The Voices of War

52. Dr David Whetham - On the Ethics of War, War Crimes and Ethical Decision Making

VOW 52 | Military Ethics


My guest today is Dr David Whetham who is a Professor of Ethics and the Military Profession in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. He is the Director of the King’s Centre for Military Ethics and delivers or coordinates the military ethics component of courses for around two thousand British and international officers a year at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College.

In 2020 David was appointed as an Assistant Inspector-General to the Australian Defence Force to assist in the final stages of the Afghanistan Inquiry and is the author of the report’s final Annex. He joined me to discuss issues of military ethics. Some of the topics we covered include:

  • David’s journey into military ethics
  • Defining military ethics
  • Jus ad bellum vs Jus in bello
  • Government and military tension when jus ad bellum is not met
  • Political leaders’ impunity when sending troops to war
  • Interests vs values debate
  • Impact of broken justifications for war
  • Afghanistan and impact of poor mission definition
  • Narrative vs reality and resulting disillusionment
  • Impact of the environment and whether atrocities in war are inevitable
  • Preparing our troops for moral dilemmas
  • Environmental elements that contribute to ethical demise
  • Special Forces, but not special
  • Mitigating circumstances to atrocities
  • Ethical drift and institutional responsibility
  • Realistic training for ethical dilemmas
  • Training to make the right decision, quicker

David mentioned the recent launch of a free app to help military service members make more informed decisions. You can find the app for both Apple and Android by searching for Military Ethics: Cards for Humanity. 

Listen to the podcast here


Dr David Whetham – On the Ethics of War, War Crimes and Ethical Decision Making

In this episode, my guest is the respected Military Ethicist Dr. David Whetham. This was my thinking before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Six weeks into the invasion, we are seeing evidence emerging of horrendous war crimes carried out by Russian soldiers. Hence, although this episode touches on alleged war crimes of a different war, I find David’s insights on military ethics to be as applicable here.

War has the potential to do something incredible and insidious to the moral compass of some soldiers. Not one of them is born a war criminal but life and circumstances may lead them down a path where growth and humanity become the norm. Understanding how this degradation of morality occurs is essential if we are to prevent it. I have learned a lot from this conversation with David and I hope you do too.

My guest is Dr. David Whetham, who is a Professor of Ethics and the Military Profession in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. He’s the Director of the Kings Centre for Military Ethics and delivers or coordinates the military ethics component of courses for around 2,000 British and international officers a year at the UK’s Joint Services Commander Staff College.

David supports Military Ethics education in many different countries and has held visiting fellowships at the Stockdale Centre for Ethical Leadership, US Naval Academy, Annapolis, the Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics at the Australian Defence College in Canberra, and the University of Glasgow. He was a mid-career fellow at the British Academy in 2017 and ‘18 and is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of New South Wales. David is also the Vice President of the European Chapter of the International Society for Military Ethics.

In 2020, David was appointed as an Assistant Inspector General to the Australian Defence Force to assist in the final stages of the Afghanistan inquiry and is the author of the report’s final Annex. David’s other publications include several books such as Ethics, Law and Military Operations, Just Wars and Moral Victories, and together with Andrea Ellner and Paul Robinson, When Soldiers Say No: Selective Conscientious Objection in the Modern Military. David, it’s a real pleasure to host you on the show. Thank you for joining me.

Thank you very much for inviting me, Maz. I’m very pleased we can finally have this conversation.

We’ve tried a few times and now we’re finally getting there. Before we wade into the murky waters of military ethics, maybe we start by finding out a little bit about you. What motivated your journey into ethics and particularly military ethics? How did you find yourself in these waters?

It was a long journey. I don’t think the position of military ethicist existed years ago. There are still not very many of us out there. My background was as a philosopher. I did an undergraduate in Philosophy but the area of Philosophy I was most interested in was Political Social Philosophy and International Relations. That led to wanting to do a Master’s in War Studies because the area of international relations that most fascinated me was when the rules apparently stopped working and states came into conflict trying to understand how or why that was the case. That interest continued to grow. I then went on and did a PhD.

Along the way, I was working with the OSCE in Kosovo. I was doing election observation out there immediately after the conflict. I also had the privilege of doing some traveling around places like the Great Lakes region of Africa and on the borders of Rwanda and Zaire as it was then before in the DRC. Although there was no point where I suddenly decided I’d go to do military ethics, it was a long path in which normative issues in international affairs, and particularly military affairs grew and grew over a long period.

I was teaching in the War Studies Department towards the end of my Doctorate in London and there was an opportunity that came up at the staff college. King’s College London has a relationship with the UK MOD. We have closer to 60 full-time academics based out at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham. I had an opportunity came up to do some work there and I loved it. At that time, military ethics was starting to be taken seriously. This was pre-Iraq, 2002, 2003. Military ethics was starting to become an issue.

In 2003, the enormously controversial decision to invade Iraq as part of a coalition made a lot of people start to ask some asking pretty fundamental questions. That’s when military ethics started coming to the fore. It was around before then. It’s not like it didn’t exist before. There were very few people who were specialists in this area or that needed to be, mainly in the US. We had lawyers but not so much people thinking rather than what you were allowed to do, asking the question, “What should you do,” which is where military ethics comes in.

It hadn’t crossed my mind that it’s a relatively new field per se as much as it’s been around but we have a professional cadre of ethicists who are focusing on the application of military power. Maybe we can define what we mean by military ethics because even the term itself might not be so familiar to everyone. It certainly wasn’t to me some time ago. Maybe we can start with that.

It is worth unpacking it as an idea. Military ethics is a branch of applied ethics. It’s about professional ethics that applies to a particular area of activity. It’s useful to think that sometimes we talk about morality and ethics as if they’re interchangeable and then we add in law as well. It’s possible to do an entire PhD on the difference between ethics and morality.

I find it useful to think of morality as something more personal. I have a personal morality and I might, for example, think that stealing is wrong. I believe stealing is wrong. Ethics is related to that but it involves also thinking other people should think it’s wrong as well. You and I would agree that stealing is wrong. Between us, we share an ethic.

Morality is on a personal level. Ethics also involves the people around you. Click To Tweet

If we decide that there are rules because we are doing a particular area of activity, perhaps we become brain surgeons, sociologists, anthropologists, or engineers. We decide there are certain things that we should agree we should do and shouldn’t do. We would start developing a professional ethic, rules that govern that particular activity.

Therefore, I still might have my morality about certain things but I would have to accept that if I was going to be part of this profession, there is a set of rules related to that profession. You then have the law. The law will be involved in all of those things but the law is trying to do something much more complicated.

Ethics is simple. We agree that stealing is wrong. Let’s stick with that one. The law can’t say stealing is illegal and therefore, you’ll be punished for it. It’s got to define all the different things that could and could not fall into that area from every human exchange to make sure it’s fair and goes through the appropriate process. We agree on what is allowed.

