Developing Moral Character in the Military: Theory and Practice[1]

Draft only – please do not quote without permission


Dr Jessica Wolfendale




The modern military recognises a duty to train military personnel to be both ethical and effective. Descriptions of the ideal military character often include moral attributes such as integrity, honesty, courage, and loyalty, and military personnel have both a moral and a legal obligation to obey the laws of war and uphold high moral standards in the performance of their duties. Yet while the importance of good moral character is widely accepted by the military, just how moral character should be cultivated in military personnel is poorly understood, as is the effectiveness of current training programs in promoting ethical behaviour. In the current war in Iraq, as in previous conflicts, there have been several incidents of decidedly unethical behaviour among troops. The question is, however, whether this behaviour is the result of a few ‘bad apples’ or whether it points to more general problems with ethics training in the military.


In this paper I argue that developing good moral character in military personnel requires far more than including ethics classes in military education programs. Developing effective military ethics training requires two steps. First, it requires an understanding of the theoretical basis of moral character and moral virtue. Catchwords such as ‘virtue’ and ‘values’ are too often used without any clear definition and without any explanation of what is required to act on them. Second, it requires a critical analysis of the impact of all areas of military training and culture on the behaviour and character of military personnel. Without such an analysis, adding more hours of ethics training will to do little to counteract the perhaps negative effect of the hundreds of hours devoted to other areas of military training and practice.


As I shall argue, there are at least two aspects of military training and culture that have the potential to develop character traits potentially at odds with those needed for truly ethical military behaviour – these are the development of unit cohesion, and the ways by which military personnel are trained to kill and encouraged to think about killing. The failures of military personnel to uphold the military virtues are not just individual failures – they are not just the product of “bad apples” in the military profession. Instead, these failures are in part traceable to military institutional practices that encourage a problematic moral psychology. Developing good moral character in military personnel therefore requires a radical rethink of military training and military culture, as well as the development of effective ethics education programs.

Current Ethics Training in the Military


The quality and quantity of military ethics training varies wildly both between countries and within countries. In the United States, several authors have argued that current military ethics programs tend to be patchy, haphazardly put together, and taught by staff with greatly varying credentials. In Australia, cadets at the Australian Defence Force Academy take character development classes (run by military chaplains) and are now able to take military ethics as a university course taught by a philosophy lecturer. Officers at the Royal Military College Duntroon and the Australian Defence College also take ethics courses. However, outside these academies the quality and quantity of ethics teaching is highly variable. For example, the RAN Recruit School does not list ethics or military law as one of the subjects taught during initial sailor (as opposed to officer) training, and the Army Training base at Kapooka schedules one day of military law and one day of character development in an 80-day week training course. There seems to be little consistent high quality ethics training provided to all ranks of military personnel.


There are many problems with the present rather slipshod approach to military ethics training, many of which have been identified by other writers. Darryl Goldman, for instance, argues that the military’s response to ethical crises is to create isolated and sporadic ethics programs to address particular issues (e.g. suicide prevention), without developing any unifying ideology. He further notes both that ethics courses are often taught by instructors with greatly varying credentials and that, despite the proliferation of “core value” statements in the services, there is little consistency between such statements.[2] J. Joseph Miller argues that US military academies tend to adopt a “technician’s mode” of teaching, leading to a stifling of discussion and a rigidity of thinking – a problem compounded by the use of serving military personnel as ethics teachers.[3] In Australia, Keith Joseph has criticised the almost exclusive focus on character training as ignoring the equally important (if not more important) need for training in moral reasoning skills.[4]


Another problem is evident in the relative hours devoted to ethics training as opposed to other areas of military training. For example, a 2006 US Army Training and Leadership Development report stated that “Initial and annual ethics training will be 1 hour in duration”[5] and a 1996 article on military training in the Australian Defence Force Academy found that the common military training units taken by recruits from all three service over three years included 205 hours of drill and ceremonial training compared to only 44 hours of character development and 24 hours of military law.[6]


These problems with current military ethics training must be addressed if the military is to be seriously committed to thorough and effective ethics training. However as these issues have been dealt with by the authors mentioned above, I will not elaborate on them here. Instead, I want to take a step back and consider what we mean when we claim that we want military personnel to be of good character – what is required in order for military personnel to be virtuous in the military context? We must have a sound theoretical understanding of moral character before we can know how to help military personnel develop it during their training. 

The Concept of Moral Character


Current military ethics literature relies heavily on the language of virtue ethics. List of military virtues abound in the publications of military academies.[7] However, such lists are unenlightening if (as is often the case) there is no serious attempt to define the virtue terms, or explore their limitations or theoretical bases. For instance, simply stating that military personnel should be loyal does not tell us what virtuous loyalty is, how it is distinguished from non-virtuous loyalty, how it should be developed, and whether it is best cultivated through habitual repetition of loyal behaviour or through the exercise of rational reflection. Before theories of military ethics education can be implemented, it is therefore essential to develop a strong theoretical understanding of moral character and moral virtue in the military context.

