International Society for Military Ethics 2009 Symposium












LCDR James H. Pittman


Recruit Training Regiment

Marine Corps Recruit Depot

Parris Island, SC 29905

Home phone is 843-522-3970

Work phone is 843-228-2115


            At the time of this writing, U.S. military personnel are in the sixth year of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, military members have been called upon repeatedly to carry out their duties, killing or injuring other human beings.  As we recently saw the fortieth anniversary of the My Lai massacre,[1] the military and the nation are aware that the current conflicts also have had atrocities.  This awareness calls for a discussion of the validity of character development programs.  This discussion is intended in the context of character development for building baseline ethical principles including categories defined by jus in bello (just practice in the conduct of warfare),[2] as this is the concern of the war fighter and his or her nation.  Through examination of views on character development and neural plasticity, this writer will explore the question of whether or not character can be developed. The ultimate goal of this thought process is to prevent decisions that are destructive to individuals and the military organizations in which they serve.  This writer is the Chaplain of the Recruit Training Regiment at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina; therefore, this paper will focus primarily on the Marine Corps.

            The failures of United States military members that have led to atrocities occurred in two areas: a failure to know that something is wrong, or a failure to act on what is known to be right.  Therefore, young service members must be taught how to conduct themselves in combat.  This is knowledge of jus in bello.  They must also be strengthened in character to stand firm for what is right.  These two elements are essential.  Without both the war fighter will not succeed in being a just warrior. 

            Even in antiquity there was a question regarding whether or not the character of war fighters could be developed.  In The Republic, Plato (427-347 B.C.) envisioned a society with three classes of people, a producer class, a warrior class and philosopher/ruler class.[3]  The warrior or guardian class was essential to maintain society.  Plato believed that its members needed to be chosen at a very early age with their character cultivated for a lifetime (395c).[4]  Plato had a dictatorial vision of society.[5]  Although this societal structure would not be practical for a democracy, a warrior class would certainly provide professional soldiers that hold just warriors’ values.

The military members who serve in the United States Armed Forces are directly impacted by trends within U.S. society, because the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are a voluntary force composed of people from the U.S. at large.  Individuals that enlist and are commissioned in these Sea Services have come into the institution with significant amounts of formation already completed.  They are usually 17-21 years of age.  They also bear the influences of their communities, families and cultures.  Therefore, they bring significant diversity in values and belief systems to their military service.

Marine Corps Community Services data indicates that 33 percent of all Marines are from a racial or ethnic minority.  This diversity has rapidly increased since 1995.  The Hispanic segment of the Marine Corps was 13 percent in June of 2006, an increase from 9 percent in 1995.  “American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, Multi-Racial, Other, or Unknown: 10.0% of the Marine Corps (4% in 1995).”[6]  The only ethnic category declining was African-American; this was 11 percent in 2006 but had been as high as 16 percent in 1995.  Even within the 66.4 percent population that is white or Caucasian, there is no uniformity of religious or cultural values.  64 percent of enlisted Marines have served for less than 4 years.  It would be logical to assume that the values they have brought to military service and any previous character development still have tremendous impact.  The Marine Corps is the service with largest percentage of junior personnel.  41 percent of its members are E-3 and below.  (E-3 means Private First Class; enlisted ranks in the Marine Corps begin with E-1, the Marine Corps Recruit, and run up to E-9, or Sergeant Major).  In the officer community the length of time in service is longer, with 11 years of average time.[7]

The large number of junior Marines also translates to younger ages in the service.  In fact, CBS News did a story in November of 2006, stating that the average age of Marines entering Boot Camp was 19.  The writer validates this through informal observation and impromptu polling of recruits. This in turn means that 41 percent of Marines have an average age of 23 and under.[8]

There are important implications for these statistics related to the age range where the younger ones are completing adolescence.  At the higher end, these individuals are beginning early adulthood developmentally.  Ego identity that is consistent is a part of this transition.  The way one sees oneself is validated by the way others view the self.[9]  “This ego identity is not formed all at once at age 15, or 17, or 19.”[10] 

From the 1920s to the 1980s several important thinkers looked at character development.  One was Erik Erikson, who expressed his eight developmental stages as tensions.  He saw the developmental task of ages ranging from 13 to 20 (stage 5) to be the development of an individual identity as opposed to possessing a diffuse identity, that of the group.  He also observed that in American culture this development is frequently put on hold, particularly in middle and upper-class individuals.  This would necessitate that the developmental task be completed at a later time.[11]  The next stage (stage 6) involves the resolution of intimacy as opposed to isolation.[12]  Observationally, many service members are struggling with both of these stages to some extent.    

