The Voices of War

63. Dr. Ned Dobos - On The Unaccounted Costs Of Maintaining A Military

VOW 63 | Maintaining A Military

 

My guest today is Dr. Ned Dobos, a Senior Lecturer in International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales in Canberra. He joined me to discuss his recent book, Ethics, Security, and the War Machine: the True Cost of the Military.

 

Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Ned’s background and entry into military ethics
  • Explanation of Ned’s thesis, which asks whether justification of war necessarily justifies maintaining a military
  • Discussion on military as an ‘insurance policy’
  • The challenge of the classic security dilemma
  • Fear induced aggression and the Pre-emptive Strike Experiment
  • Discussion on Russian invasion of Ukraine
  • Military conditioning as potentially morally injurious
  • How we ensure accountability for possible moral injury
  • The Civil-Military gap and the ‘Veteran Superiority Complex’, and why they matter
  • The risk of military coups and what makes one more likely
  • Accounting for overconfidence, Einstellung Effect, and other cognitive biases when considering war
  • Gene Sharp and the post-military defence system

If you like what you’ve heard, please consider liking and reviewing the show wherever you get your pods. You can also support the show on our Patreon page here.

Listen to the podcast here

 

Dr. Ned Dobos – On The Unaccounted Costs Of Maintaining A Military

My guest in this episode is Dr. Ned Dobos, who’s a senior lecturer in International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales in Canberra. He is the author of two books, Ethics, Security and the War Machine: The True Cost of the Military, as well as Insurrection and Intervention. His research has appeared in journals such as Philosophical Studies, Ethics and International Affairs, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Journal of Moral Philosophy and International Studies Quarterly.

He joins me in this episode to discuss his book, Ethics, Security and the War Machine: The True Cost of the Military. I finished this book and found it to be exceptionally insightful, very timely and brave given the ongoing militarization and growing geopolitical tensions. You’ll understand why I say brave as we delve into the book’s messages. Ned, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

It’s my pleasure.

Before we get it stuck into the book, we must first address the obvious elephant in the room. Given your surname and the fact that I can pronounce it properly, we share some common cultural heritage. What is your cultural background?

My parents are from the former Yugoslavia. My mother is ethnically Serb. My father is ethnically Croat.

The book has become evident as we talk. I said at the start that it’s brave, especially given the fact that you teach at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Ultimately, the title of the book, which is The True Cost of the Military in itself is somewhat controversial. Maybe we can start by getting it explained. What is the main thesis of the book? What are trying to achieve with it?

Even if war is sometimes morally justified if we grant that there is such a thing as a just war, that doesn’t mean that war-making institutions or militaries are justified in existing. That’s it in a nutshell but I’ll flesh that out a bit. All things can be justified under certain circumstances. For any action you can think of, no matter how cruel, disgusting or evil it is, I bet you I can think of a scenario where it would be justified to do that thing.

Let’s say torture, for example. I can easily describe a scenario where most people would agree that torture would be justified. “There’s a terrorist. He’s planted a bomb. The clock is ticking. If you torture him, he’ll give up the information. You’ll be able to diffuse the bomb. If you don’t torture him, he won’t disclose it. A million people will die.” In that kind of scenario, I’m prepared to say, “Maybe torture would be justified, fine,” but does that mean we should have a department of torture with torture facilities and training centres that our taxes pay for?

Should we have a public institution devoted to torture because we can imagine cases where torture is justified? Most people will agree but surely not. If we’re asking whether militaries are justified in existing, it’s not enough to simply point out that war can be justified. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t follow that it’s permissible to prepare for war by militarizing. Relatedly, whenever I talk to people about this, I often quickly encounter this question that’s meant to settle the matter.

It's not enough to simply justify war, because even if that's true, it doesn't follow that it's permissible to prepare for war by militarizing. Share on X

The question usually goes something like, “What will we do if?” I had a conversation with my sister and she said, “What will we do if China invades?” Think about what’s happening there. The questioner is identifying a scenario where it looks like if we don’t have a military, we have little or no defensive recourse. “What will we do if” by itself is not a very good argument for anything. Try and tease this out. Think about how that argument sounds in different contexts. That’s very topical.

We had another mass shooting in the US. Back in 2019, there was a spade of these mass shootings in quick succession and as what usually happens when these things occur, a lot of people start calling for tighter gun control. Particularly at the time in 2019, people were focusing on the capacity of semi-automatic assault rifles saying that these things should be prohibited. Why do civilians need these assault rifles?

However, along comes one guy on Twitter who asks serious questions. “I live in a rural area. There are these groups of feral hogs that stampede around.” He asks something like this. “If I don’t have my high-capacity semi-automatic, what am I meant to do if 30 to 50 feral hogs break into my yard while my small kids are playing there? If I don’t have a machine gun, what will I do if.” He’s describing a scenario in which only one of these weapons will give him a chance of defending his children against this threat. On the basis of this, he’s insinuating that it’s legitimate for him to have this weapon.

Nobody took that seriously. That tweet became a meme or an object of ridicule on the internet. What will we do if a foreign aggressor threatens our sovereignty? That’s a scaled-up version of, “What will I do if a stampede of feral hogs breaks into my yard?” I appreciate that there are these analogies but all I’m trying to say is these questions by themselves aren’t compelling arguments for anything. There’s much more that we need to consider before we can reach any conclusion.

In the gun case, that’s obvious to us, which says, “Fine, there might be rare scenarios where you need this weapon to defend your children against feral hogs but we’ve got to consider all of the costs associated with allowing people to have these weapons.” My book is making the same move with regard to the military. The military also has costs. To determine whether that institution is justified in existing, we’ve got to do a moralized cost-benefit analysis. It’s not enough to simply point out that sometimes we might need it and sometimes its use would be justified.

I couldn’t agree more. Bottom line up front, I say this time and time again, I’m as close to a passenger as one can be while wearing a uniform. I wholeheartedly agree that if we could make the militaries around the world and we could all become Costa Rica, I would be a very happy man even though I wouldn’t have a job but that would be a very small price to pay. The only thing that pops into my mind though is I have car insurance and home insurance. All of this is for the what-ifs.