The laws are enormously complex because it’s trying to regulate everything, whereas legitimate laws should sit on that foundation of ethics. That’s how I think about the relationship between the three. All of those things can be debated but I find it useful to think about those three areas and the way they relate and interact with each other in that way.

In that case, military ethics, if I’m understanding it correctly, is the rules or norms that we, as a collective, are looking at broader military ethics as allies, coalitions, and species even what we consider to be ethical or unethical in the conduct of war.

It’s interesting when I start working in a new place. For example, the work I was doing in Colombia and I still am doing in Colombia. When we started this years ago, they were very keen to develop their military ethics curricula and program and make sure it was available across the Colombian armed forces. What was interesting was those initial discussions where they were adamant that their situation was so peculiar that they needed a different type of military ethics.

It wasn’t until we started having those discussions, “Which bit of military ethics do you think is different for you than it’s for everybody else?” We started having those discussions and we realised it’s not different. The circumstances were different. It’s coming out of a long period of conflict, particularly nasty ongoing conflict, which hasn’t quite been fixed yet.

The point is there wasn’t a separate military ethic for this area. It was that it needed to be applied in a particular circumstance. There weren’t Colombian military ethics. Funnily enough, you’re still not allowed to abuse prisoners. You’ve still got to question illegitimate orders and you understand the process for how to do that. You’ve still got to think about the professional obligations and how you discharge them. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re in Colombia, Nigeria, Ireland, or Australia. There are certain shared norms that come from being part of a professional military.

The bedrock of that is the law of armed conflict. That’s your book of red lines. These are the things that you know very clearly and everybody is bound by this. It doesn’t matter which country you’re from. Also, the deeper thinking about the relationship between the state and the individual. The relationship between the government and the military, all of those factors are part of military ethics. Understanding, for example, why the military is given a set of duties and permissions and is allowed to do extraordinary things that nobody else is allowed to do.

There’s no other profession where you can plan to take somebody else’s life and be rewarded for it rather than being sent to prison. It’s an extraordinary profession in that sense. That is underpinned by your relationship and the permissions you have from society and that’s part of military ethics. Understanding the limits of that relationship, as well as the strength, the very core of it. You need to understand what you’re not allowed to do and what you can never be asked to do by your society as well as part of that military ethic.

We’ll get to some of those questions because that’s the nuance. If I’m correct, part of it is and how we unpack military ethics, we can apply them both to the reasons for going to war. We are justified in whether a war is ethical. That is the overarching or the big picture and applies mainly to our leadership, our leaders who send us to war. There’s the conduct. Both of those would form part of the military ethic and certainly military ethic that I’m familiar with as being taught and trained in the Australian military. I guess that would be correct for other militaries as well.

That distinction between the two areas of moral responsibility, the decision to go to war and the justice or not of that decision and then the actual conduct of the war, are the two traditional distinctions within military ethics. The decision to go to war was simply not considered to be an issue for soldiers. That’s not your question. That’s for princes, prime ministers, and presidents. That’s their area of responsibility rather than yours. Your job is to salute and get on with it. That’s slightly changed to some extent in the sense that we are better informed but sometimes not in a good way. There’s a lot of disinformation and fake news out there as well.

There is an expectation that you will be able to recognise. You are trained. A great deal of treasure is spent on educating professional armed forces to be able to recognise an illegal order when it’s given and say no. If you’ve been told to do something that is blatantly illegal on a battlefield, that seems much easier to say no as an individual than be committed to a war that is wrong or illegal. As an individual, how can you have the confidence that that is the case? Is that even your question? That’s much harder.

VOW 52 | Military Ethics
Military Ethics: If you’ve been told to do something blatantly illegal on a battlefield, that seems much easier to say no as an individual than be committed to an illegal war.


In the vast majority of situations, that’s still not a question that most people in the armed forces will feel comfortable answering, and precisely why you expect your chain of command to ask those questions on your behalf. In the UK, with the Chief of the Defence Staff to be asking the Prime Minister, as Admiral Boyce did before in 2003, can you categorically demonstrate that this would be a lawful deployment and expect the government to be able to come up with that answer? If you are a genuine profession rather than simply an armed bureaucracy, the role of the profession would be to say, “I’m not sure we can do this. It’s not in defence of the state and it does look illegal. We can’t commit to doing that. This is not in the interests of the state and what we’re here to do.”

Has anyone ever done that yet, to your knowledge, as in certainly in the Western militaries, that has been a successful resistance to a government claiming that bellum principles had not been met sufficiently to make this a legal and justifiable war?

I’m pretty sure that what would happen in practice is that whoever questioned it at that level would be forced to resign. If you can imagine if that had happened in the run-up to 2003, if the Chief of the Defence Staff had said, “This is wrong. We’re not doing it,” and had publicly resigned, it would be incredibly difficult to carry on in that circumstance. Military ethics is as important for somebody like a nineteen-year-old at a checkpoint somewhere in the middle of nowhere, having to make the right decision as somebody approaches. They’re not quite in the dusk. You can’t quite make out the details and they look a bit suspicious.

In that case, you’ve got to make military ethics-applied decisions as much as if you’re talking with the Prime Minister and saying, “I’m not sure that this is about the country. This might be about you. Are you sure we should be doing this,” and having the courage to be able to do that. In 2003, Admiral Boyce’s questions to the Prime Minister forced a legal response from the Attorney General in the UK, which the first time around wasn’t accepted. Admiral Boyce said that it was still not clear-cut. He wanted a clear legal verdict from the UK’s top lawyer that the deployment would be lawful and waited until that had come through.

In some ways, that would be a major constitutional crisis. You’ve got the Prime Minister committing the country to war and then the head of the armed forces is saying, “I’m not sure this is lawful.” I’d say that’s what a professional armed force should be doing. That’s exactly what it is to be a member of a professional military to be able to do that. It’s the fact that the Attorney General came back with that definitive piece of paper and said, “Here we go. This is my unequivocal guidance that on these grounds, this deployment would be lawful.”

Subsequently, lots of international lawyers have been highly sceptical about that legal justification but at the time, as the head of the British Armed Forces, that was a proper exchange. I certainly hope that the UK would never be in a situation where they were contemplating war without having thought about the legal justification for it in advance and being clear that they were justified in doing that.

What a courageous act. In this instance, even so, it still proved to be questionable, to say the least. I interviewed Marc Garlasco, the Chief of Targeting for the Pentagon for the invasion in 2003 and was regularly briefing Bush and Rumsfeld, the tenant, and all the key players. He decided to leave at the point when it was very clear that the US was going to Iraq regardless of what was happening. He effectively stuck around for the first invasion because he felt that he was more morally adjusted about choosing targets. He knew them intimately well than if some brand new person had come in and was under pressure.

He rode the wave of the invasion and then had a conjecture of objection. He resigned and left. In his senior position, that certainly would have sent some shock waves. Unfortunately, the machine was well on the way. That’s part of the problem. I do like the point and the fact that you’re very much starting our discussion with the need to focus on the big leadership and their ethics. It’s not just the soldier on the ground because that’s one of the weaknesses at the moment. Our leaders, governments, and political leaders send us to war with new impunity.

