The Voices of War

18. Shannon E. French - On ’The Code of the Warrior’ and Ethics of War

VOW 18 | Ethics Of War


My guest today is Professor Shannon E. French from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) where she is also the Inamori Professor in Ethics, and the Director of the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence. Prior to her current role, she taught for 11 years at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where she was a tenured member of the Ethics department and Associate Chair of the division of Leadership, Ethics, and Law.


Shannon’s primary research field is military ethics, with a special focus on conduct of war issues, ethical leadership, command climate, sacrifice and responsibility, warrior transitions, ethical responses to terrorism, the future of warfare, and emerging military technology, including Artificial Intelligence. Her publications include ‘The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values, Past and Present’, which we discussed today, as well as a number of edited volumes, book chapters and peer-reviewed articles on military ethics. You can read Shannon’s full biography here.


Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Shannon’s entry into the field of military ethics
  • Background to the ‘Code of the Warrior’
  • Common ‘codes’ among warriors across cultures
  • The embodied identity of the ‘warrior’
  • Our collective responsibility towards our ‘warriors’
  • Given how we fight wars today, are ‘war crimes’ and ethical demise inevitable?
  • Issue of the ‘Supreme Emergency’
  • The need to focus on civilians
  • Interests vs Values as reasons for war
  • Moral injury and ‘death before dishonour’
  • How do we categorise ‘terrorists’?
  • Should we fight ‘evil with evil’?
  • Shannon’s new project on military ethics and AI


I think this is one of the most important conversations I’ve had so far, as it goes to the core of the reality of military service, particularly as it relates to the ongoing War on Terror. I would love to hear what you think so tag the show using the handle @thevoicesofwar on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. 

Shannon E. French – On ’The Code of the Warrior’ and Ethics of War


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My guest is Professor Shannon E. French from the Case Western Reserve University, where she’s also the Inamori Professor in Ethics and the Director of the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence. Prior to her current role, she taught for eleven years at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where she was a tenured member of the Ethics Department and Associate Chair of the Division of Leadership, Ethics and Law.

Shannon’s primary research field is Military Ethics with a special focus on the conduct of war issues, ethical leadership, command climate, sacrifice and responsibility, warrior transition, ethical responses to terrorism, the future of warfare, the emerging military technology, including artificial intelligence. Her publications include The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present, which we’ll discuss, as well as a number of edited volumes, book chapters, and peer-reviewed articles on Military Ethics. It would be an understatement to say that Shannon’s work has had a tremendous impact in the field of Military Ethics.

Among her many accolades, she was named the General Hugh Shelton Distinguished Chair in Ethics by The US Army Command and General Staff College Foundation in 2017. She was, in 2019, a distinguished speaker at the British Government’s official event to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Conventions. She was also the keynote speaker for the US Army Ethics Symposium.

She was a plenary speaker at the McCain Conference. She delivered named addresses at both the US Army War College in the Marine Corps Base Quantico, where her book, The Code of the Warrior, is required reading for officer candidates. Shannon, I know this is merely a snapshot of your extensive career and contributions in the field of Military Ethics. I hope to touch on some other dimensions of your experience during our conversation, but nonetheless, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Thank you so much for having me.

Before we delve into the murky waters of The Code of the Warrior, maybe we can start with a simple question: Why this field? What motivated you to get entangled in this particular field?

You would be surprised, or perhaps not at all, how often I get that question. I don’t, in particular, come from a military family myself, although I do have an uncle who served with honour in Vietnam. In fact, the way I came to the field of Military Ethics has to do with my background in Philosophy. I came up in a very traditional philosophical education. In my graduate work at Brown University, I became consumed with questions around people doing the right thing when self-interest and morality appear to conflict. When the stakes are tremendously high and doing the right thing doesn’t always turn out well for you and what’s going on there and what happens. As you could also imagine, when I started to look into examples of that, quite a lot of them were in the context of conflicts.

I started to recognise that this interesting area that involved sacrifice and heroism, but that happening alongside horrible acts of inhumanity and atrocities was a fascinating snapshot of human nature, perhaps at its most raw. As an ethicist, this was very compelling. When I saw the job opportunity arise at the Naval Academy, and this is back in 1997, I jumped at it and was thrilled to get that position. I was there for over a decade. I learned so much and gained perspective.

I must say also it was an experience that brought with it some pain as well. The time that I happened to be teaching at the Naval Academy, working through these urgent, very important questions with my students, that they would then go out and live as military officers. It was the time that included the 9/11 attacks, the launch of the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan.

All of those started at that time when I was teaching there. I lost students. I lost colleagues. That includes, by the way, not only losses, as in those who were killed in combat, but also some suicides. All of that has had a profound effect on me as an ethicist. While I no longer teach at the Naval Academy, I still have many friends and connections there. At Case Western Reserve University, I actually launched the first in our country, in the United States, a Master’s degree program in Military Ethics. I do feel that these topics are so important that we need more people working in this area.

I couldn’t agree more, and particularly in this murky world of the war on terrorism and what that even means and how that’s even defined. While you were working, training future officers, is this where you realise that there’s something that we might call The Code of the Warrior, or is this something that you brought to the party?

It’s a little bit of both in the sense that as I was working with these men and women who were, as it turned out, I was going to be swept into this Global War on Terror almost immediately after graduation. As I was working with them, I found that a lot of their questions that they had around their ethical obligations were not easily answered by the existing laws and rules of war alone. They were interested in areas that touched into moral psychology, the emotions of war and what a legacy they were joining. What kind of history they were joining?

