The Voices of War

98. Dr. Jonathan French Flint - Navigating The Ethical Maze Of War: On Strategic Theory And Military

VOW 98 | Ethical Maze of War


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In today’s episode, I sit down with Dr. Jonathan French Flint, an Inamori Research Associate at Case Western Reserve University with a focus on military ethics and strategic theory.

Dr. Flint has a background in teaching in the UK and has presented his work at a range of academic venues, including the United States Army Command and General Staff College. He has also made contributions to military ethics literature, notably with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and has appeared on the Canadian CTV Network as an expert discussing the war in Ukraine and broader issues in military and international affairs.

Our conversation aims to explore the complexities of Strategic Theory, particularly its role in informing decisions about war. Dr. Flint brings a unique perspective to this subject, advocating for the inclusion of ethical considerations in strategic planning for conflict.


Here are some of the key topics we cover:

  • **Pathway to Specialisation**: Dr. Flint shares how he entered the niche field of military ethics and Strategic Theory.
  • **Unlocking Strategic Theory**: We examine what Strategic Theory entails and the problems it seeks to solve.
  • **Defining ‘Victory’**: We discuss the often-ambiguous term ‘Victory’ in the context of warfare.
  • **’Wars of Choice’ Conundrum**: Dr. Flint elaborates on the difficulties tied to defining victory in wars of choice.
  • **Ethics vs. Interests**: A look into the tension between moral values and geopolitical interests in ‘wars of choice’.
  • **Moral Injury**: An exploration of the concept of ‘moral injury’ as it relates to ‘wars of choice’.
  • **Ethical Frameworks**: We discuss General McChrystal’s concepts of ‘Courageous Restraint’ and ‘Insurgent Math’.
  • **Moral Compass**: The conversation turns to defining the difference between morals, morality, and ethics in warfare.
  • **Case Studies**: Dr. Flint briefly outlines his thesis, examining the Falklands and Kosovo conflicts through an ethical lens.
  • **Accountability**: We close with a discussion on the responsibility of senior political and military figures for unethical actions on the battlefield.


This episode provides a nuanced exploration of the ethical considerations in Strategic Theory and warfare. It’s a thought-provoking listen for those interested in going beyond surface-level discussions about conflict.


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Dr. Jonathan French Flint – Navigating The Ethical Maze Of War: On Strategic Theory And Military

Join The Voices Of War at Can’t afford the subscription? Email me for an alternative solution. Universities and educational institutions can always reach out for full access to episode files.

In this episode, my guest is Dr. Jonathan French Flint, who is an Inamori Research Associate military ethicist and strategic theorist at Case Western Reserve University. Jonathan has previously taught in the UK and has presented at conferences on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the United States Army Command and General Staff College.

He has published on military ethics with the International Committee of the Red Cross and has also appeared on the Canadian CTV Network as a subject matter expert on the war in Ukraine and military and international affairs more broadly. Jonathan joins me to discuss Strategic Theory and how it can help us wrestle with and maybe simplify some of the complexities surrounding how we go to war. Jonathan’s particular focus within Strategic Theory is on the role of potential strategic benefits of ethics when developing a strategy for war.

Jonathan, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

I read your PhD thesis. You’ve done a lot of work since then and even before it but it was the original prompt for discussion as much as I know that the discussion will go into several different aspects. Before we dive into the perilous waters of military ethics and your work, let’s first get a sense of your background. How did you end up in military ethics? What motivated that journey in the first place?

Embarrassingly, I wandered into it. It’s a bit like a local pub. What happened was I went back to college in my late twenties. I went to a European University. Anyone can go there. It’s a fabulous institution. After I finished my BA, I was like, “What do I do next? Let’s do Master’s.” I ended up going to the University of Hope where I did the Master’s degree in Strategy and International Security.

Towards the end of that, the dude who was running my program tried to recruit me for a PhD. I’d had some questions that weren’t answered during my Masters. I thought it might be fun to look at those. I ended up going to the first conference of the European International Society for Military Ethics to kick the tires a bit and everything else. Everybody was nice.

Someone I’d met there, sadly late Colonel David Benest, who was a CO of 2nd PARA attended. We all got along brilliantly and everyone was welcoming. I sat in these sessions and I’m listening to these voices talking about military ethics. I’m a newly minted strategic thinker. I’ve got my certificate and everything. There’s a window here because none of this is at odds with one another. I don’t think. I can square this circle a little bit if I want to.

I thought, “Let’s see what happens.” I spent the first year of my PhD effectively inhaling people like Michael Walter and all the regular canon going back to Aquinas and checking out his rules and bumping into some other people who probably should have discovered beer was invented. All of a sudden, it’s like, “This is very interesting.” I stuck with it. I contended that in the canon of Strategic Theory literature, you find that ethics gets fairly short shrift.

VOW 98 | Ethical Maze of War
Ethical Maze of War: In the canon of strategic theory literature, you find that ethics gets a fairly short shrift.


Even my supervisor once said, “We have to pay lip service to ethics but it wasn’t authentic.” I contend that paying authentic attention to making positive ethical decisions, although it may mean managing how we go about things differently, is more likely going to succeed than not. I don’t think that the two sides speak different languages necessarily. They both speak the same grammar. I just think that the vocabulary is different.

