Ethics and Operations: Training the Combatant

Military Review, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Operations: Training the Combatant


The ethical dilemmas of modern war, 3 April 2003, An Najaf Iraq: Faced by hundreds of menacing Iraqi civiliians, LTC Chris Hughes, commander, 2d Battalion, 327th Infantry, tells his Soldiers to smile, take a knee, and point their weapons at the ground "We'll let them defuse this themselves," he said, and they did

THE SOLDIER'S PROFESSION, according to French General Eric de La Maisonneuve, "is above all concerned with the situation and has reality only in relation to the moment." (1) In today's environment, however, several new factors are having an impact on the Soldier.

First, ideologies are in decline, but moral expectations are on the increase. International relations are governed by law to a much greater extent than before. The law's increased influence in society has overflowed into the military world. As a result, the use of force is now subject to greater demands for legitimacy and justification.

The nature of conflict has also changed. In today's crises, the Soldier might have no declared adversary, or his enemy on one day might be his friend the next. That enemy might employ horrific asymmetrical tactics such as random bombings, human shields, and child soldiers, to which the Soldier's response might pose moral dilemmas (e.g., warrant-less searches). Clearly, our enemy's amorality must not lead our Soldiers to abandon their moral constraints. Our Soldiers are obligated to use force with judgment in order not to descend to the level of the enemy they are fighting. This ethical asymmetry is not new, but the problems it poses are more acute than ever before.

Developments in technology are an additional factor in the Western world, which seems to want to avoid physical contact with suffering. The West's modern weapons permit the use of a dehumanizing technology in which violent strikes are carried out at a distance without their results being seen and without the Soldier having to witness death firsthand.

Warfare's new reality also has affected military command and decision making. Lower-level military leaders in France have traditionally benefited from considerable operational latitude. This autonomy, as much doctrinal as cultural, has proven to be highly appropriate in recent engagements, but it requires perfectly clear orders that subordinates understand completely and that each echelon in the chain of command can adapt appropriately. This is only possible in a spirit of mutual confidence and cohesion underpinned by shared values.

The media, too, have a growing influence on today's Soldier. The media's omnipresence means that the smallest action is liable to be reported. Thus, one Soldier's mistake can rebound on everyone and discredit the operation underway or even the institution itself. Moreover, through the media, the Soldier has access to a point of view sometimes different from his own, and this can lead him to doubt the legitimacy of his actions and his understanding of them. Therefore, every Soldier must understand the mission and its rationale completely, and then act with judgment and discrimination. Finally, the need for a common body of knowledge about how to fight ethically in today's complex environment is reinforced by the growing sociological diversity of our armed forces.

The Law: A Partial Answer

The law is the standard that most naturally comes to mind in discussions about regulating relations between states or between states and individuals. The laws of war (jus ad bellum and jus in hello, humanitarian law, etc.) have expanded considerably, resulting in the creation of military legal advisor posts and the International Criminal Court.

The laws meet part of the need for a common body of knowledge very well. They help legitimize military action by laying down its limits. However, such rules and regulations come from experience and are primarily functional. The laws of war have been developed in the course of history in the mutual interest of belligerent states; they seek to limit losses and reduce the cost of conflict. …

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