“Identity, Loyalty and Combat Effectiveness:

A Cautionary Tale”

Dr. Pauline M. Kaurin





Dawson: We joined the Marines because we wanted to live our lives by a certain code, and we found it in the Corps. Now you're asking us to sign a piece of paper that says we have no honor. You're asking us to say we're not Marines. If a court decides that what we did was wrong, then I'll accept whatever punishment they give. But I believe I was right sir, I believe I did my job, and I will not dishonor myself, my unit, or the Corps so I can go home in six months... Sir.


            Downey: “What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong.”

Dawson: “Yeah, we did.  We were supposed to fight for people who could not fight for themselves.  We were supposed to fight for Willie.”[1]


            In “A Few Good Men” the character Dawson articulates an important insight about military groups: the group identity has a powerful effect on the ethical frameworks of the group members, which in turn can affect things like unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.  Marines (or any other military group) are not simply defined by what they wear or believe, how they are trained, but by how these effect what they do, how they do it, and why they do it.

            For the past several decades, military ethicists and professionals debated which moral theories (Aristotle, Kant or Utilitarianism) might provide the best foundation for the practice of the military profession and the conduct of war.  In this paper, I want to take a different direction and examine what effects ideas of identity – both individual and social – have on ethical frameworks, unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.  I will argue that training of soldiers should focus not simply on skills and competence (which is not to say that those are not important), but should also give prominent treatment to strategies that make links to identity.   To provide some foundation for an account, I will use two core ideas taken from Nietzsche’s discussion of the warrior archetype (professionalism and internalization), and apply them to the issue of loyalty – one area where the connections to identity are clear, but also problematic.  Finally, I will make some suggestions about how military training might need to be changed in order to accommodate these insights about identity.





            In this first section, I examine some of the literature on the connections between identity, ethical frameworks and job performance, particularly in the military context.  I believe this literature highlights the significant role identity plays: it not only affects combat (job) effectiveness but also moral agency, as well as the connections between the two. 

            However, the term identity is fraught with all kinds of connotations and ideas, so it will be essential to start with a rough working definition. One (but by no means the only) useful starting definition is provided by Owen Flanagan who sees identity:

…as constituted by the dynamic, integrated system of past and present identifications, desires, commitments, aspirations, beliefs, dispositions, temperament, roles, acts and actual patterns; as well as whatever self-understanding (even incorrect ones) that each person brings to his/her own life.[2]


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

            The first major area of research on identity examines how the above elements play into the question of job performance, which in the military context means combat effectiveness (since that is usually the central task of the military, notwithstanding the debate about other roles for the military.)   Thomas Britt (1999) found that soldiers were most likely to be engaged in their jobs when they found the guidelines clear, felt personal control over job performance and when job was relevant to their training.[3]  Britt and Bliese recently found that job engagement buffered individuals from the adverse effects of stressful military operation.[4]  Britt also argues that aspects of an individual’s identity can promote engagement even when the conditions are less than optimal. 

Identity-relevance has been clearly connected to job performance, dealing with adversity in job task and persistence in goal attainment.  In one study Britt looked at the group of characteristics he termed ‘warriorism”  (the belief that war is inevitable and expected and/or part of human nature) with the following question: Did ‘warriorism’ moderate the relationship between conditions of the work environment and job engagement?  What he found was that the more the soldiers endorsed the value of ‘warriorism’ (as a part of their personal identity) the greater their job engagement, and the less likely they were to experience problems when the parameters were unclear.  Interestingly, the endorsement of the ‘peacekeeping’ identity did not seem to decrease job engagement, which leads Britt to suggest that soldiers could have components of a ‘warrior’ and ‘peacekeeping’ identity.[5]  In addition, strong identity identification (regardless of whether it was warrior or peacekeeper oriented) promoted job engagement under adverse conditions, but weak identity had the opposite effect.[6]  However, strong peacekeeper identity did not show the same level of buffering effects that the strong warrior identity did.[7]

