The Voices of War

66. Dr Jessica Wolfendale - On Torture, War Crimes, And Moral Responsibility - Part 2

VOW 66 | War Crimes


This is Part 2 of my conversation with Dr. Jessica Wolfendale, an author, ethics professor, and expert on torture and war crimes. If you’ve missed Part 1 of this discussion, I suggest you listen to that first here.

Some of the topics we covered in Part 2 are:

  1. The dispositional account and cognitive-affective personality system
  2. Military culture and socialisation
  3. Freedom and resentment
  4. Moral ignorance is by no means an excuse
  5. Integrating the victim’s perspective into military training
  6. The power of reconciliation
  7. Jessica’s future work on depictions of war crimes


During the chat, I referred to my conversation with Deane-Peter Baker about moral drift in the context of military ethics. You can find that interview here.

Additionally, if you’d like to hear more about the position I take on the idea of ‘free will,’ I recommend listening to episode 33 with the renowned ‘free will sceptic,’ Gregg Caruso. You can find it here.

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 and Buy Me A Coffee page on the links below:


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Dr Jessica Wolfendale – On Torture, War Crimes, And Moral Responsibility – Part 2

I bring you part two of my discussion with Dr. Jessica Wolfendale on torture, war crimes, and moral responsibility. If you haven’t tuned in to part one, I suggest you do that first. There are some elements of the upcoming conversation that otherwise do not make a lot of sense. Thank you, and I hope you find value in this discussion.

To get onto the dispositional account, which is the second account of the book, it does vary from the situational account. What is the dispositional account of war crimes, and how would a dispositional account explain it?

Again, we’ve drawn to this theory that was put forward by Walter Mitchell in 1970 called Cognitive-Affective Personality System. He’s not looking at war crimes particularly. He’s interested more generally in human behaviour. In his view, human behaviour results from this interaction between an agent’s values, self-conception, how they interpret a situation, as well as features of that situation. You get this constant feedback loop where one informs the others.

Think about a dinner party as an example one of the researchers discusses. A dinner party, you might objectively describe it as a social fun event. The problem with taking that objective universal description is that think about the people who are there. For me, it might be an extreme source of social anxiety. For someone else, it could be a stressful situation where they’re trying to impress their boss. In any situation, it depends very much on what people are bringing to it. What they bring to it comes from their history, their circumstances, their self-conception, and all kinds of things.

Their interaction with that situation then reinforms and reinforces certain patterns of thought, habit, and triggers. That’s why you get consistency in people’s behaviour. It’s consistency that we often see. It’s not that there is some kind of isolated static character trait existing independently that comes out. It’s rather that you have these reinforced patterns of effect, response, value, and self-conception that can be triggered by certain kinds.

For example, I’m scared of authority figures. When I’ve seen an authority figure, it’s going to reinforce certain beliefs, patterns, behaviours, and feelings in me, and then that’s going to affect my behaviour the next time I see an authority figure, even if the 2 or 4 authority figures might be very different from each other. There’ll be an internal consistency in my behaviour, even if the two situations seem very different from an external point of view.

For a military person, there’s absolutely part of what it means to be in the military. For anybody who’s been in the military, joined in one stream, and at some point been berated by a sergeant undoubtedly, until such time that you either outrank that sergeant or you are the same rank or something like that, you always carry a moment of, “It’s another sergeant.” Of course, that’s then transferred to other ranks. It depends on, and that’s part of the institution and institutionalising behaviour which is reinforced through the kind of reward or punishment system.

If you comply and obey the rules of your particular social group, you’ll be rewarded through status and respect. If you don’t, you’ll be punished and sanctioned by the group. I know this is one of the things that Zimbardo talks about. That does resonate well with me. It’s making exit costs too high out of a social group. Of course, we all love our sense of belonging. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, we need it. That’s a key piece.

You speak about military socialisation and providing frameworks of meaning that make sense of someone’s actions. There’s a level of which that occurs at a macro high level. You also have small unit culture. I think about the variation report and the report on Australian Social Forces Culture. There you have this, and you’re creating its own culture with norms of meaning and interpretation of events. Even the idea of killing is an initiation, it gives it a certain meaning. Someone who’s in that group might then see that as why this is part of what it is to be an awesome member of this group. I have to do this, and this action has a certain meaning in this context because of what I’m interpreting it.

