The Voices of War

53. Dr Deane-Peter Baker: State Ethics vs Soldier Morality

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality


Today, I spoke with Dr Deane-Peter Baker, a military ethicist, who is an Associate Professor of International and Political Studies in the School of Humanities and Social Science at UNSW Canberra, where he also is co-Convenor of the UNSW Canberra Future Operations Research Group.


Deane’s work focuses mainly on the ethics of armed conflict. His current area of focus is on ethics and special operations, and he is a regular consultant to Australia’s Special Operations Command as well as the Australian Defence Force more broadly.


He joins me to today to discuss one of his recently published books, Morality and Ethics at War: Bridging the Gaps Between the Soldier and the State. Some of the topics we discussed are:

  • Deane’s entry into the field of military ethics
  • Difference between ethics and morality
  • Idea of individual freedom
  • Inculcating moral frameworks
  • Distinction between jus ad bellumand jus in bello
  • ‘Disciplined disobedience’
  • Understanding ‘ethics inhibitors’ in a military context
  • Training with ethics in mind
  • Moral drift and moral injury
  • The ‘Guardian ethos’
  • Interests vs values argument
  • ‘Ethical triangulation’

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Dr Deane-Peter Baker: State Ethics vs Soldier Morality

In this episode, my guest is Dr. Deane-Peter Baker, who’s an Associate Professor of International and Political Studies in the School of Humanities and Social Science at UNSW Canberra, where he is also co-convener, together with Professor David Cullen of the UNSW Canberra Future Operations Research Group. He’s also a senior visiting research fellow at The King’s College, London Centre for Military Ethics and a Research Associate at the Centre for Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University.

Deane’s work focuses mainly on the ethics of armed conflict. His area of focus is on Ethics and Special Operations. He’s a regular consultant to Australia’s Special Operations Command, as well as the Australian Defence Force, more broadly. He joins me to discuss one of his published books, Morality and Ethics at War: Bridging the Gaps Between the Soldier and the State. I read this excellent book, and due to the ever-increasing complexity of modern battlefields, I found it not only relevant but also very timely for about every military in the world. Deane, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

You’ve been a military ethicist for many years. Maybe we can start by finding out how this journey began and what motivated you to pursue this particular career path.

I don’t know that many people start wanting to be military ethicists. It’s certainly not on the usual list of career paths. In my case, I wandered into it. I had always had an interest in the military. I had a brief period of service in the British Army as a reservist in the South African Army. My academic career took me down the path of Philosophy. I didn’t think of any great way those two things would meet. I didn’t have in mind to join them up. As an undergraduate, I dated a young woman, I should say. We were young man and woman back then who was a nurse.

I didn’t think to check on her family before I started dating her and discovered that she had three older brothers, one of whom was a semi-professional rugby player and a bit scary, one of whom, I’m not sure but may have been a gun runner. The eldest brother was a Special Forces soldier who had left the military. He was working for a company I’d never heard of at the time called Executive Outcomes. You may have heard of Executive Outcomes.

It’s probably the prototype private military company. I met them, ended up breaking up with this girl and went on with my life and studying Philosophy. Some years later, I turned on the TV, and there was this older brother on TV being arrested for his role in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. I thought, “This is interesting.” I did what academics do and decided to run a conference. I ran a conference on private military contractors, and that’s how I stumbled into Military Ethics.

That’s a very insightful journey, and it also shows a little bit of wisdom on your part.

It’s been interesting ever since. Another funny part of that story is I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Blood Diamond. The gentleman in question was the advisor to Leonardo DiCaprio in that movie, and his character is modelled on him. It’s a strange world.

How did you find your way to Australia, particularly UNSW? I feel like I’ve known you for years. That’s because I’ve seen your name so much around the traps of the Australian Army. I’ve done a couple of your courses. How did you end up here?

I was in a normal civilian university teaching Philosophy. I kept teaching these because I got interested in these military ethics courses. My students were like, “Why are we doing this?” I got interested enough in it, and we decided we wanted to move on from South Africa, where we were living at the time and where I was working. I applied for many jobs and managed to land one of them, which was at the US Naval Academy in the Department of Leadership Ethics and Law.

I taught there for almost three years and then got offered this job at UNSW Canberra with very similar roles. UNSW Canberra, for readers who are not aware, is the academic partner of the Australian Defence Force Academy. Our undergraduate students are trainee officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force of the ADF. It was a very similar role. Australia’s great. It was a no-brainer to come over.

I’ve gone through UNSW ADFA myself. I certainly understand how that process works well. This book, in particular, is timely. You write in the opening. Major General Susan Coyle, also in the foreword of the book, addresses the timeliness of it. Why did it come out, and why is it important, this particular book? I’ll read the title again. It’s the Morality and Ethics at War: Bridging the Gaps Between the Soldier and the State.

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality
Morality and Ethics at War: Bridging the Gaps Between the Soldier and the State

In one sense, it’s a case of this was the moment in my career when I was ready to write this book. In another sense, it’s a response to a growing recognition that we’re seeing of the challenge of moral injury. I didn’t set up to write a book about moral injury, but that is a big part of what it became. I suppose, in a way, it’s me stepping back from my career of training or educating future and current military personnel in the area of Military Ethics. Stepping back and trying to put this all into a broader context and trying to see where the cracks are in the system. It all came together around a project that I ran to create a course for the 6th Brigade. Susan Coyle was money off at the Brigade at the time. That gave me this wonderful opportunity to write this up.

