Dr Ledwidge holds a law degree from Oxford University and received his doctorate in war studies from King’s College London. He worked for seven years as a barrister, and he was an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve for 15 years serving operational tours in the Balkans and Iraq. He was subsequently a civilian advisor for the UK government in Helmand, Libya and elsewhere. He currently lectures at the Royal Air Force Airmen’s Command Squadron at RAF Halton as part of the Portsmouth University team. He is the author of several books including Losing Small Wars and Aerial Warfare: A Very Short Introduction.
What was your pathway to where are you now?
I went to school in Liverpool, my home town and studied law at University in the mid-1980s. I qualified and worked as a criminal and family law barrister for about seven years. During that time I was trained as an officer in the Royal Naval reserve and went onto one of the intelligence branches that was eligible for deployment. So I learned Serbian and Croatian at the military’s expense, and deployed then to Bosnia as a military intelligence officer in 1996 with IFOR, the NATO peacekeeping mission. There was then another tour with the follow-on SFOR with the stress on finding war criminals on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia list. We were quite successful in arresting some of those.
Having been late for the war in Bosnia, I was right on time for the one in Kosovo, which began in 1998. I deployed to Kosovo as part of the British Foreign Office team attached to the OSCE supposedly to monitor a ceasefire, but we found ourselves rather more observing breaches as well as regular war crimes. I was there at the beginning and also at the end with a short gap in Albania, doing refugee relief with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Once the Kosovans took over, they started the same routines of ethnic cleansing and murder we had seen before the war.
I stayed with the OSCE for a further three years in their mission to Albania, and then another three years working from Poland into the former Soviet Union as a rule of law advisor, specialising in torture prevention and antitrafficking. I was called up to serve a tour in Iraq, again as a military intelligence officer, part of the Iraq Survey Group, looking for weapons of mass destruction. As you know this was a mission in which we failed to succeed. I spent some time in Afghanistan and Libya, in both cases in roles ‘outside the wire’. I started my PhD in 2010 and finished it in 2015. In 2010, I started working at [Royal Air Force College] Cranwell and here I am now at RAF Halton, which is a very pleasant place to work.
What advice would you like to give PhD students and early career researchers that you wish someone had said to you?
Well, the only advice I can give that's of any use would be more general advice, but I think it applies to the academic world. A) have a realistic outlook on what it is likely you're going to be able to achieve and when and B) and much more importantly, is - take a strategic approach. In other words, an idea of where you want it to be and what you want to be doing in five and ten years’ time.
I'm not sure there’s too much point looking out beyond that but maybe if you want to be a professor or something, identify that in early stage. Nowadays of course, things are a bit more difficult than they were when even when I started and they were pretty unstable then, so I'm not sure this advice is going to be of much use. I think in life, one thing I have learned is - without wishing to patronise- that it is very important to have a strategy. In terms of strategy, it's not the plan that counts, it’s the planning, and all too many of us, including me have failed either to plan or to have a plan. I hope you can see what I mean.
What are your top tips for getting published?
It's really important to understand the publishing process and establish whether you want to go the commercial route or the academic which frankly rarely cross-over and require very different styles.
I think you need to be in possession of two qualities. First is, as I said before, realism, and that must be drawn from an understanding and an awareness of the public, of the market, academic or commercial (‘trade’) the processes and your place within them. The second point is to try and fit what you write into the overall plan or strategy you've developed for your career, and make sure, above all, this is the third and final piece of advice, pick a subject that you enjoy, not one that you think you should enjoy.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on two projects. First is a book of essays in an honour of a friend of mine who was a military ethicist, great soldier, Colonel David Benest who died quite recently. So several of us are working on a tribute to him, which will contain many essays on contemporary military matters and specifically ethics, professionalism, and the conduct of war more generally - that's the first project. The second project is really only in an incipient stage now, but that is a review of what soldiers actually believe in combat and what they do in combat, and the extent to which the rhetoric of military ethics matches the reality on the ground. So as far as I'm aware, in the UK, this hasn’t been done before, and it'd be interesting to see whether it's actually doable, and some of the challenges that throws up may be very interesting, I suspect.
Military ethics is also DRN’s current theme for this month, what is the point of military ethics? Why do we have it?
