William R. Soucie Lieutenant Colonel, United States Marine Corps

The contents of this paper reflect my own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Naval War College or the Department of the Navy.

Stockdale Leader Development Concentration Paper Advisor: Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin, Ph.D.


Located beyond the borders of the United States, peer competitors are serving is the primary driver of a host of defense innovations, from technology to operational doctrine. The Department of Defense has shifted its focus from counterterrorism efforts to thwarting the rise of revanchist regimes around the world. This reassessment is nothing new, yet

historically, thinkers failed to precisely define war and treated the moral problems of war as parallel to many peacetime dilemmas. . . . This shows an intuitive recognition that, whenever force and coercion are involved, we enter a moral universe where the straightforward moral demands of peacetime can no longer so easily be applied[1]

The foremost national security concerns of the U.S. are categorized at the four plus one: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Violent Extremist Organizations. In the sprawling expanse of ocean that is the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. has adopted geographically dispersed, maritime oriented, and host-nation-integrated methods of addressing several of these threats. These actions may be conducted at a significant distance from possible targets and inside the territorial boundaries of allies and partners. Young women and men in the service of the United States will be asked to make decisions about the taking of human life, increasingly at the push of a button, which will make not only the button pusher, but the innocent civilian population of the area into a casualty of retaliation. What, then, constitutes just action on today’s battlefield?

The crux of the change is in the increased autonomy that military professionals will be asked to live and operate in, as compared to the last twenty years of counter-insurgency and set piece battle before that. If military personnel are bound to act within a framework, then it is crucial to make certain that all members are educated on the worthiness of the framework. The character of warfare is changing, and the U.S. military must address the ethical implications of military operations short of war before blood and treasure are spent on a global scale. This study begins with the big picture and works down to the small in a manner similar to bringing an aircraft to a target. First, it provides an overview of current U.S. policy guidance regarding the shift in focus to competition with a great power, specifically engaging with the near peer powers across the globe but with a particular focus on the Indo-Pacific. This change in approach is explored to pinpoint areas that raise important ethical questions that need to be discussed in the context of the shift to a competition-continuum perspective. The reframing of the operational approach requires personnel to embrace the idea that war is not binary but occupies a spectrum. To that end, the far left end may be said to represent peace and the far right end war. In between, there is no clear line dividing the two, and it is this middle area that requires an ethical evaluation that corresponds to the increase in operations short of war[2] This is followed by a review of the traditional just-war thinking (JWT) framework to establish links between guidance, perspective, and ethical conduct in war. This is important because, thanks in part to Michael Walzer, JWT has reemerged as the primary lens through which strategic leaders and policymakers examine ethical issues raised by the use of military force[3] This particular section recognizes that military ethics typically deals with three areas: 1) the nature of the military and military professionalism (including discussions surrounding what constitutes a moral education and training); 2) the nature and morality of war (jus ad bellum in JWT); and 3) moral questions related to the just use of force (jus in bello in the JWT)[4]

The purpose of this discussion is to highlight the need for something more if the standard understanding is no longer sufficient.

Last, the paper explores the treatments of jus ad vim and the potential consequences of abrogating the responsibility to carefully consider the ethical facets of the use of armed force short of war. In the jus ad vim environment, which will be defined in greater detail later but can be summarized as a state between war and peace, although the battlefield is still a physical space, it is far more connected in a non-contiguous manner, with lethal and non-lethal effects constituting a reimagined understanding of war and warfare[5] The desired outcome of conflict is to act with honor and to return home needing as little critical repair as can be expected, and it will be examined as such.

Part 1: Policy Change and Operational Approach Requiring a Shift

U.S. policy directions and guidance, ranging from “rebalance to the Pacific” to the formal 2018 National Security Strategy, have sought to bring the national security structure to the recognition that a great competition for power is upon the country. An overarching theme of this change in approach is that global environments encompass the competing interests of current and emerging great powers, which has brought American foreign policy and strategic military preparations to a newfound appreciation that the twenty-first century is likely to see converging, trans-regional, compound security dilemmas[6] The metanoia required for a defense force that has spent twenty years fighting counterterrorism is no small feat. In directing the shift in strategic focus, the current leadership seems to understand that, although “every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions and its own peculiar preconceptions,” we can no longer operate in a manner of status quo hegemony[7] Military bureaucracy is historically risk-averse and prone to culturally acceptable low levels of risk tolerance among senior personnel. Given the reluctance to accept risk, any changes to operations will require altering the risk culture and immunizing military personnel, to the greatest extent possible, against fear of the unknown[8]

From the most senior level of decision making to the most junior personnel, there is little appreciation of the magnitude that these changes will entail across the force. The current shortcomings reside in the U.S.’s strategic culture and therefore permeate the countr fiy’s understanding or lack of understanding of the competitive space between peace and war[9] To overcome these shortcomings, military practitioners must accept that there are few circumstances in an interconnected world in which joint actions do not in some way affect regional or global rivals of the U.S[10] It is through the lens of interconnection that we seek here to identify ethical shortcomings, given that little forethought has yet been applied to this field. This exploration is not new, and it is in keeping with the intellectual tradition of attempting to square the use of force with evolving socially acceptable or moral frameworks—for instance, the work of both Aquinas and Walzer on just war thinking.

An ethical study at the individual level would equip service members in the force with the ability to deter future actions in competition below armed conflict by effectively and ethically responding to current challenges, including through personal study for future application[11] As directed by policy, the foil for the use of force below the level of war is now those nations that characterized as players in the great power competition. It is the actions of these actors below the threshold of open warfare that have driven, directly and indirectly, a shift in the character of war. These regimes have targeted cultural institutions, media organizations, businesses, academia, and policy communities internally in the United States and other countries to achieve its strategic objectives[12] These actions support the notion that rising, or some may argue arrived, powers seek to challenge the status quo, and a failure by the US and her allies to reflect on the appropriate framework for responding may lead to a threat that pervades free people’s lives in unimaginable ways. If these matters are not studied and reflected on, service members may find themselves ill-equipped to make ethical decisions far afield from a home base or station due to not having the requisite skills.

