Document created: 15 October 2003
Air University Review, November-December 1974
Major Robert C. Carroll, USA
Recently a general officer addressed a group of officers on the subject of ethics. He made a grave but common error. He argued that because the image of the military was tarnished in the public eye, we must improve our integrity. He failed to state that by focusing on our image, we lose sight of our soul. We must have integrity for reasons other than image, and if we succumb to the institutional neurosis of overconcern for our exterior image, we will in fact prostitute our integrity to embellish that image.
The intent of this article is to examine military ethics and to advocate more systematic and enlightened discussion of the topic within the profession of arms. No one denies the importance of integrity, that admirable, abstract quality of a person who abides by an ethical code. But the ethical code for the military man is rarely explored with any degree of personal concern or conceptual sophistication.
Ethical judgments in the military involve complex and conflicting alternatives that cannot be resolved by an appeal to an abstract notion of integrity. The West Point motto, “Duty-Honor-Country,” provides a guide for an ethical code, but these three concepts can, unfortunately, be in conflict. An example illustrates the point.
It is conceivable that an officer could be urged by his superior, peers, or subordinates to “pad” a report of combat success. The “padding” may be argued in terms of debatable assumptions concerning the action, existing organizational norms concerning reporting, or furtherance of the mission or morale goals of the unit. Insofar as the organization asks the officer to take this action, it can be viewed as his duty. Insofar as this action conflicts with his desire to be truthful, it affronts his integrity and conflicts with his sense of honor. It is also conceivable that the officer believes that the action is not in the best interests of his country. He might believe that the battle should have been less restricted by nonmilitary considerations or, on the other hand, that the fighting should have excluded certain populated areas. Or perhaps the report will go to the press, which can be expected to treat it unfavorably. Any of these considerations could convince the officer that a given action is not in the best interests of his country. It is an understatement to say that these ethical contradictions are complex.
With varying circumstances, this conflict can be made personally relevant to all officers. Ethical contradictions occur in varying degrees of intensity, based on the individual’s background and the situations in which he finds himself. It is my belief that far too many officers resolve these dilemmas only in the heat of crisis and emotion. The crisis can derive from social pressure or from the heat of battle, neither of which maximizes rational analysis and predictable behavior so essential to conducting the business of war. Even in circumstances where the ethical decision is not immediately needed, lingering unresolved ethical dilemmas can cause serious psychological problems for the individual and degradation of combat efficiency for the unit.
Why are officers reluctant to examine these issues before they are faced with the necessity of immediate action? The overriding reason is that the issues are extremely complex and difficult to resolve. To whom does the commander of a United Nations peace-keeping force owe allegiance? Does the “end” of taking care of the troops justify the “means” of midnight requisitioning? Is it unethical to refuse to obey a lawful but ill-conceived order that will result in needless loss of life? Is the total veracity of the staff officer’s report really essential when it will result in the termination of careers of competent, dedicated men? These questions do not lend themselves to easy solutions or pat prescriptions. They are extremely complex because fundamental values are in direct opposition and a judgment must be made concerning the priority of those values.
Some argue that these issues have been addressed in recent years through highly publicized accounts. Certainly the stories of men like Calley, Turner, Wooldridge, Bucher, and Lavelle provide poignant case studies of ethical dilemmas. These accounts are indeed demonstrative of issues involved, but they fail to force the typical officer to examine his own code of ethics. The publicity and the stakes involved make the cases impersonal and distant. It is too easy to praise or condemn from afar without examining one’s own conflicts. The normal dilemmas of officers will not make headlines, and by some they are considered petty or trivial. The triviality of these decisions is misleading, however. What is frequently forgotten is that one’s behavior over time determines one’s attitude in the future. A series of “petty infractions” will erode a standard of conduct. The small white lies make it easier to tell the big one. The incipient abuse of integrity not only tarnishes the man’s integrity in the eyes of both soldiers and civilians but, more important, also permits greater personal tolerance for failure by the man himself.