In an Australian case, what we’re learning at the moment is how much of a role ethics plays in our daily coverage of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. You’re onto something. Before we get to the overall concept topic thesis, what is Strategic Theory? Many of my audience might not be familiar with the actual ins and outs of what it includes.

Strategic Theory is absorbed as a subset of politics, security studies, or anything else. A lot of your readers will be aware of Clausewitz.

I assure you, if there’s one in here, they’ll be in trouble. It’s drummed into all of us, at least military people.

What did he do? He sat down and wrote a Philosophy of War if you read the first books. If you ignore the muddy bit in the middle and look at the beginning and the end, what he’s writing is his philosophical approach. That’s not the only way about it. There’s Antoine-Henri Jomini who wrote his approach, which was Napoleon’s approach and involved lots of lines on maps and prescriptive reasons. Both of these guys are trying to get to the same thing. That thing is coming up with a method of thinking about the conduct of warfare and how it can inform those that are conducted and interested in its conduct.

Go through Liddell Hart, Gray Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, and Henry Kissinger. There’s this wonderful book called What is Strategy and Does It Matter? in front of this. All of these books are about creating ways of thinking about how to conduct operations, their wider effects, and all of that. Strategic Theory is like political theory, the theory of strategy, trying to explain how war works, how the strategy works, and what its best practice is and isn’t. It’s simply trying to get to grips with the intellectual part of the war, which a lot of people don’t think exists. War is a very intellectual exercise.

War is a very intellectual exercise. Share on X

It’s an all-consuming exercise. What I’m perplexed about is the fact that you’re saying that ethics never seem to play a big role in Strategic Theory or doesn’t feature as a pillar of Strategic Theory.

Certainly more in the modern time, it seems to have gone away from that. I’m not going to blame Sir Lawrence Freedman for this but Sir Lawrence established the Department of War Studies and created War Studies as an aspect of the academy. Lawrence is not without ethics. I love him deeply. Some of his contemporary writers, and even going back to other people who have dabbled in Strategic Theory like Adolf Hitler and others have made victory at all cost.

We see that in current political discourse. The former President of the United States, Donald Trump, once stated that the laws of war were for losers. People only lent on the laws of war if they were losing. One must assume then that from his conception, therefore, fighting without the laws of war and this commonly agreed boundary of what’s acceptable and not acceptable in war, in his view as commander in chief, is the zenith of practice.

The thing is that we saw words like lip service paid to ethics in canon or we see, for example, Coleen Gray, virtually at times seemingly dismiss the idea of being good because we are held to the strategic theorist, strategist, and soldier, which is held to the moral imperative of victory. Part of me question whether that’s an entirely sustainable position to take. What I try to do in some of the stuff I do is to say that is unsustainable and that there is a more sustainable way of doing it but you might not like what it costs.

We’ll get to that. To what extent do you think this also has something to do with our definition of victory or the elect thereof?

Victory is one of those slippery terms. What are the conditions of victory? Let’s look at Afghanistan and pull that from the sky. The conditions of victory in Afghanistan were relatively straightforward originally. It was the removal of the Taliban government from power in Afghanistan. Happy days.

Even earlier, that was the removal of Al-Qaeda, which was the original reason.

One followed by the other.

It’s already the first morphing of the reasoning.

The other thing is it starts getting a bit slippery after that because then what’s the condition of victory? “We’ve won. Now, what is it?” I don’t like the term victory anymore because it’s slippery and difficult to define certain conflicts. I like the idea of conditions of success. What do we need to do to say that this has been a successful operation? What does a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq look like? I managed withdrawal from Iraq. What are we leaving behind? This goes back to the lessons that we learned in 1917 and further learned in 1945.

The lesson that we learned in 1917 is we beat the Germans. Great, happy days. We then exacted horrendous punishment on the Germans, flattened their economy, stripped them of any kind of source of national pride, and hobbled their industry. All we did was create the conditions for the Second World War. The First World War was a victory.

The Second World War was a victory. However, what we paid attention to was also the conditions of success. What were the conditions of success of the Second World War? First, beat Germany. Second, make sure it can’t happen again. How do we do that? The Marshall Plan and things like that. Our condition of success was having a safe, certainly in West Germany’s case, democratic West Germany, bound by laws with enough constitutional safeguards to be a good neighbour to the rest of Europe.

It demilitarised the populists in many ways.

Demilitarised-ish. That’s the thing because Germany was thoroughly demilitarised after the First World War but in the Second World War, Germany in stages was allowed to reform the Bundes back and its Air Force. It was allowed to create a Navy. These had constitutional safeguards around them which the Germans were perfectly happy with.

The thing is that what we did was we left Germany capable of becoming, for example, ultimately a NATO member. That’s not to say that we didn’t spend a lot of time in Germany backing them up and keeping an eye on them but the important thing was that we set a condition of success that Germany should be safe, prosperous, and well-run. That’s what we got.

That’s certainly not what we got in Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s perhaps the point that you’re trying to make. Our definition of victory certainly for these two conflicts hasn’t been clearly articulated. Therefore, we didn’t have the resources to institute whatever those conditions for success might have been.

