What If There Is No Ethical Way to Act in Syria Now?

Posted in Just War on 15 April 2018 by Daryl Densford

Moral philosophers around the world confess they’re at a loss.

by Sigal Samuel, April 13, 2018, The Atlantic website

“For seven years now, America has been struggling to understand its moral responsibility in Syria. For every urgent argument to intervene against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop the mass killing of civilians, there were ready responses about the risks of causing more destruction than could be averted, or even escalating to a major war with other powers in Syria. In the end, American intervention there has been tailored mostly to a narrow perception of American interests in stopping the threat of terror. But the fundamental questions are still unresolved: What exactly was the moral course of action in Syria? And more urgently, what—if any—is the moral course of action now?”

Continue reading this compelling article at The Atlantic website

Beyond the Ticking Time Bomb: A Case for NCO Ethical Education

Posted in Ethics for Leaders, Warrior Ethics with tags , on 12 April 2017 by Daryl Densford

Chief Master Sergeant:
Lifts buildings and walks under them.
Kicks locomotives off their tracks.
Catches bullets in his teeth and eats them.
Freezes water with a single stare.
Talks to no one…HE IS GOD
“The sergeant is the Army.”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower


My Lai. TailhookMarines United. Fat Leonard. The depressingly regular cycle of senior level officer and NCO scandals and abuses highlight the ongoing struggle with how the military is approaching ethical matters and educating for ethics. While these issues are not new, it is time for a serious, even radical, rethink. The military needs to approach questions of right and wrong in terms of ethics, not just institutional or persona morals, and in terms of education, not training. In addition, it is time to give more attention to the ethics education of those beyond the officer corps, to include noncommisioned officers (NCOs) and other enlisted members as well.

Some definitions to start the discussion are in order. First, education rather than training is important. Training is designed for compliance to rules/systems or to build upon a particular skill set. While this is a common way to think about ethics in the military, it has serious problems, and it has contributed to a variety of unethical behaviors and institutionalized cultures. Education is a more useful term, because it is designed to prepare one for a range of foreseen and unforeseen circumstances, and therefore must be broader, flexible, and adaptive. In addition ethical rather than moral, should be used, although many people do use them interchangeably. Here moral will refer to the claims or ideas of the individual, group, or institution—what they claim to be right or wrong. The terms ethical and ethics refer to the questioning, analysis, justification, or reflection upon such claims. Putting ethics and education together yields a very different approach and model for military ethics.

In The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare: Achilles Goes Asymmetric, I surveyed ethical education for NCOs in the U.S. military and noted the following common threads:

  1. Issues were often lumped in with and conflated with ‘leadership’ issues.
  2. Training was much less theoretical and in depth than that received by officers.
  3. Training was typically very top-down, reinforcing command control and military hierarchy.[1]

In response to these observations, there are four recommendations for revising ethics education for NCOs specifically, as well as for enlisted personnel in general.

  1. First, such education should become less hierarchical; I was thinking in terms of the Strategic Corporal model, but the discussions around Mission Command point to the same concerns.[2]
  2. Second, the military needs to move beyond the concept of a Warrior ethos to embrace something like the Guardian ethos, which accommodates and encourages the use of multiple frameworks, adaptive thinking, and flexibility.
  3. Third, the military will need to think about how to measure and assess progress which will require failure, learning and growth in ethical matters.
  4. Finally, the change, development, and experimentation necessary (with the associated risks and failures) will require rethinking ideas of identity and military professionalism, as ideas like Mission Command and an emphasis on innovation and strategic thinking (not just from officers) gain traction.

All of these recommendations require a broader approach to ethics (not training) and ethical rather than merely moral values.

Continue reading this article at The Strategy Bridge . . .




Why is the Catholic Church Moving Away from Just War Theory?

Posted in Just War on 13 April 2016 by Daryl Densford

Just War and Ethics isn’t only in the domain of religion, but religion certainly has influenced the development of morality, values, ethics and Just War in the United States and continue to do so. Movement in thought on these topics by as large of a denomination as the Roman Catholic Church can influence perceptions on Just War thought worldwide so is pertinent to both people of religion and those who are non-religious but are interested in Just War.

Following is an article by Terrence Rynne from The National Catholic Reporter which reports on the shifting tide of Just War thought within the Catholic Church:


The Catholic church’s ongoing move away from the just war theory as “settled teaching” to a more expansive call to proactive peacemaking has been made clear in a global conference scheduled for April 11-13 in Rome.Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, the conference, “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence,” is gathering educators and activists from all over the world, particularly from the global South. The precise purpose of the conference is to more fully develop a vision of nonviolence and just peace for the Catholic church.

