The Voices of War

96. LTC Kevin Cutright - Empathy Unleashed: Transforming Military Decision-Making And Operational Effectiveness

VOW 96 | Military Decision-Making


Join The Voices Of War at If subscription costs are prohibitive, email me for alternate solutions. Universities and educational institutions can always reach out for full access to episode files.

In today’s episode, my guest is Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Cutright, a prominent Associate Professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at the US Military Academy, West Point. Kevin’s extensive in-the-field experiences have fuelled his exploration into the ethical aspects of military planning and conduct, the role of empathy, and the concept of moral injury.

We delve deep into the significance of empathy in military operations, a subject comprehensively covered in Kevin’s newly published book, ‘The Empathetic Soldier.’ Not only relevant but his insights on empathy are also crucial for military personnel and those responsible for making war decisions.


During our conversation, we shed light on several pivotal points:

– Kevin’s military background and experiences.

– Benefits of the US Military’s academic approach.

– Origins of Kevin’s interest in empathy.

– Defining empathy: challenges and nuances.

– Differentiating between etic and emic perceptions of the world.

– Role and value of empathy in operational contexts.

– Security Force Assistance Brigades: their purpose and capabilities.

– Mitigating the potential risks of operational empathy.

– Intersection of empathy with the principles of ‘Just Cause’ and ‘Right Intention’ in warfare.

– Exploring ‘Moral Injury’: its definition and its ties with empathy.

– Methods and significance of empathy training.

– Using empathy as an instrument for understanding adversaries, mitigating bias, and enhancing decision-making.

– Discussing the critical role of ‘strategic empathy.’


Join us in this engaging dialogue as we unpack these topics, offering a fresh perspective on empathy’s role within the military realm.  


Thank you for listening. To comment or take the conversation further, please connect to us here:

Listen to the podcast here


LTC Kevin Cutright – Empathy Unleashed: Transforming Military Decision-Making And Operational Effectiveness

My guest is Kevin Cutright, who’s a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army and an associate professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at the US Military Academy at West Point. During his career, Kevin has served two tours in Iraq, one providing fire support in a field artillery unit and one advising Iraqi border police. He has also served two tours in South Korea, one coordinating fire support, and then much later a strategy and plans chief for an Army headquarters. Kevin’s operational experiences have driven his interest in the ethics of military planning and conduct, the role of empathy, as well as moral injury.

He holds a PhD in Philosophy from St. Louis University, an MA in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University and a Master’s degree in Military Art and Science from the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. Kevin joined me to discuss his book, The Empathetic Soldier. I finished the book and found Kevin’s views on empathy to be hugely relevant as well as critically important both for the military practitioner, but also for those who send us to war. Kevin, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

I’m glad to be here, Maz. I appreciate the opportunity.

Before we get to the role of empathy in war, as I said to you before, I have enjoyed the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I meant it. It’s a very important and critical topic for discussion. Before we get to it, let’s find out a little bit more about your background. How did you end up in the Army in the first place, and then what motivated your entry into academia and ultimately a professorship?

A lot of the American military folks might come from military families, but I’m not one of them. My father was a Marine before I was born, and then he always had a heart for the military, but I had no conception of military service. I grew up in Fresno, California where there’s not a large military contingent there.

By high school, my father wanted to plant the seed with both my brother and me of opportunities that might be out there. Not just the military. Believe it or not, he took us on a trip from California to the East Coast, and because he was a former Marine, we started at the US Naval Academy. We learned that once a marino always a marino.

We went up to Coast and we stopped at Princeton University. We stopped at Yale and Harvard, but we also stopped at West Point. We came away from the trip. Both of us were enamoured by what we had seen there at the US Military Academy. I left high school in California and eighteen days later reported to the basic training that they offer here at the US Military Academy. Years later in 1996, I became a field artillery officer and have been serving ever since.

Eighteen days is a quick turnaround. You have to enjoy a few days off at least before shaving your head.

I had family members who were a bit flabbergasted like, “What is Kevin Cutright thinking about the military?” One relative asked me why I wanted to be a baby killer. It was a lingering concern maybe that she’d had from the whole Vietnam era of things. I didn’t want to be a baby killer. In many regards, even some of that reception of serving in the military and then launching to this place bolstered my interest in morality, how is it that you can be a soldier and still be on the moral up and up, and those kinds of things.