I’m prepared to pay that premium, even though that premium is unlikely going to be around 2% of my GDP for the year but it’s certainly high enough for me to strongly consider whether it is worth it. I look at the cost-risk benefit and say, “That’s a fair enough investment to have security against the unforeseen event that I ultimately can’t plan for.” As we all know, geopolitics war is not rational. It’s emotional and human. It only happens there are upstream causes that will lead to it but do not have an insurance policy against such an attack some would probably question.

The way you are thinking of it is spot on. It’s the way that I would be inclined to think of it. The military should be thought of as insurance coverage. You have it just in case but for me, that’s grist for the mill. Let’s go back to your scenario of home insurance. Presumably, Maz, you would agree that there comes a point at which the premiums are so high it’s no longer rational.

I remember when I first bought a place here in Canberra. I got home insurance and then contents insurance was offered. I was a single bachelor. I had nothing of value in my house except my PlayStation. I looked at the premiums they were going to charge me for my contents insurance and I thought, “It’s not worth it.”

With regards to insurance, we need to be open to the proposition that it’s not worth having regardless of what the cost is. Whereas when we talk about the military, our mental model deviates from the insurance model because we act as though it is worth having regardless of what the cost is but we don’t think of other insurance policies like that. With every other insurance policy, we say, “Let’s see what I’m getting, what the risk is and what the cost is.”

I’m saying, “We ought to do all of that stuff with regard to the military.” Sometimes the conclusion will be, “The military is costly but it’s still worth having given our circumstances and the likelihood of conflict in our region,” and so on. However, we should be open to the possibility that sometimes for some countries and places, maybe the answer will be the same answer I reached when I was offered contents insurance, which is, “It’s not worth it.”

That’s exactly the conclusion that the Costa Ricans came to. They’re like, “There are some benefits to be had by having this institution but there’s also some costs. We don’t have any enemies. Our schools are dilapidated and our environments are gone to hell.” They decided to repurpose their military spending into that. It’s not obvious to me that what Costa Rica did back then was irrational and stupid. Maybe it was appropriate.

They haven’t been invaded, right?

Yes, there have been attempts. Nicaragua tried to encroach on their territory several times shortly after the demilitarization but they found other ways to handle that.

However, was it one of the reasons that they had a big, bad, powerful friend to the North by the name of the US that had a much bigger stick?

Yeah, but the thing is there’s no way to falsify that. You could always say, “The reason they haven’t been invaded is because everyone else is deterred by the prospect of US intervention.” Maybe but what’s the proof of that? Maybe they haven’t been invaded because nobody wants to invade them. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Maybe it doesn’t need deterring.

If I were to go and burgle my neighbour’s house, there’s a good chance that I would be caught and punished for it by the state. That’s enough to deter me but frankly, I don’t need deterring. I don’t want to go and burgle my neighbour’s house. I’d rather have good relations and there’s not that much to be gained. It doesn’t look like they’re particularly well so I don’t think they have any $50,000 watches.

The motivation is lacking. The incentive is not there.

I’m saying that’s possible. There’s this tendency in international relations discourse in particular to think that, “Country A has not invaded Country B. It must be because Country A has been deterred by Country B’s military,” but we don’t think like that in any other domain. We don’t think, “There are two people walking down the street. That guy is not beating up that guy. It must be because he’s scared of the police.” Maybe there are other reasons. Maybe he’s not a jerk.

That seems to the sensitivity of people that it’s simply unthinkable that China would not invade Australia because we are such a resource-rich country and have so much space. Therefore, we need to have an insurance policy. The issue is when we are debating our insurance policy, the cost-risk-benefit or the risk profile is what we need to get. We’re speaking about the insurance broker in the form of the military-industrial complex, which is the revolving door between defence suppliers, contractors and the entire defence industry.

The risk gets elevated to the point where you continuously need to up their need to increase your expenditure because the risk of not doing so means that you’ll be caught with your pants down so to speak. This very much leads to the classic security dilemma. Can you explore how we find ourselves in that security dilemma and how does this investment in the military contribute to it?

The classic security dilemma is what happens when you’ve got multiple agents all seeking their security, making investments in their security and by so doing, causing insecurity in others, which in turn puts themselves at risk. In the worst-case scenario, this can boil over into a preventive strike or defensive aggression as I call it in the book. There have been lots of cases like this. Some wars that have occurred in history have been what we might call opportunistic aggression where it’s like what you described that people are worried about with regards to China.

We’ve got these natural resources. If we’re defenceless, they’ll exploit that weakness and pounce. They’re coming to gain. That’s happened through history, that kind of opportunistic aggression but there’s another kind of aggression that’s happened time and time again through history as well, which is fear-induced aggression where it’s not like, “Let’s go and get what they have. They’ve got some offensive capabilities over there. Who knows what they’re planning? We better get in first so that we never have to find out.”

 


VOW 63 | Maintaining A Military
Maintaining A Military: If we’re defenceless, enemies will exploit that weakness and pounce.

 

You talk about the pre-emptive strike experiment in the book and maybe you can touch on that because that’s a useful and nuanced way to think about this. What is the pre-emptive strike experiment?

The pre-emptive strike game should probably be referred to as the preventive strike game for terminological accuracy. The experiment involved giving people a certain amount of money and pairing them up so you’ve got two players. Each player has a button and if you press that, it constitutes an attack. If you press your button, you lose some of your money. It was $100 out of the $1,000. However, the other guy loses $900 and vice versa.

However, if neither of you presses your button after 1 minute, then you both go home with $1,000. That’s the optimal strategy. Don’t press your buttons but everyone looks and thinks, “He’s got a button. If he presses his button, I’ll lose $900. I better press my button first so that he loses $900 and I only lose $100. To protect themselves, people end up attacking. People attack out of defensive motives because they’re worried about what you might do in the future with your offensive capabilities.

It’s that fear-induced defensive aggression.