The need for a change in focus stems from a multitude of approaches by peer competitors. For instance, China’s approach to war, which extends well beyond the Western appreciation of armed conflict with some of those holding power in China who “see confrontational operations short of war as an effective means of accomplishing political objectives.[13] There seems to be extraordinarily little consideration, from the Chinese perspective, of individual wellbeing or of the ethical dilemmas that the country’s conduct short of armed war may have in the long term. The PRC may be assessed as calibrating its coercive activities, across its range of instruments of authoritative national power, to fall below the threshold that would provoke armed conflict with the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Indo-Pacific region[14] Similar methods and approaches are being adopted and implemented in Russia though perhaps more muscular military and diplomatic approach in central Europe.

At present, some may advance the claim that the U.S. is behind, relative to the societal embrace of cross-domain warfare that peer competitor seem to be mastering. This raises the question whether Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran are deficient across their respective societies in the ethical component of their actions, specifically regarding military force, or whether these are so interwoven that they give their respective regimes an advantage in execution over the U.S., which has spent little time crafting a contemporary response and rests on tired and widely misunderstood frameworks. Despite the apparent proficiency of these nations to embrace a changing approach to war, this work is intended to at least start considering ways to regain a relative advantage rooted in ethical study and practice.

How, then, does the U.S. seek to regain initiative, or at least parity, from a position of relative military and potentially moral advantage, with what it views as potential rivals or its most likely competitors? The challenge is great when “the varieties of skullduggery which make up the repertoire of a totalitarian government are just about as unlimited as human ingenuity itself, and just about as unpleasant.[15] Logically, a creative approach is necessary to avoid repeating the same actions or being bound by the same restraints while expecting a different outcome. For instance, the force must recognize that warfare is a segment of a larger spectrum known as the competition continuum, and that even when not in war—in the sense of open hostility—it is still in a state of competition that requires conduct conforming to ethical standards[16] Because engagements can span multiple domains below the level of armed violence, it is important to understand what factors into holding an adversary’s command networks at risk while bolstering partners’ cyber defenses, and the second- and third-order effects of actions on the adversary, the individual, and third parties who might suffer without experiencing direct violence[17] These scenarios and the judgements required in them can serve as examples for a new application of JWT and renewed, if not revised, ethical education to answer unexamined questions.

In this environment, how does the U.S. move forward? One position holds that by leveraging the latent potential of U.S., allied, and partner ground forces, Washington can best achieve this objective by establishing a series of linked defenses along the first island chain—an “Archipelagic Defense”—and, in so doing, deny Beijing the ability to achieve its revisionist aims through aggression or coercion[18]

It is this scenario, offered in Foreign Affairs, the result is a vast ethical dead space that must be addressed. Ethical dead space may be understood to mean increased geographical and temporal isolation from higher headquarters directing one’s actions. It is here that uncertainty can translate into risk if it is not addressed through ethical study and reflection. Failure to do as much could lead to personnel being engaged in a protracted conflict racked by the impacts of unexamined natural human factors. Here we should recognize that philosophical frameworks may offer insights into the human dimension of competition that could serve the entirety of the joint force[19] Moreover, they are applicable regardless of the particular competitor or geographic area in which one may be operating.

Considering the Competition Continuum

In the past, leaders have treated a professional military education (PME) as the nearly exclusive domain of thought. This is a wonderful starting point, but it is not enough to touch every fiber of the force in the manner required for every member of the armed forces and the nation at large to achieve the necessary ethical positions. Our personnel are more than just weapons to be pointed in various directions, and although shifting the character of war can be a positive thing, it is not enough to rely on hope to address the associated challenges.

The frame through which the United States engages with the world has changed and now requires a shift if the country wishes to sustain the relative peace and stability of the world. The previous understanding of a world at war or at peace has been circumvented by countries seeking to regain either a modicum or all of the power they perceive themselves as having lost. Arguably one may assert that the “emerging Chinese capabilities are intended to blunt Washington’s ability to provide military support to its allies and partners,” but this statement rings true of virtually any peer or near peer competitor one may choose to ascribe such criteria to. 20 Seeking “to influence the future, we must consider how we can exploit our competitor’s weaknesses while protecting our own,” regardless of the uncertainty in who that competitor may ultimately prove to be[21]

It may be beneficial to view this through the lens of moral symmetry, or more accurately moral asymmetry. It has been proposed that “moral asymmetry is a ‘fact’ of the contemporary battlefield and is one of the few things that can virtually be taken as a given.[22] We must, therefore, first seek to understand our weaknesses and then shore them up to the greatest extent possible; the moral and ethical foundations for justifying actions are one such weakness. By thinking through an ethical framework and applying it accordingly, both in the service and individually, the country can fill in its gaps while positioning itself to retain the advantage of the moral high ground.

