The End of War and the Need for Ethics: Current and Forthcoming Changes in the Mission and Force Structure of U.S. Military Forces and Their Implications Regarding Military Ethics and Ethical Training

By Dr. Erik Wingrove-Haugland, Assistant Professor of Morals and Ethics, United States Coast Guard Academy

I. Introduction

The military services of the United States are in the process of undergoing substantial changes in force structure and mission. These changes, along with concurrent changes in society as a whole, have already dramatically changed the field of military ethics as a whole and the teaching of military ethics in particular; both the study and teaching of military ethics will almost certainly undergo further changes in the future. The current and future changes in the mission and force structure of the armed services demand that the field of military ethics to focus less on conduct during wartime and more on issues pertaining to peacetime conduct and conduct during non-traditional conflicts. These changes will also increase both the importance and the difficulty of teaching ethics to future military officers, and will necessitate an approach to teaching ethics which focuses on discussions of ethical decision-making processes, rather than indoctrination. Such an approach to teaching ethics must transcend traditional boundaries between military training and academic education in order to have an impact on the beliefs and behaviors of future military officers.

II. The End of War: The Changing Nature of Military Conflict

The entire field of military ethics is in the process of a substantial change, which is directly related to the changing national and global military situation. In the past, the United States was one of two or more nations with approximately equal military power which engaged in occasional or frequent wars with each other. In this situation, the goal of the military was clear: win wars; that is, defend the country and its interests against aggression from other countries. The ethical nature of the military's mission was almost unquestioned; though a few pacifists decried the fact that it was necessary, there was a general consensus that defending the country and its interests was a moral enterprise. Because the general goals of the military were taken for granted, the field of military ethics focused not on the general goals of the military, but on the specific goals of a particular military enterprise and on how far the military could go in pursuing those specific goals. "War" was a relatively well-defined situation which nations formally entered into, and there was a relatively clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The central issues of military ethics were thus the justification for war (jus ad bellum) and limitations on conduct during war (jus in bello). Military officers did not need to be very concerned with the former issue, since wars were declared by civilian authorities. Specific regulations, reinforced by international conventions and agreements, governed the latter issue, and dictated what conduct during wartime was legal and what was illegal. Given this situation, and the authoritarian structure of military services, it is not hard to see why ethical training in military academies tended to use a model of indoctrination. Given that specific regulations governed the behavior of military officers during wartime, the main goal of training in military ethics was to ensure that all military officers understood these regulations and knew how to apply them in the field. During the past few decades, this situation has changed dramatically; it is likely to change even more in the immediate future. War, in the traditional sense of formally declared full-scale hostilities between two nations or alliances of nations with recognized governments and approximately equal military forces, is largely a thing of the past; the majority of military conflicts today and for the foreseeable future do not fit this traditional definition of war. First, now and for the foreseeable future, most military conflicts which involve U.S. forces will not involve formal declarations of war. The U.S. Congress has not issued a formal declaration of war in the past 56 years, and no nation is likely to declare war on the U.S. or raise military forces to equal those of the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Second, the recent trend towards low-intensity conflicts, rather than full-scale war, will continue; the distinction between "war" and "peace" will be blurred by the continuation of this trend. Third, conflicts which have two recognizable "sides" will continue to decline, and conflicts with more than two opposing forces will increase; even when their are two distinct sides, at least one is likely to be composed of a coalition of forces whose interests do not necessarily coincide. Fourth, the trend towards hostilities between forces that are not controlled by the governments of internationally recognized nations--or by any governmental structure--will also continue. As in Somalia and Bosnia, most future military conflicts will involve more than two "sides," most of which are not forces of internationally recognized nations with clearly defined boundaries. In short, we are witnessing (or perhaps we have witnessed) the end of war--at least for now. As we have seen, however, the end of war is by no means the same thing as the end of military conflict; in place of wars, we are now involved in numerous military conflicts which involve many different armed forces (some of which are not forces of any recognized government) fighting a low-intensity or moderate-intensity conflict with no formal declaration of war. I will call such conflicts "non-traditional conflicts" to distinguish them from wars, which are traditional conflicts. Confronting these conflicts will require changes in the nature of military ethics in general, and in the training of military officers in particular.

