Ethics is not just about the little guy and other observations

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Robert Lummack

This article will discuss military ethics within the contemporary security environment. The three points discussed are personal observations based upon teaching and collaborative interactions with Canadian and international military personnel as to what I feel are important points to highlight within the discussion of military ethics. They do not arrive in any sequential order, nor are they necessarily linked although links can be made. The first point argues that we cannot consider the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello distinctly, as the legitimacy of reasons to enter conflict directly affect military members within the conflict. Secondly, the emergent property of group behaviour is critically important to our understanding of ethical shortcomings in the Jus in Bello and it should be a priority focus for research and training. Finally, that differential ethical perspective when partnering with host nation security forces or within multinational coalition partners, can be problematic and need to be better understood and accounted for in order to achieve greater aggregate mission cohesion.

Part one- The importance of the Jus ad Bellum to the Jus in Bello

When looking at military ethics, very often we immediately equate it to the ethical or unethical behavior, of forces within the Jus in Bello where we begin analyzing the legitimacy of behaviour of individual military members in a given situation. This aspect is very important as individuals are responsible to act in accordance with domestic law, military Codes of Conduct and the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). However, I would suggest that any examination of military ethics needs to include a simultaneous examination of the Jus ad Bello – as to the reasons why we enter conflict and place military personnel in harm’s way. This is particularly important now, given the nature of contemporary warfare – complex situations with plenty of ambiguities and against forces that generally do not reciprocate in terms of ethical constraints upon strategy or tactics (Coker, p.5).

This simultaneous holistic understanding of both the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello is needed because when ethical mishaps appear, it is easy for blame in whichever form it takes to flow down to arrive at those with the least amount of power or upon a solitary individual or small group. The “bad apple”’ response apparent in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal can in some cases be very true. Very often, public attention forgets or is unaware of the countless acts of exemplary and legal behaviour that military personnel accomplish consistently, but is drawn to the outlier events of ethical mishaps which are often not representative of aggregate mission behavior. However, this answer is insufficient in all situations; sometimes there are possibly many potential factors at play, possibly systemic.

One factor to consider is the Jus ad Bellum, because this directly impacts the individual military member on the ground. The Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello are not mutually exclusive because there are points of contact with one another, despite the pretension that a theoretical divide exists. Interaction comes in the form of the political level’s awareness of conflict through privy access to intelligence or direction to the military as to the acceptable level of violence to be employed. However, most importantly, the individual military member will have a level of personal buy-in, to put into context why they are doing what they are doing.

In short, this means being honest about the real intentions of a conflict. There are many reasons why a state would become involved in conflict. Here, different international relations theories try to explain why this occurs. However, at some level, whether through competition and/or cooperation, there is a rationale of self-interest or desire to augment the overall standing of the state (or the group in charge of the state) in some way. The Canadian position shares similarities with our Western Allies, but must be judged uniquely; there are important differentiations, namely, Canada as a middle power, versus the American experience of superpower.

As members of democracies, citizens generally expect that decisions to enter conflicts be made with honourable intentions, ideally for individual or collective self-defence, or some sort of necessity as defined in the national interest. The pursuit of geopolitical interests is of course legitimate, but there is a limitation as to how far this can go, generally, not at all costs and within some semblance of achieving a greater good. Here we are loathe to accept the pursuit of power at all costs, and these questions arise: Are the aims of the intervention legitimate? Further, has the state prepared and equipped the individual military members adequately for the complexities they will face?

When the rationale for entering into the conflict is unjust, this must be taken into consideration, although it does not exclude individual responsibility for unethical actionNote de bas de page 1.

In our globalized and information driven societies, military interventions are criticized and debated within the public domain. Here we can think of the great debates in Western societies over the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Thus, the imagined divide whereby militaries remain politically neutral is pressured because the individual military member is inevitably exposed to the debate and is forced to come to some sort of personal conclusion as to its legitimacy. Adding to general societal exposure, the military individual must remain minimally aware of the greater context in which they find themselves operating. For some, the choice may be purposeful ignorance, but some may have additional curiosity. Thus, there is the potential of receiving information that challenges the official government policy discourse and Chain of Command manifestation, directly or indirectly.

We cannot assume that individual members at the execution levels will close their eyes, or that they will be fooled by political rhetoric, although some may be. Increasingly, military members understand the political interplay that will dictate their actions and will have private opinions which can include doubt. Even if these opinions never get materialized into words, they can remain in the deeper recesses of the mind.

Of course, the civil-military divide is designed so that it is not for military members to judge as to the legitimacy of their state’s military action, as they are by design apolitical executors of policy direction – the sacrosanct protection of civil society. The intended political neutrality of military forces exists of course legitimately, openly, officially, by design, and is of fundamental importance.

