Within 24 hours of joining, almost all new officers and soldiers start to develop an understanding of the importance of the customs and traditions of the Australian Army. While they might not appreciate it at the time – the first roll call, the first awkward march to the mess, and the first room inspection all contribute to shaping an esprit de corps that will remain with them through their career and beyond. However, while individual knowledge and respect for tradition continues to grow throughout a person’s career, there can come a point when passion for tradition overpowers pragmatism as we become beholden to the ‘good old days’ of our early careers. It appears that as individuals serve for longer periods, their views on the value and importance of certain traditions become more ingrained and unchallengeable. However, not all traditions are created equal, and some deserve questioning, reform, or removal altogether. 

In this article, the role of junior leaders in shaping the future direction of Army’s customs and traditions is introduced. The importance of tradition itself is not discussed as the topic has been covered in great detail in other fora and it is assumed that there is an acknowledgement that they make an essential and invaluable contribution to the Army. Instead, this article will outline the dangers in an unquestioning conformity to tradition in instances where the tradition could emerge as toxic, unhelpful, irrelevant, and compromising to the very purpose of tradition itself. The varying layers of tradition will be identified: from formal documented policy and procedure to the unwritten tradition passed down through generations, along with risk areas for the Army’s reputation and morale. This article will end by suggesting that the identification of those customs and traditions that no longer fit the Army of today or the future, and their subsequent reform or removal, rests with the emerging custodians of Army’s traditions: today’s junior leaders.

Layers of tradition

There are three broad methods by which Army’s customs and traditions are passed through the generations. The first and best known is the formal departmental publication such as the Army Dress Manual or the Army Ceremonial and Protocol Manual. These contain many of the formal and presently uncontroversial traditions currently in use; although these should not automatically be immune to review and criticism. The second is the third-party publication or a document published at a subordinate level. These can include contemporary literature[1], older precis such as ‘A Guide to Customs of the Army’[2], or ‘Military Customs and Traditions and how they began’[3], and even corps notes and training memoranda. The final method is the word-of-mouth tradition or casually produced document. This method often has no official endorsement, origins can be obscured or ad hoc, and may typically include lore, initiation rites, initiation ceremonies, mess games and kangaroo courts (where protocols, procedures and norms are seemingly passed down through informal custodians). Although it is this latter category that is most susceptible to the emergence and perpetuation of undesired customs and traditions, formal and third-party publications are also vulnerable to the continuance of uncontemporary and, at times, inappropriate tradition.

Dangers of conformity to traditions

Army’s traditions have frequently been the subject of criticism in the past. Inquiries, reports, and articles such as those into harassment and discrimination[4] or bullying[5], the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse[6], the Australian Human Rights Commission Review into the Treatment of Women at the Australian Defence Force Academy[7], and even the recent Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide[8] have all mentioned the inappropriateness of some of the Army’s (and ADFs) customs and traditions. A contemporary review of 1990’s-era compendiums such as the ‘Lexicon of Cadet Language’[9] and ‘LegoLingo’[10], both highlighted in various reports for their toxicity and inappropriateness, clearly indicate the extent to which in past times, some customs had been normalised to the detriment of the organisation’s culture. The common thread throughout these inquiries and reviews is that it took the recommendations of an external organisation to correct or remove traditions that should have been addressed internally. 

In today’s context, internal reviews of customs and traditions to determine whether they are still appropriate, fit-for-purpose, or contribute to the capability of today’s Army requires only the thoughtful application of the ADFs values and behaviours. The principles associated with service, courage, respect, integrity and excellence,[11] can be interpreted as traditions that should not:

  • identify then isolate a soldier or officer on the basis of a personal characteristic such as ethnicity, gender identity, sexual preference, religion, height, weight, skin colour, etc;. 
  • compel anti-social behaviour or behaviour that is not in line with community expectations;  
  • restrict the achievement of preparedness outcomes by using resources required for the provision of capability or training;
  • inhibit capability or capability development through the redirection of resources toward maintaining customs and traditions;
  • perpetuate an outdated or unrepresentative narrative around military service; or
  • waste time that might otherwise be used for training and the development of capability (unless the second-order consequence of improved esprit-de-corps improves capability).