In a sense, they wanted to know if they were the first people who ever felt this way or were having these concerns, both then and what they would ultimately face. I found myself as someone who’d always had a very strong interest in history and in the classics. Reaching back and looking through different cultures and their writings about war and their expressions of what it was to live that experience to see if there was a common thread I could pull that would give some helpful information to these people in front of me.

What I found myself discovering was this notion that no matter how different these cultures were, they all had the notion that if you were going to be part of this particular group of defenders of your community, if you were going to be given that burden and that responsibility, and in some ways also that privilege, it often did come with quite a lot of privileges. All of that were to come to you, then there had to be a very unique identity connected to that that had certain lines in it that you could never cross.

It was fascinating to look at the concepts of honour and dishonour in each of these cultures. It’s varied, but the common themes had to do with the commitments they made to one another, the ways they distinguished themselves from other people who took lives, and, most importantly, in that area, how they distinguish themselves from mere murderers. That was a strong point that came blazing through to me as I did this research.

I wanted to share that with my students. I taught a course called The Code of the Warrior, and the book evolved out of teaching that course. I kept adding cultures as I studied and learned more about them. I was doing the research at that time, but also drawing on education up to then because in addition to Philosophy, I had studied History and Classics. I was pulling on all of those. I’m a big believer in interdisciplinary work and reading everything I could get my hands on to make that point that it mattered throughout history and around the globe to all of these different people in these different, but in some ways, similar situations. To be able to say what I’m doing here is different than what a mere murderer does.

VOW 18 | Ethics Of War
The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present 2ed

That echoes through the book. I can’t compliment the book enough. I’m not surprised that it’s required reading for the Marine Corps base. I’m surprised it’s not for us, but I suspect that once enough people read it, it will become so. Particularly because you cover some very dear and close to many people’s hearts, cultures, but also some that we tend to view particularly in the current climate as despicable. You go from Rome through the Vikings, of course, you go to Chinese warrior monks, but then you also talk about Islamic warriors, which was particularly useful and relevant in today’s world. Our own in-group bias tends to bias against the out-group. We cast everybody with the same brush, which I thought was particularly important for this book.

Thank you. That’s very kind.

I came to this book perhaps with some unique self-interest because I have a particular interest in taking this study further of jus in bello, our conduct in war, which is why I’m particularly excited to be talking to you. One question that I have in particular to that is that it seems to me, and Walter brought this up and others in Bel-Ami. This code that you refer to as the Code of Warrior, or that we have encapsulated into Rules of Engagement, or the Geneva Convention, they come to us, as you rightly ponder in your book tradition and history. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there is this code. Is there a difference to the code that you have unpacked to The Code of the Warrior to today’s Rules of Engagement in the Geneva Convention? You said that those aren’t always enough. What is the difference between those?

On the one hand, you’re quite correct that the rules of engagement that we tend to use and things like the Geneva Conventions, the international agreements, especially those that have made their way all the way into norms and law, those are in many ways derived from this long tradition. The core of the tradition is something that I think no rules could ever capture because it starts with the point I was referencing. There’s an identity piece to it. What I mean by that is that it isn’t a matter of, “If I learn these rules, then I will manage to be an honourable warrior or war fighter.” By the way, a quick side note, some people absolutely hate the term warrior for various reasons, some of which I completely understand because of what it invokes for them.

VOW 18 | Ethics Of War
Ethics Of War: The core of the tradition is something that no rules could ever capture.


It’s very personal, how people react to that. I would simply like to not defend its use but simply say that you can switch it out with whatever term works better for you. People know once they read the book, the kind of people that I’m talking about, and if they prefer war fighter, some prefer simple soldier, with all these different subcultures, the term may not be right. The identity is the idea that I mentioned that the culture has decided that it needs defending. Someone in that group is going to be chosen out.

It is sometimes volunteer, but as we all know, sometimes very not voluntary. Someone will be chosen to be in that role. What does that mean? You’re being told that the rules that you would otherwise live by like don’t take human lives, are suspended for you, but only under certain circumstances and certain restricted limits. How do you live that? Once you actually experience killing and war, how do you process that and hold on to your sense of self and some of your humanity and all of the things that you’ve clung to? A mere list of rules or restrictions by itself isn’t going to do that.

There’s much more around this notion of knowing that you are part of a community that does have this long tradition, a notion of honour that has made this choice that we’re going to do this because it has to be done, not because we find it fun, or we’re a bunch a sociopaths or something. It’s not. We’re doing it because we feel an urgency to it. We feel a necessity to it. We want to survive it, but not at any cost. All of that feeds into the notion of the code. There are sharp differences.

If you talk about something like the Viking code, you wouldn’t want modern troops going by a lot of what comes across in the code of the Viking warrior. They had, for example, some what we would find rather disturbing notions around the combatant, non-combatant distinction. In essence, and I’m massively oversimplifying here, but the notion was that almost anyone is a combatant if they’re either a current or could at some point become a threat to me.

That takes you pretty far and ended up in real life, including unarmed Irish monks and things like that. You don’t want to say, “Let’s be that,” and you don’t want to take on the Samurai Bushido Code and say, “This is great, let’s wholesale re-adapt that.” There are specific things in these codes that are no longer going to work with our modern morals. What they have in common are these ideas that there are things you can do that will make you not a good Viking anymore, that will make you not a good Samurai anymore.