For me, it did speak to this need to address the relationship between the state and the soldier. It’s very contemporary because of the alleged war crimes conducted by some members of the Australian SAS but it’s relevant to the UK, the US and any military in the world. It’s very relevant in Ukraine as well, where we’re seeing this role between the state and the soldier play out on the Russian side. We’re seeing it on both sides, but we can unpack it and draw the distinction a lot clearer on the Russian side. Before we delve into that, what is the main thesis of the book? What is this ethical gap between a state and a soldier that needs to be bridged that you’re trying to address?

I try to draw a distinction between morality and ethics in the book. When I say morality, there’s a difference. Ethicists will give you different answers to that question. I tend to follow a Canadian Philosopher, Charles Taylor, not to be confused with the Liberian War criminal of the same name. Taylor has a neat way of drawing the distinction. He says that Ethics is what is about what it’s good to do, and morality is about what it’s good to be. That has been a useful framework for thinking about the individual soldier. When I say soldier, I’m referring to anyone in military service but the individual who is a moral being in a rich, deep and all-encompassing sense.

I’m trying to draw a link and quite a unique sense as well. I’m trying to think about how that connects up with the ethics of war, which are thin, narrow and tied to the nature of the state. The underlying idea is to try to think about the gap between that individual and the state that they serve and how we can bridge that. There are risks. If there’s a gap that’s not bridged, that’s at least one potential cause of ethical failure on the battlefield, war crimes and so on, which has a strategic impact but also a potential cause for moral injury for the individual. That’s what the book is trying to address.

I want to get to moral injury, but what did you mean by the ethics of the state is slim and narrow?

Maybe I struggled a little bit in trying to express that in the book, but what I’m trying to say is in a liberal democracy, at the core of the idea of liberalism is the idea of freedom. Individuals who live in a state should be free to develop their lives as they see fit, to have their sense of what’s valuable, what’s good, what’s right and what’s wrong, as far as possible but within some bounds. Those bounds are defined by our effect on others. We don’t harm one another.

At the core of the idea of liberalism is the idea of freedom. Individuals who live in a state should be free to develop their lives as they see fit within some bounds. Click To Tweet

That fundamental idea of freedom limits the ethical framework that a liberal state is appropriate for them to have. We don’t live in a country anyway where we have a deep, thick and rich sense of what the state wants the individual to be as a person. That wouldn’t be appropriate for that. The ethics of war for the state is thin and minimal thing that’s enough to hold it all together, but that doesn’t try to turn the combatant into something he or she is not necessary.

To push on that a little bit more because I’m trying to visualise the difference, for example, between Russia. I’m sure Putin and his henchman are arguing, at that point, that this is all about Russian freedom from oppression. One could almost argue what he’s doing, the ethics of the Russian state is to pursue the freedom of the Russian individual. I’m trying to see where the distinction or the point of difference is between the narrative we’re selling versus the narrative that someone like Putin is selling.

I don’t want to claim to be any Russian expert. My impression, let’s put it this way, is that while Russia describes itself as a liberal democracy or as a democracy, it isn’t really. It’s an autocracy. While there is potential talk about freedom as being central, that’s not what’s driving things here. We’ve got to be careful not to get caught up by the propaganda and the words that are said. Is this about freedom? I don’t think it is. I’m trying to get at this from a broader position, trying to think about that individual and their relationship to the state. That’s where that tension lies.

The only reason I’m asking that point is because it is relevant to us in the West. We often can fall for the traps of our narratives. The reason I say this is, for example, the war in Iraq. It could very easily be argued that the war in Iraq had nothing to do with freedom. That goes down to the relationship to how that shapes and influences the soldier who’s on the ground. This is what your book does exceptionally well. It draws this tension out between the causes for jus ad bellum, or the justification of war, versus the jus in bello or the conduct of war for soldiers.

There need to be threads between those two that are robust and dense enough, so it may be believed that what the soldier is doing is just and ethical. Unless that happens, we can then start sliding into these murky waters of loss of purpose or sense of self. This is where you talk about moral identity and having an individual moral identity. Can you describe what you mean by moral identity? How does the moral identity link to this overarching ethic of the state?

I lean back on my early philosophical career again and refer to the work of Charles Taylor. Taylor is very insightful in trying to understand what we are as human beings. This is essentially right. We are inescapably moral beings, not in the sense that we’re always good. We certainly are not, but rather in the sense that we evaluate the world inescapably in broadly moral terms. As we go through life, we’re always making judgments that some things are better or worse, higher or lower, right and wrong. That’s an inescapable feature of what it is to be a human being. People who didn’t have that would be beyond our ability to engage and understand.

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality
Soldier Morality: As we go through life, we’re always making judgements that some things are better or worse, higher or lower right and wrong. That’s an inescapable feature of what it is to be a human being.


