Challenges to the Military Code of Ethics: How New Wars and New Protagonists Challenge the Concept of Warrior Honour


Lieutenant Colonel Daren G Bowyer (UK Army)


There is much that is constant about warfare, arguably more than changes, but its character evolves to reflect the age[1]; we need to recognise the changing character of war if we are to prepare ourselves properly to fight it – and we need to recognise and prepare for the constants, too.  Let me start by contending that one of war’s enduring features is that however technology may change its character it remains a fundamentally human business: however sophisticated the weapons with which war is waged, it is about using violence to bend or break the will of an opponent (whilst doing the utmost to preserve our own will and resist the enemy’s attempts to break it).  It is for this reason, I believe, that it falls within the realm of ethics.  But the evolving character of war must necessarily impact on how we think about it and how we conduct it.  In this paper I want to look at the changing character of war and examine how that may challenge the traditional ethical code of professional (essentially, western democratic) armed forces.  After an exploration of the progeny and continued validity of the modern military code of ethics, I shall suggest that there are characteristics of contemporary conflict that offer challenges to it: complexities and uncertainties that undermine moral surety; an array of new combatants and protagonists whose motivation and code of ethics – if one exists at all – are very different from ours; and a tendency of technology increasingly to remove moral agency from the battlefield. I shall then focus on two such aspects: child soldiers and the growth in the use of Private Military Companies (PMCs), and conclude that the complexities of contemporary conflict make a deep-seated understanding of the values and standards that underpin our code all the more important as we face up to new challenges.


The Development of Military Codes of Ethics: Warriors’ Honour[2]


As long as men have organised themselves for combat they have subscribed to codes of conduct that distinguish the honourable from the dishonourable. The eminent military historian Michael Howard[3] argues that:


War … is not a condition of generalized and random violence … It is on the contrary a highly social activity – an activity indeed which demands from the groups which engage in it a unique intensity of societal organization and control. … ….


… A breakdown of order leading to random and indiscriminate violence, as at My Lai (1969) is as repugnant to the professional military as it is to transcendent ethical values. 


Values may change over the years and what is an acceptable level of violence in one generation is slaughter to another (fortunately the trend has been toward a lesser tolerance of violence even as capacity has progressed in the other direction!); and values may differ across cultures; but there is plenty of evidence that even to the ancients there was a clear understanding of acceptable and unacceptable conduct in war.   As Michael Ignatieff[4] puts it, codes of honour


… seem to exist in all cultures, and their common features are among the oldest artefacts of human morality: from the Christian code of chivalry to the Japanese Bushido, …. As ethical systems they were primarily concerned with establishing the rules of combat and defining the system of moral etiquette by which warriors judged themselves to be worthy of mutual respect.


That accounts of Agincourt (1405) give so much attention to Henry V’s order to slay the French prisoners, offers some evidence that such action was abnormal – even abhorrent – in medieval warfare, a view given greater weight by the refusal of his men-at-arms to carry it out. (Henry had to resort to the low-born archers to get the job done, and even then the evidence suggests that in fact very few were killed and the order may have been more about making a show and instilling fear in the captives to ensure their compliance).[5]  The Chivalric code notwithstanding, European wars in the medieval age tended to inflict greatest damage on the civil population as the object was to destroy or confiscate an enemy’s lands and possessions rather than risk direct confrontation with his military force or the costly business of besieging his castles.  The re-codification of the rules of war, beginning with the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) and continuing through the Peace of Westphalia (1638) to the development of early international law by the likes of Grotius, Pufendorf and Vattel, can be seen as a reaction to the increasing cost of war (in human and financial terms) made particularly apparent by the 30 Years War.  Warfare in the 17th and 18th Century became, then, something of a well-regulated stately dance between organised forces, by-and-large disciplined and well ordered and, again by-and-large, avoiding to a great extent any impact on the civilian population.  Standing armies were simply too costly to be lost in wholesale slaughter.  The advent of the levee-en-mass and the beginnings of total war following the French revolution changed this again.   To a greater extent than ever before nations and not just their armies were at war.


The 19th and 20th Centuries saw both an increasing involvement of the civilian population in the conduct and effect of war and, through war’s industrialization an ever expanding capacity for destruction.  At the same time western armies transformed themselves with military service becoming increasingly professional.  These changes at once demanded the development of internationally recognized restraints on the conduct of war – to mitigate the scale of slaughter made possible by industrialization and to limit the effects on the civil populace – and saw the replacement of chivalric-based honour codes amongst the predominantly aristocratic officer classes, with the ethos and codes of conduct of a ‘profession’ of arms.[6]


The 20th Century, as we are all aware, has seen increasingly strident attempts to curtail warfare altogether as an instrument of international policy, and it may be that the culmination of such attempts in the UN Charter, together with the re-formulation of the Geneva Conventions in 1949, largely rendered obsolete discussion of jus in bello insofar as the conduct of individual soldiers was concerned.  We had, after all, established a paradigm in which war was only legitimate as an act of self-defence or collective security, and moral discussion was largely confined to the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence.  The conduct of soldiers with regard to the wounded, to prisoners and to civilians was no longer a matter of honour but of law; the moral had been abrogated to the legal.  The Vietnam War, and in particular the massacre at My Lai, reawakened concerns about soldiers’ conduct but even these were overshadowed by jus ad bellum debates about the war’s legitimacy per se.  


However, the shifts in the character of war in the last decade of the 20th Century and into the 21st, have caused Western armies, and I focus in particular on the US, British and Canadian, to re-evaluate their moral understanding, moral education and codes of ethical behaviour.  The postural change from deterrence against major inter-bloc conflict to expeditionary and elective engagement in complex peacekeeping was a major driver for a re-examination of military forces’ internal codes of ethics but (certainly in the case of the British) other catalysts were high profile incidents of improper behaviour of servicemen/women among themselves – especially in the training regime – and the pressures of societal changes in regard to issues of race, gender and sexual orientation.  A re-examination and re-assertion of professional military values was called for.


