War Stories:

Narrative, Identity and (Recasting) Military Ethics Pedagogy

Dr. Pauline M. Kaurin

Pacific Lutheran University

ISME 2007


“All we do in the army is tell stories to each other.  I like that oral tradition,…I feel like it’s the best way to tell these stories…I have too many of these stories to tell, and if just a few of them get read, the ones that real people will understand, then maybe someone will know what we did here….It will simply make people aware, if only for one glimmering moment, of what war is really like.”[1]


            Case Studies?  Field exercises? Reflection on Aristotle, Kant or Mill?  Discussion of current events?  Mentoring by moral role models?  Self- reflection on past ethical dilemmas in one’s life?  Listening to lectures by esteemed ethical leaders and teachers?  How should military ethics be taught?  What pedagogies and strategies help in the development of moral characters?  What makes it more likely that soldiers, when faced with the innumerable ethical dilemmas faced in contemporary warfare, will respond in an ethical fashion?  While all of these strategies have their value, I want to explore an idea we see in other fields like education and English, namely the narrative.  In ‘Passing the Torch: Developing Professional Identities through Connected Narratives’ R. Millo relates how the telling and reflecting on stories of teaching practice (personal ‘war stories’ from the classroom ‘battlefield’) allows teachers to think about what it means to be a ‘good teacher’ and helps to formulate professional identities.[2]  In ‘How to Tell a True Teaching Story’ Kate Ronald reflects on a series of books reflecting  a trend of looking to autobiographical narrative as a basis for exploring practice and culture, this time in the teaching of college English.[3]

            In “Identity, Loyalty and Combat Effectiveness: A Cautionary Tale”  I argued that the training of soldiers ought to give more prominent treatment to strategies that reinforce and build professional identities; in the contemporary military this can no longer be restricted to only the warrior identity, but must also include identities related to peacekeeping, peace building and policing functions.  Building on this argument, I examine three common pedagogical tools (case studies, discussion – including the After Action Review – and repetitive, skill based practicum) to show how recasting each of these tools in terms of a narrative framework (the war story) can incorporate the above concerns with multiple identities into the teaching of military ethics.  The ‘war story’ genre, both in its formal and informal incarnations, has been an integral part of the military experience from Homer’s Iliad to Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried to John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell.  It can serve to raise and answer questions about ethics, what it means to be a part of the military community and help create and reinforce meaning and identity – both for the individual and the group.  Therefore, it is a natural extension of this time honored role to use it as an explicit pedagogical tool that can meet the changing needs of the military to train soldiers for all the diverse demands of contemporary warfare.

            In the first section of this paper, I review the basic outline of the prior argument that navigating multiple identities and building loyalty to the institution (beyond the primary combat group) via internalization are essential to teaching military ethics. In the second section, I will look at current pedagogical practice in the Army ROTC program that my own institution to highlight what current practice is and assess the shortcoming of an exclusive focus on the warrior identity.  In the third section, I turn to the application of the narrative framework, the war story, to case studies, discussion (including the After Action Review) and practicum to show how these pedagogies can be augmented and altered to incorporate and reinforce multiple identities.  Finally, I will consider and respond to objections and concerns about the efficacy of this approach.



            In this section I want to focus on two core ideas.  First, that identity is central to combat effectiveness in the military; in the contemporary military context this means having the ability to navigate between the multiple identities of warrior, peacekeeper/policer, and peace builder/humanitarian.  Second, it is essential to train soldiers in ways that promote a sense of professionalism (via the internalization of values) and loyalty that extends to more than just he primary combat group, but also to the larger institution.   

One (but by no means the only) useful starting definition for identity is provided by Owen Flanagan:

… constituted by the dynamic, integrated system of past and present identifications, desires, commitments, aspirations, beliefs, dispositions, temperament, roles, acts and actual patterns; as well as whatever self-understanding (even incorrect ones) that each person brings to his/her own life.[4]


This definition provides insight into the individual components of identity, but two additional aspects are needed: first, the importance of the social context, and second, further emphasis on identity as a critical (as in self-critical) process.  With these additional components, ‘identity’ denotes a fulfilled or authentic identity which it is not simply taken as a given, static fact about oneself, but the result of a long, dynamic (to borrow Flanagan’s term) and critical process.  Rather than seeing identity as a possession, identity is something one is in the process of cultivating, leaving open the possibility of changing, evolving and altering one’s identity in response to either individual or social influences and concerns (or both.)