I said I branch field artillery and honestly you had some incredible experiences with both the leadership and with the missions. Lo and behold, the way our US Army runs things is that one of the broadening assignments you can apply for when you are a senior captain is to come to teach the military academy. I got one of those opportunities and that’s what triggered the Master’s degree at Vanderbilt University, and then teaching for three years, and I was hooked.

I loved the classroom. I loved working with cadets and talking through these difficult topics. I taught Philosophy and Ethical Reasoning with a focus towards the end of the semester on military ethics, in particular, the just war tradition. I left hoping for an opportunity to come back. For the last few years, lo and behold, I have had my dream gig of being back. I finally had to abandon the cross cannons symbol of field artillery when I became a permanent professor here with the military tenure that they offer. I’m officially now what they call an academy professor in Army parlance.

They won’t post you out of there. You won’t be posted out of there in another lieutenant colonel position somewhere else.

Not anymore. This is my permanent gig until retirement. I look back and I’m very thankful because I didn’t know that there was such a route you could walk where you have one foot in the operational experiences and yet one foot in some serious scholarship and academic duties. That’s been a great combination for me.

That’s a great advantage of the US system. We don’t have anything like that in Australia, which is, in my view, a deficiency because we have people who are highly educated in the military ethics space, who have useful experiences who have taught this at quite prestigious universities and the military. We don’t have too many, certainly no uniformed personnel, unless I’m mistaken or there’s something I don’t know.

When I went through the Australian Defence Force Academy or the Royal Military College, there were no uniformed PhD doctors who were teaching and facilitating these types of discussions, which is a deficiency. Not only do you bring the academic aspect into it, but you also bring in the operational real-life experience of how this applies in combat or a war zone.

It’s a neat opportunity to try to embody the soldier scholar cliché that we hear about and talk about a lot. That’s been a neat role to try and play. You are right in a way. It could be considered a deficiency. It’s a fairly costly way to go. Do you know who else wishes they could do this? It’s the US State Department. They wish too that they had a bench of personnel such that they could afford to have several at graduate school as a full-time student for years, and then serve in a teaching assignment like this. I do think it’s important for us in the US military and specifically the US Army to recognise maybe that luxury.

VOW 96 | Military Decision-Making
Military Decision-Making: The US State Department also wishes that they had a bench of personnel such that they could afford to have several at graduate school as a full-time student for years, and then serve in a teaching assignment.


To take out lieutenant colonels and majors to go and start doing it. I’m doing my PhD. I’m a major in a fellowship. I’m very fortunate to be on a scholarship. That’s few and far between. There’s no pathway necessarily towards some teaching somewhere in one of our military establishments. It is my great fortune that the establishment has given me to pursue further studies.

It could have been any other studies. Not a PhD. It could have been a Master’s, which is generally what it’s designed for, but it’s just my luck to draw. You made the point. We don’t have the luxury to be able to remove people. We don’t have enough people as it is anyway to fill the operational roles. Let alone pull them out to then go into the teaching establishments as much as that might be quite beneficial in the long-term.

I have been encouraged to see some of the senior leaders endorse the idea too. General Milley for one has always been a consistent fan of the setup as it is, and several others. It’s well-endorsed. If you can get the resources to do it, it’s an incredible model to employ. I say that having been on the receiving end of it as a cadet, and then not realising how much I would grow on the teaching end of it. Both my first assignment for a three-year assignment, and then this last one in the last few years. It’s a great chance to continue growing in all sorts of ways.

Let’s get to the topic of this book. I’m sure you are focused on studying and researching a lot of other things to do with just war tradition. I believe in history if you are part of the history and philosophy department. How did you stumble upon empathy and why empathy? Why did you find yourself drawn to it?

It sounds awkward, but would this be the moment to say that my views are my own and not those of West Point, the US Army, or the US government? How’d I get interested in empathy? I landed myself at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where you have to write an extensive thesis on something to do with operational planning. In preparation for that assignment, we are in courses where we are reading a whole bunch of our doctrines.

Lo and behold, I can’t believe it, but they are in our counterinsurgency doctrine, the big rewrite of 2006. The word empathy is in there. The more I explored it, the more, for me, it came to capture so much of what I saw as shortcomings over my first deployment to Iraq ‘03 and ‘04, and my second deployment to Iraq from 2009 to 2010.