He drills deeper into that initial recognition that we have this inescapable way of viewing the world. What does that mean about us? He thinks if we dig down, we identify that we align ourselves with a range of what he equals goods. Values that we hold as very important to us define who we are and where we think we stand in moral space. “How are we doing? Am I good or bad? I’m judging that by some sense of what I think good and bad is. Am I closer to it or further away from these goods?”

These goods define a framework. The analogy is like your spatial environment. You define yourself in terms of those things that are around you. “I’m closer to this landmark and further away from that one. I’m moving towards that other one.” The idea of a moral framework is that defines us in some deep and inescapable kind of way.

Can I jump in there with a question as well? That’s an important piece of the puzzle in my mind, at least. It’s the moral framework, which to me, is almost the software that’s running the algorithms inside my mind that ultimately dictate my behaviour as I interact with my environment. Where do moral frameworks come from? How do we install the software into our minds or even upgrade it as we progress in life?

Our framework develops throughout our lives. It starts with our parents or whoever raises us. We get some of it from our peers. We get it from our culture. It’s what Taylor refers to as our Webs of Interlocution, others that we are in engagement with. This builds a unique framework for each person. Nobody has the same framework as somebody else. This is what makes our identity so special and valuable. One way of thinking about our previous discussion was this is exactly the freedom to be that person that the liberal democratic state exists to protect. The things that you value that define you, you should be free to be able to do that.

I’m a visual kind of learner. I see a multitude of Venn diagrams. In the middle, there’s an overlapping one, which is our collective values, whatever that you’re saying. In Australia or liberal democracies, there’s a certain set of values, and freedom would be at the core of that. There’s a whole range of other values that at least some of them might be part dreams, but at least we aspire to uphold, whether it be equality, freedom of speech, the pursuit of excellence and all of these kinds of things. From that centre, there are all the other individual Venn Diagrams where we might have other identities. I might be in the Army, and you’re a professor. That in itself is a different social identity governed by its values, I suppose.

They’ll be the same values, but we weigh them differently. They take a different place in our framework.

At an individual level. By that, we have a certain value system inculcated in our soldiers, which is driven top-down from these values. We aspire for our soldiers to uphold. The essence of your book is these values that then need to dictate how we conduct ourselves on the battlefield. This is what we would refer to as the jus in bello or the conductor war, the rules of war, which is a bit effectively what we’ve inculcated in our soldiers.

The question for me is, how do we do that without changing or if you are almost violating that individual framework? If that’s an overarching principle of our society, you should be free to develop that on your own. How do we get all of these people who have different frameworks to abide by the same ethical principles when it comes to warfighting? That’s the real challenge.

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality
Soldier Morality: It is a real challenge to get different people with different frameworks to abide by the same ethical principles when it comes to warfighting.


This then leads me to my next question. The ethic is the jus ad bellum, the state’s decision to go to war that is governed by certain principles. Below that is the jus in bello, or the conduct of war, which applies to the soldier. It strikes me as though we don’t, as a society, hold those to the same level of scrutiny. This is something I’ve discussed elsewhere and previously. Our leaders who send us to war can fundamentally do so with relative impunity. No one’s going to drag our political leaders over sending our soldiers to war. If anything, their popularity will go up, at least at that point in time. As we cascade down, it is the soldiers that we then ultimately hold to account.

In some of the questions I sent before this, there’s one part in the closing remarks of chapter one in which you highlight some credible criticism of the Just War Tradition. I’m forcing my programming to change the Just War Tradition after reading your book. I felt the trap of calling Adjustable Theory, and your book explained why it’s not. I’m changing to Just War Tradition, but the only site issues taken are with jus in bello. The conduct, transgressions only by combatants in war, and you leave out any transgressions of jus ad bellum or those sending us to war. Why is that? When we’re talking about the title of the book, it’s the bridge between the soldier and the state. Why are we not focusing on the jus ad bellum?

The focus is on how we help soldiers not make bad decisions on the battlefield, not fall into ethical failure and also how we prevent them from suffering from moral injury. That’s given the book more of an in bello focus than an ad bellum focus. Having said that, I read that section again, and I think you’re right. That’s a bit of an oversight on my part because I do agree that the ad bellum is important in both those respects. Having that right is key. Traditionally, with the Just War Tradition, I’ve also used to call it the Just War Theory. I’m also guilty, but it’s better to think of it as a tradition.

Historically, there’s been a very clear distinction between ad bellum and in bello. There’s a good reason for that. The point of that distinction is to protect the combatant so that the combatant is not held responsible for the decision of the government to go to a war, which may be a decision to go to an unjust war. The idea is to protect the combatant from that so they don’t end up having to be held as war criminals because they fought in an unjust war. Their job is to make sure that they carry out that war in a just way. That’s the reason we’ve had that sharp distinction. In reality, it doesn’t go all the way. It does matter where we are in terms of, is this overall thing a just war. That is important. I agree with you. That was a bit of an oversight on my part.

I certainly didn’t mean to come across as I’m picking holes. It’s mainly because this is a relevant point. I’m not sure if that’s an institutional failure that, as an organisation, whatever it is that we are not addressing. We’re dealing with issues inside the bubble, but we’re not looking above the bubble and what’s creating the bubble. That feels like it is a disconnect because that then ultimately contributes greatly to moral injuries. We’ll discuss it shortly, but there’s one question that popped up into my mind as you were talking. Can we fight an unjust war justly as soldiers? This is a big question that’s been asked previously. It’s certainly nothing new, but it’s an important one, given the context of the book.

