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The Jamie Cullens Writing Competition 2020 - Essay winner

Category 1: Essays

Warrant Officer Class Two - Robertson


The Ethical 'Rubik's Cube'


The future operating environment is rapidly changing for Army. As codified in 'Accelerated Warfare', Army needs to be prepared for increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments (Lieutenant General Rick Burr, 2018). The key to operating in such environments is providing Army personnel with skills and knowledge to cope with ethical dilemmas. When preparing for future conflict, the initiative to implement ethics education into courses and exercises is left to those who supervise and plan said activities.

This essay will argue that experiential learning through realistic and confronting scenario-based activities is the primary method soldiers and officers can be effectively prepared to meet ethical challenges in combat. Using the 'Rubik's Cube analogy, I will show how experiential learning can positively influence an individual's career. To demonstrate this, I will outline how directives influenced the embedding of ethical decision making into Army individual training activities.

Training versus Learning

To articulate what preparing personnel for combat is, there must be a delineation between training and "experiential learning" (Kolb, 2009). Training is the teaching of a skill such as employing a rifle safely and accurately. Training is essential for ab initio skills to provide the foundation for employing a skill. Experiential learning involves acquiring knowledge through experience to employ the skills acquired through training in a range of complex and potentially ambiguous contexts. Experiential learning can be achieved by using role-players to simulate realistic real-world scenarios. Training will teach a soldier how to fire a rifle. Experiential learning will teach them the circumstances in which it is appropriate to fire that weapon.

How do you provide the tools to an individual who deploys on behalf of the Australian Government to make sound ethical decisions and lead effectively? Experiential learning for ethical decision making is critical to this question. Whilst theoretical training and education provide underpinning knowledge, it is a poor platform of when and how to apply leadership and ethics. Further, experiential learning does not necessarily mean 'getting it right' every time; one will likely instil a concrete memory if a learner gets it wrong. Therefore, there needs to be a delineation between 'failing' and 'errors in judgement'.

In ethical decision making, failure is not adhering to rules such as Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), international laws and Rules of Engagement (ROE). Failure must not occur as it is likely criminal, affecting military capabilities and destroying credibility with the domestic and international population. On the other hand, errors in judgement should be considered and implemented into activity planning where possible. When confronted with an ethical problem, an error in judgement is selecting the best of two or more poor outcomes in a seemingly impossible situation. Factors that impact learners include consequences, conflicting beliefs, fear, confusion, mission orders and post-incident – hindsight. Errors in judgement are likely to occur during ambiguous circumstances. The most critical part of ethical decision making and leading is not what happened. It is what you do next.

As epitomised by Peter Drucker's statement, The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday's logic" (Drucker, n.d.). Ethical decision making is turbulence personified. Training is yesterday's logic.

The Ethical 'Rubik’s Cube'

Using the Rubik’s Cube as an analogy, six differently coloured faces represent the start point of an individual’s career. Each colour represents morals, ethics, teaming behaviours, cognitive ability, emotional intelligence and doctrine/policy such as LOAC and ROE. Like the Rubik’s Cube, each time an individual is impacted through training, life experience, fatigue, combat and emotional stresses, a cube row turns. The more impacts, the more the cube rows are turned.

The Stakeholders

Let us now examine experiential learning in practice. During the last two years, I have had the opportunity to explore experiential learning within military courses and exercises. I collaborated with relevant instructional teams to embed experiential learning opportunities into four courses: two ab initio courses and two promotion courses. These four courses culminate each year in a week-long full mission profile (FMP) assessment activity. The FMP aims to build teaming behaviours, integrate capabilities and expose diverse stakeholders to a small joint task force (JTF). More importantly, the FMP aims to present the learners with ethical challenges and opportunities to make errors in judgment from which they can learn from the experience. The FMP is a complex activity to plan and implement. However, if done correctly, the experiential learning value is of immense value.