I saw it capturing almost as a one-word after-action review comment. A lack of empathy may be driving so much of what had gone wrong. In some ways, there are some important accounts that help explain what went right when it comes to the winning of hearts and minds or the rest of the tasks involved with counterinsurgency. Credit to the faculty at that school. They allowed me the latitude to run with this crazy idea of, “I want to look at empathy and its relevance for operational planning.”

That’s what started it. The more I dug into it, the more I started running across two different confusions that seemed to be at play. One was a big confusion over what empathy is. The literature has a number of competing theories and conclusions about it. It makes it so easy to dismiss empathy either as a real thing or at least as a real precise thing.

The second confusion has to do with the military profession and what it means to be a soldier. What the nature of soldiering is meant to be all about? Depending on what your conclusion is there, it can either leave room for empathy having a role to play or no role to play. SAMS, School of Advanced Military Studies, was the first opportunity to explore those confusions on my own. I titled the monograph thesis Empathy for Carnivores. At least get the faculty and my peers to open the paint and see maybe what it involved.

The military profession can leave room for empathy by having a role to play or no role to play at all. Click To Tweet

It’s to write a catchy title. That’s what I was going to say. Empathy, in many ways, comes across as it’s too soft. It’s a little bit too touchy-feely. It’s too emotive. As you and I talked about, I teach empathy to sum of our students in the Australian Army. I consider it to be a principal tool for developing relationships of trust with anyone, especially in a foreign context or an operational setting, where you are trying to establish some common goals and purpose.

I want to pick up on the points you made about Iraq because that strikes me as relevant to why you saw where we failed through empathy and maybe even some successes. Before we get to that, it’s useful to define empathy so that everybody is on the same sheet of music as you have done in the book. It sets the context as to what empathy is, but more importantly, what it’s not.

After canvassing a bit of the literature, in the end, the definition I came down to, as I expressed in the book, is it’s an experiential understanding of what another feels or thinks. Not a theoretical understanding that the other feels or thinks a certain way. It’s not the ability to attribute to another, “They are happy,” but maybe having some grasp or understanding of what that means to experience happiness or to feel that way.

Empathy is not the ability to attribute that other people are happy but having some understanding of what it means to experience happiness. Click To Tweet

It comes in degrees. We are going to be able to empathise more or less partly due to our own experiences to draw from and imaginative ability that we can apply well or poorly. The fundamental definition of empathy is that experiential understanding of their experience and not agreeing with the experience. One of the immediate confusions that can come up so quickly is to understand another. I have students sometimes who think that what I’m trying to ask them to do is agree with the other, so we have to spend some time separating those.

That’s the first thing that people go for. The definition I use for my lessons is Brené Brown purely because she’s an academic but she’s also very good at popularising some rather difficult topics in easy-to-understand concepts. The way she defines it is connecting to the emotion underpinning an experience rather than the experience itself, which is very much in line with what you are saying. I use that as a vehicle for my discussions because coming from a rich Western nation when we go deploy somewhere, generally speaking, the places we deploy are vastly different from the country we come from.

It’s very difficult for people to contextualise, connect, and visualise an experience. Most of the people that I have taught don’t know what it’s like to have lived through 2 to 3 wars to have lost half your family to change to whom you swear allegiance four times which is something we have seen in wars. However, everybody understands the emotions underpinning those. Everybody knows what fear, joy, and happiness feels like.

It’s about recognising and connecting, in my view, to that emotion that might be underpinning the given experience. This is why I find Brene’s quote quite neat because it gives me a useful vehicle to open up a discussion as to how our experiences might differ. We are all human. We all feel the same emotions. That seems to at least in my limited experience of teaching this stuff seems to resonate with a lot of people. I’m sure that happens to you as well when you start talking about the actual connection to that emotional piece that you are referring to.

In the research I was doing, Brené Brown’s definition is completely helpful. It is capturing maybe the heart of what we mean by empathy. Sociologists have this distinction between an ETIC understanding of others versus an EMIC understanding. Have you run across these terms?

In your book, I highlighted them as a sub-question to perhaps dive into and I welcome it. Let’s go. I found it to be a very useful definition to contextualise what we are talking about.

