The Wavell Room
Image default
Concepts and Doctrine Land Opinion Short Read

The Line Between Doctrine and Ethics

There is a tension between doctrine, rules of engagement, and the principles of humanitarian law. The aim of this article is to highlight these issues and argue that they occur due to ambiguous language in doctrine. This tension has the potential to leave our soldiers confused and without the needed assurance at the point of violence. It also argues that military professionals need to prepare to balance these issues in the split-second decisions required in combat.

To make this point, this article focuses on ambushes.  The definition of an ambush is: “a surprise attack, by a force lying in wait, upon a moving or temporary halted enemy”. I would like you to consider a scenario.

It’s 1942 and a German patrol of 8 soldiers is patrolling through your ambush area. With them are 15 prisoners that have been ordered to carry an array of military supplies forward to assist with a military re-supply. You are at the decision point: do you fire or not?

What do you do? They are contributing to the military effort and are therefore subject to military force.  But these are the very people you are there to protect. Do you allow the patrol to pass by unmolested?  Or, do you ambush them whether they are carrying arms or not. You achieving the objective of stopping the resupply but accept civilian casualties as collateral damage. Your memory will take you to your understanding of doctrine.

Modern tactical doctrine contains the following comments on springing an ambush: [2]

b. The enemy may well use civilians as porters, intermingled with the patrol. In this case:


(1) The ambush party can open fire and consider that all in the enemy patrol are enemy no matter if they carry arms or not.


(2) The enemy can be allowed to proceed unmolested as in some areas
it could be very damaging to the ‘Hearts and Minds’ campaign to shoot ‘press-ganged’ civilians. As a general guide it will be bad for the morale of the ambush party to let the enemy continue on their way unharmed. They might discover the ambush party’s route from their main base to the FRV and then attack the ambush or ambush their withdrawal. To invite troops to open fire selectively on enemy soldiers only could mean hesitancy on the part of the killing group to shoot in case they selected the wrong target. This problem would be increased by dense undergrowth or bad visibility.

Initially, the doctrine states that the enemy may use ‘press ganged’ civilians as porters to move around a battle space. If this information was backed up by some form of intelligence the ground commander would be able to tailor any plan to ensure that any civilians in the area were not caught in the crossfire.

However, the doctrine also states that “The ambush party can open fire and consider that all in the enemy patrol are enemy no matter if they carry arms or not”. Ambush doctrine is, therefore, telling soldiers that they can shoot unarmed civilians. This is morally and ethically wrong. It is a tension point between doctrine and both likely rules of engagement and the morality of war.

Tension with the Law of Armed Conflict

Ambush doctrine comes into direct conflict with one of the tenets of the International Law of Armed Conflict; Humanity.[3] The concept of humanity forbids the infliction of suffering, injury, or destruction not necessary for the accomplishment of legitimate military purposes. Thus, if an enemy combatant has been put out of action by being wounded or captured, there is no military purpose to be achieved by continuing to attack them.

For the same reason, the principle of humanity confirms the immunity of civilian populations and objects from attack. The Law of Armed Conflict’s other pillars (distinction, proportionality, military necessity)  describe how damage to civilian life and property should be kept to a minimum – unless they are directly contributing to the enemy effort.

Few disagree with this. But in the ambush example used above, these are not civilians who have chosen a side. Rather, they are people who have been ‘press ganged’ into working with an enemy force. They have not accepted the risk of working with the enemy nor agreed to a part in the conflict.

Hearts and Minds?

If you look back at reference (2), the first part of the paragraph explains that “The enemy can be allowed to proceed unmolested as in some areas it could be very damaging to the ‘Hearts and Minds’ campaign to shoot ‘press-ganged’ civilians. This shows us that doctrine writers have considered the impact the action will have on the local population. But it also acknowledges that they are regarded as legitimate targets as they are contributing to the war effort. There is a moral and ethical gap between doctrine and rules of engagement that military professional need to prepare for in training.

The next part of the paragraph explains that “As a general guide it will be bad for the morale of the ambush party to let the enemy continue on their way unharmed”. This section is greatly concerning as it links the tactical action to morale. To ensure the morale of a fighting force doctrine writers have deemed it potentially necessary to allow them to kill an unknown number of civilians as they move through hostile territory against their own will.

Relative protection?

Would we, as a nation, find it acceptable for an enemy force to ambush a convoy of ambulances? After all; ambulances and their staff have chosen to help in contrast to ‘press ganged’ civilians. Or does a medical badge mean that all of the medic’s lives within that patrol hold more value than that of civilians?

There is an argument to say that the ‘press ganged’ civilians are a legitimate target. The potential loss of life if the re-supplied is achieved could be judged greater than the value of the people involved in the ambush. Are the lives of these 15 people worth less than the lives of the 20 that will be killed when the ammunition is used?  Yes? But, this is a theory and the impact   of them pushing munitions forward isn’t quantifiable at the point of decision.

Perhaps, there isn’t a problem with doctrine. After all, this doctrine is aimed at a war fighting scenario against a uniformed enemy in a conventional context. With different risk thresholds. However, modern doctrine is frequently used in counter insurgency operations with more detailed rules of engagement. Why, then, do we still have lines like this in doctrine if they will never be used in that context?

Ethical and Moral training

There are a few solutions to help navigate this moral and ethical problem. The most obvious would be to re-word our doctrine to make the differences between it and potential rules of engagement clearer. This will protect our soldiers by ensuring that those who read the doctrine put it to use in the correct way, supported by the rules of engagement.

Training can also help at the point of violent decision. Moral and ethical scenarios, are generally conducted in pre-deployment training cycles. Yet morality and ethics classes are far rarer between deployments. One way of training this in camp is through the use of the indoor ranges (essentially, realistic computer games). Current simulations also complex scenarios to be played, worked through, and discussed in a safe and controlled environment. 

Field exercises should also contain ethical dilemnas. After action reviews must incorporate this experience to hone both tactical and ethical decisions.

During an event, all soldiers will see and process different information at different times. This means that no soldier, in either a complex or simple scenario, will have exactly the same answers when questioned in detail about the events that have unfolded.  Police look for this, and it’s usually a sign that people have spoken in detail about the events before being questioned.   Scenario training will help our soldiers to retain more accurate information as they will be better practiced. This training will also invoke deeper discussion for their actions; Soldier A acted as they had seen X, but soldier B disagrees as he had seen Y, and that is why he did not act.  They will then be able to discuss the consequences of actions, and may even be able to start considering the second and third effects of them.


[1]  Capability Directorate Combat Dismounted Close Combat Doctrine – Volume I Infantry Company group, Infantry Platoon Tactics 2009. Page 5-21 Paragraph 0573.

[2] Capability Directorate Combat Dismounted Close Combat Doctrine – Volume I Infantry Company group, Infantry Platoon Tactics 2009. Page 5-45 Paragraph 05125 sub paragraph b.

[3] JSP 398 United Kingdom manual of national Rules of Engagement, Part 2 Guidance, Annex A, Paragraph 5 – D

About the author

The_Average_Soldier

The_Average_Soldier is a Colour Serjeant from the Rifles. He started writing to constructively challenge himself, and the environment around him, to broaden his perspective while promoting positive change across the wider military through social media.

Related posts

Multi Domain Battle: Welcome to the Jungle

Dr Patrick Bury

British Airborne Forces in the Contemporary Operating Environment

Lewis

The Prevention of Violent Conflict

Edward Canfor Dumas and Thomas Boehlke