The issue of group identity versus individuated identity can generate a sense of anomie and/or cognitive dissonance.  One value that is highly lauded in military communities is loyalty.  The tensions of multiple loyalties are a struggle for many military members.  The possibilities of competing loyalties confront service members when decisions are made. 

Figure 1 expresses these tensions.

  Fig. 1     Competing Loyalties

  Reprinted, by permission, French et al., “Character Development, Ethical          

  Advisement and Today’s Sea Warrior,” 67.


This gives a visual image of the different factors that pull on the lives of members in military service.  Each of these areas of life demand allegiance, while some expect absolute allegiance.  Conversations have revealed that married service members are aware that there is a twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week commitment to their spouse, and yet they also articulate that the military demands the same commitment.

            Peter Berger argues that humans create society and its structures.  Yet he also asserts that humans are in turn shaped if not created by the very societies that they have created.[13]  This process is integrative and for Berger contains a three-tiered interaction.  “These are externalization, objectivation, and internalization.”[14]  Externalization for Berger is the investment of self into the world in which the individual interacts.  This is both a physical and cerebral investment.  Objectivation is the awareness that the thought or item produced by externalization has become differentiated from self as a distinct thing.   Internalization is the transformation of those things from the external world back into the internal or subject reality of the individual.  “It is through externalization that society is a human product.  It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis.  It is through internalization that man is a product of society.”[15]  This process of shaping and being shaped gives the possibility for a dialectic interaction that will shape war fighters and be shaped by them.

            Berger further argued that humans are unfinished beings at birth and the shaping or finishing of humans gives them an innate awareness of instability.  It is precisely this knowledge of instability that drives humans to build society.  Berger further was convinced that religion played a key role in the human world-building enterprise.[16]  Additionally, he saw religion not only as a builder of the world, but as a stabilizer for the world.  He views this as a function of “legitimation.”  “Legitimation” provides rationalization and validation for societal structures.  “Religion legitimates social institutions by bestowing upon them an ultimately valid ontological status, that is, by locating them within a sacred and cosmic frame of reference.”[17]  Therefore, it is the belief of this writer that religion may be a tool used to build and maintain structure within a military society. Further, it seems logical that character development, whether secular or religious also roots the individual within the stabilized structures of their society.

            Erik Erikson’s developmental stages were mentioned earlier, but there are two other thinkers whose ideas regarding moral development should be discussed at this point.  The first is Jean Piaget.  Piaget noted four stages of cognitive development with several substages.  “The important stages and substages are (i) the sensorimotor stage, (ii) the preoperational substage, (iii) the concrete operations substage, and (iv) the final stage of ‘formal operations.’”[18]  These cognitive stages defined by Piaget led to the development of two moral development stages.  He defined these as “heteronomous morality” characterized by uniform respect for authority figures, and “autonomous morality” which was characterized by self-government and reciprocal cooperation.[19]

             Moral development thought was carried forward by Lawrence Kohlberg.  He saw a more involved process of development, summarized by Grace Craig in Human Development with 6 stages of development on 3 different levels.[20]  The first level is designated “premoral” with 2 stages.  The first stage is characterized by obedience to avoid punishment.[21]  The second stage displays conformity to gain rewards or obtain favors.[22]  Second level stages are labeled “conventional” and demonstrate conformity in roles.[23]  Stage 3 developers conform to be perceived well and avoid displeasure of authority figures.[24]  Stage 4 is much like stage 3 but contains the added element of guilt to reinforce conformity.[25]  Level 3 stages are defined as “morality of self accepted moral principles.”[26]  Moral action would be seen positively by an impartial third party and viewed in terms of social welfare.[27]  The last and highest level of Kohlberg’s stages is represented by a person that chooses moral action to prevent self-disapproval.[28]  These categories give an idea of Kohlberg’s understanding of the developmental process for moral decision-making.  He apparently saw age as a factor for moral development but believed that advancement in stages was impossible without completion of the previous stage of moral development.[29]  He also was convinced that 25 to 35 percent of adults never reach Stage 6.[30]  Noted writer John Hart, of the Boston University of School of Theology, suggested that perhaps there is a complimentary illustrative behavior at work that could be seen as stage 7: “A positive reason for adhering to formulated principles of conscience that one conforms to, to affirm self-commendation.”[31]   

