Yesterday I wrote about how diverse the ADF is and some of the varying motivations people had for serving. The negative side to diversity is the potential for hostility. Officially and publicly the ADF was very opposed to any form of discrimination, bastardisation or unfair treatment. Every year we were all required to sit through equity and diversity lectures and any time a new scandal broke there were refreshers and new initiatives launched. Unofficially and behind closed doors (including online) though, it could be a different story.

Racist remarks aimed at other soldiers weren’t uncommon, although I THINK most of what I heard was good natured banter between friends. It was a different story when it came to non-members, particularly indigenous Australians, immigrants, refugees and foreign nationals.

I still remember the time I was in a sensitivity training lecture prior to deploying to Afghanistan. The lecturer was explaining Afghan and Muslim social norms and when he started talking about marriage and monogamy someone made a highly disparaging joke*. It was loud enough for the whole lecture theatre to hear and yet none of the leaders present said a thing. For all I know he was taken aside later and spoken to but then again maybe he wasn’t. The fact that no action was taken immediately seemed like tacit approval.

*[Disclaimer] While the joke was inappropriate it did come from a commando who had no doubt deployed multiple times and had likely been in numerous firefights with Afghani locals or insurgents. I never went outside the wire and I can’t begin to imagine the discordance of being in a life or death fight with someone one day only to have to shake hands and sit down with them for a meal the next day.

Far more prevalent and insidious though, based on what I saw, was the way women were treated. Even in Signals units, which had a (relatively) high proportion of females, pornography, crude discussions and lewd jokes were rife. This often lead to toxic environments (for both women and men) and resulted in some unhealthy behaviours.

And while overt discrimination based on gender (or race or sexuality) was forbidden (and punishable), it was an open secret that women were less likely to reach high ranks and tended to have to prove themselves more to win promotions. There was also deliberate but subtle discrimination, such as when I was sitting a promotion course and I was hassled by other male students for assisting the only female student on the course, despite the fact that the course was supposed to be cooperative.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Army is full of bigots but, based on my experience from 2004-2011, it still had a long way to go before it could live up to the ideals espoused in equity and diversity training. I for one would have appreciated tools and training on how to be a force for good in such situations (like what White Ribbon has been doing for domestic violence). It wasn’t the intent but I suspect the training we received mainly served to drive the behaviour underground, not address the “boys will be boys” culture that sustained it.