It helps capture maybe at least one element of empathy being an after-action review word for Iraq. I can’t help but think of Afghanistan even though I haven’t deployed to Afghanistan. An ETIC understanding is this grasp of everything observable. Pretend that you are a sociologist looking at a group. Maybe they are conducting some habitual practice or tradition and the ETIC understanding would mean this grasp of when they are conducting this ceremony with what artifacts, who in the group is leading it, or what time of day or location they are doing it.

All these things are observable facts of tradition, act, or ceremony. The EMIC understanding would be the meaning behind those actions for that group. It’s the way in which the action or the ceremony connects with their overall worldview or sense that they make of the world. All this immaterial inside knowledge.

The one thing that clicked with me when I ran across this was that I couldn’t help but think of the pre-deployment preparation that both of my units received before we headed out to Iraq. We get the Iraqi phrases so we might be able to bungle our way through how to say, “Hello,” and, “How are you doing?” We get the pretty rapid and rough cut tossing out of facts of, “You are going to see this thing called Ramadan. It’s going to occur in these times. It lasts this long.” Very little mention of what it means at all or any of that.

All of this was under the label of cultural knowledge and improving our ability to build bridges and stuff. There’s a point where I argued in the book. Someone equipped with all sorts of cultural knowledge could still fail to build bridges easily. I watched some of it. Maybe of peers who still had a disdain for locals or things that were different, whether or not they had disdain specifically for Iraqis or things that were so outside of their own experience.

Someone equipped with cultural knowledge could still fail to build bridges easily. Click To Tweet

That lack of empathy right there prevents their bridges from getting built regardless of how much knowledge you have of Islam or on Iraq’s history and those things. The more you study that stuff, the more you might generate empathy or an empathetic grasp of another, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s contingent upon the character of the person or an openness or commitment to doing so. It’s not necessary.

Also, naming it, which is what your book does. It gives it a name. We could use EMIC as an example. EMIC sounds academic, esoteric, and out there. I confidently can say that most people in uniform would go too. I’m not going to get a time-out. I’m not doing an EMIC understanding of Afghanistan. Whereas if you start back with empathy. It is something we all do so naturally to our children, spouses, partners, family, and friends. We get to experience and recognise their world because it’s similar to ours. Therefore, it’s a lot easier to build that bridge and feel or see the world through their eyes. As you made the point so eloquently, when you go to Afghanistan or Iraq, everything is different.

It’s not the obvious overt traffic rules or not buildings, terrain, or dress, the ETIC is the obvious overt 1s and 0s. Even the sub-context, the jokes, the humour, and the way emotions are expressed are vastly different. For those who are not accustomed to dealing with that, it can be quite frightening and scary and can push them away. It’s very easy to then paint in us and them, and drive a wedge between those whom they are trying to help if you do not employ empathy as a credible tool to try and see or give context or colour to the black-and-white that you are seeing in front of you.

Even a well-intentioned Western soldier deployed out that direction can fall short without an exercise of genuine empathy. There is another element of my research. There was a great lecture I ran across. It was the archbishop of Canterbury. I can’t remember the gentleman’s name right now, but he had served in that capacity. He was giving this lecture on the problems of empathy.

VOW 96 | Military Decision-Making
Military Decision-Making: Even a well-intentioned Western soldier deployed in a place of conflict can fall short without an exercise of genuine empathy.


He points out that one problem is we might approach circumstances where we know we need to empathise with this attitude of, “I know exactly how you feel,” and then start rolling from there. When in fact he points out, “No. We need to start from the position of, ‘I have no idea how you feel.’” Only from there do you get it maybe into genuine empathy. The well-intentioned soldier or something like that might still make this error of projection. Projecting one’s attitudes, experiences, or ways in which they would feel in whatever they are seeing of those observable facts.

The locals must feel the same way. They must. How could there possibly be another way of experiencing this? That would be another way in which things have gone wrong because the projection ends up contributing to very detailed plans on things that, in the end, aren’t going to be received in the way that’s being assumed.

You are completely misinterpreting what you are seeing based on your own bias and the lens that you are bringing into it, despite the fact that you might think or fool yourself into believing that this is exactly what they want. Even if they tell you, “I want a well here,” that might not be what’s behind it but that’s merely what you are getting because that’s all you are giving the opportunity for them to provide.