This complicates the rationality of having a military establishment. We focus almost entirely on the deterrent effects of militaries without factoring in the provocative effects of the military. I like to use this analogy sometimes. It’s like using guns again because it helps us think through some of these issues. Imagine you are about to walk into a hypothetical scenario or some gathering, a house party where there are going to be all sorts of violent criminals and you know this. They’re eager to get their hands on your property, sneakers or watches.

Suppose before you enter this gathering, I offer you a gun or a knife to protect yourself. Let’s say there’s not going to be any police there so you’ve got no other recourse. On the face of it, it seems quite sensible and prudent for you to accept the weapon, just in case so you can deter with your knife and fend off these marauders if they come after you.

However, suppose I throw some additional information in there. I say, “Aside from these violent bandits that want your sneakers, there’s going to be some highly paranoid schizophrenics in there as well and they think everyone’s out to get them. They don’t want your stuff or your sneakers but if they see you as a threat, they’ll come after you. They’ll strike first. Is it still sensible for you to take the weapon?”

It’s not so clear anymore. Granted, if you openly carry the knife into the gathering, it will have some deterrent effect on the ones that want your sneakers on the marauders. They would always prefer to go after an easy target or someone weakened, defenceless and take their sneakers but at the same time, openly carrying the knife makes you a target for the highly paranoid types. They’re not interested in your property but they are interested in neutralizing the threats that they perceive and the knife in your hand puts you in that category.

Openly carrying a knife makes you a target for highly paranoid types. They're not interested in your property, but they are interested in neutralizing the threats they perceive. Share on X

That complicates the decision considerably. It might be prudent to accept the weapon or it might not be. It depends on other variables but the point is, in this scenario, you can’t confidently generalize that going in armed is always the prudent thing to do. Being defenceless might increase your chances of survival. Being defenceless might be more rational, as paradoxical as that sounds.

Defences go down but your security goes up. If you go in armed, yes, you deter one kind of aggression but you invite fear-induced aggression or preventive aggression. You take the risk of provoking the paranoid types. We should think of the international arena as that house party is a bit large. This is not my idea. This is Hobbes. There are three causes of war. One of them is competition. One state attacks another to acquire its territory or resources but the other is what he calls diffidence. One state attacks another to remove a looming threat that the latter is thought to pose. The aggressors here are the paranoid types.

Standing armies insofar as they wield both offensive and defensive capabilities deter the first kind of aggressor but they’re liable to provoke the second. That opens the possibility of a military being self-defeating in the sense of it reduces the overall level of security of its parent’s society. The important insight there is you watch the news and politicians will say, “We need to strengthen our national security.” By that, they mean we need more military capability as though more military capability and more national security are the same thing. They’re not. They aren’t identical.

You’ve got to think about how other agents are going to react to your increased military capabilities. If the consequence is that they’re going to react in a way that makes them more likely to attack you because they fear you more, then your military capability has gone up but your security hasn’t gone up with it. It’s gone down.

That’s the security dilemma. I can hear some of my readers say, “What about Russia? We tried peaceful solutions and make security arrangements with Russia.” Many will say, “We tried to bring China into the fold but look where we are.” Russia is invading Ukraine. There are war crimes going on. China is becoming more aggressive despite, as some would say, the Western or global even attempts to integrate them into the global community in a more peaceful way. How do you respond to that?

There’s empirical social scientific stuff in here about whether and the extent to which we have adequately tried to deal peacefully with China, Russia and so on. However, let’s set that aside. With the Russia example, one thing worth thinking about is if you accept Putin’s narrative, at least and I’m not saying that I do, but his narrative is, “What I’m doing is fear-induced aggression. I’m not trying to conquer new land to create a Russian empire. Essentially, what I’m worried about is Ukraine proposing to join NATO and thereby making Europe’s Army its own and putting it right on my border.

It’s increasing one security at the cost of someone else’s.

There is something to be said for that. I’m not sure if this is right but I heard somewhere, a credible source that Russia started preparing for this operation almost immediately after Ukraine announced its intentions to join NATO. That lends some support to the idea that this is not an opportunistic intervention that you can try and prevent by becoming stronger. This is the kind of aggression that you provoke precisely by trying to become stronger.

Some people look at this situation in Ukraine and say, “This is why Ukraine needs to have a stronger military and why we all need to have a stronger military.” That’s one way to look at it but the other way to look at it is this happened in part precisely because Ukraine was trying to strengthen its military capabilities. Is military strength here something that helps or is it a liability?

This is one of Putin’s stated objectives to demilitarize Ukraine but suppose Ukraine were already demilitarized or rather ramping up its military spending and proposing to join NATO. They were proposing to go in the opposite direction and be more neutral and demilitarized. Would this war still have happened? Would Russia still have invaded under those circumstances?

In 2014, I had this discussion a number of times with people from both Ukraine but also NATO. The theory is no longer sound because Putin is accepted that with Sweden and Finland. As openly said, “I’m fine. I’ve got no issue with them going into NATO,” that’s been shot out of the water. It might be a narrative to challenge the globe or present a narrative that has some resemblance of credibility to it but we also know that Crimea was an annexation. That is a land grab. We also know Donbas is a land grab.

Having said that though, this is not me trying to argue against the point you’re making because I do agree. The point we need to talk about is the upstream causes to bring us down to this point. Ukraine is not now. This didn’t happen now. This is a build-up post the fall of the Soviet Union and could we have done something to pacify Russia in a way, especially, since it’s the war in many ways between Russia and the US and the US is the global hegemon calling the shots. It could have brought Russia in a bit more. That’s the challenge. All of the fear-induced aggression didn’t occur now. It occurred much further back.

We certainly need to look at things in their historical and political context. Here’s what I want to say in response to this kind of case. I don’t want to deny that sometimes some countries will make land grabs and with respect to those types of countries, it might make sense to have a military because it will deter them. If you build up a powerful military, to deal with that problem, you create for yourself another kind of problem.

If you build up a powerful military to deal with a problem, you create another kind of problem. Share on X

We’re not accounting for that. Let’s have a rational argument about it.

