It's A Dirty Job . . .: Thoughts on the Development

Of Moral Advisors for Army Leadership

Chaplain (LTC) Herbert B. Strange, USA
US Army Logistics Management College
Fort Lee, VA 23801
(804) 765-4720/DSN 539-4720


I was pleased to read the general topic "Moral Considerations in Military Decision Making" offered in the "Call for Papers" for JSCOPE 2000.We spend a lot of time in the military services teaching folks how to consider the various operational criteria, neatly packaged as METT-T, METT-TC, or some other acronym.We expect commanders at all levels to identify clearly the items required for their units' Mission Essential Task Lists (METL).It is right that we do this, of course, for such activities keep decision-makers focused on those things that are crucial for victory in combat.

That said, I think it is also fair to say that an exclusive emphasis on what "works" toward accomplishment of the military task ("to break things and kill people," as some wit has observed) may be entirely too narrow.It can in the end get the decision-maker in a good deal of political, if not legal, hot water.Even more important, it can result in soldiers being hurt and/or killed needlessly.The problem has too often been that operational leaders have been averse to applying "soft skill" analysis to the military problem.While it is not an exact quote from a particular person, I have on more than one occasion heard comments like, "Being ethical may be well and good in the classroom, but in battle we have to be concerned with being effective."While I am convinced that it is, thankfully, in the minority, this attitude still resides deep in the "heart of hearts" of many who have considerable influence over the development and implementation of military strategy and tactics.

The point of our general topic is, I think, that a crucial relationship exists between morality and ethics on the one hand and the operational craft on the other, whether leaders recognize it or not.Pope Pius XI was correct:"Though economic [or, as in the present instance, military] science and moral discipline are guided each by its own principles in its own sphere, it is false that the two orders are so distinct and alien that the former in no way depends upon the latter."It is clearly a case of both/and rather than either/or.The list of suggested questions that also appeared in the "Call for Papers" should help us flesh out the details of how this ought to work in "real life."From my personal perspective both as an "old soldier" (over 31 years for pay and over 21 for retirement purposes) and as a service school instructor one question particularly caught my eye.

Who are the moral advisors to military commanders?In the ideal world this is a question that should never be asked.In the ideal world commanders would not need "moral advisors" since they would always do the right thing without benefit of external advice.Needless to say, we do not live in an ideal world.Nor is the military service anything close to resembling an ideal society.So, the question returns: Who are the moral advisors to military commanders?

You might well expect, given the branch insignia that I wear, that I would propose a ready and obvious answer.And you would be right!The chaplain is a moral advisor to the commander for whom he or she works.In the Army at least, this relationship is enshrined in doctrine (Field Manual (FM) 16-1, Religious Support, May 1995):

As a staff officer, the chaplain advises the commander and staff on matters of religion, morals, and morale. This advice includes not only the religious needs of soldiers, but also the moral, ethical, and humanitarian aspects of command policies. . . . The chaplain also implements the commander's moral leadership training program.  (page 1-3)


This duty is reinforced by Army Regulation (AR) 165-1, Chaplain Activities in the United States Army, 28 February 1998:

Chaplains will advise the commander and staff on matters of religion, morals, and morale, to include (2) The spiritual, ethical, and moral health of the command, to include the humanitarian aspects of command policies, leadership practices, and management systems. (paragraph 4.5a)


Nowhere in either FM 16-1 or AR 165-1, however, can one find any indication that the chaplain has the primary responsibility for maintaining the moral/ethical life of the command.Indeed, AR 165-1 makes it abundantly clear that this responsibility rests with one person the commander:

Commanders will

a.Establish and maintain a climate of high moral and ethical standards.

b.Provide religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical support to the U.S. Army. (paragraph 1.16)


Nor should it be assumed that the chaplain is the only moral advisor to the commander.If that were the case, then the Army (and I suspect our sister services as well) has wasted a lot of time and money attempting to train its non-clergy members, and in particular its leaders, to make sound ethical/moral decisions.

