Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Merry Christmas from all of us here at Did I Sign Up For This.  To spread the Christmas cheer, here is a video just out of the latest use of the Boston Dynamics Big Dog - pulling Santa's sleigh.....

May you and your family be safe this Holiday season, no matter where in the world you are, especially if you are on deployment.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

There’s no good reason for keeping women off the front lines – something the United States needs to recognise

U.S. Army Pfc Kristina Batty in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, May 5, 2012.  Batty, a medic, is assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team. 
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

The U.S. military may finally be coming around on the question of women on the front lines.

In 2013 U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panette rescinded the ground combat exclusion policy for women following a unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The armed forces were to outline their process for having gender neutral occupational standards for all frontline positions by the 1st of October 2015.  Defence had until the same date to request exclusions for roles that they did not believe were suitable for women to serve in.

On September 30th military leaders presented their recommendations to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel and Defense Secretary Carter in a confidential briefing.

In the 1940s the U.S. military faced similar debates regarding black service personnel. Arguments regarding unit cohesion and operational capability were the most prominent against integration of white and black personnel. With the power of hindsight we can see those arguments for what they were – scare tactics intended to keep the military segregated.

Male and female participants at the Ranger School Course at Fort Benning, GA, April 20, 2015
U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Nikayla Shodeen

The same arguments have returned today. At the command of Secretary Panetta the U.S. Army underwent a two year study to develop gender-neutral standards for specialist roles currently closed to women.  The success of this standardised approach was demonstrated recently when two women graduated from the gruelling Army Ranger School.

There have been vocal critics of allowing women to attempt the Army Ranger School course.  Some claim the standards were lowered for these women.  This was adamantly denied by the Army at the Ranger School Course graduation ceremony.  It was hotly denied again by the Chief of Army Public Affairs who described the allegations as "pure fiction".

These allegations are unlike to settle down any time soon.  A Congressman has requested service records of the women who graduated to investigate "serious allegations" of bias and the lowering of standards by Ranger School instructors.

This incident reveals the depth of scepticism regarding women’s ability to serve alongside men within some quarters. The standardised approach has dismissed the issue of operational capacity – the other arguments against female service are equally weak.

The potential for women to be captured and raped has been raised by opponents of women serving in combat units.  This discussion ignores the sad reality - women in defence are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by their own troops than by the enemy.  The 2013 DOD report into sexual assault in the military found that whilst women make up 14.5% of the U.S. Military, they make up 86% of sexual assault victims within the military.  Of the 301 reports to the DODO of sexual assault in combat zones in 2013, only 12 were by foreign military personnel, meaning that the vast majority of sexual abuse victims in combat areas were abused by their own comrades, not the enemy.

Sexual abuse in the military has been a problem for decades.  Why would it increase if we allowed women in combat?  Rape of captured soldiers has also not been limited to women.  Many men have also been sexually assaulted on capture. Sexual assault in this sphere is not about sexual desire and gratification - it is about power over and denigration of your enemy.

The second argument suggests women in combat units will affect unit cohesion.  First, "the boys" won't be able to be themselves. And second, if a woman in injured in battle, men will be unable to focus on the mission and instead will be driven to protect their female colleagues.    The first argument raises a question about military culture.  Why is behaviour considered inappropriate around women tolerated at all?  The second argument is insulting to currently serving soldiers, whose professionalism and commitment to the mission is questioned by such claims.  

Soldiers overcome a ranger of powerful instincts in a firefight - including to protect their own lives.  To suggest soldiers would ignore the mission in favour of some other goal undervalues the extent of military professionalism.

Australian Army Corporal Jessica Kelly mans the MAG58 General Purpose Machine Gun at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
Photo by SGT Ray Vance, 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence.

There is also an elephant in the room.  Women have been serving in combat roles for years - as pilots, on ships, as interpreters and in female engagement teams.  For these women a decision regarding the position of women in combat is irrelevant - they are already on the front lines.

