Seeing through the fog of war: the need for Professional Military Ethics Education

By Gwilym Williams:

A US soldier burns a Vietnamese dwelling during the My Lai massacre, 1968, when between 350 and 500 unarmed civilians were killed by US soldiers.
A US soldier burns a Vietnamese dwelling during the My Lai massacre, 1968, when between 350 and 500 unarmed civilians were killed by US soldiers. The massacre is a common case study in current military ethics teaching. (Photo: Ronald L. Haeberle, US DoD, Wikimedia)

Modern warfare is not a straightforward business. Amidst the fog of war, combatants are expected to make life and death decisions, weigh up the possible consequences of their actions, and consider whether their actions are right or wrong, just or unjust, in a matter of seconds. Ill-defined enemies, the presence of civilians, and intense media scrutiny all make these decisions, and therefore combat, particularly complex on land, at sea, and in the air. An ethical understanding is vital is this context, with an effective Professional Military Ethical Education needed to help guide military personnel when making such decisions.

In recent conflicts, professional service personnel of Western militaries have carried out acts in contravention of the Laws of Armed Conflict. In Iraq, there was the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the shooting of civilians and journalists in the infamous Wikileaks exposé dubbed ‘Collateral Murder’. In Afghanistan, there was the case of ‘Marine A’, convicted for the murder of a wounded enemy combatant.

Similarly, militaries are not exempt from the ongoing efforts to achieve equality and diversity in society. Scandals, such as the Deepcut deaths and allegations of abuse in Britain, and the revelations of rape within the U.S. military, are not only abhorrent events within themselves, but reflect very badly on the services as institutions, both domestically and abroad.

Henrik Syse and Martin L. Cook argued in 2010 that service personnel need to better understand the ethical demands of them, and the dilemmas they may face, so that they can act appropriately when faced with such situations.[i] The very fact that the aforementioned examples have occurred represent ethical failures on the part of some individuals, and thereby vindicates Cook and Syse’s argument.

Even if someone does not carry out an act but allows it to occur or does nothing to stop it once it is happening, there would be serious questions as to whether they acted appropriately, or whether they made the wrong decision when also faced with an ethical dilemma. This is not to say, however, that all military personnel will fail when posed with an ethical challenge. But the existence of such abuses and failings demonstrates that individuals are capable of making the wrong choices.

Both national and international laws such as the Laws of Armed Conflict and International Humanitarian Law tell military personnel whether something is legally permitted. However, ethics helps to answer the question of whether someone should do something. Although this is a different type of question, it is singularly important, particularly when a decision is made when lives are at stake.

Yet the existing methods of equipping the military to deal with ethical challenges are often lacking. At present, by learning certain values and standards expected of those in the military, and how they should apply these values to any ethical situation they may encounter, most service personnel are ‘taught’ how to tackle such issues. Instead, service personnel should be encouraged to consider the reasons and rationale behind these virtues, and how they should apply them. Although a somewhat subtle difference, this ‘education’ could prompt widespread change, and better equip service personnel to deal with ethical challenges.

Many militaries have neither the resources nor infrastructure to deliver ethical education to those within their ranks, instead relying on foreign academics to deliver ethics education.[ii] For example, one British academic has helped to deliver this education to the militaries of Baltic States, Brunei Darussalam, and Nigeria, amongst others.[iii] Whilst many countries are enthusiastic about the delivery of ethics education, other militaries have demonstrated a lack of interest in the matter, with the subject poorly, if at all, integrated into the curriculum, and the teaching only existing so that the military could be seen to deliver something on the issue.[iv] Clearly, in these cases, service personnel can receive an inadequate level of ethical training to cope with the demands of the jobs they will face in the future.

