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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 2023]
Book Review Essay

Image by: MCpl Richard Hallé, Canadian Armed Forces photo

Pte Bédard greets residents and offers them a sterile mask upon entering a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Drummondville, Qc during Operation VECTOR, January 8, 2022.

Dr. Meaghan Shoemaker is a Research Fellow at the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy and works with the public service leading international engagements for gender equality and human rights. She holds a PhD from Queen’s University with specializations in International Relations and Gender and Politics. She previously worked with the Department of National Defence, leading projects to support organizational culture change, human rights, inclusion, and equity. Meaghan also provides training and education for national militaries, facilitating conversations with members across all ranks on the topics of emotional intelligence, mentorship, and unconscious bias. 

In 2021, following decades of change initiatives in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to address misconduct and support gender integration and diversity, the Canadian military found itself in the midst of another crisis. Parliamentary Committees heard from experts, practitioners, advocates, and defence representatives; the consensus was a need to shift focus to the systemic and cultural elements of the military that perpetuated the behavioural, policy, and structural conditions enabling misconduct and discrimination.Footnote 1 This pivot in approach has also been observed internationally, with NATO’s Diversity and Inclusion Programme and Action Plan asserting its role “as a roadmap to guide organisational efforts that improve diversity, equality and inclusion, and promote cultural change.”Footnote 2 This review dives into two recently published books which contribute to understandings of military culture, organizational behaviour, and conduct. In this essay, I draw on these important works to provide an overview of key areas of focus for policy makers, practitioners, and scholars. The spotlight on culture change and power provided by these two books is a welcome shift for scholars and advocates who have long called for initiatives that address upstream causes of harm in the military.

In The Ones We Let Down, Charlotte Duval-Lantoine guides the reader through gender integration initiatives of the CAF with a focus on the 1990s, which were characterized by an organizational culture that failed to develop leadership accountability—a “toxic culture of leadership.”Footnote 3 Samantha Crompvoets’ Blood Lust, Trust, and Blame focuses on the Australian Defence Forces, and calls for an attention to power as a means to change culture long-term.Footnote 4 Both authors probe how military organizations approach complex problems, with the failure to do so leading to repeated mistakes. Crompvoets depicts how climate, social networks, and influence operate within a military organization. Ultimately, these systems and structures perpetuate misconduct within certain subgroups, suggesting that change occurs through specific, targeted initiatives. Recognizing the impact of a “total institution” such as the military, Duval-Lantoine shows how tactical action plans that were not tied to accountability or strategic goals have failed to hold leaders accountable. Duval-Lantoine argues that such toxic leadership is based on self-preservation and limited organizational and individual accountability of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Both authors problematize, implicitly or explicitly, the missing connection between broad change initiatives, actions on the ground, and accountability of enacting change. Leveraging the authors’ contributions and gleaning insights from critical scholarship, I argue that there is a need for greater attention to the inherent links between culture and power, particularly in the military context. Furthermore, the role of institutional and individual accountabilities requires further exploration.

Culture and Power

There is little disagreement among the authors about what culture is. While they engage with a wealth of literature cited, their discussion of culture can be summarized as the values, norms, and beliefs of an individual or organization, akin to Schein and Schein’s framings since 1990 (and beyond).Footnote 5 Where the authors diverge is the value placed on culture as a framework and the heavy lifting expected from it. Duval-Lantoine argues that toxic leadership culture is what has limited culture change in support of gender integration.Footnote 6 Crompvoets critiques the use of the term culture for its nebulous and unspecific nature and compels the reader to consider power instead of culture, noting that one must dismantle and change how power is distributed in order to change culture. In this sense, culture and power are argued by Crompvoets to be separate and distinct, with Crompvoets’ prioritizing climate and social relationships over culture’s impact. Throughout Crompvoets’ book, however, this stated distinction is not as clear as it could be, due to the frequent deference to norms, values, and beliefs (key facets of culture, simply defined) that uphold the power structures the author seeks to critique.

