Scandalous Conduct: Past and PresentPosted: Thursday, May 12, 2022
Written by Matthew Barrett
While I was studying cases of officers’ scandalous conduct and reading court martial transcripts from eighty years ago or more, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) was responding to leadership failures and discipline problems today. In the wake of several highly publicized military scandals, the CAF has confronted public and press scrutiny over widespread allegations of sexual assault and a toxic culture seen to be permissive of abuse from the highest ranks on down.
Several generals and admirals have been accused of sexual misconduct or failed to investigate subordinates’ accusations of harassment or assault. Former chief of defence staff General Jonathan Vance carried on an inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Criticism of the military justice system has focused on perceived failures to punish offenders, especially senior leaders, and protect victims and survivors in uniform. Critics have questioned military judges’ independence and called for reforms to ensure the same modern legal standards expected in a civilian court setting. The supreme court has ruled that military personnel can be charged for civilian crimes as well as service offences, while the entire court martial process has been critiqued by defendants and victim advocates alike.
These problems in military culture and military justice are not unprecedented. There is a deeper history that needs to be explored. In the context of modern responses to military misconduct, it is essential to look back to the legacy of scandalous conduct and the role of courts martial in prosecuting criminal behaviour in the past. The purpose of Scandalous Conduct: Canadian Officer Courts Martial, 1914–45 is to study the role of dismissal and martial justice in Canadian military culture through the world wars. It Is about how the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman evolved depending on changing social norms, moral values, and disciplinary requirements. It is about how the army defined dishonour and used punitive and legal measures to expel perceived offenders of formal military law and an unwritten honour code.
During the First and Second World Wars, many Canadians who may have patriotically volunteered to fight for King and Country instead found themselves fighting a legal battle before a general court martial for failing, or being perceived to have failed, to live up to the ideal of an officer and a gentleman. Scandalous Conduct examines the experiences of over 500 Canadian army and air force officers sentenced to dismissal and cashiering as well as hundreds more who lost their commissions administratively for disciplinary reasons. My sketches here visualize several cases I study in the book and represent the range of offences that could cost an officer the privilege and responsibility of his rank.
Expulsion from military service was meant to achieve several different purposes. It represented a deterrent against future misbehaviour, a repudiation of actions seen to have damaged the military’s reputation, a reaffirmation of espoused values and desired norms, and a stigma to be carried by the disgraced. To preserve the collective honour of the officer corps, expulsion therefore served to isolate instances of misconduct and set the standards for normal and acceptable morals, beliefs, and practices.
An important question I consider throughout the book is to what extent dismissal with disgrace was understood to represent a real punishment in contrast to imprisonment or detention for convicted soldiers. Military authorities grappled with the question of proportionality and justice when imposing the sentence on officers. Dismissal could be viewed as either too much or far too little. It either ruined a man’s reputation forever with a terrible stigma or merely provided an easy escape route to evade a much worse fate. As I discovered, perceptions of dismissal depended on a range of unique factors and circumstances, as well as all important social and gender assumptions about the honour inherent in holding commissioned rank.
Rather than subvert public commemoration of the Canadian officer corps or simply expose instances of criminality, this history of misconduct and failure offers essential context to better understand and appreciate the conduct of so many Canadians under extraordinary circumstances. In this way, the book is concerned with featuring the stories and experiences of many ex-officers marginalized and long ignored from veteran narratives due to the stigma of being subject to court martial. Following dismissal, some disappeared into obscurity but others re-enlisted from a range of motivations and in certain cases gave their lives to redeem honour.
By exploring the construction of notions of honour and dishonour in the past, we can better recognize their persistent influence in matters of law and punishment today. The charge of conduct unbecoming an officer remains an offence in the modern Code of Service Discipline under the National Defence Act. However, much mystery and ambiguity surround the meaning of scandalous conduct and the purpose of the charge. By delving into fascinating and detailed court martial case files, my book aims to shed critical new light on the topic of military justice and reveal the fuller history of responses to scandal in the Canadian armed forces.
Matthew Barrett is a military historian and was a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian War Museum. In addition to writing Scandalous Conduct, he is the co-author and illustrator of a Through Their Eyes: A Graphic History of Hill 70 and Canada’s First World War.
 “A military in crisis: Here are the senior leaders embroiled in sexual misconduct cases,” CBC News, 21 Oct 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/sexual-misconduct-military-senior-leaders-dnd-caf-1.6218683
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