Academic journal article Parameters

Five Myths about Military Ethics

Academic journal article Parameters

Five Myths about Military Ethics

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: After a decade and a half of struggling across various dimensions, the Army's ethic risks losing traction with its practitioners. With that loss of traction comes a commensurate loss of trust, which will have a negative impact on the relationship the military has with the society it serves, undermining its status as a profession. Addressing these challenges requires getting past the myths that obscure the solutions.


As Dr. Snider notes, winning in a complex world requires a professional military capable of generating new expert knowledge that addresses the demands of evolving characters of war as well as the changing society the military serves. Ethical application of this knowledge is critical since it demonstrates our moral commitment and provides the cornerstone of our trust with the American people. This trust will be essential if the military profession is to navigate the uncertain and ambiguous environment associated with twenty-first-century security challenges. To this end, the following article addresses current challenges to the military profession and its ethic.

While professional and ethical challenges have multiple sources, such as "endless" wars, eroding resilience, bad leader behaviors at multiple levels, and the impact of technology, they cannot be resolved without dispelling the myths that often obscure the solutions. The first challenge is acceptance. After a decade and a half of fighting "among the peoples" and struggling with restrictive rules of engagement, the military ethic risks losing traction with practitioners, who often see restrictions on the use of force as misguided, or worse, cynical efforts of higher authorities to avoid bad publicity, often at the soldier's expense.

The second related myth is the psychological impact this ethical confusion imposes on soldiers. Ambiguous moral commitments and weak understanding impact their experiences of the harms they commit and the sacrifices they and their comrades make. The resulting moral injuries undermine soldier well-being and thus readiness of the force, suggesting it is in the interest of the services to address these injuries with the same concern as physical ones. Similarly, the prevention--or at least mitigation--of moral injury raises the third challenge which requires not just identifying the traits of good character but also ensuring conditions are met for the successful development of those traits.

The fourth and fifth myths address the evolution of warfare, specifically the future challenges technology will pose to the ethic. In this regard, cyberwarfare has opened up an entirely new domain of warfare with different morally relevant features not present in the other physical domains. In doing so, it poses moral challenges largely unfamiliar to many professionals who will have to lead troops in this domain in the very near future. Likewise, the advent of autonomous weapon systems has the potential to erode moral decision-making and accountability while perhaps simultaneously making warfare more humane. As we acquire new technologies, therefore, we must also develop the norms associated with employing them.

Acting ethically in war ties my hands and makes winning more difficult--false.

Certainly soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced rules of engagement that severely limited their ability to close with and destroy the enemy. More important, applying these rules has placed soldiers at considerable risk, often without any commensurate contribution to victory. In some cases, these rules of engagement have even appeared to limit the enemy's risk while endangering friendly soldiers and the populations they are supposed to protect. These situations arise out of misunderstanding the role military ethics plays. Understanding how the ethics of war aligns with ways of war and how ways of war align with war's ends can resolve this tension. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.