Moral Character and Moral Virtue


While military is strongly influenced by the language of virtue ethics, writings in military ethics generally display a very poor understanding of the theory of virtue ethics, particularly Aristotelian virtue ethics.[8] As we shall see, virtuous action requires not merely the performance of virtuous action but the exercise of rational moral agency. As Joseph Miller argues, while military institutions are happy to adopt the rule-based role-model approach to teaching ethics, they are far less comfortable with the process of philosophical reasoning and questioning that is also a central part of inculcating virtuous behaviour.[9]


While a full discussion of Aristotelian virtue ethics is beyond the scope of this paper, we can distil some essential elements of the theory. According to Aristotle the moral virtues are derived from ‘…what we need, or what we are, qua human beings.’[10] They are states of character connected to, and indeed partly constitutive of, good human flourishing (eudaimonia) which refers to the fulfilment of the distinctive ends and functions (the telos) of human life.[11] The telos of human life is not the “the life of nutrition and growth” (which we share with plants and animals) but is the exercise of our rational capacities: “The function of a man is an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle”. So a flourishing human life requires the “good and noble performance” of actions that imply the rational principle.[12] This concept of human flourishing is objective; it is independent from what we might think is good for us and what we might happen to desire. It does not merely refer to what brings us pleasure. Instead, eudaimonia refers to a broad sense of flourishing, a view of what counts as a good life for a human being that is largely independent of an individual’s conception of the good.[13]


A virtue, then, is a state of character that contributes to living a good distinctively human life, and a vice is a character trait that inhibits such flourishing.[14] Given that extremes of character and behaviour (such as bad temper, vanity, depression, meanness, and crippling shyness) are detrimental to good functioning, the virtues are generally states that pave a way between such extremes of feelings or attitudes.[15]


But not just any character state or personal quality counts as a virtue, even if it does contribute to a good human life. The virtues are not simply emotional dispositions or habits of behaviour. Instead, they are manifestations of practical wisdom – phronesis. The exercise of this capacity for practical wisdom is what makes us distinctively human and it is only through exercising this capacity that we truly act as moral beings, rather than as animals. So good human functioning involves, and is partly constituted by, the exercise of rational deliberation. Without such deliberation we cannot be said to act from choice and our actions cannot be virtuous even if they are actions that a virtuous person would perform: “Moral virtue implies that the action is done by choice; the object of choice is the result of previous deliberation.”[16] Chosen actions are those that result from rational deliberation about whether an action is good, when the concept of the good is also a result of deliberation.[17] In other words, phronesis refers not simply to the ability to deliberate about the best means to achieve one’s immediate aims; it also involves the ability to deliberate about what things (pursuits, behaviours etc) best lend themselves to living a good life.[18]


The importance of rational deliberation to virtue means that even if I am naturally endowed with traits that many of us would call virtues, such as benevolence, I cannot be said to be virtuous because these traits do not arise from any understanding or deliberation – and this means they can easily be led astray.[19] My innate benevolence is what Aristotle calls a natural virtue. Such natural traits are valuable because they can be trained in the right way, but in and of themselves they are not real virtues because they are not the product of rational deliberation. So while the natural virtues are good to have because they form positive ‘raw material’ that can be guided correctly and that can make it easier to do the right thing, without wise guidance, they can be all too easily corrupted.

The importance of reason and deliberation to virtuous action is shared by other philosophers. Kant, for example, argues that natural dispositions such as kindness cannot be called morally good unless they are governed by wisdom or what Kant calls the good will: “Understanding, wit, judgement and the like, whatever such talents of mind may be called, or courage, resolution, and perseverance in one’s plans, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable for many purposes, but they can also be extremely evil and harmful if the will is not good.”[20]


For both Aristotle and Kant it is the exercise of reason that makes us truly human. Virtuous action requires not merely the possession but the exercise of reflective moral agency – the capacity to rationally deliberate about the conception of the good and to act on one’s deliberation.[21] Possessing the capacity to reflect on our actions makes us moral agents, but it only through exercising that capacity that we can act virtuously.


In the context of the military, this account of virtuous action means that virtuous military personnel must do more than copy the behaviour of others or develop unthinking emotional dispositions; they must understand why particular behaviours are required, they must deliberate about the ends of the military profession, and they must exercise wisdom in the exercise of the virtues. Just as the virtues may be derived from consideration of the concept of human flourishing, so the military virtues may be derived from consideration of what counts as excellent functioning in a military context (assuming that the military itself serves an important human good necessary for human flourishing). Anthony Hartle, for example, has argued that the military virtues may be derived from the ends of the military profession, the values of society, and the demands of particular military roles.[22] While there is insufficient space to list all possible military virtues, a plausible list would include traits such as honesty, discipline, obedience, loyalty, trustworthiness, and patriotism.