We have seen that time and time again. It’s like, “What can we fix?” “We need a well here. We need a road there,” but that might not be exactly what they want. “My cousin’s house over there has been bombed, so let’s fix that house.” There’s that too. I don’t even put this into the context of Afghans or Iraqis. This is Bosnia. It’s humans where there are haves and have-nots. Somebody who has come and offered you something, “You will take what you can.” I put myself into this. I would do the same thing.

There’s one point that you made in the book that I liked, and that is that empathy goes beyond knowledge and understanding of culture, which is what we are talking about so far. These are the cultural briefs, history, and customs. How well is this understood, do you think? Is this a confusion that you still face or wrestle with even with the cadets that you teach that empathy is thrown in amongst this culture, history, and customs piece?

There is still confusion on what empathy is asking for or what it’s gesturing at because it does move beyond the mere facts of the other person or the other group’s situation. It does, in the end, speak to a bit of an attitude. There’s even a way in which in order to properly empathise, you have to be willing to take on a bit of vulnerability.

I do mean that in some emotional sense. If you are truly empathising, you might be exposing yourself to a vicarious experience that could be painful. There’s that vulnerability, but then another vulnerability that empathy demands is a sense in which your sense-making is not the only one or your conclusion about things is not the only possible one.

VOW 96 | Military Decision-Making
Military Decision-Making: The vulnerability that empathy demands is a sense in which your sense-making is not the only one or your conclusion about things is not the only possible one.


To empathise means to be willing to consider a competing perspective on something. That’s also something that can be hard to do particularly under the stress of a deployment. When you are already trying to hold things together in your mind, for your own family, or your battle buddies, it’s a high calling to also then say, “We think we are here for all of this and we ought to be received in this manner.”

Is that reasonable to ask of them to be received in that matter and whatever else? The more you think through it, the more reasonable it becomes, but it does give you this irritating reality now of two competing perspectives that you have to reconcile yourself. This would be ways in which it goes beyond cultural knowledge. It does involve a fundamental respect for these other humans as humans. Therefore, their experience needs to be somehow accounted for and appreciated in the small sense and at least come to grasp what it is that they are seeing, feeling, and thinking. It does not entail agreeing with that conclusion about things, but it does require maybe abstaining for one second from our judgments about stuff to properly grasp what the experience is for that other.

It’s the necessary grasp if you want to win the hearts and minds. That’s very much the point you made about Iraq and Afghanistan without a doubt. With the two competing views or narratives, one that exists in your mind and the one of those whom you are trying to help ultimately, if those aren’t behind, you are working for different purposes. You can be A) Exploited. That’s one, and B) You are not going to achieve the mission, which I think is what you were talking about in Iraq.

Especially my second deployment from ‘09 to ‘10, I was in this advisory effort. We had this whole platoon of soldiers. We’d rotate out. Every three months, we got a new platoon that was providing security and transportation as we’d run out to the border and check border police. A number of those soldiers, we’d have these conversations on the six-hour drive. There are so many of them who almost wanted the relief of being asked to kick in doors. That’s what they signed up for. It’s what they trained for and all that stuff.

That’s the easy one. It’s 1s and 0s. It’s a dangerous one but it’s the 1s and 0s.

I’m sure you see it in among your ranks. I know I see it among mine where a number of folks want to latch onto those 1s and 0s versions of military service and let’s stick to that. We feel more comfortable with it and feel more trained to do it, and all that. It’s a real test of professionalism in a way. If we are going to receive the objectives that were given to us and say, “What are those objectives demand?” “They demand an empathetic approach.” I’m not even convinced empathy is relevant for just counterinsurgencies. In a way, it’s relevant for more conventional showdowns as well.

Empathy has epistemic or knowledge-based benefits as well as moral benefits. The epistemic thing, what I mean by that is it keeps us treating enemies in a more realistic manner than we otherwise might, where we might wrongly assume too little of them. Either they are not smart or they are not motivated or not any of these things. It’s so easily done. A genuinely empathetic grasp of an enemy helps you best anticipate what they are capable of doing. It’s been a great pragmatic benefit.

I look at the wars we have fought. I have talked to a friend and we mentioned him in our discussion. He makes the point quite credibly. We haven’t won a real war since World War II. We have got to stop and ask. How many times have we judged the Vietcong given them derogatory names and dehumanised them into something less than us? How many times have we done that to the Taliban or any of the insurgents in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq? We fail to recognise that, “Just because we have all the guns, bells and whistles, and the precision ammunition, it doesn’t mean we have all the knowledge to be able to be superior on the battlefield as we have seen we haven’t been.”

