On a recent deployment to Afghanistan I had the opportunity to speak with Major General Ewan Muchison. Like me, he had multiple tours of Afghanistan; however, in 2011 then Lieutenant Colonel Ewan Murchison was is command of 42 Commando Group. On 15 September 2011 a member of that unit executed a dying Afghan insurgent who was out of combat. Conventions on the conduct of war explicitly prohibit this act. As a battle tested military professional and otherwise excellent leader in an elite unit, the Marine should have known better; so what can explain this divergence from expectations and was if foreseeable? Importantly, what can the ADF can learn from this experience?
The Australian people expect the ADF to protect Australian sovereignty, interests and values; this often requires the disciplined application of violence. The Australian government and people rightly insist that military forces perform their duties justly. Where deviations from the laws of war occur those who are in violation should be, and inevitably are, held to account. Any accusations provide ready leverage for Australia’s adversaries to act in the information domain, making retention of Australia's legal justification for war, or the moral high ground, more difficult. One does not need to look very far to find recent examples where our allies have jeopardised their moral high ground. Losing legitimacy can result from ethical vulnerabilities which leads to operational and strategic failures as well as moral injuries, not to mention unnecessary loss of life.
Military leaders can do more to militate against potential ethical failures. This paper will explore the circumstances that Major General Murchison identified as ethical risks and outline them as the Seven D’s. They are: decentralisation, divisions, deprivation, disempowerment, desensitisation, dehumanisation, and deindividualisation. I will deliberately focus on two experiences of our allies to highlight these ethical risks. Firstly, the case of Sergeant (SGT) Blackman of 42 Commando, carrying out a battlefield execution of a wounded Afghan insurgent. Secondly, the rape and murder of a 14 year old Iraqi girl and murder of her family by US soldiers of 1st platoon of Bravo Company 1/502 Infantry Regiment.
Decentralisation in a hierarchical organisation describes the delegation of power to lower levels. This has been espoused by respected military leaders to enable the most autonomy for action at the lowest possible level. However; decentralisation can also lead to a loss of control by organisational leaders. This can result in a loss of incentive for organisational leaders to monitor subordinates actions. Informal practices can subvert the formal structures. Intimate knowledge of a system or organisation allows individuals working at lower levels to manipulate processes and knowledge to their own ends, concealing it from those with formal authority. An organisation’s purpose and actions can be corrupted where ownership is separated from control.
This is not meant to be accusatory, it is observational; leadership and subordinates can fall into this heuristic trap. Commanders want to extend trust to their professional subordinates to fulfil their duties. However, checks, audits and inspections intended to develop trust based on predictable reliability are often greeted with, ‘what, don’t you trust me, Sir/Ma'am?’ Leadership of technical experts is even more challenging. The depth of experience and expertise required in every employment category demands a professional understanding that the leadership cannot hope to maintain across a breadth of specialisations, even at the level of a combat team. Where intent is benign, issues may occur due to confusion; however, mischievous or malign intent may exploit this vulnerability.
In both case studies, decentralised leadership was arguably a contributing factor. Each platoon was part of an organisation spread thinly and stretched dangerously. Blackman’s combat outpost was isolated from other elements of the unit. It was so dangerous that the chaplaincy would not visit and command support was difficult or absent. Isolation can also occur due to disengaged or deaf leadership. Within Black Hearts, their CO was aptly nicknamed the “Kunk Gun”. Where there was differing opinion he was known to violently explode upon the dissenter, the cumulative effect was to hide differing perspectives often to disastrous consequences. In both cases the respective unit commanders insist and argue that they were engaged and provided effective leadership and support. However, regardless or its existence or not, the perception of leadership support by subordinates is the key issue.
‘Us and them’ is a real and constant issue in politics, social groups, armed conflict and within teams. Indeed it is a tactic of PSYOPS to develop, expose and enhance divisions in target audiences. Militaries are vulnerable to such schisms as they are a Byzantine labyrinth of groups. Units, sub-units, employment categories, service type, deployment history, corps, and conventional vs special forces may develop cultures vulnerable to becoming divided. Cultures inherently possess perspectives and biases that can ascribe suspicion and miscalculate reasoning of the ‘other’.
Tribalism erodes readiness, cohesion and effectiveness of military forces. Whilst competition may be healthy from time to time, an active rivalry is not. Competition seeks betterment by measuring performance in a collegiate environment, think of sports teams who compete, then at match’s end will congratulate each other on a game well played. Collegiate competition will often share the secrets of success for the betterment of all once the game is done. However, rivals are not so driven. Tribalistic rivalry will seek to undermine, isolate and diminish opponents. This is seen in information hoarding, slander, non-communication and hate. The creation of in and out groups is often due to misaligned perspectives.