That comes back to the issue of why we draw that distinction between ad bellum and in bello. I don’t think, as soldiers, we can fight in an unjust war and come away from it untainted. If we have conducted ourselves and I say we have, I’ve never done it but probably never will, if soldiers have conducted themselves appropriately, they can at least walk away going with the sense that what was in their control they did right. That’s important. It’s not going to be 100% protection against moral injury and potential feelings of shame of contributing to something inappropriate. It is very important.

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality
Soldier Morality: Soldiers can fight in an unjust war and come away from it complete untainted. They can at least walk away going with the sense that what was in their control they did right.


That’s the challenge. I asked this as an officer in the Army, as one who served overseas. I certainly haven’t been on the front lines in any way. I’ve never filed a shot in anger. I certainly can empathise with the blurry line of a war that, in itself, can be a shade of grey as to its justifications. How does that influence me doing my duty? Ultimately, everything I’m doing as part of soldiering is to fight or defeat an enemy and pursue operational success for my force. I can relate this to the Russian soldiers and what they’re experiencing.

We can comfortably say that the invasion of Ukraine is an unjust war. Many would find it very difficult to argue otherwise unless one was sitting in the Kremlin, which is a very different view. Those soldiers are being told to fire on civilians. It’s a very blatant breach of the Geneva Convention of what the moral instinct of a soldier is to protect as opposed to harm civilians. They’re carrying out those soldiers because, for them, the narratives that they have to embrace to even be there, the less they commit suicide by not being there that is turning back and deserting. That’s the slippery slope.

This is a rather extreme case. We can quite draw the lines, but for us Western nations, where we certainly wouldn’t target civilians intentionally, it’s a little bit more of a grey area. Is there a point that you see or at least that you’ve wrestled with yourself, where soldiers or our leaders at least need to question the state’s ethics? They need to question whether a war meets jus ad bellum. If there is a clash, what does the military do, given its contract with the government of the day? It’s a challenging one.

It’s one of the key questions, and it’s a vital one. I like the term General Milley said, who’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US. He had the term disciplined disobedience. I like that in the sense that he’s talking across all levels, but the military, in general, should have the capacity for disciplined disobedience. What do I mean by that? Peter Feaver, who’s at Duke University and is an outstanding scholar on civil-military relations, got this catchphrase, which is very memorable. He says, “In a democracy, elected civilians have the right to be wrong.” That’s a fundamental notion of a democracy that it’s not for the military to make decisions about policy.

They’re not elected to do that. Having said that, if we’re in a situation where an elected official is suggesting, proposing or driving a course of action that is unethical, there is a responsibility on behalf of the military to point that out. We don’t see enough cases of particularly senior military leaders resigning in the face of orders to go to war that are unethical. It would’ve been good to see more of that in, for example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq because that has enormous power. That’s got to be done carefully and not to undermine democracy. It is a power that is available, that disciplined disobedience.

When an elected official is suggesting, proposing, or driving a course of action that is clearly unethical, there is a responsibility on behalf of the military to point that out. Click To Tweet

That’s something we need to be training people for from the beginning at the small level. Your immediate superior says, “Do this.” That’s problematic to be able to speak up and say, “I’m not sure that’s right, sir. I’m not sure that’s right, ma’am.” Having that as a culture is important because when people are at the top, they have the ability to stand firm. I had a student finish his PhD under my supervision, arguing that what he calls the general, in the Australian context, CDF, should have the right to refuse on the grounds of conscience and for it not to be an illegal act and a requirement that she or he at that point resigned, which is an interesting argument.

That’s wonderful. I’ll get some details on it because that’s certainly an area that I’m particularly interested in. That is part of what democracy is. I do like to point out that it is about democracy. I heard a very neat way to think of democracy. There’s no on or off switch. It’s more like a dimmer. You can dim the light. There are various stages of democracy until it turns into the darkness that is no longer a democracy. It’s very easy for those stages to drop off and us to think, “That’s what my superiors told me. That’s what the government wants me to do, and that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what we do in a democracy.”

Ultimately, it is those very non-reflective responses that will lead us outside of democracy. I’m not saying Australia, but certainly, there’s a risk of that. That takes me to the front lines piece, which is the book, as you already pointed out. It is written for the practitioner of war. That’s how I saw it. It tries to wrestle with some interesting ideas about what makes us do what we do in a battle space and how any ethical transgressions can occur. No one is born a war criminal. What makes otherwise good people turn bad?

That’s the million-dollar question. If I had the answer, I’d be very rich. There is a wide range of reasons. We’re still coming to understand all of them. What I’ve focused on in the book is a small part of the answer. It’s what I call ethical risk factors. Since writing the book, I’m increasingly referring to these factors as Ethics Inhibitors. It’s certainly the case that we might find transgressions being carried out by people who are just bad eggs. There is a problem with the Bad Egg Theory that it’s too easy. Too often, we go, “They’re just a bad person.” We move on and don’t learn anything.