At the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, British Officer Cadets are expected to gain an ethical framework by studying practical applied ethics via dilemmas presented both in the field and in the classroom.[v] This framework is ultimately derived from the virtues set out in Values and Standards, a document designed to shape and guide the character of those in the British Army.[vi]

Likewise, the other three services in the British Military (including the Royal Marines) have their own sets of values and standards. In the Army, these Values and Standards, together with the Laws of Armed Conflict are tested via Military Annual Training Tests (MATTs). Yet, having spoken to serving Army officers, many feel that all too often ethics education is reduced to being ‘a tick in a box’ – something to achieve before the end of the year.

Similarly, at West Point, the United States Military Academy, cadets are issued with cards detailing the seven virtues expected of American soldiers.[vii] However, as J. Joseph Miller argues, this removes the virtues from any context, which limits the ultimate value of knowing these virtues.[viii] In both the British and American systems, the risk of merely teaching service personnel ideal virtues in isolation is that whilst soldiers have an understanding of the virtues and characteristics that they should possess, they do not perhaps have a deep enough understanding of the reasoning behind these.

Whilst existing methods provide a good framework of virtues and standards, there is a danger that it instils a binary perspective on a dilemma – that is to say, there is a good or bad, right or wrong solution to an ethical challenge. As Patrick Mileham argues, ‘While principles can be taught, developing the ability to form moral judgements can only be achieved up to a point. That requires acute imagination and intelligence’.[ix]

Thus, the current military ethics teaching needs to be developed into military ethics education. By helping service personnel to form their own moral judgments, rather than just regurgitating codes of conduct, those in the military will be better placed to understand the ethical aspects of decisions facing them both on operations and in day-to-day life.

Critics might argue that this suggestion is merely idealistic. Yet tools have been, and continue to be developed to achieve this aim. For example, the Norwegian military use playing cards to promote and normalise the discussion of ethical issues, and a similar project also utilising playing cards as learning aids to supplement existing ethics discussion and education, and to prompt more informal interest in the subject, is being undertaken at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. The Defence Studies Department is also exploring the possibility of delivering Professional Military Ethics Education via a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This, however, requires both investment from militaries and academics, and uptake and implementation by military authorities so that the positive effects of this education can be as widespread as possible.

One caveat to note is that this is not an argument to suggest that service personnel should become high-level moral philosophers able to weigh up the pros and cons of Kantian ethics against utilitarianism. Nor is it trying to convince combatants to become pacifists and to lay down their arms. It is simply trying to improve the conduct with which wars are fought, and to ensure equality is achieved in everyday military life.

Ethical decisions are often difficult to make. But if Professional Military Ethics Education becomes widespread, service personnel should be better equipped to deal with the dilemmas and challenges which face them. And it is hoped that by having a greater understanding of these problems, military personnel will be able to make better decisions.

Gwilym Williams is an Undergraduate Research Fellow in the Centre of Military Ethics of the Defence Studies Department, Kings College London. He graduated from Kings in July 2015 with a BA in History, and is currently studying for an MA in War Studies at Kings College London.


My thanks to Dr. David Whetham and the editors of Strife for their helpful and constructive comments on earlier drafts of this piece.


[i] Martin L. Cook and Henrik Syse, ‘What Should We Mean by ‘Military Ethics’, Journal of Military Ethics, vol. 9, no. 2, 2010, p119-120.

[ii] David Whetham, ‘Expeditionary Ethics Education’, in George Lucas (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Military Ethics, (Routledge, Abingdon, 2015), p124.

[iii] Ibid. p124-125.

[iv] Ibid. p127.

[v] Stephen Deakin, ‘Education in an Ethos at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst’, in Nigel de Lee, Don Carrick, Paul Robinson (eds.), Ethics Education in the Military, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), p16.

[vi] Ibid. p23.

[vii] J. Joseph Miller, ‘Squaring the circle: Teaching philosophical ethics in the military’, Journal of Military Ethics, vol. 3, no. 3, 2004, p202-203.

[viii] Ibid. p204.

[ix] Patrick Mileham, ‘Teaching Military Ethics in the British Armed Forces’, in Nigel de Lee, Don Carrick, Paul Robinson (eds.), Ethics Education in the Military, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), p50.

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