Numerous studies show the intersections between ethical frameworks (especially understood in terms of leadership), unit cohesion and combat effectiveness and also highlight another major element of the literature on identity: its relationship to moral conceptions and moral agency.[5]  The idea of identity as a dynamic process with ramifications for moral agency is also borne out by several empirical studies.[6] These studies all reflect the common theme that there are clear connections between self-conceptions and ideas of identity, which have ramifications for moral agency, unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.  This highlights an element that traditional moral theories either minimize or fail to take into account in their applications to military ethics.   I want to suggest that one can take the identity of the military professional (which includes both group and individual aspects) as the foundation or starting point for a moral perspective for military ethics, rather than something to be taken into account after the ‘correct’ moral perspective is established (only as a matter of application.)

The ideas of professionalism and internalization of values are crucial in establishing a moral perspective grounded in identity for two reasons.  First, they take seriously the idea that the identity is the starting point for the moral perspective, which arises out of both the sense of group and individual identities.  Second, they do not simply take the identity (identities) as unreflectively given, but provide a mechanism for a dynamic process of change and evolution – including the possibility (which is not the same as likelihood) of critique and reevaluation of the foundations and elements of the identity.  What is means to be a professional and what values are important to be internalized are a matter of community and individual consideration; it would be odd if there were not challenges to and critical discussions of these elements (with possible revisions and/or new understandings) over time.

According to Faris Kirkland, for a military organization to maintain its effectiveness in time of rapid technological change, it must be receptive to feedback and change which includes the ability identities and work with multiple identity frameworks.[7]  This is an issue both for the individual solider, well as for the larger institution.  There has been much discussion of how the military (the Army in particular tends to get singled out) is or is not embracing an identity that is flexible enough to deal with the issues in contemporary and future warfare: Is the Army and its identity oriented around fighting a conventional land battle with China, when most warfare will be asymmetrical and small scale?  In such a context (where the future roles and threats are murky at best), the ability to have some flexibility with respect to identity, or even better to be able to negotiate between multiple identity frameworks would be advisable.

The same, of course, applies with regard to the individual soldier.  Military historian Alan Millett: notes “The officer’s identity is partly inherited, partly self-developed. He inherits the broadly defined characteristics of his career and the special institutional setting within which he finds himself.  He must develop stable and lasting concepts of self that are compatible with his profession.  This transformation or ‘professional socialization’ is not taken lightly by the other practioners with whom he begins his career.”[8]  While in the past, notions of professionalism tended to be oriented around the warrior model (as reflected by the primary orientation of the military as large-scale combat), it seems that contemporary soldiers have at least three major roles or identities with which they wrestle and among which they must be able to effectively navigate – 1) warrior (combat); 2) peacekeeper/police functions (even in domestic situations) and 3) peacemaking/humanitarian roles.

Franke addresses this concern by arguing for an integration of the warrior and peacekeeping identities: “…soldiers and officers who view war fighting and peacekeeping as equally important components of their central life interests will more easily be able to switch among mission requirements without jeopardizing their self conceptions.”[9]  He also encourages training that requires negotiation between multiple identities; facing these kinds of identity dilemmas for the first time in the field is not a good thing since it limits behavioral choices (denial, bolstering strategies, not wanting to let the group down).  Therefore, the military needs a new identity with both combat and non-combat identity components.  In other words, soldiers must be able to embrace multiple identities and practice integration and negotiation between them before they get out there in the field.