However, while the military virtues are different (but, it should be noted, not incompatible with) ordinary virtues, they, like ordinary virtues, cannot be simple emotional dispositions or habits of behaviour but must be governed by reflective moral agency. For example, the military virtue of loyalty cannot be blind or unthinking loyalty. Virtuous loyalty would be directed to the right people, for the right causes. Loyalty to comrades who violate the laws of war, or loyalty to an immoral cause would not count as virtuous because it is not directed in the right way. The loyalty of a mafia henchman, for example, is not virtuous loyalty. Similar constraints hold on the other military virtues, particularly obedience. The virtuous combatant would not blindly obey orders. Instead, she would disobey orders that were illegal or manifestly immoral – she would be guided by an understanding of the military’s ethical commitments which puts limits on what may be done in the service of military goals. These constraints mean that there will be situations where disobedience and disloyalty are not only permissible but morally required by the military’s ethical commitments. Military personnel who obey all orders without thinking, or who support their fellow combatants regardless of their behaviour are not simply failing to be virtuous; they are undermining the military’s commitments to the laws of war and to high moral principles.


It is therefore misleading and potential dangerous to offer lists of military virtues without an understanding of these constraints on the exercise of traits such as loyalty. What is absolutely crucial for virtuous behaviour is developing the skills of rational reflection and deliberation, not simply emulating the behaviour of others or following a list of values or virtues. In order to embody the military virtues, military personnel must develop reasoning skills, and the ability to reflect upon and learn to identify when traits such as loyalty and obedience are required and when their exercise would in fact be immoral. Mark Osiel, for example, suggests that the military should institute a culture of “creative compliance”[23] in which military personnel of all ranks are encouraged to reflect on the legality of their orders and, if in doubt, to carry out the legal interpretation of the order. This requires not only ethics training that encourages and supports such reasoning and reflection (and that avoids the “technician’s approach” mentioned by Miller), but also official support for justified disloyalty and disobedience at all levels of military practice and for all ranks of military personnel. Captain Steven D. Danyluk similarly argues that ethical military behaviour must be enforced at every level of training. He recommends, for example, that training on the prevention and causes of atrocities should be included in military education institutes.[24]


But implementing such changes to military ethics education is only half the story. What is also necessary an understanding of the impact of other aspects of military culture and training on the ability of military personnel to be reflective moral agents.

Military Training and Moral Character


There are at least two aspects of military culture and training that threaten to undermine the ability of military personnel to be reflective moral agents, and that in fact can promote dispositions connected to destructive forms of obedience: group bonding and the need to train military personnel to kill.

Group bonding


The first and perhaps the most formative experience for new military personnel is immersion in the intense, all-encompassing, group-oriented training environment. The new recruit is removed almost entirely from the civilian world and finds herself in an environment where everything she does is observed by her superiors and her peers. The effects of such immersion and “professional socialisation”[25] on the character and independence of new recruits cannot be underestimated. Because of the nature of the military world, military training must therefore develop the dispositions necessary for living and working in an authoritarian hierarchical group-oriented environment. This is achieved through the strict discipline of the training regime with its emphasis on drill and ceremonial training, through the constant emphasis on duty, obedience, and loyalty, and through unofficial bonding processes.


A new recruit’s bond with her unit and the military institution is developed partly through training in drill and ceremonial. As noted earlier the hours devoted to this training (in Australia, at least) far outweigh those devoted to character development and military law.

Drill and ceremonial cultivate the recruit’s identification with the symbols and mythology of her unit and the military as a whole, and cultivate obedience, conformity and strict discipline of body and mind. As a report on the military culture in Canada argued:


As a result of its distinctive mandate and the need to instil organisational loyalty and obedience, most military organisations develop a culture unto themselves, distinguished by an emphasis on hierarchy, tradition, rituals and customs, and distinctive dress and insignia.[26]


The emphasis on loyalty to and identification with the unit and the military institution is reinforced by military rhetoric that frequently mentions the importance of loyalty, duty, trust, obedience, and the bonds between combatants. Trust and loyalty play a crucial role in encouraging obedience and aiding successful military operations. This is made explicit in a US Army report on military training which states that developing “unit cohesion” is a central goal of physical training, as is developing the “warrior ethos” which includes “never leaving a fallen comrade behind”.[27] One Canadian soldier explained the importance of loyalty as follows, “A little private out there in the trenches doesn’t know beans about why he is there, except that he is there with his buddies and they will die for one another. It’s as simple as that.”[28] Military training must therefore instil unwavering loyalty in new recruits.


