Ethical Encounters – Care in Counterinsurgency: Feminist Ethics and the Morality of ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’

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This guest post, by Jillian Terry, is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Jillian is in the final stages of completing her PhD in International Relations at the LSE, where her research explores the relationship between feminist ethics and post-9/11 war. Recently, Jillian has published her research in the International Feminist Journal of Politics and has contributed a chapter to the edited volume Gender and Private Security in Global Politics, edited by Maya Eichler (OUP, 2015). For earlier posts, see Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.

In thinking of twenty-first century war, questions of ethics in the realm of counterinsurgency are embodied in a wide range of encounters between combatants, civilians, and counterinsurgents. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have witnessed tactics, strategies, and mechanisms in the name of COIN operations ranging from population control and detention to targeted killings and the implementation of the Human Terrain System, resulting in a set of complex realities about what it means to ‘do’ counterinsurgency in the contemporary era. Nevertheless, much of what we talk about when we think through questions of ethics and counterinsurgency remains tied to its manifestation in formal, legal mechanisms – namely the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) – and their insistence on counterinsurgency as a practice of ‘winning hearts and minds’. Like much mainstream work on the ethics of war in IR, this has resulted in ethical conversations around counterinsurgency operations that are theorized with respect to just war doctrine, applying principles of jus in bello and jus ad bellum to determine the moral status of counterinsurgency as a means of warfighting. Here, I see a vital disconnect between existing analyses of COIN and how it is actually experienced and felt by insurgents and civilian populations – experiences and encounters that are irreducible to the strict criteria of the just war framework. To bridge this disconnect, I suggest a reorienting of our ethical lens away from just war thinking and towards a feminist ethics premised on care, empathy, and relationality. Such a perspective is more attuned to considering the practical realm of counterinsurgency rather than remaining mired in abstract debates about the semantics and theory of COIN operations. Given that the practical realm is one in which the truly relational nature of counterinsurgency becomes apparent, it is logical to look towards feminist ethics for an alternative viewpoint that prioritizes the lived experiences of individuals over legalistic interpretations of counterinsurgency as it appears on paper. A feminist ethics rooted in understandings of care and relationality will allow us to move beyond the formal articulation of COIN as is found in FM 3-24 and instead think about the encounters of those affected by counterinsurgency operations in a genuine and meaningful way.

U.S. Army PFC Danny Comley during patrol in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, February 2010.

Counterinsurgents have complex relationships with both civilians (who are not simply bystanders but rather active members of the community to be coerced and enlisted by both the counterinsurgents and insurgents themselves) and combatants (who often are not simply enemies but can be sources of information or even allies, and are sometimes members of the same community the counterinsurgents have been tasked with helping). These complex relationships have resulted in a practice that is often ad-hoc and without formal regulation, putting counterinsurgents in positions where they are forced to exercise judgment without necessarily holding the proper training or knowledge to do so. This, I suggest, is the crisis of ethics in counterinsurgency – a refusal of both militaries and mainstream academics to acknowledge the relational aspect of the practice and to proceed in a manner that is attuned to such intricacies and moral complexities.

The hypermasculine warrior ethos that modern Western militaries emphasize in their training of personnel encourages counterinsurgents to exhibit characteristics of an individualistic nature – self-control, personal confidence, loyalty to your team, and comradeship amongst your colleagues (Robinson 2008). As Khalili (2011) suggests, this masculinity – rooted in notions of authority and rationality – is combined with a ‘humanitarian softness’ in those ‘soldier-scholars’ theorizing modern counterinsurgency, including David Kilcullen and David Petraeus. These manifestations of masculinity are largely at odds with the relational nature of counterinsurgency, as it inculcates an us-versus-them mentality leading to distrust and suspicion amongst populations rather than fostering positive, cooperative encounters. This is despite the supposed aim of counterinsurgency to rebuild trusting relationships between governments and its citizens and win back legitimacy in a post-conflict environment. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have witnessed this distrust for over a decade – civilian populations are weary of foreign intervention and have grown tired of the Western military presence in the region. This weariness has also been blamed for the recent rise in the number of so-called blue on green attacks by Afghan and Iraqi police forces on Western military personnel, for example. Without a sense of legitimacy, counterinsurgents are often resisted with force by the very people for whom a successful operation could be most beneficial. This tension is at the heart of the crisis of ethics in counterinsurgency, and is what leads us to ask how we might reorient our analyses of counterinsurgency operations in order to better understand the moral nature of these risks. I suggest that using an approach rooted in feminist ethics of care and relationality as guiding principles for this reorientation would lead to a more accurate lens through which the complex ethical standing of counterinsurgency operations in practice may be understood.

