illustration above: by Anna Minzhulina
The Canadian Armed Forces, as an institution, has a necessarily coercive culture. Leaders must have a high degree of authority and control over their subordinates in order for the military to be effective when it is called into action. But the checks and balances meant to stifle the ugly side of that coercion—an instinct to demonstrate power with subjugation, humiliation and harm—are deficient.
Introduction: Hiddenness of Scapegoat Mechanism
We all know the story of the Emperor’s obstinate denial of reality, to the point of a public parade of sheer nakedness he could not acknowledge at all, in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. And we all incline to identify with the little boy who blurted out: “BUT HE HAS NOTHING ON AT ALL!”
This easy identification with the little boy is reminiscent of Jesus’ challenge to us:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets (Matt 23:29-31).
We like to think collectively we are that little boy in the fairy-tale; we are that civilized people who would never kill the prophets, the innocent children, the righteous old and infirm. We could never do what Clifford Olson, Robert Picton, Paul Bernardo, Charles Manson[, Curtis LeMay, Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, etc., etc., etc.]–or any other mass murderer–did! Jesus and the Gospels say emphatically however to our smug moral superiority, “Think again!”
British 19th-century Catholic historian Lord John Acton observed:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.
He also wrote:
And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that.
In that modern democracies hold a monopoly on legitimate use of force/violence through the institutions of the military, police, and prisons, it is inevitable and widely observed that force and violence are ubiquitous within its personnel.
I have a sister-in-law who has spent a career addressing bullying and more generally domestic violence/abuse. The fundamental nature of inculcated scapegoating violence within the above institutions, horrifically hidden in plain sight, and thus rampant in Canadian/worldwide culture2, simply escapes her notice.
Please see as well: Trump Card: The Bully Who Exposes Our Bully Nation. While the focus is on America, it more generally applies to the West, no less Canada. We read:
The mainstream media and party establishments say, “Isn’t it terrible that Trump is such a bully?” Many ordinary people say the same thing. But the truth is that Trump’s bullying is a deep part of US culture. If we look honestly in the mirror, we will likely see some reflection of Trump. This is especially true of the political and media establishments, who present themselves as being civil and anything but bullies.
The inconvenient truth is that bullying is embedded in our culture, our governing elites and our most powerful institutions: the military, the corporation and the state. Whatever our personal values, we all live in a bullying society — militarized capitalism — and must learn to play by its rules.
Please see McLean’s follow-up article, The real ‘black mark’ when it comes to Canada’s military.
Six years ago, an explosive report from former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps again highlighted a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct in the military. Leaders announced action plans at press conferences. Politicians reacted loudly. But the long-standing systemic failures that normalized abuse still remained. Now, a third reckoning is at hand, brought on by the investigation of senior leaders for untested allegations. A proud institution is again besmirched in the public eye. And the same obsession with appearances is undermining an opportunity to muster the political will to put people first.3
Years of this pattern of behaviour have taken a toll. In 2019, only 38.5 per cent of surveyed military members agreed with the statement “I have confidence in the leadership of the CAF.” Senior military leaders should be held to account for a worsening breakdown of trust. But the country’s political leadership bears perhaps greater responsibility.
Equipped with countless reports and recommendations, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan should, after six years on the job, have a handle on what needs fixing, and what his subordinates can do better. Yet, rather than admit to failings or table legislation in a probable election year, Sajjan reacted to recent events by launching another fact-finding mission.
The buck ultimately stops with Justin Trudeau. But he, too, has a political calculus—one that may not emphasize those in uniform.
The defence minister is a decorated veteran and was, for all his missteps, a star candidate for the job. How would it look if Trudeau added him to the diverse and growing list of ministers who’ve either been fired or voluntarily decided to bow out of the inner circle? Meanwhile, how sincerely can Trudeau demand accountability for sexual misconduct in the Forces when his 2018 response to a historical groping allegation was that “people experience things differently”?If the goal is to push for radical improvements in how military personnel are treated, opposition politicians haven’t proven any less cynical. They seized upon an inappropriate golf game and shamed the “old boys’ club” without suggesting how to dismantle it. They devoted hours and hours of committee hearings to cross-examining Liberals about an allegation against the former chief of defence staff that the accuser reportedly wanted kept private—all the while paying lip service to the notion that complainants should be in control of whether their allegations are investigated. They censured Sajjan in Parliament without offering legislative fixes of their own, and without threatening a no-confidence vote in a minority Parliament.
For people at the heart of it—those who have and would risk their lives for this country—to be neglected. If anyone deserves a “black mark,” it’s those who would let it happen again.