Tony Blair was in some hot waters. John Howard wasn’t in Australia, at least not to my knowledge. I can’t see anybody dragging Bush across the coals to question his decision to commit troops. Afghanistan is one thing but to Iraq, what are your thoughts on that? The fact that our leadership is largely immune from the just war tradition.

You mentioned Tony Blair. He’s been knighted by the Queen. Within 48 hours, 1 million people had already registered their disgust at this in an open letter to the Queen. It’s still highly controversial but is there any chance of anybody behind those decisions being held to account? It’s vanishingly small, I’d suggest. Part of that is if you look at the Rome statute and the International Criminal Court rules, it makes clear that responsibility for all decisions doesn’t magically stop at the head of the military. It goes up through the political leadership as well. They can be held accountable according to that set of agreed rules that the UK has signed in Australia. The crime of aggression is not defined, quite deliberately.

The cynic in you suggests it.

That makes that side of it extremely difficult to know how to proceed and the fact that Blair is still viewed in that way. There are a lot of political reasons why Blair was viewed in that way as well. I wonder whether the actual justifications that were given at the time make a difference there because from the UK position, it was about making sure that you had the legal argument, and however credible that turned out, not terribly in the end but it was very clear that it was based on a self-defence rationale and a regional security rationale. It was based on security council resolutions and it was a little bit tenuous.

Whereas my understanding with the Australian public, it was much more of a moral-based argument that this was the right thing to do and Australia would be on the right side of history, not the wrong side of history. Therefore, if somebody as bad as Saddam Hussein could be challenged and stopped, then there was a duty to do that.

It turned out that maybe it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that but I wonder whether the Australian public has ultimately been more forgiving of somebody getting the moral argument wrong rather than trying to dress it up in legal language, which felt a little bit disingenuous, especially with the dodgy dossier started to be unpacked. It turned out that the evidence wasn’t as strong as had been claimed.

It was a curve ball in code name in nature, ultimately. I’m not entirely sure about the Australian relationship to it but I get the sense that we might be, as a nation, more empathetic to it in general because it was a lot further away from us. It certainly was high on the nation’s radar. As the years have gone by, we don’t think about it anymore as much as there’s public discourse about the fact that we went to Iraq as a nation purely to keep and show our alliance with the US.

This is discussed publicly in a public forum. It’s something I’ve discussed with people like John Blaxland on the show, who’s written about this, and a number of our senior leaders, including a former Chief of the Army who’s gone out and publicly questioned these decisions. As you alluded to, the chances of somebody answering these years on is next to non-existent.

I agree with that. That was the rationale from the UK point of view as well. Tony Blair was a Labour politician. I know Labour carries different weight in Australia than it does here, as does Liberal. The terms are slightly different. As a new Labour prime minister, it was untenable for him to say that it was in the British national interest to do this because our primary ally was going to do this with or without us. Therefore, we needed to be alongside for the future prosperity of the UK. That was the justification.

In that sense, Blair did believe it was in the UK’s interest. Therefore, it was the right thing for the UK to do but there were so many other factors that were swept aside to be able to achieve that. It’s the complete lack of engagement with the real reasons, which is still causing the problems. He was still talking about it in terms of the legal justifications, the self-defence, the weapons of mass destruction. The real reason was pretty straightforward, much the same. As openly discussed in Australia, it was about keeping the US onside and being there alongside them. That was not part of the public debate here.

I wasn’t expecting to land on this so quickly but it’s time to pick it up because what you are bringing up there is this continuous clash between values versus interests. We sell the narrative on values but we pursue interests. Ultimately, it then sets, in my view, a very poor leadership example, particularly when we’re trying to espouse in our soldiers and military leaders a sense of normative values that we ought to then uphold rather than interests. This has come up. I can’t say the word enjoyed because it doesn’t feel right given the text that it belongs to but your Annex to the IGADF was impactful for me because you bring out some of these issues quite neatly.

This strikes me as a real problem that we are not discussing. In the ethics and philosophy departments, the debate between values and interests is ongoing but in the public discourse, it’s not. The mission of the Australian Defence Force and Australian Army is to serve in the interest of the nation. We’re supposed to live by some values that we seek to un uphold.

What happens when there’s a clash between those two, as was Iraq? A purely pragmatist rational thinker might say this was in Australia’s absolute interest. Yes, we bent the truth somewhat but we’d much rather go and bomb some backward Saddam Hussein than lose the absolute principal pillar of our national security or risk it.

It’s a real challenge for the military profession. Ultimately, you’re a political instrument. You want to do what the state tells you to do. As long as the profession is satisfied that it doesn’t cross that red line, as it is unlawful and should not be done, then it’s the military profession’s job to get on with it. If you don’t like it, then you need to get out of the military. That’s then your inter-selective conscientious objection territory which is perfectly valid. If you, for ethical and moral reasons, find yourself unable to serve, then it’s your job to get out. It’s the people who don’t get out and carry on who end up carrying the long-term moral injury, the PTSD, and the implications of going on and doing things they believe are ultimately unjustified.

VOW 52 | Military Ethics
Military Ethics: Being in a military profession means being used as a political instrument. You want to do what the state tells you to do as long as the profession is satisfied and doesn’t cross the red line.


Taking somebody’s life is a massive thing. Taking somebody’s life because you need to and it is in defence of your state and its interests in the defence of its people is one thing. Why are you there? What is the actual reason for it? That’s going to have been a question asked throughout history. You’ve got people asking that on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. It’s not a new question but if you don’t know why you are there, why you are doing it, then living with what you’ve done afterward is so much harder. This is a hugely under-researched area and so much more work needs to be done on it.

How do you protect the people that you send to war, particularly when it turns out that the war itself wasn’t justified? You’re asking them to do terrible things on behalf of your state and then it turns out that it was all a big lie when they come home or afterwards. It’s very hard without definitive data. It’s an extremely hard area to research. I’m positive that that situation and context are contributing to the horrendously high veteran suicide rate when it turns out that everything that you’ve been doing was based on a giant lie that you’ve been sold. Not just you. It’s society and the state. You were told it was the right thing to do and it turns out it wasn’t the right thing to do.

How on earth do you justify what it was that you did? I’m not saying anybody out there was doing the wrong thing from a legal sense or even from a professional ethics sense. They were doing what they were told to do and they were doing it appropriately and properly. However, because there was something broken and something wrong with the entire reason why they were there in the first place and that didn’t come out until afterward, then you put people into an awful situation. Who doesn’t care? The psychopaths. They’re the ones who would’ve done it anyway. You don’t want a military made up of psychopaths. That’s not a good look.

The only people who don’t care about deaths in wartime are psychopaths. You don’t want a military force composed of them. Click To Tweet

You are touching on the psychopaths and consequences of very poor ethics in war. What you’re saying is that potentially these unethical acts at times could also be because of a sense of betrayal by those who sent us. Is that what I’m hearing you say?

