Tag Archives: military

Trigger Warnings

Semester is just about to start at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell (UML), where I’ll be teaching Engineering Ethics.* I won’t be teaching military ethics this semester. If I was, there would be trigger warnings all over that class.**


Because—among any other reason to add trigger warnings to a class—Lowell is home to the second largest Cambodian diaspora in the United States. One of the largest in the world. And I know that UML takes a lot of local students.

So when I talk about genocide, about war crimes, about intrastate violence, you can bet I need to be aware that there are most likely students in my class who fled, or whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge.

That won’t stop me talking about those issues. Not at all. But people need to be prepared for some things—hell, people’s families might need preparation. That doesn’t infringe on my academic freedom one iota.

I’m not a clinical psychologist, so it’s not my job to judge just how much exposure people can or should receive around their trauma. Moreover, not one person in my class consented to treatment—education isn’t therapy.

So if you can’t wrap your imagination around why trigger warnings might be necessary, why don’t you start thinking about people who are victims of genocide.

*I’ll be including trigger warnings in Engineering Ethics as well, because I’ll be talking about rape and sexual assault in the profession of engineering.

**And you should get trigger warnings anyway in military ethics, because just about everything we discuss in that class is the worst things you can do to people, individually or in groups.

That Facebook Study: Update

UPDATE 30 June 2014, 8:00pm ET: Since posting this, Cornell has updated their press release to state that the Army did not fund the Facebook study. Moreover, Cornell has released a statement clarifying that their IRB

concluded that [the authors from Cornell were] not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

Where this leaves the study, I’m not sure. But clearly something is amiss: we’re still sans ethical oversight, but now with added misinformation.


So there’s a lot of news flying around at the moment about the study “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” also known as That Facebook Study. Questions are being asked about the ethics of the study; while I want to post a bit more on that issue later, a couple of facts for those following along.

Chris Levesque pointed me to a Cornell University press release noting that the study in question received funding from the US Army Research Office. That means the study did receive federal funding; receipt of federal funding comes with a requirement of ethics oversight, and compliance with the Common Rule. It is also worth noting that the US Army Research Office has their own guidelines for research involving human subjects:

Research using human subjects may not begin until  the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Human Subjects Research Review  Board (HSRRB) approves the protocol [Article 13, Agency Specific Requirements]


Unless otherwise provided for in this grant, the recipient is expressly forbidden to use or subcontract or subgrant for the use of human subjects in any manner whatsoever [Article 30, “General Terms and Conditions for Grant Awards to For-Profit Organizations“]


I’ve also been in touch with Susan Fiske, the editor of the study. Apparently, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) that approved the work is Cornell’s IRB. That IRB found the study to be ethical:

on the grounds that Facebook filters user news feeds all the time, per the user agreement. Thus, it fits everyday experiences for users, even if they do not often consider the nature of Facebook’s systematic interventions. The Cornell IRB considered it a pre-existing dataset because [Facebook] continually creates these interventions, as allowed by the user agreement (Personal Communication, Fiske, 2014).*

So, there’s some clarification.

Still, I can’t buy the Cornell IRB’s justification, at least on Fiske’s recounting. Manipulating a user’s timeline with the express purpose of changing the user’s mental state is, to me, a far cry from business as usual. Moreover, I’m really hesitant to call an updating Facebook feed a “pre-existing dataset.” Finally, better people than I have talked about the lack of justification the Facebook user agreement provides.

This information, I hope, clarifies a couple of outstanding issues in the debate so far. Personally, I’d still like to see a lot more information about the kind of oversight this study received, and more details on the Cornell IRB’s analysis.

* Professor Fiske gave her consent to be quoted in this post.

Chemical Weapons and Birth Defects: The Unknowns of War

The Telegraph is reporting that, a little over nine months after the sarin attack at Ghouta in Syria, high numbers of children in the region are being born with birth defects. These abnormalities, according to activists,

are the result of the chemical weapons used by the Syrian regime last August, said Mr Shaikhani. “Fatma was born congenitally deformed because of exposure to toxic gases and chemicals many times. She is the first case to be registered in the region since the beginning of the revolution. She died few hours after her birth.”

This is troubling news if true.

The big problem is that we have almost no evidence. Not simply that there’s no positive evidence for the claim; that there’s almost no evidence one way or the other.