While some may be tempted to condemn the morality of counterinsurgency outright, based largely on the element of coercive measures often used by counterinsurgents in their attempts to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of civilian populations, I suggest that the answer is not that simple. Rather, like other non-traditional methods of warfare such as drone warfare and private military security companies, the moral guidelines surrounding counterinsurgency are different than their conventional counterparts. It is therefore necessary to ask, as Daniel Levine (2010) does, the right questions about the moral standing of the practice: “how can one build a positive relationship in a context of force, violence and coercion, especially when coupled with asymmetric power? [and] What kind of person could use force responsibly when he/she faces a vulnerable person with whom building trust is necessary?” (142).

The answers to these questions, I argue, lie in the contributions made by feminist care ethicists (Gilligan 1982; Ruddick 1989; Held 1993/2006) who have all pointed out the importance of a morality focused on particular relationships and experiences, the centrality of well-being, and meeting the needs of those particular others for whom we take responsibility. Rather than using abstract and universal moral rules to order our lives, a feminist ethics of care prioritizes the obligation of caring for others and the dependence we all have on the caring relationships others have with us. Carol Gilligan (1982) refers to “the experiences of inequality and interconnection, inherent in the relation of parent and child” (62-3) as a source of feminist ethics of care, informing the importance of equal human relationships despite differences in power. This is a fundamentally different viewpoint than that taken by other types of ethics (such as utilitarian or Kantian strands of ethics) who place value on individual happiness or rational dignity in their analysis of morality rather than our relationships. Similarly, Sara Ruddick (1989) theorizes from the lived experience of motherhood, suggesting that an ethics of care develops from the particular understandings of virtue held by “maternal persons”, while Held (1993) emphasizes the feminist commitment to experience, context, lived methodologies as well as an emphasis on emotion and dialogue. In her more recent work, Held (2006) extends this commitment to a global level, suggesting “a globalization of caring relations would help enable people of different states and cultures to live in peace, to respect each others’ rights, to care together for their environments” (168). This extension is particularly relevant in the context of counterinsurgency, particularly as we begin to imagine how a feminist ethics of care might understand counterinsurgents’ relationships with insurgent populations and the ethical obligations held by counterinsurgents to the protection of vulnerable peoples and a respect for individuals’ right to peace and safety from harm.

FM 3-24 Insurgencies and Countering Insur- web

Such a focus on the obligations of caring for others leads to very different conclusions about what matters in the ethics of counterinsurgency. For example, while coercion may be fully justified and for the benefit of those being coerced, an acknowledgement of care between counterinsurgents and local populations requires recognition that coercion may indeed have ill effects and should not be taken lightly. Coercion is a central feature of the counterinsurgency project as it is articulated in FM 3-24, leaving us to question whether it would be possible to move away from its use as a tool – and if not, whether the presence of coercion in ethical encounters between combatants, civilians, and counterinsurgents necessarily results in an unethical experience. An acknowledgement of care ethics also means an awareness of our dependence on our relationships with others and acceptance of the reliance on others to protect us when we are unable to do so ourselves. This duality reiterates the overarching aim of feminist care ethics: to move us away from abstract rules, and instead consider the morality of each encounter within its individual context of particular relationships.

So, if we foreground feminist care ethics when we theorize about the ethics of counterinsurgency, what changes? Here, Levine’s (2010) framework of caring virtues is useful as it provides some guidelines and characteristics for counterinsurgents to develop and abide by in their relationships with both civilians and combatants in the conflict zone – these virtues are attentiveness, restraint, and creativity. Attentiveness in this case refers to the counterinsurgents’ willingness to be genuinely open to the point of view of others – by being sensitive to the needs of other parties, counterinsurgents can be more attuned to the possibility for resistance and have a sincere understanding of why their operations might be seen as aggressive or coercive despite their best intentions. In their relationships with combatants, attentiveness for counterinsurgents means not only conveying the attitude that ‘we know why you fight’ but addressing concerns at the community or individual level so that insurgents feel secure in cooperating with counterinsurgents rather than resisting them.

In her work on peace, Sara Ruddick focuses on the non-violent virtue of renunciation – Levine (2010) reinterprets this as a care ethical virtue of restraint, a commitment by counterinsurgents to avoid violence whenever possible, even if it means taking on additional suffering and risk themselves (152). Resisting the temptation to solve disputes with violence is important for counterinsurgents as it encourages the application of judgment in uncertain contexts. While restraint is a common characteristic of most modern militaries, it is particularly important in the context of counterinsurgency where the military force of the counterinsurgent is often so much greater than that of the population they are engaged with. The notion of restraint in the realm of combatants is equally important, as it is not only about restraint from the use of force but also restraint in the use of force – even when combatants are fully responsible for the threat they pose, restraint encourages counterinsurgents to create a more constructive relationship rather than simply decide who deserves to be the target of violence.

