The Sixth Form Purvis Society was delighted to welcome Colonel and Mrs Strickland to the ALT for a talk entitled “The Ethics of Leadership in Conflict”. Colonel Strickland began by instructing the entire audience to change places, some covering the length of the ALT, quickly, safely, and on one leg! “Why did you do that?” he enquired, “Because I told you to!” Using this small illustration as a springboard he went on to suggest that leadership is when someone gets people to do things that they would not normally do, possibly things they had never contemplated or things of which they had not feltPurvis capable. This comfortable thought was dispelled by a distressing picture of an Iraqi citizen beaten to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he extended his thesis to suggest that leadership can go wrong, badly wrong. Experiments in the 1960s in the USA clearly demonstrated how figures in authority can coerce ordinary citizens to commit acts of cruelty; one experiment was so brutally successful it was terminated before completion.

“Good people can turn bad,” he informed us, “in situations when normal simply isn’t normal”. Drawing on his experiences in East Timor he led us to speculate on our reactions towards terrorists who had used machetes on a group of local people: do we treat them as they have treated others? Introducing the idea that leaders should keep a check on themselves, the question “Is a conflict right or wrong?” was floated. A second story, also relating to East Timor, followed with the admission that the British Army had over-reacted in this instance, using far more fire power than was absolutely necessary to clear a previously inaccessible region of the Green Zone. Colonel Strickland reminded us of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War (March 1968), when as many as 500 people (men, women and children) were shot by a small renegade group of hyped-up American soldiers. These men lost all reason and morality, the leaders led by example and such was the sense of loyalty that it was hushed up for ages. Only one man, a helicopter pilot, had the moral courage to stand up to those in charge.

“Leaders set the tone, the culture, and are responsible,” Colonel Strickland informed us, and sometimes it is the small things, reference points, that prove to be vital in conflict when all about you is mayhem. It is the “do up your top button” that helps to keep one grounded.

Using some stories from his extensive experience in Afghanistan, the Colonel questioned a couple of operations, wondering if revenge was lurking in the background… Loyalty, he suggested, could be abused (Vietnam) and he took considerable trouble to distinguish between a “good” leader and an “effective” one, proposing that the good leader needs considerable courage to stand up for what he believes is right even when those around him disagree, whilst some of the atrocities he had referred to were most certainly examples of effective leadership.

Finally, and having held the audience in the palm of his hand for precisely an hour (barely anyone had moved for the duration), he threw out the words “dignity” and “courageous restraint”. In the first instance he told us of a young Gurkha soldier who had both legs blown off on his first patrol. The man, lying half-sedated in his hospital bed (“He looked so short,” Colonel S commented), apologised for being maimed! In the second case, illustrated with an image of a British soldier, in full combat gear, kneeling beside an Afghan child, he expressed an opinion on the effectiveness of the British operation in Afghanistan as viewed not only through his own eyes but through the eyes of some of the nationals with whom he came into frequent contact: “We did a good job.”

The questions that flew from the audience were perceptive and challenging; the round of applause was extremely warm and appreciative. This was a great event.

Dr Christopher Mann