Given broadly similar experiences, challenges and cultural outlook, together with well-founded traditions of close military liaison and exchange of views, it should be no great surprise that Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom developed and codified broadly similar codes of military conduct.  For Canada these are articulated in Duty with Honour; The Profession of Arms in Canada[7] as ‘Canadian Military Values’: duty, loyalty, integrity, and courage.  These are in addition to and an expansion of the Statement of Defence Ethics, reiterated in the same publication: respect for the dignity of all people; service to Canada before self; and obedience and support to lawful authority.  The United States Army lays out its core values in FM 1 as: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.[8]  The British version, in Values and Standards of the British Army,[9] with its accompanying Commanders’ Guide,[10] lists selfless commitment, respect for others, loyalty, integrity, discipline and courage, as core values.  Obedience for the law – civil (wherever a soldier is serving), military and of armed conflict – and the avoidance of conduct that undermines trust, respect or professional ability, are listed as ‘Standards of Conduct.’


The Need for a Code


Some of these values have an obvious instrumental purpose in the maintenance of fighting power: subjugation of self to achievement of the mission; internal cohesion and effectiveness.  The reasons for others, which go to the heart of how we expect our armies to conduct themselves, may be less immediately apparent in such instrumental terms.  As a British Army Doctrine Publication points out

(s)ome of the most barbarous and unprincipled military organisations in history have had tremendous morale and will to fight, based on excellent motivation, leadership and management, which have given them great military effectiveness and operational success. They have even possessed a greater external ethic to inspire them to conquest.[11]


Why, then, do we expect and require our military to ‘respect others’; to act with integrity and honour?  What do these virtues add to our armies’ professional ability and fighting power? Why are they necessary for us when they were not to the Vikings, Huns or Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes? 


Let me start to answer that by suggesting that there are a range of reasons, both instrumental and elemental why we choose to constrain both our occasion for resort to armed conflict and our conduct within it.  These can be seen to operate at three, often inter-relating levels: the international, national and individual. 


At the international level, conduct in accordance with the norms of international law and accepted standards of humanity, whatever the provocation, is important because it impacts directly on our national standing; any failing damages relations with allies and partners, and hampers our cause. As evidence consider the harm done to the United States’ reputation and standing by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case, in particular, and then to the United Kingdom by allegations of abuse by UK soldiers.  (We should just pause here to put the issue in perspective: proportionate to the number of troops deployed to Iraq over the last 3½ years, the proven incidents of abuse are, in fact, remarkably low. Nevertheless, it takes only a single case to become a cause célèbre).  For a nation’s forces to act unjustly not only undermines the nation’s standing but impacts on its ability to gather together international coalitions of support, which even the most powerful nation requires for sustained military operations.  If Moral Authority is undermined and legitimacy questioned, then ‘soft power’ is reduced, which in the complex modern world is a critical adjunct to traditional hard power. 


Nationally, improper conduct in war impacts on a country’s pride and sense of self worth but also undermines the reputation and standing of its armed forces.  Asa Kasher[12]  argues that ‘(p)ublic trust in a military force or any other governmental organization is not merely an attractive decoration that the organization can enjoy.  There are governmental organizations that have a moral obligation to enhance public trust in their core communities.’[13]  Public trust, according to Kasher, requires a ‘presumption of proper ethical compliance.’[14]  In the case of the Vietnam War, lack of support for the war, as well as concern over its proper conduct, undermined public trust in the US Army, leading to a crisis in morale from which, arguably, it did not fully recover until the 1991 Gulf War. 


In the UK, despite the considerable public misgiving about the justification for the Iraq War, the British Army enjoyed the support of the population.  But its reputation was undoubtedly tarnished by allegations (some subsequently proved false, others substantiated) of abuse of prisoners as discussed above.  The impact of the allegations was captured in an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph[15]:

We have always felt that we could send Tommy Atkins abroad secure in the knowledge that, unlike some soldiers, he would not run drugs rings or prostitution rackets or mistreat the natives.  If we can no longer make that assumption, then the whole country is diminished.  … …


The Army is, of course, a human institution, and prone to human failings (but) (i)f soldiers have abused their positions, they should be given exemplary and expeditious punishment. … ….


Our reputation as a country depends on our comportment abroad.


The Army – indeed all professional armed services – thrives on its reputation and that reputation is tarnished by misconduct; soldiers feel this keenly and morale may suffer.  Beyond this, such conduct and the damage it does to reputation can have a negative impact on recruiting. 


Let me turn now to the men and women most immediately affected – those of the armed forces who must execute their nation’s policy.  What is the impact on these individuals of unjust – or dishonourable – conduct in war? 


The quote above, from ADP 5,[16] continues:

The British Army’s high morale and willingness to fight are based on an ethos which must transcend functional output.  …… (C)onsistent and sustainable national strategy, and true and enduring success on operations depend on moral strength - in war on moral dominance over an enemy - not just to overcome the adversary, but to establish the conditions for lasting peace. Enduring moral strength requires inner qualities in all soldiers, which must be reflected collectively throughout the Army.


This need for a more deontological understanding of the ‘Moral component’ is explained by Major General Sebastian Roberts:

 …military effectiveness cannot be based on functional output alone, and unless it is focussed on higher external ethics, an army risks the moral bankruptcy of the Waffen SS.  Soldiers must know that what they do is right, and that they have the support of their nation, their society, and their government.[17]


And this from Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, then the Army’s Adjutant General[18] addressing officers about to take up unit command:

(A)s servants of the nation, prepared to engage in mortal combat in the nation’s interests, we must all of us share some basic principles upon which we base our lives and our soldiering. … ….

