How can we get sexual misconduct out of the military? Will the government even try?

In an interview with The Line, a military historian and 25-year veteran talks about what could, and what won't, matter for our women in uniform.

Prof. Allan English is a professor of military history at Queen's and a 25-year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. Last month, he testified on Parliament Hill on the matter of sexual misconduct in the military, an issue we at The Line have been writing about of late, but suspect the Canadian public is still largely oblivious to. One of the challenges for the public in understanding this issue is that, in general, the civilian population does not understand the military, or often think of it. The Line sought out Prof. English in the hopes that he could explain to the layperson the unique challenge of stamping out sexual misconduct in the CAF. He agreed to speak to us, but was clear he was speaking in his capacity as a private citizen, and not on behalf of Queen’s University. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Line: Let's start with a basic question. When there is sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), what does the victim often do about it? Not what are they supposed to do, but what they do do. Walk us through a hypothetical scenario — I know each case is different, but let's just start with something basic.

English: Sure. It obviously varies enormously, and the military is similar to any other workplace environment in at least this one way: there is a spectrum of offences and responses. Are we talking about an assault, or an inappropriate remark? Was the incident on duty, or off? Were there witnesses? If so, how many? An event that occurs in private, the victim may choose not to pursue, because they fear they won't be believed. If someone is groped at a mess dinner in front of hundreds of people, well, that's different. But I think the military is similar to the broader society in this way: the more the victim feels they will be believed, the more likely they are to take action. 

The Line: You've mentioned a few times that the military, in many ways, is similar to other workplaces in society that are also grappling with issues of sexual misconduct. That's a point well taken. But what are the ways they're different?

English: That's important. I'd just note it's not only sexual misconduct, but also other issues of harassment and bullying. Think of the recent coverage of the Governor-General at Rideau Hall. That wasn't about sexual misconduct, but people quit their jobs, said their mental health was affected, and so on. But to the question, the military is unusual in the sense that you can be legally ordered by a superior to do something. The order is supposed to be lawful! But you can be directly ordered by a commander to perform an action in a way that is unlike other workplaces. You might have seen the recent news coverage of a woman who served in an infantry unit who was one of just two women in a unit with hundreds of men, and she claims they were ordered to shower with the men. That’s being investigated now. Is that a lawful order? Technically, probably not, but when you are the commander and can give orders, you have enormous power and can easily intimidate. But another important issue is that misconduct among military personnel can happen on deployment, or on a base here or abroad. There's no real escape. If you're in the field with your abuser or harasser, you're stuck with them. On a base, you often live very close to them. On an exercise, even in Canada, you're in very close quarters. Your work life, your private life, your social life ... all happen in very close confines, and that's true for months.

The Line: We've all known really unpleasant people at work. But most of us don't work in a cramped submarine that's literally underwater. At the end of our day, we get to go home.

English: That's exactly it. You're working, eating and resting all in close proximity. And as I said above, the abuses don't have to be sexual. Something victims are very clear about is that this is often about power and control. That may be sexual, but it doesn't have to be. Sex is just one tool in an abuser's toolkit. We see this everywhere. 

The Line: Let's move this a bit further into our hypothetical. Say I'm a private in an infantry unit, and my commanding officer is making sexual advances on me. Persistently. He won't stop hitting on me. What am I supposed to do?

English: It's confusing, and it recently changed — in just October of last year. I actually have the text of the new rules in front of me right now, and it's still very confusing. We have to note the distinction between a disclosure and a report. It is up to the victim to decide what to do. If you're a private and your sergeant is hitting on you, you can disclose that to a colleague, informally. But if you make a report, you've put it on the record, and that triggers a process. Unfortunately, the reality is that that often means the unit circles the wagon around the sergeant. That's just what happens. Reporting risks being bullied, being harassed, being driven out of the Forces. Justice Marie Deschamps was very clear about this in her 2015 report on sexual misconduct in the military — making a formal report is very difficult. People don't want to do it because of the informal culture. People who report are often excluded by their colleagues.

The Line: And these are the people who might be covering your retreat under fire some day.

English: Right. If you do report, the commanding officer, or an officer at any rate, must decide what is to be done. But it says right in the rules that the officer must perform "an exercise in discretion." They can call in military police. They can bring in the offender and address the matter directly, tell them to knock it off. They can also conclude that our hypothetical private made it all up, and dump all over them. They can be kicked out of the unit. Look, officers are supposed to behave responsibly and use good judgment. But we all know how that can work out.