The world is no longer a simple serial sequence of events but all sorts of things going on at once . . . with diffuse, discrete centers of power and influence, no longer a phenomenon in which the calculations and intentions of the protagonists have any value, or in which the desired outcome is clearly defined in terms of competing interests[23]

An approach that applies a complex adaptive system would be the best suited to capture the state of relationships, both friendly and unfriendly, across the planet. How, then, does the Joint Force re-envision the world through a new lens? One leading effort portrays a projected “security environment forecasting a future in which adversaries will employ stratagems to gain influence and undermine U.S. interests with techniques well short of traditional armed conflict.[24]

The familiar and oddly comforting dichotomy of the world either at peace or at war has been displaced by the competition continuum. This depicts the enduring competition around the world as a mixture of cooperation, competition below the level of armed conflict, and outright armed conflict[25] There is clear evidence along this spectrum that rivals’ views of the legitimacy of aggression in the forms of cyber operations, election meddling, and disinformation to change the status quo in international relations is increasing[26] This is a new mindset that must be explored and potentially adopted in the U.S., but only after careful ethical consideration to ensure that the ethical high ground is retained. The notion of enduring competition, in contrast to the “at peace or at war” construct, presents a domain in which the struggle for advantage is rife with setbacks and potentials for both success and failure,27 and where that the potential for actions that capitalize on the threat of violence, or short-duration violent acts, to achieve ends is limited only by creativity[28]

Despite the Department of the Navy’s status as the vanguard adopting the competition continuum model, the remainder of the Department of Defense has only belatedly come to appreciate the need to respond more adroitly at levels that fall short of war to multi-functional and multi-dimensional threats[29] Described by many as “the Gray Zone,” this is perhaps best characterized as an “intense political, economic, informational, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.[30] Along this spectrum, competition is continuous among actors and across instruments of national power: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic[31] Within the Department of Defense, there is a growing belief that something more than a traditional military response is required to counter this form of conflict. A more nuanced approach is required to “establish or reestablish a broader framework for conflict short of violent warfare that incorporates a wider range of tools beyond traditional tools.[32]

There are historical examples of U.S. personnel being deployed in situations below the violence threshold, after which the circumstances changed, resulting in political groups executing violent acts counter to U.S. interests. Although in some instances the actions took place above the threshold of armed violence, the disciplined response of those on the ground narrowly prevented escalation to conventional war and returned events to below the threshold of violence, as in Beirut, Lebanon, with the U.S. Marines ashore[33] These conceptual changes are being adopted quickly because they are not too far removed from core foundational doctrines. Take, for example, the principle of combined arms operations: “Combined arms is the full integration of arms in such a way that to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another. We pose the enemy not just with a problem, but with a dilemma—a no win situation.[34]

It follows that military professionals ought to view ethical foundations at the individual level as another weapon to be leveraged, at least in the cognitive domain, to retain an advantage in military operations short of war. If the goal is to use all available resources to the greatest advantage, then why would this exclude an ethical framework for guiding decisions?35 It follows that the resource most readily available to any service member will be their ethical framework. However, the desired end may only be realized if actions are considered carefully on an ethical foundation before execution.

Part 2: Just War Thinking as the Foundation

If war is constantly adapting to different contexts, where does that leave our ability to analyze what constitutes a just action on today’s battlefield? No less a figure than Carl Von Clausewitz said of war that “though its nature or, if you prefer, logic, has been consistent since the dawn of time, its character—or grammar—is always adapting itself to the environment in which it is expressed.[36] The same can be said for justifying the use of violence on one’s foes.

The contemporary moral justification for war is found in the tradition of just war thinking. The JWT “represents a cultural consensus on when war is justified and what limits should be observed in fighting justly.[37]

Regarding its application, “more generally, just war theory has tended to focus on conventional forces, such as would be deployed on traditional battlefields by warring nation states. Does conflict really work that way anymore?[38] Political leaders around the world make every effort to subordinate or at least attribute their actions to the principles of JWT. The reason for such broad application by strategic leaders, rightly or wrongly, “may be. . . that the concept of war itself is treated as a binary concept by contemporary just war thinkers.[39] All too often, we do a disservice to those required to take action by using terms “including ‘conflict,’ ‘competition,’ ‘violence,’ and even ‘war’ as part of an organic whole,” without following up on when and where a given framework may actually apply[40] Despite this intellectual sloppiness, regarding war, the just war framework is one of the most storied tools of analysis when morally evaluating the use of force. The principles contained with the categories of jus ad bellum are seen as useful in helping to determine when one can morally go to war, while those of jus in bello help us to evaluate what one can ethically do in war[41]

Having attempted to contemporize JWT following the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, just war theorist Michael Walzer notes that “war and peace are so different that each has its own morality.[42] This logic would lead one to conclude that the world is either at war or at peace, but we have already provided support for the position that the world, despite some misgivings, is trending toward competition that includes a better appreciation that victory is temporal.

This discussion of how one’s actions fit into their context, operationally or strategically, is not a new one. As prominent a figure in ethics as Aquinas laid out an interpretation that war involved violence against external actors, which differentiated it from inner turmoil or acts of sedition[43] While certainly a beneficial consideration for going to war, this does not support our current operating environment, which involves acts below the level of war. And though it may be an accurate reflection of his time, Aquinas’s framework does not match the reality that exists today, of far-flung, decentralized deployments that often do not rise to the true level of war[44] When a framework is no longer valid because of a changing context, one must either consider a replacement or accept the failure of the status quo[45] We have identified a space, then, between peace and war as those are currently understood. This is the area in which the present endeavor aims to somewhat better arm U.S. service members to operate in a position of strength.

