The Imaginary Army Ethic: A Call for Articulating a Real Foundation for Our Profession

By Imiola, Brian | Military Review, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Imaginary Army Ethic: A Call for Articulating a Real Foundation for Our Profession


Imiola, Brian, Military Review


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ALMOST EVERYONE IS familiar with the story of the "Emperor's New Clothes." The Emperor is tricked into believing he has the finest suit of clothes made from a fabric that is invisible to those who are either unfit for their positions or hopelessly ignorant. Although neither the Emperor nor his ministers can see the imaginary suit of clothes, they pretend they can and in fact loudly proclaim its value and beauty. The townspeople follow suit. During a parade in which the Emperor "wears" his imaginary clothes, a child calls out that "The Emperor has no clothes!" It is only then that everyone realizes and admits that the Emperor's fine set of clothes is in fact imaginary. The situation in this well-known story is analogous to that of today's U.S. Army and its "ethic."

For many years the Army has routinely talked about something imaginary--the "Army Ethic." While references to the Army Ethic or our "professional military ethic" appear in any number of discussions about the Army and the profession and are even included in doctrine, the fact is that one of America's most important and longest-existing organizations does not have a unified professional ethic.

Over the years, the Army has talked itself into believing it has an Army Ethic when in fact it has no such thing. The Army has an ethos or spirit. We have mistakenly referred to and regarded our ethos as an ethic. Although the two words share a common etymological background, the two terms have little in common. Any organization can have an ethos, and it need not be an ethical one. Certainly, Al-Qaeda has an ethos as do criminal organizations like the Yakuza. Neither ethos seems to be an ethical one. Ethics answers questions of right and wrong and is normative in nature. In others words, it tells us what we ought to do and provides guidance for us.

Current and evolving Army doctrine provides evidence for the claim that we have an ethos but not an ethic. While we may be committed to an ethic, one wonders what it is or where we find it. One cannot point to it, read it, or clearly articulate it. The initial draft of Army Doctrine Reference Publication 1, The Army Profession (ADRP-1) which "defines and doctrinally describes the Army Profession and Ethic" illustrates the fact that we do not have an articulated unified ethic. In its text and glossary, ADRP-1 defines the Army Ethic as "the evolving set of laws, values, and beliefs deeply embedded within the core of the profession's culture and practiced by its members to motivate and guide the conduct of individual members bound together in common moral purpose." What work does this definition do for us as members of the profession? The answer: very little.

In fact, ADRP-1 merely defines the general term "professional ethic." Such a definition could just as easily be applied to any profession. There is nothing in it unique to our institution, and it provides no account of our ethic. Nor does defining the Army Ethic in this manner provide any substance or ethical guidance to the institution or its members.

Consider an analogous definition such as one for the U.S. Constitution. Simply defining the Constitution as "the fundamental principles on which the United States is governed" is of little or no help if we actually wish to govern. We need to know what those principles are. We need them articulated in a clear manner that we can refer to and use to guide our actions and decisions. Thankfully, our Constitution goes on to do this. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the Army--our generic definition is completely unsatisfactory as a guide for Army professionals.

Similar to its definition, the description of our ethic provided in the draft of ARDP-1 also fails to provide much utility in guiding Army professionals. It provides the following chart as a framework to describe the Army ethic and its sources:

The Framework of the Army Ethic

                     Legal Foundations       Moral Foundations
                        (codified)

                    Legal-Institutional      Moral-Institutional

Army as           The U. … 

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The Imaginary Army Ethic: A Call for Articulating a Real Foundation for Our Profession
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