However, military members are very often well-positioned to be part of the debate as they bring a firsthand understanding which civilians or politicians lacking operational experience do not have. Military members who have experience in previous conflicts should have some sort of prioritized voice in the discussion, particularly when civilians who do not have this experience remain completely disconnected to operational realities. I am not calling for the politicization of our militaries, rather, that their opinion counts as stakeholders.

In On Killing, Grossman describes how non-sociopathic human beings are very much resistant to killing, “there can be no doubt that this resistance to killing one’s fellow man is there and that it exists as a result of a powerful combination of instinctive, rational, environmental, hereditary, cultural and social factors” (Grossman, 1995, p. 39).

Grossman further states:

The killing is always traumatic. But when you have to kill women and children, or when you have to kill men in their homes, in front of their wives and children, and when you have to do it not from twenty thousand feet but up close where you can watch them die, the horror appears to transcend description or understanding. (p.267).

Evidence from Vietnam as seen in the documentary Winter Soldier (1972) demonstrates how soldiers are deeply affected emotionally and psychologically by killing. For some, this is further accentuated if they lose faith in the mission or when there is some doubt as to the legitimacy of the actions. When soldiers feel that their actions were unjustified or when actions were not aligned with the rhetoric to provoke entering a conflict, there can be a massive sense of deception, feeling of betrayal and guilt for killing innocent people wittingly or unwittingly. The severity and responsibility of this task should never be taken lightly, nor should its impacts be forgotten for those who bear it.

The point is that responsibility for the weight of killing, including possible ethical mishaps, cannot be assumed solely by the individual military member. Objectively, responsibility must be shared collectively by society – with the political leaders who authorize missions, private companies and shareholders who reap financial rewards, and the citizens who collectively benefit from the direct or indirect benefits the military mission achieves, however they are manifested.

Real or perceived hypocrisy of the political level will hurt mission success by hampering the ability of military members to buy-in. If an individual loses faith in the legitimacy of his/her actions based on personal disagreement with the objective geopolitical motivations of government action, then individuals may come to experience a crisis of conscience as to the legitimacy of their actions. Even small doubt may affect the individual’s morale, commitment, productivity and buy-in as well as team cohesion. Perhaps, this can be hidden, or remain unseen within the individual but there will be some effect.

This moral space is important. It will also be the target of enemy propaganda seeking to disrupt the cohesion of the military force. There are lots of examples of this information war being waged, such as North Vietnamese attempts to message African American soldiers and contemporary ISIS recruitment in Western society.

Limitations of Ethical Training

When discussing military ethics, we must acknowledge that nearly everyone can get perfect on the exam in the classroom where conditions for success exist. The real test of ethics is whether the individual behaves ethically in real-life when there are real-life consequences. The presence of relevant ethics training or education cannot entirely predict future behavior of the individual – the individual will always be able to think and act for themselves in the moment. It is the individual that has the power to act ethically or unethically, not the state, not the citizen at home, but the individual military member present in the moment.

This is not to say that there is not immense value in teaching ethics and providing awareness as the importance of proper ethical conduct, providing ethical decision making processes to be used when in doubt, or in preparing in advance for ethical dilemmas. Nor is it to suggest that teaching military ethics and engaging military members in the subject material should cease. On the contrary, preparation in advance and knowledge dissemination of the critical importance of ethical action is the only way forward. These efforts are critical and should be increased.

For military members, ethical decision making is more difficult due to the nature of contemporary warfare and the complexity of the situations in which they are charged to act. This means making correct decisions within chaotic, ambiguous, volatile and unpredictable situations. Messervey and Peach provide several factors that can impact ethical behavior which are helpful in understanding this reality: the roles of Combat Exposure; Stress; Surprise; Anger; Anonymity; Crowds and In-group Loyalty (Messervey & Peach, 2015). These factors play some role and interact with one another, perhaps uniquely in each situation.

However, even if we assume that all individuals will act ethically after being equipped cognitively, there is more to the equation – that is that individual behaviour can change within groups, which is the subject of the third section.

Part two - Group behaviour phenomenon

In speaking informally with military members, I have heard repeatedly that “the reasons for going to war don’t matter”, meaning it is not for the individual military member to determine the legitimacy of the political decision to wage war in the first placeNote de bas de page 2. Here the distinction between the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello is intact. Instead, what matters is the survival of the team – military members essentially fight for each other.

It is easily understood why the ‘team’ concept is so critical to military operationsNote de bas de page 3. Action is accomplished collectively that individuals cannot accomplish, and the success of the team guarantees mutual survival. However, despite all of the positive emergent properties that this concept engenders, and there are many, other emergent properties can be complicating and potentially dangerous. These phenomena are by no means unique to military societies, as they exist in all other types of organizations, but there are some particularities to military culture.