Like any profession has to have an ethical framework, that's what defines a profession that it is bound by its own set of rules and codes of behaviour, and it's able to regulate itself accordingly. In the military profession this is particularly important because the results of failing to do so are, or can be - very often are - fatal, especially to those on the receiving end of their weapons. I have seen quite a lot of ‘shots fired in anger’; from Serbian armoured infantry supported by tanks assaulting a supposedly defended village, by way of anti-aircraft guns hammering parts of Tripoli to desultory shootouts in dusty Iraqi towns. In each case, civilians were at the receiving end, amongst the supposed targets of these attacks. Most of the casualties I have encountered though were deliberately murdered. I would say that 95% of the dead I have seen in whatever context in the areas I have worked were non-combatants killed by combatants, from ‘special forces’ to paramilitaries of one kind or another.
So an awareness of the ethical framework, customs and laws of war is an absolutely essential quality of a military professional without which you are not a military professional; not only an awareness of those laws and customs of war, but the understanding that forms part of your practice, and this is reflected in such matters, which is often forgotten by military professionals, leaders of all kind, and particularly military leaders that this is bound very closely into the commission that officers have from their head of state. This instructs you to ensure that you are bound by to ensure that that yourself and those under your command comply with the laws and customs of war. It's not an option or a suggestion; it's an order. I know that in the current parlance, this is all too often ‘up for debate’. What's ‘up for debate’ on occasion are the parameters of those ethics, but the fact that such ethics exist and you're bound by them, and that these define you as a military professional, these matters are not up for debate.
Now drawing from your extensive experience in the field, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan, were there any occasions when you witnessed that military ethics was not adhered to by the Western forces?
Well, I didn't witness any serious abuses in my time. Occasionally you would see discourtesy on the part of British soldiers, particularly what I have in mind here, in Basra born out of the frustration I think of the job and essential pointlessness of the mission, which of course feeds back into the importance of everybody understanding why they're doing a particular job.
I saw plenty of dereliction from the most basic human, let alone military ethics in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya, from those we might call our adversaries, and even those we did call our friends.
However, it's important to say that we have not been shining beacons of compliance in some respects, I think particularly in Afghanistan with respect to excessive use of force, and there are certainly lessons to be drawn from those mistakes for future operations. And not only for because of their inherent dereliction of our ethical responsibilities, but because those failures impacted directly on operational and tactical success and impacted negatively. The failure to understand the central importance of the ethical piece is of course what is behind the disgraceful ‘Overseas Operations Act’ currently going through Parliament.
Something that is linked to this - what do you think about military ethics and the ticking bomb problem? Should it still be followed in these circumstances?
Well, if anybody can point to me any case in the history of the world where the ticking bomb scenario or anything like it has happened, I'd be interested to discuss this. The trouble is that scenarios like this are straw men thrown up by those who find it inconvenient to learn the basics principles of interrogation.
So many of these hypothetical examples are interesting discussion points but don't have any bearing on reality. Important thing to remember with respect to this particular problem, torture in general, the torture is, or traditionally is seen as an element of interrogation, and it is not an element of interrogation, it is an abuse and a crime; just as rape or murder would be.
Torture differs from almost any other combat war crime. It i absolutely posits as a condition of its commission, like rape actually, the submission of a helpless subject to your power - that way it differs from other ways of conducting warfare.
Further, there's a basic misconception, which is constantly having to be undercut, that somehow torture produces responses or produces truth.
From my extensive experience in military interrogation, at least on the interrogator’s side, it is sufficient to say that the lawful methods of interrogation we use are very generally, very sufficient to arrive at positive result, without recourse to illegal or improper or immoral or unethical activities such as torture or abuse.
Lastly, this question is linked to your work at RAF Halton. As air forces around the world are incorporating space activities, what do you think relevance of military ethics in space?
Well space is a new domain, or at least is often seen to be a new domain of combat and strategic competition. And there are some, even now, extremely contentious matters of law and ethics that are arising in space. I will give you a very brief example - the extent to which the obstruction of a missile warning satellite might be considered armed attack, or to what extent a GPS satellite being a dual use object is an appropriate target for military action.
These are to some extent legal questions, but those legal questions but these legal questions are underpinned by ethical, basic ethical principles: proportionality and distinction.
So even in the orbital regions of the Earth, we are seeing these ethical problems begin to arise and to be discussed and will be greatly guided by the production of manuals next year, which will provide a spine for discussion of these issues. So there is every opportunity and more for a whole new universe of ethical military legal discussion about the space domain and military operation therein.