Given the importance of group loyalty and trust in the military environment the cost of not “fitting in” can be very high. Aside from the official drill and ceremonial rituals, loyalty to the unit is often instilled through unofficial initiation rituals intended to bond the new recruit firmly with the other members of her unit. These initiation rituals can involve very brutal and humiliating treatment – the very severity of which can further bond the group together. In a study of a Canadian Airborne Regiment Donna Winslow argued that “…an initiate who endures severe hazing [bullying] is likely to find membership in the group all the more appealing. In these rituals, soldiers are proving their readiness to participate in the group regardless of the personal cost, thus gaining peer acceptance. As one soldier put it: “I am proud to have done it, it proves to myself and others that as a member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, I will face and overpass any challenge to or tasking given to me.””[29]


There have also been several incidents of bullying and hazing in Australian military academies. For example, at least 30 Paratroopers in the Royal Australian Regiment in Queensland were victims of illegal beatings and punishments in 1997 and 1998.[30] In 2006 A Learning Culture Inquiry report into ADF Schools and Training Establishments found that there had been progress in combating harassment and bullying, but stated that there was still “room for improvement”.[31]


The continued prevalence of these practices despite many attempts to outlaw them is indicative of a wide-spread culture of unofficial and sometimes brutal group-bonding rites. Although such practices are not part of official military training their prevalence indicates that they cannot be lightly dismissed when looking at the character traits developed during military training. Such brutalization not only desensitizes new recruits to their own suffering but also desensitizes them to inflicting suffering upon others. Empathy and sympathy are eroded, as is tolerance of dissent and disobedience within the group.


Such unofficial bonding rituals serve to enforce conformity and unthinking obedience, partly through fear and partly through a belief in the necessity of conformity for military success. This pressure to conform is extremely strong and arguably reduces the likelihood that military personnel will “blow the whistle” on comrades or superiors who misbehave. Winslow points out that this problem with group bonding was noted as early as 1946: “[sociologists] Brotz and Wilson…noted that, in the army, bonding was so strong that “covering up for, defence of and devotion to one’s buddy was expected.””[32] These kinds of initiation rituals reinforce the belief that blind – not reflective – obedience is the cornerstone of effective military functioning by making disobedience seem like betrayal of the unit and a mark of disloyalty.[33]


Group cohesion and trust between military personnel are of course crucial for military effectiveness and we would expect such trust to be reinforced during basic military training. It is vital for the protection and survival of the whole group. However, loyalty to the military as an institution and to the combatant’s own unit should not be blind loyalty. As I argued earlier blind obedience and blind loyalty are inconsistent with the military virtues of loyalty and obedience. Virtuous military personnel would not cover up other combatants’ illegal activities, would not participate in illegal and degrading hazing rituals, and would not put group conformity above the military’s own values.


Unfortunately official rhetoric about group loyalty and unit cohesion combined with repetitive drill and ceremonial rituals and unofficial group-bonding rituals all encourage the unthinking loyalty and obedience that is at odds with the reflective moral agency required for genuinely virtuous character development. A few hours ethics training will have little effect on the character of military personnel compared to the constant immersion in a strongly group-oriented environment in which conformity and obedience are strongly encouraged and rewarded.


A second aspect of military training that has the potential to undermine the reflective moral agency needed for virtuous action is, to put it simply, how military personnel are trained to kill. In the US Army and Leadership Training report, this is specifically mentioned under the description of the purpose of Combatives training: “the instruction of hand–to–hand and rifle–bayonet fighting and is key in ensuring Soldiers are mentally prepared to engage and kill the enemies of the United States in close combat.”[34] How is this done?

Training to Kill


As killing is an unavoidable part of war, training military personnel to deal with killing is essential for the achievement of military goals. The training process must therefore develop the character traits that will enable military personnel to kill on command and to order others to kill, and that will minimize the psychological impact of killing.


In most modern military forces, this is achieved by the use of training environments that aim to recreate the experience of killing a real human being as closely as possible. These training methods worked by utilizing a combination of desensitisation and behavioural conditioning, unlike previous training methods that primarily used bulls-eye targets and firing ranges.[35] Alongside such training environments is the development of a particular attitude towards killing through the use of morally neutral language, through the displacement of responsibility for the violence of war, and through dehumanisation of the enemy.

Making killing routine: Desensitisation and Behavioural Conditioning


The training process desensitises military personnel in different ways. First, military personnel are desensitised to their own physical suffering through the intense physical training, and through the “hazing” and bullying rituals described earlier they become desensitised to the infliction and endurance of pain and humiliation on other recruits.


Military personnel are then desensitised to the idea of killing by the use of slang and barrack chants that make the idea of killing enemy combatants part of the everyday barracks atmosphere and training environment. By referring to the enemy by derogatory nicknames such “towel-heads” and by depicting them as morally, racially, or physically inferior the enemy becomes dehumanised and demonised.[36] An extreme example of such dehumanisation is apparent in the attitudes of the US soldiers at Abu Ghraib who referred to the prisoners they tortured as “animals”. The attitude of these soldiers demonstrates how normal such dehumanisation can become. Seymour Hersh describes how “The 372nd’s [the Military Police Company involved in the abuse] abuse of prisoners seemed almost routine – a fact of Army life that the soldiers felt no need to hide.”[37]


Military personnel become desensitised to the act of killing by the use of human-shaped targets that the trainee “engages” (a euphemism for “kills”) on a mock-up of an actual battlefield. Some training grounds even use devices such as balloon-filled uniforms and fake blood to make the conditioning even more effective.[38] This process of desensitisation is combined with the use of the Operant Conditioning techniques developed by B.F Skinner in his experiments on rats. Operant Conditioning works by combining constant repetition of the act of killing with the use of positive reinforcements to reward correct behaviour.[39] The purpose of this training is summarized succinctly by David Grossman:


What is being taught in this environment is the ability to shoot reflexively and instantly and a precise mimicry of the act of killing on the modern battlefield. In behavioural terms, the man shape popping up in the soldier’s field of fire is the “conditioned stimulus,” the immediate engaging of the target is the “target behaviour.” “Positive reinforcement” is given in the form of immediate feedback when the target drops if it is hit. In the form of “token economy” these hits are then exchanged for marksmanship badges that usually have some form of privilege or reward (praise, public recognition, three-day passes, and so on) associated with them.[40]


The trainee practices the act of killing so often that the distinction between a practice kill on a man-shaped target and a “real” kill is diminished. As a result the first real kill doesn’t seem “real” at all and therefore it is easier for the soldier to deny that he has killed a real person as opposed to just “engaged” another “target”. Ideally the end result of this training is military personnel who will shoot to kill instantaneously when the appropriate stimuli are present; when the target is seen and the orders are given


Desensitisation to the potential moral (and emotional) distress caused by killing and witnessing is encouraged by the displacement of responsibility from the individual combatant to the military command. The authoritarian hierarchical nature of the military institution encourages military personnel to displace responsibility for their actions onto their superior officers. So long as their orders are not manifestly illegal, military personnel are not expected to reflect upon the morality of what they are doing, and indeed are actively discouraged from doing so: the killing of enemy combatants is assumed to be justified.


This desensitisation is further encouraged by altering the way military personnel perceive the act of killing the enemy, a process achieved partly through the use of dehumanisation referred to above and through the use of phrases to describe military actions that makes almost no reference to the impact of military force on real human bodies. So actions that involve killing are referred to by morally neutral terms such as “mopping-up operations”, “surgical strikes”, and “dealing with a target”.[41] As a high ranking American officer told a visiting lecturer: “We do not call it “Killing the enemy.” We call it, “Servicing the target.””[42] Such language encourages a view of killing in which the moral dimension of killing is almost entirely absent.


The processes described above enable military personnel to overcome their moral and emotional distress at the prospect of killing. These processes – justification of killing, displacement of responsibility, minimisation of harm, and dehumanisation of the enemy – are typical of what psychologists call “moral disengagement”. Moral disengagement occurs when one’s normal moral sanctions against harming others are “disengaged” in order to enable one to carry out one’s role. An International Committee of the Red Cross study on violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) found that the processes of moral disengagement were common in military personnel, and were linked to problematic forms of obedience and the commission of violations of IHL.[43]


The effectiveness of this training process in altering combatants’ experience of and attitude towards killing is best described in the words of military personnel themselves. One of the soldiers who fought in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia said of his experience of killing:


I just started picking them out as they were running across the intersection two blocks away, and it was weird because it was much easier than you would think. You hear all these stories about “the first time you kill somebody is very hard.” And it was so much like basic training, they were just targets out there, and I don’t know if it was the training that we had ingrained in us, but it seemed to me it was like a moving target range, and you could just hit the target and watch it fall and hit the target and watch it fall, and it wasn’t real. They were far enough away so that you didn’t see, or I didn’t see, all the guts and the gore and things like that, but you would just see this target running across in your sight picture, you pull the trigger and the target would fall.[44] 


A British soldier told a researcher that “he thought of the enemy as nothing more or less than Figure II [man-shaped] targets”,[45] and a Green Beret sergeant major said of his experience of killing:  “…all I felt was the recoil [of the gun].”[46] Another soldier described his first experience of killing as follows: “Two shots. Bam-Bam. Just like we had been trained in ‘Quick-Shoot’. When I killed, I did it just like that. Just like I’d been trained. Without even thinking.”[47]


The attitude displayed by the above quotes is quite clear. Killing is experienced literally as a thoughtless action. Phrases like “it was so much like basic training, they were just targets out there”, “all I felt was the recoil”, and “without even thinking”, demonstrate the effectiveness of these training techniques in making killing a conditioned, knee-jerk response. This training therefore not only modifies combatants’ emotional responses to killing – a process that is probably necessary if military personnel are to be efficient killers – but aims to alter combatants’ moral perception of the act of killing; to alter how military personnel think about killing. The above quotes clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of this training in undermining combatants’ awareness of the moral dimension of killing. Killing the enemy is described as if it were an act divorced from not just a broader moral context but from any moral context. The experience of killing is described as if it were something not significantly different from shooting targets during basic training and something that is done “without even thinking”.