 It is essential for training of soldiers not simply focus on the traditional warrior role, but also develop a robust sense of the other roles that soldiers will have to carry out as a integral part of who and what they are as soldiers, not as add-on tasks that there is no one else to do.  The add-on attitude is entirely understandable, but also dangerous.  If these other roles are not seen as an integral part of the soldier identity, they will be jettisoned at the first sign of conflict or adversity.  If soldiers are used to (via role playing, regular case studies and informal discussion) to moving between the different roles, then this skill at negotiation and navigation between multiple frameworks will become internalized and therefore, itself a part of the soldier’s (and institution’s) identity.  If soldiers are not used to navigating and living in multiple frameworks (as the case of Somalia shows) one ought to expect confusion, combat stress and probably war crimes as well.

It is not hard to inculcate individuals into the values of the primary group, but it can be challenging to provide the same kind of internalization when it comes to the values of an institution or a larger social group – especially if the members of the primary group regard those values as inferior or contrary to their own. Snyder and Watkins point out several problems with Army professionalism within the Institution (as opposed to an attribute of particular soldiers) as one source of difficulty.  First, they see a lack of connection (increasingly) between the Army’s notion of professionalism and the personal self-conceptions of the soldiers and insist on a need for better integration between these.[10] Second, there is an inability to control unprofessional behavior at top levels which is fueling distrust especially between the higher and lower officer corps groups.  This dynamic seems to me to be the more serious of the two issues when it comes to the role that primary group loyalty plays in war crimes and other unethical (or illegal) behavior; we see it clearly operating in Vietnam, Somalia and Abu Gharib.

Soldiers need to be able to have a sense of loyalty that applies to more than just the immediate combat group, this involves developing wider sympathies and the attendant ethical obligations.  How do you develop this kind of larger loyalty without sacrificing trust and unit cohesion which are essential to combat effectiveness?  How do you build a bond to an institution?  There is a need for better integration between the institutions view of the professional soldier and the personal self-conception (Synder and Watkins) and control of unprofessional behavior at higher levels.  Peacekeeping, policing and peace building work (even more so that traditional combat functions) depend on a long term strategy in which the reputation of the institution (not just a particular combat group) can help (or hinder) in these roles.  How does one teach and motivate soldiers to steward this reputation for the present and the future?




            In order to understand the need for pedagogical strategies that help build and maintain identity, it is necessary to look at current practices and their implications.  For the sake of simplicity, I will examine the ROTC training at my own institution of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.  This institution makes use of a standard curriculum for the US Army’s Basic Officer Leader Course focusing on two key components: flexibility of roles within the warrior identity and an emphasis on skills and competencies to be demonstrated and assessed in simulations and field exercises.  

An overview of the curriculum shows five tracks: 1) leadership, 2) personal development (including an emphasis on flexibility and adaptability), 3) values and ethics, 4) officership, 5) tactics and techniques.  Officers learn along these tracks with leaderships labs (at least one hour per week), two field training exercises, physical training which develops a fitness ethos and helps officers meet the minimum physical training requirements and a Leader Development and Assessment Course which occurs between years III and IV.   Officers also learn the Ethical Decision Making Process, engage in discussion and analysis of case studies and vignettes and practice collaborative leadership and learning with instructors and younger cadets.

            One practice that addresses many of the concerns and needs for training that incorporates identity is the After Action Review (AAR),  where officers debrief, critically discuss and analyze their performance by giving feedback (usually in a group setting) after a specific task or mission.[11]  While AAR’s are clearly vehicles for learning skills like critical thinking, analysis, leadership and flexibility, they also can help soldiers develop the ability to negotiate multiple frameworks, as well as emphasize the internalization of values and ethics via group support, critique and feedback.  AAR’s give soldiers the chance to see their actions, not just from their own perspective, but from the perspective of other members of their group and receive constructive feedback on how their actions fit with group expectations, their military identities and the values of the larger institution.  In addition, AAR’s are a practice that allow all members of the group to troubleshoot and proactively prepare for and map out how they might deal with a similar situation (or different versions of the situation) in the future.

