Articles by " Simon Longstaff"

Sturm und drang: stress proofing soldiers’ ethics in Afghanistan

Greetings from the Baluchi Valley, 2010

In the midst of confusion about what led to the recent, untimely deaths of two Afghan boys, two things are clear. First, the deaths are a tragic loss. Second, no Australian who was present will have been callous or indifferent to their sad fate. In an ideal world, there would be no armed conflict—and if, on occasion, it should occur then it would be moderated by the practical application of the traditional principles of just war theory. Under conditions of discrimination and proportionality, young boys would not lose their lives simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong times. But nothing about the situation in Afghanistan is ideal. Nor could it be while insurgent forces employ tactics deliberately designed to test to the limit the capacity for ethical restraint amongst ISAF and Afghan forces.

Beyond responding at a personal level to the individual tragedy that unfolds with every death of a non-combatant, Australian personnel are also keenly aware of the strategic costs of such events. In today’s conditions of rapid and communications, where a local incident can soon find a global audience, they are also acutely aware of the maxim (quoted in an earlier post for The Strategist), ‘lose moral authority, lose the war’. It’s a maxim understood equally by both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan—but, like so much else in that theatre, it’s applied asymmetrically. Read more

The insurgents know that they cannot ‘outgun’ ISAF—that this is not our point of vulnerability. Rather, theirs is the war of the ‘gnat’—prodding and provoking until in a fit of rage and frustration the larger animal does itself an injury. What’s more, insurgents employing this tactic are willing to expose non-combatants to the risk of harm during this contest. This isn’t to say that they are indifferent to the fate of those killed and injured—but rather that, within their world, such losses might be counted as regrettable but acceptable. That said, what the insurgents think about such matters is of only minor relevance. For it’s not their ‘moral authority’ that is being put at risk, but ours. The Canadian philosopher, Michael Ignatieff, has succinctly expressed the ideal against which we choose to measure ourselves. As he puts it, the difference between a warrior and a barbarian is ethical restraint. Those who serve within the profession of arms see themselves as warriors. Indeed it’s essential that they do so if they are to enjoy support—especially at home. For without that support (or at least comfortable indifference) operations of the kind unfolding in Afghanistan would not be possible.

It’s for this reason that, in recent years, the leadership group of every Task Force has spent time examining the ethical dimension of their mission prior to making their way to Afghanistan. Under the direction of Combat Training Command (CTC Live), this preparation has gone beyond reviewing obligations of a general kind that arise under the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) or more particularly, through understanding and applying Australia’s own Rules of Engagement (ROE). Rather, the leadership group for each task force examines how to ensure that the core ethical ‘DNA’ of each task force (and its constituent parts) doesn’t mutate under conditions of isolation and intense stress. There are reasons to believe that this aspect of the preparation of Australian forces has borne fruit—with the Australian forces demonstrating real ethical restraint in their response to extreme provocation.

It’s for all of these reasons that I believe that any involvement by Australian forces in the deaths of the two boys would have been genuinely accidental.

There’s one other important ethical consideration that should be considered. It concerns the balance of risk that we should ask our service personnel to bear in order to avoid civilian casualties. Specifically, should we ask our personnel to take on otherwise avoidable risks as the price to be borne for exercising discrimination and proportionality in our nation’s use of lethal force? I once discussed this question with the representative of a nation that had decided this question in the negative. This person believed that a country’s primary duty was owed to its own citizens—and consequently, they believed that firing a rocket from the relative safety of a helicopter (knowing that it would kill some innocent bystanders) was preferable to sending in ground troops who might limit casualties amongst non-combatants, but only at the increased risk of casualties or capture.

I am not indifferent to the argument that we should have a special care for the welfare of our serving men and women. However, I tend to the view that we meet our obligations to them by providing the best available training, equipment and support. In return for this, we might legitimately ask them to bear the additional risk that often comes to those who exercise the ethical restraint of warriors.

Simon Longstaff is executive director of St James Ethics Centre. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Doing the right thing is the right thing to do

Leon E. Panetta takes the oath of office as the 23rd U.S. Secretary of Defense during a ceremony at the Pentagon July 1, 2011. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of Defense Current Photos.

There’s an old maxim in military affairs: ‘lose moral authority, lose the war’! It’s most often quoted in the context of the conduct of armed forces towards third parties, most notably the civil population living within a theatre of operations. Occasionally, the maxim applies to one’s enemies, who may be spurred to fight on against those they consider to be a morally debased opponent. For example, fighters based in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been incensed by the use of unmanned drones, which they consider to be the coward’s weapon of choice.

However, there’s a further context in which the maxim applies—in relation to the quality of leadership displayed within one’s own ranks. One might suppose that it is with this in mind that US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, to review the quality and character of ethical instruction made available to senior officers—a task given added urgency in the wake of scandal surrounding the recent resignation of David Petraeus as Director of the CIA. Read more

Panetta’s decision might well resonate with those overseeing the military affairs (no pun intended) of other countries. For example, the relevant Australian Defence Force (ADF) doctrine defining leadership (PDF) reads: ‘…the exercise of influence in order to bring about the willing consent of others in the ethical pursuit of missions’ (my emphasis). While many civilian organisations treat ethics as something merely to be ‘bolted on’ to leadership, the ADF defines leadership as an ethical practice. That is, ethics is seen to be intrinsic to the practice of leadership. This isn’t simply because Australian commanders want members of the ADF to maintain a posture of ‘moderate decency’ characteristic of the nation as a whole. Rather, the doctrine is fashioned with a hard, strategic edge, reflective of the maxim quoted at the beginning of this article. In short, there’s just too much strategic risk in unethical conduct of a kind that erodes moral authority at home and abroad.

The risks of ethical failure extend to the tactical level. Effective units depend on their leaders offering a shared a sense of purpose and a framework of values and principles that motivate and guide—especially when the best laid plans have lost their coherence in the face of operational realities. However, it’s almost impossible to build and sustain a functional ethos in circumstances in which leaders are thought to be hypocrites. Wherever hypocrisy is perceived, it generates cynicism which, like an acid, eats away at the ties that bind together communities and institutions.

Given all of the above, we should hope that Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey don’t fall into the very North American trap of equating ‘ethics’ with compliance. The last thing needed by US senior commanders is a crash course in compliance delivered by lawyers. The greater challenge is to engage the senior ranks of military leadership in reflective practices designed to give consistent, practical effect to the explicit values and principles that should lie at the heart of each individual’s command philosophy. While there’s risk in those who deliberately turn a ‘blind eye’ to wrong-doing, this is relatively minor when compared to incidents of ‘conditioned blindness’—where otherwise good people do bad things because they simply do not see their conduct for what it is. The warning signs are always the same—ask people to tell you why they do what they do and the most common response will be something like: ‘well everyone does it that way’ or ‘that’s just the way we do things around here’.

Unthinking custom and practice of this kind is a risk at every level of an organisation, including among those exercising strategic command. The risk is exacerbated with every promotion—which seems to confirm the quality of the individual’s judgement. Next comes power, with its seductive promise that there may be a point beyond which the rules designed for lesser folk no longer apply. It is significant that the Romans ensured that any general granted a triumph would have a slave travel by his side constantly whispering, ‘remember, you art but a man’.

Secretary Panetta is right to ask Dempsey to review ethics education (hopefully not ‘training’) for the most senior ranks. If all goes well, the resulting approach will work to reinforce the moral courage of US military leaders and build their capacity to make wise, virtuous and responsible decisions—as a whole—and not simply to comply with a narrow moral code.

Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of Defense Current Photos.