Furthermore, at the time the soldiers quoted above saw the people they killed not as fellow human beings but as “just targets out there”. This dehumanisation of the enemy contributes to the sense that killing them is not a moral issue. As Captain Pete Kilner argues:


Modern combat training conditions soldiers to act reflexively to stimuli – such as fire commands, enemy contact, or the sudden appearance of a “target” – and maximises soldiers’ lethality, but it does so by bypassing their moral autonomy. Soldiers are conditioned to act without considering the moral repercussions of their actions; they are enabled to kill without making the conscious decision to do so.[48]


This training significantly improves the killing ability of military personnel, but does so at a price. While this training makes killing during war psychologically easier, that very fact can lead to greater psychological problems post-combat. Military personnel can find themselves only considering the moral implications of their actions after it is too late, sometimes many years after their combat experience.[49] For some military personnel it was the fact that they had been such efficient, unreflective killers – that killing was so easy – that became the most traumatic issue. One of the soldiers from the Black Hawk Down incident said: “...[I just] reali[zed] that he was another human being, just like I am. And so that’s hard to deal with, but that day it was too easy. That upsets me more than anything else, how easy it was to pull the trigger over and over again”.[50]


In summary, the way in which unit cohesion is developed in the military, and the way in which military personnel are taught to kill and encouraged to think about killing promote dispositions that are at odds with those needed for the military virtues as described earlier. Virtuous military behaviour requires reflective moral judgement; requires that military personnel reflect upon the morality of the military profession and the morality of their own behaviour in war. It requires them to cultivate wise loyalty and wise obedience. Yet the group bonding I discussed earlier promotes unreflective loyalty, and discourages military personnel from questioning or challenging their fellow combatants and their superior officers. The methods used to train military personnel to kill, combined with the processes of moral disengagement, encourage military personnel to kill unreflectively (“without even thinking”), to minimise the moral dimension of killing, and to abdicate responsibility for their actions.


By undermining the moral agency and moral reflection of military personnel, these aspects of military training and culture undermine the very faculties that are needed for virtuous military character and that would prevent or at least lessen the likelihood of obedience to illegal orders. The nature of unreflective obedience is such that it is resistant to containment within the military hierarchy and the laws of war. Once combatants’ moral reflection has been undermined, military obedience is more likely to become destructive because the moral capacities that would prevent destructive obedience are crippled. Cultivating the dispositions of unreflective obedience may make military personnel more effective killers (arguably a necessary goal of military training) but encourages character traits at odds with those needed for ethical military behaviour.


This raises the question of whether it is possible to have military personnel who are truly ethical, but who are also able to kill on command, and who are deeply committed to their unit and the military profession. We have two choices at this point. We can either accept that perhaps the demands of the military profession mean that military personnel must sacrifice their moral autonomy to some degree in order to be more effective fighters. However, if we take this route we are effectively admitting that the military rhetoric about military virtues and the high moral standards of the military profession is just that; rhetoric. This, I believe, is the wrong route to take, and is inconsistent with the importance given to military ethics by military personnel of all ranks.


Our second choice is to rethink how military personnel are trained, and to rethink how group loyalty and effective fighting can be made compatible with the moral reflection and reasoning necessary for virtuous military behaviour. An in-depth discussion of alternative military training practices is beyond the scope of this paper, but some suggestions can be made.


Rethinking Military Training


The first and most important step in thinking about alternatives to current military training is to challenge long-standing assumptions about the relationship between obedience, conformity, and effective military functioning. The assumption that instilling instant obedience is the best or most important way to achieve good military functioning does not stand up to close examination.


For example, in On the Psychology of Military Incompetence Norman Dixon found that the high level of incompetence demonstrated in World War I was linked to (among other things) “A terrible crippling obedience”.[51] Similarly, in his discussion of the Third Battle of Ypres historian Liddell Hart wrote that:


It would seem that none of army commanders ventured to press contrary views with the strength that the facts demanded. One of the lessons of the war exemplified at Passchendaele is certainly the need of allowing more latitude in the army system for intellectual honesty and moral courage.[52]


That such unthinking obedience is still a problem is suggested by the results of a 2002 study on dysfunctional military decision-making in the United States military, which found that a military culture that encouraged rigid thinking and adherence to a “groupthink” mentality lead to erroneous decision-making and to moral exclusion – the failure to consider ethical and moral principles that were directly relevant to the situation in question.[53] In fact, the decision-making process of even senior officers displayed a complete lack of awareness of any moral issues: “...not one of the sixteen 0-6’s (colonels/Navy Captains – those of the highest rank tested) in the present study reported any moral or ethical considerations during their deliberations.”[54] The study also found that: “…formalized and complex organisational structures restrict the ability of the organisation to learn. Historians have documented this tendency as being particularly prevalent in military organizations.”[55] Allowing combatants to exercise autonomous decision-making would quite possibly result in a military force that was more innovative, more flexible, and less resistant to change and institutional learning.