These concerns are very personal and individual, and they are not likely to be divulged over coffee or beer. Officers are not prone to confess breaches of integrity, particularly when they are not proud of their actions. The sad feature of this institutional inhibition to discuss ethics is that it precludes significant correction of unethical behavior. If the specific ethical issues were discussed and analyzed before the frenzy of pressure for a decision arrived, individual and group strength for supporting “correct action” would be enhanced. Naturally it is impossible to foresee all potential ethical dilemmas, but it is possible to search for likely hypothetical situations, to examine the issues, and to resolve the conflict intellectually. This is a more healthy approach than that of the ostrich.
a framework for ethical decisions
As stated earlier, ethical situations are too multifaceted for general prescriptions. The remainder of the article attempts to describe the framework in which ethical decisions are made by military professionals. This framework consists of four topics: conscience, equilibrium, the core military ethic, and a moral calculus. These topics could well serve as the foundation for a block of instruction in military schools at all levels. This framework could also be used in an officers call at the unit level or as the structure for informal dialogue among a group of concerned military officers. Although not a panacea, this framework provides a route toward systematic and enlightened ethical analysis.
Conscience. Human beings distinguish right from wrong or good from bad by what is called their conscience or inner voice. The conscience is developed, nurtured, and changed throughout life. Initially an authority figure, such as a parent, priest, or policeman, defines “good” in terms of the institution he represents. The child, adolescent, or adult conducts his behavior based on fear of punishment or desire for reward by the authority. As the experience of the individual increases, he accepts or rejects the values of the authority, and his actions are judged by his own conscience. Saluting the flag is an example in the military context. Initially the serviceman performs this act because authority demands it; later, as a professional, he does it because he thinks he should. Saluting thus becomes a matter of conscience.
This significant change whereby the conscience was developed, or the norm internalized, is only possible because of faith in the authority figure. The performance of the authority must be consistent, and those acts defined as “good” cannot be contradictory if the conscience is to develop. The individual accepts the dictates of the authority based on a rational faith.
The concept of conscience is intensely relevant to integrity and professional ethics because a man can only achieve integrity by following his conscience and can only be professional if his conscience is not in conflict with professional ethics. This does not mean that the soldier should stop questioning his own actions or orders. With blind, unquestioning obedience, men become robots, automatons, animals; with thoughtful obedience, men become professional soldiers who have not surrendered their human nature.
The conscience must be the final guide for “right” actions. The alternative is “sin” and guilt. Violating one’s conscience is psychologically unhealthy. Violating a moral rule established by society is sociologically disruptive and chaotic. There is no more sensible alternative than to follow the maxim “To thine own self be true.”
Equilibrium. Problems surface, however, when man is subjected to several sets of codes that are not in total harmony with what he has been taught or holds dear. Some values such as honesty are, hopefully, central and common to all codes: family, church, military, etc. These values form the nucleus of several codes and can symbolically be portrayed as the center of concentric circles. Other codes or systems of “rights” and “wrongs” can be incongruent, if not antithetical. For example, aggressive combat action resulting in danger to self and death to the enemy is not a value taught by most societal institutions. This situation can result in ethical disequilibrium, represented symbolically by interlocking nonconcentric circles.
The individual must examine the disparate codes and adjust his values and conscience to compensate for these differences. The ethical system must be brought into equilibrium or symmetry. Failure to do so results in ambivalence, anxiety, and uncertainty. Procrastinating this adjustment function is the mark of a weak man, a psychologically immature person, an individual whose actions are unpredictable. In the military it could well mean a man who may not do what his country is paying him to do.
The core military ethic. The two central values of the military profession are subservience to civilian control and the desire to win wars if engaged. The former takes precedence over the latter, and this is a bitter pill for some to swallow in these times of strategic “sufficiency” and “no-win” policies. If the ethical priorities were reversed, however, the justification for mutiny would have been laid. MacArthur, probably the most brilliant strategist and soldier-diplomat of the century, was blinded to this fact by his own pride.