If we’re talking about the inquiry, we’re most getting into that area. You can chart through the reports, transcripts, and interviews. You can chart a disillusionment with the war in Afghanistan over the period. I’m not sure that that directly contributes to bad behaviour. It contributed indirectly, though, because it started to undermine the professionalism of the force that was there. “What are we doing here? Does it matter? What do they want from us?”

We need to slop some bad guys so it can be reported in the press back home because that’s what it’s already about. Nobody cares why we’re here. Nobody understands what we’re here for and what we are here for. It’s very poor metrics and poor understanding of strategy because there was no strategy. There was a lack of overarching strategy guiding the behaviour and very much became a self-licking lollipop. You are there to conduct missions and you are needed. Those missions need to be done but the missions themselves are generated because you need to be doing missions. The missions don’t need to happen or a good number of them.

It’s that you have to be seen to be busy. Otherwise, how do you justify your position there? The missions that you do become the justification for why you are there. It was a complete self-licking lollipop. It can’t have been lost on all the people that were out there, the utter pointlessness of risking your life every day to go out for what. It doesn’t fit into any strategy. You’re very interested in this relationship between the top and the bottom.

We’ve already been talking about in terms of the chain of command but it wasn’t just Australia. It was the UK and the US, this failed senior military leadership to hold the politicians to answer the question, “What are you want us to do over there? What are we there for? What’s our mission? What’s our end state? At what point are you going to be satisfied?” If it’s simply just to keep the Americans happy, that’s the real justification, and that continues to be the real justification a decade on. Let’s be honest about that. “We’re going to be the best allies that we can for the big dog.” That’s your justification.

The rest of the world knows it anyway.

Let’s be honest about it. It’s about state building and stopping the drug supplies.

Democracy and human rights.

It’s blatantly obvious to the people on the ground. It’s not about any of those things because half the policies are contradictory, though. You’re pulling against other bits of the effort. It doesn’t make any sense. What are you doing there? You’re there to generate a good headline on a Friday for the newspaper back home. That’s your job. It’s hardly surprising that a bit of disillusionment slips in and people stop taking their jobs quite as seriously as they should. What is the point of risking your life on a daily basis when it is blatantly obvious that it’s pretty pointless?

VOW 52 | Military Ethics
Military Ethics: If soldiers on the ground discover that they are there only to generate a good headline, they slip into a bit of disillusionment and stop taking their jobs as seriously as they should.


I’ve interviewed a couple of special forces soldiers who aren’t in any hot waters but certainly, that kept popping up, the lost sense of purpose and changing of the mission as they progress.

I must put a caveat in here. It is important to note that for the vast majority of people, their sense of professionalism, the deployed military personnel still go and do 110%. They go and do it properly. They do their job. They’re doing it for their mates, team, and unit. They’re still doing a remarkable job despite that. As part of the environment, the overall ethos, if you like, it’s got to be insidious. Over time, you realise, “What are we here for?”

“Why am I grabbing these guys? If we don’t kill them, they’ll be released within three days.”

In 48 hours, they’ll be back out again anyway.

They’re low-level anyway but we’ve slapped an objective name on them. One question to get us maybe a little bit deeper into this topic is that none of this is new. We’re touching on the atrocities in war, war crimes, and so on. We know from every war that’s ever gone before that atrocities have occurred. There’s no dispute. I question whether we can ever have a war without war crimes. I’m dubious.

I’m a military ethicist and I have to agree with you. It’s a horrendous thing to have to admit. That’s part of why you should never go to war lightly. You have to accept that the cost is going to be terrible and the cost on for everybody, including the people you’re sending to war, not just in terms of risk to their life but to what you’re exposing them to. I won’t quite say inevitable but it is expected. Due to the environment of war and the context, it can contribute to people doing terrible things when they know they shouldn’t. We know this.

You’re right but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try reducing it as much as possible. Otherwise, it’s like saying Australia still has murders. You have murders. It was a bit pointless trying to police murder. Let’s say it’s inevitable that we’re going to have murders and not pointless investigating them. As long as it’s at a low level, we’ll accept that a certain level of murders will occur. You can’t do that. War is the same as that. If you go down the route of saying, “People are going to break the rules. There’s no point worrying about the rules,” it’s not tenable.

That seems to be a modern feature. We’ve discussed that it’s a relative phenomenon of having military ethicists. I’ve read Jonathan Shay’s book on Vietnam. Some of those books discussed quite openly and soldiers openly discussed what effectively amounts to war crimes. This is not just one book. There are dozens of these books. I don’t want to say we didn’t care. We probably did but we didn’t pay so much attention as a society.

What’s different now? Why the US, certainly the UK, and Australia have had cases of mainly Special Forces soldiers having no court cases? In the UK, it was already a court case but certainly, in Australia, we still don’t have any court cases. There are certain investigations ongoing. Why is this a thing now that wasn’t before?

There are lots of different reasons. I can’t claim to be able to answer all of those. Let me give you one particular deeply profound reason why it is taken more seriously. These things did happen. They were endemic in previous conflicts and you’ve already talked about Shay, Vietnam, and the Vietnam experience. We know terrible things were done. There were some regulars but there were largely conscript troops out there.

We also know the terrible aftermath of that, both in Vietnam with the people directly affected but also with the soldiers that we sent there, the suicide rate, and the long-term mental health difficulties of the people we sent to war. For whatever reason, they apparently believed that they were doing the right thing in the war. Not necessarily the war itself. They had no choice about that. That’s what being conscripted is about.

You don’t get to resign from being a conscript. They were forced to do terrible things and then come home and have to live with it. The long-term fallout from that generation was huge. I’m pretty sure in most conflicts, the suicide rate is higher than the attrition rate from the conflict itself. I’m sure that was the same for previous generations but it was hidden. We didn’t see it, whereas maybe we’re slightly more aware of it.

Conscripts are being forced to come home from war and live with the terrible things they have done. This has made suicide rates much higher than the attrition rate from the conflict itself. Click To Tweet

From that angle, we look after our people and equip them for the difficult situations that they will be faced with. That’s part of what military ethics is about. It’s about thinking through difficult situations before they happen and getting an idea of the appropriate response in such a situation when you’re faced with it. It’s not like, “Let me check my textbook. I’ve got a book here. Let me see what the right answer is.” That’s not what it’s about. It’s not turning everybody into a moral philosopher or anything like that.

It’s simply about getting people comfortable with the idea that there are appropriate responses and inappropriate responses. We do this too. We call it op tag, the pre-deployment judgmental training. We do it in other areas in a shoot-don’t shoot situation. It’s an ethical version of that where you say, “What about if the person you’re working with, the coalition partner, kills a prisoner of war in front of you? What you’re going to do?”

Values versus interest.

What are you going to do? Have a think-through. What are you obliged to do? What would it be prudential to do? What are you going to do as an individual when you’re faced with this situation? It goes beyond, do you have legal liability in this situation? Think about this before it happens. Talk about it with your team. 1) You are far more likely to make the right decision if you are ever faced with that situation. 2) Be able to live with that decision afterward. That goes across the range of activities. You wouldn’t put somebody into a firefight without knowing how their rifle worked.