Let’s get some WMDs so that Russia never attacks us and tries to take some of our land but the Americans are saying, “This European dictator is building WMDs and you end up being another Iraq.” That’s all I’m saying. We focus entirely on, “You’ve got the cost-benefit table of your military establishment and we focus only on the benefits.” It’s tunnel vision. We are not appreciating how when you militarize to solve one set of problems, you introduce another set of problems.

Also, the cost that we don’t talk about. In chapter one of your book, you talk about military conditioning and how it can cause or contributes to moral damage. The first cause in your book is one that we don’t address. I love that one because that was a powerful opening. It’s not one we talk about but one that’s come up in my show so many times already. It is this desensitization process that occurs by wearing a uniform. What do you mean by that exactly?

There are two things I need to define. Military conditioning and in hindsight, I can see I’m not precise enough with that term in my book but I simply mean the training and socialization that recruits undergo to make them effective on the battlefield, from repetitive drill training to the indoctrination of military values like loyalty and sacrifice.

Also, shaving your head on day one.

All that to make you part of the unit and break down your individuality. Everything that the institution puts you through to turn you into a competent soldier, that’s what I mean by military conditioning.

 


VOW 63 | Maintaining A Military
Maintaining A Military: Military conditioning means making you part of the unit by breaking down your individuality, and everything the institution puts you through will turn you into a competent soldier.

 

To interpret my mind, the way I see is creating a particular in-group that is bounded and governed by certain values and norms that exist for the sole purpose of prosecuting war. In other words, killing and we don’t talk about it as plainly as that but ultimately when you boil down to it, that’s what it does.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. That’s right. It’s making people more comfortable with politically motivated violence or violence under orders. One point I try and make in the book is that there’s a lot of discussion of “moral injury” among ethicists, philosophers, psychologists and military people more generally. This term has caught on.

Most of the discussion is about the moral injuries that people sustain in war. “What does the experience of war do to you?” That’s all very important but we need to appreciate that it’s not just the experience of war that inflicts moral injury. It’s also the preparation for war. Military conditioning can also be morally injurious in one sense of the word. The tricky thing is the term moral injury is not used with any consistency.

There are at least two things that we might mean by it. It either refers to an acute aggravation of moral emotions like guilt, shame and remorse or it refers to the silence of those emotions. Here’s an example that I like that illustrates well following a pair of cases. You got the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. You got Claude Eatherly. He was the reconnaissance pilot that flew the reconnaissance plane over Hiroshima immediately before the bombing. He could hardly live with himself afterwards.

He was guilt-ridden to the point of dysfunction. He became a pacifist, not that that’s a form of dysfunction. He sent letters of apology to the families and their victims. He attempted suicide and psychiatric treatment. He even became this petty criminal. He would do very bizarre things as he’d go around town and shoplift to get punished. He was treated like a hero by the American public but he didn’t see himself that way. He felt like a real piece of crap. He wanted the community to see him that way.

That’s what some people see as moral injury. That experience and this kind of overactive conscience make it impossible for you to live a normal life. However, compare that guy, Claude Eatherly, to the guy that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. His name was Paul Tibbets and by most accounts was untroubled. He even afterwards went to model aircraft shows with children and reenacted the obliteration. It didn’t bother him at all that he killed scores of innocent people. He was numb or indifferent. His conscience wasn’t overactive. It was inactive and nonresponsive to this.

However, we can’t help but feel that there’s something wrong with that. This moral numbness or indifference is what some people mean by moral injury. That’s a better use of the term. The thought is a morally decent, healthy person can’t kill people without being distressed by it. Even if it’s justified, it’s a sign of virtue that it’s difficult for you.

I’ve had a couple of people, Special Forces operators who’ve engaged in the act of killing time and time again. I’ve asked them these questions, “How does that feel?” The response is that your training kicks in and you do what you do. It’s surgical and precise. You don’t necessarily mourn over it. You don’t celebrate or cherish it. I’m always perplexed because I’ve never had to fire a gun in anger so I wouldn’t have a clue what that would feel like. As much as I’ve envisioned myself in a situation like most of us have in some sense, I’m always perplexed.

My dad was on the frontline for three and a half years. He’s been engaged in the act of killing himself. I don’t know what impact that’s had on him. He’s had challenges with coming to terms with what’s happened but I can’t delineate if this is somebody who says, “No, it’s fine. It’s part of the job.” Is that already a moral injury? Maybe it ought to be but also we want our frontline soldiers to have the defensive mechanisms to go and do the job that we’re asking them to do. I’m a little bit torn about how to define these sentences, “It’s just part of the job.”

I don’t think there’s anything contradictory or inconsistent in having these two thoughts simultaneously. I agree with everything that you said. Yes, if we’re deploying these people to go over the season and do things on the state’s behalf, such as kill, we want to do everything that we can to ensure that doesn’t ruin them for life. Therefore, if we’re going to have a military, we do want to, for lack of a better term, desensitize. We do want to numb them to some extent to protect them from this kind of psychological, emotional and moral disintegration.

However, all I’m trying to emphasize is that’s a cost. You are degrading these people’s character. Don’t try and explain it away by denying the label of moral injury or saying, “We want this to happen. It’s justified. We need to protect them.” I agree with all of that but that doesn’t mean that we are not doing something regrettable and unfortunate to these people.

My answer to the question is when you encounter someone who can kill people and you ask them, “How does that feel,” and they say, “It feels like nothing to me,” I would say that person is already morally injured. It’s not to blame them or say that we are not justified in doing this to them for the sake of protecting them against even worse harm. That’s all still open and on the table. I’m saying it is what it is. It has to be in the accounting.

I put out a short little thought bubble on The Forge where I talk about it. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas which talks about a town that lives in bliss but it has one child that’s locked away in a cellar that’s suffering. They can continue and live their bliss but only for as long as this child is suffering. They’ll go, feed it and see the child. The children will be taken then.

This is the sacrifice for our bliss that we live in our peaceful Omelas. When I read that, it resonates so strongly with me about that’s exactly what we do to our soldiers. Our soldiers ultimately could be viewed as the suffering child in the basement. As I worded in the piece of our civility, this is the child in the basement of the supposed civility that we so embrace, especially when we sit on our horse in the kind developed society and say, “We’re morally just and right.” How do we manage this kind of desensitization and moral injury post-conflict?

