Academic journal article Military Review

Officership: Character, Leadership, and Ethical Decisionmaking

Academic journal article Military Review

Officership: Character, Leadership, and Ethical Decisionmaking

Article excerpt

What the bad man cannot be is a good sailor, or soldier, or airman.

--General Sir John Winthrop Hackett (1)

A PLATOON is on a rescue mission. Two members of the platoon are trapped on a hill and under fire. Both soldiers are seriously wounded; within a few hours, they will be dead. Between the platoon and the two soldiers is a minefield, which the platoon must breach or go around if they are to get to the trapped soldiers in time. As the platoon leader ponders his options, he notices a civilian picking his way through the minefield. Obviously he knows where the mines are. The lieutenant detains the civilian, but the man refuses to lead the platoon through the minefield. The lieutenant offers several enticements to get the man to cooperate, but the man continues to refuse. There is no way he is going back through that minefield. (2) The lieutenant must make a decision that he had hoped to avoid. There are rules for situations like this, but if he follows them, good men will die.


Officership is about inspiration, but good officers do more than inspire subordinates to do extraordinary things. They know what things to do and when to do them. They also set goals and convince people to spend time, effort, and other resources to achieve them. Doing this well involves making practical as well as ethical decisions. Sometimes, situations will create a tension that is not easy to resolve. When officers attempt to balance the demands of morality with the demands of the profession, they must consider the consequences of their decisions and the rules and principles that govern the profession. Ethical considerations by themselves, however, do not provide a complete approach sufficient to answer all of the moral questions that confront officers.

U.S. Army doctrine defines the traits of good officership within the framework of be, know, do, which incorporates ethical as well as practical aspects. (3) Because of this, we can discuss an ethics of being, an ethics of knowing, and an ethics of doing. Why approaches based on consequences and rules are inadequate is because they focus on the ethics of knowing and doing but exclude the ethics of being. Yet, being a certain kind of person is just as important to moral leadership as knowing consequences, rules, and principles and being able to apply them in ways that serve the profession and the Nation. This is because consequences and rules can come into conflict. When this happens ethical algorithms based on measuring consequences and applying rules will be insufficient to resolve the tension in a morally appropriate way. In such instances, it will be an officer's character that will help resolve conflicts in a consistent, coherent manner. (4)


The lieutenant in the scenario has a choice. He can torture or threaten to torture the civilian into cooperating, or he can decide to not torture or threaten to torture the civilian and effectively leave his men to die. Unfortunately for the lieutenant, the decision is not a simple one. If he chooses the first option, he violates the law of war. If he chooses the second option, he will have directly contributed to his men's deaths.

Deciding what to do is complicated; there is no clear way to choose one over the other. Preserving the lives of his men and accomplishing his mission are moral imperatives of considerable force. Yet, so is keeping the promise he made to uphold the Constitution, which includes abiding by the provisions of treaties to which the United States is party. (5) Resolving this problem will not depend on clever rationalizations or skillful manipulation of rules. Whether or not the lieutenant resolves this situation well depends on the kind of person he is. To demonstrate this it is necessary to examine why appealing to consequences--like accomplishing missions and preserving lives--and simple conformity to rules is inadequate to account for every moral consideration. …

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