“There is a beast in every fighting man…” Ethics and the ‘Right Way’

Once an Army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.”
George C. Marshall

That was a gem of a quote towards the end of ‘Finding “The Right Way”: Toward an Army Institutional Ethic” by LTC Clark Barrett. It is a product of the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) which is a part of the US Army War College. If you are interested in the ethics and morality of soldiering, and especially how one might institutionalize those values in a fighting force, I recommend you make time to read the paper. It’s long (75 pages, although 35 pages are covers, contents, and footnotes) but not dry.

The author uses the events of Abu Ghraib, Mahmudiyah, and the “kill team” as a backdrop into his investigation of the history and current state of the US Army “ethic.” He looks at ethics programs used by some of our allies (including Great Britain, Canada, and Israel) and makes recommendations on how the Army might move forward.

LTC Barrett does not argue that a more robust ethics program will eliminate war crimes or unethical behavior like the ones mentioned above. He points out that in many of the cases involving war crimes there is often a “charismatic leader” who is himself unethical and guides others to unethical behavior. With proper training, though, these charismatic leaders might be stunted by others long before they get to the point of making the wrong decision.

There are a number of interesting things that the author recommends – including the development of a kind of “ethics check” through the use of a mnemonic. In the old days at West Point, cadets used to ask other cadets “All right?” as a way of reminding them that they adhered to the honor code. A cadet who understood that he/she was bound by the honor code and was in compliance would then respond with “All right.”

LTC Barrett writes:

Envision a circumstance in which Soldiers, angered by death and destruction on the battlefield and tempted towards immoral conduct, check themselves when one wise Soldier asks the timely question, “All Right?” It may appear Pollyannaish, but this method worked for many decades at USMA. As long as the use of “All Right” is not abused, it could provide the outward daily symbol to remind Soldiers of their code and honor, and provide some small check on improper behavior (33).

He also discusses the idea of adopting a “military covenant” in the same way that the British have done (this is something I have written about before). The idea is that in exchange for military service, the “people” or the “government” (it’s not really clear) are indebted to those who serve(d) and that they “should always expect the Nation and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals, and to sustain and reward them and their families.”

I’m glad that these types of products are being produced at the US Army War College and I hope that this particular thesis is widely read (so pass it around) and that its recommendations are taken seriously – even if only by those individuals who care so much to read it.

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