It’s not discussed like, “When you join, we’re going take you from the starting point of a healthy person that has the right moral compass and you are broadly speaking what, at least, the average person will think is the right to do. We’re going to shift and hope you take all those with you but we’re exposing these circumstances that are going to, in some cases, minor ways morally degrade you.” Firstly, you talk about that openly because that’s going to be a disincentive for people joining but also more importantly, how do we deal with it when people come back or they want to leave the military? How do you unpack that?

I don’t know yet. When I say I don’t know, I’m responding to the part of your question, which is what do we do about this? There’s a grey line. It was one of the training officers in Vietnam, an American who was responsible for putting recruits through some final indoctrination as they arrived in the country. He did an interview some years later where he said something along the following lines. It’s not verbatim but it’s roughly this.

He says, “Every time I turn on the TV and I hear news about a murder, I wait and see if it was a Vietnam veteran. We turned those people into killers. We programmed them to kill but nobody’s unprogrammed them.” Unprogramming is what we need to think about. If it’s true and a lot of people are going to deny that military conditioning does involve this moral degradation, moral injury and the jury’s still out on that.

My hypothesis is that it aims to inflict moral injury but I can’t say definitively whether it does consistently degrade moral character. You’d need some kind of empirical study for that but we do have some empirical studies which show that military conditioning does change people’s character long-term, even if they weren’t deployed.

There was a study out of Germany and it doesn’t tell us anything about whether people that go through military conditioning are more comfortable with violence. That may be its aim but we don’t know if that happens specifically but this study did show that people that have gone through military conditioning are generally less agreeable. When they unpack what that means, it’s more prone to conflict in their day-to-day civilian lives. We do have evidence to suggest that military conditioning affects your character and we’ve got empirical evidence for that.

Let’s grant that military conditioning does things to people’s personalities. I suspect certainly one of the things it aims to do is to morally desensitize people. What do we do about that? To me, this is a little bit of wishful thinking but some commentators in this space would have us believe that as long as we do it right, this conditioning and desensitization will lapse over a period. It’s a temporary thing like an anaesthetic. You inject it and they go numb but then it wears off. The body flushes it out.

Some of the commentary in this space suggests that military conditioning is the same. You prepare people to go and fight to go and kill but their sensitivity is going to return by itself. To me, that’s wishful thinking and we also have no empirical support for that. If that’s farfetched, then we got to think, “What can we do both post factor after somebody has been morally injured to unprogram them or if we can’t unprogram them, to restore their moral sensibilities, maybe we need to compensate them in some way.” Maybe that’s something for which compensation is owed.

Regarding the form that compensation might take, I’ve read a fascinating article. There was a case in the US where a veteran goes on trial for murder. He receives a sentence but then the court finds that his lawyer failed to mention that this person’s a veteran. They deemed that to be an example of insufficient support as counsel, saying, “Had we known that he was a veteran, we would have given him a lighter sentence.”

The fact that you didn’t mention it as his lawyer means you didn’t do a good enough job. It was a retrial. What does that suggest? This article argues that might seem bizarre but why should it matter? Did you commit a murder? Why should it matter if you’re a military veteran? This person argues that essentially if the state is responsible for the fact that you are the person that’s more liable to commit murder because you’ve been morally injured in the course of your military conditioning, then the state should discount the penalties that it imposes on you afterwards.

I’m not sure how convincing that is but that might be another form of compensation. There’s like, “What can we do after the fact,” but I’m more interested in what can we do before the fact, a prophylactic intervention which prevents the onset of moral injury in the first place. There has been some discussion around certain kinds of bio-scientific interventions and giving certain drugs like Adderall and so on.

Those are the two things that we need to explore. What can we do in advance to try and have our cake and eat it too? To try and ensure that our soldiers can do their job effectively without emotional disintegration but at the same time, without being morally injured. Is there something we can do? There hasn’t been any research and I’m proposing to do that research. That’s where I’m going from here.

 


VOW 63 | Maintaining A Military
Maintaining A Military: Try and ensure that our soldiers can do their job effectively without emotional disintegration and, at the same time, without being morally injured.

 

That’s the evolution of this line of inquiry. There will be some hurdles. It’s not least because in some circles, at least, people think of this whole idea of moral injury or PTSD of late that’s overblown and it’s potentially exploitation or trying to get something from the government. Undoubtedly, there’s a percentage. Like with everything, there’s a percentage that will explore the system.

I don’t know what your thoughts are but the way I see it is it’s probably because we’re talking about it and it’s a lot more encouraged to talk about. We’re learning things that we didn’t know previously about this very point. There was another interesting point and it’s related to our previous discussion. You talk about the civil-military gap, especially related to the culture of a military versus the culture of a society. You quote Huntington who previously said that the military needs to be culturally different from a liberal society. Can you explore that? That speaks to our previous discussion as well.

This is something we have evidence for as well, quite a lot from a few different countries. Wherever you’ve got a professional standing Army, a subsection of society makes soldiering their livelihood. It’s the arrangement that most liberal democratic countries have. The military and civilian worlds will tend to drift apart and develop different and sometimes conflicting sets of values, ideologies and attitudes.

It’s not only in liberal democratic countries but it tends to be most pronounced in liberal democratic countries because in these countries, what the civilian population values most in your average liberal democratic country is what they’ve been conditioned to value most which are individual freedom, personal fulfilment, self-realization and ambition. However, if that’s the thing that soldiers valued, the armed forces wouldn’t be able to function very effectively if they had this mentality.

In the military, different values prevail and have to prevail, arguably like obedience to authority, which is the opposite of individual autonomy. Also, service before self, which is the opposite of self-realization. The idea here is a society that’s organized around military values and principles. That wouldn’t be a liberal democratic society while a military that’s organized around liberal democratic values wouldn’t be effective. That’s why this gap emerges and it’s plausible to say, “You have to have this gap.”

