Dark Traits and Military Ethics

David Whetham

Some people argue that war is such a terrible thing, atrocities and war crimes are simply an inevitable consequence. While those people might be right on the tragedy that is war, thankfully, the assumption that atrocities committed by our own forces simply have to be accepted is not shared by either Western society or the professional military organisations that serve them. While the elimination of all bad behaviour may be unattainable, the aspiration of working towards it is recognised as being both important and capable of significant success. There is a clear linkage between ethical behaviour within armed forces and their conduct on operations and we know that ethics training can have a positive effect on behaviour on military deployments, reducing harm and suffering in conflict situations.

Military organisations around the world tend to focus on the importance of character development using a virtue ethics model that would have been very familiar to Aristotle to try and ensure that people will be able to do the right thing even on a difficult day. As well as character development, part of professional military education is about equipping military personnel with the analytical skills and moral reasoning to be able to make the best decisions possible, even in situations where there is no ‘good’ answer.

There is a large amount of research that demonstrates the impact of environmental factors on people’s ethical awareness and/or actual ethical conduct. Some of this emerging research challenges long-held assumptions about people’s innate tendencies towards good or bad behaviour (for example, How the Stanford prison experiment gave us the wrong idea about evil). Situational factors can be overwhelming, even for the best trained and strongest characters, and while many things will be beyond one’s control, there are many things that responsible leaders can still do to positively affect elements of their organisations to promote the right kinds of behaviours even in extreme situations (for example, see the Armouring Against Atrocity module at the King’s Centre for Military Ethics).

What else can military organisations do? Specifically, is there anything that military organisations can do to predict (and therefore prevent or mitigate) ethical failures? A research team led by Dr Magnus Lindén from Sweden’s Lund University, Canada’s Department of National Defence, and King’s College London, have published research in Military Psychology, that demonstrates an area that may prove extremely useful in this respect. It explores the strength of the relationship between certain psychological dispositions (referred to as the rather sinister-sounding malevolent personality traits), and unethical attitudes and behaviours associated with a deployed cohort of Swedish peacekeepers. It is extremely difficult for this kind of research to be conducted on military personnel for many different reasons and we are very grateful to the Swedish Ministry of Defence for making this research possible.

The research – testing the impact of dark traits on attitude and behaviour

Previous studies in a civilian context suggested that there was a link between identifiable malevolent personality traits and ethical attitudes. Our research published in Military Psychology took this further – firstly by studying a sample of 175 soldiers rather than civilians, tested before and immediately after a deployment in Mali, and secondly, expanding the research to also look at a number of other related “dark traits”. Our study deliberately separated questions about military ethics from organisational ethics. Military ethics is related to situations that occur during service in a conflict zone such as attitudes and behaviours towards non-combatants, while in contrast, organisational ethics concerns behaviour within the military organisation itself, for example such as promoting oneself at the expense of others, or going against the public interest to protect the organisation. Both of these domains of ethics are clearly relevant to the military.

The military ethics part of the study employed elements of the same methodology used by the US Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) survey questions during Operation Iraqi Freedom 2005-07 that related to war zone ethical attitudes and asked questions such as whether non-combatants should always be treated with dignity and respect (see MHAT-IV 2006). The self-reported behaviour in the anonymised research concerned how often soldiers had “Insulted/cursed at non-combatants in their presence,” how often they had “damaged/destroyed property when it was not necessary,” and how often they had “physically hit/kicked non-combatant when it was not necessary” while serving in Mali.

The organisational ethics element of the research was conducted using the Unethical Behaviour Measure (Wahn, 1993) which uses eight items to measure the scope of moral transgressions in work organisations, such as “obeying a direct request from your immediate supervisor even though you did not believe it was morally the right thing to do” or neglecting to cooperate with coworkers “so as to limit their success”.

Our research demonstrates a clear relationship between possession of the identified “dark traits” and both negative attitudes and actual behaviours relating to war zone ethics. The research also shows a correlation between “dark traits” and the frequency of unethical organisational behaviour.

The implications – what does this mean for military organisations and what happens next?

Previous research already shows that soldiers with a history of antisocial behaviour before enlistment were more likely to misuse alcohol, fight, or be inappropriately aggressive (MacManus et al., 2012) and that the military would benefit from screening out antisocial traits already evident in the recruitment process. Using a more focused tool that includes the traits identified in our own research might make that recommendation more effective.

We also need more investigation as to whether these malevolent traits are strengthened or otherwise modified by military training or exposure to combat. We should therefore conduct longitudinal studies to confirm the degree of predictive power of behaviours related to possession of these traits, and despite the challenges of conducting this kind of research on military personnel, seek to employ a larger sample size to increase the statistical power of the findings.

While blaming ethical failings on “bad apples” is often a dangerously simplistic response to legitimate criticism aimed at institutions and organisations that have suffered catastrophic ethical failures, this research does suggest that sometimes, it may indeed be possible to not only predict, but therefore also prevent some ethical transgressions from being committed by screening for the latent core that underlies certain psychological traits amongst individual military personnel.

There will, of course, be many other factors that affect people’s behaviours in the extreme environment of armed conflict. This would make focusing exclusively on the “dark traits” a bad idea, but these findings would suggest that this could be a productive and effective area for future research and can offer at least part of the answer to preventing transgressions during military operations. Although more research is needed to fully understand the content of the dark core, at the very least, our results suggest that attempts to identify soldiers who score highly on the measure used here, may be useful when attempting to improve the ethical culture in peacekeeping units.

Featured Image – Dutch UN soldiers monitoring the Ethiopia-Eritrea boundary

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