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Talk given by General Sir Michael Rose on Monday 20th March 2006


Ethical Dilemmas of Command


‘Civil Wars strike deepest of all into the manners of the people.  They vitiate politics, they corrupt morals, they pervert even the natural taste and relish of equity and justice’. Edmund Burke:



I have been asked by Hugh Beach to say a few words about the ethical dilemmas facing military commanders. Given the tendency of human beings, and in particular soldiers, so unnecessarily to complicate their affairs, the number of military situations where ethical considerations are involved is probably as numerous as the events themselves that make up military history. I will therefore look at the subject from the perspective of war and peace, and also most importantly the ethical and moral dilemmas facing soldiers when involved in operations short of war, i.e. counter insurgencies and peacekeeping which often present the most difficult problems of all.



In War ethical issues should be reasonably clear. After all, there is the enemy, he is trying to kill you and you are entitled to do likewise. Even the sixth commandment, restricts itself to stating: ‘Thou shalt not murder commit’, - a different connotation entirely from killing. But of course in practice, moral and ethical issues concerning the conduct of war, have never been as clear as they should be, - and since WWII, laws of war have been created, protocols agreed, and tribunals set up to define acceptable practices procedures, - and hopefully thereby prevent crimes against humanity.


But even in the build up to war, ethical dilemmas will undoubtedly arise. None of the three British generals travelling to America on HMS Cerberus in 1775 to take command against the American rebels were completely persuaded by the moral justification of waging war against their own kith and kin. Howe, whose brother killed in action at Ticonderoga, and who himself had fought under Wolfe was a hero to the rebellious Bostonians, greatly sympathised with the Americans and saw himself as much as a peacemaker as he did commander of an army whose object was to crush the rebellion by force.  Clinton, whose father had been Governor of New York, went to war hoping that some miracle would occur to prevent conflict. Burgoyne, who also had moral reservations about the impending war, told the king on his departure ‘I received your Majesty’s commands for America with regret…’ Nevertheless they all went to war because of a sense of duty and loyalty to the Crown. They also all conspicuously failed in their endeavours. It was their moral equivocation and lack of commitment that made them far less effective commanders than Wellington or Nelson, - both of whom wholly believed in the soundness of cause for which they were fighting. The message from history is that you cannot successfully wage war unless you absolutely believe in the moral justification of that war.


These same moral challenges clearly remain valid for military commanders today when considering whether or not to wage war, - for it is clear that senior military leaders are not only responsible for ensuring that a viable strategy is developed, - in terms of matching political objectives with military capabilities,- but they also have a moral responsibility not to lead their men into an unjust or unlawful war.


Accordingly, the moral issues that our Chiefs of Staff faced when our own government was contemplating war in Iraq in 2003, should not have been too difficult to resolve. However, although the Attorney General did produce a piece of paper stating that invading Iraq was technically legal, I believe that moral considerations at that time were not given sufficient weight compared to the political ones. 


For this action was being contemplated without the authority of the UN, it was not a measure of last resort, the precise nature of the threat had not been fully established, - and given the refusal of governments to provide the necessary resources for successful post conflict operations, it was widely predicted that the invasion of Iraq would lead to disaster for the people of Iraq in the post conflict phase.  This has turned out to be so, for in the three years since the Coalition forces invaded Iraq, there has been a greater level of slaughter and suffering for the people of Iraq than during the last three years of Saddam Hussein’s albeit terrible and tyrannical rule.



Operations Short of War

Generally however, the moral choices will tend to be less clearly presented and therefore much more difficult to resolve in operations short of war,- than in situations of general war. As a result it is sometimes easy to loose sight of the moral objectives of the intervention. However as Kofi Annan said, in carrying out these sort of operations ‘we must not become complicit with evil’. This is something that is easier said than done.


For example, how far should military commanders be training an army and police force in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, - when they know that many of them are committing or very likely in the future to commit human rights atrocities themselves?  How much is the delivery of humanitarian aid itself fuelling the conflict?  What is the limit to the level of force that can be used in a peacekeeping operation? All these are ethical considerations that clearly need to be resolved  both before and during the period of the mission.


Nor, once committed, can military commanders expect much help from the international community, or even their own politicians who will generally remain equivocal about moral issues. Nor will the media be always supportive, - for they will usually urge more forceful military action than it is possible for a peacekeeping force to undertake, - without or course ever recognising the limitations of a peacekeeping force. The media can always provide an entry strategy, but rarely an exit strategy. 


When a situation is brutal and fast moving and the political environment muddled, ethical issues will inevitably become more confused. The leadership challenges, in these circumstances will therefore be considerable, and motivating young soldiers sometimes difficult.  For example, how do you persuade lightly armed soldiers to go out night after night delivering aid to the very same people who are shooting and bombing them? How do you maintain their commitment when they are being accused of presiding over genocide by the world’s media?


The best way to provide strong leadership in these brutal and confused conditions is firstly, to ensure that the mandate is both moral and legal, and secondly never to move off the high moral ground.  The behaviour of the soldiers in carrying out the mission must be ethically supportable, for the most effective weapon that a peacekeeping or counter insurgency force possesses will always remain the moral component.   It is interesting to note that Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative to Iraq was beginning to criticise the over use of military force by the Coalition forces in Iraq when he was so tragically killed in August 2003.



In peacetime, however, I suspect that the introduction of civil law and ethos into the military arena has made the job of military commanders more difficult rather than simplified it. Today’s emphasis on risk management, H &S, Equal Opportunities, changes to the Courts Martial Procedures, as well as the ability to sue for damages, serve to undermine the military ethos and chain of command. Tough but fair was always the principle followed by our commanders,  and final judgement was left to the military chain of command.  Now this is not so, - indeed responsibility for maintaining the moral component in the chain of command seems mostly to have passed to politicians. The result has been moral equivocation, which has resulted in uncertainty for our young leaders. This has had negative effects on both training and results on the ground.



The challenges, legal, political, social and budgetary, facing military commanders today have become infinitely more complex in peace and war. But if we follow the principle that military commanders must be guided first and foremost by justice and fairness, and by their own moral compass, then our Armed Forces will always receive the high ethical quality of leadership that they deserve.