What’s interesting about those two conflicts, which stand very much apart from the world wars, is that both Afghanistan and Iraq are wars of choice, not wars of necessity. Wars of choice bring with them a much greater challenge of defining what victory looks like. The reasons for doing it are also quite complex and very difficult to articulate at times. The more complicated the cause of the war, the more complicated the conditions they are to define. That’s broadly where we go.

The more complicated the cause of the war, the more complicated the conditions of success. Share on X

I have a question for you about the difference between a war of necessity and a war of choice. There are different ethical imperatives in both. In my mind, I’m still struggling to understand sufficiently well how a war of choice by the sheer fact that it’s not the last resort because we have a choice. As much as people will say, even in a defensive war, you have a choice. You’re going to roll over and die or fight.

That choice is much easier to make in the sense that you will defend because that’s what an animal will do and the human animal as well. Whereas a war of choice is where we’re making a conscious cognitive, non-emotive presumably rational decision to interfere in some conflict or start a conflict for reasons other than mere necessity. I still haven’t been able to reconcile if a war of choice can ever be ethical.

I would challenge you to say is it’s an unemotional decision or even in some cases a rational decision.

I would’ve put that in air quotes if I could because it’s seemingly so. That’s at least the narrative, especially in Iraq.

Let’s go for a war of necessity. That’s relatively straightforward. I’m being attacked so I must defend.

That’s Ukraine in a nutshell.

What’s very easy to understand is the war of choice. The problem with a war of choice is that it’s broad. I can justly start a war of choice if I so choose. I can be motivated by sympathy for a country that is defending itself and declaring war on the country that’s attacking it. I don’t have any skin in the game on this one. Let’s say Myanmar and Thailand start knocking seven bells out of one another. Burmese troops are committing war crimes against Thai civilians.

As America with my superpower, I don’t have a lot of skin in this game. Regionally, it stops to be particularly interesting. It’s in China’s backyard. I don’t want to tweak them. I get nice restaurants and shrimp imported from Thailand but that’s about the extent of my interest. However, I can emotionally and rationally say that I can justly enter this conflict against Myanmar in defence of the ties. It’s perfectly reasonable for me to go to war in defence of someone else.

It feels like it’s almost a third category. I’ve read this somewhere but someone else talks about this.

It isn’t. It all falls into this one big ugly category.

It could not be described as a moral necessity, though. That’s what the basis of R2P is.

That’s the problem with R2P because if you declare we are going to be guided by a responsibility to protect, we’re never going to be not fighting. A true commitment to the Responsibility to Protect means that you are involved in every conflict in the world. You have to try and pick which site you want, even when both sides are utterly disgusting. You have a responsibility to protect. Whilst R2P is great and I love the responsibility to protect, the problem with it is that I don’t think anyone has enough capability to be truly led by R2P. You have to pick your fights, unfortunately.

It’s how huge is subjective.

The thing is other sites have a responsibility to protect other sites. R2P, for example, created Kosovo. I love it. Kosovo has lived in relative peace and security, although it has horrendous problems, which is better than what happened before the establishment of Kosovo. However, that wasn’t without risks. The race for Prishtina Airport where we very nearly ended up with Western troops facing off against Russian troops could have been very messy. Unfortunately, there always has to be that tang of interest involved in it.

Going back to my Thailand example, it may be that America values its farmed shrimp consumption so much that it may say, “I also have an interest in the region. I like cheap shrimp.” It may say that that is the rational reason upon which I’m going to hang this or one of the reasons I’m going to hang this to try and make the case for going to war. Going back to your Ukrainian thing, this is a war of choice on behalf of Russia. It’s been sold to the Russian people by the president as a war of necessity. It is a war of choice. The reason why I say it’s a war of choice is because a war of choice is something upon which one national destiny does not hang.

VOW 98 | Ethical Maze of War
Ethical Maze of War: A war of choice is something upon which one’s national destiny does not hang.


Russia did not face extinction of its way of life and its values, or as an entity in and of itself because of the existence of Ukraine. Russia has chosen to fight that war. That is a war of choice. The invasion by Germany of France, the Sudetenland, or the Benelux was an aggressor’s choice there. They made those choices. Ignoring any claims of preemptive self-defence or anything else like that is absolute nonsense.

I would suggest there’s always an element of choice in whichever side decides to move first. The other side may not be facing extinction, at which point it becomes another war of choice. The other side may be reinforced by people who have decided to enter a war of choice. The war of necessity in and of itself is simply the act of defence. It gets interesting when you start looking at it in those terms.

It gets also fuzzy because, in my mind, there’s a difference between intervening. In your example of Thailand, there’s a moral imperative because they say there’s genocide, ethnic cleansing, or whatever it might be. That to me is a different choice or compulsion to get involved than say Australia joining the US in the invasion of Iraq, which is also a war of choice. Both of them are wars of choice but there’s a different morality at play in my mind.

There’s a different impulse. At this point, I will come clean. I was living in New York City on September 11th, 2001. I smelled the dust and heard the sirens. I didn’t see the towers fall. I was living in Queens at the time. It shouldn’t be a surprise I ended up where I did. You have to remember back to those times. I don’t know if we would call it an international morality or a sympathy between the Western philosophical nations. That would include Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, and Europe.