In the Samurai case, it will actually perhaps cause you to have to commit ritual suicide, seppuku. There are lines that define your identity. If you give those up, either because of what’s happening in the particular conflict that you’re in because of other stresses on you or some aspect of your character, you are sacrificing that identity, and you will be rejected by that group. That’s important that they, in the end, are policing themselves.

That’s a particularly relevant point. I like this idea of identity because it implies that it’s embodied. It’s in inculcated in the person, in that chosen social identity that are a part of when they say, “Wearing the uniform.” Where it gets a little bit murky for me, and this is perhaps in the future, a particular area of interest of my own study, we know that the environment impacts the fog of war, fatigue, certain personality traits, and desensitisation in war. All have an impact, or they can contribute to diminished ethical decision making. I’ll refer to Deane-Peter Baker, who you probably know personally.

Yes, I know him well. He’s a good friend.

I’ve listened to a show where he describes this deviation from identity or the moral code he describes. I quite liked it as a particular fighting force, a group, as a submarine that’s floating in this open sea. Those inside the submarine are part of that ecosystem, but they may not necessarily be aware that they’re going off course. I find that particularly interesting and relevant in today’s wars, where we often work in small teams. It’s not necessarily front lines, as we’ve come to know them traditionally, but small teams, often Special Forces operating in isolation, working with intent.

That’s where my conflict lies. I find it difficult to reconcile that identity won’t, at some point, deviate. We’ve seen it in Australia, we are facing. It’s interesting you mentioned the word warrior. For us, it’s a particularly sensitive one at the moment because we have some of our Special Forces in some hot water over potential alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. Some are saying that this is especially exactly what’s happened. They’ve deviated because they operated in isolation, and that their identity morphed. I can’t see how we contest or how do we prevent that, because to me, it’s inevitable. In war, you become desensitised to killing, to other people suffering. Fatigue plays a role. What are your thoughts on that?

When I was teaching The Code of the Warrior at the Naval Academy, one of the most amazing experiences was I got to co-teach it for a time with a Master Chief Navy SEAL named Will Guild, hugely admirable human being. He’s someone who I enjoyed co-teaching with. He had been someone who had been an instructor at BUD/S, so had trained SEALs as well as having been an active SEAL himself. He certainly knew where have he spoke when he talked to the midshipman.

One of the things that I feel like I learned from him, and that came through when we had the chance to talk about this very issue is that, first of all, I do like Deane-Peter Baker’s submarine analogy. This idea that your identity as a group, whether you want to call that command climate, unit culture or some mix, can morph over time in a disturbing direction because of the slow grind against all of this horror that you’re experiencing and partaking in that troops and Special Forces, see more than most can experience. This can cause you to have an erosion of these core values.

To come around to your question, how do we combat that if it’s something that we can hardly avoid? It’s a simple but wise point, which is we cannot forget to touch back to these original values. We have to have what you do see in some of these older cultures or historical cultures that I’ve looked at of warriors who have lived through their own wars, who have been veterans who have experienced all this. Being able to come back and talk to those who are in the thick of it, reconnect and remind why that identity matters and why those rules are there. As they do so to especially emphasise that at moment, they don’t need to be thinking of these rules as they’re to protect possible victims.

That matters. We don’t want there to be atrocities where war crimes are committed and innocent people are killed. In this context, to make the point instead that we also don’t want the kind of damage that happens to the people who commit those acts to happen to them. We have asked them to go into these horrible situations. We have asked them to put themselves on the line, and to allow them to be destroyed by what we ask them to do is a failure on our part as well.

By our part, I mean, everyone else in the society. It is us not fulfilling our end of the obligation back to the people that are charged with protecting us. The notion that you have constant one after the other rapid deployments where there is no chance to bring people back and allow them to be reminded of what they stand for, to reflect on what they’ve seen and what it did to them, to process and transition in and out of those roles.

We actually need to be a lot more thoughtful about warrior transitions. There have been some acknowledgements of this. I always extol the virtues of the work of Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who wrote Achilles in Vietnam, Odysseus in America and other amazing works. He articulated it as well as anyone could. The notion that the harm, the moral injury that can come to troops, can only be mitigated by this very group effort just as it was a group effort to give them that identity that we’ve talked about in the first place. As that identity gets beaten up, chipped away, you have to help them restore it.

VOW 18 | Ethics Of War
Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character

You can’t do that if you are distanced from them. If you look at things like some of the crimes that were committed in conflicts like the Vietnam conflict, one of the problems was the sense of being, in the case of American troops so far away from their home that they didn’t feel like they were in the same moral sphere. They started to feel like it was some other world with maybe other rules. That is a human reaction, but the only cure for it is to pull them out of there often enough with that very intentional point of reconnecting them to that original identity.

That’s beautifully said. There’s so much in what you said that we could pull out. The thing that particularly struck me is that we as a society bear responsibility to how we treat them when they come back. I suspect is in what you’re saying, in how we train them, send them, rotate them, and manage warfare and our warriors. I’ll use that term as you intend in your book. This brings me to another point. This is something that I’m still wrestling with.

It seems to me that we are basically tying the hands of our warriors. In Australia’s example, we’re a small force. We are committed to a war. We need to send rotations. We don’t have sufficient soldiers to give them sufficient respite, which basically begs the question, are we setting them up for inevitable? We know through extensive research that fatigue desensitisation, “the fog of war,” reduces our ability to make ethical decisions.