Five reasons underlie this pivot to a positive vision of peace and a point of view that goes well beyond the just war theory:

  • Modern wars have made the just war theory obsolete;
  • The rise of a Christology “from below”;
  • A clearer understanding of how the New Testament relates to contemporary problems;
  • A renewed appreciation of the way the early church practiced Jesus’ teachings on peace;
  • The compelling, thrilling saga of nonviolent action over the 60 years since Gandhi.


Continue reading about 1900 more words at The National Catholic Reporter website…



Truman’s Decision to Use the Atom Bomb

Posted in Ethics for Leaders, Just War, Warrior Ethics with tags , , , , , , , on 9 August 2015 by Daryl Densford

August 6th and 9th marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ultimately brought an end to the war in the Pacific. An ongoing debate regarding President Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb against Japan continues today. Much of the fodder for the debate uses inaccurate history and distorted views of the options President Truman had available to him.

Truman’s decision is wrapped up in Just War Doctrine and Military Ethics so an understanding of what went into his decision is beneficial to military officers studying those disciplines and wanting to lead ethically while making moral decisions.

Below is a link to a video produced by Prager University which features Father Wilson Miscamble, professor of history at Notre Dame University. In this 5 minute video, Father Miscamble offers an historical and ethical view of the use of the atom bomb to end the war with Japan, giving insight into President Truman’s decision.


Atom Bomb




Why Distinguishing a Moral Injury from PTSD is Important

Posted in Just War, Moral Injury with tags , , on 12 March 2015 by Daryl Densford

A recent opinion piece by Thomas Gibbons-Neff in the Washington Post speaks to the need of recognizing Moral Injury as a condition many vets suffer with as well as a condition that is separate from PTSD. Gibbons-Neff provides a good definition of Moral Injury as well as examples of situations that can cause it and the results of its presence.

It seems that many who speak of moral injury consider it a reaction to having to do something that is morally wrong. I don’t completely agree with this definition. There can be conditions, such as war, when acts that would normally be immoral become moral. This goes into the issue of Just War and whether killing can ever be just. But if one accepts the premise of just war, it follows that killing in a just cause (if done within applicable laws, regulations, rules, treaties and agreements) is not immoral but should rather be considered a moral act.

Moral Injury does not only occur when a Soldier does what is immoral but also when a Soldier does something contrary to what is normally moral, like killing. Since a human taking the life of another human isn’t normal and is usually a punishable act of immorality, when a Soldier kills, even under just and legal circumstances, it can cause a moral injury that can be attributed to that act of killing.

In his article, Gibbons-Neff accounts for moral injury as a result of a Soldier “making the wrong decision” of killing, instead of killing being the right decision in certain circumtances, such as in combat when it is just and legal. However, being a morally ambiguous decision, while it shouldn’t have guilt attached, still produces moral injury because it normally isn’t a moral act, being contrary to natural human behavior toward other humans.

Following is the article by Gibbons-Neff as posted on the Washington Post website. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on his approach to, and assessment of, moral injury as well as your experiences with it.

Haunted by Their Decisions in War

March 6. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a senior at Georgetown University, was a 2014 Washington Post summer intern. He served as a rifleman in the 1st battalion, 6th Marines in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2010.

Even on the short overnight ops, sometimes we talked about things we knew we’d carry home. On a cold night in March 2010, Jeff brought up the kid he’d shot a month earlier, when the battle for the Afghan city of Marjah was hot and there was no shortage of 15-year-olds picking up Kalashnikovs off the ground. Jeff had killed one of them with four shots from a heavy-caliber semi-auto that made a soft thud when the bolt released. The kid had a rifle, and even kids with rifles can kill Marines, Jeff had figured.

A few weeks later, we were on the side of the road watching for Taliban fighters digging bombs into the ground, and Jeff was telling me about it. He described the way the kid fell and how he wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing.

That was five years ago. Jeff doesn’t bring up that story anymore. I know he thinks about it, though, because a couple of years back he put a Remington 700 short action in his mouth and didn’t pull the trigger. Rather than remaining in the flooded poppy fields of Afghanistan, the story of the kid Jeff shot stuck with him. It grew and matured just as Jeff had, until one day Jeff sat on his bed with a loaded rifle across his lap, staring at a part of his life he could no longer understand.