Bravo Company was seen as an outsider. The unit CO targeted the Company Commander for perceived transgressions and failings and did not let up. Other companies were loathe to help Bravo Company as they did not want to be tarred with the same brush. Not only was Bravo Company physically dislocated, but it was cognitively dislocated from the remainder of the unit. This was not due to rivalry or competition but due to a need to avoid the ‘heat’ from HQ. Rather than stepping into the shoes of Bravo Company, the unit leadership dismissed the trivialities and realities of administration, combat power and rest. They were constantly asked to do more with less in circumstances that were not appreciated. In failing to meet expectations, Bravo Company provided a welcome heat magnet or whipping boy.
Deprivation is a real motivating factor for resistance and violence. Such human factors can even motivate individuals and groups to conflicts of resistance and insurgency. This can be actual or relative deprivation which could be real or imagined where individuals or groups are not keeping up with peers in terms of access to resources, status or power. This describes a mismatch between people’s expectations and their reality. Where people have no expectations of improvement they are unlikely to react. However, when they can see other’s fortunes improve or their own fortunes suddenly decline, they may think otherwise. Jealousy, whether grounded or not, and high expectations can also lead to malcontents seeking alternative recourse.
Perceptions of relative deprivation that would ordinarily cause violent resistance can be expected to be constrained through military discipline and conditioning through sound training. However, it would be reasonable to expect a spectrum of resistance from insubordination through undermining authority and deviation from orders to outright mutiny. This is not limited to adult populations; parents imposing different bedtimes are often met with cries that ‘it isn’t fair, why does he/she get to stay up!’ The child can see no difference and therefore sees themselves unduly deprived. This can lead to sneaking out of bed or even actions against the sibling. Real or imagined relative deprivation can lead to unhelpful acts where one’s sense of what is right becomes confused.
Psychologist Johnathon Shay described circumstances where a soldier’s sense of what is right can be shifted by military leadership. Veterans often felt relative deprivation because they understood that risks were not evenly distributed. They felt that commanders and the wider organisation were indifferent to their suffering and lack of support. This in turn raised indignity and rage against an unsympathetic machine. With this rage but no appropriate avenue to vent it, war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan in hindsight seemed inevitable.
Leaders can feel disempowered, particularly when they are faced with seemingly contrary directives. This pragmatic paradox occurs when organisational or higher level orders contradict those directions given to the front line. The leader or actor undertaking those orders may then feel logically and cognitively divided. They attempt to legitimise their own actions and act in accordance with orders while preserving their own professional identity. This is fine when identity, orders and actions align coherently but when they diverge this is when perceptions of disempowerment occur.
This is experienced by leaders if they are issued tasks beyond their capacity or the resources of their team. It can also be experienced where challenging the orders issued is perceived as insubordination and second guessing of those who gave the order. In failing to deliver on those orders the leader is failing to achieve assigned organisational objectives, often to be censured for poor professional practice. In extreme circumstances this could be described as victim blaming where under resourced subordinates with insufficient capacity are criticised for failing to achieve the unachievable.
In both cases, leadership below unit level felt disempowered. They were placed in volatile areas and given insufficient resources. Arguably, SGT Blackman lacked the resources he needed at his combat outpost. His troop commander, Lieutenant Augustin, was killed by an IED in May 2021, early in the tour; by September, when the execution by Blackman took place, the troop commander had still not been replaced. Previous rotations at the same checkpoint had 25 Marines, Blackman was only given 16. Blackman was also in a paradox. As a Marine he was used to aggressive action; however, General McCrystal’s new ISAF strategy of ‘courageous restraint‘ was perhaps challenging to reconcile on the ground. Similarly, the Black Hearts platoon was under resourced to achieve their given mission. Squads of nine were forced to operate in fire teams of three; cooks and mechanics were pushed into infantry roles and all were overworked at unreasonable work/rest cycles. Protected mobility for IED sweeps were constantly denied in favour of foot patrols. This left the soldiers feeling powerless and with a sense of hopelessness nearing fatalism. They knew that what they were being directed to do would result in casualties, and that it was avoidable.
Violence and killing of one’s own species is not natural and it is difficult to overcome this normal resistance to do so. Military history often tells a story of evolution as successive generations overcome their natural resistance to killing. Out of necessity, societies enable militaries to condition people to killing and other violent acts in order to defend society and pursue its interests. Dave Grossman calls this ‘operant conditioning’, soldiers will be trained to shoot targets with human images rather than bullseyes. Close quarter combat techniques, including the use of force-on-force paint rounds, inoculates combatants to fire their weapon effectively even under highly stressful conditions. However, this is not indiscriminate killing and wonton violence. Modern militaries pride themselves on purposeful disciplined application of limited violence to achieve a specific purpose or effect.