No one, winner or loser, will survive unscathed as a moral being if he has engaged in bestial behaviour. And worse no member of the organisation, or even the nation, to which that person belongs, can possibly dismiss it later as having been of no significance.[19]


In other words, we are all diminished as human beings if we engage in activity that is ‘inhuman’.  Being an effective killing machine is not enough; it is not an end in itself.  There is a price to pay for inhumane behaviour – a loss of individual and corporate sense of humanity and worth. 


These views are echoed in both US FM 1 and in Canada’s Duty with Honour:  First, from FM1:

1-52. The moral dimension of the profession of arms lies in the fact that war is ultimately fought for ideas. Ideas motivate combatants. It is only in the moral dimension —when opponents understand and believe that they are defeated—that victory is complete. While the use of force is sometimes necessary for the common good, the authority to wield it carries a moral responsibility of the greatest magnitude. The morality of applying force in a just cause derives from ancient ethical and religious standards. The moral and ethical tenets of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence form the basis of the military’s professional ideals. The Law of Land Warfare, Uniform Code of Military Justice, and Code of Conduct give structure to its moral standards.[20]




1-61. The Army Values are the basic building blocks of a Soldier’s character. They help Soldiers judge what is right or wrong in any situation. The Army Values form the very identity of the Army, the solid rock on which everything else stands, especially in combat. They are the glue that binds together the members of a noble profession.[21]


Next, from Duty with Honour:

Incorporated in the military ethos, Canadian values mandate members of the Canadian profession of arms to perform their tasks with humanity. Members of the Canadian Forces understand the inherent violence of armed conflict, characterized at an extreme by death and destruction. While they must act resolutely, and sometimes with lethal force, the concept of humanity forbids any notion of a carte blanche or unbounded behaviour. Further, it demands consideration for non-combatants and items of cultural worth. Performing with humanity contributes to the honour earned by Canadian Forces members and helps make Canadians at home proud and supportive of their armed forces.[22]


Codes of conduct are, then, essential to defining not simply how to fight but how to fight our way.   They go beyond the legal constraints of International Humanitarian Law and help further to resolve the dilemma that exists for us as modern liberal democracies between the liberal ends we seek (freedom, democracy, human rights and security) and the illiberal means (violence) that we are often forced to use to achieve them[23].   Moreover, for the individuals who must fight on their nation’s behalf, such codes provide the reconciliation between individual morality and actions that would otherwise be entirely contrary to modern social mores.  In this way they act very much as early Just War doctrine acted – reconciling Christian pacifism with the necessity of armed conflict.


 Contemporary Conflict


What then of warfare today and the challenges it poses to this formulation? Firstly, warfare today is often characterized as ‘asymmetric’.  Of course the aim in all warfare is to be asymmetric – to pit our strength against the enemy’s weakness, seeking our victory and his defeat.  So, as with all ‘buzz words’, we need to be a little cautious in our use and understand fully what we mean.   The asymmetries that are of greatest interest to us are those that have become associated with a trend in contemporary conflict towards a style of warfare that threatens the West’s superiority in conventional military strength.  Herfried Münkler[24] identifies three principal characteristics in ‘new wars’: de-statization, that is the proliferation and increasing importance of non-state-actors; the attempt to focus violence on the weak and vulnerable, as a matter of deliberate policy, rather than against the enemy’s military forces; and thirdly the ‘automization of forms of violence that used to be part of a single military system.’[25]  That is the use of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, once tactical options, as strategic ends in their own right.   Each of these, singly and in combination, leads to asymmetries of direct relevance.


On destatization, Münkler suggests there has been a gradual change in which states have given up (or had wrested from them) their de-facto monopoly of war to para-state and private actors including a new breed of military entrepreneurs. The statization of war, roughly speaking from the 30 Years War onwards, resulted in the establishing of boundaries and demarcations that its modern de-statization is seeing eroded.  As states’ territorial boundaries were formally established, so it became possible to delineate between peace and war (marked by the crossing of one state’s borders by the forces of another); and also between friend and enemy.  Second order distinctions were then possible: between combatant and non-combatant; between allowable acts of violence in war and other, criminal, acts of violence; and between acts of violence and war on the one hand and acts of trade and commerce on the other.  Now, as states’ monopoly on warfare decreases, these distinctions again become blurred.  Three principal asymmetries can be associated with this change: between state and non-state actors; between regular and irregular forces; and between the law-abiding and the non-law-abiding.  The three are intertwined and inter-related but I want to focus most of the remainder of this paper on the appearance on the battlefield – as major players – of new protagonists who may present a challenge to our warrior code because theirs is either non-existent or entirely different.   