Somewhere in here, there’s probably an important threshold that we need to recognise. There’s a point where you might ask the military to do too much or ask them to be ready to do any number of things across too wide of a spectrum. There is one reason I’m glad that in the US military or the US Army, we have stood up these security force assistance brigades.

We have carved out a portion of the element that’s going to be good at this advisory thing that so many of us in the conventional Army are being tasked to do. It felt like a completely foreign matter. It’s a different language. It was frustrating there for a few years this assumption that you take a brigade combat team. Give them six months advance notice and they can be ready to do anything across that entire spectrum.

I haven’t heard of that. If you are comfortable talking about it, give a little bit more insight into what are these brigades and what are the future roles intended to be.

My knowledge is fairly shallow, but I’m happy to talk about the security force assistance brigade. In the last decades would be the real safe time span in which there’s been this sequential standing up. The goal is five SFABs scattered across a few different Army posts and they are regionally aligned. The idea is that the members of these advisory brigades would be able to dive quite a bit deeper than your typical brigade combat team turned advise in this brigade. That was one of the terms back in the day.

I have watched it come about. The battalion commanders are all second-time battalion commanders. They have already been a battalion commander maybe in a conventional unit. I believe the rank structure goes down to only a staff sergeant. They are composed of the smallest level of these advisory teams up to an overall brigade staff that may help oversee training and operation plans.

It’s reassuring to hear that the lessons from the Iraqis and Afghanistan are being learned somewhere. There’s a recognition that we haven’t done it necessarily well. I put Australians in this as well. We haven’t done it any better if at all than you guys in the understanding of the context. Perhaps we have a different cultural context in how we apply and carry out operations, but we are also a much smaller force and we can also invest a little bit more individual knowledge in our soldiers.

Perhaps, you guys do, but also, what we don’t do is we haven’t done any of the heavy lifting that you guys try to do, which may be a side point. One of the things that I want to touch on is operationalising empathy. For the soldier on the ground, if we are imagining the soldier who is empathetic to the people that he or she is trying to help solve whatever problems they might be facing, and you talk about them needing to be vulnerable, doesn’t that vulnerability also leave them open for exploitation?

I can put myself in other people’s shoes and I have seen how someone’s empathy can be exploited by a skilled manipulator. I don’t even want to say the manipulator, but somebody who’s skilled at surviving, which oftentimes is the very people that we are trying to help. They have survived in the Afghan and Iraqi context decades of war. There’s a reason why they are alive and now they are dealing with us. If we show empathy, we might be taken for a ride. How can we address that?

We address it by recognising empathy is not some silver bullet that solves all problems. That’s something I try to mention a couple of times in the book. I’m trying to keep empathy from getting zero attention. I’m not suggesting that. It’s all that needs attention. Our employment of empathy and practice of it needs to be balanced by some healthy suspicion, genuine critical thinking, and a deep grasp. Even an EDIC understanding can still contribute in terms of helping us grasp what’s going on around us and helps us identify some contradictions that all of a sudden become a hint of, “What this person is telling me is a bit of a false story or something.”

Empathy is not some silver bullet that solves all problems. Click To Tweet

Empathy is balanced with other skills, traits, and virtues. It is one way to offset the concern. It’s also quite important to be brainstorming with others as much as possible anyway. It’s not a thing you are trying to navigate alone. That’s going to have to be the case given certain scenarios or circumstances. To me, it emphasises the need to be explicit about empathy, recognise its benefits, and along the way, explicitly recognise its limitations or ways in which it can lead to certain excesses. This also leads to a management of empathy where you do as much as possible to ensure that the length of the deployment or the difficult details that occur may are not chipping away at the empathy in a way that skews their judgment of what counts as empathetic or their ability to exercise any of it at all.

That’s the degradation of empathy over time or of compassion. Even your sense of right or wrong can degrade and can lead to behaviours that later we call war crimes, which is something that perhaps we are wrestling with in Australia. We could call those allegations as the absolute lack of empathy, where you have become so callous to the suffering and pain of others that it’s completely irrelevant.

