Military OR Ethics

By Toner, James H. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Military OR Ethics


Toner, James H., Air & Space Power Journal


Editorial Abstract:Dr. Toner explains that military ethics is about knowing what is true and then doing what is right. He takes an interesting approach to make his points memorable by using three Os (owing, ordering, and oughting), three Rs (rules, results, and realities), and three Ds (discern, declare, and do). He concludes by asking readers to first remember those who have gone before, who have worn the uniform, and have served the nation. He then challenges them to live a life that attempts to earn the sacrifices their predecessors made to ensure the survival and success of liberty.

THE TITLE OF this article is deliberately "cute" or misleading because it suggests exactly what I wish to argue against. I oppose the idea that there is either the "military" (by which I mean the profession of arms, the military services, or combat operations) or "ethics" (by which I mean morality, concern for righteousness, or principles of goodness). That division between what is military and what is moral is properly referred to as a false dichotomy; that is, we are arbitrarily and unfairly separating what must not be torn asunder.

Having taught military ethics for 12 years at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, I have never had to make the case to my students there that military ethics is necessary, possible, or ordinarily makes plain good sense. That simple fact-that senior officers almost without exception buy into the reality (not just the ideal) of military ethics-is a great compliment to them and their services. It is also something that the severest critics of the United States military too frequently (and willfully?) overlook. Let me say that another way. I do not have to go on an academic campaign with war college students to persuade them that they can be airmen (or soldiers) and moral men and women. About that, they already agree-and that is no small matter.

So the title is not meant to argue that airmen must be either militarily competent or personally decent. From experience and from personal conviction, senior officers whom I have taught for more than a decade know, accept, and teach this to their subordinates by their own words and works. What I do suggest is that military ethics is based upon two letters, O and R. A sense of ethics compels me to admit that I will sneak in P and D also, risking alphabetical overkill, but I intend thereby only to make some precepts of moral ethics clearer and perhaps more memorable. If there is one principal thesis in what is to follow, it is this: Military ethics is about our learning what is good and true and then having the courage to do and be what and who we ought to. For military ethics is not about his or her successes or failures; it is not about ite'rvirtues or vices. Military ethics is about our heritage and history, and it is about our responsibility to be men and women of character.

The Three Os

Military ethics is rooted in three Os: owing, ordering, and oughting. (OK, so I am fudging a little on the third one!) About a decade ago, the movie Saving Private Ryan appeared. In it, Capt John Miller of the US Army leads a patrol during World War II to save Private Ryan, all of whose brothers have already been killed. Miller and his soldiers, dying in the effort, do manage to save Ryan. Miller has given Ryan "life," and the dying captain wants young Ryan to make his life count and instructs him to "earn this . . . earn it." Many years later, an aging Ryan returns to France to visit the military cemetery where his captain is buried. He "tells" the captain that not a day goes by that he doesn't think of the sacrifice of Miller and his men so that he could live. He turns to his wife, plaintively asking whether he has, in fact, kept the faith. Has he "earned it"? Has he lived up to the charge given him so many years earlier by his dying captain?

Military ethics based upon "me-ism" or "egotism" cannot function. Military ethics is about knowing whom and what we owe. …

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