Peter Bradley (2012) explains that military socialization includes a process of deindividuation whereby “through the process of deindividuation, some military members become so absorbed by their small unit that they cast aside their own sense of right and wrong for the norms embraced by the group (p.125).” The negative processes of the ‘Bystander effect’ and ‘Group Think’ processes can become evident here (pp.125-126). Bradley goes on to say that these processes can even occur unconsciously for the individual (p.126). Groups also bring anonymity and a way to bear responsibility collectively causing the individual perhaps to act in ways in which they would not normally act individually (Messervey & Peach, 2015).

There is a tendency when adopting and internalizing a team mentality to judge group success, stability or cohesion as the highest order of importance and objective to be achieved. This can be seen as the utilitarian end that is strived for as the ultimate measure of success. Thus, means or actions carried out that are unethical in the pursuit of this end, or which could be interpreted as unethical by some, can be justified as necessary or ethical, based upon the group’s definition of the utilitarian end.

Thus, the appearance of an end that is different from Mission Success means that the individual is confronted with competing loyalties. Peter Bradley (2012) terms this as “military duty – personal loyalty dilemma” (p.112) and he grapples with understanding why individuals do or do not speak out against unethical behaviour.

For the Canadian reality, Rule 11 of the Canadian Military Code of Conduct makes explicit reference to reporting unethical behavior.

Report and take appropriate steps to stop breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict and these rules. Disobedience of the Law of Armed Conflict is a crime.

It implores the individual to take action to report, but this seems to be incredibly difficult to do.

Bradley references the work of Peter Olsthoorn to describe that there is a tendency for military personnel to “value loyalty to comrades and their military unit over allegiance to the professional ideals espoused in military manuals” (p.127). So, here, the individual has a choice as to where his/her loyalty will go, or which one will take precedence. It is an individual choice as to where loyalties will lie, but occurring within a team construct. Compounding this, individuals may interpret events differently especially in the grey zones presented in the contemporary security environment. Thus, more influential members of the team may have more sway over the group.

Within groups, peer pressure to conform and the pressure to obey authority figures weigh heavily upon the individual. Here whistleblowers are harshly punished for denouncing the team – through confrontation, abuse, ostracization, ex-communication or direct silencing, illustrated by Max Eriksson played by Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War (1989) or the real life story of Kathryn Bolkovac illustrated in the film The Whistlebower (2012). The path of least resistance is to turn a blind eye when misgivings are felt in the individual’s conscious, because it guarantees longevity within the membership of the group and avoids difficult inter-personal conflict. It also guarantees survival in the basest sense, as whistleblowers have often feared for their lives. Thompson and Jetly in discussing how to improve Military Ethics Training Programs suggest that “the potential alienation and bullying of individuals who raise complex moral issues in the combat environment need to be an integrated part of any effective program.Note de bas de page 4

This begs the question therefore, how, do individuals who have been forged within a team mentality and ethos, break the mold if behaviour breaks the ethical boundary? Is it that the individual lacks the courage to speak out against it? Is it that the costs of doing so are too great? Is it that the individual believes the choice of non-reporting is itself courageous, seen as a deliberate decision to value the unit above personal discomfort and to demonstrate a willingness to share responsibility and risk? Is it that the military organizational structure does not easily permit reporting? Are there unwritten consequences? Is it that loyalties are misplaced?

Yet, group behaviour is not all negative. Rosga (2010) discusses research related UN Peacekeeping suggesting that the presence of female members in military and police teams increases the ethical conduct of the group and states “evidence suggests that the mere presence of women on a mission reduces the amount of sexual exploitation of local women and children by their male colleagues” (p.66). This means that the behaviour of the group may manifest itself differently depending upon who is in it. Karim and Bearsdley (2013) discussing UN rationale for increasing female participation in peacekeeping and the passive benefits it brings summarize: “whereas sexual misconduct undermines the legitimacy of peacekeeping operations, female peacekeepers might help introduce a different culture and bolster accountability” (p.473). Therefore, the composition of the group in terms of gender may matter significantly as to how group behavior manifests itself. Perhaps there are other factors to consider within group composition.

The emergence of factors within the group phenomenon should be further studied - Bradley’s research questions are an excellent place to beginNote de bas de page 5 and should be a prominent focus for military personnel to be aware of in advance during ethics training.