“I’m not crazy,” he told me, and I knew he wasn’t. Ten years ago we would have just called it post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty years ago, it would have been combat fatigue. And in the shell-raked trenches of the Western Front, it would have been shell shock. But Jeff’s dead kid was none of those things. Jeff’s weight was something else — a moral injury.

Moral injury is a nebulous term that few use seriously because it doesn’t read well on Veterans Affairs claims. It’s a new term but not a new concept. Moral injury is as timeless as war — going back to when Ajax thrust himself upon his sword on the shores of Troy. Unlike post-traumatic stress, which is a result of a fear-conditioned response, moral injury is a feeling of existential disorientation that manifests as intense guilt.

David Wood, a Huffington Post reporter, describes moral injury as “the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation.” In her forthcoming book “Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers,” Georgetown University’s Nancy Sherman thinks of moral injuries as a painful “transgression” or as an erosion of “a sense of goodness and humanity.” Moral injuries, she says, have to do with failing to hold yourself or others to account. For some, it’s realizing that what you choose to do or not do in combat doesn’t align with the person your parents raised. The person who volunteers at rescue shelters and takes his grandmother out to lunch on her birthday doesn’t seem like the same person who once reveled in the shock waves of 500-pound bombs.

Moral injury is discussed in academia but is rarely talked about — and is often misunderstood — among those who suffer from it. It isn’t really a part of the “returning veteran” lexicon; instead, veterans use PTSD as a convenient catchall. Yet there is a danger in conflating post-traumatic stress and moral injury. While in many cases they can overlap, differentiating the two allows the returning veteran to understand not only the trauma he or she experienced but also the damage left by the decisions made in war.

Moral injury makes its mark by creating a flawed sense of who you were when you were in harm’s way. This is the second self. Deployed veterans, morally injured or not, have this second self formed in war — one who can tell incoming from outgoing artillery and whose first reaction to an arterial bleed is to kneel into their best friend’s pressure point.

Back in civilian life, that second self must merge with the present self — the person who wanders the aisles at Safeway and wakes up to the soft bleat of an iPhone alarm. Those months, or even years, of transition are wrought with moments that confuse the two selves. Strange moments in movie theaters when folded American flags make your breath come short and hot; or on the Fourth of July, when the muted pop of bottle rockets induces a nostalgia you can’t explain. Even the smell of burning trash reminds you of a place you’d secretly rather be.

Time passes, and most of us find a way to remember the old self. The self that was younger and faster and damn good-looking under that half-cocked helmet. Those memories are put in boxes or hard-drive folders labeled “Spring Break Afghanistan.” Your war stories become well-rehearsed scripts, and even your traumas, those hellacious days when you bore witness to the young and the dead, are scrubbed and polished and placed in a mental vault that you know how to open — or keep shut.

But moral injury makes it hard to transition from memory to the present; it confuses the old self and the new. If the injury is severe enough, it can be almost impossible to see yourself in the present. Instead, you see the person who was capable of making the wrong decision when, years later, you know you could have made a different one.

My friend Jeff remembers his old self by wearing around his neck the bullet he almost used to end his life. It is a reminder, he says, of the moment he could no longer bear the pain of what he had done that day in 2010 — and what he had to do to move on. After he didn’t pull that trigger, he decided to live — and to share his experience with me and other Marines he had served with. In many ways, Jeff transfused his moral injury into the bullet. He turned the emotional damage into a physical object — a reminder of when he strayed from his values — that he could balance in his palm and run his fingers over.

As a nation, we have spent the past 14 years at war. Men and women have returned. Some have returned broken. It is our job, as a country, to understand what broken means. We have reached the point where PTSD is bandied about as a diagnosis, a fallback and a lens through which to consider, and sometimes wrongly label, those troubled by our conflicts. But what happens when the drugs we prescribe or the approaches we take are misguided? What happens when we treat for the wrong injury?

Recognizing moral injury isn’t so much about how the country understands its veterans; rather it is about how veterans understand themselves. Moral injury usually stems from a precise moment in a service member’s experience and is not an abstract issue, nor another name for PTSD. “Moral injury is so personal in so many ways,” says Molly Boehm, a former case manager for recovering Marines and soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “It’s about reconciling that event” that sticks with you, she says. “And it’s also about reconnecting with a moral community, feeling connected to your fellow man.”

While treatment for moral injury — such as group therapy — sometimes overlaps with treatment for PTSD, it usually differs in the sense that the morally injured need to have an ethical dialogue as well.