The ramifications of continuing the types of traditions that exhibit at least one of these characteristics are reasonably obvious. In the extremes they cause physical and mental harm, isolate individuals, erode trust, reduce morale, diminish the team, inhibit social progress, and undermine leadership. If made public or captured by the media they damage the reputation of the Army, reduce public trust, and harm the ability of the Army to recruit the next generation of officers and soldiers and solicit the support of the public during operations. Even when a tradition marginally exhibits the characteristics listed above, it may still have a tendency to isolate groups or individuals and restrict the Army from effectively recruiting from certain demographics. In any case, poor, unnecessary, outdated, or inappropriate customs and traditions that undermine inclusiveness, morale, and esprit de corps are certain to negatively impact recruiting and retention and will have a detrimental impact on capability and its evolution. 

There are other less obvious negative impacts on individual behaviour that are associated with inappropriate non-contemporary traditions. They stifle creativity due to a compulsion toward military conformity, limit personal growth through forced adherence to unnecessary rules, reinforce stereotypes around people and their perceived behaviour, prevent critical thinking, create undue social pressure that may conflict with an individual's values or beliefs, and limit natural progression toward adaptation and change through forced compliance with historical activities. In other words, seemingly harmless traditions might not be harmless for either the organisation or the individual.

Unfortunately, to this day, much emphasis remains on continuing some traditions with little or no thought about whether the tradition ought to be continued. Junior soldiers and officers are likely to find themselves in positions where they are unable or disempowered to query aspects of tradition that don’t seem to fit their expectations of the modern Army. However, unquestioning conformity should not be a valued attribute in any officer or soldier. Some traditions in the past were plainly and obviously wrong and only survived due to a reluctance to question, a form of bystander behaviour. While many of these so-called traditions have since been removed or modified there remain several that need review. 

Today’s outlier traditions

This section may be provocative for some serving members because there will be those who will believe in and defend the handful of traditions outlined. For those who are challenged by the questioning of some of the traditions below it is worth noting that these are not necessarily bad traditions when viewed through historical lenses. However, when considered in the contemporary environment and against the list of negative characteristics listed earlier, there are clear questions regarding whether these are still appropriate, fit-for-purpose, or contribute to capability.

Fortunately, some of these traditions are infrequent activities. For example, most Army members will go through their entire career never attending a drumhead service or laying-up of colours. Other traditions are unavoidable such as attendance at a religious remembrance service and a mandated compulsion to shave. While just five of the Army’s easily identifiable outlier traditions are outlined; there are many others that are ready for a reasonable discussion about their continuance.

  • Facial hair.[12] With the British Army recently changing its policy on beards[13], the Canadian Armed Forces having already done so many years ago[14], recent changes to Air Force policy[15], and long-standing Navy tradition, the justification for clean-shaven soldiers is starting to look dubious. Discipline, uniformity, hygiene and correctly fitting gas masks all seem to be questionable excuses for prohibiting beards when society, police forces and allies don’t seem to have issues with them. Instead, restrictions on beards might distance the Army from contemporary Australia.
  • Personal appearance.[16] While beards have been singled out above, it is also worth mentioning that the Army continues to have some obsolescent and rarely enforced traditions of dress standards. For example, fingernail ‘varnish’ shades are tightly defined, makeup colour shades must be “conservative”, and hair colour is to have a “natural appearance”, without offering definitions of what conservative or natural might mean in this context. A brief walk through almost any Army unit will see daily breaches which questions their relevance, applicability, and enforceability. As with beards, these traditions seem only to distance the Army from the contemporary expectations of society.
  • Prayers and Hymns at Remembrance ceremonies.[17] Remembrance and memorial ceremonies conducted by the Army are overtly Christian in nature even though the proportion of Army members that are affiliated with Christianity is smaller than the number with no religion. [18] According to the Army’s own doctrine, there may be at least two Christian Hymns, at least three Christian prayers, and perhaps a Bible reading at every remembrance event that is also presided over by a chaplain. In stark contrast, the Canadian Armed Forces no longer has any reference to religion in remembrance ceremonies.[19] Similarly, the British Armed Forces, from where the Australian Army derives some of its traditions, has also removed many Christian references (the Royal British Legion actually specifies that “The Act of Remembrance is brief and non-religious…”).[20] While religion is very important to many Army members, observance at remembrance ceremonies serves to isolate those that are not religious or not Christian.
  • ‘United’ drumhead service.[21] The doctrine on the drumhead service outlines its purpose as to help mark the formation of a unit, celebrate a unit’s birthday, in remembrance, or on memorial occasions. However, like the policy on remembrance ceremonies, the drumhead service, its origins, and its conduct are unambiguously a Christian religious service. They are usually private affairs and serve no purpose for civil-military relations, are attended by invitation only, conducted infrequently, require rehearsals, and consume training resources. The benefit to esprit de corps that is obtained through the celebration of unit birthdays can perhaps be better achieved through other means such as a public parade, freedom of entry, or other event.
  • Laying up of Colours in religious buildings.[22] The Australian Army typically lays it colours in churches or cathedrals even though policy allows for other public places. In the overwhelming majority of situations, a soldier, officer, or member of the public who wishes to view the Colours, Standards and Guidons of a unit, must enter a Christian church, even though they may be non-religious or non-Christian. This seems somewhat inappropriate when there are more practical and public options available.[23]