The Line: What would our hypothetical private do then? I'm sure many would just leave the military but what if they wanted to stay? Do they have any recourse?

English: At that point it's tough. They can talk to a chaplain. The chaplains have their own networks, and they can talk. Sometimes things get done that way. They could talk to a mental-health expert, and that can also lead to progress. They can contact the Forces' Sexual Misconduct Response Centre (SMRC), which is a relatively new and positive thing. But unfortunately, once a report is on the record, the victim is often a target. And the harder they push, the worse it can get. As Deschamps said more than five years ago, making a report often means negative consequences. 


The Line: We're hearing a lot now about Operation Honour, the military's effort to address these issues. Before we get to how effective it has been, let's actually talk about what it is.

English: Sure. Operation Honour's goal is to "eliminate" sexual misconduct in the military. Entirely. That's the official mission. Everyone knew that that's impossible, but as the senior leadership said, let's aim high and fall a little short instead of aiming too low. Realistically, obviously, they were just hoping to reduce it a lot. 

The Line: How? What was their plan for this? You've gone over some of the procedures. Were there other things they considered but didn't enact?

English: This is what I was talking about at Parliament last month. The Deschamps report called for comprehensive cultural change within the Canadian Armed Forces. It doesn't matter how good your rules are, how many places you can report an offence, what your procedures are, if the culture is that nobody reports. The CAF changed the rules but made only minor, superficial changes to the culture. 

The Line: Let's talk about the culture in a minute, but for now, on procedures and rules: are there things that could be done, even within the current culture, that would help and have not yet been done?

English: I'm not sure, really. There's so many different avenues that people can take already. It's a problem. Lieutenant Commander Raymond Trotter referred to that just a few days ago in his parliamentary testimony regarding the allegations against Gen. Vance. It's confusing. People don't know, well, should I go to the chaplain? Should I go to the SMRC? If it's an actual illegal act, or perceived to be an illegal act, should I go to the military police? Everyone that's really tried to navigate this system has said, it's too complicated. Like I said, I have the written orders in front of me. It was written by a committee, and it reads like it. If a person is a survivor of sexual misconduct, or like Lt. Commander Trotter, a supporter of somebody that is, you don't know where to go. And when he started going places, they said, oh, not here, try there. And then they said, not us, go back to them. The biggest problem right now is the lack of clarity.

There is one thing that we could consider: there is a big kerfuffle right now in the U.S., because the Army didn't do a good job investigating the Fort Hood shooting. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division is very much like ours, in the sense it's all military, and not very experienced in doing these types of investigations. Whereas the U.S. Navy, hey, everybody's seen NCIS, right? They reformed it after the Tailhook Scandal in the 1990s. It's all civilians, and it's run by civilians, and they claim it's more independent. So if people are thinking of changing something else here, an all-civilian organization that investigates certain types of misconduct could be worth a look. 

The Line: Let's jump to the cultural issue. The military, we're told, reflects its society. It recruits from it. That's true! But it doesn't represent all of society. It is overwhelmingly male, and disproportionately young. It also has a unique mission mandate: it is the only part of Canadian society specifically tasked, if necessary, with inflicting unbelievable violence and destruction on other human beings. You can change the culture! But the military is always going to be a unique thing, for better or worse.

English: It's complicated. The armed forces are tasked to do a whole range of missions from, exactly what you said, waging war, like in Afghanistan, in the two world wars, and then also humanitarian assistance. Or going into long-term-care homes. You need people who can perform this huge spectrum of behaviours. There is a thing called the profession of arms manual, it's called Duty With Honour. It was put out after the Somalia commission into the airborne regiment scandal and all that went on in Somalia. There was a concept called "warrior's honour": a warrior is someone who executes their mission. And it could involve a lot of violence, but the minimum amount of force necessary, and an honourable warrior respects non-combatants and civilians. These are laws of war! That's the key there. We already expect a level of conduct from our soldiers even in battle. During the Afghanistan conflict, when Rick Hillier was chief of the defence staff, we adopted, particularly the army adopted, the United States’ military “warrior ethos.” The warrior ethos was an artificial construct developed in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, during the Don't Ask, Don't Tell era which tried to keep LGBTQ people out of the military and then later on, to keep women out of the military. The warrior ethos created a culture of, "All warriors are male, all warriors are violent." And if you don't like that, that's tough. This really poisoned our well. We went away from warrior's honour to the warrior's ethos — this idea of the warrior as the ultimate killer.