There is good historical evidence throughout history that conflict involving irregulars is far more likely to result in atrocity, barbarism and morally reprehensible conduct than is regular warfare waged between professional, formally-constituted and organised, disciplined armed forces.  In part this is because it is almost a defining characteristic of irregular warfare that the weak become the target.  Unable to match the military might of their regular opponents, irregulars seek to undermine political will by directly targeting the civilian population.  Thus, as with European wars before their 17th Century statization, it has become a feature of contemporary conflict that most of the violence is inflicted not on the military forces of the opposing side, but on the civilian population.  Mary Kaldor calculates that whereas ‘(a)t the beginning of the twentieth century, 85-90 per cent of casualties in war were military … … … (b)y the late 1990s, the proportions of a hundred years ago (had) been almost exactly reversed, so that nowadays approximately 80 per cent of all casualties in wars are civilian.’[26]  Again, as with pre-Westphalian Europe, this is not a matter of a significant number of unfortunate accidental consequences of war, but a matter of deliberate targeting.  Whether the result of a policy of ‘cleansing’ or eradication, or in order to force support for one side or other, the civilian population has become the primary target in new wars.  As General Sir Rupert Smith says: ‘The battlefield is changing with operations increasingly conducted amongst ‘the people’.  ‘The people’ are now part of the battlefield, or ‘the people’ are treated as an adversary and driven out (as revealed, for instance, in recent practices of ethnic cleansing).’[27]  This is as true of ethnic conflict in the Balkans and in Africa, the insurgent campaign in Iraq and terrorist activity around the world.  Even when the people are not directly targeted, irregulars will use them as a shield, as the screen behind which they can hide.  It is a deliberate aim of the irregular to blur the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, removing one of the moral sureties required by the regular.  So it is a feature of irregular warfare that the civilian population are much more greatly involved.  They are involved directly as a target but they are also involved as part of the terrain that irregulars use for cover. 


Regular forces that are the targets of irregulars – terrorists, guerrillas or partisans – then face the moral difficulty of distinguishing friend – or more likely neutral – from foe.  There is also the simple fact that in this form of warfare the military are brought into greater contact with non-combatants – ‘enemy’, neutral, friend, or most likely a mixture of all three – than they are in conventional conflict.  This may be one reason why our soldiers find upholding their own moral code the more challenging.  They have, too, to face conflict with an enemy altogether different from themselves and from what has – generally – been faced in the past.  New protagonists with new motivations have vastly complicated the moral landscape.  Not only the ‘New’ wars that have emerged in Africa, South East Asia and the Balkans, but also the terrorist campaign waged by Islamic extremists against (predominantly) the West, have exemplified a lack of restraint in either target or method of attack.  The contrast with what has gone before was described thus by then UK Defence Secretary John Reid[28]:

The enemy our parents and grandparents faced … … wore a different uniform to theirs, but had aims and, by and large, had conduct they could understand.  The enemy fought much as we fought; his forces were structured much the same way.  And, by and large, they accepted the same conventions.  Today’s most dangerous, global enemy, the terrorist[29], does not.

…. …..

We face an adversary:

§         Which revels in mass murder;

§         Which sets out to cause the greatest pain it can to innocent people;

§         Which is entirely unconstrained by any law;

§         Which sees all civilians, including women and children not as non-combatants but as easy targets;

§         Which sees terror as a key part of its arsenal, and

§         Which both glorifies and operates suicide bombers.


It is an enemy unfettered by any sense of morality ….


Sustained engagement with such a ‘different’ enemy not only challenges the moral sureties expected by the regular – the combatant/non-combatant distinction, lawful/non-lawful and so on – but it may lead to frustration: a temptation to hit out at what he can.  This is almost certainly a principal explanation for the more numerous allegations of wrongful behaviour by regular soldiers in asymmetric than in conventional conflict.  At its least damaging this frustration can result in overreaction, which can vary in scale.  At the lower end of the scale individual soldiers may lash out disproportionately or even indiscriminately. Consider, for example, the British soldiers allegedly beating captured petrol bombers in Basra (probably in 2004 but brought to light by video released to The News of the World in February 2006).[30]  At the other end of the scale frustration and outrage can drive the tactics of counter-insurgency towards an arguably over-zealous offensive use of force.  Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster argues that just such a combination of moral self-righteousness and deep emotivity – easily outraged by insurgent atrocity – led, on occasions, to an over-reaction and disproportionate response by US forces in Iraq:

The most striking example during this period occurred in April 2004 when insurgents captured and mutilated 4 U.S. contractors in Fallujah. In classic insurgency doctrine, this act was almost certainly a come-on, designed to invoke a disproportionate response, thereby further polarising the situation and driving a wedge between the domestic population and the Coalition forces. It succeeded. … … … even those U.S. commanders and staff who generally took the broader view of the campaign were so deeply affronted on this occasion that they became set on the total destruction of the enemy. Under emotional duress even the most broad-minded and pragmatic reverted to type: kinetic.[31]


However, at its worst this frustration, fuelled by outrage and understandable moral indignation and possibly sometimes by a sense of moral and cultural superiority, can translate into full-scale atrocity as at My Lai. 


Moreover, the lack of distinction between acts of war and acts of crime means that military forces will find themselves not only engaged in traditional, and non-traditional combat operations, but needing, too, to deal with organised crime, drug production and transportation and human-trafficking.  The nature of contemporary security challenges, much wider than traditional defence issues, will result in a need ‘to collaborate not only with forces from other countries but also with civilian, non-governmental relief providers.’[32] 


Whilst recognising that terrorists – especially religious extremists quite prepared for, indeed actively seeking, their own death in the commission of their acts – are an important aspect of the challenge that we face today, and that also there are aspects of technological development that risk removing moral agency from the battlefield, these are issues for consideration elsewhere.  For the remainder of this paper I want to focus on just two of the new protagonists  and the challenges they raise: child soldiers and PMCs.


Child Soldiers


It is not, of course, entirely new for children to have a role in warfare: medieval knights were served by pages and esquires undergoing their own introduction to the manly world of warfare; the ships of Nelson’s navy included boys in their complement; and drummer boys were an established part of most European Armies of the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Youngsters significantly below conscription age managed to join up in the First World War and the Hitler Jugend was armed towards the end of the Second.  But these youngsters have either played a peripheral and ancillary role – spared actual combat, and their deliberate targeting frowned upon – or they have been an occasional oddity (the VMI cadets at Newmarket or the boys of the military college at Chapultepec, for example).  We must also recognise different understandings of childhood/adulthood in previous eras as indeed we must note ethno-cultural differences when casting moral accusations today.  The issue today, though, (even accounting for differing cultural interpretations of majority) is one of widespread and systematic drawing into conflict of children far too young to understand their actions in anything but the most basic ways. Wars in Africa, especially but not exclusively, have been marked by the massive rise in deliberate use of child soldiers.