This is part of that preparation so that you don’t put people into situations that are perhaps morally ambiguous without giving them the tools to work their way through it, make the right answer, and live with that answer after. That’s part of what it’s about. That’s much more than simply the law act, the international humanitarian law, once a year brief that you get where it says, “You’re allowed to do this and you’re not allowed to do that.” “Great. What about this type of situation? How does that apply?” It’s an opportunity to explore those questions, talk about them and be comfortable with the answers.

Don't put people in morally ambiguous situations without giving them the tools to work their way through it. They should be able to make the right answer they can live with after. Click To Tweet

It’s important to highlight that none of that is going to be foolproof. It’s a numbers game. It’s a fair thing to openly talk about and say that if we accept it as a self-evident truth that we can’t go to war without at some point somewhere, things sliding to the point of an action that goes against our moral compass.

If we accept that as a self-evident truth, then we can start focusing rather than on don’t do the bad thing but statistically speaking, the 30,000, 40,000, 50,000, and 100,000 soldiers that are going to go through this battle in some shape or form, how do we reduce the chances of more than whatever number 1, 2, 5, or 10 of losing their guardrails?

There are individuals who are more likely than others to do bad things. We know this. We did a fantastic study with the Scandinavian. There are personality traits. There are certain people who shouldn’t be given the awesome responsibility of being able to take other people’s lives because they’re not wired in the same way as everybody else. They’re far more likely to do very bad things when given that power. We know that. We can also filter them out if we choose to but we often don’t.

Probably because they’re also some of the most heroic warriors. That’s the other side of that.

That is the other side of it, which can cause a huge tension. How do you stop the vast majority of otherwise good people doing bad things? There are all sorts of things that we can do. We know how morally and ethically corrosive the environment of war is.

That’s an important one and that’s something that I’ve got as a key component. I’ve argued this point a number of times and I don’t think that we talk about this enough. Our doctrine even talks about ethics like, “This is what you should be doing,” but we forget that the environment will shape behaviour. Kurt Lewin said this 100 years ago. We know that function will happen but we just don’t talk about it.

Maybe I can ask you, what are some of those things that will take morally adjusted person based on all your experience and research that will take a morally adjusted and healthy person from a law-abiding moral soldier to somebody whom we would post investigations and so on, ultimately being a war criminal? How does that slide happen?

There are lots of different factors that can contribute. The biggest one that you can do something about is your culture or ethos. That’s going to be very closely linked to your leadership and the way that the unit works and talks together. If behaviours become normal, it doesn’t matter how outrageous they are when you are back at home sitting in a classroom. If you are in a situation where things have become normal, then they are normal. They are around you all the time.

If behaviors become normal, it doesn't matter how outrageous they are. Click To Tweet

I’ll give you an analogy. Let’s say you’re sitting 70 miles an hour speed limit in the UK on the motorway. If you are in heavy traffic and everybody’s doing 90, it’s easy to go along at 90. I say heavy traffic. It’s not unsafe traffic. Everybody’s doing fine. There’s plenty of space in between each car. Why not do 90? You’re keeping up with the traffic flow. It’s the thing to do.

You’re going to be the one who’s annoying everybody else and forcing them into, “Let’s all go at 90 miles an hour.” Everybody’s doing it. It becomes normal. What happens if there’s an accident? What happens if a dog runs out into the road, a couple of cars ahead hits it, swerves and there’s a pile-up? People die. Speed was a contributory factor to this accident. “Everybody was speeding.” That’s not a defence.

You don’t say, “Everybody’s speeding so it’s all okay.” The fact is that anybody who’s involved in the accident goes, “You were speeding.” “Yeah, I was.” “You knew speeding was wrong.” “I did know speeding was wrong. Yes. I shouldn’t have been doing 90 miles an hour. I accept that.” “Why were you doing 90 miles an hour?” “Everybody else is doing 90 miles an hour.” Try it in a court if you like but that’s not going to work. That’s mitigation. It’s not a defence.

You say, “Everybody else is doing it,” but that’s mitigation. You have not got a defence there. What can you do about this? If you are in charge of that stretch of road and you know, for example, that 90 miles an hour is the default speed there, you have an accident there every day, and you are not doing anything about it, then you are culpable too. You should be doing something about it. Why haven’t you put some speed patrols out there? Why aren’t you pulling people over very visibly and saying, “You’re not allowed to do that. Let’s get the speed down. Let’s get it back to closer where it should be.”

Maybe you’re not going to get it at 70 but it doesn’t have to be 90. You can be in control of that environment and you can signal. As people’s speed starts to come down, it stops being normal to go at 90 miles an hour. You start thinking, “Somebody was caught here last week. I remember that accident that we all talked about. We all talked about the fact that that accident was caused by people going too fast. Let’s have a little warning up on the side of the road. There were 6 accidents here in the last 12 months. Perhaps I better slow down.”

There are lots of things that you can do in that environment to stop the culture from running away with itself. Take that analogy across to a military unit. You can see how holding people to account for breaking the rules, not turning a blind eye to Special Forces, therefore, special culture or the idea that we are special and exceptionalism. No, you don’t turn a blind eye to people breaking the rules blatantly and then say, “We do it differently here.” No. Somehow, we accepted that you think that and that’s okay. No, it’s not okay. You are not special in the sense that special rules apply or no rules apply. That’s not the way it works. You will be held to account.

You are special. You are going to be held to a higher level of account than anybody else. That’s what it means to be part of an elite unit. When you cock up, you are going to be held to a higher account than other people. You’re going to be chucked out if you don’t live up to our standards. That’s how you improve unit behaviour. I’m not saying we have lower standards behaviourally than everybody else because we’re special. You have higher standards. That’s the point. That’s what being special means.

Where do we go wrong then? I want to stress that it’s about the courts that need to do what they need to do. I, certainly by no stretch of the imagination, seek to smear the reputation of any of the Special Forces.

I need to make that caveat yet again. I’ve made it several times but in case anybody comes in and starts reading at a certain point, I want to emphasise that for the vast majority of people, they didn’t break the rules or do the wrong thing. They held up to the highest standards of behaviour, a professional behaviour that you would expect from the ADF. It was a minority of people who didn’t.

To say that their behaviour is somehow excused, permissible, or acceptable because of the environment is doing a huge disservice to all the people who didn’t go down that path and didn’t break the rules. The fact that the vast majority of people are carrying out their duty to a high professional standard is exactly why you should hold those people who don’t to account.

VOW 52 | Military Ethics
Military Ethics: A vast majority of military people didn’t break the rules and help up to the highest standards of behavior. Only a minority did wrong things, which must never be excused or regarded as permissible.