Kohlberg and the other developmental theorists grant hope that the developmental process for moral decision-making remains malleable.  This allows for continued development.[32]  Since he believed that 25 to 35 percent of adults never reach Stage 6, there must be many adults that still have developmental growth to be completed.  Combined with John Hart’s view of an additional stage, it can be seen that there are avenues open for moral maturation.[33]                                       

            There have been criticisms of the moral development ideas of Piaget and Kohlberg.  The greatest may be found in Carol Gilligan’s observations that the stages fail to consider differences between women and men.[34]  Gilligan also was critical of Kohlberg’s failure to factor emotions into moral decision-making.[35]  Emotions may be a powerful tool to harness for character change.

            Most of the young service members should have reached Level 3.  However, Michael Parker argues that even those that have reached high levels and stages of development can learn and grow in moral reasoning.  “There seems to be no reason to suppose, however, that the growth of understanding need involve general, conceptual shifts or stages rather than the growth of concepts and practices in a more local

sense.”[36]  This would argue that regardless of the stages of moral development obtained, or the failure to obtain them; moral decision-making matrices can be strengthened and built within stages at a conceptual level.  It is therefore reasonable to conclude that a moral decision-making training program of some sort would not only be valuable, but essential if individuals are to be expected to act based upon something other than individualist principles.

            There is a wrinkle however.  New research challenges some previously held ideas about mental development, and may have implications for character development thought.  “Kurt Fischer, director of Harvard University’s mind, brain and education master’s degree program, warned that many education theories claim to be based on science but are not.”[37]

            It appears that Fischer was rejecting the old school view of neurological reality, which originated in 1913.  At that time, Nobel Prize winning neuroanatomist, Santiago Ramon y Cajal stated, “In the adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended and immutable.”[38]  This idea of permanent neural paths was the common understanding of neurological reality.  In developing brains pathways could be altered, but once they were set no changes would occur.  The idea generated an understanding of brain physiology that in turn led to dark assessments for brain disease and traumatic injury.  Much of the 20th century understanding was based on Ramon y Cajal’s concept.   As late as 1999, the belief that neural pathways were unchangeable in adults was still being reported in scientific journals.[39]

The permanency of neural pathways was even taught in biology classes when young learners were first introduced to neurons and the brain.  Not only did this have medical treatment implications, but the static view of the adult brain also influenced both psychology and all developmental theorists, including Kohlberg and those like him, who viewed character development as having some permanent end to be reached, when the adult brain ceased to change.  Author Sharon Begley points to the tremendous significance of this. “But there was a subtler issue. The brain contains the physical embodiment of personality and knowledge, character and emotions, memories and beliefs.”[40]  Therefore the concept of neural plasticity has major implications for any serious look at belief systems and individual character.       

Thirteen years ago, the birth of a new nephew in this writer’s family generated a different direction for thought.  The birth was accompanied by challenges.  He was born 7 and ½ weeks prematurely.  Additionally, he was caught in the birth canal for 7 days.  From birth he had atrophy in his shoulder and neck muscles and total deafness in one ear.  Through many trials he proved to be both a joy and an over comer.

            Several years later the atrophy was less pronounced.  However, there was a by product. When he reached the toddler stage, he learned to walk without ever having learned to crawl.  When a pediatrician involved in a developmental educational program (Head Start) was engaged to assist, she ordered therapy which involved making the child learn how to crawl.  The process was painful for him, but the experts insisted that crawling was essential. 

            The family was assured that unless he crawled, he would have great difficulty later in learning how to read.  The skills involved required cross connection of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  Apparently, even after the normal development time for these connections, neural pathways can still be generated.

            When contemplating whether the character can be developed, the practice of making children crawl to connect neural pathways challenged a thought.  Character development involves creating patterns of behavior which quite possibly create new brain pathways.  Even if habits of character or neural pathways are established, would it not still be possible to establish other pathways?   Even Kohlberg acknowledges the relative flexibility that still exists for development in his model, up until the individual reaches young adulthood.

            TBI (traumatic brain injury) research indicates that there are differences in the resiliency to injury and rerouting of neuropath ways depending on age.