Think of the number of hours that have been put in by those involved in writing the latest edition of FM 22-100, Army Leadership!More specifically, one doesn't even have to consider the entire volume, but only Chapter 2, that focuses attention on issues of character, values, ethics, etc. the basis for moral advice and moral decisions.How about the cost of preparing and distributing two "Army Values" cards one for the wallet and one for the "dog tag" chain to every soldier?And the new poster series?And maintaining a dedicated web site, the "Army Values Homepage"? 

The commitment of the Army to moral/ethical education and training is perhaps best illustrated, however, by the preparation and utilization of ethics instructors within the service school system.The fact that the government pays for most of these instructors to obtain a graduate degree in the field is indicative of the systemic importance attached to ethical education and training.Ethics instructors are assigned throughout the Army's educational system at the Military Academy at West Point, all but one of the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) branch service schools, the Sergeants Major Academy, the School of the Americas, the Command and General Staff College, and the Army War College.While the special branch schools (Judge Advocate General Corps, Army Medical Department, and Chaplain Corps) deal with ethical issues relating specifically to the legal, medical, or clerical professions, the other institutions mentioned above are primarily focused on instructing soldiers officers, warrant officers, and noncommissioned officers of the line (to use the old terminology) and a large number of Department of Defense civilians as well.

There are, I think, three basic considerations that must remain in clear focus as we strive to enhance the moral/ethical decision-making process throughout the Army:

1.Ethics is not just indeed, not primarily an academic discipline.I am not, of course, disparaging the position of ethics as a legitimate academic discipline, or the classroom study of it.Indeed, as an instructor in ethics for civilian universities as well as for the military I gladly consider myself to be an academic.However, with all due respect to the many members of this Conference who are ethicists within the realm of the academy, when we become so focused on the historical, philosophical, and/or theoretical (the "academic") elements of any subject matter that we forget its "real life" practical applications, we are in grave peril.Whether we like to admit it or not, the academic environment often has a tendency to channel us in that direction.

2.Within the military service ethics is above all else a leadership issue.This is the point at which the academic and the practical meet.It is right and proper that the Army has doctrinally enshrined ethics in FM 22-100, Army Leadership a relationship that has existed for successive generations of soldiers (at least since the 1973 edition).Although the specific terminology may have changed from time to time through the years, the essential elements remain unchanged.A leader, to be a real leader, must have a clear, firm, positive value system resulting in a core ethical understanding that impacts all aspects of the individual's professional behavior (known in the 1990 edition of FM 22-100 as "leadership competencies").Further, I suspect it is no accident that ethics instructors in Army service schools are normally assigned to the departments charged with teaching leadership and related subjects.

3.It is the mission of the service school system to transform ethics from an academic discipline into an essential tool for the day-to-day leadership of soldiers.From my perspective the Army's approach to ethical education/training for its leadership (at least insofar as it is laid out in training support packages, or TSPs) is too narrow and simplistic.This is particularly true in the crucial early stages of the professional military education process, i.e., the basic and advanced/career courses.The focus is almost exclusively on the implementation of the "ethical reasoning process" as defined in FM 22-100.If he/she can successfully navigate the choppy waters of the TSP, completing one or two practical exercises and answering the requisite multiple-choice questions, then the student has passed muster and is deemed appropriately ethical.

While there is no denying that the process is generally helpful as a tool in ethical decision-making, too often military service school instruction is so tightly focused on the application of the four-step model that the students have little insight into the issues that get them to the point of using the process in the first place.I think that is because military instruction tends to concentrate on "training" (teaching soldiers how to perform specific tasks based on a prescribed pattern) rather than on "education" (enabling the student to think, to process complicated bits of information, to see and understand the "big picture").

Once again, this is not a case of either/or, but of both/and.The training aspect knowing the step-by-step process is clearly important.Without some roadmap to the goal, the leader risks wandering in the ethical wilderness, unable to make a decision at all.Without the educational aspect, however, the leader risks becoming little more than an unthinking automaton, trying to make all of his or her decisions fit neatly into the four-step Procrustean bed.The challenge for the instructor is to strike the balance so that the students can possess the basic tools to accomplish the nitty-gritty tasks, yet also see and understand the significance of the vast panorama of values, beliefs, norms, and ethics that set the stage for what they will do once they have opened the tool box.

