Thoughts on Individual ethics and Rules of Engagement

This essay is to look upon the connection between the personal ethics of the individual soldiers, and how soldiers are expected to behave in a «hostile environment», be it combat or peace–support operations. The background for this approach is the obvious gap between the ethics that was prominent in society where the formal conventions known as «the laws of war» was written, and today’s fragmented, relativistic and post–modern world.

In the Easter issue of the Norwegian newspaper «Dagens Næringsliv» a few years ago, the editor had an article discussing Norwegian policy on refugees. He then referred to an episode during the final days of the Third Reich. A young SS–officer tried to explain to an elderly Wehrmacht general that whatever he’d done, he was just obeying orders. Then General Freiherr von Puttkammer replied by quoting the Prussian king Frederick the Great: «The King of Prussia has first and foremost made you an officer, because you shall know the necessity of not obeying an order!»


Formal International laws regarding war came to existence in modern Europe during the 30–years war. There had always been some kind of rules, spoken or not, written or just a code of conduct, that was regulating how to wage war. There had also been violations on these rules, and there was a gradual development of them. The Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius’ «Law of War and Peace», published in 1625 is the predecessor of today’s conventions and thinking regarding this subject. In this writings, Grotius draws upon ancient thinking and the Roman principle of «natural law», in addition to the Christian thinking of the time. Grotius puts the individ-
ual state as an actor with legal responsibilities, it’s no longer just individuals that are to be guided by formal laws, the state is also required to respond to these agreed upon laws. Grotius recognize war as a «legitimate» state of affairs between states, but bring forward a distinction between just and unjust wars, between warring parties and neutral states and also regarding civilians on the battlefield.

The Geneva–conventions and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) came as results of the limited modern wars in Europe in the mid 18–hundreds. As warfare developed, new agreements have arrived, regulating or prohibiting ways of waging wars. The ban on biological and chemical weapons being one example. Agreements recognizing guerrilla–soldiers, as being legal combatants, is another.

The ideas behind the coming of these regulations on warfare are found in the Christian teaching on love for neighbours and enemies, as well in secular ethics, which are teaching very much the same standards, but with different base arguments. With the general rise in literacy and welfare among ordinary people during the first half of the century, there was a growing sense among ordinary people that these ethics must have also apply to society, not just the individual. This was also a parallel to the rise of liberal democracy in Western Europe, nationalism as the basis for society and states etc. Different kinds of thinking on organising nations and government in order to produce justice and social welfare surfaced. In general, that ordinary man found ways to take part in the shaping of society. As for Christians; that the Lord’s teaching must have consequences outside the established Church.

Christian lay movements on foreign missions, social work, politics etc., were among the outlets of these concerns. So were movements as the ICRC and other efforts to minimise suffering in war. A direct consequence after the Crimean war and later, the Battle of Solferino was the establishment of a medical corps within a nation’s army, to take care of wounded soldiers. To understand the basis and premises for the agreements and laws regulating warfare, one have to see these in the Christian context, based upon a clear understanding of Christian teaching on right and wrong. The Ten Commandments and the new testaments teaching (Jesus’ and the Apostles) were seen as the foundation for the individual and societies ethical thinking and moral behaviour. These values were not to be changed by man.

The Christian teaching was already challenged in the late century, and had been so for centuries, BUT among common man, there were (still) a sense of understanding that the Bible’s teaching regarding right and wrong was right and valid. I’ll argue that also among non–Christians, there was a consensus that the «Christian and humanist based» ethics and moral rules guiding individuals and society was valid and not to be. The humanist base for these rules and values is of course different from the Christian’s, but the outcome is very similar. As stated in the PME–folder for the Norwegian armed forces; «the Christian and humanistic values».

The ideological basis for the 20th century dictatorships was laid in the late 18–hundreds. Not necessary the specific ideology, but when Nietzsche took the logical consequence of the ideological development, and proclaimed that God was dead, man was free to erect new gods as his fundament for right and wrong. And if man didn’t erected substitutes for God, they stood up themselves. The dictators of the century couldn’t have existed if there had been a «fixed point in the universe». The European «Führers», no matter what colour their banners had, needed a universe free from any absolute standard. That was the main premise for them to set their own standards. When man gave up the Biblical ethical teaching as his «fixed point in the universe», Hitler, Stalin and their followers was the logical consequence. Because the only replacement for a fixed point had to be made from man himself. Unfortunately, among other things, modern man is not fixed, neither in the universe nor in any other place.

