TORONTO — Enforcing the Canadian military’s blanket ban on soldiers engaging in intimate relationships in a war zone is an unwinnable fight against human nature, some experts say.
Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard, Canada’s top commander in Afghanistan, was relieved of his duty in a very public flogging last week and sent home along with a female soldier for an “inappropriate” relationship.
The military said the relationship — details of which have yet to emerge — defied the strict prohibition on fraternization in the Afghan war zone.
Sue McGarvie, a clinical sex therapist who has counselled dozens of soldiers at her practice down the road from Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, said the need for close relationships is programmed by 100 million years of human evolution.
“(Soldiers) are in an incredibly difficult situation and looking for comfort, and we are expecting them to be automatons,” McGarvie said of soldiers in Afghanistan. “You cannot fight it: You put adults together in any situation and you’re going to have sex and intimacy.”
While some defence experts and even soldiers say the fraternization rule is needed to uphold discipline, McGarvie said she was horrified at the ramifications.
“You’re losing your career because you’re falling in love?” she said. “What a horrible thing for that to be.”
Even retired colonel Michel Drapeau, now a law professor in Ottawa, called for “common sense,” arguing soldiers are not robots.
One officer, who has worked closely with the highest-ranked commanders in Afghanistan, said he supported the relationship ban.
The bigger problem, he said, was that some commanders — picked because they’re tough and daring in situations where lives are constantly at risk — develop a “god” complex.
“If you’re dealing with Taliban and taking casualties, you’re not the normal type of guy — it takes a special personality to be like that and to manage that,” the officer said, speaking on condition he not be named.
“The dark side of that comes with demons, whether it’s booze (or) sex. These guys have to find a way to get their stress out.”
Despite the strict military discipline, Canadian Forces does encourage soldiers in the field to think for themselves. That’s a source of pride for many in the rank and file. However, underlings are also forged as links in a rigid chain of command in which the guy in charge wields enormous power.
Saul Miller, a performance psychologist who has worked with many elite athletes and sports teams, said men of stature can fall prey to an inflated sense of self-importance.
It’s a toxic mix when coupled with the “very powerful” sex drive, he said.
“Some men of position and power — like some generals and some commanders, and some NBA and NFL superstars who are paid tens of millions of dollars — think they’re special and they have licence to cross moral lines,” Miller said from Vancouver.
“Unfortunately, their belief is reinforced by the fawning and adulation of many people.”
Canada’s ban on relationships is perhaps the strictest among the various countries fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Even the United States military has begun easing its attitude toward personal relationships.
McGarvie said the military should not judge Menard or other soldiers by the consensual relationships they pursue, but by their job performance alone.
Instead, she said, defence brass cultivate a culture of perfection that precludes a willingness to admit to human feelings and failings.
“They come back having picked up body parts and having nightmares (but) they don’t feel safe enough to go (for help) within the system,” she said.
“If you try to deny basic needs, it always bites you on the ass.”