We said it’s not a defence but certainly mitigating circumstances. There ought to be a number of mitigating circumstances that we think about when looking at some of these alleged war crimes. I feel horrible for their victims but I also empathise with those very soldiers who I feel as though they’re somehow victims a little bit as well. I’m sure that some of them, even if they’re not in hot water at the moment, can’t sleep at night because of what they’ve done. However, they have to defend perhaps against unrealistic expectations. What we are hearing is, “You don’t know what it’s like. That’s what war is and war is ugly.” These are soundbites that they’re having to defend with.

No one is talking about the upstream causes. We’re talking about the highway. These are upstream causes and mitigating circumstances where about any person would potentially do the same thing if exposed to the very same circumstances. In the couple of questions that I sent to you ahead of time, I don’t necessarily want to get bogged down into a debate about free will or free will scepticism.

I had that discussion with Gregg Caruso. It was one of my favourite episodes. One of the things he argues is that the environment that’s going to effectively set up certain bumpers and if certain bumpers are struck, the behaviour will occur. If we’re superposed to the fact that we know that at some point, war crimes will occur, we also know that at some point, some soldiers will go beyond what we reasonably expect a soldier will also do because of circumstances. I’m sure of it.

They’re genetically pre-dispositioned for certain behaviours or personality traits or on their 12th deployment, they’ve had 3 of their mates killed. They’ve arrested this particular person fourteen times already. They’ve lost a sense of purpose and haven’t slept. All of these kinds of things are mitigating circumstances that ultimately if they had not been there, that soldier would probably not have done what they did. That’s an issue. You still have to try because it has a deterrent effect, like the sign or speed camera. There’s still a moral dilemma there that I’m wrestling with. I don’t want to throw them out as the few bad apples because they’re our soldiers.

This is hugely problematic for the fact that we understand how morally corrosive the environment is for individuals and yet still hold those individuals to account. In the UK case you were talking about, Marine Sergeant Blackman shot a wounded enemy combatant who most clearly holds the combat. He shot him in the head with a pistol and then turned to the rest of his unit and said, “This goes nowhere. I’ve broken the Geneva Convention.” It was all caught on camera. How many of those incidents were not caught on camera in every conflict throughout history? Many, no doubt.

It’s the fact that he turned around to somebody else in his unit and admitted that he had broken the law as he did it. He wasn’t claiming it was justified in any other way. In the heat of the moment, having executed an enemy soldier, he admitted he shouldn’t have done that on camera. He was initially convicted of a war crime. He was convicted of murder. Several years later, there was a subsequent appeal in which the psychological reports were presented explaining that the environmental factors were so overwhelming. He’d lost his father. There had been a comrade had been killed and parts of his body had been struck up in a tree.

It was a horrendous litany of things that added up to the environment. He had been horrendous and had been on continuous deployment in a forward operating position for about six months or more. There’d been only one or fewer visits from the chain of command in that period. They were on their own. There were lots of different factors that the unit culture deteriorated over that period.

This was presented to the appeal court and was accepted by the appeal court not only as mitigation but as a defence against murder. He was acquitted of murder. He was found instead guilty of manslaughter, which given the time that he had already served, meant that he was released. He wasn’t told, “It’s okay. You weren’t guilty of this.” He was still guilty of this but the environmental factors contributed to his state of mind to such a degree that it could not be said that the act itself was not premeditated.

Any other reasonable person would’ve probably acted in that same manner.

I wouldn’t say any other but you can see why he did. The other bit is because there are still lots of people in that situation who still don’t do that.

Sorry. To clarify, what I meant is if the circumstance had been the same. If I had had my father die or I was the same personality type, the point I’m making is that these were all triggers that had led down a golden path that, in his case, was inevitable to occur and had occurred. We need some empathy for him as well for what he’s carrying, in that sense.

I’m wary about using the word inevitable there. The factors had contributed to the extent that the court decided that this was a defence against the idea that he had consciously decided that this was the right thing to do. He was still guilty of manslaughter, the second most serious crime that you can commit but it was no longer murder. There are lots of people who said, “He shouldn’t have been tried in the first place because this was war.” There are lots of people who think that the original murder conviction should have stood because he knew what he was doing. He was caught on camera.

There’s another significant group of people who think that ended up probably in the right place. He knew he shouldn’t have done it but he wasn’t in the right state of mind at that time so therefore, he shouldn’t be held to the highest level of culpability. It was still a criminal act. It was wrong but it wasn’t murder in the sense that we understand murder in its normal sense. There’s something to that argument. It’s not that he didn’t do it. He did do it. It’s not that he wasn’t responsible for it. He was responsible for it but he wasn’t responsible to the extent that we would expect somebody who had committed murder to be found guilty.

Sorry, that was a very long attempted explanation for how environmental factors do contribute or can contribute. Given certain environmental factors, we know people are far more likely to carry out certain activities. We also know what those triggers are and what the chain of command and the organisation itself can do and should be doing to address those factors. It’s the fact that Sergeant Blackman didn’t get some kind of a proper leave of absence after his father died or there was no significant intervention by the chain of command. Nobody was looking after him.

Nobody was looking after the unit from that point of view, checking on the unit, checking in on them, rotating them out, taking them out of the situation, and putting another group in. There are all sorts of different things that could have happened and didn’t happen there. If you write that large across much bigger units, you can see that there’s a huge amount of things that you can do to contribute to a healthy unit culture. If you’re not doing those things, then it starts to become inevitable. People are going to start breaking the rules and doing terrible things.

That’s going to appear normal to them because the group culture has been allowed to drift in that way. It’s much harder to pin down the chain of command and say, “Why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that?” It’s much easier to point to the person who did the specific act and say, “They were acting on their own,” and ignore the fact that the chain of command allowed that situation to develop over a period. That’s made up of lots of individual errors of judgment. It’s much harder to hold to account. Organisations have got to take those things seriously.

For the record, lest it be confusing what I was saying, I agree that we need to have these court cases. I’m certainly not saying that these people should be let off. It will have a deterrent effect. We need to learn from these lessons. You’re spot on. It might be the next dimension if it’s a bit higher but the overwhelming responsibility in the investigation came down to the patrol commander level. This is something I’m sure you’ve heard even in the UK criticism. Certainly, I’ve heard whispers of it across many ranks in the Army and with my civilian friends. It seems unfair that the responsibility lies at the patrol commander level.

Many are criticising that the chain of command has walked away scot-free. That’s the point you’re making. Let’s stop focusing on the individual as an institution or organisation, and let the courts do that. Let’s learn from those particular case studies that there is a path to this. Nobody is born a war criminal. We have to embrace that and understand that we are all part of this as an institution, system, and society, depending on how far we want to look at it.

That ethical drift, you can chart its progress through the Burton Report. All crimes didn’t instantly start happening at the start of the deployment. Gradually over time, the people who are continually being redeployed start to change, and the organisation itself starts to change. You have ethical drift in both aspects and there’s the relationship between the two but you can do something about it as an organisation. It’s not that the organisation hasn’t been warned. We know these things. We know what contributes to bad or corrosive behaviour. We can do something about it. We do know that there is something that the organisation can put in place.

VOW 52 | Military Ethics
Military Ethics: The military organization have been warned of bad and corrosive behavior within their ranks, and they know there is something that can be put in place to stop it.