III. Mission and Force Structure Evolution

These changes in the global military situation have caused a rapid evolution in the mission of the U.S. military services. Given the dominance of the U.S. military, there will be relatively few direct confrontations between U.S. forces and forces directly opposing them. Instead, the U.S. will increasingly be involved in non-traditional conflicts not in the role of one of the combatants (as in Vietnam), but in the role of an outside party seeking to minimize or end the conflict while protecting its own geopolitical and economic interests. In short, the mission of the military services is evolving from "win wars" to "keep the peace." In addition to these changes in the nature of military conflict and the mission of the military services, U.S. military services are experiencing other changes which will demand more of military officers in the future. One of the most important of these changes, of course, is the changing demographic makeup of the military services, and particularly the integration of women into the military. In a nearly all-male military force, officers were generally not required to be involved in ethical decisions involving relations between men and women; in the future, good order and discipline within the ranks will require them to be. The same is true of the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the military services. Another important change, of course, is the downsizing of the military which will result from the absence of a significant threat to U.S. military dominance. In this situation, officers will be subject to constraints that they were not previously subject to; options that involved increasing expenditures will be closed off, and officers will have to make ethical decisions involving restricted alternatives.

IV. Changes in Military Ethics

These changes in the nature of military conflict and the mission and force structure of the U.S. military must be reflected in changes in the field of military ethics and in changes in the nature of ethical instruction and training for military officers. The military ethics of the past involved what has now become a false dichotomy: the distinction between being at war and not being at war. The military ethics of the future must address the continuum of military conflicts which fall in between war (in the traditional sense of the term) and peace. Concerns with jus ad bellum and jus in bello must be broadened into an overall focus on the justification and limitation of the use of force. The traditional field of "ethics and war" must be replaced by a new and broader field of military ethics which focuses on non-traditional conflicts. The transition from war to non-traditional conflicts makes military ethics in general, and ethical training for military leaders in particular, much more important. First, this transition places issues of justification more centrally upon the shoulders of military leaders. While jus ad bellum could be left to the civilian authorities who decided to declare war, the justification for the use of force (jus ad vim) will often involve decisions by military leaders in the field. Military leaders will often no longer be given brief, clear statements of their objectives, such as "to close with the enemy and destroy him." Instead, they will be placed in situations in which it is unclear who is or is not "the enemy" and in which they are expected to respond to different situations with different levels of force, most of which fall well short of "destroy." Military leaders in combat zones of declared wars could be concerned only with whether a particular use of force was effective, not with whether it was justified; the reasons which led civilian authorities to declare war served as a blanket justification for the use of force. Military leaders in non-traditional conflicts, on the other hand, have been given no such blanket justification for the use of force. Their objectives are not only subject to tactical and strategic considerations, but also to diplomatic and ethical considerations. Second, in addition to placing increased demands on military leaders regarding the justification of use of force, this transition also makes the issue of restrictions on the use of force more complicated. International laws and national rules of engagement restrict the use of force in war, but they presuppose a clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants which is rarely found in non-traditional conflicts. In the past, military leaders had two sets of rules to follow; one for enemy combatants and another for non-combatants. Now and for the foreseeable future, the situation will be much more complex; military officers will find themselves in situations where there are three or more different sides fighting, none of which is clearly an ally or clearly an enemy of the U.S., none of which has a clear distinction between combatants and civilians, and none of which has clear governmental authority over their armed combatants. In addition, the goals of a U.S. military officer in this situation will often be not to win the war but to stop it. Simply treating everyone according to the rules previously applied to enemy combatants will fall short of proper ethical treatment; treating everyone according to the rules previously applied to non-combatants will involve excessive restrictions which could jeopardize the troops and the mission. Military leaders of the future will be called upon to make much more complex ethical decisions than were military leaders of the past.