The rest of the western world kept the «old values», while moving away from their base. People do after all have a feeling or conscience of what’s right or wrong. The classical Christian and secular moral teaching gave the conscience a solid foundation to rest upon. When this foundation today is eroded and the base for the «old values» is condemned as old fashion morality; man has nothing but his conscience to guide him. The result is moral confusion, and ethics and moral solutions are sold on the global marketplace like soap and shampoo. The competing product might be just as good as the old one, and to a better price.

Varying Rules of Engagement through the centuries

In the Roman Empire terror was normally used as a weapon and everyone not suited as slaves was often killed. Operations, known today as ”ethnic cleansing” were used extensively, whole people was killed or deported, Cartage and Jerusalem are classical examples. During the first crusades («Age of Chivalry»), Constantinople and Jerusalem was sacked (the people in Constantinople was Christians all right, but a deal with Venice was more profitable). In the wars in the late Middle Ages POW’s were taken when they could be exchanged for money (ransom). You would then kill and plunder the rest left on the battlefield. European wars after Napoleon, up to WW I was limited in time and objectives. They were mere industrialised cabinet–wars and no one wanted any new «Napoleonic era». The Franco–Prussian war of 1870–71 was on the other side coming out of control when the French population refused to follow their government and continued resistance. The Prussian Chief of the General Staff, von Moltke was preparing to wage war against the French civilian population in a similar way Sherman did in Georgia and the Carolinas. The Prussian chancellor, von Bismark prevented that course by a speedy negotiated peace. To him a normalisation of the international relations in Europe was more important that the military’s urge for an unconditional surrender.

US Grant became known as «Unconditional Surrender» Grant after his victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson the winter 1861–62. After 3 years of bloody war, the conditions given to R E Lee and the Confederate Army of Virginia were very generous, so were Sherman’s to Johnston a short time later. The main reason for this is found in Lincoln’s ends for the war to save the Union. Therefore the terms given were to promote reconciliation, not hatred. It’s also interesting to see the attitude of Gen Lee, expressed in his farewell–address to his army. «You have been good soldiers, go home and be equal good citizens» (roughly quoted).

During WW II the conduct of the western allies was very much according to international law. Among questions that are being discussed even today are the bombing of civilian population in Germany and Japan, the use of nuclear weapons and allowing the Luftwaffe to bomb Coventry in order not to compromise the allied knowledge of the German code (ULTRA). In Soviet–Union Stalin made «the Great Patriotic War» a war of survival for the Soviet–Union – and of course his own rule. The fighting on the eastern front was very severe and ruthless. The Red Army treated combatants as well as non–combatants harsh. Much of this is found in the communist ideology «preached» by political commissars, the Nazi–German attitude as well as 20 years of severe suppression of both the church and the Russian people. People and army were ruled by sheer terror.

When we look upon Nazi–Germany, we see that the fighting in Western Europe and Africa was very much according to international law. Even though commanders had to defy direct orders from Hitler, for example orders to kill Commandos taken prisoners. Violations were exceptions, mainly done by SS or other units closely related to the Nazi party.

On the eastern front and in the Balkans the picture was different. The ideo­logical side of the war was much more visible, and not only the SS, but ordinary Wehrmacht units committed severe atrocities, both against combatants and non– combatants.

Then there was the Holocaust. Ordinary Wehrmacht units took part in this crime by providing the necessary military force needed by Hitler for his conquests, and by taking part in operations directly related to the «Endlösnung». Rules of Engagement are very much a function of how society in general want’s their armed forces to conduct operations. In that case ROE are a mirror image of society’s standards regarding the use of violence. The restrictions on the air–campaign during the Kosovo–war this spring, shows that the NATO countries do accept limitation of the effectiveness of military operations, in order to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage.

The problem

The conditions under which the ordinary soldier will have to obey the agreed laws of war are very severe. It will be in the midst of battle. The soldier and the unit is fighting to achieve their objective and for they’re very survival in doing so.

