Ethics Training and Development in the Military

By Robinson, Paul | Parameters, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Ethics Training and Development in the Military


Robinson, Paul, Parameters


In June 2006, the Pentagon announced that all US servicemen in Iraq were to undergo additional military ethics training, including lessons in "core warrior values." Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, then commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq, said that the training would focus on "professional military values and the importance of disciplined, professional conduct in combat." (1) This highlighted the growing importance of ethics training and development in the military, not just for the forces of the United States but for those of other countries as well. Formal ethics training programs were a rarity in most armed forces until fairly recently. In the past decade, they have become increasingly common. The Canadian Department of National Defence, for instance, introduced a "Defence Ethics Program" in 1997, and the French military academy at St. Cyr began its program in ethics training in 2002.

It is one thing to say that soldiers will have to undergo ethics training, it is quite another to ensure that they learn the right lessons. Indeed, if incorrectly carried out, ethics training might even be counterproductive. It is clear from a survey of ethics training programs in various national militaries that there is no uniformity of approach between them and a lack of coherence within them. There is also disagreement as to the degree to which such programs are necessary in the first place. Given the fact that few Western nations now send their military forces on operations independently, the lack of uniformity about what constitutes ethical behavior and how best to educate soldiers is potentially a cause for alarm. As Major General (Ret.) Patrick Cordingley, former commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade in the British Army, noted after a recent trip to Afghanistan, although rules of engagement for the various coalition forces in that country are similar, they are interpreted in different ways. We need, he said, to get together as a coalition and thrash out the ethics behind the rules in order to reach mutual understanding. (2)

It is obvious that much needs to be done in determining what is the best approach to instilling the desired ethics in servicemen and women. This article builds on a workshop on "Ethics Training and Development in the Military," held at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom on 22-23 June 2006. This workshop was attended by representatives from the armed forces and military academies often countries, as well as philosophers, political scientists, and historians. (3) The workshop sought to determine what ethics training and development programs are in existence; their theoretical underpinnings; the effect of cultural and national differences on content; whether such programs are best run by military officers, chaplains, lawyers, or academic philosophers; and if it is feasible to develop common principles and approaches for the armed forces of participating countries. The article summarizes and expands on the initial directions identified by participants, and aims thereby to provide greater understanding of a matter requiring further thought, a matter that is becoming a vital force influencing the battlefields of the twenty-first century.

The Importance of Ethics Training and Development

The first issues to be resolved are why ethics matter to the military and whether formal ethics training programs are actually necessary or productive. These issues raise the question of what we mean by military "ethics." Are we referring to the instillation in military personnel of a general morality that makes them what an ordinary civilian might consider "morally good"? Or are we referring more narrowly to the professional standard required for the fulfilment of their role as servicemen and women? Is it actually necessary for military personnel to be morally good as long as they are proficient at their jobs? Are the two separable, or are they mutually dependent? In short, are the ethics required of a soldier in his or her role (role morality) the same as those required of a civilian (ordinary morality)? …

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