The reality of operational deployments will mitigate some of our ability to do something about it because we’ll never have enough troops and time. We’ll send our Special Forces to do night operations because we have night vision goggles and the enemy doesn’t so therefore, our soldiers won’t sleep or will have disruptive sleep buttons. There’ll be tactical imperatives that will limit what we can do. The point you are making as well in some of the other writing as well is that the training we can do even back home needs to be more wholly infused into service life, not just as a throwaway presentation of the training.

It’s not an afterthought. Don’t stick it in at the end on the Friday before everybody goes home. This is part of what it is to be a professional organisation, this internal discussion about the rights and wrongs of what it means to be a military professional.

The only thing there, in my view, is to what extent are we able to replicate the environment and all the elements that we talked about of that environment to train for it and test it? Ultimately, many will say none of this new ethical stuff is new. We’ve been doing this. I had Special Forces soldiers say on the show, “We’re ethically well trained and have been for decades. None of the training that we’re doing now is taking this to a much greater degree. It’s not so much the training that’s the issue. It’s potentially the things that we can’t mitigate for.”

Shannon French, who I know is a colleague of yours, to this very point, even said, “Let’s bring in conscription. If we want to go to war. Let’s bring in the draft again.” She recognises this dilemma. I wonder what you think about that. I’m in the training space and I believe in training but I also am somewhat worried that I don’t want it to become a ticking-the-box exercise. In training, we can’t replicate the true environment. I feel like we’re sticking a Band-Aid on and then down the line, we’ll throw a few bad apples out again and sit on our high horse. That’s my concern with it.

I’m not sure conscription is the answer but I can see that way of thinking.

In her defence, she was partially joking but also in the sense that if we start conscription, society would care a lot more if we went to war.

The military is so small as a percentage of our population. It’s the incredible range of things they can do without small size compared to previous generations. That means there are fewer people and people are less connected to the military. Therefore, you can become blind to the fact that it’s not a sacrifice that they are seeing. That certainly is one good argument for it. That argument from that SF operator is interesting that the ethics training hasn’t changed in many years. It’s pretty much the same as before.

Maybe I’m misquoting it but the point he was trying to make is that the ethics environment changed. They were ethical as sound then as the soldiers going through with added training but the result where he was trying to make the point is that it wasn’t necessarily the training that was going to stop this type of behaviour.

There’s a huge difference between sitting and working something out in a classroom environment. It’s lovely and friendly. It’s very easy to come up with the right answer in a classroom, sitting on a battlefield, ticking incoming fire, and trying to work out the thing to do, let alone the right thing to do, in that situation. How do you replicate that and make sure that your training matches the real-life scenario that you are in? It’s hard but not impossible. Putting somebody into a battlefield as part of their training is not a good idea, even though historically, that’s how people do it.

We know that people make different decisions under different types of environmental input. For example, if you’re stressed, fatigued, or tired, you’re likely to think and react differently than sitting in a classroom. We need to change ethics training and education. We need to understand that sitting in a classroom and learning about the theory is fine. If you’re a staff officer and you’re going to have 48 hours to make a decision, then you want to be able to explore the parameters of all the different aspects of it. It’s very different from somebody in a tactical situation to make the right call.

How do you do the equivalent of ethical muscle memory? If you’re trained for a situation, you hear stimuli and you know how to respond to it because you’ve trained for it again and again. If somebody gives you an instruction, you know how to follow it because you’ve trained for it again and again. It becomes part of your muscle memory. You understand what’s going on intuitively because it’s been ingrained and you’ve trained for it. How do you do that with ethics? We are much better at this than we used to be.

For example, if you want to find out how people are going to behave in an extreme situation, there are situations where you can start to do that. For example, at Sandhurst, in the Broadsword exercise, right before they graduate, they do an exercise and then there are all sorts of learning opportunities through that exercise. They’re tired, hungry, and put into extremely stressful situations. They know they’re being graded constantly. It’s a massive ethical risk factor, being tired. Everybody is always tired of war. Stress is a massive ethical risk factor. Add to it by being assessed so you’ve got heightened alarm.

They’ll have things like riot exercises where it’s nighttime. There are flames coming out of the oil drum next to them. There are people throwing stuff at them and they’ve got the shield wall. Somebody is supposed to be calling the shots and making the decision as the political post is starting to be overrun and people are breaking windows around the back. You’ve got to make a decision. What are you going to do? The situation unfolds. At the end of the mini scenario, the person who’s been tested for that half an hour here is pulled aside.

One of the ones that I was fortunate enough to be an observer for is you have a member from the ICRC standing there and saying, “Why did you make this decision then? Did you realise what was going on? Were you aware of these other factors? Do you realise that you didn’t even see X, Y, or Z? Had you any idea what was going on here?” The adrenaline is still going. “No, I didn’t.”

This is what happens when you’re in this type of situation. You become tunnel-visioned. This is somebody who’s experienced it. It’s live. They can see how their experience shaped their ability in some situations. Those are lessons that you never forget and that we will live with you. We can do that again. You’ve probably seen the ethics education playing cards.

I was going to bring that up because I’ve got the app.

It’s not a substitute for broader ethics education and training. It’s a fantastic little tool that you can use alongside it.

Can you describe what the tool is? It is a very handy tool.

It’s a pack of playing cards with 52 military ethics education questions on it across the complete spectrum of questions, from, “Is the pre-emptive destruction of civilian property to deny it to the enemy a legitimate tactic? Discuss. What do you think,” through, “Should you discuss and debate the reasons for being deployed with, A) Those in the military and, B) Those not in the military?” It’s 52 broad questions. The idea is that this is a simple way of getting people to start thinking about the issues. On the back of each card, there is a QR link that takes you through to a website where you can unpack the question and start exploring the different answers.

We turn this into a free app as well so that if you search in the Android store or the Apple store for Military Ethics, then that’ll pop up. There’s a medical version as well for the military medical environment as well. The idea is that you’ve got a tool there that can be used anywhere. You can start a discussion and start thinking about the situation. On a live fire range, being graded, you’ll suddenly have the person in charge of the range standing next to you screaming in your ear the four of clubs, “Is it okay to make offensive jokes if it’s banter? Answer.”

It’s not perfect. There are plenty of opportunities where you can get ethics out of the classroom and get people thinking about in high-stress environments where their answers would like to be a lot more honest. It’s also where the discussion, debate, or learning is going to be programmed experientially. You can do this.

The opportunities that we’ve got for immersive learning are huge. All the efforts are into making sure that we’ve got better flight simulators or targeting decisions but with real-life information. All are very good. Let’s also use that to put people into ethically compromising situations and see how they reason their way out of it. What do they do in those situations? It’s not just the technical competency with firearms. It’s their ethical-technical competency which is being assessed as part of that as well. We can do that. It’s got to be taken seriously enough.

