Through her research, doctoral candidate Miriam de Graaff identified 355 moral dilemmas experienced by servicemen and women of all ranks and all levels of experience with deployment.

Typically, military dilemmas are thought of in terms of decision-making in extreme situations, such as whether or not to open fire. This research shows that in practice, dilemmas are very diverse and often a lot less clear-cut. Topics may include loyalty to their commanding officer versus loyalty to their army mates, or acting in accordance with international agreements (mandates) versus following their own moral compass. The dilemmas can be separated into three categories: work-related dilemmas, cultural dilemmas and personal dilemmas. Ms De Graaff researched the way in which servicemen and women deal with these dilemmas. The results showed that as situations get more intense, careful assessment becomes less frequent. It was also noted that military servicemen and women who value their own morality are more likely to downplay the situation and justify their own behaviour. Ms De Graaff’s doctoral defence will take place on 12 January at the University of Twente.

The doctoral candidate joined Task Force Uruzgan’s last tour to Afghanistan in 2010. She became a temporary servicewoman and was made a captain. Ms De Graaff says: “I spoke with military personnel and really focused on their own perception of these moral dilemmas.” The fact that perceptions and interpretations can vary immensely is shown in the following example: Two Dutch servicemen are at a road block they have set up for the purpose of checking vehicles for smuggled weapons or terrorists. A car arrives and a woman with serious burns is in the back seat. They are on their way to hospital. They decide to perform their checks as quickly as possible, so the driver and his passenger can be on their way. But when they’re done, the man gets out of the car and takes his time to smoke a cigarette. The Dutch men have very different ways of responding to the situation. One thinks this man’s behaviour is horrible and he gets angry. The other one says: ‘it’s not my place to have an opinion on this matter.’ Ms De Graaff says: “It’s usually not black and white: there are more options than ‘imposing your values on someone else and getting upset’ or ‘doing nothing’, such as calmly telling the man that he really should be on his way, or offering to have a medic take a look at his wife. These examples show that mental tools military personnel have at their disposal are aimed at making ‘split-second’ decisions. They are taught to act quickly, and usually in situations where that is necessary few options are considered, while more nuanced options may be more appropriate in delicate situations. These types of situations require greater critical reflection.”

Ms De Graaff’s research includes the full scope of moral challenges that military personnel face during military operations, from tragic incidents to ‘lesser’ dilemmas. Ms De Graaff says: “Something that is seemingly unimportant to one person can be a real moral challenge with considerable impact for someone else. For example, a corporal who was used to sharing his thoughts and feelings with his partner found that things were completely different while on deployment. After one of his close colleagues died and the threat in the region remained substantial, he still felt like he wanted to share what he was going through with his girlfriend but he found himself fearful of upsetting her, so he kept his feelings to himself. Another example is a servicewoman who feels conflicted when she has to work with servicemen from other cultures who refuse to take orders from a woman.”

A large number of military personnel say that these are the types of situations that they are hesitant to discuss with others. Ms De Graaff says: “People not familiar with army life are often clueless about these types of moral challenges, so conversations on these topics are usually superficial. They will ask if someone has ever fired a gun, for example. My research offers insight into the daily lives of servicemen and women on deployment.”

Ms De Graaff conducted this research in addition to her job as a senior Integrity Advisor and Deputy Department Head at the Ministry of Defence.

Cultural dilemmas

While on patrol, soldiers meet a very ill little girl. In this culture, however, girls are not allowed to interact with men. If the male medic who is with the soldiers and perfectly capable of offering medical assistance does nothing, this might have serious consequences for the little girl. What should the men do in this situation?

Personal dilemmas 

Dutch servicemen and women were instructed to clean up the area after a suicide bombing occurred in a marketplace. They had to collect the bomber’s body parts as well as evidence that could help track down the terrorist network behind the attack. Once they get back to base, they have a chance to call home. One of the members of the clean-up team is having second thoughts about telling her family about this experience. On the one hand she knows it will help her to process this intense experience, on the other hand she is aware that the story will really shock her family.

Dilemmas relating to the work and the team

A Dutch lieutenant was deployed to a camp in Mali. Several people at the camp became ill and doctors suspected Ebola. The international camp commander is hesitant to communicate about it until doctors are certain it’s Ebola. A Dutch lieutenant knows that a Dutch group is scheduled to arrive in a few hours. They can still be warned not to come, or risk becoming infected. He feels conflicted: should he ignore his orders or risk the health of his fellow servicemen and women?