Let’s backtrack a little bit to talk about CAPS more generally. The CAPS can tell us how you can get this unified behaviour across different situations. It can also help explain seemingly inconsistent behaviour by reference to a single goal. If you think about a waiter in a restaurant who’s very blokey with one table and he’s very prim and proper with another table. If you’re observing them, you might think, “Who is this person? They’re different people with different customers. What’s going on?” There’s no unity there. Actually, their goal might be, “I want to get as much tips as I can. I know that if I’m prim and proper with this customer, they’ll give more tips.”

There’s a unified goal that gives rise to quite different kinds of behaviours, but we’re only going to know that if we ask what they’re doing and how it relates to what they’re trying to achieve. When we think about war crimes then, this is why the Kretschmer and Langdell cases are nice. There are these shared situational factors that apply to both of them. They’re both in these units. They both came in this training. There’s a broad socio-political moral framework that they’ve been exposed to. This narrative of the war as the Jews as an existential threat was a very strong narrative that the Nazis give.

Kretschmer, that resonates with him, but doesn’t so much with Langdell. For him, it doesn’t play much of a role and his making sense of his participation in the killing. For him, it’s much more straightforwardly, “This is my job. I’m a soldier. I obey orders. I do it to the best of my ability. It’s not my job to worry about the big picture,” whereas Kretschmer is like, “I’m saving our people from destruction.”

He’s emotionally invested.

Externally, we’re not going to understand the differences between these. We just look at either behaviour because they’re both engaged in killing, but it’s not going to get us a picture of how they are understanding what they’re doing and what’s leading them to accept it in this way. I think the CAPS framework helps us see that by seeing this interaction between their own self-conceptions, their values, their goals, and how that’s shaping how they interact with and make sense of the situation in which they’re in. It doesn’t affect shaping their behaviours.

We might think that Kretschmer might end up killing more precisely because he thinks he has to desensitise himself to kill it. Whereas, Langdell is more like, “I don’t think this is particularly soldierly, but it’s what I’ve been ordered to do.” He hasn’t got that investment in wanting to kill. He’s not going to do it because he’s been told to do it. He’ll do it well, but he could stop. He probably would.

He wouldn’t go the extra mile.

I think it gives a much better way of thinking about the small problem. How do we explain the differences and the way perpetrators engage in the violence they’re committing? That’s at the micro level. At the macro level, you have these available frameworks of meaning, which makes sense, both of what it is you’re engaged in. What does this war mean? Why are we fighting it? There are those kinds of very broad narratives. Within that, maybe even broader in society as well outside the military, ways of thinking about moral values are shaped by particular social, legal, political, and even empirical views.

One example I was thinking of is thinking about the word equality. People often point out correctly that the framework of the Constitution is strange. I’m no American historian, but I refer to equality as being the many of them were keeping slaves. How do you reconcile belief in equality for men? Of course, women aren’t included in that to begin with, but all men, yet you are saying yes. That’s reconciled through a framework that said, “People of African descent weren’t men, or they didn’t have the moral standing. They were children or they were barbarians.” There’s a set of beliefs. You’re still committed to the value of equality, but equality only applies to people who are full moral equals.

There's a set of beliefs that justify you're still committed to the value of equality, but equality only applies to people who are full moral equals. Share on X

Construed to the lens of your social group.

There’s no inconsistency there in saying, “I believe in equality, and I keep slaves,” because slaves are, in a sense, like animals. We don’t think of animals as being moral equals. Again, you can’t assume that there’s some universally understood accepted meaning of equality. I think the same would go for concepts like respecting persons and honour and duty. In that framework, you have this broader way in which these terms are understood in a particular cultural context historically.

That speaks to me as somebody who’s very much in intercultural communication and how we fail to see the world through someone else’s lens while trying to interpret their behaviour. You’re missing a critical piece. That is, “How does the actor interpret the world around him? What are the causes of those behaviours?” Every human cultural behaviour has its cause somewhere in its past. We may judge it as right or wrong, but it didn’t just pop out of nowhere. It’s been done for a reason.

I think there is a possibility, and there is always active disagreement within our own culture about the values. Of course, if you think about the civil rights movement, that is an active movement for devoted women. Equality is saying, “We have this value of equality, but it should apply to these groups.” There are always contested terms. We shouldn’t think of moral frameworks as being fixed, deterministic, and unchangeable.

They can go forwards and backwards. As you talked about the torture post 9/11, it’s changing the Torture Act in the US.