While these traditions are recognisable as being in need of an update or removal, it is worth acknowledging that the Army does have a track-record of changing minor customs and traditions even when not obligated through an inquiry. Traditions around uniforms change frequently (spit-polished shoes, stable belts, iron starched jungle greens, peaked caps, etc.), the rising sun has changed design, weapon and equipment drills are updated, and parades including morning and evening parades have changed in nature, style, and formality. Culturally, dining-ins are less frequent but more considerate of partners/spouses, mess games are less harmful (if held at all), and work routines are progressively more contemporary (e.g. flexible work). Although these changes might have occurred with some resistance at the time, they are evidence that with the right motivations and support, traditions can be successfully changed and normalised over time.

The role of junior leaders: Army’s future custodians of tradition

The traditions that need to be scrutinised will be known intuitively to the Army’s members. Early in their career the aspiring soldier or officer would have asked “why do we do this?” As their career progresses, they will either have found the answer to this question, found a way to rationalise it, or still not know; it is in these latter two instances where the tradition is likely overdue for a review. Significantly, it is in the early phases of a career, before the settling-in of unquestioning biases, that individuals can more easily navigate and identify traditions that don’t seem to make sense.

As Army’s future custodians, junior leaders have a unique role in carrying forward only the customs and traditions that they would wish to see observed by Army as they progress through their career. Waiting until they reach higher and more influential appointments will likely be too late to make the bigger differences or end those traditions that don’t fit with the future Army. This, of course, requires junior leaders to formalise their concerns, raise them through the chain, and deal mentally with the inevitable push-back from some of those in senior appointments and even from some peers. Ultimately, a well-presented argument is hard to ignore and if pitched to the right person and at the right time, then momentum for change can easily gather with the support of progressive mid-leadership.

Success metrics for change are easy to identify. Using the traditions outlined earlier, if the Army still prohibits beards, has prayers and hymns in remembrance ceremonies, houses its Colours in inaccessible buildings, and deeply restricts what nail polish women can wear (among other trivialities) in a decade from now, then perhaps it has lost sight of what is necessary to provide an effective land war fighting capability. Viewing traditions through a nostalgic and historical lens rather than a contemporary lens risks an Army becoming focussed on the wrong areas for future sustainability and deeply threatens the principles of an Army in Motion.[24]


The Army remains steadfastly reluctant to amend or remove many of its traditions. This is understandable as many traditions remain embedded in perceived notions of history and culture. Well-established, meaningful, and culturally enhancing traditions are important and one of the many attributes that distinguish the Army from the other Services and from society in general. They can support esprit de corps, provide a sense of stability, enhance identity, and improve public perceptions. However, history shows that the Army does not always have the best track record of removing or amending policies that are obsolete, toxic, destructive and/or no longer serve a reasonable purpose to its culture or capability. Occasionally, holding on to a tradition can be to Army’s detriment.

When customs and traditions erode rather than enhance esprit de corps, if they are divisive, when they isolate or harm individuals, when they impede social progression, and when they distance the Army from the nation that they defend – then they become a risk to capability and the reputation of the Army. When this occurs, customs and traditions need to be reviewed and this responsibility falls to those with more contemporary experiences and observations. In other words, the burden of questioning the customs and traditions of today’s Army falls on its future custodians: Army’s junior non-commissioned officers and junior officers, rather than those with a longer history of service. The challenge for today’s junior leaders is to carry forward only those customs and traditions necessary and appropriate, and discard those that are not.