We’ve got evidence of it in lots of different countries. The most recent that I came across was in France where they surveyed people in the military and civilians to see how they ranked the importance of certain things. On the list, you had things like patriotism, civic duty and discipline. The military people put those values first. Civilians put those values last. What they put first was human rights and individual freedom. That’s the civil-military gap.

I recognize it. I hear it. I know it. It speaks to me because it’s what the military is about. It’s giving your life for your social group, whatever that social group might be or for your mate. There was another interesting thing you talked about in the book, the warrior class’s sense of superiority or the veteran superiority complex. What is the veteran superiority complex? I’m also conscious that a lot of my audience are veterans. I’ll let you explain it but it’s certainly not in any way to shame any great veterans.

It’s not a term that I coined. It’s a term coined by a veteran, Carl Forsling. Essentially, what happens sometimes is when you get this civil-military gap, the military personnel will not only see themselves as different from civilians but better than civilians.

The civilians don’t get it.

In some respect, they’re deficient compared to the military people. They’re less disciplined or whatever the case. They’re less efficient. You fill in the blanks.

Prove me wrong.

Whether it’s justified or not. It’s an interesting question to think about where this veteran superiority complex comes from. What are the roots of it that haven’t been studied enough? There are probably a few things that contribute. To some extent, it’s a natural by-product of the civil-military gap. If I’ve been conditioned to value service before self but these civilians are out there living these self-absorbed materialistic lives, which are the contradiction of my values, I’m going to think less of them.

They’re living by values, which according to my values are pathetic and despicable but there’s probably more to the story and it hasn’t been fleshed out. In an issue of the Journal of Military Ethics, it speculates that things like war commemoration and thank you for your service, these practices feed into a veteran’s superiority complexity.

I can’t see how that wouldn’t be true. I know what it’s like on Anzac Day when you’re walking around with some medals. This is your day. It’s the sense of overwhelming pride and joy that most veterans feel. Also, the community feels the need to acknowledge and say, “Thank you for your service.” When you’re being praised, time and time again, there’s an impact on your feeling of self.

We need to talk about the positive aspects of this. There are dangers associated with it as well. Your readers might be thinking, “There are these practices that make veterans feel superior and good about themselves. What’s the big deal?” This comes to one of the other risks or costs of military establishments. One of the risks is with this veteran superiority complex comes a lesser concern for the civilians that are in the theatre.

I’m going to show less regard to them because they’re like the civilians back home. They are lazy and fat but it also feeds into the risk of a military coup. It’s circumstances under which the people in the military become resentful of the fact that they are subordinate to the civilian world. It’s a practical extension of the veteran superiority complex.

That is an interesting one because you dedicated an entire chapter to this. For us in democratic societies, they might strike people as a surprise. People will go, “As if Australia is at risk of a coup. Why is that a cost that we need to account for?” However, there are some surprises to that.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, something struck me. Everyone’s response to that has been, “This is why we need a powerful military.” However, several states have been conquered by their militaries like Myanmar, Sudan and Burkina Faso. We don’t look at these cases and say, “That’s why we shouldn’t have a military.” That’s curious.

The fact that our military can defend us against external threats is seen as a compelling reason to have a military but the fact that the military itself poses a threat to its parent’s society, that’s not seen as a reason at all against having a military. There’s something weird going on there, particularly because considering that statistically, militaries are much more likely to attack their country than they are to attack a foreign country.

Statistically, militaries are much more likely to attack their own country than they are to attack a foreign country. Share on X

How many interstate wars have there been since 1950 where one military is used to defend itself against an invading military? There have been a few cases or a few times that’s happened. How many militaries have attacked their country though? Over that same period, it’s about 470. It’s an average of 9 coups every year for 50 years. States create these militaries to defend them against external attack but then that institution becomes a threat to that state.

Sometimes it looks like an irrational trade-off. I was reading about Bolivia. It hasn’t been invaded. It has no enemies but since 1950, the Bolivian military has attempted 23 coups. Going back to the domestic analogy, imagine you hired a private security guard to defend you. When you’re worn, you’re walking around in Bankstown to protect yourself from violent hooligans.

However, he starts getting drunk and beating you up every other day. Maybe you’d be better off without a security guard. We can extrapolate to some states. Some of them I look at and I think, “You’d probably be better off without a military, all things considered.” If you get rid of it, you’re going to be vulnerable in some ways but there are always trade-offs with everything.

The response would be that we’re in a democracy and our government dictates how we’re going to use the military.

This is an important addition. There’s one question we need to ask about relative likelihoods. You might say, “Coups happen, hundreds of them,” but you might think, “Coups are something that happened over there or in other countries like Africa and South America. They are not happening in mature democracies, for example.” The thing is it’s not true. The single greatest threat to democratic governments is still the military coup.

Most democratic governments that have fallen over in the last 50 years have fallen over because of military coups. The fact that a state is a democracy doesn’t insulate it very much from a coup. There’s been some very interesting research around this. For example, some of the research shows that in some ways, democracy helps to forestall a coup.

Democratic governments in some of these developing countries, you’ve got this local dictator. He’s very paranoid so he starts to purge the military because he’s worried about them. They look at him and they’re fearful of him. They might attack him in fear-induced aggression. Whereas in democracies, that doesn’t happen. The military doesn’t have so much to fear because democratic governments don’t behave this way with these pre-emptive purges and so on.

That makes a coup less likely but then on the other hand, some of this research suggests precisely because democratic governments are less likely to seriously fight back in the event of a coup, it makes a coup more attractive. Democracy has contradictory effects on the likelihood of a coup and it turns out they cancel each other out. Democratic institutions by themselves don’t have much bearing on the likelihood of a coup.

Other things do though. For example, it’s not so much democracy. It’s more affluent capitalism. Rich countries are much less likely to. The argument of, “We’re a democracy so it won’t happen here,” is much less plausible than the argument of, “We’re rich so it won’t happen here.” That’s true. The coup proneness of different countries varies radically but so does the likelihood of being invaded by a foreign country. That also varies very radically.

 


VOW 63 | Maintaining A Military
Maintaining A Military: The coup-proneness of different countries varies radically, but so does the likelihood of being invaded by a foreign country.

