Teaching Military Ethics to ROTC Cadets

By CPT Carlos Bertha, FLARNG

As a graduate student in philosophy at the University of South Florida, I was fortunate enough to be able to teach a class in military ethics. Early on, I identified this topic as a target "area of specialization" and designed a course to fit the bill. The first time the course was to be taught (fall semester of 1997), and since this was a new course, I had to do some legwork to promote it and advertise it. One of the obvious places to start, at least so I thought, was the army ROTC office (from which I had received my commission as a second lieutenant in 1989). Much to my chagrin, the initial reaction of the commander (the Professor of Military Science--PMS) was somewhat negative. The impression I got from her was that she was concerned about what kind of information (or negative propaganda) I would feed her young cadets.

I faintly remember talking about ethics when I myself attended ROTC classes, now over ten years ago. I even looked over my notes (I am surprised I kept them this long), and found that the sum total of ethics training during my entire ROTC tenure occupied two hand-written pages: a bit about Kant, a bit about utilitarianism, and a couple of scenarios. Since then, I have graduated from Engineer Officer Basic Course, Field Artillery Officer Advanced Course, and Combined Armed Services and Staff School. These courses combined add another 8-hour block of instruction to the running count in ethics training. This is plain wrong.

Our society expects officers to make hard choices, those difficult decisions that warrant a strong moral backbone. But how can we demand a strong moral backbone if we are not committed to giving these officers an adequate background in ethics? I thought that the reason the ROTC cadre was initially apprehensive about my class was simple fear: how many cadets would realize what their jobs really entailed? Would I be able to convince a few young, impressionable cadets to leave the program? Would they rethink their position after they realized that their future would call for them to do things they might consider immoral? Interestingly, the best I could hope for my class was to be exactly that influential. I, for one, think that this is how it should be.

I could just see the PMS's eyes homing in on some key words on my syllabus: My Lai, conscientious objection, nuclear deterrence, pacifism, sexual and racial discrimination, and homosexuality. These are indeed touchy subjects, but, like it or not, they are part in parcel of the subject of military ethics. She asked me if I would cover things "by doctrine," presumably worried that I would go against it. I do not think that my response, namely that I would be careful to use only the latest Field Manuals and Technical Manuals when it came to discussing doctrinal issues, allayed her fears in any way. I felt there was an innate apprehension about the possibility of critically examining army doctrine. Lo and behold, I might just make them think.

The bottom line is that a cadet should know what he or she is getting into. The armed forces have a mission "to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Knowing what "protecting and defending" may entail, form an ethical perspective, is crucial if a cadet is to understand the very meaning of the oath he or she is about to take. We owe the cadet at least that much: he or she ought to know the ethics of the profession he or she is about to pursue. In today's philosophical jargon, we call this "informed consent." It demands nothing more than the understanding of the contract before the parties enter it.

It is certainly understandable, in these times of dwindling recruiting numbers, that we would all like the meet our enlistment quotas and goals. I was a commander too, and when it came to re-enlisting a prior-service soldier, say one with disciplinary problems in the past, the fact that he would bring me that much closer to my strength goal was, absolutely, a deciding factor (Iím happy to say, however, that even there I had my limits). But it was precisely as a commander that I realized that I had been ill equipped to handle some ethical dilemmas that are part-and-parcel to military life and service. By then, sure, I had heard of the MyLai massacre, but I had not been prepared to handle the more day-to-day (and far more common) ethical dilemmas: racial discrimination, alcohol abuse, unsatisfactory performance, command influence, etc. This is why I think my course is helpful. Even if the course merely points out, "Look, these are the kinds of moral dilemmas you will be dealing with in the years to come," I think the cadets (will-be-lieutenants) are a little bit better off.

I am glad to say that the PMS later changed her mind. In fact, after she invited me to guest lecture her senior class on the law of land warfare, she told me that she would recommend her cadets take my course. By the next time I offered the course, she had made it possible for the cadets to take my class as an alternative to "Military History," as a course that would fulfil one of their Professional Military Education (PME) requirements. This situation, then, certainly worked out well for me, but is this enough? I do not think so: First, I think the rest of the ROTC offices throughout the country (perhaps under the direction of Cadet Command) should follow suit and at least try to make classes like mine available to all cadets. Second, either make this course a separate requirement, or else enhance the ethics content in the current ROTC curriculum.

What remains to be said here is the "what" and the "how" (or the "at least what" and the "perhaps how") this curriculum ought to be taught. Here, then, all I can convey is what has and has not worked for me in the past. Some remarks will naturally be reflections of my style of teaching (i.e., regardless of the subject), but I will try to emphasize those things that affect my "Military Ethics" course. First, I shall suggest "what" ought to be covered.

Assuming that the students have a cursory understanding of things-military (rank structure, task organization, customs, etc.), as most ROTC cadets do, the course should begin with a brief history of the ethical dilemmas encountered in war, and who were the key players in formulating (and perhaps even attempting to answer) the ethical questions thereby generated. We can go as far back as we wish in the first half of the question, but I think it is interesting to point out that the formulation of the questions, let alone the attempts to answer them, came much later. I usually invite students to tell me what Sun Tzu (whom most of my students have already read) had to say about ethics. The answer is almost nothing. Hsün Tzu, who wrote two hundred years after Sun Tzu, is the first in that line of research who says anything ethical. Largely, these texts about war addressed strategy and left ethical questions totally out of the picture. Shortly, however, we do get to thinkers who tackled the difficult questions: St Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, and Clausewitz. Other historical figures, such as Machiavelli, may also surface, but in my case, they did when discussing specific topics (in his case, the "dirty hands" problem).

Having laid the historical background, the next step is to cover the UCMJ and FM 27-10 (The Law of Land Warfare) in some (though not excruciating) detail. This will let the students know how things stand now, and will introduce them to the legal aspect of the military profession.

I have found that right about this point, the students are ready (if not begging) for some of the more theoretical jargon in ethics. Covering ethical theory is, I think, a bit tricky. I had better success teaching it this way (in the middle of the semester, as opposed to at the beginning). The reason is that students will assimilate more of the theory having first gone over some of the "substance."

Michael Walzer presents us with the perfect fusion of all that has been discussed so far. His book Just and Unjust Wars ought to figure in any military ethics curriculum. Walzer also serves as the perfect transition for the rest of the semester: putting theory into practice. Normally, the last month of the semester we turn to specific ethical dilemmas encountered in military life and service. These should include those dilemmas likely to be encountered in combat (conscientious objection, illegal orders, etc.), but they must also include those dilemmas encountered in peacetime (sexual and racial discrimination and harassment, for instance) and lower-level command issues I mentioned before.

Finally, allow me to make two comments about the "how" the course ought to be taught. First, I try to begin every lecture by asking the students if they found something pertaining to military ethics in the local newspaper. The class that goes by without a brief discussion of some contemporary issue is rare. Secondly, I have found that the use of movies is a good idea. Some of the material covered, especially the theoretical stuff, is at times, admittedly, a bit deep. I have found that when students can really identify with a subject via a movie, their ability to abstract the theoretical aspects of the problem improves dramatically.

I have seen in recent years a marked improvement in the emphasis the military is placing on ethics training. But if we compare the major military academies with ROTC programs, the latter is lagging behind considerably. Cadet Command ought to look into standardizing some of the material in ethics provided to cadets in our non-military universities. After all, the majority of military officers come from these institutions and not from the major academies. I think the best solution is to create an offer separate course called Military Ethics, but alternatively, I believe that a cadetís PME requirements ought the include an introductory ethics course offered by the universityís philosophy department.