Ethics and Operations – 8027 Ron A. Dickenson

Ethics and Operations

8027 Ron A. Dickenson:  A reprint from VERITAS magazine FALL / WINTER 2010

Ron Dickenson

You are an officer in a team of Canadian Forces mentors to an Afghanistan National Army unit, on patrol in Helmand province. There is contact with Taliban insurgents, and when the firing is over, one insurgent is dead and one by now unarmed insurgent is so severely wounded he appears to be dying. What would you (as a Canadian Forces officer) do on the spur of the moment? In a recent and widely-publicized case, a Canadian Forces Captain faced such a situation in October 2008. He made a decision, acted on it, and was subsequently court-martialed. The verdicts were given in July 2010.

I have been invited to address the above question. This brief article will not directly answer the question, but rather will offer ethical considerations framed in terms of professional obligations and expectations, drawn from academic and doctrinal sources, to help you consider and answer the question. Although you cannot know with absolute certainty what you would do, several considerations will be presented on what you should do. Benefiting from this before you encounter such situations can eliminate or at least minimize, through foresight and pre-understanding, the pressure of having to act on the spur of the moment.

To begin, at least one thing is clear – because the many opinions expressed in the media were polarized between supporting and criticizing the Captain’s actions (and the proceedings against him), it should be evident that you cannot rely on your personal views or the so-called “Globe and Mail test” in deciding what to do. Much more reliable foundations are needed on which to base your decisions and actions. Professionalism, ethics and law are such foundations.

A professional is a person with specialized knowledge and skills sanctioned by society, who is obligated and expected to utilize them in accordance with ethical standards of conduct in the service of society. Duty With Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada (2003) explains that the military profession differs from other professions in the unique obligations of its members, particularly service before self, the lawful and ordered application of military force, and the acceptance of unlimited liability. Canadian military professionals can accept this because they accept the military ethos, a unifying ethical framework of conduct based on Canadian values (for example, democracy, rule of law, respect for others), military service beliefs and expectations (for example, unlimited liability, discipline, teamwork), and Canadian military values (for example, duty, integrity, courage). It is this military ethos that “is the foundation upon which the legitimacy, effectiveness and honour of the Canadian Forces depend.”

When I first arrived in 1 RCR as a young infantry subaltern in 1969, I was required to learn The Regimental Catechism. This pocket-sized booklet outlined the history and battle honours of my regiment, explained its culture, and essentially said – this is how things are done, this is how your predecessors conducted themselves, and this is how you are expected to conduct yourself. Excepting obvious variations in organization, customs and procedures, this type of professional socialization is not exclusive to my old regiment. For example, Sergeant Patrick Tower of 1 PPCLI was awarded the Star of Military Valour for “courage and selfless devotion to duty” under fire in October 2006 in Afghanistan. What he said in an interview is instructive in relation to expectations and obligations: “I just did what any [military] leader would have done in that circumstance.”

In considering our question, what would a military professional do, given the beliefs, values and expectations of the military ethos, which define the obligations and essence of the military professional?

In Anthony Hartle’s The Military as a Profession (2004) his concept of the professional military ethic (PME) is analogous to the Canadian military ethos in that it provides moral guidance to the military professional. One of the purposes of a professional ethic is to delineate special norms of behaviour, which essentially provides the moral authority to engage in behaviours that would otherwise be immoral. For example, a surgeon is allowed to cut a patient, but only within the context of medical necessity, and in accordance with professional standards. Similarly, a soldier is permitted to kill, but not indiscriminately. Under the international laws of war, combatants are legitimate targets and therefore may be killed. Partially derived from principles of just war theory, these legal conventions also proscribe the intentional killing of non-combatants. One example of a non-combatant is a combatant who becomes hors de combat (that is, who is unarmed and no longer a palpable threat, due to surrender or injury). Such a person is no longer a legitimate target, and furthermore is entitled to your protection and care.

In considering our question, is there a legal obligation to help the severely injured insurgent, and would harming him be legally justified?