We ultimately can’t expect to go or send our soldiers to war without them at some point committing something that we might, from the comfort of our officers, determine or call a war crime. That’s where I’m slightly torn. It seems to me like it’s a rock and a hard place. We’re sending soldiers to do a job, but the circumstances are such that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t win either way, because the environment itself will slowly chisel them down into something that they don’t want to become. How do you feel?

One point I would make is that I don’t want to sound like, I didn’t think you were either, but I’m excuses for war crimes.


I didn’t think you were. It’s more explaining how they can happen. I agree with that. Therefore, to pull on the point that you were highlighting there, this idea that it shouldn’t be only a burden on the troops themselves to protect them against crossing these lines. It should be on all of us, means that there’s some very practical solutions we need to look at that nobody wants to talk about. What I mean there is, you made a wonderful point about if there’s too few people, then if you make this commitment with not enough people, you’re going to end up overusing them.

They’re going to be pushed to the edge, to the point where they’re going to do things, which you are going to then turn around and say, “You should never have done that.” We’re pushing humans past their limits. The alternative is to say stuff that no one wants to hear like, “How about a draft?” If you think that this conflict is important enough, then you need enough troops to send to it. If you don’t think that it is worth having a draft, then should we really be there.

I’m giving you a silent standing ovation.

This is the thing. I find it very frustrating that the conversations, not ours obviously, but with a lot of times that this comes up. The conversation grinds to a halt when you raise this point. In fact, that is where the logic goes. If the community, culture, and nation says, “We must fight X,” wherever this first place is, “We must fight in Afghanistan, we must fight in Iraq,” and there aren’t enough people in the current military to do that in a way that allows them to rotate enough, often enough to have the kind of support that I was talking about. You are using them. You are violating a classic. You’re violating Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative because you’re treating them as a mere means.

You’re treating them as a mere means to an end and then throwing them out afterwards. Instead, the obligation does go both ways. If you either say, we can’t feel troops for this because it is in fact not possible to do so without destroying them or you scale back. You cancel the operation. You scale it back in some ways, and you bear the political cost of that, or the other political cost, which is you say, “We can’t do this unless we have more people.” Guess what folks, if we don’t get volunteers that means a draft.

That in itself would immediately change our collectively civilian orientation to war. That’s partly what motivates this show is that wars happen over there. I can still go and watch my football game. I can still go and live my regular life, go to work, have my children go, etc. War happens over there. To sound something like the draft would immediately change that. Dare I say, if we held our leaders, those that send us to war, to the same rules of war that we hold our soldiers to account, the soldiers are held to the conduct, jus in bello and Geneva Conventions, but is it a just war to send soldiers to a war that you can’t say you have enough troops for?

Does that meet the jus ad bellum? What is the probability of success of that war? Is it the last resort? This is why I’m perhaps reacting, and what’s motivating me to try and explore these questions. I’m a child of the Bosnian War. I was on the receiving end, the victims of the genocide, which is a huge area of desensitisation. It’s hard even to say this, but I can almost empathise with the other side because they were victims of their own propaganda, the erosion of their own code of conduct.

I want to emphasise what you said. I definitely do not condone the conduct of any kind of war crimes. We need to have people face, have trials and so that it serves as its deterrent function, which I’m sure it does. I’m torn with this kind of inevitability of it. I find it an illusion that we can tell to ourselves that we can go to war without ultimately conducting war crimes in current circumstances, like what we talked about. We have not enough soldiers. We have continuous rotations.

You may have been about to go the same place I was. I was thinking that the other factor, which I know you’ve thought about because you and I talked about it briefly, is that in some of these conflicts, the other factor, and arguably this goes all the way back through history too, the horror that can be felt at what the other side does. That can chip away at these identities that we build up too. I don’t think we should ever minimise the effect of that either.

This goes down to the path of how malleable our moral commitment to this notion of conduct in war is, when the stakes are high enough. Walter speaks about this, paraphrasing, was a Churchill with the supreme emergency, when our culture, our identity, our nationhood, us as a people are at seeming risk of an annihilation, all gloves are off. It’s okay to drop nukes. It’s okay to flatten Dresden and so on, which looking at it is hugely immoral. It goes to show that, even we the civilised society, and this is only, let’s not even talk about Guantanamo Bay.

Do you know what I mean? It’s so fluid. This me brings me to a point that we briefly touched on, I’ll use the term collateral damage estimates, but it’s something you said that is not comfortable discussing from a legal perspective, but more from the ethical. What I understand it to be, and this is a NATO standard as well, that there are certain calculations and ways that we can estimate values to what extent we are willing to accept collateral damage, in other words, civilian casualties, to prosecute some a military objective. There are these calculations. As an example, we are willing to accept five civilian casualties to prosecute this particular, ISIS leader. How do we justify that ethically? I understand we do, but how does that sit with you as a military ethicist?

It’s a nice transition from your reference there to Michael Walzer and his claims about supreme emergency, which I too have some big problems with. The idea that at some point the gloves are off. One of the main problems that we’re dealing with here when you start talking about how much collateral damage is too much, and of course you’re talking about the death of people that ought to be protected, the people who were not part of this contract that combatants have with one another. The justification which we know of has deep roots and goes back to Natural Law Theory and so forth, is this idea of a Doctrine of Double Effect. If you’re achieving a worthwhile and justified end, that sometimes is permissible.