What’s fascinating about that is that the whole dynamic around the way in which torture was justified, the response to the use of torture, the lack of accountability, and then they’re almost forgetting of it. That’s repeated a number of times in America’s history. If they were born in the Philippines is a nice example of that. It’s almost identical. Waterboarding is a torture atrocity in the Philippines. There was even a senate inquiry in 1904. There was public outrage for a little bit, and then nobody was found accountable because they believe they were doing the right thing. That was one of the reasons. It was forgotten within two years, and Roosevelt was re-elected. It’s this pattern of abuse, in justification, and erasure of torture. That’s a history that I think is also important to know.

It’s dangerous, especially how morality shifts when the threat of your own group is perceived as imminent. We’ll drop nukes. We’ll flatten cities. Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, how do you justify that? Am I right to understand then that the CAPS theory is what delves into this idea of personality and character? That’s what it tries to draw attention to. This is why we have differences. Why two people in the same situation will act differently?

Also, a way of making sense of giving a unified picture of someone’s behaviour over time. Even from the outside, it might look like they behave differently. It’s like once you ask some more or investigate a little bit about what this behaviour means to them, you start to see a more unified picture. It avoids the simplistic situation and this view of the individual as this empty vessel that’s buffered by situational forces and doing different things.

In a very specific view, there are very much more sophisticated versions of situations than that. I think in particular, in war crimes, it forces us to say because this is why I push back against a portrayal of war crimes as always being failures of virtue or someone going against their values. Sometimes they’re people acting on their values. These are values that are shared by their group. If we constantly talk about war crimes as failures or an inability to live up to values, then we’re missing how the values themselves can lead to normalisation, give legitimacy to war crimes, and make them consistent with one’s conception of oneself as a good person. That’s a very powerful motivation to see oneself as good. We’re very strongly motivated to try and think of what we’re doing is justified.

VOW 66 | War Crimes
War Crimes: We’re very strongly motivated to try and think of what we’re doing as justified.


When I spoke with Deane-Peter Baker about this very problem, he uses a great analogy, and that’s the submarine. He looks at a small group or unit as being part of a submarine. When you’re in the submarine, there’s no windows. You don’t necessarily see where you’re heading. There are a couple of people that are setting the direction off the particular submarine, but you are inside. You’re doing your part of that machine, unit, or whatever it is. You don’t necessarily know how far off course you might have gone. Again, I’ll bring in Kurt Lewin because that formula behaviour is a function of personality in the environment, which seems to me like what we’re talking about here. How closely does this align with how you view the world?

I’m not familiar with Kurt Lewin’s work, so I’m always a little resistant to something that could be put as a formula. In a broad sense, that’s very similar. They could be interpreted in a way that’s similar to CAPS. I guess my concern is that it’s always too broad. I don’t know how it’s defining personality or environment. The situations might define personality differently. If the environment is interpreted as an objective description of a situation, that runs into the problem that you said earlier, it’s hard to describe a situation without talking about how individuals in that situation are construing it and what the meaning of it is.

One example is straightforward. Think about a case where a student is asked to adopt another student. Now, we might think maybe that’s a test of honesty, or it’s a test of loyalty. We could describe the dynamic in that situation or the character trait that’s relevant in a number of different ways. It’s going to depend on how the person who’s in that situation thinks of it. Maybe I lied to protect my friend, not because I don’t value honesty, but because I value loyalty more. Someone who thinks of that as a test of honesty might say, “Therefore, I’m not an honest person. I lack the character of honesty because here, in this case, I lied to cover up my friend.”

Where does that come from then? I don’t want to get stuck on free will. I’ve mentioned to you that I subscribed to the view of Free Will Scepticism, both through my own meditation practice, but also through reading and research. Where do my personality and my character come from that is interplaying at this particular point in time with the environment that’s going to dictate how I behave?

I guess I subscribe to a view. That’s fairly common in the philosophy of moral responsibility these days, which is Free Will and relativism. What a new word. I think, ultimately, there are multiple possible explanations for how I’ve come to be the person that I am. To have the views that I have, the beliefs that I have, and what matters to me. Some of it might be genetic. Some of it’s going to be circumstantial. A lot of it’s going to be circumstantial. Ultimately, most of it’s probably going to be out of my control in certain ways.

That’s the important piece. How is it under my control?

