Ethical Decisions in Combat Leadership

The marksman aims at the insurgent sitting on a motorcycle. There are 400 yards between the muzzle of the soldier’s rifle and the target. As he is about to fire, the insurgent suddenly picks up a small kid and places it in front of him.

Military leaders often face ethical dilemmas on the battlefield. They are required to make tough decisions under time constraints in hostile situations. Ordering soldiers to kill other humans is a tough decision. The leader must be sure beyond any doubt that he is doing the right thing.

A Danish light machine gunner on operaion in Nad E Ali in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

In my leadership I have always tried to find answers to three simple questions before giving the order to open fire:

Is is legal?

In modern counter-insurgency operations soldiers are usually equipped with a set of “rules of engagement” (ROE). The ROE state under which conditions the soldiers are allowed to use force. In a war between states the Geneva Conventions offer a set of rules. The military leader first seeks to answer whether the action is legal according to the ROE or the Conventions. If it is, he can proceed to the next question. If not, he has to consider other options.

Is it proportional?

Military decision making offers trade offs. The leader must be able to analyze the question: If we do X how will that affect the mission in the short, medium and long terms? If the leader finds out that the collateral damage done to the surroundings is not proportional with what is gained by the action, it should not be carried out. Regardless of the fact that it might be legal. Military actions must be proportional and must support the purpose of the entire mission.

Does it feel right?

The answer to the final question lies within the leader himself. It is his gut feeling or his own virtue. Finding answers inside ourselves is not as fluffy as it may sound. On a moral end ethical level we have already agreed on several things before we join the army (or any other organization). We are affected by the culture we grew up in. Society’s ethical norms also affect our ethical decisions.

As does the culture in the organization. In the military one obvious ethical stand point could be “under some extreme conditions I would deem it right to kill another human.” These conditions are constantly challenged during a deployment. A good leader knows this and has taken time to consider his own conditions thoroughly and has trained his troops accordingly.

A stop light method for ethical decisions

On operations in Iraq and Afghanistan I have always used the three questions as a stop light method. Before I gave an order to pull the trigger I would make sure that I could answer “yes” to all three questions. If just one turned up as a “no” or “maybe” I made another plan. I think we are obliged to be absolutely certain that we are doing the right thing before we open fire.

Even under fire I had to go through this process, constantly evaluating my options and making sure that decisions were professionally as well as ethically right.

On other occasions I have also found these questions useful. Not necessarily as a stop light method but to use arguments like gut feeling and virtue in leadership decision making adds perspective to the discussion and provides us with a framework.

3 thoughts on “Ethical Decisions in Combat Leadership

  1. Bill Benoist

    Although I cannot respond to this post from a true understanding of the dilemmas one must face in combat, your comment about whether “one can live with it / does it feel right” leads me to another thought: We can do the right thing or we can do what’s right. Although both may be legal options, we can definitely consider the proportional value of our decisions.

    I enjoyed this post. It really got me thinking 🙂

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