The National Academies, for example, published a report on the Gulf War and health in 2000, including sarin in their analysis. They found that no evidence existed of reproductive toxicity in animal studies, nor were there any mutagenic effects from sarin exposure. They relied, however, on a small number of studies; the evidence doesn’t point in the right direction, but we also don’t have a lot of evidence to begin with.

Some organophosphates—of which sarin is one—can cause fetal abnormalities. A study conducted after the Iraq-Iran war, for example, found a significant increase in birth defects from victims of chemical attacks. The rub here, however, is that the study couldn’t reliably attribute which chemical weapon was used on whom. It isn’t certain that it is the organophosphate doing the work, some other chemical weapon, both, or something else entirely.

The terrible reality of chemical weapons is that little unclassified research exists about the types of harms—especially long term—that these weapons can inflict. Part of the reason is that they aren’t used very often. But another reason is that it isn’t in the interest of state programs to know about the long-term consequences of chemical weapons. Especially for noncombatants, which include disproportionate numbers of women, children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and so on.

More data would be excellent. It would provide better evidence to use against regimes, and—more importantly, I think—hopefully help us provide better care after a chemical attack. Of course, it is a logistical nightmare and an ethical minefield The utmost care would have to be taken in collecting such data from such vulnerable people, and medical aid would be needed so that they can receive benefit.

I’ll update this as more comes to light.

If you’re a CW person who has more information, please get in touch.

David Morrison and Professionalism in the Military

I was going to write tonight about the “slippery slope” argument, but that got derailed by some quality television

Tonight, on SBS’ The Observer Effect,, the most excellent Ellen Fanning interviewed Lieutenant General David Morrison. Morrison is the Chief of the Australian Army, and has recently achieved a modicum of fame for his brutal video in which he speaks out against the systemic culture of violence against women in the Australian Armed Forces:

On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out.

The interview was an excellent piece of work by Fanning, and a great way to experience Morrison in a way that carries though his outrage and no-holds barred fury, and commitment to change.

Three of Morrison’s responses, I thought, were really significant.[1] First, Morrison demonstrated, by way of actually attending to the experiences of female service members, that he had abandoned the time-honoured explanation that the systemic mistreatment service members by those in positions of privilege, be that by virtue of their rank, race, or gender. Though holding one’s breath for radical change is unwise, it is certainly heartening to hear a senior official that this isn’t simply a matter of disciplining offenders. This is a systemic issue, and one that needs to be dealt with in a systemic manner.

I taught at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in the fallout of the 2011 Skype Scandal, and encountered a widespread belief among the students at ADFA that violence against women was only about individuals, rather than being an issue of culture. It was a frustrating experience; that Morrison talks about violence against women in the ADF as a systemic issue is great to see.

Next, Morrison critiqued the “ANZAC myth,” noting that the image of the Australian soldier as a white, male, ocker larrikin is outdated. In a speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference (written by Lt Col Cate McGregor), Morrison stated:

…the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. Many Australians have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough hewn country lad – invariably white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms. This is a pantomime caricature. Every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is. [2]

It is a powerful reminder that the modern Australian military is sophisticated, professional, and diverse, with an increasingly sensitive set of operational goals. Our armed forces—including the Reserves—are engaged in operations as much humanitarian and policing as they are soldiering. Our service simply cannot rely on its old image, born of a time when being an Australian soldier meant dying for a far away power’s strategic desires.

This dovetails into the point Morrison makes most forcefully—in the interview and  the video—that eradicating violence against women[3] is a matter of institutional integrity. Any professional institution that seeks to represent, as the military does, the interests of a nation must fulfil that role or be deemed deficient as an institution. Morrison made it clear that being unable to treat any member of Australian society with respect is against the national interest. He also spoke about rape as a weapon of war, and made it clear that there was no place for sexual assault of any kind, in any capacity, in the ADF.

Making that connection is significant, because Morrison is stating that if you perpetuate or condone sexual violence against women as a member of the ADF, you are not just a reprehensible human being. You are deficient as a soldier. Respect is and ought to be a hallmark of the military profession, and anyone who can’t manage that is a failed professional. That’s a gutsy claim for Morrison to be mounting, but I’m glad to see it made, and by someone in his position.

It’s a great interview, I’m hoping it makes curriculum this coming semester. Let’s hope the words turn to actions, and some changes get made.

  1. These aren’t in order they appeared, but as I’m remembering them.  ↩
  2. Speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference, New York, 8–9 March 2013.  ↩
  3. Morrison also mentioned violence against people of colour in his interview, though due to the content of the video that made him famous, the interview was primarily about violence against women.  ↩