The military's sexual misconduct crisis is turning into a national security problem, say experts

Much of the military sexual conduct crisis in Canada has been viewed through the lens of social justice — but some observers warn it has the potential to create an alarming crisis of confidence in military leadership.

What happens when an all-volunteer force loses the trust of its members and the public?

Members of Canada's military parade through downtown Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008.
The Canadian Forces' public struggle with sexual misconduct in the ranks could turn into a problem of national security, say observers. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

There was a time when putting an allied general in a compromising position was the sole dominion of foreign intelligence services.

No longer. And while there have been no indications to date that adversaries such as Russia and China have been involved in the ongoing sexual misconduct crisis gripping the Canadian military, the implications for national security are real and very stark, say U.S. military law experts.

The ethical and institutional wounds afflicting the Canadian Armed Forces all appear to be self-inflicted, as are those involving the actions of American military leaders.

Much of the commentary on the crisis in the military has focused on social and institutional justice — the promise of a long-awaited reckoning for survivors of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.

The flip side, seldom discussed, is how sexual misconduct can affect national security beyond the potential for blackmail scenarios — the kind of salacious stuff you find in spy fiction.

"I think it can present a real danger," said retired U.S. Army lieutenant-colonel Victor Hansen, a professor of law at the New England School of Law in Boston.

"I think it has ... very tangible direct consequences to national security, but I think it has longer-reaching, more intangible effects."

How sexual misconduct threatens recruitment

The first danger, said Hansen, is to the military's talent pool — the skills and talents that are lost when victims start to wonder how they can remain loyal to an institution that allows misconduct to go unchecked, and decide to quit.

The Canadian military has seen that happen already, he said, citing the recent resignation of Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor — a highly decorated combat officer who served as a company commander in Afghanistan and as a senior staff officer with special forces.

Taylor "could have been an agent for change and she's walking away, saying, 'I can't be a part of this anymore. I've lost complete confidence in this system to do justice,'" said Hansen.

"That has real and long-lasting impacts on national security."

Governor General David Johnston presents then-Major Eleanor Taylor with the Meritorious Service Medal in Ottawa on June 22, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In her widely publicized letter announcing her resignation as deputy commander of a reserve brigade, Taylor said she was "disgusted" by the fact that the country's two highest-ranking military officers are under investigation for misconduct.

Hansen said inappropriate behaviour by senior military leaders undermines public confidence and ultimately affects morale in the ranks.

He said the double standard that so often emerges in cases involving institutions struggling with misconduct — the "do-as-I-say, not-as-I do" attitude — is especially hard on military members because they're expected to follow orders, even if those orders put them in peril.

How sexual misconduct threatens discipline

When institutional problems like the sexual misconduct crisis persist, Hansen said, serving members start to ask themselves how far they're willing to go to follow a leader.

Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, the acting commander of the Canadian military, has referred to the misconduct crisis as "an existential issue" for the Armed Forces because an all-volunteer force can't expect civilians to sign up if they don't trust the chain of command.

"This recruiting challenge goes beyond the military," said Eyre, who implored members of Parliament to rebuild the public's confidence in the military as a safe institution in which to serve.

WATCH: Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre says he asked for 'playbook' on sexual misconduct

Lt.-Gen. Eyre asked for 'playbook' on dealing with senior leadership misconduct

2 years ago
Duration 3:30
Acting Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre told a parliamentary committee he asked for a 'playbook' for dealing with misconduct among senior leaders in the Armed Forces.

In the immediate aftermath of allegations of inappropriate behaviour against former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Liberal government promised a full and independent review of misconduct in the Forces.

That pledge was repeated when Vance's successor, Admiral Art McDonald, stepped aside after military police began investigating a separate claim involving him. That investigation still isn't complete — and the federal government has seemed content so far to simply allow the crisis to unfold.

Vance spoke with Global News after the allegations against him first surfaced. He declined to offer comment to CBC News. McDonald has not responded publicly to the investigation involving him.

On Wednesday, CBC News reported on allegations against the head of military personnel, Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson. A former ship steward has accused him of raping her while the two were deployed aboard HMCS Provider in the Pacific during an exercise in 1991.

In a statement to CBC News, Edmundson said he categorically denies the allegations.

Sexual misconduct is "the black cloud" hanging over both Canadian and U.S. military leaders and both countries are struggling to address it, said retired U.S. Navy commander Phil Cave, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

"It's become an enormous issue in terms of perception of leadership," he said. "And yes, it's an inflection point."

The U.S. Congress has looked into taking authority over most military justice matters out of the hands of unit commanders — where it traditionally has been vested — and handing it over to military lawyers.

Canada's system of military justice is similar to that of the United States.

Leaked, unconfirmed stories have suggested that the Liberal government is considering setting up an independent office to handle misconduct claims — and could even establish an independent inspector general for the military, as other countries have done.

How serious the federal government is about those ideas remains an open question.

Canadian Forces ombudsman Gregory Lick told a parliamentary committee last week that his office, which would be affected by such a reorganization, had not been consulted on the idea.

Cave said prosecutions of senior U.S. military commanders have been rare but have gotten more frequent in recent years, reflecting society's changing attitudes.

The Pentagon cracks down

Attempting to get ahead of the problem a few years ago, the U.S. military tightened the regulations on fraternization among members — clamping down on social relationships that can lead to misconduct.

"The new policy is much more stringent and it prohibits, really, any kind of sexual-social relationships between officers and enlisted, between senior leaders and subordinates, whether that's a romantic relationship, whether that's just, you know, a friendly relationship," said Hansen. "It's viewed much more strictly in the military in how it's enforced."

The Americans also have been reflecting on the power dynamic inherent in all military hierarchies — and whether subordinates feel pressured into sexual relationships.

"From his end, it might have seemed consensual. But from the subordinate's end, they might have felt like they didn't really have much of a choice," Hansen said.

There are no easy answers for either country, he said.

"I would have to say that the U.S. military has not been a model of success ... when it comes to dealing with sexual assault fraternization harassment in the ranks.

"I mean, we have struggled and we continue to struggle."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.