Getting the stakeholders in one location from across different Services and Commands has its challenges. As well as the practical difficulties, the real challenge is “how do we frame ethical decision-making activities so stakeholders will get the maximum learning impact in the shortest time?” Opportunities to apply international law, humanitarian law, local law, LOAC and ROE does not go far enough. By applying these protocols and laws in isolation, you risk conducting ‘vanilla’ learning. In my opinion, an individual learner must be confronted to the point of being extremely uncomfortable. This ‘shock’ will provide a learning experience that will impact the immediate participants and be shared among others.

Planning Ethical Decision Making within Complex Activities

The FMP design commenced six months earlier when several stakeholder meetings were conducted. The first stakeholder group focussed on military outcomes (hard skills), whilst the second group comprised four ‘ethics stakeholders’ (soft skills). The ‘ethics stakeholders’ included an ethics academic and Head of Mission (HOM) for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). Military support personnel included a retired Regimental Sergeant Major – Army (RSM-A) and an Army psychologist. Both civilians provided specific examples of contemporary ethical scenarios, whilst the retired RSM-A was an ethics advisor and observer. The Army psychologist was instrumental in ensuring cognitive and emotional considerations were addressed. In conjunction with a small intelligence detachment, the' ethics stakeholders' designed a complex narrative incorporating a diverse range of ethical dilemmas. The activity narrative considered protocols including United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) such as UNSCR 1325 Women, Peace and Security (WPS). The diverse range of stakeholders focussed on a powerful but subtle message.

A diverse range of stakeholders ensures different perspectives are applied to achieve learning outcomes. ‘Ethics stakeholders’ are instrumental in designing a suitably challenging and confronting narrative. Ethical components must remain subtle whilst allowing for errors in judgement.

Framing an Ethical Dilemma

To explain the importance of ethical decision making within learning activities, I will provide an example of one ‘micro scenario’ which was confronting for soldiers and observers. The overarching scenario involved a village that had unknown sympathies towards Australians. Within the village, it was assessed that a criminal element was providing lethal aid, drug trafficking, and kidnapping for ransom. The village was a known rest location for a threat group. The village may also include internationally displaced persons who were vulnerable to locals, criminals and open conflict. This particular ‘micro scenario’ includes females who were victims of human trafficking. Initially, the mission planners were not acutely aware of human trafficking. The Rubik’s Cube begins to turn.

The Criticality of Role Players during Ethical Decision Making

In my opinion, the role player is pivotal to the success of learning, particularly ethical decision making. To ensure success, detailed explanations and rehearsals are critical for role players. It is essential to consider that maximum participation ensures both individuals and the collective will benefit from the activity. For each major scenario to be prepared, ‘micro scenarios’ are where learners receive the most experience. When a role player understands the over-arching activity and their role in a ‘micro scenario’, the result is the ‘shock’ threshold being achieved quickly.

Whilst the ‘micro scenario’ engages individuals and small teams, leaders are now faced with several concurrent ‘micro scenarios’, causing friction. Exercise design and rehearsals assist in identifying friction points within the mission scenario. Friction is the desired outcome. Friction highlights planning deficiencies, identifies failures in training, techniques and procedures (TTP) and most importantly of all, exposes the ‘vulnerable’ human aspect. Fatigue, stress and time pressures combined with an ethical dilemma is the desired nexus in activity design. Once again, the Rubik’s Cube turns.

The role players who supported this activity were employed over five days. It is interesting to note that on the first day, role players were reserved in nature, and it proved challenging to elicit strong emotional responses. However, this changed significantly after the first activity. The activity supervisory staff encouraged role players to immerse themselves in their roles. The role players were afforded a voice to provide feedback. This is powerful. Not only did the role players perform to an excellent standard, they inadvertently became ‘ethically armoured’ themselves. No doubt, these role-players returned to their units and recounted their experiences. The role-plays also learned through the experience. Another Rubik’s Cube turns.

The human trafficking scenario is a pertinent example. Two female volunteer role players were briefed and rehearsed by activity staff with the oversight of a female psychologist. Medical support was close, and an external observer was in place. When the two women were approached during the ‘micro scenario’, their performances were hysterical, achieving the ‘shock’ threshold immediately. In my 20-year military career, this was the single most confronting scene I have witnessed. Such is the power of the role player. My Rubik’s Cube was turning.