What kind of behaviour and actions are expected in combat? It’s actions based upon reflexes, the result of a long and realistic training. These actions are drills that are almost automatic responses to a specific challenge. The drill–perspective range from the individual soldier to at least battalion task–group, for instance in a breaching–operation against heavy enemy defences.

Then, in a combat environment, what will determine a soldiers action when the Laws of war is challenged, for instance to take enemy soldiers that are willing to surrender, prisoner and not open fire? Is it the military training how to handle POW’s? Is it the professional ethics taught at the academy or by the chaplain? OR, is it our backbone–reflex to the commandment «You shall not murder» that in prevents us from pulling the trigger?

I’ll argue that also regarding ethical and moral dilemmas in combat, it’s what’s drilled that will work. Using the word «drill» relates in this context to the deep understanding of right and wrong we’ll get as a child from family, Sunday school, elementary school and your society as such. This understanding becomes a reflex and will guide our actions when we are not able or have the time to think and reflect. As it is in combat. The military training in understanding and acting according to the laws of war is the last layer of the sandwich the soldiers ethic and moral behaviour is based upon. The military training on these issues is not addressed to a blank sheet of paper. Most of the human understanding of right and wrong, and the ethics guiding our actions are well in place when we join the armed forces. This deep and fundamental understanding of right end wrong and the actions will surface when situations arise, more or less influenced by military training.

Next: In his book «Moral issues in military decision making» Col. Anthony E Hartle set up tree factors that shape a country’s professional military ethics (PME):

  1. Society
  2. Requirements of the military profession
  3. International law

When it comes to the actual conduct of the individual soldier in battle or in any «operation other than war», it is still the backbone–reflex that will guide our actions.

What then, if a soldier comes from a part of society where he hasn’t been «drilled» in the Christian–humanist ethics which are the ethics that are the foundation for international laws? According to orders he is expected to behave according to International law and the PME. But will military orders or training be able to overrule man’s moral backbone–reflex when he is challenged in the heat of battle? Even highly trained SS–personnel had to be relieved from the death–squadrons because of moral scruples, and one of the reasons for the industri­alisation of Holocaust, was that even some of the killers with the «Totenkopf» on their collar, felt pity for their victims.

Societies influence on the PME is two–fold; firstly by the formal influence by stated standards to the military. Secondly there are informal ways society makes it’s influence upon the military, by the values that the individual brings with them when joining the armed forces. These values will also be influenced by society during the rest of our time in the service. One might then discuss which of these two ways of influence is the most important. I think the formal one, is the most important in setting formal and written standards. The other one is the most important for the values of the individual soldier and small groups. When the gap between societies formal values (in the military stated as PME and ROE) and the individual values and ethics are widening, people tend to get confused and there will be conflict. This conflict may not surface in garrison and during training, but may become visible as violations on the formal code of conduct in stressed situations, be it combat or a peace–support operation.

The great challenge today is that there is hardly anything in our society that is generally accepted as «right» or «wrong» by everyone. The fragmentation of culture during the last decades has made its impact on society. One of the results is that everyone is «free» to define they’re own understanding of right and wrong. And should anyone be stupid enough to openly choose a fixed point, the wolves are still hungry. This means that even though most of the century dictatorships today are history, still there is no secular solution to what made them possible; the use of relativism as the assumed «fixed point» for man to navigate.

Society’s solution is more and more detailed laws, accompanied by more and more law enforcement. We are trying to compensate the lack ethical basis for an acceptable moral behaviour, with detailed rules guiding us. Then the obvious question comes to light: What is the fundament of these rules? Soon we’re back to where we started.


I guess no one that have followed me this far are in any doubt regarding my own views upon these matters. The question I’m trying to address is how to cope with fixed rules (the formal agreed upon Laws of War) when society and individuals denounce any «fixed points» that will reduce attempted liberty. Still the same society and individuals are expecting their soldiers to obey a different set of fixed rules (Laws of War, ROE); while by word, picture and actions society’s telling us that everything is relative! Unfortunately I don’t have any answer not including Christianity as the fixed point. But I do still think that it’s still a valid question.