VOW 18 | Ethics Of War
Ethics Of War: When you start talking about how much collateral damage is too much, you’re talking about the death of people that ought to be protected. The people who were not part of this contract that combatants have with one another.


It’s never mandatory or laudable, but it may be permissible to cause harm in achieving that. Even The Doctrine of Double Effect has some strict restrictions in it, including things like the killing of the innocents for example, can’t be the means to the end. If you think of something like the 9/11 attacks, taking a civilian plane and flying it into even a military target that crosses those lines, because you’ve used the civilians as the weapon. It’s not that they were caught in the middle of something. You actually used them as the means. That’s not allowed even under those calculations. The classic example that you gave is when you’re trying to kill one ISIS leader, and in order to take out his vehicle or the building that he’s in, you can quite clearly predict that a certain number of civilians will be killed.

There are these other restrictions, like you should do whatever you can to see if there’s a way to clear the civilians. We all know there’s going to be, in every conflict, many cases where the civilians are sacrificed for these other goals. How do we feel about that? One response to that many people naturally have is to simply say that, “All wars is evil.” That’s the end because there’s never been a war in which innocents weren’t killed. It is overall an evil. You have the conversation, is it a necessary evil that we can’t get away from? I don’t mean to laugh, but it’s that laugh or cry moment where you say, “What do you do then with it?”

You’re then stuck in this path of, if you don’t want to allow for any collateral damage, because there’s no bottom line way to justify it, that doesn’t sound like a legal wrangling trick, then you end up as a pacifist. What are you going to allow certain other kinds of evil to proceed without impediment, because you can’t take up arms. That doesn’t seem like the right answer either, at least to a lot of us. That’s why I end up as so many do in the just war tradition that I wish I could be a pacifist, but I don’t think the world allows it.

You’re right. I agree.

I can’t be. At that point, the question is very narrow, quite ugly and raw, because you are again then saying, “Okay, if you’re committing to do this, how much are you willing to stand?” You mentioned cases like, firebombing Dresden, and how as we look back on that, we say, “That’s not okay. That was too far. There was a retaliatory vengeance element to that doesn’t meet these bars.” Where is the line and how mobile is it? I find myself coming around to the point that you’re absolutely right. There has to be more emphasis put on getting us into some of these situations in the first place, and the obligation to go through the other steps of the just war tradition before you ever get to this point.

Once you get to this point, there has to be a tremendous amount of seriousness and good faith around looking for alternatives. This is somewhat controversial, but you cannot privilege the lives of your own troops. It’s very uncomfortable. There’s a lot of language around force protection, but I do think you actually do have to put civilian lives on both sides ahead of troops.

If there are two options and one puts troops at greater risk, but lowers the number of civilian casualties, you’re under obligation to go for that one. As opposed to the one that you may be able to conduct from non-unoccupied vehicle, but an unmanned vehicle. In fact, in doing that, you are upping the odds of civilian casualties. I end up landing in that necessary evil place where if you’ve embraced a necessary evil, yes, certainly you don’t want it to be any larger than it has to be. You want to minimise that as much as possible.

I’m in a whole agreement with you. I recall even being one of the few that argued at very point in our own ethics training going through my military training at our college. Do you put your soldiers at greater harm than civilians? Like you rightly said, it’s not necessarily a popular opinion because most would say, “No, of course I’m going to protect my soldiers.” There’s an ethical question there that needs to be explored. The other thing that’s interesting key for me is that, and you’ve made that point, as we started the conversation, you talked about interests versus, morality or even values.

We often go to war, and certainly in Australia, it’s become open. We discuss it quite openly and freely. For example, we went to Iraq, purely for the alliance with the US. That’s not classified. We are embarrassed to say, it is publicly stated in many books and in an open discussions. I’ve had one of my guests on talk about that. He was a prominent academic in this particular field now. We are pursuing some national interest rather than protecting or promoting certain values, which is this clash between interests, versus values of morality. We hold our soldiers to account for upholding certain values, but again, not our leaders.

This is a continuous problem that we seem to be not really willing to address. You made that point. It’s important to emphasise that point. That’s something that we should start doing. How do we do that when those who send us to war are basically elected every four, three years, depending on where we are, five years in some places? It doesn’t matter and off they go. They go to their retirement. They do make these decisions without impunity. How do we actually do this? We can’t drag former presidents or prime ministers in front of tribunals. Where do you sit on that?

Something has to change because if anything in my life and in the time that I’ve spent working on these topics, I feel like it’s gotten worse. I say that reluctantly, but I do feel that there’s a sense that the casualness with which some political leadership chooses to spend our blood and treasure, our lives. The treasure part, while not as important as the lives matters too. We spent trillions of dollars on these conflicts, and that’s money that doesn’t go to education, infrastructure or something else it could go to. All of those choices are made too often by people who don’t seem to recognise the full weight of them.

I find that very painful, as someone who has lost people I care deeply for. I feel like in many cases they would be extremely discouraged. Were they still alive? They would be extremely discouraged to see where we are and wonder what their sacrifice was for. All of that is to say that the only recourse we have in democracies is voting, is insisting that people are held to higher standards. I don’t think we’ve done a great job of that.

There is the possibility of the international community judging some of these leaders, but that’s incredibly hard to pull off. Once you’re dealing with countries that are on the Security Council and so forth, your odds of getting anywhere are extremely low. We know that. It does come down to the sense of people learning more and coming into it with a bit more knowledge about what war does to people before they vote, before they make choices.