Someone might object that lessening the demand for strict obedience and group loyalty in the military would render military operations unworkable because not enough personnel would agree to go on high-risk missions, or would question every order. There are two reasons to suppose this would not be the case. First, it seems reasonable to suppose that individuals who were afraid of physical risk would unlikely to join the military, or if they did join, would be likely to quit once they realised the level of physical risk attendant upon military service. The second reason for thinking that reducing the demand for strict obedience would not necessarily undermine military effectiveness is that allowing military personnel to actively exercise and cultivate reflective moral judgement about military actions would be likely to lead to a fighting force that was motivated by a strong commitment to military goals, that was characterised by courage (both to face necessary risks and to refuse unnecessary risks), and that had excellent morale. George Orwell found this to be the case when he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War with the Anarchist militias. The militias were formed on strict egalitarian principles, quite unlike the structure of ordinary military forces. Yet despite the radical (and initially chaotic) appearance of these militias, the emphasis on comradeship, equality, and the importance of understanding the reasons behind different military procedures created a dedicated military force with high morale and good discipline. As Orwell writes:


Cynical people with no experience of handling men will say instantly that this [doing away with authoritarian structures] would never 'work', but as a matter of fact it does 'work' in the long run… I was  acting-lieutenant in command of about thirty men…We had all been under fire for months, and I never had the slightest difficulty in getting an order obeyed or in getting men to volunteer for a dangerous job… it is a tribute to the strength of 'revolutionary' discipline that the militias stayed in the field at all. For until about June 1937 there was nothing to keep them there, except class loyalty…the militias held the line, though God knows they won very few victories, and even individual desertions were not common.[56]


Similarly, military personnel in the Dutch army formed a trade union in the late 1960’s, which abolished many traditional military practices such as saluting, and which won soldiers the right to have the reasons for their orders explained to them. These changes did not diminish the Dutch army’s efficiency.[57] It is far from obvious, therefore, that radically rethinking the aspects of military training and culture that I have discussed would undermine military effectiveness.



Despite the military’s overt commitment to training military personnel to be ethical fighters, there are at least two aspects of military culture and training that promote a moral psychology that encourages unreflective obedience and unreflective loyalty. The ways in military personnel are taught to bond with their unit combined with the processes of moral disengagement that are used to train military personnel to kill diminish the ability of military personnel to be reflective moral agents. This can create dispositions of destructive unreflective obedience and a tendency to minimise or ignore the moral issues arising from military actions. This is extremely worrying since violations of the laws of war occur not only because of individual “bad apples” or because of the stress of combat, but also when there are institutional processes that reduce the capacity for moral reflection and moral sensitivity.


In light of these problems, it is clear that training ethical and effective military personnel requires not only creating ethics classes that are based on a strong theoretical understanding of ethical theory (particularly virtue ethics), that are taught by properly trained personnel, and that are taught consistently across military institutions; it requires understanding how other aspects of military training affect the character and dispositions of military personnel in perhaps negative ways. If the military is genuinely committed to training ethical military personnel, then it must rethink long-held assumptions about the connection between obedience, group conformity, and effective military functioning.



[1] This paper draws on material from my forthcoming book Torture and the Military Profession (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007).

[2] Colonel W. Darryl Goldman “The Wrong Road to Character Development?”, Military Review, 78 (1998): (62-68) PAGE NUM

[3] J. Joseph Miller, “Squaring the Circle: Teaching Philosophical Ethics in the Military”, Journal of Military Ethics, 3 (2004): 199-215, p.208.

[4] Keith Joseph, “The Teaching of Military Ethics”, Australian Defence Force Journal, No. 115, Nov/Dec 1995, (15-19), p. 17.

[5] Army Training and Leader Development, Department of the Army, Washington, DC

13 January 2006. Available at

[6] Major E.J. Stevenson, “Educating the Community’s “Cream”: Common Military Training at the Australian Defence Force Academy”, Australian Defence Force Journal, 120 (1996): 11-18, p. 13.

[7] For example, the US Army has listed seven virtues claimed to be essential for effective soldiering – loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honour, integrity, and personal courage (Miller, p. 202).

[8] For example, one author referred to obedience as military virtue and stated that ‘Aristotle would surely agree’. The author clearly had not read Aristotle carefully, as while it is true that Aristotle did refer to obedience as a virtue, it was only a virtue for women and slaves because they lacked reasoning skills. Such mistakes and misunderstandings are common.

[9] Miller, p. 205.

[10] Justin Oakley & Dean Cocking, Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 15.

[11] Dirk Baltzly, ‘Peripatetic Perversions’, The Monist, 86 (2003): 3-29, p. 5.

[12] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, I.7.1097b25-1098a15.

[13] Baltzly, p. 7. For example, a good human life is likely to include friendships, wisdom, health, and love.

[14] Ibid, p. 5.

[15] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, III.2.1111b1-22.

[16] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, III.2.1111b1-22.

[17] Christine Korsgaard, ‘From Duty and for the Sake of the Noble: Kant and Aristotle on Morally Good Action’, in eds Stephen Engstrom & Jennifer Whiting, Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: Rethinking Happiness and Duty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 214.

[18] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, VI.5.1140a20-b6.

[19] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, VI.3.1144b5-29.

[20] Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:393.