I don’t think it is important for moral responsibility particularly. For a lot of people, people do think control matters. There are different kinds of control. I didn’t have any control over the way I was raised by my parents. I didn’t have any control over where I was born and the culture I was born into. Maybe I had some natural genetic capacities. I was able to do some things and not others. Even being tall is something that gives you certain benefits in life, apparently. People might assume that I know more, but I don’t know.

There is credible research that shows that.

I’m lucky that I’m tall. It has an effect on how I see myself and how people see me and all that kind of thing. If you try and trace back, “How did I come to believe that torture was wrong?” it’s going to trace back to something which is ultimately out of my control probably. A book that I read that we all had access to. I lived in a society that meant I was literate.

Once you start down a rabbit hole of looking at control, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up in a position of, we can call it, control scepticism. Ultimately, who you are is out of your control in some deep sense. The reason why I don’t think that matters is it was shocking. A student was shocked when he was asked a question about female determinism. I’m like, “They don’t matter for more responsibility.”

I agree about determinism or randomness. I don’t care. What I care about is everything before to now. I don’t care if it’s determinism or determinism and randomness going forward. That’s irrelevant.

Most of them are going to be ways in which you lack control. If it’s random, you’re an open law.

Exactly. I couldn’t agree more.

Why does it all matter? Matt and I are both subscribed to the idea that what matters for responsibility is the attitudes that your behaviour displays to the people who are affected by your behaviour. Strawson wrote this paper called Freedom and Resentment in the late ’60s. It’s unbelievably influential. It’s pretty underdeveloped. It was a lecture, so it wasn’t even a full paper. The basic idea is that suppose that you shoved me. I’m going to initially have not just a physical reaction but an emotional response. I’ll feel hurt or resentful.

VOW 66 | War Crimes
War Crimes: What matters for responsibility is the attitudes that your behaviour displays to the people who are affected by your behaviour.


In a sense, my feeling of hurt and resentment is not an expression of some kind of conscious belief, but some sense that I’ve been treated with ill will. You’ve treated me in a way that I shouldn’t have been treated. That’s the emotional cognitive content of something like resentment. It’s like, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

It’s instantaneous and uncontrollable. It’s not unconscious.

If it turns out you shoved into me because you tripped, even though that doesn’t change the physical injury if there is any but it’ll make a radical difference to how I feel towards you. The idea there is that my feeling of resentment is based on an idea that you’ve shown ill will towards me. In a sense, that’s all there is in Strawson’s view of being and holding each other morally responsible. It’s viewing each other as being fit subjects of what you call reactive attitudes.

This is why we don’t feel resentment. My cat sometimes likes to bite my cheek gently. Sometimes it hurts, and I get annoyed, but I don’t feel resentful towards her. Why? It’s because, in some sense, I recognise that she’s not showing me ill will. She’s not the right kind of creature to have these emotional reactions to. I might still be annoyed, and I might push her away. Again, if I discover that you hit me or you bumped into me accidentally, I also don’t feel resentment because, in a sense, you weren’t responsible.

I totally hear that. If we agreed that I have no control over what’s happened and what I’ve been exposed to, what shaped my behaviour over decades of life with a cultural otherwise. If, at that point in time, something triggered me, in other words, the situation is such that you frightened me because you, in my mind, there and then represent the oppressive state that’s been holding me down, etc. That’s interplaying everything I bring to the table to that particular circumstance being my personal experiences, sense of self, sense of my worth, all my fears, and everything else. That’s why I’ve pushed you. Where is my moral responsibility in that?

If you think of being responsible as being a fit subject for these reactive attitudes of resentment. Also, positive ones, like gratitude. I only feel gratitude towards someone who I feel has consciously displayed goodwill towards me. In order for me to think that gratitude is appropriate, I’m attributing a control that you are intentionally doing something that shows goodwill toward me. I’m not attributing some deep metaphysical control.

I’m not requiring that all the beliefs that an upbringing led to this act be all under your control. I’m just requiring that your act right now will be something which shows goodwill toward me. That’s compatible with being the case that you had zero control over becoming a nice person. That’s totally compatible with that. It’s still the case that in a sense, you’re doing what you want to do and what you do is reflecting your attitude towards me.

My attitude is not determined by my environment and upbringing, is it?

It’s still yours. I don’t see that it’s not yours in a relevant sense.

Your environment and upbringing do not determine your attitude. You determine your attitude. Share on X

In the sense, it’s mine as in it belongs to me by name in nature, but if I had no control over how it’s become mine.