Proponents of just war thinking, who define war as the purposeful use of violence to achieve political aims and create ambiguity, do not address the use of force that falls short of war[46] Military forces are “hierarchical and communal in nature, functioning as a team and a group, particularly in combat.[47] Moreover, they require “the ability to see and understand the competitive forces in the environment, understand what tools are available to them, and be able to envision how they can contribute to a campaign of competition.[48] The division at the thresholds of force and overt war requires greater review. In this area, “boundary (or threshold) stretching occurs when an actor uses measures short of war to force movement or change in the nature of a boundary to gain greater regional influence, access, and control.[49] To address or at least identify this gap, Michael Walzer “introduced the term jus ad vim – the just use of force short of war – in contrast with, or perhaps to compliment the well-established notion of just war, jus ad bellum, and its correlative notion, jus in bello.[50]

This section examined the contemporary context in which JWT is commonly understood and concluded that there is a gap in the standard dual nature of the argument. The next section reinforces the idea “that war is not a binary category, but rather a space along a continuum marked by war and peace at its extremes.[51]

Part 3: The Need for Jus ad Vim

In revitalizing JWT, Michael Walzer “makes an important distinction between, on the one hand, ‘measures short of war,’ such as imposing no-fly zones, pinpoint air/missile strikes, and CIA operations, and on the other, ‘actual warfare,’ typified by a ground invasion or a large scale bombing campaign.[52] In distinction to acts of war,

jus ad vim actions present diminished risk to one’s own troops, have a destructive outcome that is more predictable and smaller in scale, severely curtail the risk of civilian casualties, and entail a lower economic and military burden. . . . factors make jus ad vim actions nominally easier for political leaders to justify compared to conventional warfare, though this does not necessarily mean these actions are morally legitimate or that they do not have potentially nefarious consequences[53]

In the context of the new operating environment and guiding thought process, it becomes clear that “vim is not only intellectually plausible but morally necessary.[54] Thus, jus ad vim actions apply violence and even the potential taking of life with the desire not to cross the threshold to war.

In attempting to capture where war emanates from, Martin Van Creveld famously argues that, “war begins not with the willingness to kill, but with the willingness to kill and be killed in return.[55] The country asks its young men and women to remain in this precarious position for protracted periods with no clear indication of when they will be required to “click off safe,” or “stand down.” The questions raised by this requirement must not stop with who designs and should integrate strategic approaches in measures short of armed conflict, or for that matter who addresses how the military should organize itself to face these challenges[56] There is an ethical component that is either assumed to exist or is altogether ignored in current discourse, and at present the leadership seems comfortable relying on “do or do not” forms of ethical decision that do not seem sufficiently nuanced to account for real-world scenarios short of war. Although JWT principles are still invoked by contemporary scholars and remain of practical use, the increasingly recognized but undefined space between peace and war needs to be identified and calls for a focused ethical analysis[57] It may be appealing to remain wedded to the false choice of the just war dichotomy and cast aside uses of force that can be exploited in borderline ethical cases, doing so sets the conditions for a disconnect between theory and practice that increasingly may lead to abuses[58]

Although the application of force is not a certainty, “the general task of the military implies the threat of or the actual use of (lethal) force.[59] Moreover, “just like in war, ambiguity seems to be everywhere we turn in competition.[60] Having highlighted the gap in the standards

56 Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); James M. Ludes, A Consistency of Purpose: Political Warfare and the National Security Strategy of the Eisenhower Administration, unpublished PhD dissertation, Georgetown University, 2003. On informational activities to counter Soviet influence efforts, see Herbert Romerstein “The Interagency Active Measures Working Group,” in Michael Waller, ed., Strategic Influence, Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda, and Political Warfare (Washington, DC: Institute for World Politics, 2009). of just war thinking, namely the lack of clear articulation of the space between war and peace, “the jus ad vim project emerged from an international context in which states employ limited force on a more recurrent basis, but arguably lack the moral precision to evaluate such decisions.[61]

The phrase jus ad vim literally means “the just use of force,” and it refers to “a moral framework calibrated to the use of limited force (what others sometimes refer to as force short of war).[62] This category ranges from freedom of navigation to drone strikes, raids, and even hostage rescues. As states continue to operate on the competition continuum and in the area of uncertainty, it is important to recall that “the fog of war can become so thick at this end of the spectrum that it can be difficult to discern when one is merely participating in acts short of war or when one has found themselves in the midst of an actual war.[63]

In place of what was once “easily defined as a zone of combat where lethal force was justified (to be distinguished with a zone of peace, where it is not), the struggle against terrorism has created ‘in-between spaces’ of moral uncertainty where force is used on a consistent and limited scale but war is not declared.[64] Simply put, military personnel will have increased opportunities to decide for themselves what is right or wrong on the battlefield in the future. They will have less access to or direction from senior leaders, who have historically retained ethical decision-making authority, or at least the responsibility for it. Despite this, little consideration has been given to the moral or ethical underpinnings of such actions, particularly among practitioners. To remedy this, “the concept of vim serves a useful function by giving a name to the space between war and peace. It can provide a space for evaluating the ethics of activities ranging from sanctions to targeted air strikes to cyber-acts to foreign imposed regime change.[65] From our collective experience with counter-terrorism, we have demarcated this area: “between peace and the coercive violence of war lies a spectrum of activities, which can be helpfully captured by the category of vim.[66]

The actions taken on behalf of a nation by an individual in service of that nation may still be viewed as the use of coercive force outside of war[67] Actions like joint training missions, freedom of navigation operations, and even medical and dental missions are meant to demonstrate a capacity and willingness that other nations do not have. Forward personnel who do the bidding of a nation state as part of a complex adaptive system are still subject to their patrons’ actions. When operating outside the context of military action, a strict, literal adherence to the analytical framework of just war thinking leaves little or no room for the ethical evaluation of uses of force that do not constitute war[68]

The false war-or-peace dichotomy is no longer sufficient for the reality that U.S. service members exist in. The complex, uncertain, volatile, and ambiguous nature of the vim environment offers challenges and opportunities for all current players that are unique to our present lifetimes. Adversaries have eschewed the American way of war, with its ironclad preparations to support mass personnel mobilizations prior to conflict. U.S. rivals are increasingly seeking to use or create ambiguity to cloak their actions. These actors intentionally obscure their aims until it appears too late for the U.S. to react effectively[69] The small amount of literature on this current action-and-reaction cycle has determined that “such conflicts involve some aggression or use of force, but in many ways their defining characteristic is ambiguity— about the ultimate objectives, the participants, whether international treaties and norms have been violated, and the role that military forces should play in response.[70]

