‘If you people are to succeed, you need people like us to frighten the living daylights out of the high command’, Rowell told the Commissioner.
He was speaking about changing the culture in the Australian Defence Forces (ADF), where young cadets and others are routinely brutalised and abused – physically, emotionally and sexually. His own experiences of such abuse took place at an army training facility in the late 1950s, but he’s in no doubt it is happening still.
‘I am trying to encourage the three, four or five most powerful general officers in the ADF to roll over, and come and tell you people the truth’, Rowell said. He believes they must be aware of the practices still occurring. They would themselves have been abused, he observed.
‘If they stayed long, more than three months, they also became an accessory. And if they got to the finish they became abusers.’
That’s exactly how it was for Rowell. Enrolling at the training base was an ‘escape to a chance of the future’. He arrived there as a 15-year-old, ‘a nervous, skinny runt … terrified of my own shadow’. It was a lot like boarding school, he said – but it was also a lot like Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s famous novel in which a group of boys stranded on a desert island turn on one another.
‘After we’d finished of an afternoon, most of the staff disappeared, and that’s when the boys took over. It was very cruel, but it was also good. We had some wonderful times together.
'I went there with very little confidence, thinking I was the dumbest kid ever and had no future because that’s what my dad and everyone else told me. And then in my final year as, you might call it, the head boy, I had more power as a 17-year-old than I’ve ever had since.’
Rowell went on to have a successful career as an army officer, commanding Australian and American troops in various combat zones. Renowned as ‘a tough bastard’, he described himself as a most professional combat commander.
‘I use the example if I was commanding a ship and I called “Battle stations” – that means all the doors are locked. If my son, my brother or my mother was in the next compartment and that took a hit, I would never permit anyone to open the door to save them.
'Now, many people say that sounds simple. But very few people can do that. I could. I still can … I became clinically what's called a controlled psychopath.
‘The [training facility] made me that tough. I wasn’t like that when I went in there.’
The child-to-child abuse that occurred at the facility was sanctioned by the adults, Rowell explained. ‘It was a de facto culture of the service.’
It arose from the view that brutalisation was necessary to make people do what they’re meant to, he said. ‘It’s a mistaken philosophy, but it’s also part of the control game.’
Genuine authority is replaced by bullying: ‘“How dare you even think of not obeying me? How dare you not respect me?” And part of young soldiering is right at the word go, you’re taught, “Never mind about the person. You’re respecting the rank”.’
In his own case, he said, he saw through that approach early on. ‘I worked out as a young solider, “If you want my respect, then you’ve got to earn it. I don’t care what the rank is that you’re wearing”.’
Alongside the child-to-child abuse, Rowell also observed a culture of ‘soft homosexuality’ and of adults interested in young boys. He believes paedophilia and prostitution were widespread across ADF training bases, sanctioned in the highest echelons. He described ‘happy hours’, attended by selected officers, VIPs, politicians and other pillars of society, where the volunteer mess servants would be boys wearing sexy white shorts.
‘If you had a particular interest in a particular boy, when the time came you would go to your room and the boy would turn up’, he told the Commissioner.
‘I didn’t know it then, but probably in all state police archives there are files on child sex from cadets and from the military. Even in my time as a boy soldier, when someone was found to be sexually inappropriate with another person, boy or girl, the way the system worked was, “We’ll deal with it. The police will look the other way”.
'And in the case of an adult who interfered with a boy, the adult would disappear the next day, probably after being beaten up by some of the sergeants, and be posted somewhere. Or, if it was really bad, they would be administratively discharged. This was the arrangement to keep it clean.’
Rowell followed up his military career with work in business and politics. Now in his early 70s, he has a terminal illness but at the moment is defying the odds. ‘The angel of death is very good’, he said. ‘She keeps rejecting an old soldier.’
He continues to work in different ways to bring the full story of abuse in the defence forces into the open. ‘This is about trying to clean out the ADF, because most of us still love and respect it, but we want it cleansed for today and the future’, he told the Commissioner.
He believes it can be done, but ‘there is an awful lot of cancer to cut out’.
‘If it was wasn’t for someone like me who knows how the system works, they would do a whitewash, making lance corporals, sergeant majors, captains and majors to be scapegoats, and all the generals and the political minders would all go off and have another cup of tea, and say “Well, we won that one again”.’