In The Media

Our military has serious faults. But it can fix itself

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
May 6, 2015

For the second time in my 33 years connected to the military, I have had to look in the mirror and question the organization.

I remember being shown the first unpublished photographs of Shidane Arone – the Somali teenager tortured and killed at the hands of a rogue group inside the Canadian Airborne Regiment. At the time, there was complete disbelief; this was not the Canadian Forces I had joined, nor the Forces I was taught to believe in – but there was no denying the physical proof before me.

The visceral reaction to Justice Deschamps’s report Sexual Misconduct in the Canadian Forces was the same; this cannot be, especially as my generation of officers lived through the post-Somalia reforms. If anything, we believed the CF was at the forefront globally of change.

Canada was one of the first to recognize that the sexual preference of its members was no business of the military. When the United States looked to open its combat trades to women and to allow gays to openly serve it looked to Canada for advice. After all, we were the Army that produced Nichola Goddard and a host of other incredibly competent female members.

In the military, much time is spent teaching diversity and creating workforces free of abusive behaviour – not just sexual harassment. It is taught at every rank level, and all commanding officers receive particular briefings on the topic. While many embraced that, clearly some did not.

It is difficult to digest that some in the military may well have failed.

Many in the CF looked at the incidents plaguing other companies and institutions and felt it had gone beyond those. If a brigadier-general could be relieved of command for having a relationship with a subordinate in Kandahar, or other investigations could lead to charges of harassment, we thought we had our proof that the CF had not only changed, but actively promoted inclusion. There was no immunity to be found in rank or position.

This is why my initial reaction to the Deschamps report was a mixture of anger and disbelief. Our system and our regulations were not perfect and only as good as the people that enforced them and adhered to them – but nothing led us to believe the problems might be as profound as those outlined in Deschamps’s report.

Like the photo of Shidane Arone, there is no denying the examples the Deschamps study has produced.

It is understandable to ask if there is a culture of misogyny and fear in the CF; there are certainly differences in each of the three main services (army, navy, air force). There are also different sub-cultures by trade and within different units which are set or enforced by commanders. The military colleges are a separate microcosm that will have to be checked.

If there has been a failure, it is in leaders who have not enforced the standards the military has set for itself, not in the institution per se. Somalia taught us that clearly there were issues that were compounded by a culture that felt it was best to hide faults.

In the most detailed study of its kind in the United States, the RAND Corporation found that some 5 per cent of the entire armed forces were subjected to some form unwanted sexual assault and 20 per cent of harassment or bias. Even that is too many, but that implies that 80 to 95 per cent can’t be painted with the same brush. Describing the entire Canadian Forces as being oblivious is patently unfair – especially when there is much evidence to the contrary. Calling it an endemic culture of fear is an extrapolation of the research rather than a true reflection of scope.

But words matter, especially as prescriptions are considered. Assault is a crime, pure and simple. Harassment can be addressed by better policy and education. Bias is inherently cultural and will take more time.

Somalia pointed out the need for independent accountability. Shidane Arone’s cries were heard but no one acted. It is the same with sexual assault and victimization: Leadership requires the courage to act.

But more than accountability is needed now. Institutional barriers to reporting must be eliminated. SAPRO – the U.S. military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office may indeed be a good model to copy. It is in the military but outside the chain of command. It has several missions: It formulates better policy and regulations; it educates; it strives to eliminate barriers to reporting; and it provides support to victims.

Victims can report in what is called a restricted or unrestricted fashion. Restricted is confidential but does not launch a formal criminal investigation. Victims get the care they need but details remain private. Unrestricted reporting launches a criminal investigation that cannot be blocked. In either case, the chain of command is informed – in the former, that a unit has a problem but without identifying details, in the latter that a series of actions will be triggered.

Anger and disillusionment are emotions which, when properly channelled, can produce great change. That may indeed be the Deschamps report’s greatest value.

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the board of the CDA Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO, and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.


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