They are completely irrelevant given how you are feeling, which is hugely dangerous. It also takes me to the next point that I wanted to cover and which I liked in the book. It is the principle of right intention. You make the point that the principle of right intention is all but absent from the scholarship of using bello or the conduct of war. The right intention, as we know it, sits fairly squarely in the jus ad bellum or the justification or declaration of a given war by our political leaders. It’s absent in the actual carrying out of military operations by the soldiers and commanders on the ground. What do you mean by that? Why is that important? How does empathy play into it? I found this to be a very critical part of your book.

Right intention is defined by the earliest just war theorists as this commitment to a just and lasting peace between the warring parties.

Can we explain that a little bit more because I don’t want to blame some of them? That’s an important point. What do we mean by just and lasting peace and where does that play into it? How does that play into the just war tradition or the conduct of any war?

Another element jus ad bellum from the just war tradition would be this fundamental notion of just cause that you are not allowed to initiate a war unless you have a justified cause that warrants that level of trouble, death, or interruption of another community’s livelihood at the expense of blood and treasure. A just cause might be one where fundamental rights are being obliterated on a large enough scale. There are no other options that can address the injustice besides war. You have got this last resort being that right intention made its way as another principle that needs to be fulfilled because there’s this recognition of this thing that’s maybe fundamental to human nature.

It is funny how a country might have a just cause and yet their actual intention might be something else of, “I’m being treated unjustly by country Y,” and so country X is going to initiate a war against country Y. In reality, if you could listen to their private deliberations, they hate country Y, and they can’t wait to secure all the additional ports and see access and stuff that country Y has. It’s like, “They have all these rich mineral deposits and other things.” All of a sudden, the actual motivation of the war is no longer addressing the injustice.

You are talking about proxy wars.

Even in a direct war and with proxy wars, too. It can be very easy. There will be a legitimate just cause, and yet the actual motivation to participate is for all these other self-serving reasons, not the just cause itself. The right intention is this separate principle that’s laid out like, “To be morally justified, you got to want to address the injustice and that’s got to be the heart of what’s driving you to war.” It can’t be these other self-serving things. That’s the actual private motivation. The big picture from the just war tradition, the idea is that any given country in and of itself has a legitimate right to exist. Even if it acts aggressively and maybe commits injustices against another, the point is to police up the injustice, not to necessarily eradicate the aggressive country.

VOW 96 | Military Decision-Making
Military Decision-Making: To be morally justified, address the injustice and the heart of what’s driving you to war. It can’t be these other self-serving things.


A just and lasting peace would be one that may involve a reconciliatory coexistence. It’s not what in some of the literature they will call a negative peace, but more of a positive peace. Negative peace would simply be like, “No one else is left standing.” You are at peace because you are the only country remaining or something. That’s not the piece that is being referred to when we start talking about the right intention towards a just and lasting peace.

The way I read it in your book and visualise it in my mind was that every war should be fought and ideally is fought with that in mind. We’re only fighting this war because we have met these thresholds, and it is only in order to achieve a just and lasting peace. If a just and lasting peace is not our disposition or is not the way we are fighting this war, then empathy slides out so quickly. If our intention is, if it creeps into our mind, it is merely about killing or killing the other. It’s a zero-sum game. It’s you and me.

That disposition in itself knew that any potential empathy that you might develop towards your enemy or combatant that you might be facing on the ground. This is why I thought it was such a poignant point to make that starting a war and implanting this idea in our warfighters from the top all the way down to the lower soldier, the ultimate aim is to achieve a just and lasting peace and to inculcate that. We talk about the depths of what that means and how we achieve that as the ultimate victory. That’s victory in a way and how do we achieve that? That’s one metric of how we measure that we have been successful in a particular campaign or war.

Maybe the highest measure too. It’s the ultimate measure that matters more than the quantifiable measures that we will so often settle for. Some of these early just war tradition thinkers get to be fascinating when they get into this right intention thing. In some regards, it might be the hardest thing to grasp or the most weird sounding thing to our modern ear.

Augustine comes to mind. Coin comes to mind. There are a couple of these thinkers who would suggest in a way a soldier doesn’t even intend to kill the enemy. The soldier kills the enemy if the enemy forces his hand. There’s no actual killing intention harboured in the heart of a morally right soldier. Notice how weird that sounds.


Important Links