It is not an insignificant fact that an officer being commissioned into the military service takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution, a document which describes and symbolizes our type of government. The oath does not denote loyalty to a given person as did oaths taken in feudal times by serfs to their lord or in the Third Reich by soldiers to Hitler. In the American military our loyalty is to the commands of the President, as authorized by the Congress and as interpreted by the courts. This balanced governmental machinery finances, codifies, and directs the business of the profession of arms in those endeavors that the government sees as necessary and right.
When the governmental structure dictates attack, or attack under certain constraints, or reduction of the size of force, the military complies. It does so collectively and individually because reason and observation over time have given the military professionals a rational faith in the decisions of the civilian authority with regard to what is “right” for national defense. The oath to support the Constitution, hence the government, is predicated not on blind obedience to authority but rather on a rational, intelligent understanding of that authority.
To support the Constitution is to be obedient to the lawful orders of the civilian government. All policies, instructions, regulations, and laws are derived from a legitimate authority clearly spelled out in the Constitution. Compliance with these orders, whether they pertain to hair styles or nuclear weapons, is a direct derivative of the officer’s oath.
Some may question whether following every rule and regulation is part of the military ethic. It is naїve to think that a regulation on wearing the uniform is in essence different from a regulation on the use of government property, treatment of prisoners of war, or firing nuclear weapons. The difference is only in degree of importance. The violation of any rule, regulation, or order, no matter how trivial, is a deviation from the military ethic. The only difference in violations is in degree of deviation from the ethic. The officer who believes he may pick and choose between important, logical, and realistic regulations, on the one hand, and trivial, illogical, and meaningless ones, on the other, is guilty of violating the professional ethic and is a victim of serious self-delusion.
A moral calculus. This is not to argue that every regulation must be enforced to the hilt but rather that failure to enforce a regulation or to follow an order will exact a price. The understanding of the trade-offs involved, the consequences of the acts, and the cumulative erosion caused by relatively minor infractions is a mental process. The locus of this ethical decision-making is the brain: hence the term “moral calculus.”
When an officer is faced with a conflict between his conscience and an order, he must resolve the issue, and for his own psychological health and moral well-being the decision should be in favor of his conscience. The problem is that the military cannot tolerate this breakdown in authority during times of crisis. Nor will a man’s reasoning or his intellectual search into the moral consequences of an act be clear and logical in the emotional frenzy of physical or social conflict. These dilemmas should be resolved before the moment arrives requiring a quick crucial decision, so that intellect and not emotion will be the chief source of inquiry into the conscience.
Man’s psyche is capable of amazing distortion of reality under stress. Rationalization and displacement of responsibility are well-documented phenomena of both the healthy and the psychotic mind. A moral calculus or an examination of the issues in a setting unencumbered by stress will minimize the distortion of the issues and will result in the clearest delineation of the ethical code.
I have used a framework for ethical decisions to describe the process by which an officer evaluates an ethical issue, considers his responsibility to support the Constitution, and brings into equilibrium or harmony any values that are in opposition. This framework is not intended to be a template for correct decisions but rather a description of a process that actually occurs. The central point is that this process occurs too often in the crisis of immediacy. I have advocated increased discussion and analysis of military ethics in a noncrisis environment in order to resolve issues rationally and strengthen “right” decisions with the solidarity of fellow professionals.
If the reader now believes he understands the nature of military ethics, this treatise has been a singular failure. The reader should merely have derived an appreciation of how complex the subject is. Ethical issues are seldom either black or white; they occur in the grey zone. The purpose of this article was not to eliminate the grey but to illuminate it.
Air Command and Staff College
Major Robert C. Carroll, USA (M.A., Northwestern University; M.P.A., Auburn University) is Executive Officer, 1st Battalion, 22d Infantry, 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Fort Carson, Colorado. His assignments have included advisor to the Vietnamese Ranger School, commander of a riffle company in Vietnam, teacher of leadership at West Point, and operations staff officer in Hq MACV. Major Carroll is an associate editor of the Journal of Political and Military Sociology. He is a 1974 distinguished graduate of the Air Command and Staff College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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