The shift from viewing peace and war as an exclusive dichotomy implies that we are living in a more or less constant state of tension that erupts into violence and then dips quickly below the threshold again[71] Though novel to us, it involves a set of circumstances not vastly different from what generated early JWT scholarship in the Middle Ages. Contemporary competitors often aim to create uncertainty by injecting situational ambiguity so that a rival will hesitate to act, opening the window to attaining their desired ends incrementally[72]

Still, the prevailing black and white distinctions between traditional war and irregular war in U.S. strategic culture make for simple boxes but the real world is not so easily categorized. Some adversaries seek to exploit not the changing character of warfare but the institutional and cognitive seams that these ossified strategic and ethical over simplifications of senior leader culture create. They seek combinations, both multi domain and multi-functional, to gain an advantage. We must not underestimate them. Instead, we do need to conceptually understand them and become full spectrum capable ourselves[73]

As an imperative, though, if U.S. military practitioners are expected to act consistently with the JWT framework, then all personnel must have explicit training not only in JWT but in the ethical underpinnings of the military’s actions[74] Stated plainly, if military personnel are bound to act within a moral framework, then it is crucial to make certain that all members are educated as to why the framework is worthy of their adherence. If not anchored appropriately, this form of engagement is prone to mission-drift that leads to moral injury. Because moral injury often results in suicide and other destructive behaviors, limited wars are unlikely to produce just benefits that outweigh the total cost of participating in them[75]

Part 4: Ethics and Morals in Practice

My concern is that there does not seem to be space for the consideration of proper, right,  or even just ethical foundations as we posture, prepare, and deploy forces for action. Our journey began with the recognition that the proposed shift in policy toward countering great power competition which required the adoption of a competition mindset. We then defined our development by contrasting it with just war thinking, and rightly identified the jus ad vim environment that is likely to follow, in which the application of force below the threshold of war, is always one slow, steady trigger pull away. How, then, do we understand what is expected of the individual in this context? What is at risk?

We must accept that “the language of jus ad vim, like that of just war, as a language of engagement should serve a practical purpose.[76] We thus need to set the conditions for a language of jus ad vim within the pre-existing, rich context of ethical discourse. For instance, is there a virtue associated with it? If so, it can be defined as “a disposition or an attitude—often called a ‘habit’ in the philosophical tradition going back to Aristotle—pertaining to a proper understanding of what ought to be done, and a disposition to act accordingly.[77]

From entry training through education and follow-on assignments, the members of a large unit or a smaller detachment have an inherent commitment to each other. For example, military units have traditionally been deployed as divisions, regiments, or battalions. In some instances, company-sized elements in conventional military forces have operated geographically separately but still within the safety net of helicopter or vehicle coverage of their higher headquarters. Given the shifting character of the jus ad vim environment, it behooves us to ask what happens when those larger formations are no longer employed, and personnel operate independently and with only digital reach back, if any. In such a case, a service member must rely on what brought them to the point of decision and on the strength of their own convictions.

According to some, the “morality of war holds that it is impermissible to fight in a war that lacks a just cause and that soldiers who fight in such a war cannot evade responsibility for their participation by claiming that the government alone is responsible for determining whether the wars it fights are just.[78] In future employment scenarios, then, as a result of the greater volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the environment, more junior leaders will be ceded authority out of necessity, and it will be necessary to ensure that they are prepared to navigate the shoals of ethics[79] The commandant of the Marine Corps is undertaking a redesign of the force to operate in just such a decentralized, adaptable, and autonomous manner, and it must then be educated with appropriate ethical frameworks to achieve the most success[80]

The focus on the development of the individual is motivated by a recognition that “individual moral character is neither inherent nor fixed. Ethical decision-making requires continuing education for even the most experienced personnel.[81] And at its root, “education requires that moral responsibility and the preparation and reinforcement of it must be disseminated much more broadly.[82] The entire force benefits from an ethical refocus, not just the most senior decision makers; a focus on them alone leaves the individuals at the most junior level ethically unprepared and will cause them to suffer the negative ramifications of physical and mental scars. Just as medical care is relegated to the individual level, given the paucity of medical staff on the battlefield, so should ethical frameworks and decision making be disseminated to the lowest ranks, given the scarcity of traditionally recognized leadership in future deployment constructs. Although we have come to accept the “golden hour” of medical care—the sixty minutes following injury on the battlefield—this will no longer be a valid planning assumption in our shifted context. So we must also accept that personnel should be as well equipped to survive and thrive as possible when confronted with the reality of jus ad vim.

The desired result is to arrive at personal knowledge through ethical practice; through such knowledge, the country and the military can have greater trust that any action taken comes from a position of justice. Creating this trust, however, requires the introduction of ethics into education at all levels of the military. At present, “moral education must be approached in a much less hierarchical way; we must reject the premise that it is mainly important for officers, less so for enlisted personnel, and even less as you descend the chain of command.[83] The criterion for a more thoughtful force is that “ethical problem-solving skills must be developed and strengthened. Education provides the opportunity for slow thinking that builds the intellectual arsenal operators will draw upon in situations where there is only time for fast thinking.[84] Reflection on dilemmas below the threshold of war allows for the expansion of intellectual boundaries. When violence is imminent, we must be aware of how the threat of violence affects human decision making, because even its threat can cause a physical and emotional response in people. This increases the potential for misjudgment, over reaction, and other mistakes. It also could be a source of competitive advantage for those who can control their emotions in the heat of the moment so that they can make sound decisions[85]