The Australian situation sits in stark contrast to that of the US. Gay & lesbian members have served openly for a decade, women have been fully integrated into combat units since 2013 and the ADF now actively recruits transgender personnel.
Australia has been able to integrate women, gay, lesbian and transgender soldiers into combat units without affecting operational capability. 

Now that Defense Secretary Carter has been given the recommendations of his service chiefs, he will have to make a decision regarding the integration of women in to combat roles. A decision is expected before the 1st of January 2016 deadline. 

The Defense Secretary is the judge and jury on this decision that will affect hundreds of thousands of U.S. female military personnel. Hopefully he will follow the advice of his Chiefs of Staff and allow military personnel to serve in all roles in the military according to universal standards, regardless of whether they have X or Y chromosomes.

This article was originally published on  The Ethics Centre blog. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Academia takes a sinister turn

Newly hired United States Military Academy (West Point) Assistant Law Professor William C. Bradford has called for the killing of certain law and ethics scholars in their offices, because he claims, by speaking out against some actions of the United States, or by calling for restraint on the use of military force in international relations, they have become enemy combatants in the war on Islamism.

No, I'm not making this up, and it isn't April Fools Day either.

Bradford's paper has been BIG news in the military ethics world, and now it seems it is big news outside of our circle as well, as evidenced by an article in The Guardian regarding Bradford's claims.

Bradford doesn't directly name the scholars he believes should be targeted (presumbaly out of a fear of litigation), except for a number who have the dubious honour of being cited in his footnotes in the 185 page long diatribe. Some of those he does name in the footnotes include Professor David Rodin from Oxford, Professor Gabbi Blum from Harvard, Professor David Luban from Georgetown, and Professor Michael Walzer from Princeton, who is the founding father of the modern study of Just War Theory.  I am relieved that no one in my department is directly named, however I would imagine he would have a major problem with my colleague & partner Stephen Coleman​'s TEDx talk on Terrorism & my post on the Red Cross teachings Hamas about IHL, as well as my recent talk about the documentary Drone at the Stonger than Fiction Film Festival, as well as the work of almost all of our friends and colleagues in the Military Ethics community.

Like the rest of the Military Ethics community I am horrified that someone would be allowed to publish such death threats - polite though they are, they are still calling for the bombing of scholars in their offices (including their home offices), as long as there isn't too much collateral damage.

I am saddened that West Point would hire such a person, especially since he allegedly had to leave a previous job for misrepresenting his military service - yes, I promise, I'm not making this up - as it tarnishes the reputation of the fine institution that West Point is, and the reputation of the other wonderful scholars who work there, some of whom ought to be targeted with violence according to his claims.

The National Security Law Journal has published an apology to their readers that states that they "made a mistake in publishing the highly controversial article" that was "not presentable for publication".  It goes on to say that they can't "unpublish the article" - whilst I agree you can't easily unpublish it in print form, the NSLJ continue to have it up online on their website, though it could be removed quite easily.  The decision to leave the paper up online, effectively means that the editorial committee are standing by their decision to publish it in the first place.

I have to say when I read the NSLJ apology, I had to read it twice and ask myself "I'm sorry, what did that pathetic excuse for a "cover-my-arse-in-case-something-goes-wrong" apology say?"  Seriously, Rick Myers, Editor on Chief, is that truly the best you can do?  No, we are not objecting to the fact that this article was "highly controversial", it is the fact that the author calls for the direct targeting of academics, in their offices (both at their institutions and at home).  This article isn't simply controversial, it is inciting people to violence. No, we aren't complaining because it was "not presentable for publication" - that implies that there are merely typographical or referencing mistakes that needed fixing prior to publication.

Simply put, I believe the Journal, the editor-in-chief Rick Myers, and the George Mason School of Law Dean Henry Butler owe an explanation to us all - starting with answering my most pressing questions; (1) Did you even READ this article before you published it, and if you did, (2) what the hell were you thinking when you decided to publish it?, and (3) When are you going to remove it from your website?