To this end those of us who are service school instructors must be careful to avoid the easy road of merely following the TSP, using little if anything more than the pre-packaged seven slides and "The Motor Sergeant" scenario to fill up the three-hour block of instruction.This approach may indeed "fill the bill" in terms of training to the Task/ Condition/Standard methodology, but it does very little in terms of education.(The good news is that I know of no service school instructor who actually takes this easy way out, yet it always remains a serious temptation.)

What is troubling at least from my perspective is that institutionally the Army has apparently decided that this approach is sufficient.Certainly it does (at least in theory) ensure that the student leader can meet the basic minimum requirement of applying the model process.While there are some clear advantages to having a standard baseline on which one can rely across the board, this approach fails to come to grips with a major problem that simply applying the process is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to making ethical decisions.

For the leader to use the process to maximum advantage, he or she must be able to get below the surface, to see the broader view that is the other 90% of the iceberg.This means that the leader must understand what values are and how they are acquired.(That is obviously a much broader concern than just the seven "Core Army Values.")The leader must also comprehend the role of beliefs and of norms (both formal and informal) in the development of one's ethical awareness.A working knowledge of the variety of ethical alternatives is essential as well.Such considerations are, of course, the stuff of "academic" ethics.

But, there is also a practical side to the "big picture," and an essential task of the academic setting must be to ensure that the students are keenly aware of it.The leader must understand that to live one's ethics on a daily basis is considerably more complicated that just using the ethical reasoning process in decision-making.It involves being a positive role model not just for juniors, but for contemporaries and seniors as well.It means not creating ethical dilemmas for subordinates through thoughtless words and deeds and unrealistic expectations.In other words, it involves leading by example "walking the walk" as well as "talking the talk."Only then can a leader enhance the ethical abilities of his or her followers.

As important as the "schoolhouse" is to the development of ethical leadership, it is only part of the process.Indeed, the majority of the process takes place, not in the confines of the service school walls, but in the rough and tumble world of service within the force.Second lieutenants learn a lot more about ethics from observing their company, battalion, and brigade commanders than they do from their instructors in the Officer Basic Course.When I ask them about their role models/ethical mentors, my students in the Combined Logistics Captains Career Course are never short of examples both good and bad.

Since most ethical development occurs in the units, and since they are by regulation responsible for establishing and maintaining high ethical standards within their commands, commanders are whether they like it or not the key ethical trainers and educators within the Army.The only issue is how they will accomplish this critical mission.Certainly classes in the various aspects of ethics in the military service should be on the training schedule.But the key question is whether commanders will put them on the calendar as a relevant, real life subject, or as nothing more than a "paper foxhole" to keep the next higher commander off their back?

The more important function of the commander, though, is his or her example as the ethical role model.Does the commander micromanage, or "power down" responsibility and accountability?Does the commander lead by intimidation, or provide freedom to fail whereby subordinates can learn from those "lurking opportunities for improvement"?Does the commander fill the headquarters with a cadre of "yes men" who always provide the "right" answer, or does he/she have an open mind (as well as open door) policy under which subordinates are never afraid of being the object of a game of "shoot the messenger" or being made the unit scapegoat?

While institutionally we tend to ascribe "leadership" to persons based on achieved rank or assigned position, the truth of the matter is that leadership is a quality that is oblivious to such bureaucratic labels.As the ethical leader/trainer/educator, the commander must be about developing every soldier (read also sailor, airman, or Marine) in the unit, regardless of rank or duty title, to be his or her ethical advisors.Every individual who puts on the uniform must be ready, willing, and able to fulfill that high calling.So, too, every Department of Defense civilian employee.

If we really believe our doctrine, professional ethics is an essential element of leadership.If we are to have future generations of true leaders for our armed services, we must in the service school and in the field both train and educate them in the discipline of ethics, integrating the theoretical and the practical aspects into a unified whole.Then, and only then, can we expect that they will have the internal wherewithal to "shoot straight" with a commander concerning the ethical issues involved in his or her command.

Who are the ethical advisors to military commanders?As the old saying goes, "It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it."And "somebody" is each of us!