There’s a general sense of offence that they felt at the attack on the Twin Towers and the things that came out following that threat and stuff. Also, the general paranoia and upset that something so big could be taken down so quickly by a group so small. Those were strange times. I remember them. In that case, there was such catastrophic damage to the West’s self-image that most contributors to operation in Afghanistan thought that this was the right thing to do if for no reason but for the grace of God, it got away. When we talk about the coalition of the willing in Iraq, we’re much on the ground. That one was odd from the beginning. There was no rational reason to do it.

There was interest, certainly in Australia’s case. To me, the rationale is it’s almost colder and clearer than the emotional response.

It’s still not necessarily rational because fundamentally, Hussein was still back in his box. He didn’t have a lot of manoeuvring room. There were no-fly zones in the North-South of the country. Iraqi stan was happily doing its thing. The only real problem with Iraq at the time, I would suggest, is he was effectively unpunished. The knots that the US and the British government tied themselves into to justify the use of force were quite impressive. I recommend anyone read the reports that came out from the United Kingdom after and read between the lines of that. You can sense the sense of bafflement about it.

Like a Chilcot Inquiry, which was rather explicit in its summation that this was almost fabricated. The reason to go in explicitly state was it was an illegal war.

In Chilcot Inquiry was the one that I had racistly before. Lawrence Freedman sat on. It was Chilcot when he sat. Larry was also on Chilcot. This is super interesting. To go back to this, wars of choice are messy. You are never going to find a consistent rationale for them. Blair tried to put one down in Chicago with his famous Chicago speech, in which he said, “If we don’t like what you’re doing inside your borders, we’re going to fix it.” Interestingly, that speech was written by Sir Lawrence Freedman.

The plot thickens.

The way I’ve heard the story told, I don’t know if there’s any truth on this but Blair didn’t have anything to say in Chicago. One of his aids phoned up and Sir Lawrence said, “Do you have anything on the boil?” A hand, allegedly, and this is probably apocryphal. Lawrence sent over some notes on something he’d be working on and kept Blair on the plane over to put ladies and gentlemen at the top, thank you very much on the bottom, and then read it.

I read it. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Sir Lawrence is interested in this too and everything else. It’s quite a moral state. If we do not like that you are committing genocide inside your borders, we reserve the right to intervene. That’s great because it is unsafe for some but it’s a very clean and direct statement of policy. The thing about the wars of choice and the way, for example, R2P has evolved or more accurately died slightly and everything else is you will never find a consistent rationale for involvement in the war of choice by people who choose to start one.

It feels like there’s a perpetual clash between some idealised values that we tried to project and live by or set the standard for, and ultimately the interests that we end up pursuing.

It’s that cold hard reality that was articulated. A lot of your audience is going to groan when I say this but it was articulated by Thucydides. Why do men go to war? Thucydides says, “It’s because of fear, honour, and interest.” A lot of people say he’s an old hat and everything else. The thing is if you apply that test to wars of choice, then all of a sudden it starts getting super interesting. Why doesn’t the aggressor start a war of choice? It may be because of an articulated fear, interest, or honour. Those are the three reasons.

Why did Russia start a fight in Ukraine? We might suggest, because of certainly a publicly articulated fear, a sense of honour that Ukraine had a recipe part of Russia, and interest in preventing NATO from expanding into Ukraine or the European expanding into Ukraine. We can dig up a 4,000-year-old dead degree and it can say, “He may be on the money on this one.”

I couldn’t agree more. As an aspiring military ethicist, I then come down to the question, what is the point of military ethics? Are we just trying to soothe a wound that’s never to be patched up?

The point of military ethics is to make sure that you don’t lose your soul in the purpose and in the process of achieving the policy.

VOW 98 | Ethical Maze of War
Ethical Maze of War: The point of military ethics is to make sure that you don’t lose your soul in the process of achieving the policy.


That’s a good one. If we are looking at wars of choice, many would say, not even just me but I’m one amongst them that we have perhaps lost our souls in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we morally bleeding because of those two wars and the things that we have participated in that we have done as those who have deployed?

Is our soul as Western militaries somehow wounded? Judging by the figures of moral injury, PTSD, and suicides, I don’t have hard evidence of this but there’s anecdotal evidence, and through the number of people that I’ve spoken with, the reasons we fought those two wars and the way we left those two wars has contributed to the moral injury of many of our troops.

I remember when the withdrawal happened. A friend of mine who is a Special Forces medic in the US Special Forces is a recruiter. He phoned me up but it broke. I sat in my office with a phone in my ear. He was like, “What was the point?” There are lots of people who don’t go to deny the people who came back actively harmed with psychological injuries which run the gamut from post-traumatic stress through a very technical term that is moral injury. Those who fought those twenty years were much more than blood and treasure.

I’m not saying that they lost their souls but they were soul-injured. It’s not just the physical injuries that came back but there were generations of soldiers who have come back, either injured through what they saw or injured by what they didn’t see on the withdrawal. It’s that sense of, “We went and died there. What was the point?” That’s a fair question. Do militaries are themselves so sick? No. They’re in fairly robust soul health. However, they have very hard self-interrogation to do about whether they can keep that going. That runs the gamut.

