Military Ethics: Avoiding Moral Atavism in the Complex Operational Environment

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Military ethic is fundamental to the military profession and leaders are entrusted with maintaining the essential characteristics of the profession of arms. This study attempts to emphasize and highlight the extreme importance military ethics have in any decisions involving the use of lethal power, especially in the most difficult conditions imposed by the asymmetric operational environment. Drawing partially from personal experience, as a former sergeant and as a cadet in a reputable Army commissioning program, I will endeavor to determine whether ethical training, provided in commissioning programs, is adequate and sufficient to prepare young officers for the uncompromising ethical requirements of the military profession. The paper frames military ethics, regarding jus ad bellum and jus in bello, as representing the core of moral values of our society. However, as our society is not homogenous but divided on political, moral and religious lines, the moral values constituent to this core are heterogeneous. The lack of more elaborate ethical training becomes critical when decisions have monumental implications with ramifications far beyond the limited operational space. As media, science and technology have increased exponentially the pressure applied on military decision makers, ethical choices become more complex and their mounting impact is felt on a global scale. The case studies analyzed, constitute a convincing argument for the need of improvement in ethical training. What this paper is advocating, is that in order to prevent systemic moral atavism, as a result of applying deficient ethical training mechanisms, in the context of increased moral complexity of the operational environment, an approach to moral education in the vein of Lawrence Kohlberg’s proposition is most suited. With increased ethical responsibility placed increasingly, doctrinally at lower levels on junior officers, acting as a moral compass for their men, Kohlberg’s theory appears, prima facie, to represent the most suited theory that could form the backbone of a military ethics education course, for future junior leaders. Furthermore, considering the tensions existent in just war theory, detailed to some extent in this paper, it appears that a Rawlsian individual reflective equilibrium, representing the individual goal for successful ethical training, demands principles of ethical theory that are consistent with virtue ethics, Kantian or neo-Kantian ethics, or a combination of these.