Academic journal article Military Review

The Military Moral Education Program: Checking Our Ethical Azimuth

Academic journal article Military Review

The Military Moral Education Program: Checking Our Ethical Azimuth

Article excerpt

Horrific war crimes, the sort portrayed in the film The Kill Team and the book Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, and major transgressions by senior leaders that make for embarrassing headlines typically dominate the Army's discourse on moral education. (1) While no one argues that those responsible were somehow unaware of their actions being wrong, such events commonly elicit immediate demands for further instruction and improvements in the ethical reasoning of all soldiers. In its haste to respond, the Army repeatedly deploys its intellectual capacity toward solving the wrong problem.


Failure to identify the root of a complex problem can sabotage even the best intentions. Imagine for a moment a purpose-driven soldier motivated to improve his fitness level. Each morning, he inspires his fellow soldiers by giving 100 percent during physical training. Yet, he shows little improvement. Only after an honest counseling session with his squad leader does the soldier confess that he rewards himself with eight hundred calories worth of coffees, free donuts, and breakfast assortments after each session on the way to conduct hygiene. Immediately, the squad leader recognizes the problem: the soldier is attending to a multifaceted end (general health) along only one relevant line of effort. Similarly, the Army is unaware of its own blind spot in character development.

Recent military initiatives--such as the addition of an ethics block for professional military education and the Army's Ready and Resilient Campaign--have led to a more comprehensive curriculum in ethical theory that seeks to improve soldiers' moral reasoning skills. However, the Army must simultaneously improve its soldiers' moral will--that is, their moral motivations. The proper ends of the Army ethics program include moral action rather than merely moral knowledge. (2) These are two deliberate, but not necessarily discrete, ends. One might gain moral knowledge without interest in pursuing moral action. In contrast, one cannot act morally without the prerequisite knowledge (ethical reasoning) that allows him or her to discern right action. The Army must characterize its ethical training as moral education and implement systematic methods of reinforcement so that the profession interprets its ethic as a standard that each member aspires to be rather than simply do.

The contemporary environment is complicated and growing ever more complex. While the Cold War-era military prioritized efficiency and effectiveness, the modern military emphasizes flexibility and adaptability. Training attends to the former; training prepares soldiers and leaders to succeed in the next known mission. Education attends to the latter; education prepares soldiers and leaders to succeed in the next unknown mission. While training prioritizes highly specialized, repeatable expertise (battle drills, for example), education prioritizes "big-picture" thought that understands the interoperability of efforts--their necessary causes and likely effects on mission accomplishment. Moral knowledge requires education initiatives rather than further training initiatives.

Similarly, the Army might seek to train soldiers toward the second end suggested above: moral motivations. Training may habituate good activities by virtue of an organized system of rewards and reprimands. That model might achieve more immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to gain enduring commitment. Formerly, in a more centralized formation, that course of action would prove acceptable, feasible, and suitable. However, contemporary low-intensity environments impose upon the military a need for far greater autonomy throughout the force--from the combatant commander to the fire-team leader. Junior leaders find themselves responsible for large swaths of battle space, armed with incredible assets, and able to make major strategic impacts. …

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