To understand moral injury and address its effects, we need to recognize that it exists. If we don’t, if we continue to categorize moral injury under the same umbrella we have for centuries, those who have borne our wars will have to carry their own wounded. Those faceless few with draped arms over slouched shoulders will still be trudging across the terrain of battles fought long ago.


———-End of article———-




The above referenced article first appeared on the Washington Post website. It was republished on the Stars and Stripes website under the title, “Why distinguishing a moral injury from PTSD is important.”



McHugh, Others, Address Officers’ Dishonesty

Posted in Ethics for Leaders, Warrior Ethics with tags , , , , , , , on 1 March 2015 by Daryl Densford

Soldiers in formation

The recent monologue published by the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College which reports on the willingness of military officers’ to lie, discussed in a recent post here at Army Ethics, has gotten the attention of Army leaders and ethicists, as it should. If the report is just pushed aside, it will have brought no benefit to the military other than to publicly air our dirty laundry. Used as a launching point for further discussion and development as a profession, however, this monologue’s value will be clear.

Army Times reports on some of the reaction the research has garnerned and offers some suggestions for a way forward. This Times article can also be used by lower-level leaders to begin discussion in their formations about how officers and Soldiers can consistently do the right thing, even if the results of doing what is right is not always pleasant. Not until military personnel at every level are willing to live by the values of their service, will their subordinates and the American public at large be able to fully trust them with their lives and the lives of their sons and daughters.

Read the Army Times article by clicking on the following link. Using your browser’s “back” button will bring you back to the Army Ethics website.

Army Secretary McHugh, Ethics Experts Tackle Report on Officers Lying



Dishonesty in the Profession of Arms

Posted in Ethics for Leaders, Warrior Ethics with tags , , , , , , on 19 February 2015 by Daryl Densford
by Chaplain (MAJ) Daryl Densford, Ethics Instructor at the U.S. Army M.P. School, Fort Leonard Wood, MO

Warrior Leaders Course Graduation Ceremony

When I teach ethics and moral reasoning to Army officers, I emphasize that the values that are expected to influence our behavior while on duty should also influence our behavior while off duty, including the little decisions that may go unnoticed by most. If officers can not even model ethical behavior in something as simple as training reports to higher headquarters for example, how can they be expected to be able to model ethical behavior on the battlefield when the lives of their Soldiers and possibly innocent non-combatants are in their hands? Living the Army Values as well as our own personal values is essential to developing moral strength which enables us to make the tough decisions to do the right thing, even if it’s the hard thing. When leaders fail morally, even in apparently small areas, not only do they lose the trust of the American people and their subordinates, they also cause others to doubt their ability to lead morally in the larger areas where moral strength and ethical decisions are essential to preserve stability and prevent unnecessary loss of life. However, “untruthfulness is surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.”(1)

According to a recent study, officers admit to often lying. They describe lying for a variety of reasons. Some simply to avoid what would turn into more work for themselves or their staffs. Others, to avoid losing Soldiers from their formations. Still others just didn’t have the time to accomplish all of the requirements handed down to them from higher.  But regardless of the reasons or the apparent justifications, taking this lower ethical road decays the lying officers’ moral foundation and instills as acceptable these types of behaviors into subordinates which could (and have) result in more blatant and harmful moral/ethical failures. Even if the deception is engaged in for some “greater good” or “mutual benefit” lying or “fudging” reports or failing to fully obey orders is not the most ethical way to deal with those situations. Confronting the problem, while taking time, can improve similar situations in the future and avoid continuing the perception that dishonesty -a poor ethical choice- is acceptable.

One of the problems we face, however, is that “…much of the deception and dishonesty that occurs in the profession of arms is actually encouraged and sanctioned by the military institution. The end result is a profession whose members often hold and propagate a false sense of integrity that prevents the profession from addressing—or even acknowledging—the duplicity and deceit throughout the formation. It takes remarkable courage and candor for leaders to admit the gritty shortcomings and embarrassing frailties of the military as an organization in order to better the military as a profession. Such a discussion, however, is both essential and necessary for the health of the military profession.”(2)

Addressing these concerns, Dr. Leonard Wong and Dr. Stephen J. Gerras have researched and written, “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession.” The executive summary can be opened, read and download by clicking on the following link:

Lying to Ourselves-Dishonesty in the Army Profession-EXSUM

The entire study is available from Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College by going here and downloading the free pdf file: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1250





(1) http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1250

(2) Ibid.