Finally, the virtue of creativity is a third important element of feminist care ethics and is much less familiar to most militaries than attentiveness or restraint. If counterinsurgents think creatively about the various means at their disposal for winning the hearts and minds of populations, they may be less inclined to use force or violent coercion. Similarly, if they are more aware of the needs and context of the particular population they are engaging with, they will be better able to find points of leverage that can be exploited without violence. This use of creativity is true for both counterinsurgents’ relationships with civilians and combatants, as in both cases it widens the scope of possible outcomes and lessens the likelihood that goals can only be fulfilled through violent and forceful means.

Approaching counterinsurgency from a care-ethical perspective means taking these virtues of attentiveness, restraint, and creativity seriously. The warrior ethos that is instilled in military personnel during ethics training today relies on notions of individual dignity, as well as loyalty and concern within the military ranks. Applying a lens of care ethics to existing understandings of ethics in counterinsurgency problematizes the rational and individualistic ethics being promoted therein – such as the just war tradition – and asks us to think about how moral and ethical concerns with the practice spread far beyond internal military operations. Foregrounding the relationships that counterinsurgents have with both civilians and combatants in the conflict zone asks those engaged in counterinsurgency operations to think more carefully and contextually about the ethical dimensions of their actions, and to reflect in a genuine way on the moral challenges and complex judgments they must make as they attempt to convince populations that peaceful resolution and the rebuilding of trust is the right way forward. It also encourages a more fruitful dialogue on ethics within the study of counterinsurgency, moving away from a focus on proportionality and just war towards a more contextualized, experiential understanding of what ethical judgments can be made about counterinsurgency. It is only once we have reached this stage of genuine reflection that we can begin to consider whether or not counterinsurgency can be used as a meaningful tool to bring about the end of conflict and the provision of peace.


Unlike Levine (2010), who suggests that care ethics can be taken as a moral stance separate from its roots in feminism, I argue that the feminist component of this theorizing is integral to its success, especially when we contrast the aforementioned characteristics of masculinity in counterinsurgency – rationality, authority, and individual control – with the care-ethical perspective. Ignoring the highly gendered ethical dimensions at work would misrepresent the true nature of counterinsurgency as a practice of contemporary war, and it is by using a distinctly feminist ethics of care (as Gilligan, Ruddick, Held and others have imagined it) that we uncover these moral complexities. Recent work by Ruddick (2009) and Held (2010) exemplify this, as both theorists link the feminist ethics of care to questions of political violence. As Ruddick (2009) points out, “many mothers know what many military enthusiasts forget – the ability to destroy can shock and awe but compelling the will is subtle, ultimately cooperative work” (307). This prioritizing of cooperation is integral to a re-imagining of counterinsurgency that takes relationships and lived encounters seriously.

Rather than continuing on the dangerous path of counterinsurgency whereby practices of violence and coercion are normalized (as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq), an understanding of counterinsurgency rooted in feminist care ethics requires a return to a premise of peace, cooperation, and the building of genuine trusting relationships. Whether or not we abandon the term itself, it remains likely that states will require assistance in some capacity in order to return to normalcy after an insurgent conflict. Perhaps using an ethics of care will allow for the provision of that assistance where we “restrain rather than destroy those who become violent…inhibit violence as nonviolently as possible…and work to prevent violence rather than wipe out violent persons” (Held 2010: 126). It is a difficult path to be sure, but one that provides a much more fruitful discussion of the future of counterinsurgency than do the rigid principles of just war thinking. Using feminist care ethics, we may be able to reject the deeply problematic and violent practices of post-9/11 counterinsurgency such as confinement and targeted killings in favour of a practice that is rooted genuinely and meaningfully in populations and their lived experiences, and which serves to protect those who are most vulnerable to harm and bring about peace in a manner that respects the importance of human relationships.


Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Headquarters, Department of the Army. 2014. FM 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army. Available online here:

Held, Virginia. 1993. Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Held, Virginia. 2006. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. London: Oxford.

Held, Virginia. 2010. “Can the Ethics of Care Handle Violence?” Ethics & Social Warfare 4(2): 115-129.

Khalili, Laleh. 2011. “Gendered Practices of Counterinsurgency”, Review of International Studies 37(4): 1471-1491.

Levine, Daniel. 2010. “Care and Counterinsurgency” Journal of Military Ethics 9(2): 139- 159.

Robinson, Paul. 2008. “Introduction: Ethics Education in the Military.” In Ethics Education in the Military, eds. Paul Robinson, Nigel de Lee, and Don Carrick. Farham: Ashgate.

Ruddick, Sara. 1989. Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ruddick, Sara. 2009. “On Maternal Thinking” Women’s Studies Quarterly 37(3/4): 305-8.

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