I was able, at my position at Case Western Reserve, to share a message that was written from one of my former students from the Naval Academy, who was at the time, he was still in the Marine Corps. It was leading up to an election. It wasn’t the most recent one, but it was leading up to an election. It was very apolitical. He wasn’t taking any partisan side, but he asked me, if I could share it. I was delighted to do so with my mostly majority civilian students.

The message was to not forget about him and the others who were deployed all over the world. The message was, “As you vote,” I’m paraphrasing, “You probably have a lot of things that you’re considering that weigh on you when you go to the ballot, but amongst those things, please recognise that the people you are giving power to are going to decide where my friends and I are going to fight and die. Please think about that as part of the choice you’re making, as part of what you’re deciding.”

It was a wonderful discussion that we had after that. I was pleased with how my students were quite honest about admitting they hadn’t thought about that. Obviously, in a perfect world we wish they had, but at least they were very forthcoming about acknowledging that this had not been part of their thinking and calculations. It’s what you mentioned. They felt so distanced from the military and disconnected. That civil military gap, the wider that gets, the more worrisome that can be.

The wider the civil-military gap gets, the more worrisome it becomes. Share on X

People aren’t thinking that these people that we’re putting in power are going to potentially make this level of choice for men and women who are obligated to follow it. In the US, we don’t even have selective, conscientious objection. They’re obligated. I had a dear friend who objected to the Iraq war in 2003 and actually, protested out of uniform. He took part in marches against it, but went. Unfortunately this is not a happy story. He died there close to the anniversary.

He died on June 25th, 2003. He went because his Marines went. For him it was not a decision, of course he was going because the people that he had that identity with were going, but he very much would’ve preferred not to have been sent to that conflict. He would’ve loved to have had his voice maybe amplified in some way.

That’s so real. Australia’s lost 44 soldiers in combat in Afghanistan, which by comparison to US and the UK, especially US, it paled in comparison. This goes to a point that you brought up. You mentioned suicide as well. We’ve lost more than 500 soldiers to suicide since that war. I wonder whether that is part of it, because I would suspect. Unfortunately, he died obviously in 2003, but he went into a war that he didn’t believe in. I wonder to what extent that plays a role in this idea of moral injury or why subsequently our soldiers, certainly not all, but maybe some, choose to take their lives and they carry some guilt of partaking in something that they don’t believe was just or the right thing to do.

Those work on moral injury like Jonathan Shay and others have highlighted this. Shay calls it the blunt betrayal of what’s right that they can’t get past. From unfortunate personal connection, a wonderful man, I knew a colleague. Ted Westhusing, who taught at West Point, did take his own life in Iraq. We don’t have to speculate, he left a note. In his note, he literally said, “Death before any further dishonour.”

The dishonour he spoke about in the note had to do with what he saw as inappropriate relationships with the US and private contractors, money making attempts and so forth. He felt that he was not any longer confident that he was part of an honourable endeavour. This is someone who believed so strongly, not that he had taught it. The definite sense of disconnect that he experienced clearly played a role in his mental health.

It almost resembles, I forget the official term, but the colloquial term of it. You talk about it in the book of the Japanese hara-kiri, the noble suicide. It almost echoes off that.

It does. The suicide that is a form of protest. I cannot partake of this anymore. This, “If I’m part of this, then I’m sullied by it. I’m out then.” We don’t want to push anyone to that point. We want to make sure that we give pads back for people who are starting to feel that way, and don’t leave them hanging out there with those kind of feelings to battle them alone, because that is part of us failing our obligations.

Hugely powerful stuff and this triggered in my mind what you mentioned. I certainly don’t mean to draw an obvious correlation here, but it popped into my mind the fine line, between a warrior and a murderer. It strikes me as though in some instances, maybe for our warriors, that they feel that they might have crossed that line inadvertently. That’s ultimately what we’re talking about here. It’s a conscientious objection to being part of this. What did you say? Death, before dishonour. I’ve got goosebumps because it strikes me as something that could be a real thing that our soldiers are facing and that we’re not talking about.

We’re not. A word I mentioned, which for some people it’s going to invoke religious connotations. I don’t mean that in this context, but the word redemption. We don’t talk enough about the fact that something has to happen next to pull yourself out of these circumstances. My field is guilty of this to some degree, Military Ethics and other ethics areas sometimes fall prey to this. They stop at the failure. They stop at the crime or the line crossing and then start talking about why that happen and why shouldn’t it have happened. I want to talk about what happens next. A lot of people who are otherwise good are going to find themselves under the kind of conditions that we talked about, may be crossing some of those lines and genuinely regretting it and wanting to not embrace it and become that person.

Nobody talks to them about, “Well, what do I do now? I have done something that violates my core values. Do I just throw them all out? Do I say that’s it, I’m done. I suppose guess I’m a murderer now. I’m just going to be a murderer.” That is what some people do, and it’s very sad and destructive. It’s very self-destructive. What can happen instead is this intentional journey of redemption where you say, “Yes, I did cross that line and I wish I hadn’t, and I can’t take it back, but I still care about the line. I still think it was a line to draw. It should have been drawn, and I still believe in it. How do I build back my sense of being part of this original identity, and what do I need to contribute or do? What conversations do I need to have to the point where I feel some sense of redemption?”