            Despite these strengths, much of the current training of soldiers is problematic on my view since it focuses exclusively on the warrior identity.  Current training does address MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) but focuses on these operations in terms of restraining the conventional combat force, “Compared to traditional combat operations, MOOTW uses limited force to gain limited objectives.”[12]  The emphasis in MOOTW is one of flexibility and adaptability because of the complicated and ever-shifting operating environment, not because of a recognition that it is a fundamentally different operating environment.  Consider the following:   “Future conflict will likely involve a mix of combat and MOOTW, often at the same time.  At Army level war fighting will encompass any type of operation the nation may call on the Army to execute.”[13]  These ‘new’ kinds of operations are simply subsumed under the traditional combat role; they become part of the warrior identity, rather than acknowledging the need for multiple identities and skill sets.  Again from the training manual, “Training focuses on fighting and winning battles, but the skills it teaches are the same skills that many MOOTW tasks require.”[14]  If we look at the Army Training and Leader Development Model (Figure 2.1) we see that the warrior ethos is a central component and that all the other components (values, principles and imperatives, Army culture, ethics, standards) are seen in terms of that identity.[15]

But surely the current military takes as a central training principle that leaders must be able to be flexible and adaptable given the complex and variable military environments?  If we look at the Train to Adapt principle (which is in fact a crucial lynchpin of officer training) we see an emphasis on repetitive, standards based training which provides leaders with experience.[16]  It is this experience that helps build competence, confidence and discipline which in turn promote individual imitative and enable leaders to adapt to changing situations and environments.  This principle emphasizes the need for officers to improvise with the resources at hand, exploit opportunities and accomplish their missions even in the absences of orders. 

So the Army does stress flexibility and adaptability, but this is understood within the warrior identity.  I have argued that what soldiers need is the ability to be flexible in negotiating between the warrior and other (peacekeeping, policing, humanitarian) identities.  What is the real difference here?  First, it is not just that different skills are needed in the different contexts, but also that different mindsets are needed. Peacekeeping or humanitarian interventions are not combat skills but require abilities and dispositions that are (as combat troops put in these situations have discovered) or may be at odds with the warrior identity and the combat skills in which warriors are trained.  Secondly, the Army suggests that flexibility and adaptability within the traditional warrior ethos is a benefit, in that the traditional roles and skills can be expanded and adapted to meet new kinds of missions, but clearly flexibility can also be confusing and could eventually result in eroding the warrior ethos.  What I want to see is development and training with multiple distinct identities with the mindsets, values and skills that are appropriate to each identity, and for soldiers to learn to move comfortably between these identities as circumstances require.  There will be some overlap between the content of the identities (particularly in the realms of skill and values), but to subsume one under the others is to ignore (at great practical peril) the important differences and distinctions between these roles.





            If the standard pedagogies of case studies, discussion and practicum used in military ethics are oriented around supporting the warrior ethos and seeing the other kinds of missions that the military might be called upon to do as part of that ethos, it is not surprising that we might come up with training that does not adequately prepare soldiers for the challenges that they will face in contemporary warfare.   In searching for a solution to this problem, is it important to develop a strategy that is consistent with the initial warrior identity that is the starting point and arguably center of the currently military: what would be natural and organic to that identity, but could still develop skills with multiple identities and assist in the internalization of values?  More than any activity, even the taking of life, it strikes any outside observer that warriors and soldiers tell, retell and discuss stories.  The war story is a common, consistent and integral part of the life of a soldier, whether that soldier is Achilles in the Trojan War or a Marine on the streets of Baghdad.

            What is a war story?  Intuitively it seems to be narrative told about a war situation, typically it conveying more than just the chronological elements (thereby differentiating it from a news account or official report), but we need to go deeper to try and understand exactly what a war story is and how it works.  First, according to Miriam Cook there are various traditional dichotomies that are reflected in the traditional war story/narrative: male/female, combatant/civilian, protector/protected, war/home front, aggression (virility)/vulnerability.  She argues that understanding these categories is important since how war stories are told effect the perception of current wars and shape our categories for future conflicts.  This is why war stories are often told so close to their happenings, while the government and/or military can have a had in shaping reality as they wish to have it viewed.[17]  Citing military historian John Keegan, she argues that the basic shape of the war story has remained unchanged since ancient times.[18]  Keegan himself describes the training of officers as the source of this consistency we see, saying that the training is designed to “…reduce the conduct of war to a set of rules and a system of procedures – and thereby to make orderly and rational what is essentially chaotic and instinctive.”[19]  When it comes to telling war stories, this means that the soldier is trained to  describe “…events and situations in terms of an instantly recognizable and universally comprehensible vocabulary, and to arrange what he has to say about them in a highly formalized sequences of ‘observations’, ‘conclusions’ and ‘intentions’”.[20]