I do realise that this is a student run journal, however it is a postgraduate law school student run journal, that portrays itself as a respectable journal of law, not a High School newsletter. In fact on the "about us" section of the journal's website it states that the new journal logo "reflects the academic quality of our work. Together, they present a journal that is strong, innovative and committed to quality scholarship for the 21st century".  Sadly in publishing the article by Bradford, you have undermined your credibility as a journal capable of publishing "quality scholarship", and also that of the school who sponsors the journal.  If the NSLJ is going to claim to be a respectable journal of law, then the editorial board and all those affiliated with it have a responsibility to provide us with more in the way of answers than merely apologising for a controversial article that was not presentable for publication.

The George Mason School of Law has an honor code which states that "each student at George Mason University School of Law is entering a profession where honest and ethical conduct is not only a professional responsibility, but a legal requirement" - perhaps it is time that the students and faculty at the George Mason School of Law took that honor code seriously.

I wish to commend  Professor Jeremy Rabkin, a faculty member at the George Mason School of Law for publishing a piece titled "A Betrayal of Rational Argument" in which he discusses with great insight the article in question.  Perhaps Professor Rabkin should have written the apology for Rick Myers to use on the journal front page.

So this is my public call for the National Security Law Journal and West Point to stand up and be accountable for publishing and hiring William C. Bradford. The concept of academic freedom is essential, however the article by Bradford crosses over the line - in fact look behind you NSLJ and West Point, this professor has stepped soooooo far over that line you will need binoculars to find the line.   In academia we can have strongly held opposing views and still enter into a respectful dialogue - this is neither respectful nor dialogue.

EDIT - 1st September 2015 - William C. Bradford has resigned from West Point and this has been reported in The Guardian and by RetractionWatch who received a statemebt from West Point that said "Dr William Bradford resigned on Sunday.  He was hired on Aug. 1, 2015 and taught 5 lessons from Aug. 17-27.  He taught a common law corse".

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


The image I have in my head when I think of a Hamas fighter is that of the militant with a balaclava hiding their identity wearing a para-military “uniform” whilst firing Qassam rockets into civilian areas in Israel.  Or perhaps the image of a suicide bomber killing themselves and as many civilians as they can.  It is surprising then to read an article in the New York Times this week  about the workshops run by the InternationalCommittee of the Red Cross teaching Hamas fighters their responsibilities under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). 

The three day workshops examine things such as the importance of the Geneva Conventions, and how they complement Islamic Principles.  By utilising case studies and discussion based role playing of scenarios they encourage the participants to examine the principles of just war theory (jus in bello), IHL, and how the teachings of Islam fit in with these concepts (and you may be surprised to discover they fit in surprisingly closely).  Apart from the examination of the teachings of Islam, this is the same approach I take in teaching military ethics to junior officer cadets – I found this comparison surprising.

In 2008, Muhammad Munir, a professor of law at the International Islamic University in Islamabad wrote an interesting article titled Suicide Attacks and Islamic Law in the International Review of the Red Cross Journal.  Generally speaking, the main problem with suicide attacks in relation to just war theory and IHL, is the indiscriminate nature of most suicide attacks (that is those that aren’t directly targeted at combatants in situations such as “green on blue” attacks).  Munir found that the prohibition in IHL and just war theory over the deliberate targeting of civilians through suicide attacks, is in line with Islamic teaching and that “a suicide bomber might be committing at least five crimes according to Islamic law, namely killing civilians, mutilating their bodies, violating the trust of enemy soldiers and civilians, committing suicide and destroying civilian objects or properties”.