Children and teenagers are more likely than adults to have diffuse injury and prolonged brain swelling. This may in part be related to the fact that the immature brain is approximately 60 times more sensitive to glutamate-mediated N-methyl-D-aspartate excitotoxic brain injury. Therefore, high-school athletes might be expected to have a slower recovery than college-aged or older athletes and to be more susceptible to severe neurological deficits should they be re-injured during recovery. On the other hand, some argue that younger athletes should have a greater potential for recovery after concussion because of their greater potential for cortical reorganization compared with adults. Studies comparing functional outcome after hemispherectomy found that younger animals had a more complete functional recovery than older ones. This finding supports previous clinical evidence of marked synaptic excess in children, relative to adults, allowing for neural pathway rerouting during recovery and functional plasticity in the developing brain.[41]

It is clear that certain kinds of rerouting are much easier in younger individuals. Yet, that does not mean that neural plasticity or malleability of brain pathways is not possible beyond optimum ages of susceptibility for neural rerouting.

            As a hospital chaplain in a large university hospital (Medical College of Virginia / Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia), this writer witnessed people beyond childhood that did in fact reroute neural pathways.  They were recipients of injuries to the brain from physical and medical traumas, i.e., blows to the head, gunshots, strokes, aneurisms, tumors, and numerous other injuries and conditions.  Many of these people did reroute pathways.  One young man with a gunshot wound to the frontal lobe and right hemisphere of the brain performed miraculous feats after a six- month coma.  He relearned to walk and talk.  This was only likely to occur with significant neural rerouting.

            Stroke victims all the way into their nineties are able to reroute cognitive functions.  Rerouting of neural pathways is no easy task.  However, it is not only possible, it does regularly happen. Cognitive Technology Journal affirms the idea that not only can neural reprogramming occur beyond optimum times.  It actually argues that the brain continues adaptation as long is there is life.

Rather, the brain’s ability to be molded – its plasticity – is the result of many different, complex processes that occur in our brains throughout our lifetime. A host of different structures and types of cells play some part in making neuroplasticity possible. There are even different types of plasticity that, depending on one’s age, are more or less involved in reshaping the brain as it handles new information. Plasticity works throughout the brain not just in the normal processes of learning and adaptation (most obvious in the early developmental years, though continuing throughout life), but also in response to injuries or diseases that cause loss of mental functioning.[42]



Thus, as long as life continues and experience continues rerouting occurs.  Begley says, “The very structure of our brain – the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between one area and another – reflects the lives we have led.”[43]  In essence the imprint of our experience has a shaping force for brain structure.  This is also somewhat like a two- way street, “ A thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.”[44]             Dr. Kenneth Kilvington said, “Structure and function are inseparable. We know that environments shape brains; all sorts of experiments have demonstrated that it happens.  There are some studies currently being done that show profound differences in the structure of the brain depending on what is taken in by the senses.”[45]

Immediately upon reading these words a scripture verse came to mind.  “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.”[46]  The implications are staggering.  The new research on neural plasticity says that quite literally we shape the reality of our brains by our thoughts as well as our actions.  The things on which we focus have power.  At this point another verse came to mind,  Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”[47]

            Interestingly, the ideas of neural plasticity would probably resonate with philosopher John Searle.  In his Minds, Brains and Science, Searle observes the problems of discussing issues related to the mind.  He notes a false distinction between the mind and brain.  This creates confusion in addressing issues in the field of philosophy and in social sciences.  Before the latest research in neural plasticity, Searle rightly stated, “Mental phenomena, all mental phenomena whether conscious or unconscious, visual or auditory, pains, tickles, itches, thoughts, indeed, all of our mental life, are caused by processes going on in the brain.”[48]  In this single sentence Searle sought to put to rest the mind-body problem.    

An analogy of the neural pathway concept might be – if the neural impulses of the brain are the vehicles of thought or cognition, various sensory perceptions and memory storage, then the neural pathways are the streets and highways of the brain.  The paths may already exist, but the frequent reuse builds wider, more stable highways.

            Logically it appears that the biggest difficulty in neural plastic change comes in the problem of resistance.  Just as Newton’s First Law of motion states, objects will remain in motion unless acted upon by some external force, or objects not moving will remain so unless acted upon by some external force.  The same appears to be true for human beings.  In other words, if someone has a set habit, pattern of thought, behavior, or neural routing, then that person will probably continue to use the set habit, pattern, etc., until some action takes place to move it. 