The preparation of role players is critical when designing ethical decision-making activities. When role players truly embrace their role within a ‘micro scenario’ and adhere to the nested narrative, the results are powerful for both participants and role players alike.

Selecting the Appropriate People

A complex narrative for conducting ethical decision-making activities is not worth the effort if not implemented by appropriately motivated people. The activity staff must be taken on the journey to ensure success. Despite policy dictating minimum safety requirements to conduct training, I strongly recommend employing external observers. Observers provide perspective, especially when considering the impacts of ethical decision making. It is important to note that employing civilian and military personnel to observe learning extends the ethical decision making messaging beyond the immediate audience. The ethics academic influences military and civilian personnel during ethics presentations at a university, whilst the retired RSM-A influences Army internally. The Army psychologist has further exposure to what soldiers endure during ethical decision-making scenarios. The observers learn from the experience. Several Rubik’s Cubes are turned.

Interestingly, an Army psychologist provided a clinical and academic perspective, which I did not expect. My interpretation of how far I could push the boundaries of ethical dilemmas was skewed. In some instances, I fell short of the ‘shock’ threshold. Recommendations were made, and the activity was significantly enhanced. Surprisingly, other seemingly innocuous activities highlighted unidentified potential psychological risks. These activities were amended and remained below the ‘shock’ threshold. This is critical in protecting our people whilst still ensuring the ‘shock’ threshold is met during ethical decision-making activities.

The immediate feedback loop from activity staff and observers added further friction for mission planners. Once activities were completed, activity staff collated information from role players and observers, feeding results into the activity mission planning cycle. An example of this was when an element exfiltrated from a seemingly successful mission. The threat group encountered on the objective by Australian military personnel were neutralised within the confines of LOAC, ROE and mission orders. On return to their base, the Australian Army element was confronted with negative social media messaging destroying Australia’s credibility through graphic images of deceased local nationals. Australian soldiers operated by the rules. The threat group ignored the rules. They used social media as a weapon to paint a very different picture of the facts. This is a potent reminder for those preparing to deploy into ambiguous and complex environments. The negative impacts went from tactical to strategic rapidly. A huge Rubik’s Cube is turned.

Selecting the appropriate people to deliver complex and confronting ethical decision-making experiential learning is paramount. A diverse range of supporting personalities ensures perspective is gained while ensuring the participants' ‘shock’ threshold is maintained.

Benefits of Incorporating Ethical Decision Making into Learning

There are two phases of experiential learning that need to be considered for activity planning, particularly for ethical decision making. This includes the mission planning phase and conduct phase.

Firstly, military planners are impacted at a different time and space to soldiers. Planners are disassociated from the realities on the ground, and therefore empathy is difficult to contextualise sufficiently. This potentially leads to poor planning and tactical decision making, subsequently having dire effects on soldiers and the human terrain in which they operate. The human trafficking scenario illustrates this point well. Planners considered that if human trafficking activities were discovered, they would attempt to remove them from harm. This planned outcome was merely ‘ticking a box’ and was not an empathetic thought process primarily due to being disassociated with the human factor. Planners would soon realise the necessity to apply empathy to the planning process. When divorced from the immediate consequences of your actions, there is always a risk of a lack of appropriate empathy. The outcome of applying empathy during planning sets the conditions for rapid and proper decision making by the commanders and soldiers on the ground.