It is important to note that there are Islamic scholars who support the deliberate targeting of civilians who are not Muslim, but that they do not make up the majority of opinion of the Muslim population worldwide.  The similar analogy would be if all Christians around the world were held accountable for the beliefs of the Klu Klux Klan – this is simply unreasonable for Christians.  Likewise it is unreasonable for all Muslims to be held accountable for the use of suicide bombers in Israel (and the actions of ISIL and ISIS more recently).  It is important to remember that Islam was more advanced in the treatment of civilians in war for many centuries before it was codified into the Geneva Conventions.  Mohammad Ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani (748-804AD) was the first to codify the rules of war and these were added to by Imam al-Awza’I (707-774AD). According to the ICRC “by affirming the principle of humanity in the midst of war, al-Shaybaniand al-Awza’I helped pioneer the modern law of armed conflict”.

If Hamas is to gain the credibility they need in order to legitimise their cause in the international community, then they are going to have to seriously reconsider their tactics involving Israeli civilians.  If there is to be a change in tactics away from suicide bombings and rockets (that cannot be aimed with much degree of accuracy), then the question must be asked how this can possibly come about.  Given that Gaza is an occupied territory with borders tightly controlled by other states, it is difficult to see how they would be able to move to more modern warfare methods which are more discriminate.  Israel will never allow Palestine to have access to more accurate weapons, and so it makes me wonder why fighters are being trained in IHL, when they do not have other weapons which are more discriminate in nature.  My hope is that workshops like these are not just “window dressing” but a genuine desire to turn around international opinion based on a change in tactics away from targeting civilians.  Palestine as the occupied territory has wasted the moral high ground they occupy because of their targeting of civilians.  Conversely Israel does not seem to care what the international community think of their actions in regards to killing 1462 civilians in the Gaza conflict in 2015, largely because of the attacks (both by suicide bombers and rocket attacks) on their own civilians. If Hamas is able to change their tactics to be more discriminate, they will be able to fulfil their responsibilities better under IHL, and may be able to recapture the moral high ground, and gain international support for a two state solution.

The timing is interesting given the International Criminal Court’s current investigation into war crimes in the Gaza conflict in mid-2014.  According to the UN Human Rights Commission, during the 7 week conflict 2251 Palestinians were killed in Gaza (of which 65% were identified by the UN as civilians, including 551 children), and 71 Israelis & 1 Thai national were killed in Israel (of which 8.3% were civilians).  In June 2015 the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Gaza Conflict found that it likely that war crimes were most likely committed by both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, although it seems that the civilian casualties were disproportionately on the Palestinian side, with 30% of those civilian casualties being children.  

According to the New York Times, Jacques de Maio, director of the Red Cross in the Israeli and Palestinian territories stated that “for the first time, Hamas is actually, in a private, protected space, expressing a readiness to look critically at a number of things that have an impact on their level of respect for international humanitarian law.  Whether this will translate into something concrete, time will tell”.  My hope is that Hamas is using these workshops as a genuine step forward towards peace – for the 1.8million people crammed into the 360km2 in Gaza, their future depends on it.

(Thank you to Steven Jones for making me aware of the ICRC workshops)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Next Generation Sniper Rifle Hacked

In a demonstration of the wise saying “Just because you can make something, doesn’t mean you should”, the laser guided wifi enabled sniper rifle has been hacked.

12 Months ago I updated the technology page of this blog to include the TrackingPoint Precision Guided Firearm (PGF).  All that is needed to turn someone like myself (a complete shooting novice) into a sniper, is to “paint” the target with a laser sight, pull the trigger and then line up the firing dots.  When the target is in the optimal position (taking in to account wind, movement, curvature of the earth etc) the gun will fire on its own to take down the target.  I raised a number of concerns when I first posted about this weapon, including the wifi capabilities of the gun might lead to it being hacked.  Twelve months later, and that is no longer a possibility, but a reality.

Security researchers Runa Sandvik and Michael Auger were able to successfully hack into the TrackingPoint PGF’s computer and change the target, without the gun user being aware.  They also managed to hack the gun so that it couldn’t be fired by disabling the firing pin, and made changes so that the gun would fire wildly off target. Auger and Sandvik also found that they could load malware software on to the gun, so that changes were not initially obvious until certain times or locations are realised.