It is not difficult to distinguish killings during combat on a battlefield to murder within a war zone. This becomes apparent when the violence is neither discriminate, proportional or purposeful. The ethics of why such killing is different comes from, and reflects, the ethics of the soldier’s home nation. The Just War Theory provide some guidance here. Indiscriminate violence, disproportionate use of force, and continuance of violence after objectives have been met are not acceptable. However, occasionally combatants lose sight of their moral landmarks and have difficulty navigating complex circumstances.
In both cases the forces were desensitised to the violence they faced, this went beyond the normality of their training. The enemy they were fighting and how they fought eroded their ability to see moral landmarks. In Blackman’s case, his own troop leader had been killed, IEDs were being detonated on average every 16 hours, and local insurgents hung body parts of dead Marines in trees. For the Black Hearts platoon, daily foot patrol IED sweeps wore them down to not caring for their own safety. They suffered casualties every one to two weeks from violent IEDs that lifted HUMVEEs off roads and severed limbs from their occupants. In both cases the soldiers were fighting an elusive enemy who threatened them incessantly. They were exposed to horrific scenes of carnage involving the enemy, non-combatants and their comrades. Without intervention it is unsurprising just how desensitised they had become in losing their moral landmarks.
This is quite closely linked to desensitisation but is worth a brief distinction as a separate factor. Dehumanisation seeks to remove the barriers for a human to kill another human by reducing victims to less than what they are. Grossman observes through studies of historical battles that the majority of killings occurred during the rout, when their backs were turned, as fleeing enemies were easier to kill as they appeared less human. Tom McDermott points out that the constant strain of counterinsurgency is grinding, creating a moral disengagement and dehumanisation. Fredrick highlighted that many of the Black Hearts soldiers actually used dehumanisation as a coping strategy. They feared that any empathy could slow their reaction times or cause them to drop their guard amongst civilians, offering advantages for a guerrilla to exploit. Lacking empathy or even recognition of other humans reduces the significance of the act of killing to a cold and unfeeling process.
Leaders and soldiers functioning in groups are psychological weapons. Anyone who questions this fact should revisit the experiments on obedience and social dynamics by Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo. They showed that the presence of an assumed authority figure not imposing restraint could influence the majority of people to harm others. Grossman agrees and points out that militaries have leveraged this not only to encourage, but also to ensure that violence is carried out. He also notes that the violence tends to be easier if a compatriot is there or assumed to be there. Crew served weapons and teams under visible leadership have a much higher fire rate than others who do not. This provides a diffusion of responsibility and confidence to act derived from the support of a group, even if only from their silent presence.
In Blackman’s case, the battlefield manslaughter was undertaken in a group. His squad of Marines saw the act coming. It was out of combat, the clarity of thought and battlefield clearances clearly delineated the act from the heat of battle. They did not act to save a dying man’s life. When the final shot fell, it was fired by one man, but with the whole squad crowded around him and watching on. It could be argued that the group should bear responsibility and not just Blackman who pulled the trigger.
In the Black Hearts case, four soldiers committed murder and gang-rape. The group planned and prepared for it. They selected a non-combatant house. They killed the parents, murdered the six year old daughter then each raped the eldest daughter before murdering her as well. They attempted to burn the bodies and the house to conceal their crimes. They acted as a group arguably encouraged by each other’s presence to do inconceivable acts.
So what could have been done to avoid this?
These acts described earlier are abhorrent to soldiering and must not be tolerated. Unfortunately, such acts occur too frequently, meaning that vulnerabilities continue to exist that permit such aberration. Our culture and society would never accept such acts to occur. Therefore, it is only possible when groups divide themselves away from that shared culture. This should lead to difficult conversations as groups or individuals seek to separate themselves. It can also lead to divergent group dynamics, ethics and leadership structures contrary to the established group. Staff Sergeant Diem reflected on this fact when talking about his experiences as a whistleblower in the Black Hearts’ platoon:
“When an organisation separates itself into small schisms, that’s when you’re talking about personal, intimate trust between two individuals, instead of organisational trust. It’s a negative leadership influence… But at the end of the day, if there’s a more professional, if there’s a more morally right organisation, you’re going to gravitate towards that if you have that in you.”
It is up to every officer and leader, no matter the rank, to ensure the conditions that might permit such an act never exist. The leader must maintain perspective and a cool head, even if others cannot.
It is up to every single soldier, sailor or airman/airwoman to do something. Monitoring for markers of maladaptive ethical vulnerabilities to identify deviance could help. This could mean watching our teams for the seven D’s of decentralisation, divisions, deprivation, disempowerment, desensitisation, dehumanisation, and deindividualisation. Importantly, we need to keep our teams in sight of moral and ethical landmarks. Leaders provide touch points of clarity with their team who are immersed in the situation. Similarly, grounding with the home front, peers and fellow travellers provides the opportunity for context and another’s perspective. Lastly, as teams we must continue to be inclusive and reach our arms to others and keep us all to our standards. We are all part of a disciplined and connected team; there are no bystanders.