The upshot is that “any training and education must think about ways in which this asymmetry can be dealt with while still allowing military personnel to maintain and nourish their own integrity/identity and the standards expected in their profession.[86]

One could be forgiven for having the impression that the military is almost entirely destitute of ethical instruction, given cases such as Abu Ghraib and the desecration of enemy combatants by Marines and Navy personnel. In fact, the military does take the explicit training in ethics and ethical issues seriously, but there is variety . . . in how much and what kinds of training and education is given. . . . Officers. . . are expected to have more in-depth and theoretically grounded education and much less is expected required of enlisted personnel. What is important here is what that tells us about how ethics and thinking about ethics are conceptualized and then implemented: top down, reinforcing command control, and hierarchy[87]

However, this is insufficient for the reasons stated if our intent is to have a decentralized force operating outside traditional lines of communication with senior leaders who have instructed the personnel in ethics.

The aperture must be broadened, and “the goal for education then is to foster awareness, within the campaigning mindset, of how all the capabilities available to Marines can fit into and support a larger competition strategy.[88] The purpose of moral education is to prepare individuals to deal with an ethical landscape, particularly a fluid and changing one. This is accomplished by providing and honing various “tools,” such that one can respond in combat or in whatever context, having thought through a range of ideas, theories, and perspectives, but hone with a central core of ethical commitment[89]

A methodical approach must be taken, however to the rollout of such an education. At all levels, “if it is to have moral weight, it must be integrated with questions about training and moral educations, and concerns about training and moral education must also permeate our discussions of jus ad bellum (justice of war), jus in bello (just conduct) and jus post bellum (justice after the war) requirements for JWT.[90]

Building on this, given the policy direction and guidance as well as the practical reality, we must also incorporate jus ad vim concepts into our idea of the competition spectrum. This could be as simple as ensuring that actions taken on a deployment meet a “just” threshold to guard against moral injury.

The US Special Operations Forces (SOF) community is at the vanguard of explicitly recognizing the value of ethically trained personnel. Operators have claimed that, “as indicated by the future . . . environment, ethical awareness by leaders and ethical decision-making in complex . . . operational engagements remains increasingly vital to how operational units frame the quality of their leaders and how their actions and behaviors impact mission effectiveness.[91] In this model of a complex adaptive system, “at the heart of moral conduct, whether in peace or in war, is a sense of that our actions are constrained by respect and reverence for others.[92] This perspective has the benefit of maintaining relative moral advantage, and as such decisions are likely to be made with greater clarity and conviction.

However, operating ethically while an adversary is willing to act without ethical consideration of the means of action leaves the U.S. open to exploitation. This is where moral asymmetry can prove a boon to the U.S. and serve as an anchor point for retaining the moral high ground and resisting the temptation to adopt the dictatorial ambivalence to just action. To achieve this high ground position, the conventional forces of the U.S. military must consider scaling ethical instruction to all ranks and pay grades in order to create resilience across the force in the face of acknowledged uncertainty in future operations.

As with other routine matters, staying sharp to guard against this type of vulnerability takes work. In this area, of education on ethical advantage, we must recognize that “all types of competitive advantages can atrophy. . . . They need appropriate practice, exercising, and improving if they are to remain advantages in the dynamic environment of international competition.[93] An environment requiring vim is insufficient for the jus ad bellum/jus in bello construct, and the same is the case for ethics. The standard, or status quo “binary ethical codes do not provide sufficient guidance. . . . In fact, strict adherence to binary ethical codes, which are characteristically black-and-white, can be harmful. . . . They encourage oversimplification when what is critical is obscured by complexity.[94] The U.S. Special Forces, in a display of courageous honesty, eventually recognized that their mission sets were changing but their ethical approach and education were not evolving concurrently. This should serve as a warning of what might come if conventional forces do not reassess the context of the jus ad vim environment and remain wedded to an inadequate ethical framework. Although there is risk in taking ownership of mistakes, transparency in correcting deficiencies robs adversaries of opportunities to exploit moral failings, because there will be fewer if any to exploit.

How can we guard against such injury? What benefit will an ethical education, or at least discussion, have for our concerns? It is certainly true that “there are nuances to understanding a violation of confidence in one’s moral behavior or in expectations that others will behave in a just and ethical manner.[95] And there is a belief that “so long as we can distance ourselves, either physically or emotionally, from the act or the victim, we can operate in a manner that results in the deaths of other humans without suffering guilt and, consequently, moral injury. If we can satisfy these distancing requirements and avoid moral injury, then we can avoid suicidal ideation and behavior.[96] The adequacy of this approach does not bear out when one notes the trends of suicide and self-harm that pervade our force at present.

If, then, we are capable of creating space for ethical decision-making, we may be able to prepare our personnel to avoid ethical drift or injury when a decision must be made. We have argued that through policy direction, guidance, the acknowledged approach of the competition continuum, and an exploration of jus ad vim, U.S. personnel will be expected to act in the name of the country in a manner different from the status quo. It is simply not enough to expect that, without finely honing their ethical abilities, young men and women will arrive at the best decisions in most moral dilemmas. Personnel are being asked to harmonize their actions with their minds, in some instance when they personnel are not yet fully developed intellectually, at least from the biological standpoint. Should they survive a mission physically, it is important not to forget that when a service member is at home, his religion, his schooling, and the moral code and ideals of his society have made him. The military cannot unmake him. It must reckon with the fact that he comes from a civilization in which aggression connected with the taking of life is prohibited and unacceptable. . . it is not removable by intellectual reasoning such as, “kill or be killed.[97]

The broad geographic expanse of the contemporary military environment coupled with the decline in the ranks of supervisors is likely to mean that opportunities for ethical missteps are greater without preparation. There are more opportunities to “feel guilt when we believe we have done something or are ourselves morally vicious; we feel shame when we believe other, specifically close acquaintances, will perceive us to be or as having done something morally vicious.[98] Given these new realities, “we should affirm the claim that each human being has natural human rights, although warily so and with due recognition of the particular temptations to which we thereby expose ourselves.[99]

These recommendations do not come without a risk of vulnerability in the personal considerations. However, “we especially want to avoid imposing costs on ourselves that consume our resources at a rate we cannot support.[100] This conservation of resources must not be limited to the tangible—ammunition, money, and so forth. The long-term costs incurred by an individual due a lack of ethical preparation may wear out the psyche, as evidenced by the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, the tragic data on suicides, and the untold losses of adversaries and appalling numbers of civilian casualties.