There are certain occasions, and I know this from my experience. I’m sure everybody does as well. People who are generally of sound ethics find themselves doing things that they realise, in retrospectively, shouldn’t have done and they wouldn’t normally have done. Part of the thinking is what are those conditions that lead otherwise good people to do things to make bad ethical decisions and poor ethical decisions.

This is a fascinating field. It’s a too small field so far, but it’s starting to grow. It’s thinking about those kinds of factors that can lead to those bad decisions. I’ll give you one example. There’s a fair amount of evidence that human beings are reflexively racist and sexist. At our most instinctive level, we automatically draw distinctions between people on the base of race and sex.

There’s an evolutionary reason.

Why is it that most people, thankfully, are not that way in their behaviour? It’s because we learn that’s not a useful or sound way to distinguish between people. It’s not an ethical way to distinguish between people. What happens is we learn. The part of our brain that is dealing with that is our forebrain. What’s happening in our forebrain is overriding our more instinctive and primitive brain processes. It’s a very poor neuroscience on my part, but roughly speaking. Anything that interrupts our ability to engage our forebrain in that self-control way puts us at risk of making poor decisions in terms of racism and sexism.

Anything that interrupts our ability to engage our forebrain in a self-controlled way puts us at risk of making poor decisions in terms of racism and sexism. Click To Tweet

Things like being very tired, obvious things, and being taken by surprise. The evolutionary brain is designed to react very quickly when it’s taken by surprise. The way the brain does that is by bypassing the forebrain, which takes a lot of energy and time. We make very quick decisions, and those are usually very self-protective decisions and not always in very ethical ways. Thinking about those kinds of things that can lead us to make those poor decisions and understanding them better is crucial in getting to grips with the way where these things happen.

That reminds me of a discussion I had with Dr. Douglas Fields, who is a neuroscientist. He wrote a fantastic book, Why We Snap. This is all ones and zeros, with zero social science in it. It’s ones and zeros, pathways in the brain, nine of them, that if triggered, we will snap. He uses a very interesting mnemonic LIFEMORTS, and all of these different triggers like threats to life. There is no thinking. It’s an immediate response, fight, flight, freeze, whatever it is or an insult.

What you’re saying there is in my mind, there’s a creating of connection between how our ethics and our moral compass can be degraded, beyond irrational, beyond the thinking mind into a reactionary mind. This is a crucial piece of understanding war and battles. This is something I spoke with David at length as well, particularly in relation to the IGADF. You dedicate chapter six to these risk factors. It was the chapter that spoke to me the loudest. I found it interesting that our published ADF Ethics Doctrine Chapter Six there talks about risk factors.

I found it welcoming to see it in our ethics doctrine, as much as I would like to see it develop a lot more and maybe even sit in chapters 1 or 2. I’ve argued this point previously and written a few things about it. I feel like we can’t talk about jus in bello without understanding the context. As we talked about, no one is born a war criminal. I had a light bulb moment when I was reading about Kurt Lewin and his formula. The behaviour is a function of the personality in the environment.

The personality one carries is partially nature and partially nurture. There’s a lot of research on personality. It is the interplay with the environment that will dictate behaviour, which is why anybody is susceptible to doing the wrong thing if only the right conditions are set to trigger their personality to do a bad act or an act that we would subsequently call a war crime. Your point, for example, about sleep. I’ve been in the Army for many years.

I’ve been out for a while. We all know that we need to sleep, but it’s not mandated you are to sleep, particularly on operations. I’ve been deployed on operations. Sleep is a luxury because the environment is such that everything is buzzing. You need to be moving and contributing. How do we bring the importance of all of these environmental and context factors into our discourse firstly? How do we replicate the tensions that are created in the environment in our training so that the first time we’re facing an ethical challenge is not on the battlefield but in a controlled, safe space?

That’s a fantastic question and an important issue. One of the things that have struck me as I’ve looked into this research is how little of it has been done in the military context. We’ve learned a fair amount from the broader psychology and neuroscience research, most of which is done as most researchers on university students because they’re free labour. We’ve not done a lot of research that’s specific to the military context. As an academic and a researcher, to me the first answer is we’ve got to understand this stuff better.

We’ve got to do the research that’s going to take investment and time, and effort. If we want to mitigate these factors, we have to understand them properly. Can we be effective in incorporating them into training? We can start doing that already with what we already know. I’ve been doing some work with SOCOM for a while, and one of the things we’ve worked on is a tool for designing ethical quandaries to go into training. It’s going to happen.

It becomes normal for people who are designing training to think, “Where are the ethical challenges in this? I need to make sure that the trainees are being confronted with these ethical challenges. There’s a feedback mechanism and some follow-on education that happens.” That needs to happen. The problem is that where it does happen, which is a good thing, tends to be a bit ad hoc like, “I had this experience. I heard about this case. I’ll build that in.” Try to do it in a more systematic way and go, “What exactly are we trying to identify as the particular ethical challenge assigned with associated with this particular bit of training that we need to do? How do we design an ethical quandary accordingly?”

One that reflects our collective moral identity rather than an individual soldier’s moral identity. We’ve put together various identities that form the soldier. Designing training is a challenge. It is designing training that will sufficiently trigger various environmental factors within the soldier and then throwing them into an ethical dilemma to train them to respond in a way that we want our collective moral identity to respond in such a situation. That is the real challenge.