Photo from: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2012/11/todays-leaders-training-tomorrows-leaders/ “Soldiers stand in formation at the 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy during a graduation ceremony in Grafenwoehr, Germany. Led by academy cadre, students complete an 18-day Warrior Leaders Course which includes physical readiness training, drill, oral presentations and other disciplines to learn what it takes to be outstanding NCOs. Since 2008, the cadre has topped Europe-wide and U.S. Army Best Warrior competitions. (U.S. Army photo by Gertrud Zach)” This photo is not related to the report or any ethical violations.


Just War and Syria

Posted in Just War with tags , , , , , , on 3 September 2013 by Daryl Densford

by Chaplain (MAJ) Daryl Densford, Ethics instructor at the U.S. Army Military Police School, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri

At the time of this writing, the conflict in Syria is dominating the news. Flowing from the “Arab Spring” where Libya, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries saw a groundswell of popular support for regime change, Syria’s people rose up to also seek reforms from their government. While many of the combatants currently fighting the Assad regime increasingly are identifying with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, this does not provide justification for the Syrian government to not abide by Just War doctrine. Neither does it relieve the international community from acting to protect innocent Syrian civilians as Just War doctrine might allow.

In this article, I will briefly compare the Syrian governments actions to Just War doctrine, showing where it strays from accepted principles of war.  I will also show how the United Kingdom has employed Just War doctrine to justify their use of force against the Syrian government and Assad regime.

Justice toward War

In discussing the Syrian governments military response to the popular uprising in Syria, there is much disagreement as to whether military action by government troops is justified. Some may suggest that the Syrian people are simply seeking basic rights and freedoms which should be available to citizens of any country so therefore, are justified in “rebelling” against their government removing the justification for government forces to respond.  On the other hand, any government has the responsibility and right to defend itself and ensure the safety of its citizens.  If the uprising is viewed as an attack against the people of Syria, the government is then obligated to launch a defense. Additionally, and clearly, any government has the right and responsibility to defend its borders from terrorists and outside forces. It is this justification that the Assad regime has used for their military operations, claiming that the combatants battling the government are terrorists and forces from outside of Syria seeking to destabilize the Syrian government.

If we can categorize the Syrian government’s military response as just is a matter of debate. Whether engaging the rebels militarily is seen as abiding by Justice toward War doctrine or not, the Assad regime is still responsable to prosecute its war on Just War principles. It is to this Justice in War that I now turn.

Not Consent to Do Evil

According to the Voice of America website, “U.N. investigators say Assad’s forces have carried out war crimes including unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks and pillaging in what appears to be a state-directed policy.”[1] If proven true, the Syrian military would be guilty of violating the Just War principle that states that war is not a consent to do evil. While realists may assert that “all if fair in war,” allowing any use of force or application of evil to bring a speedy end to the conflict, Just War doctrine does not permit it. Military forces are not permitted to perform atrocities against combatants or civilians that our outside of normal war fighting tactics. Torture and sexual assaults certainly fall outside of this standard.


Identifying who are the combatants and who are civilians are often difficult in this type of conflict, however the government is obligated to proceed with due diligence to differentiate between the two. Discrimination is a major component of Just War doctrine.  Military forces are obligated to make every effort to protect and not engage innocent civilians. By most Western reports, the Syrian government has not abided by this principle by being indiscriminate in their attacks and pillaging of civilian material. Artillery salvos into populated city centers are sure to inflict many civilian casualties without a reasonable military purpose. The use of chemical weapons in population centers also has no way of discriminating between civilians and combatants, thus violating the doctrine of discrimination.


United Kingdoms Justification for a Military Response

On 29 August 2013 the British government their legal position on possible military responses to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. This document, Chemical Weapon Use by Syrian Regime – UK Government Legal Position, “…sets out the UK Government’s position regarding the legality of military action in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Damascus on 21 August 2013″[2].

The position of the United Kingdom is that Syria’s use of chemical weapons “amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity” by violating “the customary international law prohibition on [the] use of chemical weapons.” They maintain, however, that the previous use of chemical weapons is not their legal basis for intervention but rather, “humanitarian intervention [with the] aim [being] to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.” Over the course of the internal conflicts in Syria and with the resolutions being pursued in the United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom is has sought to exhaust all other reasonable means to protect the innocent civilians of Syria, “averting a humanitarian catastrophe” [2].

Considering the West’s decision to take military action, using the United Kingdom’s legal position as its foundation, I will go through the five basic elements of Justice toward War and weigh the justifications given.