Human Rights Watch estimate that there are more than 300,000 children being used as soldiers in more than 30 ongoing conflicts.[33]  They are recruited because they are innocent, impressionable and easily manipulated by threats of violence.  In the circumstances persisting in many failed or failing states, where extremes of poverty are the norm, where family and social structures have collapsed and violence is widespread, children are easy-pickings for militias and warlords in particular (though in some cases they are used by government forces, too).  Herfried Münkler argues that ‘the combination of structural unemployment and the disproportionately high representation of young people in the total population who are largely excluded from the peace economy’[34] is a key driver in new wars.

(E)xclusion from regular economic activity, their hunger and their lack of peacetime social prospects automatically drive them into the arms of the warring parties.  Under these conditions war represents not only an opportunity to secure their physical survival, but also a way of achieving social recognition that would never be accorded them if they did not have a gun in their hand.[35]


It should not really come as a surprise then, that few if any of these young fighters seek or welcome an end to hostilities or their own ‘rescue’ from them.   First hand experience of child soldiers in Sierra Leone led Major Jim Gray to conclude that it was a mistake to assume that they were eager to return home.  On the contrary he never encountered one who wanted to do so.[36]  Membership of armed gangs provides for basic needs but also offers status and social belonging. Beyond that the warlords have developed effective means of isolation to ensure return to their communities is all but impossible for the child soldiers:

Fighting groups have developed brutal and sophisticated techniques to separate and isolate children from their communities. Children are often terrorized into obedience, consistently made to fear for their lives and well-being. They quickly recognize that absolute obedience is the only means to ensure survival. Sometimes they are compelled to participate in the killing of other children or family members, because it is understood by these groups that there is “no way back home” for children after they have committed such crimes.[37]


Proliferation of cheap, easy to use weapons has also played a key role in facilitating this phenomenon.  Whilst on the one hand the industrialisation of warfare throughout the twentieth century led to a technical complexity and expense in weapons systems that made them the preserve of the richest states, at the other end of the scale it led to a plethora of cheap, easily manufactured and – most importantly – easily maintained and operated firearms and explosive devices (including anti-personnel landmines), deadly in the hands of the least sophisticated, least-trained and youngest of would-be killers.  As William Shawcross notes:

In countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, UNHCR and other agencies had to deal with crises in which state structures had unravelled and violence had become an end in itself, profiting warlords and their factions …. The nefarious proliferation of cheap small arms since the end of the Cold War had vastly worsened the problem and spread violence to children.  “For many children today,” said Ogata (senior UN official), “thou shalt not kill is no longer the norm; it is not even a pious wish.”[38]


Aside from the obvious immorality of this in itself, the challenges it poses to regular soldiers confronted by armed children are clear.  Major James Coote describes the impact of seeing one of his soldiers severely injured in Iraq by a petrol bomb thrown by a child of around eight years old:

We had been stoned by kids before, seen the gunmen using women and children as human shields and as carriers to take weapons across the street from one fire position to another, in themselves cowardly acts, but this was the first time someone had sent a child to physically attack us.  It was extremely difficult for me to calm myself and the company down, particularly as one or two of the younger lads were understandably traumatized by the experience.[39]


Trooper Ken Boon recalled his inability to fire at an attacking child: ‘…. a young lad in his early teens threw a grenade at me, I could have shot him easily but instead I took cover because I can’t kill a child that had probably been told to throw it.’[40]  Commendable though his humanity may be it is also potentially his own or his comrades’ death warrant.  Nor is this just an immediate practical dilemma; soldiers who have faced it and witnessed, or indeed been necessary parties to the killing of child combatants, have had to endure significant long-term psychological trauma.[41]  This is a form of warfare entirely alien to our morals and cultural mores; it runs counter to our code of warrior’s honour. 


There is also the conduct of these child soldiers themselves to consider.  Many are below the age of criminal responsibility recognised by most western societies; they have been severed from family or community values had have had little education or moral upbringing.  Alternatively, considering those trained in the Taliban madrasas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, they may have had an education that we would recognise as ideological brain-washing, instilling in them a morality that we find not only entirely alien but profoundly evil.  In either case, their ethic set becomes the distorted and often barbarically cruel code of violence of their new ‘families’ with expectations (indeed, demands) of atrocity, backed-up by fear of punishment for failure to comply. In many cases this may be further fuelled by the use of alcohol and hard drugs. Michael Ignatieff highlights the particular atrocities associated with adolescent irregulars:

In most traditional societies honour is associated with restraint and virility with discipline ….The particular savagery of war in the 1990s taps into another view of male identity – the wild sexuality of the adolescent male.  Adolescents are supplying armies with a different kind of soldier – one for whom a weapon is not a thing to be respected or treated with ritual correctness but instead has an explicit phallic dimension.  To traverse a checkpoint in Bosnia where adolescent boys in dark glasses and tight-fitting combat khakis wield AK-47s is to enter a zone of toxic testosterone.  War has always had its sexual dimension – a soldier’s uniform is no guarantee of good conduct – but when a war is conducted by adolescent irregulars, sexual savagery becomes one of its regular weapons.[42]


Child soldiers are combatants and therefore under the simplest understanding of the jus in bello tenets of discrimination and proportionality can expect to be dealt with as such.  Even when we accept that they are not in any real sense willing combatants, the law of double effect places them firmly in harms way (as in many cases does the simple right of self defence).  Nevertheless, as we have noted above, killing children, is abhorrent to us and will leave our soldiers psychologically scarred; it is alien to our sense of honour: there is nothing heroic in shooting a child however he – or she – is armed; our sense of self-worth is irreparably damaged by the encounter.   Moreover, as Michael Skerker[43] has argued, in asymmetric warfare the law of double effect is of dubious value; negative publicity and international condemnation, which the asymmetric opponent actively seeks to bring upon us, must inevitably undermine our will. Our future thinking about war, our doctrine, our tactics and the preparation of our people must consider these issues.