The military is a great social experiment. In the United States, the military integrated before the rest of society. When you look at the Detroit riots, initially the governor tried to use National Guard troops to quell the Detroit riots. These were all White farm boys from Michigan. It was only when the airborne regular Army was deployed that things calmed down. Why did it calm down? The White soldiers in that regiment had been working alongside friends and everything else with African-American soldiers.

There might be a case to make that when it comes to matters of integration particularly of women into the force of mental healthcare, sexual assault, and other things, the last twenty years have seen militaries so occupied by something else, i.e., fighting a war that they haven’t been able to quite keep pace with the trailblazing that they used to do when it came to aptitudes inside society.

I do think that there are some older aptitudes that still unfortunately float around a little bit about the place of gender roles, mental health, and things like that. Since these Armies have been so incredibly busy doing other things that they haven’t been able to see, what we’re thinking about is we’re having to play a little bit of catch-up on this.

Some of the most interesting offices I’ve met are people who are interested in where we go from here. It’s quite difficult in the political environment here because they get branded as woke. Whereas the British Army leaned in on it and did a poster recruiting campaign saying, “Snowflakes, we need your empathy.” It’s watching these two sides of the Atlantic try to get to grips with how we go forward. The military is always going to be roughy tufty. It’s always going to be fairly rough and tumble. There’s always going to be areas in which some people may react with distaste to attitudes held.

The thing is it’s becoming imperative to find a way of trying to mitigate some of that injury, which was caused many years ago and as a matter of prevention. The interesting bit going forward is we’ve taken this beating and licking. We have had hundreds and thousands injured. What do we do to prevent that injury going forward? That’s going to be the interesting part. How do they develop in a new way? Ultimately, go back to winning wars.

I hope we don’t want to go to a war, which perhaps is a neat pivot to your thesis and some of the thinking within it. I’m conscious that we’ve not necessarily derailed but there are so many interesting threads here that I’ve always forgotten that there was an actual reason that we wanted to talk. That is your actual thesis.

I hope you turn this into a book and this doesn’t remain merely a thesis. As we all know, it is the kind of joke that the person, the spouse, their supervisor, and the examiner reads leaving it to at most half a dozen people. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were so many threads in that thesis and resources that I’ve underlined for my follow-up as well. Maybe you can give us a quick wave top. What is the thesis about? What motivated it as well?

The argument presented is that being good in the sense of morally positive is a good strategy. That’s it. Making the right decisions from a moral perspective that is morally defensible entirely leads to good strategic decision-making. There are consequential adjustments needed to ensure that but that allows for a certain amount of flexibility, which further reinforces the idea that it’s a potentially good strategy. Making the right decisions from a moral perspective or defensible decisions against morality, i.e., not putting babies on spikes is a good idea to help us with the war.

Making the right decisions from a moral perspective leads to good strategic decision-making Share on X

Two things might pop up in our audience’s mind. Firstly, how is that a surprise? In the grand scheme of things, why should we be surprised at that? It sounds so reasonable. Secondly, the flow from that is if this is a PhD thesis, then we haven’t been doing that. If you are proving that doing something like including ethics and morality in the conduct of war is good, we haven’t been doing it. Would those two be accurate?

When writing this, part of me was going up against a lot of the literature. A lot of the literature wasn’t particularly interested in being good. A lot of the literature was just interested in victory. We’re talking to some but not all practitioners. You can go back to a comment that you frequently had about Afghanistan. How can we win with one hand tied behind our back? Part of me wants to argue on that. “You’ve got one hand tied behind your back but what can you do? If you have one hand tied behind your back, what do you need to be able to win? Do you need another bloke with his hand tied behind his back as well? You’ve got two hands.” That’s the question.

There’s also something there that implies that there is a hand behind my back, meaning that I can’t employ my force to its full potential. That in itself is perhaps a problem. It’s that rationale. It should be so that me not using these techniques, processes, or procedures, for example, torture, they shouldn’t even enter my spectrum of things that I can do with both hands. Therefore, I shouldn’t have had any hands tied up behind my back. I’ve got both hands. It’s just that my two hands are capable of only operating on this spectrum out of the available spectra that exist of human action.

What was interesting was the reception of courageous restraint. I don’t know if you know but courageous restraint was generated by General McChrystal when he said, “Don’t do anything until you’re sure effectively. Even if you are shot at, try to restrain yourself as much as possible.” There was an interesting BBC documentary, which I forget the name of that talked to soldiers about the policy of courageous restraint but it was introduced into British forces. Initially, there was quite some scepticism. They went back to the same soldiers. The answer was we couldn’t do the job without it.

What you’re telling me is that by not functioning at your full capacity to deliver force, you are finding benefits, particularly in this war of choice environment. “That’s interesting. Why is that? What’s going on there?” The Gallaghers of this world or anything else and those that supported the policy of torture and everything else say, “We did it. This is what we needed to do.” John Yoo, the writer of the infamous torture memo, doesn’t seem to need convincing that torturing people is quite handy.

VOW 98 | Ethical Maze of War
Ethical Maze of War: By not functioning at your full capacity to deliver force, you’re actually finding benefits, particularly in this war of choice environment.