I don’t think that matters.

That’s what I find interesting because, in my view, I just can’t see how we have a choice. If I’m not even producing the thoughts that I’m producing. In other words, they’re popping up in my mind.

I didn’t actually reference choice. I said that you’re doing in a sense what you want to do. That could be the case that you’re doing what you want to do, even if you’ve had no choice in some deep metaphysical sense about doing that, which might sound a bit strange. We have very fine-grain reactions to the attributed attitude behind people’s behaviour. If I think you are pushing me deliberately, I feel resentful. You’d then say, “I’m sorry it was an accident.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s fine” because then I think you’re not responsible. You didn’t have the right control. You tripped. In that sense, your action, even though it causes harm to me, doesn’t reflect indifference or ill will.

How do you define control in that instance then? What is control?

You literally physically couldn’t control your body. You weren’t doing what you wanted to do in a very simplistic sense. That’s one way. We call it heat condition. I tripped, and I pushed you down the stairs accidentally. The reason why we withhold something like resentment, you don’t think I’m blameworthy is not because you think I’m metaphysically free in some deep sense, but rather at that time, my harming you didn’t display ill will or any way to harm you. There are other cases. For example, ignorance is a case. I serve you a cup of tea, and I don’t realise that you’re horrendously allergic to the tea, and you collapse and die. You then don’t have any responses to me.

Suppose you don’t collapse and die, but you’re like, “You poisoned me.” I truly didn’t know that this tea was poisonous to you, then my action doesn’t display ill will towards you. Resentment is not appropriate, even though I caused you great harm. In some ways, there’s a simplicity to this account, which accords very much with the way in which we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. The way Strawson approaches this is to say, “Let’s put aside these debates about free will.” He was running in the ’60s. It was all about determinism and free will. Let’s put aside those debates and look at how we interact with each other. How do we engage interpersonally?

That’s the kind of evidence we’re looking at. It’s just that what do we do? How do we hold each other accountable in our day-to-day lives? Pre-theoretically, before reading philosophy. We do it in a sense through these interpersonal patterns of emotional and effective reactions to each other’s behaviour and the implied goodwill or Ill will that those actions express. Of course, it gets complicated because there are cases where we disagree. If you do something to me and I say, “That was wrong.” You’re like, “No, I thought it was justified.” That’s when you get this back-and-forth reactive exchange. These conversations we have with each other when we try and make sense or agree on. It’s a very common experience people have.

We’re negotiating there and then.

It looks like, “Why do you think this hurts you?” I was like, “I didn’t. Now I understand.” All kinds of emotions, like forgiveness and reconciliation, are a part of that picture as well. His point was that we do this all the time, it’s just built into human nature. It doesn’t matter what our theoretical commitments are in terms of metaphysical determinism. We probably can’t give them up. We are certainly attuned to these perceptions of goodwill and ill will.

VOW 66 | War Crimes
War Crimes: It doesn’t matter what our theoretical commitments are in metaphysical determinism. We are certainly attuned to these perceptions of goodwill and ill will.


What that means then is that if you think about something like war crimes, there are going to be cases where a perpetrator is not responsible on our account. If it’s the case that their action does not display the kind of ill will that would justify resentment on the part of the victim. There could be cases like that. That might be the case with some of the heat of battle cases, depending on the circumstances. If someone was out of their mind with sleep exhaustion, then we’re probably going to say resentment maybe isn’t appropriate or not to the same degree. Someone who’s out of their mind with sleep exhaustion, their actions are not conveying their attitudes in a way that a normal person would normally be the case.

I totally agree. It’s a fine line because where does my ill will start? The ill will that I hold against if I’m a German exterminator towards Jews, where does the ill will start? The reason I’m thinking about this is because if we are thinking that we need to use a very current term and off frames before we get to Auschwitz, how do we install off-ramps in order to create bumpers for people to bump off and don’t go down that path?

I think ultimately, that’s what ill will that I might hold towards somebody starts somewhere. No one is born a war criminal. They become it. It feels to me like if we pause there and say, “I’m going to judge you on whether you had an ill will or not. That’s going to determine whether you are morally liable or responsible for the act you’ve done,” let’s ask that question. However, the next question is, “What has contributed to your ill will?”