 

It goes into calculus. We’ve got to think, “If we have a military, there’s a risk of a coup but what’s the likelihood of that happening and us withstanding it? If we don’t withstand it, what will its consequences be? What will it look like day to day?” Even if the possibility is very low, what if your possibility of being attacked by a foreign country is even lower? It’s still arguably an irrational risk. Your security is still arguably going down.

What is the calculus for Australia in your mind?

I’ve gotten this question before and I’m nervous about answering it because I’m ignorant of so much history and political science. However, there are commentaries that I look at very widely. Let’s go back to the prospect of China invading Australia. I was reading something on the Australia Institute’s website and this was back in 2018. Things may have changed, although I doubt it. They did a survey and 49% of Australians think there’s a significant likelihood of China attacking Taiwan.

Forty-two percent of Australians think that there’s a significant likelihood of China invading Australia. Let’s go with it. Let’s say that’s true. China is itching to get its hands on our land and resources. They’re not worried about putting out bushfires. Let’s say that there’s a significant likelihood. If we don’t have these deterrent capabilities, then it’s highly likely that we’re going to be conquered and subdued by China. If that’s true, then the cost that we should be willing to bear for the sake of having the deterrent is quite high.

I might think of it this way. How many invasions has China participated in versus how many invasions has Australia participated in? This is a way of saying, “We’re not going to get it invaded by China. They have no interest in that. If we get attacked by them, it’s more likely to be one of these cases of fear-induced defensive aggression. They’re more worried about us meddling in their affairs.” If the chances of this thing are very low, then the cost we should be willing to bear is accordingly lower. I’m reluctant to give you an unequivocal answer.

You can’t. There are so many variables.

Maybe I’m irrationally optimistic and naïve. I don’t think that there’s a significant likelihood of China invading Australia. In that case, I’m inclined to say, insofar as the circumstances under which we are likely to need a military are less likely to arise, naturally, I’m going to say the cost we should be prepared to sustain for the sake of the institution is less. Whether we’re at that threshold and the Australian military is too costly, all things considered, I don’t know. I’m trying to tell people that these are the things that you need to think about. You got to plug in your values though. I can’t give you your values.

It also pivots to the next thing I want to talk about and that’s the cognitive biases you talk about. Everything we’ve touched on about our perceptions of the threat as well as how that perception is even installed or programmed into our mind has a lot to do with how we think. Our biases and heuristics and what we’ve seen before play a big part.

There’s an interesting chapter and probably my favorite chapter of the book is the cognitive biases that may lead us to the misuse of the military. The first part is the confidence in the prospect of success by the political leaders considering war. What is the issue here? What is this confidence calculus that ends up playing out as we contemplate war?

According to the just war tradition, it’s morally permissible for states to use force under certain circumstances when certain conditions are met. It needs to be a just cause. It needs to be proportional. It needs to be a last resort to have a reasonable prospect of success. When I say misuse of military force, I mean any use of military force in excess of those what is prescribed by those conditions. I agree that all of those conditions need to be met.

The problem that just war theorists haven’t taken seriously enough is that our minds are full of unconscious biases that are prone to distort our assessment of these various conditions. They act as though the mind is a truth detection machine and we can see clearly when it’s proportional and when it’s the last. It’s not the case. There are these gremlins in our heads that steer us towards false positives.

Take reasonable prospect of success. It says, “It’s wrong to wage war where it’s predictably futile.” If you’ve got no realistic chance of winning, you shouldn’t go to war.” The problem is states and their military generals always think they have a reasonable chance of winning, even if they don’t. That’s because there’s an unconscious bias towards overconfidence. We’re all guilty of it. Everyone thinks that they’re better than they are and there’s an evolutionary explanation for that.

States and their military generals always think they have a reasonable chance of winning, even if they don't. That's because there's an unconscious bias toward overconfidence. Share on X

What’s the explanation?

The explanation and I might butcher it here is it’s something like in our evolutionary history, there were people that were overconfident, people that were appropriately confident and people that were under-confident. If you were one of the overconfident types and this is way back in our evolutionary history, you were more likely to seize different opportunities. Sometimes they would backfire because you’re overconfident and you’ve overestimated your capabilities. You died.

However, in the scheme of things, these people outsurvived the others. They reproduced more than the others. That’s why that’s an evolutionary hangover even though it might not serve the inhabitants of this world in the way that it did our ancestors but it’s still there. This is not anything specific about the military people.

No. It’s human evolution and it resonates. We’re always told to be confident. Demand what you want. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will. This is part of the folklore that comes with success and achievement. It makes sense.

There’s probably something deep-seated in that but what you’re alluding to as well is that it’s also culturally reinforced. Maybe that’s where the military environment is particularly important because I get a sense that confidence is especially prized in the military. “Back yourself. Don’t hesitate.” It’s not to say that military conditioning is the cause of overconfidence. It’s to say that it exacerbates it.

There’s a great book called Overconfidence and War. It shows that the wars from the century 1815 to 1915 were all undertaken with every side firmly believing that it will win. Fast forward, the Americans thought that Iraq would be a cakewalk. Putin thought that Ukraine would be over. It’s for theory demands and reasonable prospect of success but then you’ve got this cognitive bias, which impairs people’s ability to make a sound impartial assessment of their actual likelihood of success. The problem is you’ve got this theory but everyone always thinks that they satisfy the theory. What good is the theory?

VOW 63 | Maintaining A Military
Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

It begs the obvious question. Are we just war tradition? Is it an illusion that is justified subjectively by those embracing it? There’s sufficient scope for discussion, at least, on it. It’s the best we’ve got and I support the thinking behind it. It’s the best we’ve got but it’s certainly not foolproof. What is the Einstellung effect?

The Einstellung effect is associated with what’s sometimes called the lure of the hammer or instrument. Give a small boy a hammer and he’ll find that everything he encounters needs pounding. It’s the tendency. You’ve got this tool and it’s the tendency to develop tunnel vision where that’s the only tool you can see. You think that with every problem, this is the solution.