Fundamentally, I would disagree with people who try to defend that position. Another idea that McChrystal developed is super interesting. He articulated it, although we already knew it, which is this idea of Insurgent Math. His idea of Insurgent Math is if you kill 1 innocent person, you generate another 10 insurgents.

At this point, we have to say that there is an operational requirement to be restrained. If I kill 1 innocent child and generate 10 more insurgents, that’s 10 more insurgents that I and other soldiers around me have to deal with at a later date. I’ve got a self-generating enemy there, which I don’t particularly want to have if I’m looking to enforce something that looks like a civil piece.

The thing is that fighting without restraint is counterproductive. Let’s look at Ukraine. We have seen the horrifying aftermath of Russian occupation or attack on towns in Ukraine. There were victims of rape and summary execution. What do we think that’s going to do to the Ukrainian will to fight? It’s going to harden it and will make Russia’s job harder. Not only has it hardened Ukraine’s will to fight but it’s also increased other states like the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany to equip Ukraine because of the horrifying character of what Russia is doing inside the borders of Ukraine.

What has Russia done? I use this word with no sense of approval. It might feel good to kill a Ukrainian. I would use the term Private Snuffy if he was American. At that moment, it might feel good to kill a Ukrainian civilian in the middle of the street or shoot a Ukrainian dog. “I’m fighting. I’m leading the war.” “Congratulations, Private. Congratulations, Captain. You have generated another 10, 20, 30, or 40 Ukrainian volunteers.” Let’s see how that’s gone for Russia. We are in the second year of the conflict. The three-day special operation started in February 2020.

I want to get to the individual factors of the model that you discussed. You’ve already alluded to a couple there but before we get to that, it’s important to clarify what we mean firstly by ethics, morals, and morality. Those three terms are often used interchangeably. I liked it and it answered the question in my mind about the distinction between those three. It might be worthwhile going through those.

They are usually used interchangeably. I have to caveat any answer with the fact that I am not a philosopher. Anything that I have written is gleefully disavowed by philosophy. This was me partly pulling a semantic trick to try and clarify the argument but also to make it more understandable for people like me who aren’t philosophers.

Morals are an internal condition. You and I have both morals. Everybody has some kind of moral code in their head. It’s been installed in different ways, usually by socialisation, belief in God, religious observance, and all that other fun stuff. You have this code inside your head. We live inside a morality. That morality is the wider moral.

We can say a society has a certain morality. That may change or maybe different but broadly speaking, we all agree on the same things. Rape and murder is bad. Kittens are good. It’s things like that. Ethics is external to the individual but internal to morality in the sense that we have to make decisions that are justifiable against morality in an environment of competing demands, both moral and physical.

For example, tuna fish sandwiches. Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this. I don’t eat tuna because I don’t like it but I could also make the decision about tuna fish sandwiches. I refuse to eat tuna on principle because tuna stocks are being depleted. Let’s agree that I take the second position. I disagree with tuna fishing. I have a tuna fish sandwich, which I refuse to eat but for someone who is starving hungry, I could give them that tuna fish sandwich, and the hunger would be relief. The thing is morally, I’m opposed to giving them the tuna fish sandwich because I disapprove of fishing tuna. The wider morality says that I should probably give that person the tuna fish sandwich because they’re hungry.

It’s a clash between morality and your morals, in this case.

I have to make an ethical decision, which is I should give them the tuna fish sandwich. However, it might not be. This is where it gets exciting, depending on how hungry that person is. Let’s say I have a tuna fish sandwich and I have relieved a concentration camp. Is it ethical for me to give the tuna fish sandwich to one of the victims of this concentration camp?

Having read your thesis, I know the answer.

What is the answer?

Therefore, it’s not because, in this instance, it will kill them.

Due to the components in it. The thing is I’m also violently morally opposed to oatmeal. Oatmeal is a terrible thing and shouldn’t be given to anyone. If I’m in the concentration camp environment, I am morally obligated to give the oatmeal to the concentration camp victim. The oatmeal is probably something that they could digest and begin to gain strength from, even though I’m morally opposed to oatmeal in the same way that Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes are morally opposed to oatmeal because it’s horrible. Ethical decision-making is dynamic. What we can’t say is ethical in one decision. It’s not necessarily ethical in another decision.

It’s an ethical demand that I give someone who is simply hungry for a tuna sandwich. That’s fine. Even if I disapprove of a tuna, I am ethically obligated to give the tuna sandwich. However, in the concentration camp, I’m ethically obligated to not give them the tuna sandwich and give them instead the oatmeal. The problem with ethics is it’s dynamic in my view. Other people will disagree and they’re probably right. Ethics is a state of dynamic decision-making based on internal value sets and why we’re prevailing morality to come to the right decision.

Ethics is a state of dynamic decision-making based against internal value sets. Share on X

I like that because it makes it very subjective. How we interpret what is ethical, in other words, what is right and wrong is hugely subjective which makes the work of the military ethicist all the more hard. This is why I liked your model and the breakdown of your model. Who did you ideally write your thesis for? Who do you think could most benefit from reading it?