It’s not just about throwing people into the challenges but giving them a way to respond to them and having a common language to discuss these things. I taught at the US Naval Academy. They have a fantastic ethics education package course there. In the early days, what they tried was having students look at a bunch of case studies and discuss them. They found that without a framework for them to lay over those issues, it all became a case of, “My opinion is this.” There was no way to develop some common view and an overarching sense of who we are and how we tackle these things.

I get the sense that it stems from a little bit of naivety about war. For those who’ve experienced real war, I’d be surprised if any of them would genuinely be able to say, “We can have wars without atrocities.” Clausewitz would agree with this. The mass violence in support of political aims, that’s what war is. What do you think? Is it possible to fight a war without atrocities and ultimately something we can then later call war crimes?

I have to think that’s possible because I’m in the business of trying to make that happen. The longer a war goes on, the more likely there will be atrocities. The more intense a war is, the more likely there will be atrocities. Maybe it’s idealism, but we have to aim at that. That has to be the goal.

The longer a war goes on, the more likely there will be atrocities. The more intense a war is, the more likely there will be atrocities. Click To Tweet

It’s like democracy.

We’re distinguishing between atrocity and things like collateral damage, which is inescapable. Collateral damage is tragic, but it’s not necessarily an atrocity. It can be within the rules of war. The Just War Tradition is all about trying to navigate a pathway between two truths. One is that war is sometimes necessary, and the other is that war is always terrible. We’re always trying to trade this part that allows enough freedom of action to be able to fight wars. At the same time, it’s always trying to reduce, as much as possible, the suffering that war brings. That’s a difficult path. It’s a compromise, but it doesn’t have room for atrocity.

It’s well put. It’s reducing the probability of things occurring, and that’s what training is supposed to be. I’m convinced that there will always be something that one could then ultimately interpret as an atrocity in any war. That’s because an individual might just snap like what I was talking about before with Douglas Fields. He’s lost four of his mates. His mom died at home. It could be a myriad of reasons. He hasn’t slept. He’s been living on Red Bull for months. Something happens, and he loses.

The point being is that we need to reduce the probability of that occurring. What our training should be all about is to create such conditions that we can test for that. Is it possible to create those conditions? How have you seen it done well? Particularly replicating the environment that is the battle space to then train for these ethical challenges.

I do want to say that it’s not just about when we snap. I try to distinguish between ethics inhibitors or ethical risk factors that are of that kind where we make a snap decision. We also got to recognise the enormous power of our social groupings on us. This idea of ethical drift and normalised deviance is the other part of that equation that we have to understand better and have to deal with. It can be done. We need more information on the causes and how we mitigate them. I’ve seen some good examples.

I had the opportunity to participate as an observer only in the Command Sergeant’s course. I observed a number of the training serials that they did, where they had deliberately put into them some ethically challenging aspects that were very well done. The feedback was appropriate. I’m hugely encouraged by what is possible. We can do it. It needs to become automatic. For me, if we’re doing ethics as a thing on the side, we’ve failed. Ethics has to be one of those drills that we do and one of the many aspects of decision-making as we go through.

The issue is that it seemingly seems so complicated, but not when you boil it down. You talked about ethical drift. I like that phrase. Here I’m going to refer to an example or analogy you gave when you spoke to Harry Moffitt some time ago on a podcast that he co-hosts. You used the submarine as an example. Can you detail that particular analogy? It’s a useful way to think about moral drift and a useful way to visualise it.

I’m a simple-minded guy, so these kinds of things are helpful to me as well. If you think about yourself on a submarine, everything around you is at a fixed distance from you. The people are moving around a bit, but your whole sense of space is fixed. You don’t have windows on a submarine. You don’t have a sense of the movement that’s going on for this whole thing. Our social environments are often like that. They become very enclosed, particularly if you think of a unit on deployment. You are detached from all other social inputs. You don’t see when you are drifting. That’s not because you are bad. That’s because we’re human. We relate ourselves to those in our immediate vicinity, and we take our cues from them.

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality
Soldier Morality: Social environments often become very enclosed, particularly if you think of a unit on deployment. You are detached from all other social inputs not because you are bad but because you are human.


If those cues have shifted, we may not notice. For me, it’s key to have what I think of as ethical circuit breakers. It’s a way to burst that bubble if you like to reconnect with the broader world with the bigger norms of the institution. Thinking about what those look like is important. Sometimes it’s as simple as having someone you trust who’s an outsider, who can come in and see what you are doing and go, “You are drifting. Why are you allowing this to happen?” “I didn’t realise.” It’s a human problem. It’s not an observation. It’s been shown in lots of studies as well.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s a visual way to picture how this occurs and particularly say on a deployment. It’s particularly relevant for our Special Forces, who work in smaller teams, usually more isolated than everyone else. What do you think the word special within the Special Forces means and does? What does it inculcate within those particular soldiers? That’s potentially part of this cultural piece that you’re talking about. What are your thoughts on that?

Those identities are very important.

I’ve got a lot of Special Forces friends whom I admire and who are champions of moral and ethical decency. To give that as a caveat, this is not a slight on our Special Forces in any way.

