I had a bit of a chuckle and mutter to myself earlier this week when the New Zealand Defence Force announced it's latest flexing of national military might. It wasn't a new cache of heavy weapons or even an increase in personnel.

Operation Respect was, as the name very clearly suggests, an initiative to improve attitudes - mostly towards women - and to tackle inappropriate and harmful sexual behaviour within its ranks.

New Zealand makes no apology for its largely peacekeeping-based role in international security. We are a small nation without the tax pool to fund serious military muscle and the voting public generally considers front-line fighting to be extremely uncool anyway.

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But Operation Respect? Surely that's getting a little soft even for us peace lovin' Kiwis?

But then the thought filtered back to my deep brain and stewed there for a bit until I reconsidered my reaction to this initiative entirely.

What is the point of fighting wars between nations when we ignore the one right here at home that has been going on between the sexes since time immemorial?

Being respectful may seem like a small and frivolous thing but it is a cornerstone upon which so many other things rest.


And although there are greater atrocities being committed in the world than sexism, New Zealand has a proud history of standing up for the rights of women and it is admirable that a historically male-dominated military is serious about cleaning up its act.

And gender issues aside, any initiative that promotes the simple but increasingly forgotten value of respect beats an army overflowing with tanks and machine guns any day.

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It's not the big issues that corrupt and destroy a nation, nor is it attack from foreign shores. It is small but insidious shifts in social mores that slowly eat away at the good and the pure - just like rust on a car left out in the rain.

Whether you blame the shift to two-income families, the rise and rise of American pop culture or (my pick) the shameless self-obsession of Generation Facebook, respect is something New Zealanders are increasingly lacking.

When I grew up I was sent to my room if I even looked like I was going to answer back to my mother, and at school we were required to stand every time a teacher walked into the room.

Being respectful may seem like a small and frivolous thing but it is a cornerstone upon which so many other things rest.

If we had more respect for people's property, opinions, religions and gender, the trickle-down effect to every other aspect that makes a community tick over nicely would turn into a torrent.

While I'm a big fan of a classical education that's big on the "three Rs", I can't help wondering where we would be at as a country in 20 years' time if a bit of time was taken away from more trendy subjects such as computer coding and given to learning things such as kindness, tolerance, right conduct and - of course - respect.

Ultimately these are things we'd expect to be learning at home, but sadly that's often not happening. An expert on child psychology once told me it came down to the simple fact that very few families still sat down together each night and ate dinner at the table.

The military has always been seen as a place where discipline and strong values reign supreme. Perhaps some old-fashioned compulsory service combined with more modern operations like their latest one could be exactly what New Zealand needs to stay strong in the long term.

- Eva Bradley is a photographer and columnist.