            The shaping of neural pathways or habits ties into Aristotelian views of virtue based ethics.  Philip Wogaman observes that both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas use a virtues approach to ethics, and that the formation of virtuous habits was essential to their ethical constructs.  Through backgrounds, decisions and behavior, habits can be inculcated into our personality. [49]  Marines use a virtue ethics model called core values to train young recruits about character.  Therefore an understanding of habitual action building virtues/core values, or neural pathway routing, goes hand and hand with United States Marine Corps training.  Much of the habit formation is directed by Drill Instructors.  These D.I.s must remain consistent with the intent of the core value curriculum and the repetitive actions they lead.

            Establishing new patterns does not appear to be difficult.  With numerous repetitions a new pattern emerges.  The real problem comes when people have established patterns that must be overcome.  This also is clearly apparent in neurologically damaged populations.  Patients with brain insults and injuries frequently must be pushed beyond their comfort zones and are almost forced to form new pathways.  From a chaplain’s perspective, and that of a Christian ethicist, this bears theological resonance as well.  The apostle Paul states, “And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.”[50]  A crucible from affliction or suffering builds character according to the New Testament scriptures.  Character provides tenacity, and tenacity gives one hope to hold on in difficult times.

            The building of character for most people will require the acquisition of new knowledge and skills and the development of new patterns.  It should be assumed that this would be true for all people seeking to build character in themselves and others.  The greater task is to overcome the inertia of previous patterns.  Just as stroke victims must be forced, sometimes in ways that appear harsh for observers, resistance must be overcome to supplant pathways needing to be replaced.  This transformation experience could occur in a crucible of sorts.  This is, in fact, the description of the pinnacle of recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, and other accession commands for Marines.  The defining event of a process that is designed to build Marine character into raw civilian recruits is designated the “Crucible.”

            At this point, it only seems fair to once more raise a critical question. Col A. L. Solgere, the Commanding Officer of the Recruit Training Regiment at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, reflected on the question of whether or not we should even bother with character development during recruit training. You see, for some, skill development should be the only result desired from boot camp training.  However, for the United States Marine Corps, more is required.  “We need to tie skills into the moral framework which must exist for good people to kill in their nation’s service.  If we do not hold that moral high ground all the time, we cannot expect Marines to flip the switch during combat.”[51]  By this he refers to the ability to morally discriminate between combatants and innocent civilians (jus in bello). 

            The Crucible is a 72-hour event.  Recruits receive one meal a day, sleep no more than 4 hours, and are called to make real life moral decisions that Marines face in combat under simulated battlefield conditions.  When the recruits are at the point of physical exhaustion, the event culminates in a nine- mile hike with full packs weighing at least 75 pounds.  The character elements are focused on the Marine Corps’ Core Values of honor, courage and commitment.  For Marines, all values are to be seen through the lens of these three core values.  Many other values are seen as subsets of the primary core values.  These subsets include integrity, responsibility, accountability, devotion to Corps and Country and other Marines, doing the right thing, doing it the right way, and for the right reasons.  Other Marine Corps values such as leadership were also envisioned through the primary three core values.[52] [53]  These values were all forged in the fire and pressure of the “Crucible.”  Immediately following the Crucible, recruits receive the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, symbol of the Marine Corps.  They have demonstrated that they have the mettle to become United States Marines. 

            Just using pressure and alternate patterns or pathways will not in and of itself provide transformation or character building.  The content of the information to be patterned or the pathway provided becomes of critical import.  It must be given careful thought and ongoing evaluation regarding the neural pathways that are being established.  The question must be asked if those patterns accurately reflect the ethos of the institution and the nation it represents.

            While discussing the concepts of neural plasticity and using pressure to shape character, Col Solgere noted a concern.  Pressure or stress may be used for positive purposes, but the same means may be used for torture.  The goal of torture is to use pain/psychological pressure in order to adversely impact or reshape the character of the victim.[54]  However, torturers will generally experience significant resistance or lack or receptivity for change from their victims.  Resistance probably will not be present to the same extent in recruits.  Nevertheless, the observation serves as a chilling warning regarding the potentials for evil while utilizing stress or psychological pressure for character building.

            One other concern is that in the case of neural pathways, what you don’t use you lose.  “The brain devotes more cortical real estate to functions that its owner uses more frequently and shrinks the space devoted to activities rarely performed.”[55]  This has been hinted at in the vehicle/street analogy.  An understanding of neural pathways generates a necessity for an ongoing commitment to character development if an individual desires to maintain a high level of character.