Proper Authority

The first principle to consider in Justice toward War is whether the wager of war has the authority to do so.  No individual can just decide to declare war.  War must be waged by a legitimate government based on their laws and regulations.  Considering the West, recognized countries can wage war or execute military action when determined to be justified and a reasonable course of action when they follow their country’s procedures.  For the United States, the President can authorized certain and limited military action, while it takes an act of Congress to actually declare war.

Just Cause

The second principle in Justice toward War is whether the reason for waging war is just.  Many have argued for decades that the West’s involvement in the Middle East has always been over oil and that any military involvement in that region is just to protect our oil interests in the region. While national interests do come into play in the political and military consideration of the use of force, unless citizens or property of that country is at risk, national interests alone should not be considered the just cause to go to war.

In the case of Syria, the use of chemical weapons against their own citizens and prevention of this recurring is the cause stated for the West’s consideration of using force. Since chemical weapons are disproportionate, inhumane and indiscriminate, they are not recognized as being a proper weapon in prosecuting a just war, therefore are in violation of accepted Just War principles and international law making their use by the Syrian government and the potential for their future use, a just cause for taking military action against them.

Right Intention

The criterion of right intention should produce regret when war is embarked upon.  Nobody should want to go to war, but rather reluctantly agrees to do so to bring about peace or a greater good than the resultant harm.  Considering the situation in Syria, the stated intention is to prevent future use of chemical attacks against Syria’s own people.  Assuming the effectiveness of military action, to prevent the greater harm of chemical weapons usage outweighs the harm that would come by using force against the Syrian government.  Thus the intention of preventing chemical attacks against Syrian citizens can be said to be a right intention.

Last Resort

While some will argue that you could always do more to avoid war, sometimes military force becomes necessary. However, the use of diplomacy, sanctions, embargoes and appealing to the United Nations are all measures that should be exhausted before committing to war. It is not often that what works in one situation will work the same in another.  Sometimes, diplomacy fails when other times it succeeds.  Sometimes sanctions and embargoes are effective while other times they don’t seem to make an impact.  Some situations require quicker action and leaves little time for non-military options to be exhausted.  All of these things must be taken into consideration when contemplating the use of force, and even when a decision is reached there will be much disagreement.  Nevertheless, if war is determined to be the last resort, it must eventually be executed.

For the Syrian situation, it appears that time is of the essence.  Again, many will argue that there are a number of other options, but time with the Syrian governments willingness to use chemical weapons and the availability of them, a decision to use force sooner rather than later may be the most ethical decision to make.

Reasonable Hope of Success

Before a nation engages another with military force, they must ensure that there is a reasonable hope that they will be victorious or at least accomplish the purpose of engaging in war.  If a commander sends his/her troops into battle knowing that they can not possibly win, he has violated this criterion of Just War. There is little doubt that the West holds superior military might to the Syrian government and any regimes that may ally with them, so this criterion is met in the situation with Syria, at least on the surface. To a lesser degree, the West also needs to consider the ramifications of military action against Syria, such as responses -both conventional and terror- by Syria, its allies and  Islamic extremists. The success of  the military action to accomplish its purpose must  be weighed against the consequences, intended and unintended, of that action.  Many of these consequences are largely an unknown, but at least reasonable doubt should be satisfied.


In this article I have considered the Just War criteria for military action in Syria. While it can be asserted that miliary action in this situation could be defended as just the political, social and economic considerations could weigh heavily against military action. Public opinion, both in the West and the Middle East, should also be considered and could have an impact on any decision to go to war.

To say the deliberations concerning taking military action is complex is an understatement. At the same time, those at the highest levels of the government have more information about this situation than most of the public is privy to.  At the end of the day, the military is ultimately controlled by the civilians who make these decisions and will follow orders.  The use of force is never longed for, but when properly engaged in can be an effective means to bring about peace.


[1] http://www.voanews.com/content/reu-syria-assad-says-war-is-only-way-to-crush-terrorism/1723700.html, accessed 29 August 2013.

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/chemical-weapon-use-by-syrian-regime-uk-government-legal-position/chemical-weapon-use-by-syrian-regime-uk-government-legal-position-html-version

Army Personnel Commitment to Ethics

Posted in Ethics for Leaders on 24 July 2013 by Daryl Densford

The Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, issued a memorandum highlighting his commitment to across-the-board adherence to the highest ethical standards by Army personnel.  This memo can be opened and/or saved by clicking on the following link:


In this memo, Mr. McHugh references the following materials (also available by clicking on the following links):

Principles of Ethical Conduct for Government Officers and Employees

Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch

Joint Ethics Regulation

Moral Injury in the Context of War (U.S. Dept. of VA)

Posted in Moral Injury with tags , , , , , , , on 4 December 2012 by Daryl Densford

Copied without edit for educational purposes from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD.