My target audience was my mother. If she could understand it, anyone could. It’s for a relatively well-educated nonsubject matter expert who has an interest. Traditionally, a lot of theses are written to sound very intelligent and please the academic audience. I had to write it for a degree and please the academic audience. That was not my target audience. My target audience is the interested nonsubject matter expert who’s interested in thinking about these things.

For example, you. Let’s say the major, the colonel, the lieutenant colonel, or the captain, and indeed the non-commissioned officer. This is aimed at people who don’t know all about this but have an interest in it. I want to articulate across the reading spectrum as best I can so that it includes everybody in the discussion, not just a bunch of military ethicists at a conference.

I’m interested in addressing to the practitioner, the people who have had things thrown at them, which go bang and have suffered losses in combat and anything else like that so that they can approach and address these ideas in a way that’s not too threatening and doesn’t use too many big words. I’m interested in my friend Flight Sergeant Nicholas, Colonel Brunton, like Colonel Benest. I’m not necessarily interested in Dr. Such and Such from some state university.

You’ll be pleased to hear that it certainly resonated with me as an observer. I’m also a very visual learner so I like the way you set out the model. You help us throughout your thesis by updating the visual model that you present.

I took such a pasting during my exam for that. It was called a distraction.

That’s perhaps where the divergence occurs between the practitioner versus the academic. This is not an academic text but also there’s humour. Your personality is deeply infused with it. I’ve chuckled more than once just because of the phrasing and even the jokes that you use. I’d imagine you probably would’ve been grilled for that a little bit as well because it’s a little bit personal. It is stamped with your character. It’s not a sterile document.

I got away with that. It’s by dint of reputation inside the institution and from my external examiner because his stuff was all like that too.

It’s great, which is why I say I hope this becomes a book. It is not merely a thesis or at least I’ve read a few. This is one that I wanted to come back to, as opposed to one that I was forcing myself to read. There is a difference. I do want to come back to this model. Can you lay out the key components of your model and how they interplay? It draws a very clear picture in my mind of the dynamics of war that might help our audience visualise what we’re talking about.

I describe it as effectively a football game. Imagine a ball on the field with 2 competing teams trying to get the ball and 2 competing goals. Anyone who’s kicked a beach ball knows that they don’t go where you want them to go. Whereas anyone who’s kicked a football knows that they do go where you want them to go if you’ve got more skill than me. The idea is that both sides of the conflict experience the one ball with different moral weights or import, let’s say. It’s very easy to over-kick a beach ball but also to under-kick a football.

You have to tune how much force you’re going to kick the ball with according to the weight of the ball. It can get out of hand. If I apply too much kick to a beach ball or something that has too little weight attached to it, it’s going to get out of hand very quickly. If I apply too little kick to the football to the regular weight footballers as one side perceives it, then it’s not going to go far enough. I have to tune the amount of force I have onto the ball whose weight I’m experiencing differently. There’s a duality of mass.

Going back to your sense of war of choice, imagine that the ball is a war of choice. The aggressor, because they’ve decided to start this war, they’re the ones making the running. This ball has a massive 100 and they’re applying a false of 100 because that’s their effort against the mass. We’re only fighting for shrimp in our Thai example so we may have a very light experience of what we expect the ball to be. If we over-kick it, it’s going to get out of hand. If we under-kick it, then it’s not going to go anywhere.

We have to try to balance somehow our sense of the import of the war or artificially restrain ourselves to be able to apply more force in a controlled fashion so that we can control our beach ball. The idea is that if one team has a mass of 100 applied to a ball, we have to try to figure out how we experience the mass of the conflict 100 even if that means that we need to reduce the amount of force that we use but in a more diffuse way to be able to control the ball or the conflict in the same way that the other side can control the conflict because they’re applying 100% effort to 100% mass.

It would also help to discuss the two wars that you discuss in the thesis, the Falkland and Kosovo, to contextualise the various forces at play or the weight. I’m worried that people will get a little bit confused with mass, weight, force, and effort. My mom is a physicist so I’ve grown up with physics. She spoke to me.

Let’s look at the Falkland. The origin of the conflict fundamentally is that Galtieri needed a quick domestic win because the economy was going south. In the historic claim of Argentina against Islas Malvinas, the Falklands, he was able to send a fairly small military contingent, which was able to overcome the resident marines in the Falklands and claim them for Argentina.

On this particular occasion, he didn’t apply the 100, although he probably applied as much force as necessary to achieve that outcome. The difficulty for him was that Margaret Thatcher was in power. This was an affront to the British state. All of a sudden, this became effective, and I lived through this, an all-consuming effort to be able to retake the Falklands on behalf of the United Kingdom.

There’s that honour that we talked about.

There were sniffs of interest in there too. What’s interesting about this is that the British were the attacked party so they were able to summon up as much force as they could and head off to the Falklands to retake the Falklands at great cost. It costs lives, ships, and money. A huge effort was made. Galtieri was unable to respond to that because he had misunderstood both the import of the Falklands to Britain at the time and what it would take to keep the Falklands and stop that conflict from spiralling out of control. Whereas the British were going and off we went.

What happened was that Argentina failed to calculate how much force was going to be needed or to take the conflict as seriously as they should have taken it. Also, to summon up enough force to be able to repel the British counteroperation. The British turned oil tankers into aircraft carriers. They managed to fly Vulcan V-bombers from Ascension to the Falklands, which eventually landed them in Brazil. The British were able to expend any cost to be able to resolve the situation in their favour. What we have here is a misunderstanding of the mass that Britain would attach to regain the Falklands.