Anything that’s going to set you apart is a little bit risky, and there needs to be some awareness of that has to be managed. Interestingly, when Stirling created the original British SAS, he was very adamant to his people, “Don’t think of yourselves as elite.” He was concerned about that term. “You’re not an elite force. You’re special because you do different things, but you’re not elite.” We’ve almost switched the meaning of these things around. Terms and words matter. If our mottos tell us something, we believe them. If our labels tell us something, we do tend to be affected by them. Those are important issues that we need to think hard about.

This may be a nice pivot because moving from the submarine piece to me speaks so well to me because it’s so visual, this moral drift. When one comes back from a deployment, this is the time when the thoughts come back. You realise and reflect, based on what you’re witnessing in your everyday society and what’s back at home, that potentially you had a moral drift. This leads to moral injury. It’s like culture. It’s one of those terms that’s yet to be defined. How do you define moral injury?

It’s something that’s a very much hot discussion still underway. I see moral injury in terms of that discussion about moral frameworks. It helps me to think of a person as fundamentally a moral being as defined by the structure. To be a moral injury is anything that happens that so affects that structure that we become no longer able to function in the appropriate moral way in the world. That can be two kinds of injury.

To be a moral injury is anything that happens that makes you no longer able to function in the appropriate moral way in the world. Click To Tweet

Think of it as the equivalent of being hammered by a body blow that breaks a rib. You don’t walk straight anymore because you are in pain and you’re suffering. If we experience or do something that radically shakes or even dislocates that moral framework that we have, that sense of who we are and why what we do matters, that affects our ability to behave and act in the world in the way that we used to do. I’m not saying all moral shocks are of that kind. We can have moral pains without being morally injured. That’s an important distinction.

That’s one kind of moral injury. Usually, the symptoms are you experience overwhelming shame, guilt, anger or something like that. It’s affecting your ability to live life in the way that you did before. The other kind is it’s usually where it’s repeated exposure. We don’t always think of this as an injury but think of a callous. You do some job again and again, and you use some tools over and over. You rub one part of your hand against that tool over, and you build up a callous. That’s a self-protection mechanism, but it’s an injury because it means that in that spot, you cannot feel what you should be able to feel.

The analogy, morally speaking, is that we can become callous, and that’s a kind of injury. We are no longer aware of situations that demand an ethical or moral response from us. We’ve become desensitised to that and unable to react. That’s a different kind of moral injury and one that’s largely overlooked in the debate at the moment. I should acknowledge that I get that almost entirely from my colleague Ned Dobos, who’s much smarter than me. It’s important.

I’ll be speaking to Ned in due course as well for that very reason. This is his wheelhouse and a conversation I look forward to. Maybe we can move on because, in the book, you set out a way to perhaps prepare or protect our soldiers with a particular type of ethos. Traditionally, we are embracing the warrior ethos. I spoke to Shannon French about this, at length, the warrior ethos. She wrote a fantastic book on it.

There are lots of positives in the warrior ethos. The warrior ethos, much like the word special culturally, has potentially been infused with a certain callousness almost, which is the noble warrior who’s going to do the things that no one else is ready to do. Under a supreme emergency, which we won’t necessarily get into, we embrace those people. You talk about a different type of ethos that we ought to inculcate within our soldiers. What is it?

I proposed this idea of a guardian ethos. That’s the identity we should be building. It’s not something that I made up. It comes originally roughly from Plato. I picked it up from Professor Pauline Shanks Kaurin of the US Naval War College, who has written quite extensively on this. She’s essentially right. It could become sullied and changed in its meaning, but as things stand, it’s a more helpful mental framework for soldiers than the warrior idea. As Shannon’s excellent book points out there, there is lots of good in the warrior ethos. The problem is that it’s focused on the what and not the why of war.

What is this? It’s war. What am I? I’m a technician of war. I’m a practitioner of war. It doesn’t ask why. The guardian says, “Why am I doing this? I’m a protector. I’m here to guard and protect my people,” unless it’s impossible for me to do so, to protect the lives of others who are not Australians who are not on my side. That’s a way of thinking about that identity that could help us to make better decisions and have a better scope of things.

The warrior thing, for example, we tend to seek. If we think warrior, we tend to connect with other warrior cultures. There’s been a rash in years of identification with Vikings, for example. What was the distinctive thing that Vikings did? Rape and pillage. That’s the term. We’ve got to be careful about building those connections and what we’re doing because that’s not what the military is there to do. The core connection is with the society the military serves. The guardian does that connection better if you like.

Words and symbols matter. These things are communicating something. Non-verbal communication is a real thing. We pick up so much from a symbol like a flag. People will die for a piece of cloth because of what that symbol embodies. It’s the same with words. I couldn’t agree more. I’m also speaking to Professor Pauline Shanks Kaurin in the near future as well. I’m onto something here. Speaking of the guardian and pivoting back to the jus ad bellum, how do we instil the guardian ethos into our politicians? How do we do that?

That’s something I’ve had very little success in. From time to time, I’ve tried to insinuate myself into the political world to try to give talks on military ethics, with jus ad bellum, with no success. People imbibe what they see expressed in culture. What the military expresses to the culture is a guardian ethos that will influence an impact on how decision-makers view the military. That could help. It’s not going to replace the need for better education for decision-makers on the ethics of war. That’s an ongoing need that has never been addressed, but it would help.

