Rape and the Warrior’s Code

At last, we have a military leader who refuses to allow male soldiers who witness rape to think of themselves as guiltless bystanders.

Every soldier has a “simple, terrible choice: to be a protector or a perpetrator,” says Lt. Gen. David Morrison, the head of the Australian Army. There is, he said in a London forum, no other choice, either in cases of a soldier witnessing a rape by another soldier, or by civilians in war zones. “I have deliberately excluded a third choice, to be a bystander while others commit sexual violence. There are no bystanders — the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

General Morrison was invited by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to share a stage with Angelina Jolie at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. More than a hundred countries sent leaders and experts to the four-day summit, designed to eradicate the myth, as Ms. Jolie put it, that “rape is an inevitable part of conflict,” not a “weapon of war aimed at civilians.” The figures are overwhelming: More than 150 million young girls and half as many young boys are sexually assaulted every single year; this is far more likely to happen in conflict zones. Somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped in Rwanda in 1994. In the Republic of Congo, according to Unicef, some 40 percent of women are thought to have experienced sexual assault.

The role of the military in protecting people from assault during conflicts is crucial. But the challenge for an armed forces leader is this: how do you stop military violence in conflict when you can’t stop it in your own ranks?

General Morrison says: “You can’t.”

In other words, if female soldiers are not safe, female civilians are not safe, and if the military does not treat women in its ranks with respect, it will not be able to assure that female civilians are treated with respect.

Which is troubling. Studies suggest that every year around one in three of the female members of the United States armed forces are sexually assaulted. This is double the civilian rate.

In Britain in 2013, a sexual assault was reported by a member of the military once a week. In most countries, including Australia, only a fraction of reports result in a conviction.

General Morrison has spent 35 years in the army, and three years as its chief, but is best known for a three-minute speech on YouTube, a directive he gave his soldiers to leave the forces if they did not accept that women had to be respected and treated as equals: “If that does not suit you,” he almost shouted, “then get out.”

“You may find another employer where your attitude and behavior is acceptable, but I doubt it. The same goes for those who think that toughness is built on humiliating others. … Show moral courage and take a stand against it.” One and a half million people have now seen it.

The message was startling because it is so rare to hear a military leader speak with aggressive, determined candor — not defensiveness — about the need to expose and combat sexual assault in his ranks.

Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, who has worked with the militaries of a host of countries on the question of sexual violence, says this video “is talked about in NATO and leadership institutes across the world — military and civilian alike.”

“When it first came out,” she says, “he was perplexed.”

“‘What’s so interesting about an old man telling people that if they don’t treat women equally they should get out of my army?’ I told him: ‘What’s so interesting is that powerful decent men don’t often take such a public stand on behalf of women, particularly not on the issue of violence.”’

But even as General Morrison has publicly tried to call to account those responsible for sexual assault, the allegations of rot in the armed forces in Australia have continued: of rape, ugly, traumatic initiation rituals called “bishing,” and a host of offenses including a group of soldiers calling themselves the “Jedi Council” broadcasting sex with women without their knowledge, and demeaning them in emails.

Just this month further allegations concerning serving officers emerged. But slowly change is occurring, and at the least the leadership is showing willingness to subject the army to external scrutiny, and vow to take it seriously.

To effect change, General Morrison recommends that military leaders open all areas of military service to women, and, crucially, “appoint an independent statutory authority to review the treatment of women, and of men and women from ethnic minorities who comprise the force.” A task force set up in November 2012 to investigate allegations of abuse in Australia has received 2,400 complaints and passed on 63 cases to the police.

In his London speech, General Morrison argued that an inclusive and diverse army is more, not less capable: Armies, he said, that “revel in their separateness from civil society, that value the male over the female, that use their imposed values to exclude those who don’t fit the particular traits of the dominant group, who celebrate the violence that is integral to my profession rather than seeking ways to contain it — they do nothing to distinguish the soldier from the brute.”

At the heart of this debate is not what it means to be a soldier, but what it means to be human.

Julia Baird is a journalist and a television presenter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and an author who is working on a biography of Queen Victoria.