            While Cooke laments this consistency (because it typically excludes the voices of women, civilians, child and other groups that have a different perspective and ‘voice’ relative to the experience of warfare), it does provide a useful taxonomy for thinking about and analyzing war stories as a genre.  Tim O’Brien famously gives one such analysis of war stories in the chapter of The Things They Carried, “How to Tell a True War Story.”  I want to draw on his insights, which are admittedly literary reflections, to develop a methodology that one could apply to recast pedagogies like case studies, discussion and practicum in ways that help develop skills of multiple identity negotiation and internalization of group and institutional values.  While O’Brien is reflecting many aspects of the traditional war story that Keegan and Cooke discuss, he also problematizes the traditional war story genre in a way that opens it up for the kind of multiple perspectives and critical mindsets necessary for teaching military ethics. 

            First, O’Brien talks about the centrality of the questions that come out of or are generated by the war story.  “ You can tell a true story by the questions you ask.  Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask ‘Is it true?’ and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.”[21]  Clearly the ability and willingness to ask questions, examine assumptions and to care about the outcome of these inquiries are all essential to internalizing ethical values and acting in ways that reflect multiple identities.  The danger to an exclusive identity focus is that the need for these questions and critical stances are viewed as less necessary; this opens up the dangers of myopia and repressing alternate perspectives, solutions or courses of actions which can allow soldiers to avoid and ignore the moral ambiguity and complexities of contemporary warfare. 

            Second, there is the issue of what ‘actually’ happened and what seemed to happen, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.  What seems to happen becomes its’ own happening and has to be told that way.”[22]  In all of these pedagogical strategies, one faces the problem of different perceptions about the facts, motivations, and events whether one is engaged in a field exercise, giving feedback during AAR or discussing a case study.  If one fails to take into account what seemed to happen, one can ignore crucial elements that cannot be captured by simple resort to the ‘facts’. 

            Third, O’Brien questions approaching a war story as a narrative with a moral,

A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done….As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil….You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you.[23]


While this seems at odds with my general project here, I take O’Brien to be against war stories as simplistic moralistic lessons or fables.  For this criterion it is necessary to avoid what O’Brien calls preaching, that is to avoid trying to make out who is the hero, who is the villain, what is good/bad, what is the right answer.  I take this as a warning about moral ambiguity, as (especially in the last line) a call to heightening one’s moral sensitivity to obscenity and evil.  There are wrong ways to tell a war story, but it is also true that there are multiple ‘right’ ways to tell it.  (A point that O’Brien himself seems to make with one story that this a running theme, told from different perspectives, throughout the book.)

            Fourth, a war story is open-ended and constantly subject to revision, “You can tell a war story by the way it never seems to end.  Not then, not ever.”[24]  One of the crucial elements here is that the story continues to be told, retold and re-interpreted with layers of meaning added, taken away and then added again.  With all of the pedagogies, it is essential that soldiers learn the ability to consider situations and actions as open ended.  This is not to say that they will never make a decision or give an order, but to recognize that in a different situation what they might decide or do will change, or that how that decision or action is interpreted, told or justified is not static or fixed.  This criterion is particularly important in negotiating multiple identities since the situations that require moving between multiple identities are precisely those situations in which there are multiple parties with multiple perceptions, subject to change and reinterpretation as events change.

            Fifth, O’ Brien warns against over generalization and abstraction,

In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out.  You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning…..True war stories do not generalize.  They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis….It comes down to gut instinct.  A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.[25]


Such tendencies can keep us from getting to the practical, nitty-gritty details and reality of the decisions that have to be made and their ramifications.  It is very easy to view the decisions that one might make (especially in the use of case studies) as simply an academic exercise which does not matter practically nor is not to be taken seriously.  One might come up with a solution or course of action that is intellectual satisfying, but one that is utterly impractical, fails to take into account real human motivations and psychology or one that is at odds with other commitments or ethical values and therefore, is unlikely to be supported by one’s combat group, the institution or the larger society.