Secondly, the conduct phase of the mission is the culmination of analysis, planning and rehearsals for the activity. It affects role players, activity staff, observers and participants both directly and indirectly. Tactical ethical dilemmas during a mission create friction, especially if it is compounded by other incidents at the same time and location. This friction so clearly demonstrates that theory can never provide the same intensity as experiential learning through complex and realistic scenario-based ethical decision-making activities. The human trafficking scenario highlighted this. The human trafficking scenario immediately reached the ‘shock’ threshold and took a significant amount of time to be controlled. Soldiers and commanders were not emotionally prepared to deal with hysterical women due to their lack of exposure to what they witnessed. Reaching the ‘shock’ threshold so quickly resulted from the personal experiences of supervising personnel and their understanding of their learners. It is noteworthy that the first iteration of the human trafficking scenario resulted in relatively poor responses from commanders and soldiers; however, subsequent missions produced stellar examples of group learning and adapting to complex situations. An image of a well-built soldier dressed and equipped for combat, cradling and comforting three terrified women during an assault, has an enduring impact on not only that soldier but also those observing. The emotion shown on the face of the retired RSM-A at this scene epitomised its power for me. The Rubik’s Cube turned even for this old soldier.

After the first day’s missions, soldiers returned to their base and conducted post-operation procedures. It was observed that the ‘shock’ threshold had continued to impact soldiers. The kinetic events barely raised a mention during debriefs; however, the ethical decision-making scenarios had resounding effects. I strongly believe that these events will have long-lasting positive impacts on soldiers, commanders and role-players through ethical armouring.

The ethical decision-making scenarios also impacted the combat support personnel who integrated with the force element teams. I observed one female intelligence operator unsure of her actions when confronted with a hysterical female detainee. The detainee was separated from her husband, who had life-threatening injuries. Her hysteria caused anxiety in the immediate vicinity and was discussed at length after the event. This was an example of group experiential learning. Once again, the Rubik’s Cube turned.

The employment of a range of military combat capabilities enhanced teaming behaviours throughout the FMP. This was clearly observable. However, what was not immediately apparent, was the positive impact the scenario-based ethical decision-making activities had on teaming behaviours. My personal experience is when people are exposed to challenging, and confronting situations as part of a team, they develop a bond that exceeds those who are not. This human trafficking ‘micro scenario’ was certainly the case. The Rubik’s Cube turns for the team as well as the individual.

The narrative for military activities must include subtle ethical considerations to shape planning and increase empathy with planners. The subsequent output from empathetic planning sets the conditions for appropriate ethical decisions whilst achieving military objectives. Additionally, commanders and soldiers, whether combat or integrated combat support, are ethically armoured in preparation for deployment in complex and ambiguous environments.


Embedding ethical decision making in our soldiers and officers through experiential learning is a powerful tool in realising cultural optimisation outcomes for Army. Although ethical decision making must never be the sole focus of learning in preparation for deploying military personnel on operations, it must be subtlety woven throughout a complex narrative. Activity planning must aim to reach the ‘shock’ threshold in a controlled environment with a diverse range of stakeholders’ input. Role players must have a clear understanding of their purpose and be provided with a voice to be part of an immediate feedback mechanism. Dependent of the learner population’s experiences, empathy requires development within individuals and teams through well-crafted experiential learning activities. There must never be a failure in adhering to rules whilst expecting and allowing errors in judgement. Creating friction within learning opportunities highlights individual and collective responses with tactical, operational and strategic effects. This ultimately armours our people for future operational environments.

The Australian Army must be comfortable with accepting a seemingly random coloured Rubik’s Cube and trust that soldiers and commanders will make the right ethical decision during complex and ambiguous situations. Experiential learning is the primary method that soldiers and officers can be effectively prepared to meet the ethical challenges in combat.


Drucker, P., n.d. AZ Quotes. [Online]
Available at:

Kolb, A. Y. K. a. D. A., 2009. The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development. In: C. V. F. Steven J Armstrong, ed. The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development. London: SAGE Publications, pp. 43-44.

Lieutenant General Rick Burr, A. D. M., 2018. Accelerated Warfare, s.l.: ADF.



Cite Article
(Robertson, 2021)
Robertson, 2021. 'The Ethical 'Rubik's Cube''. Available at: (Accessed: 22 June 2024).
(Robertson, 2021)
Robertson, . 2021. 'The Ethical 'Rubik's Cube''. Available at: (Accessed: 22 June 2024).
Robertson, "The Ethical 'Rubik's Cube'", The Forge, Published: June 07, 2021, (accessed June 22, 2024).
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