Troops at Odds with Ethics Standards- How to teach morality

I was reading an article in The Washington Post entitled “Troops at Odds with Ethics Standards” and was struck that the Pentagon report issued yesterday regarding ethics and the US military relates to two papers I have written on the subject: “National Objectives in the Hands of Junior Leaders: IDF Experiences in Combating Terror” (co-written with Prof Martha Minow”) and “Teaching Morality in Armed Conflict.”

The Pentagon study addressing the issue of ethics in combat is directly related to my last posting in the Israel Defense Forces when I had command responsibility for the development of the first interactive video teaching soldiers how to conduct themselves in armed conflict with respect to a civilian population. In creating the video I worked closely with junior and senior commanders alike as the issue is one of “command responsibility” and “command influence”. I stress both in my scholarship and lectures in academic conferences and to the military (US and Israel) that morality is another “tool in the commander’s toolbox” in many ways no less significant than traditional operational capability which the Pentagon study confirms.

Teaching morality and ethics during armed conflict to combat units presents unique challenges to both military educators and commanders. However, it must be understood from the outset that the ultimate responsibility of morality and ethics is the commander’s, in terms of both words and action. If the commander is unwilling to go beyond “talking the talk,” or if his actions contradict what he has instructed his forces regarding issues of morality, the potential for violations by his forces are great.

In the context of “armed conflict short of war,” operational considerations have expanded to include subject areas not traditionally associated with military operations and training. However, the reality of modern combat is that states will rarely be engaged in warfare with other states. Rather, states will be engaged in combat with non-state entities, comprised of individuals dressed like innocent civilians.

Accordingly, the tool box of the contemporary junior commander must include skills not critical to the operational success of his predecessor forty years ago. These skills must include an understanding of cultural mores of the local peoples, an ability to communicate on a basic level with the local population, an understanding of morality in armed conflict and of international law, and an appreciation for the power of the media. Furthermore, the junior commander is required to integrate these skills in stressful conditions in a foreign land while facing a hostile, local population.