The character of warfare is changing—this much can be agreed upon. At the level of policy, the U.S. has recognized as much and is directing the country to prepare itself for the new form of conflict. The rising powers for which plans must be devised span the globe , and with that there is an appreciation that the traditional American approach to war is likely to be inadequate, as the preponderance of actions will probably take place below the threshold of war but still require violence. To remain agile as a force, The Marine Corps has laid out an approach to warfare along the competition continuum. Specifically, as Marine leaders progress through their careers, they must develop an understanding of concepts that provide the ability to lead organizations like the Marine Corps through the cycles of innovation that are essential to staying at the forefront of competition. These concepts go beyond just adaptation. They include topics like organizational learning, the ability for an organization to sense changes in its environment and improve its effectiveness and efficiency in response; change management, the ability to implement change in an organization while keeping its people engaged; and the difference between sustaining and disruptive innovation, which is essentially the difference between incremental improvements to what exists and new and better approaches that displace the old methods over time[101]

Although it is helpful to understand the context in which we exist, and the familiar tools at our disposal, neither the redirection nor the competition continuum addresses the ethical foundation required to survive, let alone succeed, in such actions. JWT is a good foundation for ethical decisions of the conduct of warfare. However, it is clear that just as there are gray-zone operations that are less than declared warfare, so too are there gray-zone ethical matters that must be addressed. The consequence is that “the use of limited force challenges the simple dichotomy between peace and war as far as the term ‘war’ does not adequately capture the full spectrum of lethal force states use to counter international threats.[102] In this work, the jus ad vim framework has been applied to determine the ethical rectitude of actions that fall below the register of overt war. We discussed the need to establish an awareness of ethical frameworks to prepare service members to thrive in uncertainty. The use of vim is meant to “contribute to the ethical debates about the use of force by asking us to look more closely at the dilemmas of limited force.[103] Recognition is increasing of the reality that participation in our Nation’s competitions starts at recruitment. The quality level of individuals brought into the Service provides the raw material to build a credible force. Attributes like education level, physical fitness, and mental resilience determine how quickly these individuals can be transformed into members of a coherent, capable organization. These attributes also help establish the range of possibilities available to adapt the existing force or innovate to create a new one[104]

Although this is wonderful, and in most respects true, it is imperative to keep in mind that service members are parts of a greater whole. Beyond the DoD, they are community members and also individuals, and “as humans we all have frailties and failings, but there is a difference between a personal moral failure (which will always happen) and systematic failures to take ethics seriously as part of the institutional culture and DNA.[105]

There is much work still to be done on this subject if the requirement for moral rectification following drift or injury is to be made as minimal as possible. There is no panacea, but it is readily understood that “while no moral education or training can possibly prepare students for every eventuality, it can anticipate common issues, categories, and problems that might be encountered and do some preparation along those lines.[106] Ideally, these concepts are applicable across the force. We must adopt an explicit approach to ethics that permeates the very fabric of our military institutions and can facilitate thoughtful actions. Doing so will serve only to bolster the personal and professional advantage of each member, their respective services, and the nation as a whole, and promote righteous action.

About the Author

Lieutenant Colonel Soucie is the commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2D Marine Division.  He previously served as the operations officer for the 11th MEU alongside Amphibious Squadron V and the USS Boxer Amphibious Ready Group during WESTPAC 19.2.  He is a graduate of the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies and the US Naval War Colleges’ Senior Officer College of Naval Warfare.


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[1]Danielle L. Lupton, Valerie Morkevičius, and Jai Galliott. “The Fog of War: Violence,Coercion, and Jus ad Vim.” (2019), 39.

[2]Ibid., 44.

[3]Jai Galliott, ed., Force Short of War in Modern Conflict (Edinburgh University Press,2019), 288.

[4]Pauline M. Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare: Achilles Goes Asymmetrical (Ashgate Publishing, 2014), 3. Advantage: Towards an Adapted

[7]Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War, vol. 117 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UniversityPress, 1976), book VIII, chapter 3, 593.

[8]Benjamin Jensen, “Distributed Maritime Operations: Back to the Future?” War on the Rocks. Accessed January 25, 2021.

[9]See David Tucker and Christopher J. Lamb, “Peacetime Engagement” in Sam Sarkesian and Robert Connor, America’s Armed Forces, A Handbook of Current and Future Capabilities (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996).

[10]Joint Doctrine Note, “Note 1−19.” Competition Continuum, Washington DC: U.S.Department of Defense (2019), 4.

[11]Ibid., vii.

[12]Mark T. Esper, ed. Military and Security Developments Involving the People'sRepublic of China 2020: Annual Report to Congress (Diane Publishing, 2020), x.

[13]Ibid., 71.

[14]Ibid., 70.

[15]Giles D. Harlow and George C. Maerz, eds., Measures Short of War: The George F. Kennan Lectures at the National War College, 1946–47 (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1990), 6–8.

[16]U.S. Marine Corps, “Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication MCDP 1–4, Competing. 14December 2020, 1–3.