One of the historical things which I found so fascinating in my research, a fellow named Bernard Verkamp wrote about this. It was so interesting to learn about in the Middle Ages, there were knights who returned from things like the Crusades, where as we know, some horrible stuff happened, who actually fought with the church at the time, because the church was telling them, “You’re absolved. You’re fine. You don’t need to do anything.” They were saying, “I don’t feel fine. I don’t feel like I’m okay with God right now. I need you to give me some acts of atonement. I need you to tell me how to work off this sense of guilt that I feel.”

So far too often, and it’s often well-meaning people that simply say, “You shouldn’t feel guilty. You did what you had to do. You shouldn’t feel bad.” You can’t wheel it away. You can’t just tell someone, “Don’t feel bad.” If they feel guilty, if they feel that burden, if they feel that they crossed a line, that’s the end of it. That’s the truth for them. The next thing you say is, “Okay, how do we help you work through that feeling and start to respect yourself again and build yourself back to the person that you were trying to be?”

This strikes me as though it echoes of that supreme emergency. You did what you had to do. Your nation called upon you and sacrificed your humanity so that we may live on, but when that doesn’t hold much water, as in some of these recent wars, then it becomes a very difficult thing to justify. Coming back on the Supreme Emergency, because there was something that I wanted to touch on that slipped me before. We have an ability to rationalise Supreme Emergency. We have done that, even in recent conflicts. I made mention of Guantanamo Bay, of torture, of black sites and so on.

US has copped a lot of criticism around the world for that. In some ways it was even justified or argued for politically. Your Supreme Court, squashed it but Guantanamo Bay is still there. Where arguably these “terrorists” exist outside of the traditional rules of war because they are considered I guess terrorists. Where are we with that, in your view?

Particularly in this ongoing War on Terror that will be with us, I suspect for a while yet, even though we’re pulling out of all the major conflict areas. If I understand it correctly, there’s no international law to dictate how we are to, whether they’re classed as combatants in a true sense that they’re then, therefore, afforded the same rights as prisoners of war in other state-on-state conflicts. How do you view that, and do you know the state of affairs?

State of affairs is a mess. What I was going to open with is I feel the need to say flat out that I think we got it wrong. What I mean by the we there is a very collective we because I think the international community didn’t hold it up either. The US made extraordinarily questionable decisions and ones that were not just questionable, but flat out wrong. What I’m getting at is myself personally, I was never comfortable and I remain uncomfortable, with this new category that we created.

There are arguments that there are historical roots for it and that the Geneva Conventions didn’t cover certain types of combatants, which that part is certainly true. The spirit of the just war tradition was violated by having this notion of enemy combatants that aren’t really prisoners of war and aren’t falling into another camp. I would prefer to see if a group like Al-Qaeda or ISIS is more like a criminal organisation like the Mafia or something, then treat them that way.

Treat them like criminals, which means by the way, they have certain rights as criminals do. Treat them that way and be consistent. If you want to say that we’re past this notion of mere statehood, there are some non-state actors that organise and conduct themselves close enough to the way states are that we need to treat them like regular combatants. They get the rights that come with being a POW. Those two categories have their own history, I would say, in a sense, were refined over time, trial and error. Mistakes that were made and what we learned from it, and to throw all that out the window and say, “No, they don’t fit in neither of those categories. Let’s make a new one where there are no rules, or I’m just going to create, things out of thin air.” It was a terrible mistake. One that we haven’t found our way out of yet. What do you then do? You have people still at Guantanamo that no one in this country wants to take them. If you say, “Let’s move them to a prison in X state,” the state will say, “No, thanks. We don’t want them.” You’ve created this no-win situation where because you’ve made them this odd category, they’re neither criminal nor captured troops. What do you do with them? Whereas before, those two buckets did at least give you some answers and some answers that had some humanity to them.

I have to say it was depressing as a military ethicist and as a person to see the erosion that went along with what was going on at the height of the Abu Ghraib situation. Having what is obviously torture, renamed in this Orwellian way as enhanced interrogation. All of that chipped away at stuff that matters. In a sense, we’ve come all the way full circle because we started with the idea of why do warriors need a code? They need to have an identity that does draw those lines for them, and they need it to be real. In the worst day of their life, they need to believe in it, and they need to know that it’s there for them. They are part of something that matters because that’s going to be so hard to hold onto.

If you chip away at it, if you start to pull that rug out from under them to mix metaphors, you are making it harder for our troops to survive with any sanity or with fewer moral injuries. I find it quite sad that it is sometimes the people who shout the loudest about, “Support our troops,” and stuff like that, who also want to see these rules eroded because they’re wrong. That doesn’t support our troops. It puts them at greater risk of moral injury. It puts them at greater literal risk by creating more future enemies for us. It is not how you support our troops.

The idea of taking the gloves off, it ultimately makes us the same as those that we are seeking to fight, except we don’t grant them the same nobility. We viewed them as the enemy, but arguably they might be also, from their perspective, sacrificing civilians for a greater purpose, sacrificing themselves for a greater purpose, crossing the lines of humanity for a greater purpose, which is the mirror ultimately of what we do. If we don’t seek to uphold those values, because ultimately, it’s a sliding scale downwards, I guess it would contribute to that.

We both end up at the bottom then. It’s a race to the bottom.

We lose our moral high ground and, therefore, the argument of interest versus values, but it’s no longer an argument anymore because we’ve given up our values. Let’s at least pursue our interests.