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The Line: How do you change a culture?

English: It has to start with agreeing the culture should be changed. After the Deschamps report, the military command of the day — Tom Lawson was chief of the defence staff — explicitly rejected that culture change was needed. "I do not accept from any quarter, the notion that sexual misconduct is simply part of our military culture," he said. And since then, the military has talked about realigning its culture, as if just a small tweak is needed to correct course. So the first step is acknowledging that this isn't a realignment. This has to be a real change. Not just more cosmetic changes. The Forces have not acknowledged that yet, at least not the senior leadership — the senior officers and non-commissioned members. So changing the culture is going to have to involve changing the leadership.

This is never easy. Culture change is hard. Some civilian institutions have succeeded. But you just can't fire everyone above the rank of major! Not that that would be a good idea, anyway.

The Line: It takes 20 years to make a colonel.

English: Exactly. There are limits to what can be done. It's funny. I talked about the American warrior ethos. The Americans allow much more discussion of this. They do studies, they have Congressional testimony. I like this part of their system. There have been decades of studies showing that the warrior ethos is a problem. This is all openly discussed. But the bad part of their system is that they don't know how to fix it. They're so all-in on the warrior ethos that they recognize that their culture is broken, but they don't know what to do. We can fix it. We brought it in, and we can replace it. We can go back to warrior's honour. 

The Line: So if the American model is bad, what's a good model?

English: Well, this is a problem. We don't have a good one. The Canadian military is closest to the U.S., British and Australian militaries. None of them are doing a good job. Not just sexual misconduct, which they have major problems with, the Australians are dealing with actual war crimes. The British are no better, and possibly worse. These are tough, wicked problems. They take a lot of effort and a lot of thought. And the problem is the military has never approached them that way. They put on some more training courses, they change the rules and regulations, and they make a lot of statements, but they don't actually change the culture. So I would say, until we've tried we really can't say we can't do it.

The Line: Our society has made some progress on these issues in recent decades. Has the military benefitted at all and improved?

English: I retired from the air force in 1991, so I can't speak to that directly. But yes, there are things that have improved. We have the SMRC. The military police has specialized investigators with expertise in sexual crimes and misconduct. We didn't have that before. So these are positive changes. But the culture is the same: don't rock the boat.

The Line: Just this week, in fact, a well-respected lieutenant colonel in the army, a woman who commanded a combat unit in Afghanistan, resigned in protest over this. The reporting on this says that this has shocked senior military leadership. But has it? Will it matter?

English: Yeah. I don't know. Lt. Col. Eleanor Taylor is widely respected. I got an email from a colleague telling me that Taylor's resignation letter is going through the military's internal email like a hot knife through butter. Her voice will be particularly loud because she was the only woman in NATO to command a combat unit in Afghanistan and she had amazing results. The Americans invited her to Washington to work with them on how she did it, how women could lead combat units. She impressed them. She has a lot of credibility in the Canadian military. But my historical research has told me that military culture can only be changed if the government really makes it a priority and stays on it because public pressure has become too much. Let's look at what has already happened. The military police investigator, the specialized sexual assault investigator, said the chain of command is trying to influence our investigations. The woman who spoke of having to take showers with men, she's in the civil service now, has said that it doesn't matter whether you're at National Defence or in the CAF. It's all the same, because a third of the civil servants at Defence are ex military. It's all one big boys club.

The Line: The military is going to outlast this prime minister. They're going to outlast the next 10 prime ministers. Even with these stories, even with a government that touts its feminist credentials, even with Lt. Col. Taylor's letter, is this government going to commit to cultural change?

English: I don't know. It can. We've seen it. The Liberals unified the military in 1968. That was a huge cultural change and they did it over the military's objections. They fired generals and admirals to do it. And then there was post-Somalia. A lot of those changes weren't visible to the public, but the minister insisted on change and got it. So it can happen. The question is whether this government will invest the political capital. They have a lot of other problems to deal with right now.

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