That issue of if they’re the warriors, then it’s about war. They’re the experts in war. That’s how we think of them. If they’re professionals, it’s another term. I don’t dislike the term professional. I certainly use it a lot. It’s a little bit too narrow and a bit neutral. It doesn’t say why we do it. It’s just that we are the experts at this thing. That idea of a guardian gives an overall mental picture of what it is that we are doing when we fight.

On top of that as well, where I see the conflict is particularly for politics, it’s all about interests. We’re trying to merge this interest of values tension within an individual soldier. Even the mission of the Australian Defence Force is to protect Australia and its interests. It doesn’t say to protect Australia and its values. Within that itself, there’s a clash because it might be in our national interest to go to Iraq.

Many will argue that it is, but it’s certainly not within our values or value systems. We’re trying the old round peg in a square hole type of thing. We’re trying to squeeze our soldier, infused with his values, morality and ethics, to go and fight a just war, driven by these values but for the interest. There’s a pretty big clash there that we are yet to openly discuss, let alone address.

I agree. It’s not unethical for a state to pursue the interests of the nation, the people of Australia. That’s what it’s expected to do. Sticking by the values that fundamentally underpin the nature of that state is the most fundamental interest we have. Otherwise, our society is protecting something in a way that doesn’t match up with what it’s protecting, which doesn’t work. That will undermine the nature of the society.

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality
Soldier Morality: Sticking by the values that fundamentally underpin the nature of that state is the most fundamental interest we have. Otherwise, our society is protecting something in a way that doesn’t match up to what it’s protecting.


My last question to you and this is one that’s tailored to the practitioner. Toward the end of the book, you talk about ethical triangulation. What is ethical triangulation? How can we apply it?

Ethical triangulation is one attempt at an ethical decision-making model or framework if you like. It’s not a theory. It doesn’t work as a comprehensive ethical theory or anything like that or a theory of philosophy. What it’s trying to do is to give a fairly simple way of looking at an ethical problem that will help to mitigate the limitations of the different main approaches to ethics that we have in our society.

The three main approaches we have are deontological, where it’s principle or rule-based. These are the rules. Think of something like The Ten Commandments. These are, “Do this. Don’t do that,” or we think in terms of consequences. The right thing is to do the thing that’s going to result in the best consequences for those affected, or we tend to think in terms of the character of virtues. Each of these is a very powerful way of looking at ethics but they will sometimes get different answers.

The question is then, “Which of these should a soldier of a democratic state choose?” The answer is we shouldn’t choose because these are all three fundamental, like the ethical outworking of fundamental strands that define the liberal democratic state. If we choose one, we become unbalanced and an arm of the state. What’s useful is to look at an ethical problem through each of these questions. The first is, “What are the principles that apply?” That amounts to a question of respect for others. “What does that tell me? What are my permissions and constraints?”

I don’t stop there. I do need to think about the consequences. Consequences do matter in ethics. We don’t go, “I follow the rules, even though the consequences might be catastrophic.” I have to ask myself, “Do the consequences sometimes change my calculation? Do they mean I emphasise one of my constraints more than others or one of my permissions over others? Do the consequences outweigh what is normally permission for me?”

If you’re thinking of the jus in bello, I have permission to kill enemy combatants. That’s the heart of the principle of discrimination, but the principle of necessity says, “But only if necessary.” If the consequences are that people will die unnecessarily, that outweighs your permission. It’s the same logic going on there.

The third step of triangulation is to think about character. What that does is it makes you turn your eyes back on yourself and go, “What about me? What are my limitations as an ethical thinker? What is my advice to put it in terms of virtue theory?” For example, I’m prone to be rash. Nearly military people are because they act centric. There’s a danger there that they would tend to want to do something.

Maybe sometimes the right thing is to do nothing. Knowing that about yourself, having that self-reflection of awareness of your character will enable you to then check back on your proposed course of action and go, “Is this just my character skewing my decision-making here?” It’s not a perfect system. It’s not going to give you a mathematically correct answer, but what it does is it gives three ways of looking at a problem. Each compensates for the weakness of the other.

VOW 53 | Soldier Morality
Soldier Morality: Ethical Triangulation is not a perfect system. It will not give you a mathematically correct answer, but it gives you three way to look at a problem.


The important pieces that can be trained for discussed and debated in a training environment, which would then lead to the awareness of the Triangulation Principle in a combat zone in an instant, can make it instinctive through the right amount of training and practice that we applied for it. Deane, as I expected, this was a wonderful conversation. I’m very grateful for the time you’ve given me. Thank you for writing the book.

It’s an important book, and I talked about it a lot with some of my peers. It’s certainly one that should be read, by anybody in uniform, regardless of what type of work they do. We are all susceptible to moral drift. Our moral identity is what will drive it. All of that is in the hope that we can prevent poor decisions on the battlefield, which ultimately then lead to moral injury, which certainly degrades the force going forward. Thank you very much, Deane. I appreciate it.

It’s great being here. I appreciate the invitation. It was great chatting with you.


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