Happily, it was not easy for Sandvik and Auger to hack into the gun – it took them a year and they eventually had to destroy one of the guns by completely pulling it apart in order to work out how to hack in to it. However, now that the work is done, it can be repeated on other copies of the same gun.  What is to stop a well funded military who has a lot of hacking expertise (yes, I’m looking at you China and Russia) from purchasing a gun and doing the same thing?

I have many concerns about the capabilities of this weapon, however it seems that the biggest vulnerability with the gun was its wifi capability. Which begs the question, of why was it wifi enabled in the first place.  It seems it was to make it easier to operate from difficult positions (using google glass for example, to shoot around corners), and to share your exploits (be they shooting animals for sport or humans in battle) in current time to your friends and family back home, and your command in HQ.  Sandvik in an interview with PCMag stated that "There's a lot of cool things you can do with technology and connecting it to the net, but there's a question of whether or not it's necessary to do that".

It seems that the CEO of TrackingPoint could use some sage advice from William Adama from Battlestar Gallactica, who had a deep distrust of networked computers when it came to military equipment.  Perhaps it is time to take stock and think about the ethical and security issues raised with the development of new weapons – just because it can be made, doesn’t mean it should be made, and just because it can be wifi capable, doesn't mean it should be.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

70th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

Atomic Clouds over Hiroshima (L) and Nagasaki (R).  Wikicommons.  Left photo taken by Charles Levy 

In the late 1980's I spent a year living in Japan as an exchange student in Kofu, Yamanashi. I loved my time in Kofu and it largely shaped the person I am today, particularly living with the Wakao family and training with my Kyudo club to get my black belt in Japanese Archery. When I was living in Japan I met people who had been scarred by their experiences of living through the atomic blast at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fast forward almost 30 years, and I am now teaching both of these events as case studies in Military Ethics at the Australian Defence Force Academy.  

Today is the 70th  anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and coincidentally we have been discussing the event in class.  Making these discussions even more poignant, I currently have an exchange student from the National Defense Academy of Japan in my class, and so discussions of the bombing of Hiroshima have taken on a very personal tone this week (when we would normally be using it to discuss consequentialism).

Photo by Shigeo Hayashi, October 1945.Hiroshima Peace Dome.

An article by Christian Appy was published on the Salon website today titled "The indefensible Hiroshima revisionism that haunts America to this day".  I found some of the claims in the article quite shocking, and so went digging to see if the facts matched up to what they were claiming.

I am not a World War II historian. However, I do recognise that there have been two largely separate accounts of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Those on the "pro" drop the bomb side argue that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings were necessary to end the war quickly.  Those on the "anti" drop the atomic bomb side of the argument, disagree with a number of claims from the "pro" drop the bomb side of the debate.  Here is what my digging found today...... 

In 1947, Secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson argued that the dropping of both bombs were necessary in order to bring about a quick end to the Second World War, and was necessary to save a million allied casualties that would be incurred in a full scale invasion of the main islands of Japan.  From "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb", Harper Magazine, Vol 194, no 1161 (February 1947), pp 101-107.

On the 17th of July 1945, twelve U.S. Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project wrote to President Truman petitioning him to not use the atomic bomb on Japan due to the responsibility that they felt the USA had to prevent "opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale".  Petition to the President of the United States, July 17, 1945.

18th July 1945 Diary entry for President Truman 

On the 18th of July U.S. President Truman wrote in his diary "P.M. [Prime Minister Winston Churchill] & I ate alone. Discussed Manhattan [atomic bomb] (it is a success).  Decided to tell Stalin about it.  Stalin had told P.M. of telegram from Jap Emperor asking for Peace.  Stalin also read his answer to me.  It was satisfactory.  Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in".  It is clear from this diary entry that Japan was attempting to surrender as early as July 1945 and that President Truman was aware of this.  It is also clear from this (and from his letters to his wife) that he believed that Japan would surrender before the planned allied invasion of Kyushu in November 1945 and before Russia entered the war with Japan as planned in early August 1945.