Addressing the limitations of culture as a framework, Crompvoets calls for tailored approaches to individual misconduct challenges, providing two key examples: a previously successful legislative change to support part-time work hours, and a recommendation to focus on “influencers” within the organization who may be junior.Footnote 7 The author calls for readers to question how informal and formal power operates within an organization, who holds power, and how power can shape the type of change pursued or obstruct the progress of change.Footnote 8 However, in Crompvoets’ otherwise strong pocket-sized work, most examples provided are general calls for challenging prevailing power structures,Footnote 9 replicating the author’s own critique of culture-focused efforts that are broad and unspecific. To challenge this perspective, I argue that scholars often do not take culture as a monolith and recognize that a culture lens alone may not be sufficient. Some scholars, on the contrary, situate their work within particular contexts, such as the intersections between culture and gender norms.Footnote 10,Footnote 11

While not opposed to the importance of tangible actions (on the contrary, calling for a more intentional change program), Duval-Lantoine argues that the CAF’s habit of developing new initiatives has often missed the forest for the trees. Duval-Lantoine provides several examples of how action plans and recommendations—such as the CF 1993 Action Plan to Achieve Complete Gender Integration and the 1996 Defence Diversity Council’s goals for diversity and inclusion within the CF—remained disconnected from the broader, systemic issues, such as a sexualized culture, and thus resulted in limited change.

This is where power and culture inevitably meet. The power structures that exist within the military are complex and ubiquitous, and inherently linked to culture. Intersectional and critical scholars continue to call attention to the role of power and intersecting structures of oppression,Footnote 12 and in a military context, these insights are ever-growing as scholars call for an understanding of how “intersecting identities and systems of power inform the everyday experiences and institutional culture” of the military.Footnote 13 Like culture, power has multiple manifestations, comprised of intersecting systems that perpetuate inequalities.Footnote 14 As a result, to only look at power structures—separate from the cultural contexts that uphold them—runs the risk of losing the contextual details that both Crompvoets and Duval-Lantoine call attention to in their work. The lack of accountability—a critique brought forward by both Crompvoets and Duval-Lantoine—is one example of how patriarchal powers and cultures can uphold the status quo and challenge substantive action and progress.

One can observe the impact of detaching culture from power by considering Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA Plus) in the Canadian case. While GBA Plus is intended to mitigate discriminatory outcomes in policies and programming, military culture has been found to be a deterrent in and of itself for its institutional uptake.Footnote 15 The accountability and responsibility mechanisms—linked to the valuing of hierarchy and order within military culture—that Crompvoets calls attention to have also been found to hinder the uptake of GBA Plus in Canada. Internationally, another example of the codependence between power and culture is observed in how military leaders in UN operations are less likely to be removed for underperformance if the officer stems from a powerful country,Footnote 16 demonstrating a culture of impunity and the importance of power to the culture.

In short, power is inextricably linked to culture. Power is embedded in the military raison d’être (culture of force/protection), in rank structure (culture of hierarchy and education of senior officers), in team building (culture of camaraderie), in how gender and identity are ignored or harmed (sexist or heteronormative culture),Footnote 17 and in how the organization is a colonial agent of the state (settler colonial/racist culture).Footnote 18

Contributions and Conclusion

Duval-Lantoine, Crompvoets, and critical scholars more broadly have dedicated their research to articulating how military organizations have yet to develop initiatives that address the systemic cultural and power structures that perpetuate misconduct, and the impact of limited follow-through accountability on maintaining change efforts. Both books provide an opportunity for scholars and policy makers to understand the diversity of approaches to support organizational change and encourage a dialogue at the policy level. The impact of toxic leadership cultures, and the systemic power structures inherent to military organizations that uphold these cultures, contribute to the overall challenges that military organizations must address should lasting change be the objective.

Moving forward, there are opportunities to build on and prioritize the work of critical scholars who challenge the persisting and prevailing power structures that permeate military cultures. This holistic, cohesive approach—one that recognizes and appreciates how individual behaviours, organizational responsibilities, culture, and power are intertwinedFootnote 19—encourages critical reflections for policy makers and military personnel as organizational change efforts continue. Reflected throughout this special issue, neither culture nor power can be ignored when discussing issues of misconduct in military organizations. Power and culture are not simply ‘buzz words’ to be used in policy documents; they are critical structures that can uphold or upend the shared challenges that Western militaries face.

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