In another study, Volker Franke argues identity is a part of the dynamic network of central life interests.[8]   In an examination of war crimes by Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia, he argues that situations challenging one’s self-conception will lead individuals to base their behavioral choices on their most important identity images.[9]  Since these self conceptions are unique reflections of values, attitudes, interests, experiences, hopes etc, individuals draw on a repertoire of identity images that could (and usually do) contain contradictions.  Social scientists try to explain these things by explaining that they are influenced by specific group memberships, but Franke views this as an oversimplification since we derive our self-conceptions from a network of ‘central life interests.’[10]

            Identity negotiation is a tool for resolving these issues with parts of their self-conceptions (conflicts involving identities), since people tend to avoid behaving in ways that class with an identity that is central or most central to their self-conception.[11]  The more committed that people are to an identity, the higher probability of role performance that supports and reinforces that identity.[12]  In the Somalia case, there was a “conflict between the desire to follow orders to help members of the local population and their own convictions that it is important to help those that are less fortunate.”[13]  In Somalia there was transition between combat and peacekeeping missions and so that ROE kept changing, creating ambivalence and confusion on the part of the soldiers involved.  They were trained as peacekeepers, but ended up with a mission that looked more like combat with no time to prepare for the transition or change mindsets.

As a trained warrior, the soldier may do well in peace enforcement since that does not conflict with any central life interest, but peacekeeping and peace building may conflict with the core warrior identity.  Britt argued that events that allow soldiers to recall previous training experiences, rely on clear mission objectives or unambiguous ROE will make things clear (invoking the core warrior image during combat), but in the Somalia case the cognitive frames of reference were not so clear.[14]

Another core issue in combat effectiveness in numerous studies has been found to be unit cohesion – that is the extent to which a group of soldiers works, thinks and acts in unison, cooperation and concern for the other members of the group.  Unit cohesion develops, according to one study, in a climate of integrity, trust and respect across ranks which derive from mutually agreed upon definitions of proper behavior.[15]  In this study, Kirkland argues that trust is the essential factor in maintaining ethical behavior and unit cohesion.   If the soldiers can see their leaders share their and the institutional values, they are more likely to uphold these values on their own, which is more effective than coercion; in short, the leaders set the group identity and values.    

In numerous studies of both American Vietnam performance and Israeli performance during the Arab-Israeli and Lebanon Wars, the evidence indicates that it is leadership and trust in the leader and one's comrades that makes the difference in combat effectiveness.  What Belenky, Noy and Solomon (1981) found with Israeli soldiers was that company morale was highly correlated with personal morale and that high levels of both were correlated with good combat effectiveness.  Personal morale was most influenced (in order) by trust in company commander, confidence in personal soldiering skills, feelings about legitimacy of the war, trust in weapons, trust in self, confidence in comrades, unit cohesiveness and quality of relationship with command.[16]  They also found that trust in the commander could and did hold a company and their combat effectiveness together, even when the other factors faltered or were undermined.  This is consistent with Gabriel and Savage (1978) who found that the principle cause of reduced combat effectiveness in Vietnam was lack of good and coherent leadership.

These studies which show the intersections between ethical frameworks (especially understood in terms of leadership), unit cohesion and combat effectiveness highlight the second major element of the literature on identity: its relationship to moral conceptions and moral agency.  The idea of identity as a dynamic process with ramifications for moral agency is borne out by several empirical studies. The first is a study of nurses where it was found that their identity as nurses was central to their experience of their own moral agency and ideas of what was ethical.[17]  The study highlights how the personal narrative the nurses used as their vehicle (for discussing the relationship between identity and morality) reflected general, more universal narratives appealing to ideas of what an ethical nurse acted like within the culture of nursing.  The fact that the nurses situated their understanding of their moral agency within the context of the ‘ethical nurse’ confirms that the identity process was socially situated, constructed and mediated by the culture of nursing and the social influences of the other members of that community.  This study also demonstrates how in the relationship between identity and morality there is a yearning for completeness and wholeness.  The nurses constructed their narratives to show how either they were moving toward the ideal of being an ‘ethical nurse’ or by identifying obstacles that were thwarting their movement in that direction (and then the narrative expressed that frustration and alienation caused as a result.) 