General Eisenhower opposed the use of the atomic bomb, arguing in July 1945 with Secretary of War Henry Stimson that he had "grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face'".  Eisenhower, D (1963) Mandate for Change, 1953-1956:The White House Years. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.  p. 380.

In 1945 the United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that "based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated". United States Strategic Bombing Survey (1945). United States Strategic Bombing Survey [reports].  Washington DC. p. 104.  This claim by the U.S. Department of Defence's own United States Strategic Bombing Survey makes it difficult to sustain the claim that the use of the atomic bomb was necessary to bring about a quicker end to the war in the Pacific.

Minutes of Meeting held at the White House, June 18, 1945. p. 5

Often the fact that there were 41,700 allied casualties in the taking of Okinawa is highlighted as a consideration for there being a potential for a large number of casualties in the proposed invasion of Kyushu.  However at a meeting held at the White House with President Truman on the 18th of June 1945, Fleet Admiral King stated that there was a big difference between the invasion of Okinawa and the proposed invasion of Kyushu.  "There had been only one way to go on Okinawa.  This meant a straight frontal attack against a highly fortified position.  On Kyushu however landings would be made on three fronts simultaneously and there would be much more room to maneuver.  It was his opinion that a realistic casualty figure for Kyushu would lie somewhere between the number experienced by General MacArthur in the operations on Luzon and the Okinawa casualties."  Minutes of Meeting held at White House, June 18, 1945.  p. 5. 

Minutes of Meeting held at the White House.  June 18, 1945. p. 3.

Admiral King stated that the expected casualties would be between 31,000 and 41,700.  This number is drastically different the claim after the bombings that the use of the atomic bomb would save millions of allied casualties.  It seems then that there is little justification for the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, except for their use as a radiation experiment on live participants, and in preventing Russia from invading Japan in the north, leading to the partitioning of Japan in a similar way to Germany. 

The fact that the use of the atomic bomb on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki breached the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and did not fulfill the requirements of Just War Theory (jus in bello), combined with the fact that atomic & nuclear weapons have since been declared means mala in se (evil in and of themselves), had already led me to the conclusion that their use was unjustified on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Looking at the evidence I came across today in only a few hours (the Internet is a wonderful thing when libraries such as the Truman Presidential Library make available all their manuscript collection online), it seems that the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was deplorable, and that the white washing of history around these events is a continuation of that travesty.

For a more personal account of the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is worth taking a look at the book Sadako and the comic Barefoot Gen.  The Global Hibakusha Project also tells the stories of survivors of radiation from nuclear weapons.    

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review of Transgender people serving in the US Military

I am lucky to have been able to teach and become friends with transgender people serving in the Australian Defence Force.  So when I visited the US Military Academy at West Point recently, I was saddened to see how the policy of not allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military affected the lives (and mental health) of cadets at West Point.  To be honest, it brought tears to my eyes, knowing that they were willing to serve, despite the fact that the military could dishonorably discharge them at any time, simply for their gender identity.  It was therefor a wonderful moment when a friend excitedly sent me an article about the possible change in policy regarding transgender people serving in the US military.

U.S. Defense Secretary Carter announced in July that there would be a defense department review into the feasibility of transgender people serving openly in the US defense force.  This announcement followed on from Defense Secretary Hagel's public comments in 2014 regarding the possibility of transgender members serving.  This review will take six months and will look at the practicalities around currently serving transgender soldiers, as well as the issues that may be raised around the transition process for military service personnel who are transitioning gender.

During my time at West Point I felt very honored to be invited to attend the Knights Out Dinner organised by the West Point Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association, and several transgender soldiers were honored at this dinner for their service and for their moral courage in the face of extensive discrimination within the military.  Much of the discussion at that dinner was around the improvement of the situation of gay and lesbian soldiers, and the huge hurdles faced by transgender service members.  I was therefor pleasantly surprised to read of the DOD review into transgender people serving in the US military, as I assumed it would take much longer for such a process to happen.

