Ethics and the US Military: the Army Reconsiders

The US Army is “[rethinking] how it teaches ethics.”

Some of the interest in ethics is tied to the wars: the black eye of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, concerns that stress from unconventional conflict leads to bad decisions, and, for at least one retired general, the sense that the military lost the public’s trust in Iraq.

Officers involved in the effort say that eventually a soldier’s grounding in ethics — strong or weak — will become a factor in promotions.

Two of the primary places that ethics might intentionally be taught in the Army include the US Military Academy at West Point and the Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth.  The need for ethical maturity has already been recognized in some sense at the military academies.  Each has its own variation of a “character development center.”

Oddly, the director of military ethics at West Point provided a contradictory assessment of ethics in the Army: 

Col. Sean Hannah [said the Army] didn’t have a “common operating picture” for good ethical conduct, [but] “The Army is not broken.”

“Soldiers do the right thing, but we are in a protracted, persistent conflict and we know what happens when bad things happen,” he said.

The concept that “bad things happen” due to environmental factors, rather than poor ethics on the part of Soldiers, is not the paradigm that the Army needs.  Arguably, it is the paradigm the Army already has.  Instead, the Army (and the military as a whole) needs to instill a paradigm of personal responsibility, encouraging military members to make the right choices in all circumstances, regardless how difficult those choices might be.

For what its worth, the Army seems to realize that it’s not just about the news-makers, those scandals that give the Army negative publicity.

Army officials said the heightened interest in ethics…wasn’t prompted by a single incident, such as Abu Ghraib…The Army has plenty of other, lower-profile incidents of concern, such as soldiers who falsify results on skill tests and harassment of women and subordinates.

As often discussed here, ethical challenges are frequent in the military, and they are rarely as grandiose or history-making as aiming one’s weapons at US soldiers to protect civilians as occurred in My Lai.  Many involve ‘gray areas’ about gouge or cheating, or even counteracting a culture that seems to accept less than forthright conduct

Ethics are a crucial part of officership, and this is one area that military officers can easily lead by example:  Do the right thing, and leave no room for even a perception that unethical choices are made, tolerated, or accepted.  Making the correct ethical choice isn’t always easy, and as a leader, creating an environment in which ethical choices are “standard” is also difficult.  But as the Army is seeing, there are high prices for ethical failures in the US military.  The greatest casualty of all could potentially be the trust of the American people.

For a Christian, this topic should almost be redundant.  A Christian should live his life above reproach in all respects.  Notably, there is still the challenge of creating an ethical environment as a leader, and encourging subordinates, peers, and even superiors to make the right choices.  Despite any positive effects, “what would Jesus do?” is probably not the best military evaluation process to institute.

Instead, a Christian officer should live first by example, and second should clearly and consistently promote correct ethical decisions and punish ethical failures.  Proactively, this culture can be encouraged by emphasizing that even small decisions display a military member’s character and how they will react to big decisions; how one acts when no one is looking, too, is often the best measure of a man.  It is also worth noting the strategic impact of even the smallest ethical decisions made by servicemembers.  Though it may not always seem like it, the ethical culture is a critical part the military strategy.

A military that “wins” but doesn’t do so “right” may not really win at all.  In fact, any “good” that a military does, even if it does so predominantly, may be overwhelmed by the negative caused by the poor ethical choices of even just a few.