PMCs and Profit


The final challenge I wish to consider to our concept of warrior’s honour, is the appearance

on the modern battlefield of those whose motivation is neither duty to country nor personal honour but financial reward.   I have already noted that one of the characteristics of contemporary warfare is an increased involvement of civilians and, thus, a blurring of traditional boundaries between combatant and non-combatant, between soldier and civilian.  Either through deliberate targeting, use as shields or simply the urbanisation of warfare, the civilian population are now a part of the terrain of conflict.  But it is more than this: there is the media, both embedded and independent; and there is an ever-increasing range of civilian contractors working in support of the military in an array of posts that seems to be moving interminably closer to actual combat.  The UK, for example, now has ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI) contracts for transportation of heavy armoured vehicles and the ownership, delivery and maintenance – including in operational theatres – of engineer plant equipment.


A trend we can add to this is the increased significance of profit as a motive in contemporary conflicts.  Whilst there have always been those able and ready to turn warfare to their own financial advantage, today, and particularly in those wars resulting from the failure of states, for many the economic motive has become an object of the conflict in itself.  If financial gain for some has been a concomitant of ‘old’ wars, it has become a central focus in ‘new’ ones.  New wars demonstrate a commercialization/privatisation that replaces political and patriotic motivation with financial.[44] Conflict provides the environment in which opportunistic warlords can gain enormous commercial benefit through drug and human trafficking as well as the more conventional trade in arms.[45]  The nature of the economy generated by the new wars also dictates their character.  Because they rely upon ‘exploitative forms of financing … …. (which) depends on an atmosphere of insecurity, (there is) a vested interest in perpetuating violence.’[46]  In such circumstances there is a danger of a direct effect on otherwise non-involved Western nations: through the impact on society of drugs, prostitution, extortion and gun-running and on the economy through the black market, trade in counterfeit goods, smuggling and excise evasion. 


PMCs are but one aspect of this appearance (or more properly, enlargement) of the profit motive on the battlefield, and one that intersects with the tendency for increased civilianization.   They are, then, worth some consideration in relation to our codes of ethical conduct.  Their emergence as a significant phenomena can be traced to the early 1990s, resulting, according to P W Singer, from three interacting dynamics: ‘the end of the Cold War, transformations in the nature of warfare that blurred the lines between soldiers and civilians, and a general trend toward privatization and outsourcing of government functions around the world.’[47]  As Western governments sought to downsize their militaries in search of the ‘peace dividend’, a tendency to global instability actually demanded more troops.  Furthermore, as the character of war changed, becoming more confused and less dominated by professional armed forces, so Western governments become less willing to be officially engaged.  The complication this trend presents for international law is described by Michael Byers:

Mercenaries – persons who fight solely for financial gain – are not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war.  The increasing use of private contractors by the US[48] military, in some cases very near or even in the combat zones, raises questions as to what, if any, rights – beyond international human rights – these individuals have if captured by opposing armies.  At the same time, the extended involvement of these contractors in activities traditionally reserved to military personnel is obfuscating the all-important distinction between combatants and civilians, with potentially serious consequences.[49]


Our concern, though, is with the moral issues.  Herfried Münkler argues that:

(f)rom Mujahedin networks to contingents of hastily recruited fighters, from distinguished-looking security firms linked to the top addresses in the arms trade through to rowdy adventurers noted for their overindulgence in alcohol and for going weeks on end without washing to preserve the traces of battle: none of these consists of state subjects fighting out of a mixture of political duty and patriotic attachment to cause, but rather of individuals driven mainly by financial gain, a lust for adventure and a range of ideological motives.  There can be no doubt that this motley group … is removing more and more of the limits to the violence and brutality of war.[50]


Nevertheless, as he implies, PMCs embrace a wide range both in terms of activity and of quality and reputability.  At one end of the spectrum of activity – their use as surrogates for state action, there can be no doubt that their use has sometimes been successful and brought about desirable results.  The South African company, Executive Outcomes, achieved considerable success in their support for the failing government of Sierra Leone at a time when Western governments were unable or unwilling to commit forces.[51] Critics may argue that – as with Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone – the absence of long-term commitment and the mixed motivation (there were allegations of links to big business interests in mineral mining rights) undermines the legitimacy of such operations.  When the profit margin shrinks the conflict may be abandoned.  However, when such interventions are conducted by governments in the name of policy or international peace and security, interest can be equally short-lived and motives just as mixed.