[21] Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 103. The importance of reflective moral agency for virtuous action is also found in contemporary moral philosophy. Gary Watson and Harry Frankfurt, for example, both pinpoint the capacity for moral reflection as the distinctive characteristic of persons; of moral agents. See Harry Frankfurt, ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,’ and Gary Watson, ‘Free Agency’, in ed. Gary Watson Free Will, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[22] See Anthony E. Hartle, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making, 2nd edn (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004). J. Joseph Miller also discusses the connection between consideration of the ends of the military profession and the military virtues, although he does not connect the end of the military profession with human flourishing, a connection which I argue is essential if the military is to be considered a morally good profession.

[23] Mark Osiel, Obeying Orders: Atrocity, Military Discipline & the Law of War (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2002), p. 315.

[24] Capt. Steven D. Danyluk, “Preventing Atrocities”, Marine Corps Gazette, 84 (2000): 36-8, p. 38, 37).

[25] Hartle, p. 44.

[26] ‘Military Culture and Ethics’, Report of the Somalia Commission of Inquiry, 2 July 1997. Available at <>

[27] Army Training and Leadership Development.

[28] Donna Winslow, ‘Misplaced Loyalties: The Role of Military Culture in the Breakdown of Discipline in Two Peace Operations’, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 6 (2004): 1-19, p. 4.

[29] Winslow, p. 6.

[30] World News, “Australia Aims to Stop Brutality by Military”, The Cambridge Reporter, 10 February 2001.

[31] See for the full text of the report

[32] Winslow, p. 5.

[33] It is true that this assumption is questioned in some quarters (See, for example, Captain Christopher P. Yalanis, “The Virtue (?) of Obedience: Some Notes for Military Professionals”, paper presented at the Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics, Springfield, Virginia, 2001. Available at <>). However, this assumption is still by far the most prevalent attitude towards obedience and therefore must be addressed as such.

[34] Army Training and Leadership Development, p. 11.

[35] Lt Col David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1995), p. 25.

[36] Grossman, p. 161.

[37] Seymour Hersh, ‘Torture at Abu Ghraib’, The Age, 10 May 2004.

[38] Grossman, p. 254.

[39] Ibid, pp. 253-4.

[40] Ibid. p. 254.

[41] Daniel Muñoz-Rojas & Jean-Jacques Frésard, The Roots of Behaviour in War: Understanding and Preventing IHL Violations (Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 2004), p. 9.

[42] Fred Downs, ‘The Dark Side of Command’, The Washington Post, 16 August 1987, p. D1. The use of morally neutral terms to desensitise individuals to killing and other acts of violence is nothing new. The Nazis were so aware of the power of language to change perceptions of reality that they invented a whole terminology to describe the activities of the Holocaust – the term ‘Final Solution’ was part of this terminology. So thorough was this re-definition of language that one Holocaust scholar mentioned by Robert Lifton ‘told of examining “tens of thousands” of Nazi documents without once encountering the word “killing” until, after many years, he finally did discover the word - in reference to an edict concerning dogs.’ (Robert Jay Lifton,  The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986),

[43] Muñoz-Rojas & Frésard, pp. 8-10. Moral disengagement is also used in other professions which require the infliction of violence. A study of US executioners, for example, found that the mechanisms of displacement of responsibility, dehumanization of the victim, and minimization of harmful consequences of one’s actions were characteristic of the moral disengagement process that enabled executioners to carry out the killing of another person without being overcome by distress. See Michael J. Osofsky, Albert Bandura, and Phillip G. Zimbardo, ‘The Role Moral Disengagement in the Execution Process’, Law and Human Behaviour, 29 (2005): 371-92.

[44] Interview with Ranger Private First Class Jason Moore for CNN/Frontline. Available at <http/>, quoted in Kilner, Captain Pete. ‘Military Leaders to Justify Killing in Warfare’ paper presented at Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics, Washington, DC, 2000. Available at, p. 5.

[45] Quoted in Grossman, p. 256.

[46] Quoted in a Frontline interview with David Grossman.  Available at <>

[47] Grossman, p.  257.

[48] Kilner, p. 1.

[49] Ibid, p. 5.

[50] Ibid, p. 5. His Italics.

[51] Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), p. 82.

[52] B. H. Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (London: Pan Books, 1972), p. 332. Passchendaele (known as the Third Battle of Ypres) cost more than 2000 lives a day (Dixon, p. 89). At the end of the battle, the British and empire forces had lost more than 250,000 men and advanced only five miles.

[53] Jeffery Bordin, ‘On the Psychology of Moral Cognition and Resistance to Authoritative and Groupthink Demands during a Military Intelligence Analysis Gaming Exercise’, paper presented at the Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics, Springfield, Virginia, 2002. Available at, p. 3.

[54] Bordin, p. 28.

[55] Bordin, p. 5.

[56] George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (San Diego: Harvest Books, 1939/1969), p. 26. The fact that the militias lost the Spanish Civil War has been attributed to their egalitarian structure, but as Orwell points out, their lack of success is more appropriately attributed to their lack of decent weapons and basic military supplies such as maps and charts. (Orwell, p. 28)

[57] C. A. J. Coady, “The Leaders and the Led,” Inquiry, 23 (1980): 275-91, p. 288.