            One facilitation for character transformation that can be found in the recruit population at Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island is receptivity.  The new accessions that arrive at Parris Island have been recruited using a number of hooks called benefit tags.  Some of the tags include the challenge, the “Esprit de Corps,” the pursuit of something greater than self, a desire to see the world, education, and etc.  This writer’s discussions reveal that with very few exceptions new personnel come to Parris Island with a knowledge that change will take place, although they may not understand fully what forms that change will take.  This leads to the conclusion that recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island have generally chosen to be receptive to change.  The challenge for trainers may be finding ways to keep recruits receptive to change, and to encourage Marines to remain not only open to, but engaged in positive character change.

            Chaplains at Parris Island currently teach a class called “Spirituality and the Marine”.  This class is designed to focus recruits, future Marines, on the spiritual resources that underpin all aspects of life for service members.  Spirituality is clearly presented as a tool for building character and for finding courage and strength in times of adversity.  Other formal character classes, called core values courses, are taught by Marines to model the importance of character for future Marines.  However, chaplains actively engage in mentoring officers, staff Non-Commissioned Officers ( NCO), junior Marines and recruits through one- on- one discussions and ministry of presence wherever these personnel are working and living.   

            Receptivity of the individual by conscious choice, character development stages that allow character development, neural plasticity arguing for the ability to transform throughout life, and pressures to overcome the inertia of existing patterns serve  to   convince this writer that character can be built and developed in the locus of recruit training.  Observation verifies that this is in fact happening all the time.

            Rushworth Kidder and the Institute for Global Ethics also affirm that character can be developed, but that research shows that it must happen in a social context.  Kidder offers that the following items seem to raise moral barometers for students in character education/development programs:

Moral dilemma discussion programs; cooperative learning environments where students take responsibility for their own and others’ learning behavior; school climates based on clear standards, mutual respect among students and educators, shared governance; and clear communication of a peer – and community – based consensus concerning appropriate behaviors.[56]


            It could be argued that all of these conditions exist and are encouraged in the process of recruit training for Marines.  However, there is a desire to encourage recruits to become responsible for their own behavior and the behavior of other recruits and Marines.  There is no doubt that there is a clear set of standards within the learning environment.  Mutual respect and shared governance are perhaps not a primary interest at this level of training. Yet the invitation to come aboard as full partner by becoming a Marine is always held as the much coveted goal for the entire recruit training process.  The need for community expressed by Rushworth Kidder is demonstrated in the longing of recruits/new Marines to become a part of something greater than their individual selves.

            Again, building character and teaching knowledge are absolutely essential to the success of just warriors.  Since service members enter the military with heterogeneous values, they are not necessarily equipped to conduct themselves with honor, courage and commitment (the core values of the Marine Corps).  Therefore, some training and development of character is essential for service members to act in a homogeneous way, with Marine values.  In the case of the Marine Corps, boot camp must generate a real transformation if it is to imbue new Marines with values that equip them to act like Marines.

            As recruits learn to be Marines, they are taught the Marine commitment to God, Country and Corps.  The “Spirituality and the Marine” class, worship in chapels, religious education, the one- on- one mentoring relationships, and encouragement of the chaplains all serve to reinforce the character building found throughout the experience of basic training for Marines.  Through their teaching, ministry, mentoring, relationship building and example, chaplains demonstrate tools for character development and for life.  

            The practical application for neural pathways is found in the knowledge that change can and does happen, so we must harness the strength of character development programs and utilize principles of neural plasticity to drive lasting character change.  These neural pathways would be appropriately designated as “neural pathways to warrior character.”  Spending time thinking about difficult character issues will expand the brain’s capacity to make the right decisions.  Realistic approximation of combat stress and the application of moral questions make it more likely that character development will be a real transformation.  There must also be ongoing character and moral development or the ability to make right decisions will atrophy.  The best time to do this would be at natural transition points in the careers of Marines, during permanent changes of station and prior to deployments.  These could be designated neural gateways for warrior character.

            It is logical to conclude that focusing on thoughts about spiritual truths would expand brain capacity to think about many other aspects of life that intersect with spirituality.  Many believe that one of those areas that expands with spiritual deepening   would include moral capacity.  Intersections between spiritual thought and character certainly include mutual discussions about moral decision making and the very essence of right and wrong.  Therefore, it is also logical to conclude that building neural pathways and mental muscle through spiritual thought builds pathways that increase capacity for moral thought.

