Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

DEF Australia Letters from HAMEL Part 2: Just War and Tactical Ethics in a Brutal World 

July 10th, 2016 by Tom McDermott

Photo: Exercise Hamel, courtesy Australian Army

Photo: Exercise Hamel, courtesy Australian Army

Many of you who read this will be tacticians.  Congratulations, and good luck.  You’ve volunteered for one of the hardest, most illogical and least predictable jobs going.  Every tactician is, at heart, a problem solver.  The problems you face may vary in context, but the core question is always the same.  How and where to apply limited assets, in the most efficient way and at the lowest risk, to get your adversary to do what you want … to achieve the political end that you have been proscribed?

In your hands are tools and methods.  Some tools are decidedly not subtle; soldiers, tanks, guns and bombs.  Others methods can be more nuanced.  Messaging, strategic communications and psychological levers are normally within your reach.  Around you is the ‘bubble’ of the environment, most of which (the ground, the weather, the moon) is fixed and you cannot change.  Against you is an adversary; the ‘living, breathing, thinking and cunning human being’ you are trying to defeat.  Underpinning all is the enduring nature of war; the facets of fogfearfriction and stress that can either paralyse you, or be your greatest ally.

The art of the tactician is in the blend.  Like a composer with an orchestra, the master tactician is able to skilfully weave this all together into a force that is more than the sum of its parts; manipulating the environment to his advantage, flowing with varied tempo and momentum, and leveraging war’s nature against his foe.  This maxim is universal.  It holds true as much for the Taliban, Daesh and the Shining Path as it does for the men and women of the 1st Australian Brigade on Exercise HAMEL.

But the tacticians of the 1st Australian Brigade (along with the rest of the Western military community) face a major challenge when it comes to winning the duel in the modern world.  This challenge might not immediately spring to mind.  It is not the number of AFVs we have at our disposal, nor the fact that the Combat Brigade SOPs are now longer than the Complete Works of Shakespeare.  No, our challenge is one of ethics, and how they have to be reflected in our tactics compared to our enemies.

This needs a quick bit of background.  The Armed Forces of Western liberal democracies operate under a set of ‘Rules of War’.  These have their deepest roots in Just War Theory, a loosely codified set of traditions that proscribe conditions for the ‘right to go to war’ (jus ad bellum), and the ‘right conduct of war’ (jus in bello).  These traditions are as old as formalised conflict itself, reaching as far back as Rome, Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  In the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, humanity at large sought to formalise and codify these traditions in  ‘International Humanitarian Law’.  The Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Protocols, policed by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, now control when and indeed how we go to war.

So what is the problem for the tactician?  In the purist sense, and stepping away from morality for a moment, rules imply constraint.  Jus ad bellum is not the issue; this is more about national policy and political decisions.  However jus in bellvery much constrains how we fight.  No targeting of, or unnecessary risk to, civilians.  No use of indiscriminate weapons, such as scatterable anti-personal mines or large-scale thermobarics.  No use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering, such as flame-throwers.  No use of chemical or biological weapons.  The principles of proportionality and necessity remove a whole suit of (admittedly brutal) tools for our tactician.  Even more limiting are those that impact on the more psychological methods.  No use of perfidy.  No deception through the use of the white flag, and no pretending to surrender.  No misuse of non-combatants, and no feigning of injury.  All put together, we have a tradition of what you might summarise as ‘playing fair’; we kill cleanly, we don’t lie, we don’t spread black psyops, we care for your wounded, and we respect surrender with honour.

I am obviously not suggesting that any of the above is a problem.  Quite the opposite.  These rules ensure, at the most fundamental sense, that we reflect the ethics of our liberal democracies.  They should be inviolable (even if in recent years they have been sorely tested).  In my eyes, the international ‘social contract’ that has built up around these laws helps hold the system together.  As long as we all adhere to them …

But what does our tactician do when these rules are suddenly rejected?  What if the other side decides not to ‘play fair’?  What if, even worse, the enemy starts to study the way we are constrained by these rules, and use them against us in the duel?  This is increasingly happening.  For years, the Taliban and Iraqi militias leveraged the West’s Rules of Engagement (RoE) at the tactical level, manoeuvring on the edge of the ‘conditions’, and spreading disinformation to undermine the coalition’s narrative.  Now these were insurgencies, militarily inferior, and you might argue they had no alternative.  But it is another thing entirely when major states start sponsoring such tactics.  Russia’s reported actions in both the Crimea and Ukraine, enacted through ‘New Generation Warfare’ doctrine, seem to reject the rules-based order to which we hold dear.  Disinformation, subversion, plausibility deniability, mass fires and thermobaric weapons are all back on the table … it is not surprising that the Ukrainians are reeling.

Daesh has taken this rejection to new heights.  Anyone who has experienced war will attest to its capacity to twist and pervert morality.  As Western soldiers, we seek to resist this corruption.  One of our most important functions of leadership is developing the capacity to overcome war’s nature; to stop good kids becoming monsters as they endure the fires of combat.  In direct contrast, Daesh has wholeheartedly embraced war’s perversion. They have established brutality as their central tactic, enacting it through a remarkably blossoming of ever-escalating violence.  Their desired purpose is terror in their adversary; ironic given this is the very emotion we astrategically declared war against in 2001.

In the first ‘Letter from Hamel’ we looked at the duel.  Tacticians win the duel through the better application of tactics.  Now I ask you, as a tactician, what do we do in the face of tactics which we cannot match?  How do we defeat indiscriminate weapons, which we legally cannot hold?  In battles of ideology and perception, how do we overcome state adversaries who think nothing about breaking ceasefires, denying troop presences and spreading disinformation?  How do we defeat an enemy who has barbarism as his doctrinal philosophy, without being dragged down with him into a murderous pit?

One option would be to lower our standards.  Just a bit.  Arguably in the last decade, in terms of drone strikes, detention and enhanced interrogation, we have already done so.  It would be easy to do this.  However it is an approach I believe we must wholeheartedly reject.  In The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen argues that the greatest effect of the 9/11 attacks was the internal impact it had, through fear and a desire for revenge, on the psyche of American society.  This is a slippery path that sometimes starts at the tactical level.  As Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the hero of My Lai, stated; ‘warriors cannot, and must not, forsake their own laws and moral principles in order to enforce them’.

Tactical ethics is a problem that is not going to go away.  It needs deep and enduring consideration within the military, and within wider society.  As technology expands, we need to look at new tools and methods with a careful eye.  We must get ahead of the game.  How do we view cyber RoE?  What about psyops, and counter-psyops?  In the long term, how on earth are we going to add Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Weapons into all of this?  These will be the challenges of our tactical generation, and DEF Australia needs you to help with the solutions.

About the author

Tom McDermott is the Director of Activities for DEF Australia. An Australian Army officer who also served for 15 years in the British Army, he is a passionate advocate of the Profession of Arms. He believes that rapid innovation and adaptation is the key to the future success of Western militaries. Tom is studying a PhD in strategy at ANU, and is a Fellow of both UNSW’s Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, and KCL’s Centre for Military Ethics. He can be followed on Twitter via @helmandproject.

Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here

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1 Comment on "DEF Australia Letters from HAMEL Part 2: Just War and Tactical Ethics in a Brutal World "

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Dave Gandy


outstanding article, I am an exchange instructor at the COAC equivalent at Fort Benning at the moment and i enjoy trawling the websites looking for articles that provoke discussion amongst budding American students. this certainly will do that. Thank you.

Look forward to read more.