Teaching Military Ethics to ROTC Cadets

Article excerpt


More officers are commissioned into the United States military services through ROTC than through any other commissioning source. While service academies (Air Force Academy, West Point and Annapolis) have an ethics course as a prerequisite to graduation, ROTC departments do not. In this article, I argue that this should change and suggest a format for an ethics course tailored to ROTC cadets.

The need for Military Ethics

As most US Army officers do today, I was commissioned at a regular university through a program called the "Reserve Officers Training Corps" (ROTC). [1] The program can take as little as two years to complete and may or may not include a scholarship that covers the cost of the cadet's tuition, course books, etc. In addition to obtaining a four-year degree, commissioning requirements include a variety of courses about military doctrine (offered by the ROTC department and taught by military officers), physical fitness tests, and some tactical training in the field. As it stands currently, there is no requirement for cadets to take a course in ethics or morality of war. Instead, the curriculum within the ROTC courses includes a few so-called "blocks of instruction" on ethics. [2] If the university itself does not require an ethics course (more and more universities are), then it is possible for a cadet to graduate and get commissioned without ever having taken an ethics class. Cadets who graduate from military service academies (the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, the US Military Academy at West Point, and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis), by contrast, must take such a class, and in their case they have the added benefit that the course is tailored to their role as future military officers. People expect military officers to make hard choices, those difficult decisions that warrant a strong moral backbone. But how can we demand a strong moral backbone if we are not committed to giving most of these officers an adequate background in ethics?

There is another reason why cadets should take a military ethics class: they should know what they are getting into. Upon completion of the ROTC program, and as part of the commissioning ceremony, these new lieutenants take an oath "to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Knowing beforehand what "protecting and defending" may entail, form an ethical perspective, is crucial if a cadet is to understand the very meaning of the oath he or she is about to take. We owe cadets at least that much: they ought to know the ethics of the profession they are about to pursue. In today's philosophical (and legal)jargon, we would call this "informed consent." It demands nothing more than the understanding of the contract before the parties enter it. It is understandable, particularly in times of dwindling recruiting numbers, that services would all like to meet their enlistment quotas and goals. I was a commander too, and when it came to re-enlisting a prior-service soldier, say one with disciplinary problems in the past, the fact that he would bring me that much closer to my end-strength goal was a deciding factor. But it was precisely as a commander that I realized that I had been ill equipped to handle some ethical dilemmas that are inherent in military life and service. By then I had heard of the infamous My Lai massacre, but I had not been prepared to handle the more day-to-day (and far more common) ethical dilemmas: racial discrimination, alcohol abuse, unsatisfactory performance, command influence, etc. This is why I think a course dedicated to military ethics would be helpful. Even if the course merely pointed out, "Look, these are the kinds of moral dilemmas you will be dealing with in the years to come," I think these cadets (and future officers) will be a little bit better off. ROTC offices throughout the country (perhaps under the direction of Cadet Command or Training and Doctrine Command) should make classes like this available to, and indeed required of, all cadets. …