Whilst the quote above from Münkler fits a common image of certain types of PMCs – particularly the mercenary forces used in African wars of the 60 and 70s (as well as the other profit-motivated irregular forces that have been a feature of recent conflict), this very negative image is inappropriate for a large number of companies operating in the sector.  This is part of the problem in discussing or seeking to regulate or limit PMC activity – it is a very broad church.  Paul Jackson points out that although the larger and better known (and better regulated) PMCs operate out of the UK, USA, France and Israel, the sector has expanded rapidly, especially in the Russia and Ukraine.[52]  Whilst in one sector of the industry there might operate shadowy teams of ill-regulated mercenaries willing to do anything for the right price, at the other are globally recognised businesses such as Kellog, Brown and Root, Halliburton, AmorCorp and Aegis.  The latter boasts both a former Chief of the General Staff[53] and a former Chief of the Defence Staff[54] on its board.  Being a large internationally renowned firm is no cast iron guarantee of proper behaviour, of course.  Aegis suffered bad press as a result of allegations – subsequently proved unfounded – of improper conduct by that its staff allegedly shown in a ‘trophy video’ in Iraq (something it took swift action to have independently investigated)[55], and Halliburton has faced allegations of overcharging[56].  Nevertheless, it is clearly in the business interests of these large firms to be seen to be operating both within the law and ethically.  Concerns remain, however, about the growth of this sector.  Jackson[57] and Singer[58] point to the following key difficulties with PMCs:

  • First and foremost the profit motive which clearly distinguishes PMCs from the military; the incentives of PMCs do not necessarily align with government interest and policy.  Not least, they have a vested interest in continuing conflict!  There have also been occasions on which PMCs have abandoned contracts when they have become too costly or dangerous;
  • Secondly, industry standards of self-regulation.  Whilst, as noted above, it is generally in the interests of the big players to ensure the quality and professionalism of their staff, sometimes the speed of events leads to corner-cutting. There is plenty of evidence of this having happened as recruiting expanded exponentially to fill the market after the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq;
  •  The third issue, which is also one of PMCs’ attractions, is the lack of democratic accountability of their actions, since they can be used as surrogates when official government action would be politically unacceptable;
  • Fourth is the legal (and we might add, moral) grey area they create;
  • And, finally, there is the impact on the military profession itself.  PMCs are a challenge to the military profession’s ‘uniqueness’; potentially a draw for trained – but financially disaffected – manpower; and, of key interest to this paper, represent a challenge to the core values of the warrior code.


On the other hand, PMCs, operating to the laws of market forces, are clearly filling a gap.  It is a gap that many in the military may feel should never have been opened but it is a gap that nevertheless exists.  As governments have sought to outsource greater and greater ranges of activity traditionally the preserve of the public sector, the military has not been exempt.  It seems most unlikely that this particular clock could ever be turned back.  The British Army today is struggling to recruit to establishment.   It is certainly not in a position, however much soldiers might wish that it were, to return to uniform those many support services that have been civilianised and contractorised over the last two decades.  Indeed, the trend remains firmly in the other direction.


We are left, then, with the inevitability of PMCs.  There is much work to be done to determine and then enact appropriate regulations[59], including both international and domestic legislation, but PMCs are not going to go away.  For professional military people the key concern must be that whatever restrictions may or may not be placed on the wider use of PMCs, many of the armed services’ vital support functions have been outsourced and are likely to remain so.  Servicemen and women are reliant, therefore, certainly for operational effectiveness and potentially also for their lives, on people who do not necessarily share the same ethic-set or common bond of service.  History should have taught our politicians caution; the soldier element of my own corps, the Royal Engineers (which was originally founded as an all officer Corps which provided staff advice and supervised locally employed civilian labour), was brought into being (as the Solider Artificer Company and later the Royal Sappers and Miners) because civilian labour had proved unreliable at a crucial time.  Selfless commitment that features (in one form of words or another) in the British Army’s Values and Standards in Canada’s Duty with Honour and the US FM1, cannot be assumed of PMCs.  This is neither to say that civilian contractors are without honour, nor to decry the conscientious and dedicated service of many (and past wars – albeit ones of national survival, not elective policy – are replete with examples of civilian sacrifice).  But we must face up to the challenge of an increasing encroachment into our profession – and, indeed, our increasing dependency upon – a range of people who do not share in our sense of ‘warrior’s honour’.  We must recognise it and do all we can to promote and share our values, not least by living those values as an example to follow.




I have argued that a military code of ethics – a ‘warrior’s honour’ – is both a traditional and a greatly needed aspect of professional military service.  Violence, and especially lethal violence, is anathema to the morality of Western liberal democracies and yet it is an irrefutable fact that organised violence on behalf of the state remains a necessary evil.  In the words of Plato: ‘only the dead have seen the end of war.’  It is part of our effort to reconcile this dilemma that we need our professional militaries to act with restraint but it is something they need too – as individuals – if they are not to be irreparably damaged as human beings by the need to do violence on behalf of their fellow citizens.  Yet there are aspects of the character of contemporary conflict – most notably its asymmetry, the engagement with those whose moral outlook is entirely alien – that present challenges to our moral code.  There are more challenges than could reasonably be dealt with in a single paper so I have focussed attention on just two: the deliberate use of children as soldiers, and the seemingly irreversibly expansion of the private sector into military activity.  Neither of these aspects seems set to go away so it is important that we prepare ourselves to meet them.  If our code of honour is not to be compromised, then it is all the more important that we understand it, internalise it and exemplify it.



[1] See Colin Gray, Another Bloody Century.  Future War (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005).

[2] Except where relevant in direct quotations, I have stuck to British English spellings!

[3] Michael Howard, ‘Temperamenta Belli: Can War be Controlled’ in Michael Howard (Ed), Restraints on War. Studies in the Limitation of Armed Conflict, (Oxford: OUP, 1979), pp1-3.

[4] Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor (New York: Henry Holt & Company, Paperback Edition 1998), pp116-117.

[5] John Keegan, The Face of Battle (London: Barrie & Jenkins Ltd, Edition 1988), pp93-96.

[6] For a full analysis and history of the military as profession, see General Sir John Hackett, The Profession of Arms (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1983) or Samuel Huntingdon, The Soldier and the State.  The Theory of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge MA : Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1957), especially Chapters 1 and 2.

[7] Duty with Honour.  The Profession of Arms in Canada (Canadian Defence Academy – Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, 2003).

[8] Field Manual No 1. The Army (HQ Department of the Army, 2005).