Shira Maguen, PhD and Brett Litz, PhD


What is moral injury?

Like psychological trauma, moral injury is a construct that describes extreme and unprecedented life experience including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events. Events are considered morally injurious if they “transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (1). Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth.

Moral injury in war

In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations (2). The act may have been carried out by an individual or a group, through a decision made individually or as a response to orders given by leaders.


  • Unintentional Errors: Military personnel are well trained in the rules of engagement and do a remarkable job making life or death decisions in war; however, sometimes unintentional error leads to the loss of life of non-combatants, setting the stage for moral injury.
  • Transgressive Acts of Others: Service members can be morally injured by the transgression of peers and leaders who betray expectations in egregious ways.

What is the aftermath of moral injury?

In terms of the aftermath of moral injuries, transgressive acts may result in highly aversive and haunting states of inner conflict and turmoil. Emotional responses may include:

  • shame, which stems from global self-attributions (e.g., “I am an evil terrible person; I am unforgivable”)
  • guilt
  • anxiety about possible consequences
  • anger about betrayal-based moral injuries

Behavioral manifestations of moral injury may include:

  • anomie (e.g., alienation, purposelessness, and/or social instability caused by a breakdown in standards and values)
  • withdrawal and self-condemnation
  • self-harming (e.g., suicidal ideation or attempts)
  • self-handicapping behaviors (e.g., alcohol or drug use, self-sabotaging relationships, etc.)

Additionally, moral injury has been posited to result in the re-experiencing, emotional numbing, and avoidance symptoms of PTSD. In addition to grave suffering, these manifestations of moral injury may lead to an array of anti-social behaviors, under- or unemployment, and failed or harmed relationships with loved ones and friends.

Does killing cause moral injury?

Several studies demonstrate an association between killing in war and mental and behavioral health problems, which may be proxies for moral injury (3-8).

For example:

  • Across eras (e.g., Vietnam, Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)) those who kill in war are at greater risk for a number of mental health consequences and functional difficulties, including PTSD, after accounting for a number of demographic variables and other indicators of combat exposure (3-5).
  • In returning OIF Veterans, even after controlling for combat exposure, taking another life was a significant predictor of PTSD symptoms, alcohol abuse, anger, and relationship problems (3).
  • Vietnam Veterans who reported killing were twice as likely to report suicidal ideation as those who did not, even after accounting for general combat exposure, PTSD and depression diagnoses (9). In OIF Veterans, the relationship between killing and suicidal ideation was mediated by PTSD and depression symptoms (10).

Although killing may be a precursor to moral injury, it is important to note that not all killing in war results in adverse outcomes for military personnel. As outlined in the section above, certain elements need to be present for moral injury to occur, including a perceived transgression that goes against individual of shared moral expectations.

For example, a military member who kills an enemy combatant in self-defense may perceive that the death was justified. If however, a civilian was perceived to be armed and consequently killed, with military personnel later discovering that the individual was in fact unarmed, this may set the stage for the development of moral injury.

Are moral injury and PTSD the same?

Although more research is needed to answer this question, at present, although the constructs of PTSD and moral injury overlap, each has unique components that make them separable consequences of war and other traumatic contexts.

  • PTSD is a mental disorder that requires a diagnosis. Moral injury is a dimensional problem – there is no threshold for the presence of moral injury, rather, at a given point in time, a Veteran may have none, or mild to extreme manifestations.
  • Transgression is not necessary for a PTSD diagnosis nor does the PTSD syndrome sufficiently capture moral injury (shame, self-handicapping, guilt, etc.).

Consequently, it is important to assess mental health symptoms and moral injury as separate manifestations of war trauma to form a comprehensive clinical picture, and provide the most relevant treatment.

What can be done to treat moral injury in Veterans of war?

Existing evidence-based treatments (EBTs) for PTSD supported by the VA, namely Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) may sufficiently address the moral wounds of war in service members and Veterans.

However, because these therapies do not explicitly consider the unique clinical issues that arise from combat losses and experiences that are morally compromising, and because extant EBTs were primarily developed to target posttraumatic conditioned fear memories and related beliefs among victims of trauma, they may not be sufficient for service members and Veterans who suffer from the moral injuries of war, especially killing-based transgressions.