End Notes

[1] For example: Christopher Jobson, Looking Forward, Looking Back (Big Sky Publishing, 2009)

[2] Australian Army, A Guide to Customs of the Army (Canberra 1983)

[3] Australian Army, Military Customs and Traditions and how they began (Singleton, Infantry Centre, 1983)

[4] Richard Evans, “Hazing in the ADF: A Culture of Denial?” Australian Army Journal, Culture edition 2013, Volume X, Number 3 (Canberra, 2013)

[5] Commonwealth of Australia, Report of the DLA Piper Review and the government's response (Canberra, 2013), accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Completed_inquiries/2010-13/dlapiper/report/index

Gary Rumble, Melanie McKean, D.C. Pearce, Department of Defence and DLA Piper, “Report of the Review of Allegations of Sexual and Other Abuse in Defence Facing the Problems of the Past, Vol. 1, General Findings and Recommendations,” (Canberra, Department of Defence, 2011)

[6] Commonwealth of Australia, “Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse,” (2017), accessed 16 April 2024,https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/final-report . Also Ben Wadham, “Crossing the line: why the royal commission examined initiation rituals and defence abuse,” The Conversation (30 June 2016), accessed 16 April 2024,


[7] Australian Human Rights Commission, Report on the Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) (Canberra, 2012).

[8] For example: Australian Army, CA Directive - Initiation Ceremonies (Canberra, 21 June 2022), Exhibit 33-03.033 - FEG.1001.0001.0393 - Army Headquarters, accessed 16 April 2024, https://defenceveteransuicide.royalcommission.gov.au/publications/exhibit-33-03033-feg100100010393-army-headquarters-ca-directive-initiation-ceremonies

[9] Bruce Moore and Australian National Dictionary Centre. A Lexicon of Cadet Language : Royal Military College Duntroon in the Period 1983-1985 (Canberra: Australian National Dictionary Centre Australian National University, 1993)

[10] Bill Cowham, Lego Lingo: The Cadet’s Language (1987), accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.adfabuse.com/files/legolingo1.pdf

[11] Australian Defence Force, “Values and Behaviours”, accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.defence.gov.au/about/who-we-are/values-behaviours.

[12] Australian Army, Army Dress Manual (Canberra, 2013), 2.34-2.43, accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.army.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-08/Army-Dress-Manual-AL5.pdf

[13] BBC News, ‘Army lifts ban on serving soldiers having beards’ (29 March 2024), accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-68691987

[14] Canadian Armed Forces, Military Identity System, Chapter 2 Policy and Appearance, Dress Instructions Section 2 Appearance (26 March 2024), accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.canada.ca/en/services/defence/caf/military-identity-system/dress-manual/chapter-2/section-2.html

[15] ABC News Australia, ‘Australian air force to allow personnel to have facial hair from November 1’ (9 November 2022), accessed 16 April 2024, https://runway.airforce.gov.au/resources/link-article/australian-air-force-allow-personnel-have-facial-hair-november-1

[16] Australian Army, Army Dress Manual (Canberra, 2013), 2.27, 2.29 and 2.47, accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.army.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-08/Army-Dress-Manual-AL5.pdf

[17] Australian Army, Army Ceremonial and Protocol Manual, ‘Chapter 18 – ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day Commemorative Service,’ (Canberra, 2014). And Australian Army, Army Ceremonial and Protocol Manual, ‘Chapter 21 – Memorial Dedication Services,’ (Canberra, 2014)

[18] Phillip Hoglin, “Still Losing Our Religion,” The Forge (Canberra, 26 July 2023), accessed 16 April 2024, https://theforge.defence.gov.au/article/still-losing-our-religion

[19] Veterans Affairs Canada, “Remembrance,” accessed 10 April 2024, https://www.veterans.gc.ca/pdf/remembrance/get-involved/guide-to-commemorative-ceremonies-ENG.pdf

[20] Royal British Legion, “Your Act of Remembrance,” accessed 10 April 2024, https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/get-involved/remembrance/about-remembrance/act-of-remembrance

[21] Australian Army, Army Ceremonial and Protocol Manual, ‘Chapter 9 – A United Drumhead Service’ (Canberra 2014). 

[22] Australian Army, Army Ceremonial and Protocol Manual, ‘Chapter 10 – Laying-up of Colours’ (Canberra 2014). 

[23] Without overly focussing on religion, the consecration of colours detailed in Chapter 7, and the soldier’s prayer detailed in Chapter 17 could also be added to the list of concerning non-inclusive tradition.

[24] Australian Army, “Future of Army” last accessed 16 April 2024, https://www.army.gov.au/our-work/strategy/future-army. In particular “Army in Motion - Command Statement” (2020) which states that “Being an Army in Motion means we need a framework to think about ourselves; to ensure continuity with what we do well, while creating the environment to transform for the future” and “It is the responsibility of all of Army’s leaders…to prepare for war and succeed in cooperation, competition and conflict”.