For many decades gay and lesbian soldiers served in the U.S. military, not disclosing their sexual orientation for fear of being dishonorably discharged as a result of it.  In 1993 President Bill Clinton brought in the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that made it possible for Gay and Lesbian soldiers to serve, although not openly.  The restriction on serving in the US military as an open Gay or Lesbian ended on the 20th of September, 2011. Many of the service personnel who were discharged prior to DADT for being gay and lesbian were given Less Than Honorable Discharges (sometimes referred to as dishonorable discharges).  These less than honorable discharges had a lifelong impact on veterans, restricting their access to benefits such as veteran's health care, and the GI Bill, as well as making it difficult for them to find employment. The Department of Defense has enabled the 114,000 service members who were discharged only for their sexuality to be able to apply to upgrade their discharge status to honorable, through the review board process for each service.  

Cate McGregor - 

In contrast to the situation in the United States, transgender soldiers have been able to serve openly in the Australian Defence Force since 2010, and Gay and Lesbian soldiers have been able to serve openly since 1992, (which interestingly was about the time that the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy began).  Group Captain Cate McGregor is Australia's highest ranking transgender military member, having served in many different roles, including as speechwriter and strategic advisor to the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison (who is famous internationally for his "get out" video on youtube regarding inclusion in the Australian military.  

I look forward to watching the US military move forward to join the Australian military in allowing openly transgender members to serve their country.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Open Letter on the Banning of Autonomous Weapons Systems

The Future of Life Institute has published an Open Letter calling for the banning of Autonomous Weapons Systems. 

Here is the text of that open letter....

Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is — practically if not legally — feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.

Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits. Indeed, chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.
In summary, we believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so. Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.

You can view the list of signatories here   (including Stephen Hawking, Skype founder Jaan Tallinn and Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak). 

Several other organisations are also calling for the banning of autonomous weapons systems, such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, and Article 36.

Whilst I share a lot of their concerns, I suspect that at this point lethal autonomous weapons systems are inevitable, and the debate over whether they should be developed should have happened at this level a long time ago, and not on the eve of their deployment into the field. The discussion around LAWS, whilst it is vital for the future of warfare, also seems to ignore the elephant in the room -  that is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (also sometimes called drones) mainly by the USA in a wide variety of lethal situations, which has been outside of the normal theatre of war (usually in the name of the war on terror) and can only be described as assassinations or targeted killings. Whilst the automation of weapons systems does raise unique issues, it seems that we need to be getting right the issues regarding unmanned but not fully autonomous weapons systems first.  The people of Pakistan do not care that the drones flying overhead terrorising their children are manned or operating autonomously - the effect for them is the same.

In order to more fully understand the issues raised on these emerging technologies it is worth looking at the work of  respected ethicist Pat Lin, who was invited to speak at the UN deliberations on LAWS at the five day meeting in Geneva in April 2015 on the Convention for Certain Weapons.  A copy of Pat's presentation "The right to life and the Marten's clause" is available online to read as well as the presentations of others to the meeting. The article "Do Killer Robots Violate Human Rights" that Pat wrote for The Atlantic about these discussions and the issues that they raised is very interesting reading 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Partial Overturning of the Feres Doctrine by the US Supreme Court

Since 1950 US military personnel have been unable to sue the Department of Defence for injury or death caused by negligence under the Feres Doctrine.  The Feres Doctrine is a Supreme Court ruling which prohibits any U.S. military personnel (serving, or retired) and their families or estates (if they are deceased) from suing the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) even in the case of gross negligence.  The Feres Doctrine has previously also been used to prevent court action against contractors who provide goods and services for the DOD, as they were also effectively covered under the Feres Doctrine through the appeal to the need to maintain national security. However, in January 2015 that immunity from prosecution for contractors was overturned by a ruling from the Supreme Court.  The ruling was given without comment or explanation from the Supreme Court, however effectively removes the immunity from prosecution previously granted to private military contracting companies acting on behalf of the Department of Defence.