But the question left begging is: If the elephant in the room is violence, how can a society that keeps training those to deploy violence, including lethal violence, be surprised when they in fact so frequently do so? For surely violence in this case is really not the societal problem, for it is a norm. So must one not conclude that doing violence to another is really only a kind of poaching, hunting as it were “out of season?” . . .
More than a dozen current and former military members tell Maclean’s of a deep distrust in the institutions that are supposed to bolster them, and of a belief that bad actors within the system will protect perpetrators and ostracize or punish complainants. All believe in the potential of the Forces, and that good men and women serve in its ranks. But few are optimistic about senior leadership’s willingness to tackle the cultural and systemic problems that undermine their efforts.
A recent report from former Supreme Court justice Morris Fish found that even if a majority of actors that interact with the military justice system acquit themselves honourably—from military police to lawyers to prosecutors to judges—there are myriad actual and perceived gaps in their independence from the chain of command. Too many safeguards hinge on the personal integrity of the senior officers in charge, the report found. Too little power is afforded to oversight bodies that would either legitimize or countermand decisions. And a grievance system that would ostensibly provide redress to military members who are wronged is in disrepair.
“The justification for a separate system of military justice is the need of the Armed Forces to maintain discipline, efficiency and morale,” [former Supreme Court justice Morris]Fish told Maclean’s in an interview. “The lack, or the perceived lack, of the independence of its principal actors, judges, prosecutors, defence counsel and police actors has the opposite effect.”
With the Canadian military facing a worsening crisis of leadership, its legacy of sexual misconduct being litigated in the public and Sajjan’s own career hanging in the balance, the conditions seem ripe for change. But we’ve been through the same cycle over and over again. Horror stories are reported. Inquiries are held. Promises are made. And not a lot changes. What makes us think this time will be any different?
In 1979, a former military member who asked that Maclean’s not use his name says he was pulled into a bathroom and sodomized with the handle of a toilet plunger, some six months after he started basic training in British Columbia. He reported the attack, he says, but the army’s only response was to convince him to quit and go home. “I was apparently expected to just ‘get over it,’ and if I couldn’t, then the system had no use for me,” he says. His wife confirms it wasn’t until the mid-’90s, about a decade after they were married, that he started talking to her about what happened. He only began seeking serious help last year, he says. “It took me that long to finally rise above the toxic masculinity that says men aren’t victims of sexual assault or, if they are, it’s only because they were too weak to prevent it.”
The instructor asked the troops to raise their hands if they thought the soldier who reported the alleged incident had done the right thing, Skibinsky says. When he opened his eyes, Skibinsky says he realized he was one of four or five people with their hands up. He alleges the instructor kicked him in the ribs from behind, then announced: “Take a good look around. These are the rats on your course, and they won’t be here after week five.”
When his fifth week in the course came, Skibinsky says he was charged with insubordination and marched into a summary trial hearing. He was kicked off the course, fined $500 and given a week of extra duties. The insubordination, he says, had been a refusal to cut his own hair with his bayonet.
Maclean’s corroborated Skibinsky’s presence on the training course at the time of his allegations. A CAF member who served alongside Skibinsky at the base did not witness the incidents he alleges first-hand, but describes an atmosphere where fellow members and superiors would openly deride, physically intimidate or socially exclude people they called “snitches.” Maclean’s agreed to protect the person’s identity because they are still serving in the Forces.
Skibinsky says he saw rampant sexual misconduct during his 10 years of service—something he thinks is a symptom of a broader culture of impunity among senior officers who allow or encourage bad behaviour.
Jennie Carignan, who was recently promoted to a new chief of professional conduct and culture role in the Forces, put it this way to a parliamentary committee: “Very quickly, bullying can be confused with leadership, arrogance with confidence, lying with loyalty, and so on. If there is no strict discipline in this regard, toxicity sets in and all this creates power dynamics within the hierarchy. That’s what makes things like sexual misconduct and other unprofessional behaviour happen.”
Megan MacKenzie, a professor at Simon Fraser University who studies military culture and gender integration, points out that the conversation around sexual misconduct has tended to focus on how to support victims. That’s not a bad thing, she says, but now that Operation Honour has dissolved and senior leadership is in a position to set a new course, there should be more emphasis on preventing misconduct in the first place.
Please click on: Power Tends To CorruptFootnotes
- See here also.
- See on this the brilliant work of René Girard.
- In an institution designed in part–as “needed” to “put people first” into the ground!–the grand irony of course is, the military, the police, and too often the prison are all designed to create a scapegoated peace as above, but one found only in the graveyard.