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Note on the talk given by Major General Sebastian Roberts on 17th January 2006

‘Military Ethics in Real Time: The Impact of Media Technology on Decision Making in War’


Sebastian Roberts opened by saying that it was difficult to change people’s perceptions, particularly their long-held views.  He illustrated his point with the words: ‘Italian army’ and ‘Colonel’ both of which come with preconceptions from past wars - ‘moving fast backwards’ and ‘the apoplectic Blimp’ respectively - which are not true today.


His talk went on as follows.


The media as a whole is the prism through which big organisations are viewed.  For the army the nature of media reports is as important as terrain and weather because of its impact on public opinion. 


There have been dramatic changes in the way news from ‘the front’ is conveyed.  Today’s news is increasingly happening in ‘real time’, and, thus, reaching the public very quickly, particularly in newspapers.  He exemplified this with the photograph taken of the first US missile to be fired at Belgrade, saying that this was transmitted and printed before the missile hit its target.


The reporting of news can also be cheap and carried out by any individual using a mobile phone with a photo capability, and transmitted around the world using the internet.  A classic example was the news put out by monasteries giving the Kosovan Serb point of view during the last phase of the recent Balkans conflict.


Given the transparency and immediacy of news about wars, military ethics (a provocative phrase) has become a major consideration for the armed forces.  Its significance is increased when officers are not in close touch with the soldiers they command.  In what is known as the ‘three-block war’, a characteristic particularly of modern urban conflicts, soldiers in the space of three city blocks can be involved in three different operations:  fighting on a front-line, doing a mopping-up operation and carrying out reconstruction work.  This type of warfare places demands on the way rules of engagement are framed, particularly those dealing with individual combatants and the risks posed to civilians.  Soldiers need to be equipped to make good decisions with split-second judgement, which is not easy.


The crucial question is how those responsible prepare soldiers, given the different background and capability of today’s recruits.  Today’s soldiers are also very different from those in the past which were equipped with some knowledge of religious ethics particularly in the form of the Ten Commandments.  Indeed there is no requirement today to attend a regular church service, although Sebastian pointed out that his own regiment, the Irish Guards do still go to church once a week.


(Although most recruits come to the army without ethical knowledge, young soldiers are often surprised that problems of homophobia, sexism and racism occur and that that sex relations among soldiers, whatever the sex, is an issue for the army.)


So when they join the army one cannot be sure that recruits share common ethical standards yet they have to become moral communities down to the smallest unit if they are to act ethically in conflict situations.  This applies equally to people in private military organisations and other organisations that enter regions of conflict such as the Red Cross.


Another difficulty is that individual members may not share community ethics for example the freedom to be gay (particularly Anglican Communion members from Africa).


So effective training in these difficult areas requires clarity in the leadership of officers, and unambiguous rules of conduct.


Questions were wide ranging.


During his talk, Sebastian referred to the possibility that soldiers may not be in uniform in conflict zones.  A questioner pointed out that without military uniform, these would not be protected under military law and the Geneva Conventions.


He was asked about the role of the arts, particularly film and theatre in influencing public opinion in the longer term – he had mentioned the importance of media but not the arts.  He acknowledged that these did influence opinion but he did not think it had an important impact for the type of person joining the army.  These generally had traditional views and accepted the aims and requirements of the army including the expectation of killing enemy soldiers.


He was asked whether he thought that the embedding of journalists was a good or bad thing.  In general, he believed that it was positive in that it provided some protection in difficult situations and led to better informed journalists.  But it was important that such journalists were not restricted in where they could go or their reports unduly censored.  He was critical of the Defence News Organisation, run by civil servants and under tight political control.  He said ‘Alastair Campbell’s belief that politicians can control the message and the media was wrong headed’.


But he also emphasised that this was a difficult area because the media has so much intra-penetration to civil society.  The essential requirements of reporters and those monitoring them were conscience and honesty.


He was asked for his opinion about the use of torture.  He said he considered it to be stupid and wrong headed because you tend to hear only what the prisoner wants to say or thinks the interrogator wants to hear, and not necessarily the truth.  It is also important to remember that soldiers are generally better informed today, and more likely to say what they think if asked to carry out orders with which they consider to be unjust or brutal.


Questions then centred on the types of controls that are placed on soldiers in action considering the complexities of modern conflict and the ‘three-block war’.  What type of training do they get?  Sebastian answered that, in his opinion: soldiers did not get enough ethical training.  He also thought that training officers could be cannier and make it clear that it is in the soldiers’ best interests to adopt an ethical approach to their actions.  The soldier was ultimately responsible for his actions and Sebastian said he does tell them that he would help them as far as he could but not go to jail for them.  Officers at Sandhurst do get a course and ethics are one of the pillars of their training. 


The key in all this is the ‘Rules of engagement’ and how they are framed.  With new developments in conflict, these should be constantly under review and updated as necessary.  A UN compendium of rules would be appropriate and he suggested that CCADD should consider promoting such a concept.


He was asked for his views about serving officers speaking out if they were unhappy about the decisions taken by politicians, thinking particularly of recent statements about the Iraq war.  His view was clearly that every one must be led by their conscience, but they must have care for the impact of their words.  They do have a responsibility to be guarded in what they say.  He also drew attention to the distinction between serving officers and those retired who could be freer to speak out.


Two additional points that he made when answering questions were these.  (1) Ethics is about following rules but we really need an ‘ethical person’ who can respond appropriately in all situation or a situation not covered adequately by the rules. (2)  The diversity of religions among troops is not really a problem because the five ethical commandments are shared by the main religions.