[17]Benjamin Jensen., an-emerging-paradigm/

[18]Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., “How to Deter China: The Case for ArchipelagicDefense,” Foreign Affairs 94 (2015): 78.

[19]U.S. Marine Corps, 1–17.

[20]Krepinevich, 78.

[21]U.S. Marine Corps, 5–4.

[22]Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, 102.

[23]Umberto Eco, “Reflections on War,” La Rivista dei libri (1 April 1991); reprinted in Umberto Eco, Five Moral Pieces, trans. Alastair McEwen, pp. 1–17 (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1997).

[24]Kevin Scott, Joint Operating Environment 2035, Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff/J7, July 14, 2016, ii.

[25]Joint Doctrine Note, v.

[26]U.S. Marine Corps, 4–8.

[27]Joint Doctrine Note, 7.

[28]U.S. Marine Corps, 2−17.

[31]U.S. Marine Corps, 1.


[33]U.S. Marine Corps, 2−20.

[34]U.S. Marine Corps, 5–6.

[35]U.S. Marine Corps, 5–6.

[36]Zachery Tyson Brown, “Unmasking War’s Changing Character.” Modern War Institute (, accessed on 31 January 2021.

[37]James Turner Johnson, “Just War Tradition and Low-Intensity Conflict,” InternationalLaw Studies 67, no. 1 (1995): 148.

[38]Fritz Allhoff, Nicholas G. Evans, and Adam Henschke. Routledge Handbook of Ethics and War; Just War Theory in the 21st Century. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013.… &site=ehost-live.

[39]Lupton et al., 36.

[40]U.S. Marine Corps, 1–8.

[41]Galliott, 284.

[42]Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with HistoricalIllustrations (Basic Books, 2015) 127.

[43]Aquinas, Thomas, Aquinas: Political Writings (2002).



[46]Lupton et al., 42.

[47]Pauline Shanks-Kaurin, On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2020), 16.

[48]U.S. Marine Corps, 1–17.

[49]Ben Connable, Jason H. Campbell, and Dan Madden, “Stretching and Exploiting Thresholds for High-Order War: How Russia, China, and Iran Are Eroding American Influence Using Time-Tested Measures Short of War” (RAND Corporation, 2016), ix.

[50]Seumas Miller. “Jus ad vim: The Morality of Military and Police Use of Force inArmed Conflicts Short of War.” In Force Short of War in Modern Conflict: Jus ad vim (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), 127–47.

[51]Lupton et al., 37.

[52]Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun. “From jus ad bellum to jus ad vim: Recalibratingour Understanding of the Moral Use of Force,” Ethics & International Affairs 27, no. 1 (2013):87.

[53]Brunstetter and Braun, 87.

[54]Lupton et al., 37.

[55]Martin Van Creveld, On Future War (London: Brassey’s, 1991), 159.

[56]Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); James M. Ludes, A Consistency of Purpose: Political Warfare and the National Security Strategy of the Eisenhower Administration, unpublished PhD dissertation, Georgetown University, 2003. On informational activities to counter Soviet influence efforts, see Herbert Romerstein “The Interagency Active Measures Working Group,” in Michael Waller, ed., Strategic Influence, Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda, and Political Warfare (Washington, DC: Institute for World Politics, 2009).

[57]Lupton et al., 47.

[58]Galliott, 303.

[59]Peer de Vries, “Virtue Ethics in the Military: An Attempt at Completeness,” Journal ofMilitary Ethics (2020): 172.

[60]U.S. Marine Corps, 1−12.

[61]Galliott, 303.

[62]Galliott, 286.

[63]Lupton et al., 47.

[64]Brunstetter and Braun, 89.

[65]Lupton et al., 49.

[66]Ibid., 37.

[67]Ibid., 43.

[68]Ibid., 44.

[69]U.S. Marine Corps, 1–12.

[70]David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Fighting and Winning in the ‘Gray Zone,’” War on the Rocks, May 19, 2015.

[71]U.S. Marine Corps, 1−7.

[72]Ibid., 1−12.


[74]Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, 4.

[75]Galliott, 238.

[76]Ibid., 303.

[77]de Vries, 177.

[78]Jeffrey McMahan, “Can Soldiers Be Expected to Know Whether Their War Is Just?” Routledge Handbook of Ethics and War: Just War Theory in the 21st Century. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013. ?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=605493&site=ehost-live.

[79]Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, 104.

[80]David H. Berger, Posture Statement of the USMC as Delivered to the House Appropriations Committee, ap02-wstate-bergerd-202110429.pdf?ver=8bg7j-jx894-idwzumlhqq%3d%3d. accessed on 07 May 2021.

[81]Labuz et al.

[82]Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, 107.

[83]Ibid., 104.

[84]Labuz et al.

[85]U.S. Marine Corps, 1–16.

[86]Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, 102.

[87]Ibid., 101.

[88]U.S. Marine Corps, 3–8.

[89]Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, 97.

[90]Ibid., 4.

[91]Labuz et al.

[92]Nancy Sherman, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

[93]U.S. Marine Corps, 2−6.

[94]Labuz et al.

[95]B. T. Litz, N. Stein, E. Delaney, L. Lebowitz, W. P. Nash, C. Silva, and S. Maguen, “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and InterventionStrategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009): 695–706.

[96]Galliott, 243.

[97]Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall. Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 78.

[98]Galliott, 238.

[99]Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, 2010), 58.

[100]U.S. Marine Corps, 5–11.

[101]U.S. Marine Corps, 3–7.

[102]Micah Zenko, Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (Stanford University Press, 2010).

[103]Galliott, 286.

[104]U.S. Marine Corps, 3–2.

[105]Shanks-Kaurin, The Warrior, 103.

[106]Ibid., 97.