V. Changes in Ethical Training for Military Leaders

The ethical training of military leaders must evolve in response to these changes in the nature of military conflicts and the field of military ethics. In the past, indoctrination worked well as a model for military training. Everyone needed to know the rules of engagement, and to learn how to apply them in specific situations. In the future, military officers will have to make complex ethical decisions in which the proper application of the rules of engagement is extremely unclear. While teaching military officers to understand and apply the rules of engagement will still be necessary, it will no longer be sufficient. In order to prepare military officers to make ethical decisions in the complex situations they will be placed in during non-traditional conflicts, ethical training must focus on developing ethical judgment and ethical decision-making skills. Indoctrination is an ineffective method of developing the ethical judgment and decision-making skills of military officers. Instead, ethical training of military officers must use a model which involves development of critical thinking skills, discussion of approaches to ethics and moral issues, and case studies and roleplaying. Ethical training which focuses on the development of judgment and decision-making skills must involve the application of critical thinking skills to ethical situations. In the increasingly complex and ambiguous situations in which military officers will be placed, there can be no clear and consistent set of rules specifying ethical conduct in all circumstances. Instead, officers will need to develop such critical thinking skills as recognizing alternatives, developing arguments for and against various alternatives, assessing these arguments using multiple criteria, including multiple ethical considerations, and making a clear decision which they can defend ethically using accepted ethical principles. The changing ethical climate of today means that there are few if any ethical principles which receive a general consensus in our society. Diverse ethical views are particularly prevalent among young people who are just beginning their careers as military officers. This means that ethical training of military officers can no longer presuppose that all potential military officers subscribe to certain basic ethical principles. The relatively recent development of "core values" among the services attests to the need to identify certain basic values which are essential to the military; simply creating such statements, however, is no assurance that military officers will actually subscribe to these values. In order to encourage the adoptions of such values, ethical training must involve discussion of the rationale behind and implications of these values. Future military officers must be able to express their own ethical views, discuss those views with other classmates and with someone with a strong background in ethics, and understand how those views might need to be modified so that they coincide with the values of their service. This will require changes in the structure of courses offered at the service academies and officer training schools; in place of large, lecture-oriented courses in military ethics, the service academies and officer training schools must move towards small, discussion-oriented courses led by instructors with advanced degrees in ethics. These discussion-oriented ethical courses must include four basic components. First, as discussed above, they must include critical thinking and ethical decision-making skills. Second, they must include approaches to ethics and ethical theories (such as utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontological ethics) with explanations of how each of those theories contributes to or supports the core values of the service. Third, they must include application of those theories to a wide range specific ethical issues; because of the broader responsibilities of future military officers, those issues must not be restricted to the field of "ethics and war," but must include many other relevant issues, such as the ethics of gender relations and the ethics of racial relations. Finally, these courses must make significant use of case studies and roleplaying in order to provide future officers with opportunities to apply ethics to specific situations. These case studies and roleplays must reflect the kinds of situations in which future officers will actually be placed: situations with no clear "right answer" (albeit with multiple clear wrong answers) which require individuals to make a judgment and then to defend that judgment with moral reasoning. Both the Coast Guard Academy and the Naval Academy are currently conducting efforts to collect and develop such case studies; these efforts need to be coordinated and expanded, and research needs to be conducted into the effective use of such case studies and roleplays in ethical training. The 20th century saw a fundamental and important development in military ethics: the evolution of internationally accepted rules of engagement, specifying ethical behavior towards combatants and non-combatants during wartime. The 21st century must issue in a new and no less important development in military ethics: the development of ways of training officers to develop ethical judgment and decision-making capabilities which they can use during peacetime and during the many military conflicts which do not fit the traditional paradigm of war. The end of war will not decrease the need for ethical behavior by military officers; instead, it will increase not only the need for such behavior but also the difficulty of ensuring it.