There are two questions. One is, in a sense, a question about individual responsibility, which is what we’ve been talking about. One way to get at that and the way that we focus on is again, we want to take the victim’s perspective. One of the things I think has dropped out of the picture. We’ve actually seen this in relation to the failure to hold the perpetrators of murders that occurred in Afghanistan by the SIS Forces. It’s truly accountable along with a failure to hold the county institution accountable is an important one.

What are we saying to the victims when we say that the perpetrators are not accountable? We’re essentially saying that you, the victim, shouldn’t feel resentful, or resentment is not appropriate. In a sense, this prioritisation of the perpetrator’s point of view is something I get very troubled by in a lot of the ways we talk about war crimes. Often, war crimes are committed by people on our side. We’re obviously much lucky to prioritise their perspective. One way I think is if you’re thinking about an off-ramp, this one question is about understanding responsibility at this interpersonal level. Your question is more about, “How do we try not to get to that level?

How do we prevent ill will?

I’m using that term fairly broadly. I’ve been thinking recently a lot about the way in which America’s drone warfare and the extraordinary number of civilian casualties. Indifference or lack of concern is a kind of ill will. Obviously, we often think of ill will as being active like, “I hate you or I’m hostile towards you,” but it can be that you don’t care about people or you don’t think of them. That is an ill will. It’s basically not giving them moral regard.

I couldn’t agree more.

I think it’s important to think about that and how you stop that. When I think about something ill will, it’s not just active hatred as you get with something like a dehumanisation program. We’re seeing that now with the disturbing narrative that’s coming out from some of the more extreme Republican elements in the states. The anti-chat is extremely dehumanising and hostile. I think there’s no magic bullet, but one thing that would assist is prioritising a veteran’s perspective in the way we talk about, educate, and memorialise war crimes.

I was thinking one time, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a memorial to the victims of Australian war crimes?” Wouldn’t that be extraordinary to have that? Again, it’s not so much as, therefore, Australians are evil. They are the people that we harm severely, and we need to honour, respect, and pay attention to that harm and prioritise that harm. If we start to say that no one is responsible and perpetrators are not responsible, what are we saying to the victims of torture, rape, and genocide? You’re saying, “You can’t blame. You shouldn’t feel resentful. If you do feel resentful, you’re mistaken because the perpetrator couldn’t help it or they believe that what they’re doing is the right thing.” Whatever the excuse that we give.

I 100% agree. I’m an ethnic Bosnian. My particular ethnic group has been at the receding end of the genocide. I would never seek to vindicate or remove the victim from this, but I also then look at, how we reconcile. To take Bosnia as an example, compared to reconciliation in South Africa post-apartheid. It was more about the understanding that everybody acted in the best interest of their particular social group. At that time, it was a very hard thing to say. It’s not about forgetting, but it’s about forgiving there and then for what’s happened.

If you understand that people did what they did because as we even discussed time and time again, some of these people think they’re doing the right thing. If we remove the banality of the situation and take it as face value, they would consider themselves to be a good person. I think unless we understand that, it’s a slippery slope. Ultimately, we are then again not understanding or appreciating situations sufficiently. Interplaying with the personality 100%.

I’m not about the situation account of nature dictates behaviour, nature plus the person will dictate behaviour. On average, statistically speaking, when we throw all of that into the mix, X amount of people will commit war crimes. Until we understand that or embrace that as a fact, it’s very difficult to institute training regimes to force us to understand that without building empathy. I agree that we need to have an element of empathy, but building too much from the victim’s perspective of empathy also might have a counter effect of, “I’m going to war.”

Nature does not dictate behaviour. Nature and the person will dictate behaviour. Share on X

I just think it’s not unrealistic. I hate to demand that. I was thinking about this. How would you do this in training? One side of it is true acknowledging the fact that believing you’re doing the right thing doesn’t mean that you are there for excuse. I think that’s important. You believe you’re doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean that your victim therefore shouldn’t resent you. That kind of moral ignorance is not in our view excusing.

In terms of getting soldiers to understand that they can become that person. I do think there’s understandably a lot of resistance to that because I think nobody thinks going to the military. Obviously, I’ll end up killing civilians. The men in the SAS unit who murdered civilians in Afghanistan, when they were enlisted, for a second, I don’t think that they ever thought they would do that.

I have to say I have allegedly done that.

