories of abuse and secrecy, sexual harassment, problems of diversity and inclusion.

In one sense the construct of culture has become a scapegoat for uncomfortable reform—it’s easier to point the finger at a ‘what’ rather than a ‘who’.

Questions about conflicts of interest have been asked of both the chief of the ADF, General Angus Campbell, and the army chief, Lieutenant General Rick Burr, due to their backgrounds in special operations. At one end of the spectrum, I am the ‘female civilian feminist’ criticised for not having enough knowledge of the reality of special operations forces to provide credible analysis. At the other are two men who are criticised for being ‘too close’. However, just as being an outsider actually enabled my hearing and reporting of the truth, Campbell’s and Burr’s vested interest in, and proximity to, special operations means they did something about it, unlike others before them.

Australian special forces have come a long way since their inception and a long way since 2012, when the worst of the war crimes is alleged to have occurred. I am proud to work with the Australian special forces of today. That doesn’t mean I shy away from asking difficult questions, or that I would be reluctant to disclose ugly truths. On the contrary.

I know my place as a privileged outsider to the defence organisation. I have spent almost a decade researching various facets of it, and have watched the anticipation of reviews, and the frustration and apathy of change and implementation fatigue. I have invested too much personally and professionally to not also be invested in the organisation’s transparency, accountability and change from this point forward.

The fog of culture will likely continue to hinder meaningful change. But now, with serious allegations of war crimes allowing other complex cultural issues to join gender at the front of the room, the prospects for meaningful and successful change have never been greater.

I have experienced utter disbelief at learning of the alleged atrocities and witnessed firsthand the psychological impact on witnesses, bystanders and whistleblowers, and the shame carried by those who aren’t associated in any way other than as members of the ADF. Yet, I am optimistic. I have had more time than most outsiders to process and reflect on what has occurred and have seen the want for change internally. But more than that, it is the genuine grief from defence leaders that has shaped my outlook. Grief for unit legacies shattered, for the misplaced trust they placed in many, and for esprit de corps. And above all, grief for the pervasive moral injury these crimes have caused. These are not the emotions of hypermasculine military men, desperate to hide war crimes.

I feel justified in the hope that Australians will increasingly trust special forces, the ADF and the broader defence organisation to represent the best in all of us.