            Lastly, a true war story is never about the war.  “It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do.  It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.”[26]  Teaching military ethics is not just about training soldiers to be warriors (even if one focuses exclusively on the warrior ethos) it is about training human beings to be warriors without surrendering their humanity.  If one endorses more than one identity, this point becomes even more important, because it becomes even harder for soldiers to maintain their own personal identities and commitments in the context of the different identities they have to take on and the roles they are asked to play as military professionals.

            If we take these six points from O’Brien as a methodology for recasting military ethics pedagogy, what would these pedagogies look like?  How would they change from how they are used now?  How would it change the soldiers?  First, I want to return to the After Action Review (AAR) which is currently an integral part of military training.  Clearly part of this strategy needs to be asking questions, assessing assumptions that one was using going into the task or the mission, but it also should include some of the other elements – avoiding abstraction, asking the Big Picture questions (its not about the war), and being able to look at one’s action from a variety of perspectives.  In discussing Stoicism, Nancy Sherman describes Stoics submitting to a ‘radical therapy’ which includes as a primary component philosophical discursive study (as opposed to traditional meditation), “It is true that Seneca…proposes meditation at the end of each day, but by this he means careful review a one’s habits and failings; for example, has one been overly harsh with one’s servant today or flown off the handle about something that is only a minor provocation?”[27]  One might use this kind of Stoic ‘therapy’ in conjunction with some the narrative criteria discussed above.  One could examine one’s actions and give analysis in terms of some of the following questions: What would an ethical officer do?  What are some of the different ethical narratives that ‘fit’ with the larger story?  How would one respond from each of the identity perspectives: warrior, peacekeeper, humanitarian?  How would the stories be similar?  Different?  How might those differences matter?

            Second, if one looks at using the narrative method for practicum – including leadership lab training and field exercises – one builds on repetition, practice and exercises under pressure.  There are three obvious ways to incorporate these narrative criteria.  First, before hand one might meet with colleagues to think about and discuss the following: How do you want this to go?  What story do you want to have to tell in the AAR?  What steps do you need to take to get to that story?  Second, there may be places along with way, during the mission or exercise, where one can take a few seconds to talk or think about how the story is going, and to make modification or consider alternate perspective and ramifications. Third, afterwards in the AAR there is the time and inclination to think about what happened, how each person would tell it, to think about and evaluate those narratives, as well as to consider multiple versions of the narrative and possible permutations of the narrative – what could have happened?  How might one have handled those situations? The more narrative versions of a situation that soldiers think about, discuss and propose possible courses of actions for before they happen, the more organic and natural their actions will be in the field, since they will have thought out and vetted with the benefit of a communal perspective many of the possibilities they might encounter, along with their responses in advance.

            These kinds of experience based activities also give soldiers a chance to explicitly move between (at all three points in the process) the different identities that they may/will engage in the kind of mixed mission contexts that are increasingly common.  It is here that soldiers also can be given a chance to practice and demonstrate loyalty at the institutional, not simply the primary combat group, level.  Many of these issues will already have come up and been anticipated in case/vignette discussions as a part of other training and the AAR’s from prior events and missions.  This underlines the fact that these pedagogies are not distinct and mutually exclusive, but build and should reinforce one another – necessary for smooth transition between identities and internalization of values.

            Third, and most important in my view, is the use of these narrative criteria as a method for recasting the approach to case studies we use with. Case studies, when done effectively, can be a highly effective teaching tool because they engage students with real world scenarios and scenarios that even if they are not actual, are possible; students are able to think about how they would respond to these situations in advance of encountering them and thus are more prepared in the field.  The down side of case studies, however, is considerable.  On one hand, students tend to avoid making a decision, want more information or argue and/or try to renegotiate the ‘facts’ of the case.  On the other hand, they may simply view the case as ‘fact’ and look for the ‘right’ solution, and see the agents in the case as moral/immoral or in terms of other simplistic categories – avoiding engagement with the moral complexity and ambiguity that are a part of any good, compelling case.  So on one hand, there is the danger of over abstraction, of it being simply an academic exercise; on the other hand there is the danger of oversimplification and under analysis.  Either way, cases are not doing the pedagogical work that teachers have in mind.

