I wrote previously that there are many different reasons why people join the ADF and that everyone has their own story. But that’s not to say that there are no similarities or shared values. In fact, militaries go to great lengths to encourage members to absorb and reinforce some core values. This is true of the Australian Army in general but it is especially true of frontline or “combat corps” soldiers. This includes any members of the infantry, artillery, armoured and combat engineers corps1.

I don’t have firsthand experience of the indoctrination (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) that occurred in combat corps training but I did see the results. Everyone I knew who had spent any length of time in one of those corps seemed to have a much deeper sense of duty, honour and camaraderie than the average pogue (a sometimes friendly, sometimes derogatory term for soldiers who aren’t on the frontline). They were the sort of guys who would be willing to get in a fistfight, lie to the police or even risk their own lives in the name of loyalty to a mate. But if that same mate were to do something to betray their trust, such as stealing, sleeping with a comrade’s wife or deserting their post, they would be the first to pick up the pitchforks and start a lynch mob.

The second season of the Serial Podcast is an interesting case study of this mindset. It’s about the US military but the principle is the same. From what anyone can piece together it seems that the US Army was a bit lax in its recruiting process (partly or perhaps largely due to the pressing need for more troops) and accepted Bowe Bergdahl into the Army despite the fact he had a serious history of mental illness (as evidenced by his discharge from the US Coast Guard during basic training). At one point Bowe and a bunch of other soldiers were told off by their Commanding Officer and Command Sergeant Major (senior officer and senior soldier respectively) for a lack of discipline when it came to uniform, protective gear and not shaving2.

After a particularly scary experience (two IEDs, being stranded off base for days and then a firefight with the Taliban) the CO again brings up the shaving. For his part, Bowe interpreted this as his CO being out of touch and potentially dangerous and so he took it upon himself to desert his post and thereby cause a major kerfuffle that would draw attention to the situation. Unfortunately for Bowe he was picked up by the Taliban before he could make it to the safety of another base and he was held prisoner in terrible conditions for almost 5 years.

Deserting your post is a HUGE no-no in the military but most civilians I’ve talked to about this wonder why the US Army accepted him into their ranks and sent him to Afghanistan in the first place. The few who think he was at least partly in the wrong feel like five years as a POW in the hands of the Taliban is more than enough punishment for his crime.

And yet many military people see it differently, including many of his current and former comrades. Many think that at the very least he deserves a dishonourable discharge. Others argue that he deserves to go to jail. Technically he could even be executed but from what I can tell the only people pushing for that are more interested in selling books or winning votes than seeing justice served. That being said, according to his defence attorney, Bowe is constantly accompanied by at least two soldiers “to prevent third parties from injuring him”.

For anyone trying to understand how much the military, especially frontline troops, values loyalty, you could do much worse than listening to season 2 of Serial.

  1. According to doctrine, Army Aviation is also a combat corps but I spent two years posted to an Aviation Regiment and I suspect very few in Aviation would view themselves as frontline troops. The one exception might be the pilots… but they tended to view themselves as gods among men so I’m not sure how valid their views are ;) 

  2. These may sound like minor issues but COs and CSMs take a much bigger picture view of these things. In addition to the added danger of not wearing protective gear (helmet and body armour) there is the issue of discipline. Whether or not it works, the military tends to take a “broken windows” approach to policing minor but visible infractions (such as uniforms being in order and shaving every day) in an effort to prevent more serious breakdowns of discipline.