Use immersive learning not only to train the military in making the right targeting decisions but also to teach them how to handle ethically compromising situations. See how they will reason their way out of them. Click To Tweet

That’s the key point. It’s got to be taken seriously enough, not to the cost of the mission but it will delay the mission. The reason I say that is because as you were talking, the conversation with Marc, who is the head of targeting, popped into my mind. He was in charge of the hunt for Saddam and they had 50 attempts at bombing him, all approved attempts. All 50 missed, all 50 killed civilians, which no one answered because there was a poor intelligence point for whatever reason. Those are examples that we need to use in our case study.

Let’s experience what it feels like in a simulator that you’ve killed 50 civilians and then go and be debriefed hopefully by psych. What led to this decision? What are the conditions that we set even in this simulation that have led to you pulling the trigger of that drone or whatever it was? To emphasise the point, we will never stop all of it but it is about decreasing the statistical likelihood of things going wrong and arming as many people as possible when we do go to war. It’s not the first time we’re making these decisions under as close an environment as possible. That’s the key.

There’s also something else that’s worth mentioning. The idea that military ethics is therefore adding hesitation and doubt to people who need to be able to make life-or-death decisions very quickly. It is a criticism. I’d turn it around and say, “If you’re doing military ethics education properly, it’s not about hesitating. It’s about doing the right thing quicker.” Early on in the deployments, we started to hear about issues where people were hesitating because they believed they didn’t have the authorisation to defend themselves properly and effectively.

There were concerns about the understanding low on the ground that people were hesitating because they thought they would be held accountable for using lethal force, even when it was appropriate and required. This was part of the problem and that was because the lawyers had done such a fantastic job of explaining what was and what was not allowed that people were left in the situation. “I don’t know. Is this self-defence? Am I allowed to act in this situation?”

VOW 52 | Military Ethics
Military Ethics: Soldiers on the ground hesitate to carry out their mission if they believe they don’t have the authorization to defend themselves and would be held accountable for using lethal force even it was required.


This is where law and ethics come together. This is the type of thing that military ethics can help with. If you genuinely believe you are acting in self-defence, you can use lethal defensive force. Have the opportunity to talk about it with pre-deployment or even on the deployment. It doesn’t matter where you have these conversations, as long as they happen so that people are confident that they do understand what they are permitted to do.

We know that there was a corrective that went out around that period. I’m very sure that military ethics and military law initiative will have equipped people to not hesitate when they needed to act. It will ultimately have saved some lives. It’s not about becoming less effective. It’s about becoming more effective in any situation.

You’re ultimately doing the right thing because once that trigger’s pulled, there’s no way of taking it back. That’s the point you made about moral injury. We’re only yet to uncover the real cost of that to our military. David, I’m conscious of the time and I could talk about this all day but maybe a couple of closing questions. What do you hope and maybe even fear that the inquiry has achieved or will achieve?

First of all, I’m going to say the entire inquiry process is enormously impressive, looking from the outside in. The willingness to look at things, what very few countries would be willing to do. The type of inquiries that the US has had, I don’t think have been anywhere near as impressive. The other countries haven’t even wanted to go there at all. They haven’t wanted to lift that lid and look inside. It’s enormously impressive that the Australian people have decided to do this. I hope it will lead to a better appreciation within the chain of command, the organisation, and the military institutions themselves about what they can do to prevent ethical drift in the future.

There are a lot of things that can be done usefully. It’s also worth reflecting that I know those changes haven’t happened because of Burton. They were underway long before the report came out. Just because of how things get reported, everything looks like a response to a report. There’s been a huge effort over a very long time to make sure that things were being corrected long before. I hope the Burton Report has contributed to that. The politics of it is extremely divisive.

I’m a very long way away geographically, which means I’m only looking in and not seeing it on a daily basis but I know how divisive this is. That was predictable. It’s so impressive that they decided to do it because it is important. The accountability shouldn’t be to the tiny minority of people who did wrong in this situation. The accountability should be the profession looking at itself and saying, “How could we have avoided or reduced this? What could we have done about this?” I hope that’s what this inquiry will contribute to.

Due to the way it was done, there’s a better chance of that happening and that is a good thing. It can’t be hidden. There was no pretence that this was a couple of bad apples and that everything is fine and rosy. There are some problems there. They’re not unique to ADF by any stretch of the imagination but the fact that the ADF is looking at them. The public is properly aware of it because of the inquiry so that’s an enormously important and very good thing.

What do you see?

Ultimately, it becomes so politically toxic that it is kicked into the long grass and nothing happens. The chain of command or the key people who have been driving this forward will ultimately not be there anymore long-term. The organisation will stick its fingers in its ears and go, “Everything’s fine.” That’s the fear. You’ve had an amazing opportunity to put things right. The caveat that I’ve made throughout this is a lot of things went right. There are a lot of good people but there were some things that went catastrophically wrong and it is possible to start a journey, which means that won’t happen again.

Maybe this is the last question. What do you wish you knew before starting your work for IGDF or the analysis? It was an analysis piece.

There’s so much I don’t know. I’d always want to know more. There’s so much emerging work in this area. I’d like to know all of that. I’d like to know more to be able to identify more of the military acronyms. I’ve got about 90% of them, I reckon but some of them I have to look up.

Is there something, thinking back with the benefit of hindsight, that stands out that you wish you had before you started doing this work?

The parameters of the report and my specific task for the appendix were to look at a particular area. I hope that building on that, the broader institutional questions will get asked. I wasn’t specifically tasked with looking at that. It’s not in there. It’s not a mission in that sense. That wasn’t where I was looking. I hope that the lessons learned are not just focused on the individuals that may or may not be held legally accountable in the future.

There is the broader context, the institutional context. There are a lot of issues there. I would love to have had the opportunity to look at that broader piece. I hope that others will be looking at that on. I know there are other people who are looking in that area. It would’ve been fascinating to be directly involved in that but my contribution was a much smaller piece.

The ethical changes in military should not focus at the individual level only. There must be a broader institutional context to properly address wartime issues. Click To Tweet

It’s a much valuable contribution. It was the one piece of that report that resonated with me because it dealt with a lot of the things that I was hoping we needed to discuss rather than the laying of the incidents, which is important. Some context. Let’s chew on some things and ask some harder questions to open up the discussion.

You were hoping that certainly, the Australian Defence Force would do this. A lot of changes have happened. I was out of the defence force for years and came back in. The fact that this show can even exist and I can talk about these questions openly is a testament to that. We are willing to face up to some of these things, explore, and pay attention to some of the nuances.

That’s certainly happening across many units that I’ve had contact with or heard about. You’re certainly part of that very important work. It is important work and we need to keep sharpening our understanding of how we get to that point rather than just focusing on when we get there and what we do with these bad few apples.

Let’s look at whether we’re going to war for the right reasons. That’s perhaps the most important point. David, on that note, I’ve taken a lot more of your time than we originally agreed to. It was a fantastic discussion, as I knew it would be. It’s been a long time coming but worth every minute. Thank you very much for giving me so much of your time. I appreciate it.

Thank you very much, Maz. It’s been an absolute pleasure.


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