Just as the Feres Doctrine was a ruling on three separate cases together, the ruling from the Supreme Court on the accountability of contractors towards military personnel, was also a ruling on three separate cases.  The KBR ruling was in regards to the following three cases

- Harris v KBR  - In 2008 Green Beret Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth died in Iraq due to faulty electrical work, leading to him being electrocuted in the shower.  The faulty electrical work was done by the private military contract company (PMC) Kellogg, Brown and Root Inc (KBR).  Ryan’s family (in particular his mother Cheryl Harris) were unable to sue the DOD for negligence, so they instead sued  KBR who were responsible for the maintenance on the electrical work which subsequently led to his death.  Sadly evidence given to the House Oversight Committee in 2008 highlight the fact that both KBR and the Pentagon were aware of the problems with the electrical work in Iraq, and that Staff Sgt.  Maseth was not the only electrocution victim, and that the Pentagon and KBR did nothing to rectify these systemic problems, which resulted in several unnecessary deaths
- Metzgar et al v. KBR  - This case is a collection of 58 class action and individual suits against KBR and former parent company Halliburton, where it is alleged that KBR and Halliburton acted negligently whilst operating burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in military personnel developing respiratory illnesses, neurological disorders, cancer and skin diseases from living and working near open-air burn pits.  PBS has a photo essay on the burn pits which shows in quite stark visual terms the operational activities of the burn pits.  

- McManaway et al v. KBR - this case regards the exposure of British and American military personnel to the hazardous chemical sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant.  The interesting thing about this case is that it was a part of the Restore Iraqi Oil (RIO) Contract, which specifically contains provisions that require the government to indemnify KBR for any property damage, injury, or death occurring on the contract and all related legal expenses.  This contract has had numerous other concerns raised regarding the dubious nature of its creation and approval.   

The January 2015 Supreme Court ruling means that KBR (and other PMCs) can now be sued for injury or death as a result of negligence, and are no longer covered under the government indemnity of the Feres Doctrine, or the limits of the  Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) regarding activities during a time of war by combatants.  The Supreme Court ruling is a landmark decision, and a huge step forward in keeping PMCs accountable for their actions.  Whilst these rulings specifically only relate to PMCs and not the government itself, given that PMCs now contribute so much in terms of goods and services to US military operations, it effectively means that military personnel injured or killed due to negligence can now sue, if a PMC was involved in that negligence.  This ruling is in effect a partial overturning of the Feres Doctrine.  It is not hard to imagine that at some time in the future, when enough precedent has been given against PMCs, that similar cases against the government may stand a better chance of challenging the Feres Doctrine.  

Finally PMCs will now be held accountable for deaths that were directly due to their negligence, and were completely avoidable.  If we as a society are going to lose military men and women fighting to maintain our freedom, it should be because of their bravery and courage on the battlefield, not because of the shoddy work practices of a PMC attempting to cut corners in order to make a larger profit.  

Background to the Feres Doctrine ….

In 1946, Congress adopted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) (Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2401(b), 2671-2680), which allowed individuals to sue the government for  damages for injury to property, loss of property, personal injury, or wrongful death, if it could be proved that there was negligence on part of a government employee, acting within the scope of their job.  This Act was ground breaking at the time, as up to this point, the government had been previously immune from prosecution, as an extension of the concept of sovereign immunity, granted to heads of state - the ruling, whilst giving very limited scope to sue the government, never the less removed sovereign immunity for the government from prosecution as a blanket policy.  Under the Federal Tort Claims Act there are numerous exceptions regarding what can be sued for - this indludes the fact that combatant activities of military or naval forces (including the Coast Guard), in a time of war, exclude a person from suing the government, even when negligence could be proved.

In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled that the government was exempt from prosecution, not only during a time of war, or for combatant activities, but also during the entire service period of a military member - this ruling, known as the Feres Doctrine effectively barred all military personnel and their estates from suing the Department of Defence for any injury or death as a result of negligence.  You can read more about the Feres Doctrine here