            In using the narrative method with case studies, students would (similar to the AAR and practicum) have to think not just about what they would do, but would have to be prepared to talk about their reasons in narrative form.  How would they tell the story?  What are the elements of the story that are already in the ‘facts’ of the case and how does that limit how they rest of the story must go?  What are different narratives of what an ethical officer would do? In listening to and thinking about the various narratives, the other students could be attentive to what elements in the narrative make it a reflection of an ethical perspective, and what elements, if changed, would render it unethical.  In having to construct a narrative with the six criteria in mind, I believe that students will feel freed from the usual format of case studies to really explore different perspectives on the ethical issue(s) presented in the case and to think creatively about possible ethical narratives, without being exclusively focused on the ‘right’ answer.  By generating multiple ethical narratives and discussing the unethical ones, students can start to think for themselves about where the lines or boundaries are between the ethical and unethical in a general sense, not just for this particular case.  Recasting case studies in this way also has the advantage of thinking about and in multiple identities and perspectives and receiving group and leader feedback about how they are conceptualizing things from these perspectives before the shooting, yelling and political wrangling begins. 



            Finally, I want to discuss and answer some possible objections against my approach.  First, what is so problematic about expanding the warrior identity to include and embrace MOOTW?  Clearly that seems a simpler solution that constructing and training for multiple identities.  Why confuse things with multiple identities?  Why not subsume things under the warrior identity?  It would seem that current military education and training is more than overwhelmed with skills, values and mindsets that have to be taught in order to prepare soldiers for contemporary warfare; adding any components that would add to this burden or  would make for confusion in warfare seems to be a bad idea.  I have pointed out some of the problems that I see with this approach already, but there are two additional concerns: the psychological impact on the soldiers of ‘mission creep’ or mission confusion and proportionality concerns around how much and what kinds of force will be used.

            First, many commentators have pointed out the so-called problem of ‘mission creep’ where troops are initially called in for a standard combat role, but then circumstances on the ground necessitate either humanitarian or peacekeeping functions.  There is also substantial literature pointing to the adverse psychological effects that soldiers (and other persons) encounter when doing tasks for which they are untrained, insufficiently trained or are at odds with their core identity or values.  It would seem that to avoid or mitigate this kind of psychological damage there are two options :  1) for the military to refuse to engage in activities that do not fit with the warrior ethos or 2) to train and prepare soldiers for multiple roles and identities.  I would argue that the first option does not seem terribly practical nor realistic, given the absence of other professionally trained and publicly esteemed groups to do peacekeeping/policing or humanitarian/peace building functions.  In the absence of such groups (and the political will to establish and fund such groups), it is necessary to prepare soldiers for these kinds of missions.  Despite the fact that negotiating multiple identities and value sets can be difficult (and that it is difficult to teach, train and equip soldiers to do this well), it is the soldier’s best psychological defense.

            Second, there is the concern about the kinds and degree of force that is employed if there is an exclusive focus on the warrior ethos.  If one operates out of this framework, the pertinent question is whether or not lethal force is justified in a given situation, whether or not the application of lethal force will violate the Proportionality Principle in Just War Theory.  Clearly the use of force questions in peacekeeping/policing and humanitarian/peace building missions are much more complex than this.  Focusing on only the warrior identity ignores and fails to take into account other kinds of tools, strategies or methods that would not require lethal force, or would mitigate or change its use.  If soldiers cannot be more nuanced in the kinds of approaches they take to these other situations, the danger of violating the Proportionality Principle, of committing war crimes or in other ways acting unethically are much higher and may actually compromise the mission and/or the military’s reputation.