It’s so confronting. I could end up doing these big things and thinking it’s the right thing to do and think it’s okay. One way to maybe acknowledge that is using case studies of that. Here are some good people who do terrible things, and these could be you. Using case studies from within one’s own forces is also important. Also, case studies where war crimes were viewed as being justified, so not pushing away another heat of battle. Also maybe bringing in more victims. I don’t know if that was something that’s possible. If you’re talking about torture or training soldiers about the Geneva Conventions, bringing in victims of American torture to talk about their experience. That would be confronting.

It would be real. In my mind, as a Free Will Skeptic, as somebody who believes that I am the product of everything that has gone before me in myself included, that would be a bumper in my mind. We know that emotional sticks longer in our memory. That will be an emotional interaction with my environment that would absolutely stay with me and hopefully pop into my mind at the right time when I’m under extreme pressures, timelines, flawed emission profiles, poor incentives, and everything else that we’ve seen happened.

In relation to the Drone Campaign, some media outlets are trying to do this, but it’s not sticking. I feel like in drone pilot training, we get people to talk about what it’s like to live under drone surveillance. To the people who are doing it and the terror that inflicts, whether or not you’re the direct target. That I think would be confronting and important. Sometimes I think without engaging with the victims, and again, victims of your own acts of violence, that resistance to engaging with it is going to continue to be a barrier to true reform, I believe.

Of course, reconciliation.

What’s so interesting is reading some of the accounts of torture and some of the accounts of reconciliation. The way in there are cases of torturers and their victims many years later becoming friends. A black-and-white understanding of these crimes is anathema to understanding them and how people can come to commit them. An anathema to the understanding of human beings as complex and irreducible to a single action.

I also do have a meditation practice as well. I think it’s a sense of me letting go of control, but also letting go of a desire to categorise things, either one way or the other. That’s why there’s a broader question I’m interested in is, “How do people come to understand themselves in that way? How do you reconcile having committed acts of violence?”

That absolutely speaks also to the idea of the self. What is the self? which is very much part of what I’m getting at. Also, when you were talking to a trigger in my mind, the power of reconciliation, when we think about World War I, Gallipoli, post-Gallipoli, at least it’s attributed to him Ataturk’s words that are even now inscribed on Gallipoli Cove. I’m going to butcher it, but along the lines of, “You mothers of Johnnies and Mehmets don’t cry because they’re now our sons, too.” How powerful that sentence was in understanding the realities of that war. We’ve undoubtedly all carried out bad acts on the shores of Gallipoli, but let’s understand that we did it on behalf of our people to the best of our knowledge at the time.

Let’s forget that now and let’s realise that all of us are sons of mothers. In a way, reconcile and how much that one sentence resonates in our own history of our own military forces, and how much is done to negate the energy that undoubtedly existed at that time towards that enemy. It’s a powerful example of the power narrative in itself in how we contextualise the world around us.

There’s some interesting work that I’ve only barely scratched the surface off about ways of depicting and talking about war crimes in a fictional context and how that can shape our thinking. I’m actually still started working on depictions of war crimes. We’re very interested in the ways in which the media and political speeches talk about responsibility for war crimes.

We’re doing an analysis and then drawing out the different kinds of narratives of war crimes that are most commonly depicted, and how they shape actual practices of accountability for war crimes. That’s something ongoing. I’m very interested in that but also media, TV, newspaper reports, and political speeches. We’re pulling apart the different kinds of narratives that tend to be most common, and then looking if it does have an impact on actual practices of accountability.

Amazing work, and I certainly look forward to reading it when it comes out. Also, on that note, I know that we’ve pushed past the agreed time. It’s been an absolutely amazing conversation. I knew, as I said to you at the start, your name came recommended through a number of prominent people in the field. Given my particular interest in this topic, they assured me that I would enjoy talking to you. I certainly have. Do you have any final comments that you want to make?

I don’t know. I found that this is a wonderful conversation. I found it interesting. It went in directions I wasn’t expecting that I’ve enjoyed, and it’s made me think more about reconciliation and ways of integrating the victim’s perspective and the way we think about war crimes and training for war crimes. I’ve enjoyed it, so thanks so much for having me.

That was part two of the amazing conversation with Dr. Jessica Wolfendale. If you’ve missed part one, I recommend you go back and tune in to it, as it will give you additional context to our discussion. Thank you for tuning in to another episode of The Voices of War. Since you got this far, please take a moment to like and review the show wherever you get your pods. Also, if you’re able, please consider showing your support through our Patreon page. Thank you. Until the next time.


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