In addition to examining the issue of legal justification in our question, we can also examine the question of moral justification. The Doctrine of Double Effect attempts to address situations where both “good” and foreseeable “bad” consequences may result from engaging a legitimate target. In a version modified for military situations, Walzer (in Christopher, 1994) identifies four conditions: the bad effects even if foreseeable must be unintended; proportional to the military objective; not a direct means to the good effect; and steps must be taken to minimize the foreseeable bad effects. According to this model, only if all four conditions are met can the act be morally justified. Zinck (1996) adds two “qualification tests” to this. The countermeasures test asks if you take all reasonable means to mitigate the bad effect; the non-fulfillment test asks what you would do if the act did not produce the bad effect, as foreseen. If all reasonable means are taken to reduce the bad effect, or you do not repeat the act if the bad effect does not occur, then the act can be morally justified according to this model.

In considering our question, would harming the severely wounded insurgent be morally justified by passing the conditions of either of the two models?

Further guidance in answering our question is available from the DND Defence Ethics Program (2002), which is a normative, values-based framework built on core principles (universal ethical obligations) and obligations (ethical standards of conduct). The three ethical principles – respect the dignity of all persons, serve Canada before self, and obey and support lawful authority – are intended to be hierarchical, in that the first principle should take precedence over the second, and so on. The six ethical obligations – integrity, loyalty, courage, honesty, fairness, and responsibility – have equal weight, and when they conflict, the principles should be used to help determine priorities. In our situation, it has been argued by some that ending the suffering of the severely wounded insurgent showed more respect for his dignity as a person than letting him suffer (so-called mercy-killing).

In considering our question, can this position be supported by any of the ethical principles or ethical obligations in the Defence Ethics Program?

Because of the horrendous and often unpredictable consequences that can occur, the use of armed force by a nation should never be undertaken lightly. Such was the case when Canada made the decision to commit its armed forces to engage in combat operations in Afghanistan. Once activated however, the military aim of conventional combat operations is to defeat opposing forces by destroying their will and ability to fight, and the aim of counterinsurgency and stability operations, in addition to targeting insurgents, is to earn the trust and support of the people while denying influence and access to the insurgents. The Canadian Forces are engaged in these types of operations in Afghanistan.

In considering our question, is it important for civilized nations such as Canada that these aims be achieved according to actions and precepts that are militarily sound, legal and ethical?

RMC students often wonder how they will do as officers after they graduate, are commissioned and join their first unit. In my experience as an educator, this self-questioning is particularly prevalent among senior students and those in operational military occupations. When asked, I answer that they are in an extensive and rigorous officer development program designed to produce effective military leaders. They should not expect to be fully formed or competent when they arrive at a unit after graduation, but rather they can be confident in what they do know and eager to learn what they don’t know. Those who have taken seriously their education and training, who willingly learn from experience, others and continuing self-development, and who commit to becoming the best military professionals and leaders they can be, will do just fine.


On 19 July 2010, a panel of a General Court Martial found Captain Semrau “guilty of having behaved in a disgraceful manner.” He was found not guilty of the other charges of second degree murder, attempt to commit murder using a firearm, and negligent performance of a military duty.

On 05 October 2010, he was sentenced to “dismissal from Her Majesty’s service and a reduction in rank to the rank of second lieutenant.”

Ed Note: Ron Dickenson had a 33 year career in uniform. He served as an armour crewman, infantry officer and personnel selection officer until his retirement in 1996.

He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada (B.A. English -1969), Queen’s University (M.A. Clinical Psychology -1988), and is a Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP).

At the time he penned this article he was a sessional assistant professor at RMC. Ron taught senior on-site and distance learning students in organizational behaviour, leadership, military psychology, professionalism and ethics. He is the author of of three popular RMC distance learning courses (PSE 301 Organizational Behaviour and Leadership; PSE 312 Applied Military Psychology; and PSE 454 Advanced Leadership), and is a co-author of PSE 402 Leadership and Ethics.

While on the military staff at RMC in the late 1980s / early ’90s he was also a coach with the varsity cross-country running team.