Bad apples, bad barrels and bad barrel makers:  Understanding ‘warrior culture’ in the Australian elite forces

Bad apples, bad barrels and bad barrel makers: Understanding ‘warrior culture’ in the Australian elite forces

A four-year landmark inquiry uncovered credible evidence of 39 unlawful executions and two cases of torture, committed by the Australian special forces in Afghanistan. This blog post explains the conduct of the soldiers from an ethical leadership perspective.

On November 19, the Australian government released a report covering more than four years of research of the Australian elite forces, which comprised of 423 interviews with witnesses, more than 25,000 photos and 20,000 documents. The report revealed a pervasive warrior culture, in which young soldiers were encouraged to execute prisoners as a hazing ritual. Between 2009 and 2013, soldiers shot unarmed civilians and tampered with evidence to camouflage their actions.

Bad apples and bad barrels

To understand the atrocities from an ethical viewpoint, a question that needs to be answered is: how can ‘good’ people be capable of ‘bad’ things? Academic literature offers two explanations in this respect.

According to the bad apple approach, unethical behavior can be seen as acts committed by individuals with bad intentions, often prompted by illness or madness. To combat unethical behavior, so-called "compliance-based" measures such as regulation and punishment are often used. Consequentially, the "bad apples" are removed through dismissal.

The bad barrel approach rejects the above-mentioned as too individualistic and limited. Psychological research shows that there are a number of risk factors that encourage people to engage in non-ethical behavior. People are not bad, but display bad behavior because it is accepted or stimulated within the environment. In order to stimulate ethical behavior, it is therefore necessary to work on creating a positive context - a "good barrel" - that incites individuals to the desired behavior. This is also referred to as an "integrity-based" approach.

The Australian elite force: a bad barrel filled with bad apples

The behavior of the Australian military in Afghanistan supports both perspectives.

A small group of sergeants and their protégés have played a major role in inciting immoral behavior. These sergeants enjoyed a high social status in the group, enabling them to incite young soldiers to commit executions. The report describes their intentions as follows: “Their motivation cannot be known with certainty, but it appears to include elements of an intention to 'clear' the battlefield of people believed to be insurgents, regardless of Law of Armed Conflict; to "blood" new members of the patrol and troop; and to outscore other patrols in the number of enemy killed in action achieved; superimposed on the personal psyche of the relevant patrol commander.”

Under the leadership of these bad apples, a toxic culture developed within the special unit in which new recruits were forced to prove themselves. Within this ‘warrior culture,’ young soldiers were encouraged to participate in so-called bloodings - the execution of prisoners of war. Sergeants used the bloodings as a hazing ritual to discipline young soldiers within their unit. There was great social pressure on young soldiers to participate in these rituals. The location of the rituals, rural Afghanistan, made it easier for the soldiers to commit the crimes and to mentally distance themselves from these actions.

'Bad barrel makers' as drivers of a toxic context

Unfortunately, the behavior of the Australian soldiers is not a one-off incident. Lessons can be learned, for instance, from human rights violations committed by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2005.

Philip Zimbardo, social psychologist, analyzed these abuses and concluded that much of the events in Abu Ghraib could be explained by 'bad barrel makers." Bad barrel makers are leadership figures who have a great influence on the creation of an unethical culture. This is also endorsed by Harding (2018) who argues that bad barrel makers create a context and environment where abuse is facilitated, and leadership is used to promote sadistic behavior and incite people to atrocities.

From an ethical leadership perspective, one can draw parallels between the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan in relation to the concept of bad barrel makers. A small group of charismatic leaders have created a toxic culture in which serious crimes could not only take place, but were promoted as heroic acts.

Response: from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ barrel makers

In response to the investigative report, Australia's Ministry of Defense has pledged to dishonorably fire soldiers involved in the crimes - a sanction consistent with the bad apple approach. It is questionable whether this measure is sufficient to bring about a desired cultural change to transform the elite unit into a "good barrel."

Compliance-based measures are required to select moral individuals and develop them as ethical leaders. Better screening (throughout their career) can be a starting point here. In addition, integrity-based measures such as stimulating reflection on one's own actions in a conflict area will be necessary to repair the moral flaws of the defense apparatus.

The case underlines the importance of ethical leadership. Research indicates that ethical leaders facilitate a moral environment in which employees can learn from ethical role models, are stimulated to make ethical decisions and are actively stimulated to reflect on their behavior. By focusing more on ethical leadership, one could develop the bad barrel into an ethical barrel.