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Military Ethics and Leadership

Peter H. J. Olsthoorn (Ed)
Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2017
Hardback     308pp     RRP $286.90

Reviewer: Robert Dixon, March 2021

This book contains twelve chapters based on papers presented at a conference of The International Society for Military Ethics in Europe held in 2015 together with an introduction by the editor. Most of the authors are academics and many of the chapters will not be particularly interesting to someone who is not an academic specialising in teaching and researching military ethics. Having said that there are four chapters which will be of interest to serving personnel and indeed anyone with an interest in developing an ethical military. 
Three of these chapters focus on the methods by which ethical behaviour might be taught. These chapters are titled ‘Armouring Against Atrocity: Developing Ethical Strength in Small Military Units’; ‘Ethical Leadership in the Military: The gap ‘Between Theory and Practice in Ethics Education’ and ‘ABCA (Australia, Britain, Canada and America) Coalition Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Beyond: Two Decades of Military Ethics Challenges and Leadership Responses’. All three chapters are founded in insights from social psychology and present case studies, mostly involving soldiers from the USA, the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. They emphasize the importance of formal training in ethical behaviour for all ranks - and especially junior NCOs - and give practical examples of methods by which training in ethical behaviour may be conducted with a focus on formal training which simulates different and stressful situations which might arise. 

A fourth chapter of interest is titled ‘Special Operations Forces and Ethics: A Preliminary Assessment of the Leadership Challenge’. In this chapter the (Australian) author argues that it is in the nature of special operations that the soldiers involved will be more likely to be faced with ethical dilemmas and, along with the authors of other chapters, stresses the importance of practising situations that give rise to ethical dilemmas in advance of entering the battlefield. (There is no discussion of recent allegations against members of the SASR as the chapter was written and published well before these allegations surfaced.)

According to the Editor’s Introduction, this book is an important contribution to the literature because it argues that leadership and ethics should be treated as a single domain.  Given this, I find it odd that nowhere in this work is there any mention of the US Army Field Manual 3.24 Counterinsurgency. (A pdf copy of this work which fundamentally changed US Army and Marines COIN doctrine may be found at First issued in 2006 under the auspices of Lt Generals Petraeus and Amos this work emphasised the importance of ethical leadership by all ranks. Indeed Chapter 7 of the manual is titled ‘Leadership and Ethics for Counterinsurgency’ – the Australian reader will readily see the influence of David Kilcullen in this chapter – and stresses the absolute necessity of ethical behaviour on the part of all soldiers involved in COIN operations, not least because ethical behaviour is necessary for counterinsurgency missions to succeed. 

Each chapter has a large number of footnotes which contain references and there is a short Index which is not very helpful (For example: if the reader wanted to look up pages which refer to Australian forces, the Index would be of no assistance whatsoever).

The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.