I’ll add too, in that context of that awful race to the bottom, that can happen and that does happen. It is also the case that sometimes we will fight. We have fought people whose values and behaviour, ultimately, can’t be justified. I’m not going to justify beheading prisoners and some of the things ISIS has done, for example. To feed off of what you were saying, the very thought that you would look at that and say, “Let’s just dump our values then and be more like that. How is that?” It’s funny because when you put it that starkly, it’s obviously not the right answer. People slide into it easily. They say, “You’ve got to fight fire with fire.” It’s not actually how it works. If something is so horrifying that you think it needs to be wiped off the face of the Earth, then maybe don’t be like that.

That’s the idea of fighting evil with evil, which we hear so often particularly from some of our most hardened, and perhaps because of that reason that they’re the most hardened. They’re also the most desensitised and also the most injured. We often hear that you have to fight evil with evil.

We failed those people. That’s on us.

I’m conscious also of our time that we are coming close. I want to maybe take us out of some of this darkness, and also allow us both to take a breath. I was absolutely fascinated by everything you’ve said. I thank you for being so candid and open about it. I’ve read elsewhere that you’ve started exploring the idea of Military Ethics as it deals with artificial intelligence. What in particular is your directional focus, and where you are at with that?

I’m very interested in this area. There’s another arms race happening where many countries are feeling this pressure because of what they see happening in places like China and Russia to develop artificial intelligence. High-tech advances in automation to make sure that we are not going to find ourselves in other nations like the US far behind the curve on what is the next great wave and in military tech. There are a couple things I tend to focus on. I’m extremely wary of that arms race mentality. People get sick of hearing this from me, but I make the joke that, “Guys, sometimes it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.”

I say that to everyone because I love that it makes people stop and think because you actually go through it in your mind. Yes, the first mouse is dead. The cheese is still sitting there, but the trap has sprung. In this case, what I mean by that is that when we introduce elaborate new technology in particular, we are also introducing new points of failure. We’re introducing new ways that clever people on the other side of a conflict are going to manipulate, exploit, and find their ways around.

As soon as we deploy something, someone’s going to figure out how to take advantage of it. None of these new technologies should be seen as any kind of silver bullet or definitely giving an unstoppable advantage to any side. I talk about that a lot. If you look at history, it is not the case that the highest tech side wins every conflict. We can name a lot of famous ones where the lower-tech side won.

It’s that kind of foolishness we can’t afford to think that these high-tech things are solutions. That said, I’m also not anti-tech. There are ways, and a lot of good people are already doing this, but we need to think in terms of it as augmenting us, not replacing us. There are ways that we can use tools if they’re well-designed and well-trained. Don’t get me started on bias data and all the mess that we have with all of that.

We need to think in terms of technology as augmenting us, not replacing us. There are ways that we can use tools if they're well-designed and well-trained. Share on X

If you can actually build things well in the first place, there might be ways that we can improve what we’re already trying to do, that we can help humans do what they need to do in these conflicts in ways that are actually useful. That needs to be very deliberately done. I want to be part of that conversation and try to get away from this. We need to react to what our future anticipated enemies might be working on.

Is it conceivable that we use artificial intelligence to assist us with the very things we talked about, whether through machine learning or huge data points that it starts identifying, “Hold on, you are soldier X, Y, Z. You are at risk of moral injury, or you are at risk of stepping over the line?” Is that something that’s even in the scope of discussions?

This is part of the conversation. Another thing that I often raise, and I am only partly kidding, is for those of us old enough to recall the old Microsoft Word used to have a little electronic helper named Clippy. It would pop up, and it was a little paperclip.

I’m in that camp.

It would pop up, and it would say, “You seem to be writing a memo. Would you like some help with that?” I love the idea that we could build assistance and tools that would do that kind of thing. “You seem to have not slept in 72 hours. You seem to be making this. Would you like to consider these other possibilities? You’re about to use this weapon. Have you considered this?” There’s some fascinating research around ways to interrupt the thought process of a person that is heading towards, let’s call it an ethical disaster that make a difference. There’s a moment of pause that if you can create it, people will snap out of it. People will take a step back and say, “Wow, what was I thinking?”

They’re physiological responses. It’s interesting you used the word snap because I’ve ordered the book, Why We Snap by Douglas Fields. I’ve listened to an interesting show with him. There are physiological reasons why we “snap,” and it’s out of our control oftentimes. It’s almost like someone has round us up, and we are almost like a robot ourselves, where we’re like, “My God, what came over me?”

VOW 18 | Ethics Of War
Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain

Interrupting that process is worth doing. If we can figure out how to interrupt it with a tool, then I’m all for it.

Am I correct in saying that you are also drafting a book?

I am, and the working title is Artificial Ethics.

If I may humbly say, if it’s anything like a Code of the Warrior, then I’ll look forward to devouring that one as well.

Thank you so much.

I want to thank you for giving me so much of your time, for speaking so candidly about topics that are exceptionally important to our warriors, to our militaries, to our conscience as a civilisation, not just as soldiers. It’s something that we need to start peeling back on and exploring in more depth. As someone who aspires in the near future, delve deeper into these questions, I certainly look forward to reaching out again and perhaps inviting you for a second episode. There are lots more that we can discuss and particularly as you sharpen your ideas on artificial intelligence and how that impacts Military Ethics. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Thank you. I actually would like to return the compliment quite sincerely. I am grateful for what you are doing with this show. I’m going to catch up on any episodes that I’ve missed. I’m proud to be a part of it. Thank you so much for having me on.

That’s wonderful. Thank you for saying that. We’ll be in touch.

Bye for now.


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