Part three - When working with partners

Coming from relatively affluent Western societies, we need to understand that ethical perspectives of partners will be different. In situations of poverty, inequality or mere survival, ethical considerations for members of the partner host nation can easily be different from a affluent Western experience and the perceptions we bring with us. In some cases, individuals may act in accordance with the fulfillment of their basic needs and those of their families or group of affiliation (ethnic, tribal, religious). Personal ambitions or allegiance may not be directly aligned to the nation state construct or to the overall mission ideal as it is understood from our perspective. Here, we can imagine as an example of theft or bribery to feed young children or to buy medicine. Failed and failing states with non-existent or insufficient conditions (economic, social, and political) for members generally engender corruption. This is compounded in situations of impunity due to a lack of legal or political capability or will to enforce justice. These very real ethical dilemmas for humans in this situation should not be minimized or be too harshly judged by those from the exterior and in a position of affluence. This is not to excuse unethical behavior – it is to instead attempt to understand objectively why it is occurring and to help buoy expectations and to inform intervention design and planning. Here, aligning a universally understood and bought-into conception of the mission should be the goal while minimizing social fragmentationNote de bas de page 6.

Secondly, ethical worldviews vary considerably between nations and social groups, as it is entirely normal and legitimate that cultures have different ethical systems. The issue of difficulty is upon attempting to mesh disparate ethical perspectives within multinational coalitions. Without imposing judgment, it is just a reality that divergence within ethical perspectives will exist and have certain effects. In some cases these may be minimal but in others they may be more pronounced.

Without a common objective enveloped within a legitimate moral framework, internalized and bought into by all members of the multinational team, the moral cohesion element of the mission will not be optimized. Here, we prominently look at differences between ethical perspectives as to the use of torture, of what constitutes corruption or the differentiation between human-based distinguishing factors (race, caste, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion). These variations could inhibit full buy-in and complicate the definitions of ROEs, how people are to be treated and what exactly constitutes ethical behaviour.

A counter-argument could suggest that as long as minimal expectations are met within a broader mission framework, then there is no issue. This may come from a cultural relativist position which would not allow us to judge, or through a pragmatic approach, whereby moral objections need to be overcome because there is no other solution – the capacity the partner brings is too important for mission success.

However, inevitably these issues arise. Perhaps over time, they can cause infighting, rivalries, jealousies, mutual contempt, competition, defensive monitoringNote de bas de page 7 and the pursuit of divergent objectives. Ultimately, this moral component of warfare is critical to achieving mission success, particularly in contemporary operations with so many concentric circles of multinational teams working together and having mutual responsibilities to each other; negative issues can persist and detract from full team integration.

One prominent example is the sexual use of boys by Afghan security forces denounced by Western militariesNote de bas de page 8. The following passage from a media article quotes a US military member who was frustrated by this practice:

“The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” said Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain who beat up an American-backed militia commander for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did — that was something village elders voiced to me.”

It also demonstrates that the service person is beginning to question the Jus ad Bellum, motivations. This leads us back to the Jus ad Bellum.

Another important but extremely sensitive point is the competing ethical perspectives among partner nations in UN Peacekeeping. Realistically, motivations to participate in UN Peacekeeping missions are not the same and some Troop Contributing Countries (TCC) may not have the same level of buy-in for a given mission. This manifests into a situation where some of the team will accept a given level of risk, but others will not. UN peacekeepers, in some missions, have been heavily criticized for inaction, particularly in MONUSCONote de bas de page 9. Although there are always complex factors at play, such as many UN Missions being understaffed and under resourced, variation in ethical perspectives may be a factor to consider in looking at differences of risk tolerance between mission members. Quite simply, for both personnel in the mission on the ground and possibly military leadership commanding from the home country, local problems may not be deemed worthy of putting lives on the line in what are perceived as futile situations. Part of this reason may come from different ethical standards which will manifest different moral priorities. This discussion is particularly relevant given Canada’s possible recommitment to UN Peacekeeping under a Liberal government.

It is important for Western militaries to be aware of these issues when partnering with host nation and multinational partners. The legitimacy of host nation security sector forces is a basic component of a nation’s internal stability and the aggregate ethical behaviour of a multinational mission is critical to determining the legitimacy of its presence. This is not to say that these issues have an easy solution, but that they are issues of importance that need to be better understood and accounted for, even if their negative appearance is attempted to be minimized. Political currents which suggest that moralizing should take a backseat to pragmatic realities of survival are not the correct path.


This article highlighted three issues within the broader discussion of military ethics. It noted that the reasons to go to war – the Jus as Bello – need to be paid greater attention, as a disproportionate amount of focus is put on the analysis of actions of the figurative little guy within the Jus in Bello. It argued that further attention should be paid to group behavioral dynamics, as they affect ethical conduct of military personnel within military teams and that there is a need to be aware of and not ignore variations of ethical perspectives within multinational and host nation partners.


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