In addition to the concern about the confusion posed by multiple identities, how will telling these stories, focusing on the narrative methodology, address the concerns about negotiating multiple identities and facilitate the internalization of moral values?  To answer this objection, I would cite the important role of the narrative, of the war story in both historical treatments of warfare and prominent role in the life of military communities.  In looking at military communities, regardless of time and culture, one finds that a primary way that warriors initiate new members into, maintain the identity of their communities and transmit and reinforce values is through stories.  Whether one thinks of the Greek war epics like the Iliad, the Viking warrior stories and mythologies, the contemporary genre of war film (recall the recent spate of films about World War II beginning with Saving Private Ryan) or stories that soldiers tell around the fire or in camp, telling and retelling in new ways of stories is analogous to the way we tell stories in families.  It is part of the ‘family’ bonding experience and assists in the formation, maintenance and evolution of identity.  How do we form family, national or religious identities?  By telling the story about how our parents met, how the children were born, about how a revolution and a war formed a new nation, how another war was necessary to fulfill the promise of the initial revolution, about how in the beginning there was nothing but God, how God gave his word to the Prophet or how God became incarnate in flesh.

If one looks at the contemporary military training, one can see the place in the ethical pantheon occupied by stories of Hugh Thompson and James Stockdale as ethical exemplars and by the narrative and discussion of My Lai and Lt Calley as negative examples.  Military history is not simple taught as a reflection of a chronology of events or as a collection of successful and unsuccessful military strategies, but also as a collection of narratives about the individuals and events, the motivations and values, deeper meanings embedded in the past.  However, as the military has changed over time and in different cultural contexts, the stories and the meaning of these stories has changed and been reinterpreted.  O’ Brien’s discussion of the war story is so crucial for this project precisely because he problematizes the traditional mode of narrative and challenges us to think not just in terms of the conventional model that Keegan articulated, but to look at multiple perspectives and the deeper meaning of the war story.  One can also see the war story as a kind of Stoic therapy to analyze what we have done, what parts of the narrative come out ethical and what parts do not quite live up to our values and identities, what psychological baggage a warriors carries into battle and back to the home front.  

Telling, retelling and discussing war stories is not another task on the warriors’ to do list, but something that is done as an integral part of military life; all I have done in this paper is suggest a particular way in which that storytelling may be harnessed to recast military ethics pedagogy and better prepare soldiers to be the warriors, peacekeepers and humanitarians their nation requires of them.




[1] John Crawford, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq.  (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. xiii-xiv.


[3] Kate Ronald “How to Tell a True Teaching Story” in College English  Vol 62, No 2 (November 1999), p. 256.

[4] Quoted in Michele Mangini, “Character and Well-Being: Towards an Ethics of Character” Philosophy and Social Criticism Vol 26, Issue 2 (March 2001), p. 80.

[5] See my ‘Identity, Loyalty and Combat Effectiveness: A Cautionary Tale” www.

p. 2-7 for more specific discussion of these studies.

[6] Ibid., p. 6-7.

[7] Faris R. Kirkland PhD, “Honor, Combat Ethics and Military Culture” in Military Medical Ethics  Volume 1, p. 163.

[8] Don Snider and Gayle Watkins, “The Future of Army Professionalism: A New for Renewal and Redefinition” Parameters Fall 2000, p. 7, see note 31

[9] Volker C. Franke, “Resolving Identity Tensions: The Case of the Peacekeeper”  Volume XIX No. 2, Fall 1999, p. 10.

[10] Don Snider and Gayle Watkins, “The Future of Army Professionalism: A New for Renewal and Redefinition” Parameters Fall 2000, p.6.

[11] US Army ROTC, Developmental Leadership MSL IV  (Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2005), p. 114ff

[12] Ibid., p. 126.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 127.

[15] Ibid., p. 129.

[16] Ibid., p. 144.

[17] Miriam Cooke, Women and the War Story. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 15.

[18] Ibid., p. 28-29.

[19] John Keegan, The Face of Battle. (New York: Military Heritage Press, 1976.), p. 20.

[20] Ibid., p. 20-1.

[21] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried. (New York: Broadway Books, 1990), p. 83.

[22] Ibid., p. 71.

[23] Ibid, p. 68-9.

[24] Ibid., p. 76.

[25] Ibid., p. 77-8.

[26] Ibid., p. 85.

[27] Nancy Sherman, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 67.