Current research for treatment of moral injury

In service of broadening the discourse, we generated and are currently testing interventions that specifically target moral injury among Veterans of war.

The first intervention is a six-session module called Impact of Killing in War (IOK), developed to augment existing EBTs for PTSD (i.e., IOK is used in conjunction with existing EBT for PTSD interventions, in those who have conflict related to killing in war). ). Pilot testing is currently underway. IOK contains the following elements, presented within a cognitive-behavioral framework:

  • education about the complex interplay of the biopsychosocial aspects of killing in war that may cause inner conflict and moral injury
  • identification of meaning elements and cognitive attributions related to killing in war
  • self-forgiveness (which entails cognitive therapy and for some the promotion of spirituality or faith-based religious practices)
  • making amends tailored to the individual (this may include writing forgiveness letters and an action plan to start the process of making amends)

The second treatment is called Adaptive Disclosure (AD), an eight-session intervention that takes into account unique aspects of the phenomenology of military service in war in order to address difficulties such as moral injury and traumatic loss that are not explicitly addressed in extant EBTs (11). At its core, AD is an experiential exposure-based approach.

  • Exposure is used to uncover core features of focal combat and operational trauma and as a means of articulating the meaning and implication of these events.
  • If the focal combat event is fear and life-threat-based, exposure is the sole approach.
  • If the focal trauma is loss-based, patients are also asked to have an imaginary emotionally evocative real-time dialogue with the lost person.
  • For moral injury, patients are guided through a real-time dialogue with a forgiving and compassionate moral authority about the transgression.

The added experiential strategies are designed to expose patients to corrective information about the meaning and implication of their war experiences. In an open trial, 44 Marines received AD in garrison. Participating Marines demonstrated significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, depression symptoms, and negative posttraumatic appraisals; AD was also associated with increases in posttraumatic growth (12).


  1. Litz, B.T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W.P., Silva, C., & Maguen, S. (2009). Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 695-706.
  2. Drescher, K., Foy, D., Kelly, C., Leshner, A., Schutz, A., & Litz, B.T. (2011). An exploration of the viability and usefulness of the construct of moral injury in war veterans. Traumatology, 17, 8-13.
  3. Maguen, S., Metzler, T.J., Litz, B.T., Seal, K.H., Knight, S.J., & Marmar, C.R. (2009). The impact of killing in war on mental health symptoms and related functioning. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 22, 435-443.
  4. Maguen, S., Lucenko, B.A., Reger, M.A., Gahm, G.A., Litz, B.T., Seal, K.H., Knight, S.J., & Marmar, C.R. (2010). The impact of reported direct and indirect killing on mental health symptoms in Iraq War veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 23, 86-90.
  5. Maguen, S., Vogt, D.S., King, L.A., King, D.W., Litz, B.T., Knight, S.J., & Marmar, C.R. (2010, October 4).The impact of killing on mental health symptoms in Gulf War veterans. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0019897.
  6. Fontana, A., Rosenheck, R. & Brett, E. (1992). War zone traumas and posttraumatic stress disorder symptomatology. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 180, 748-755.
  7. MacNair, R.M. (2002). Perpetration-inducted traumatic stress in combat veterans.Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 8, 63-72.
  8. Fontana, A. & Rosenheck, R. (1999). A model of war zone stressors and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 12, 111-26.
  9. Maguen, S., Metzler, T.J., Bosch, J., Marmar, C.R., Knight, S.J., & Neylan, T.C. Killing in combat is an independent predictor of suicidal ideation. Manuscript under review.
  10. Maguen, S., Luxton, D.D., Skopp, N.A., Gahm, G.A., Reger, M.A., Metzler, T.J., & Marmar, C.R. (2011). Killing in combat, mental health symptoms, and suicidal ideation in Iraq War Veterans. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25, 563-567.
  11. Steenkamp, M., Litz, B. T., Gray, M., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W., Conoscenti, L., Amidon, A., & Lang, A., (2011). A brief exposure-based intervention for service members with PTSD. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 18, 98-107.
  12. Gray, M.J., Schorr, Y., Nash, W., Lebowitz, L., Amidon, A., Lansiung, A. Maglione, M., Lang, A.J., Litz, B.T. (in press). Adaptive Disclosure: An open trial of a novel exposure-based intervention for service members with combat-related psychological stress injuries. Behavior Therapy.
Date Created: 12/23/2011 See last Reviewed/Updated 04/20/2012
Copied without edit for educational purposes from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD.