Most people who have served in the military would argue there’s no other way. In combat, soldiers must be able to rely on others to do what they’re told, even if it means risking their lives. This ethos permeates the armed forces even in peacetime.
But how much longer this will remain the case must be in question as the New Zealand Defence Force shows signs of succumbing to the tide of Marxist-inspired ideological upheaval sweeping through the rest of society.
It almost goes without saying that the military represents much that neo-Marxists despise. Three obvious marks against it are that it’s still largely male, it relies on deference to authority and it exists – at least in the febrile imaginations of the woke Left – to enforce power structures, if necessary by killing people. It follows that anything that can be done to emasculate the military, and to break down the culture of order and discipline on which it depends, must be encouraged.
I’m told, for example, that some army personnel recently used an army intranet site to promote the idea that the terms “Sir” and “Ma’am” be dropped when addressing officers, since this could be offensive to those who identify as non-binary. In a similar vein, “Mr” and “Mrs” are no longer used in army correspondence as they are deemed to be examples of gender stereotyping. Nothing is safe from the creeping tendrils of woke ideology.
Issues have also arisen over uniforms, which some women soldiers consider unflattering. I understand that as a result, they are no longer required to tuck their shirts in.
No big deal, outsiders might say. But some experienced soldiers cite such developments as pointers to a possible breakdown in a military culture that has evolved over centuries and proved itself fit for purpose. More specifically, they are alarmed that the intrusion of ideology is a distraction from the real purpose of the armed forces – which is to protect the country’s interests, if necessary by the use of force – and diminishes its ability to carry out that function.
It was against this backdrop that a competition-winning soldier’s essay recently caused conniptions in the NZDF last month (and yes, I know I’m coming late to this subject, but you can’t rush into these things).
To refresh your memory, the essay was headlined Can the Army Afford to go Woke? It argued that the army “cannot reconcile a more diverse and inclusive workforce with the maintenance of a warrior ethos and war-fighting culture”.
The writer, identified as “N Dell”, went on to say that “increasing focus on these identity-based notions of Diversity only sews [sic] greater division and discord in society and, I fear, within the Army too”. He excluded Maori from this assessment, noting that “During basic training we are taught that the cultural foundation of the Army is built upon a proud tradition of Maori warrior culture being interwoven with regimental British military doctrine”. He added that this synergy of cultures was one of the unique features of the New Zealand Army and had probably contributed to its reputation for punching above its weight in international theatres.
What he was arguing against, the writer said, was the army’s attempts to “engineer” identity-based diversity by focusing on race, gender and sexual orientation. The type of diversity that should matter to the army, he wrote, was diversity of opinion, experience, attitude, class and background – areas in which the army excelled.
Every resource devoted to diversity and “inclusion” was a diversion from the army’s only responsibility, which was to protect New Zealand. While considerations of diversity were okay for private companies, there was no room for them in the military “where performance is, by definition, a matter of life and death”.
It was a thoughtful, articulate and bold essay. Essentially the writer was arguing that the army is fundamentally different from other institutions and can’t afford the luxury of being fashionably woke.
The essay also stood out as being politically aware and sophisticated in the writer’s grasp of the so-called culture wars. It obviously impressed the Chief of the Army, Major General John Boswell, who judged it the best entry in the “private writing” category of an army writing competition.
But then something happened. Boswell changed his mind, saying his decision had been an error, and the essay disappeared from an army website where it had been displayed along with other winning entries.
Boswell said he backtracked “when it became clear that publishing [the essay] was being seen as endorsement of the views contained within it, which could not be further from the truth”.
Actually, I can see why Boswell may have been spooked. Reading “N Dell’s” essay, I detected similarities with some of the rhetoric used by the white nationalist group Action Zealandia, whose covert activities have recently been exposed in a series of articles in the Otago University newspaper Critic.
The essay writer himself had anticipated trouble, signalling in his introductory paragraph that he was aware his essay would provoke a backlash, but invoking the values of free speech, free inquiry and self-criticism.
Be that as it may, taken at face value and in isolation, the essay raised legitimate points. The army could have published it while simultaneously making clear that it didn’t share the writer’s views, but Boswell appears to have waved a white flag following a backlash from activists in the ranks. Stuff reported that women and “rainbow members” of the Defence Force had voiced their anger, calling the army hypocritical for embracing “gender-inclusive” projects while amplifying “harmful” views.
Defence Minister Peeni Henare weighed in too, saying he had reminded the chief of the NZDF of his expectations of “inclusivity and diversity”.
From the other side, National defence spokesman Chris Penk said he would be concerned if the essay had been removed because it didn’t fit a pre-determined narrative. “If you run an essay competition and pick a winner based on merit, then there should be no good reason that essay mysteriously disappears,” Penk said. More pointedly, David Seymour observed that “the New Zealand Army used to fight for free speech, now it’s fighting against it.”
There are two issues here, one of which is freedom of speech. The Free Speech Union called Boswell’s action a troubling attack on free speech, pointing out – like Seymour – that this was one of the values New Zealand soldiers had given their lives for.
Admittedly, the military isn’t usually noted for encouraging impertinent, independently minded soldiers to say what they think. But having decided the essay was worthy of the prize, Boswell should have stood his ground. Backing down looked spineless, which possibly did more harm to the army’s image than getting offside with the offenderati. It also ran counter to the military ethos that lower ranks don’t second-guess the boss.
The other issue, of course, is whether the Defence Force should yield to the woke ideological tide sweeping through the rest of society, at potential risk to its ability to do the job it was created for.
A retired senior army officer of my acquaintance was sharply critical of Boswell. The writer of the essay, he said, had addressed the values of courage and integrity, “which are at the heart of what the army lives and dies by. When the senior officer of the army fails to follow these core values and surrenders to political correctness, he has also surrendered the moral authority to lead.”
He went on to say that the Christchurch mosque attacks had been the catalyst for significant changes in the military relating to issues of ethnicity, religion and gender. The current government had launched this agenda and demanded that everyone accept it without question.
That should surprise no one. Since the 1970s, when the last of the Second World War veterans were retiring from politics, the Labour Party has been, at best, ambivalent about defence. I’m told that Jacinda Ardern’s visit to Linton camp two months ago was her first to an army base since she became prime minister in 2017. The armed forces just don’t rank highly in Labour’s priorities, other than as an institution ripe for ideologically inspired transformation.
While my ex-army acquaintance acknowledges that the army can’t and shouldn’t isolate itself from wider society, he was clearly uneasy about the current agenda and its likely impact on the army’s combat capability.
He agreed with the hapless essay writer that diversity, inclusion and identity politics should not be the building block for a combat culture. Rather, it should be based on selection of the best and most competent people, regardless of factors such as race or sexual orientation.
He predicted that the army’s capability would be eroded as it pursues its ideologically fashionable recruitment and promotion policy and diverts resources and energy into LGBT awareness courses at the expense of combat training. And he finished with the pointed observation that encouraging inclusion and diversity “is of little use if you’re staring down the barrel of a Chinese AK47 from the wrong end”.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.