            These learning experiences must realistically reflect the values of the community- in this case the Marine community.  Responsibility and personal ownership must be real to the individual learner.  If each person feels ownership and empowerment to speak to issues of character, then s/he is more likely to intervene when someone else is preparing to do something wrong.  Marines call this individual a “Strategic Corporal.”  

            In conclusion, the promise of new understandings of neural pathways for character development is very exciting.  It is not only a possibility for character transformation to occur, it really happens.  The goal for recruit training must then consistently incorporate constant evaluation with clarification of standards. Then the construction of a set of neural pathways will be generated for warrior character.  These pathways must correctly convey and continually reinforce the core values and ethos of the Marine Corps.  This development of character is further emphasized by the stress of the environment.  Ideally it should be exemplified by Marine leaders as well as recruit learners. 

            Without a doubt character can be built, developed and trained, but we must also consider maintenance.  Training on character must be a constant professional development continuum throughout the career of every Marine at neural gateways for warrior character.  If it is not used it is likely that any positive character development that has occurred will be lost.





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[1]Bryant Jordan, "Haditha May Prove My Lai's Lessons Lost," Marine Corps Times, 5 June 2006.


[2]Shannon French, et al., "Character Development, Ethical Advisement and Today's Sea Warrior," in United States Navy Chaplain's FY 06, Professional Development Training Course (Newport, RI: FCBS/Amerind, Inc., 2005), 198.


[3]James Mannion, Essentials of Philosophy (New York: Barnes and Nobles, 2002), 21.


[4]Plato, The Republic, (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books,1977), 153.


[5]Mannion, 21.


[6]United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Community Services, “Marine Corps Community Services Demographic Data; available from demographics%20update.pdf, (accessed Feb. 7, 2007).




[8]David Martin, “Can Boot Camp Prepare Recruits for Iraq?”   stories/2006/11/10/eveningnews/main2172983.shtml, (accessed Oct. 22, 2006).


[9]Grace J. Craig, Human Development (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1976), 407.




[11]Child Development Institute, “Stages of Socio-Emotional Development in Children and Teenagers,” Child Development Institute, development/ erikson.shtml, (accessed Feb. 24, 2007).




[13]Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Social Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967), 3-4.


[14]Ibid., 4.




[16]Ibid., 3-8.


[17]Ibid., 29-33.


[18]Michael  Parker, "Moral Development," in Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998), 268.


[19]Ibid., 269.


[20]Craig, 109.


















[29]Ibid., 110.




[31]John Hart, in consultation with author, March 7, 2007.


[32]Craig, 110.


[33]John Hart, March 7, 2007.


[34]Parker, 272.


[35]Ibid., 271.


[36]Ibid., 273.


[37]Nelson Hernandez, “What’s The Link Between Brain Activity and Education?” Beaufort Gazette, 1 Dec 2008, 3C.


[38]Sharon Begley, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), 5.


[39]Ibid., 6.


[40]Ibid., 7.

[41]Susan Gerberich, “Sports-Related Concussions: Background and Significance,”, (accessed Dec. 14, 2008).

[42]Unknown, “Introduction to Neural Plasticity,” neuroplasticity.htm, (accessed Dec. 14, 2008).


[43] Begley, 8-9.


[44] Ibid.


[45]Jane N. Healy, Endangered Minds, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 51.


[46]Proverbs 23:7, King James Version.


[47]Philippians 4:8, New King James Version.


[48]John Searle, Minds, Brains and Science, ( Cambridge, Mass:, Harvard University Press, 1984), 18.


[49]J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster Knox Press, 1993), 86.


[50]Romans 5:3-4, Holman Christian Standard Version.

[51]Andrew Solgere, Col, USMC, in consultation with author, December 26, 2008.


[52]United States Marine Corps. “Marine Corps User's Guide to Marine Corps Core

Values,” Training/ Chapters2.htm.


[53]United States Marine Corps. "Core Values Card." United States Marine Corps, 1996.


[54]Andrew Solgere, Col, USMC, in consultation with author, October 29, 2008.


[55]Begley, 8.


[56]James S. Lemming, Character Education: Lessons from the Past, Models for the Future (Camden, Me.: The Institute for Global Ethics, 1993) p. 30, as found in Rushworth Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices (New York: Harper, 1995) p. 41.