The Einstellung effect more specifically though is if you’ve encountered a certain problem a number of times and each time you’ve solved that problem with this same method, what tends to happen is you get this tunnel vision where that method is the only one that you can see. The alternative has become essentially invisible to you.

It’s another cognitive bias that leads to the overuse of military force because the just war theory tells us we shouldn’t use military force unless it’s the last resort. This is necessary. Unless there are no peaceful alternatives. However, if we’re in the grip of the Einstellung Effect, we might fail to see these peaceful alternatives even if they’re there. This probably goes some way towards explaining why it is that some countries like the US, for example, are the ones that are always going to war. It becomes a fixated mindset.

If that’s the way you’ve solved problems in the past, that solution is the one that’s up in light in your mind. It’s more salient. Thereby, it occludes your view of all of the other options. There are all of these cultural explanations about why certain countries are more war-prone than others but maybe this is a deeper and psychological explanation. We’ve used this method before. The methods worked and that’s most prominent in our thinking.

You see this as well, particularly in the US with gun violence and gun ownership. It’s the same thing. It’s the Einstellung effect of saying, “The only thing that’s going to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” However, you can’t see the solution.

The coup analogy is very apt there as well. You have a gun in the home to protect you from outsiders but you need protection from insiders, including your children and child access shootings. They’re so often where a child gets hold of a gun and shoots a member of the household. Another point of comparison is gun owners overestimate their ability to prevent that thing from happening.

I read a study where they did interviews with parents and children. A huge proportion of parents could have sworn that their children had never handled firearms when they had. We overestimate our ability to control these things falling into the wrong hands and being misused. The same goes for militaries. States exaggerate their ability to prevent a coup from happening and other kinds of meddling by the military and the military-industrial complex. This is another way that overconfidence feeds back into the discussion. If we had more humility and less confidence, we’d have far fewer of these kinds of problems but our minds aren’t wired that way.

We overestimate our ability to control these weapons before they fall into the wrong hands and are misused. Share on X

No, because we’re programmable animals and that’s a difficult thing for us to acknowledge. I’m not the master of my destiny. External influences have an impact on behaviour. We are not as rational as we’d like to think and we’re not as autonomous as we’d like to believe. Maybe the last question is I want to touch on the epilogue of the book, where you talk about Gene Sharp, who’s the proponent of nonviolent ways to solve conflict. I found it interesting that this is where you end your book. I want to ask you why you end the book with that and what is it that Gene Sharp or that line of thinking offers us in this debate about what is the military for and whether is it worth its costs.

It’s because I wanted to end on a hopeful note. It’s a negative book in some ways. I’m taking something that exists. I’m playing defence saying, “We need to think a bit more carefully.”

It’s an introspective book. We should have that.

VOW 63 | Maintaining A Military
Ethics, Security, and the War Machine: The True Cost of the Military

The epilogue is meant to say, “Maybe we can have all of the things that this institution provides us, which we don’t want to let go of without the costs.” We can have an alternative way of doing it. Gene Sharp was the guy who said, “There’s this particular problem that we are faced with, the problem of international aggression and terrorism. Maybe there are solutions to that other than giving a whole bunch of teenage boys high-powered weapons. Maybe we’ve advanced enough to think of other ways of doing that.”

He proposed what he called a post-military defence system. It’s the one in which the civilian population of a country engages in a mass coordinated subversion and sabotage to drive out a foreign aggressor as opposed to a military defence system where soldiers with guns do that. The logic behind it is simply foreign aggressors have goals. They don’t normally attack for the sake of it. They’re trying to achieve something.

If we do get invaded by China, it’s not for entertainment’s sake. It’s to conquer and rule. It’s to extract resources and gain control over the native people and profit off our labour and so on. Aggressors have goals. For the aggressor to achieve these objectives at an acceptable cost, he needs the native population to behave in certain ways.

If you want to profit off our labour, we need to labour. If you want to extract resources from our land, you’ll need the participation of farmers, technicians, miners, transport workers and so on. The aggressor can’t typically get these things that he came for without some measure of cooperation from the target population.

A post-military defence system looks like this and I’m simplifying. You get invaded and in response, the people withdraw from the economic, political and social life of the state. We don’t work, pay taxes or obey regulations. We also engage in subversion and sabotage. We do blockades and sit-ins. We dismantled infrastructure, machinery and so on.

You might be thinking, “Isn’t he going to use violence to force us to do that stuff?” Yeah. The aggressor might respond with violence but he’s going to use violence anyway. Whether we are using violence or non-violence, the aggressor is prepared to use violence. That goes without saying. That’s a constant. The post-military defence arrangement is about mass non-cooperation and obstruction to the point that the aggressor has to put more into the occupation than he gets out of it.

It’s winning not by force but by political economics. The people stubbornly refuse to play along. The aggressor needs to spend all of these extra resources enforcing compliance and bringing in his manpower to do the jobs that our farmers won’t. After a while, the fruits of the conquest get whittled down. It’s no longer a winning proposition and they bugger off. If you read Sharp’s work, there’s been so many cases of this thing in history.

It statistically stands up as the more effective way.

The readers might be thinking, “That might work sometimes but it’s not going to work all the time.” However, violence is not going to work all the time either. The biggest military in the world spent twenty years and how many trillions of dollars replacing the Taliban with the Taliban? How did violence work out in this? Nothing’s guaranteed to succeed. Furthermore, we have no real reason to believe that violence is more likely to succeed. Why do we stick with it despite the costs?

We have no real reason to believe that violence is more likely to succeed. So why do we stick with it despite the costs? Share on X

Have we evolved enough to start seeing beyond it and acknowledge that the physiology of young men and guns, the testosterone pumping through the need to belong and the need for status, all of these things contribute to violence? We see this time and time again. Ned, we’ve hit the hard right of our timing. I want to say thank you so much. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book. There’s plenty more that we could have talked about. I hope that I can speak with you again at some point in the near future because I like the way you’re capturing a very important topic and one that’s not discussed.

Thanks very much, Maz. It’s been a lot of fun.

 

Important Links