Galtieri only thought he was going to get them and walk away. Misunderstanding the immediate application of seriousness to the conflict and mobilisation of equipment, troops, money, and aeroplanes articulated quite how seriously Britain was taking it. He didn’t have a lot of commitment to it. This was an attempt to head off domestic disaster in the polls because his economy was crashing equally. He wasn’t able to summon up enough force to be able to respond to what was coming down the Atlantic from the United Kingdom. We look at that. The General Belgrano was a horrible incident. I would suggest that the biggest mistake in the General Belgrano issue was putting it to sea in the first place.

Tell us about that.

The General Belgrano was an Argentinian warship. It was bought from the Americans. It was Second World War stock. It was in terrible condition. Argentina didn’t have enough fuel to do regular trading trips. It was sent to sea and was sunk by a British submarine at the very edge of the zone of control that the British had declared. It was an enormous controversy. Questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. There were lots of angry Argentinians and Britts about doing it, and everything else.

I don’t understand why.

It was at the very edge of where the British declared fair game on everything. Also, it appeared to be steaming away. It represented no tangible threat. Despite appearing to be no tangible threat, the order was made to sink the Belgrano. The Belgrano took 1 or 2 torpedoes and sank immediately. It was in such terrible condition that the crew didn’t stand a chance. The biggest error in the Belgrano incident was putting the ship to sea in the first place. You’re going to get lots of angry emails about that. I’m sorry.

We can question the decisions made in the run-up to the shooting of the Belgrano. As an expression of will, it doesn’t come much stronger. Broadly speaking, what we can see here is that the interplay at the experience of mass, the forces needed to manage the mass, and how we manage to experience the war is well-demonstrated when dealing with, for example, the Falklands. You mentioned another conflict and I got so carried away.

It was Kosovo. You talk about Kosovo in the book.

Kosovo is interesting because it was the first time that NATO has done anything without international authorisation via the United Nations. What was such an affront to the NATO powers? It was the ethnic cleansing, refugee crisis, and everything else. NATO applied an enormous amount of mass but it was still a war of choice. What they did was they managed how they applied that force in a fairly interesting way.

For example, quite a lot of air power was used firstly because that expanded to wider strategic targets, including the Chinese embassy. Sorry. Ground forces weren’t employed right at the very beginning. This caused an immense amount of frustration for those who were on the borders of Kosovo to prepare to go in. They wanted to go in and get the job done. The thing was that the conflict had to be managed.

Is it possible to say that the NATO command wasn’t as fleet-footed when it came to making a decision to insert ground forces as it probably should have been? I would agree with that. They missed opportunities to bring the conflict to a successful close earlier. Instead, they decided to wait. What’s interesting about it is that NATO was looking to temper the use of force against what was tolerable to NATO societies.

Remember, they also had to keep Greece on board, which was quite hard because Greece had traditionally been quite Pro-Serb. By tempering the points of application, the means of application, and the amount of application of force, they were able to insert themselves into the conflict and certainly manipulate the conflict from the outside up to the point where they were capable of going in. When the Allied troops arrived in Kosovo, they did arrive fairly heavily supplied.

There was a fairly large contingent of resources, including Americans, British, and others who arrived in Kosovo to enforce peace. It was a peace enforcement operation. In a lot of cases, it was a peace-making operation followed by peace enforcement and peacekeeping. By going in with this clarity of idea of peace enforcement, they knew that they couldn’t fight all out. They had to restrain themselves enough to get the job done but not more than to anger Serbia and importantly Russia any further than they already had.

What’s interesting about Kosovo is that this is the first time we see these ideas being used to manage a conflict to prevent it from expanding while still being able to get the job done. Also, manipulating things like rules of engagement and other things so that the goal could be achieved through absolute control rather than taking a massive great kick at it and hoping it hits the goal. That’s interesting from my perspective.

Especially, the idea of control. I want to distinguish between mass and moral weight. One strengthens the other. When we say mass, and you explained this in your variety, you don’t mean the physical mass. It’s not the weight of the ship, planes, or people.

Mass is a robbed term. Strategic Theory uses mass. Mass is the concentration of force, time, and space. I use mass in terms of effective moral importance. I must assume that it’s morally important for me to fight it. An intervening power may not have the same amount of moral importance attached to it. Let’s say I’ve started this fight. The moral importance is 100 for me out of a scale of 100. You want to intervene but it’s on behalf of whoever it is I’ve declared war on. It’s not as morally important to you because it’s not life and death. It’s only a 70 to you.

VOW 98 | Ethical Maze of War
Ethical Maze of War: Strategic theory uses mass, and mass is the concentration of force in time and space.


It is Iraq and Australia.

If you pile in the force that you need to address something that’s morally important at 100 to you but it’s only 70, you’re going to wildly overkick the ball and things are going to go wrong. What you have to do then is try to figure out how you can apply enough for that 70. Maybe you want to go more than 70 but you know that you can’t necessarily do it. To try and kick 75 with a force of 70 is going to lose control.

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