[9] Values and Standards of the British Army (Ministry of Defence, 2000; Army Code 63812).

[10] Values and Standards of the British Army; Commanders’ Edition  (Ministry of Defence, 2000; Army Code 63813).

[11] Army Doctrine Publication 5. Soldiering. The Military Covenant (Ministry of Defence, 2000, Army Code 71642)

[12] Asa Kaser, ‘Public Trust in a Military Force’ in Journal of Military Ethics Vol 2 No 1 (2003), pp20-45.

[13] Ibid, p27.

[14] Ibid, p26.

[15]Britain Needs the Truth Without Feeble Excuses’, in The Daily Telegraph 10 May 2004.  Online at;$sessionid$VAC5MLEXGOLRQFIQMFSFFWAVCBQOIVO?xml=/opinion/2004/05/10/dl10D1.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/05/10/ixnewstop.html.  Accessed 10 May 2005.

[16] Army Doctrine Publication 5. Soldiering. The Military Covenant (Ministry of Defence, 2000, Army Code 71642)

[17] Major General Sebastian Roberts, ‘Fit to Fight: The Conceptual Component – An Approach to Military Doctrine for the Twenty-First Century’ in Hew Strachan (Ed), The British Army, Manpower and Society into the Twenty-First Century’ (London: Frank Cass, 2000), p199.

[18] The Adjutant General in the British Army is broadly equivalent to DCSPERS in the US Army.

[19] Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, Values, Standards and Ethos: A Personal Reflection.  Talk to the Commanding Officers Designate Course, Warminster 11 Nov 2004.  Quoted with permission.

[20] FM 1, p1-14.

[21] Ibid, p15.

[22] Duty with Honour, p29.

[23] Prof Sir Laurence Freedman, keynote speech to Royal United Services Institute conference The Laws of Armed Conflict, London 18 Jul 06.

[24] Herfried Münkler, (Trans P Camiller) The New Wars (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005) especially p1-3 and Chapter 4.

[25] Ibid, p3.

[26] Mary Kaldor, New & Old Wars; Organized Violence in a Global Era (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999),, p100.

[27] General Sir Rupert Smith, ‘A Practitioner’s View’ talk to What is War? discussion group as part of Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War, University of Oxford, 3 Feb 2004.  Transcript on-line at, accessed 18 May 2004.  It is a theme developed further in his book The Utility of Force (London: Allen Lane, 2005), specifically at Part III.

[28] John Reid, Speech at King’s College, London, 20 Feb 2006.  On line at  Accessed 22 Feb 06.

[29] And the same is true of many protagonists in ‘new’, especially asymmetric, wars.

[30] See, for example, T Harding, ‘Army Fears Backlash Over Video Showing Soldiers Beating Iraqis’ in The Daily Telegraph, Feb 06.  Online at  Accessed 14 Aug 06.

[31] Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster ‘Changing the Army for Counter-Insurgency Operations’ in Military Review, Nov-Dec 2005, p6.  Online at  Accessed 11 Aug 06.

[32] Volker Franke (Ed), Terrorism and Peacekeeping.  New Security Challenges, (Westport: Praeger, 2005) p8.

[33] Human Rights Watch, Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.  Online at  Accessed 31 Dec 06.

[34] Herfried Münkler op cit, p18.

[35] Ibid, p78.

[36] Major Jim Gray RM, Experiences in Sierra Leone, Presentation to USMC Center for Emerging Threats an Opportunities, 4 June 2002.

[37] UN, Website of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict:  Accessed 31 Dec 06.

[38] William Shawcross, Deliver us From Evil; Warlords and Peacekeepers in a World of Endless Conflict (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback edition 2001), p343.

[39] Major J Coote DSO cited in Richard Holmes, Dusty Warriors. Modern Soldiers at War (London: HarperPress, 2006), p224.

[40] Trooper K Boon, cited ibid, p317.

[41] Major Jim Gray op cit.

[42] Michael Ignatieff, The Warriors Honour (London: Chatto & Windus, 1998) pp127-128

[43] Michael Skerker, ‘Just War Criteria and the New Face of War: Human Shields, Manufactures Martyrs, and Little Boys with Stones’ in Journal of Military Ethics (2004) 3(1), pp27-39.  (A version of the paper was presented at JSCOPE 2002).

[44] Herfried Münkler, op cit, pp21-22.

[45] Ibid, p17.

[46] Mary Kaldor, ‘A Sociologists’ View’ talk to What is War? discussion group as part of Leverhulme Programme on the Changing Character of War, University of Oxford 2 Mar 2004.  Transcript on-line at, accessed 18 May 2004

[47] P W Singer, ‘Outsourcing War’ in Foreign Affairs (84:2) March/April 2005, p120.

[48] And, as I have already suggested, the issue is not at all confined to the US.

[49] Michael Byers, War Law.  International Law and Armed Conflict (London: Atlantic Books, 2005), pp118-119.

[50] Herfried Münkler, op cit, p21.

[51] ‘Briefing: Private Military Companies’ in Janes Defence Weekly, 22 May 2002, p23.

[52] Paul Jackson, ‘’War is Much too Serious a Thing to be Left to Military Men’: Private Military Companies, Combat and Regulation’ in Civil Wars Vol 5 No 4, Winter 2002, 34.

[53] Professional head of the British Army, broadly equivalent to US CSA.

[54] Professional head of the UK Armed forces, broadly equivalent to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

[55] See Aegis corporate web-site:  Accessed 5 Jan 07.

[56] P W Singer, op cit, p124.

[57] Paul Jackson, op cit.

[58] P W Singer, op cit.

[59] Kevin A O’Brien ‘Licence to Kill.  Private Military Companies: Britain’s Options for Regulation’ in The World Today, August/September 2003, pp37-39.