This desire for authenticity is also confirmed by an empirical study of Holocaust participants where it was found that the underlying reason for action (or inaction) was not religion, duty or reason but how the participants saw their own identity in relation to others.[18]  The study concluded that habits of caring for others became so ingrained, so routinized that it was appropriate to talk of an altruistic personality tightly connected to the agent’s sense of identity.   Consider the case of Le Chambon, a remote French village that during the Holocaust was responsible for saving the lives of thousands of children.[19]   What is instructive here is the strong sense of identity and community which appears to be the source of the moral action.  Of particular note is the level of internalization or naturalness with which the moral response came when the situation presented itself. ‘What else could we do?’ and ‘How could we refuse?’ were common responses by the villagers when outside commentators extolled their moral virtue.[20]  Clearly the villagers did not see saving these children as following a rule or upholding an abstract principle, but as an organic and natural expression of their Huguenot history, their community of faith and common experiences - as if everything up to that point had prepared them to inevitably act.

These studies all reflect the common theme that there is clearly a connection between self-conceptions and ideas of identity (which includes components of both individual and group identity) which have ramifications for moral agency as well as unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.  This highlights an element that the traditional moral theories either minimize or fail to take into account in their applications to military ethics.   I want to suggest that one can take the identity of the military professional (which includes both group and individual aspects) as the foundation or starting point for a moral perspective for military ethics, rather than something to be taken into account after the ‘correct’ moral perspective is established (only as a matter of application.)





            Taking these connections related to identity as a given, how might they be fleshed out in terms of a theoretical perspective that takes seriously the role of identity?  The above studies highlight the extent to which individuals experienced congruency between parts of their self-conception and the roles they were being asked to play in their job, profession or vocation.  It is this congruency, moral authenticity, lack of moral pretense, which Nietzsche finds so attractive and noteworthy in what he terms the warrior/noble type.  In this section I will give a brief sketch of the warrior/noble archetype in Nietzsche and highlight two elements that can serve for a broader identity based moral perspective.

Alongside his critique of the ‘slave morality’ and his praise of the Dionysian artist, Nietzsche’s admiration for the warrior is one of the most consistent themes across his work.[21]  Nietzsche sees this archetype as embodying many of his keys ideas about freedom, the ‘will to power’ and affirmation of the natural life.   Nietzsche begins with the savageness of man. “…so much fear remains, so much superstitious fear of the ‘savage cruel beast’ whose conquest is the very pride of these more humane ages, that even palpable truths remain unspoken for centuries…because they look as if they might reanimate that savage beast one has finally ‘mortified.’[22] We need not fear loosening the savage beast, according to Nietzsche, because its ‘domestication’ is only an illusion and it lurks very nearby.  Rather it should be pressed into service (as the warrior/noble type) not ignored nor repressed.

Second, the warrior archetype reflects the (revised) Dionysian idea of controlled passion.  In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche traces the history of the word 'good,' claiming that the Latin bonus can be traced to back to an earlier duonus which meant solider or warrior.  Consequently, bonus became the man of strife and dissension, the man of war, which Nietzsche takes to demonstrate what constituted goodness of a man in ancient Rome.[23]  He continues this line of thought in his discussion of the noble:

Refraining from injury, violence and exploitation and placing one’s will on a par with someone else’s, this may become good manners among individuals if the appropriate conditions are present (namely, if these men are actually similar in strength and value standards and belong together in one body.)  But as soon as this principle is extended, and possibly even accepted as the fundamental principle of society, it immediately proves to be what it really is - a will to the denial of life, a principle of disintegration and decay.[24]


            Third, Nietzsche highlights a kind of instinct and reverence for rank as a crucial characteristic, "...There is an instinct for rank, which...is the sign of high rank; there is a delight in the nuances of reverence that allows us to infer noble origin and habits.... Anyone to whose task and practice it belongs to search out souls...he will test it for its instinct of reverence."[25]  For Nietzsche this understanding of rank is not simply about external titles, positions and signs.  Rather, it is about a more internal self-understanding and way of being that sees the exchange of certain rights, duties and honors as part of the natural order of things, not as something imposed by rule of law.  Nietzsche continues by citing what he sees as other signs of nobility, "...never thinking of degrading our duties into duties for everybody; not wanting to delegate, to share one's own responsibility; counting one's privileges and their exercise among one's duties." 

            Fourth, Nietzsche's warrior archetype maintains the life affirming 'will to power' and strength of the savage beast, but is also one who belongs to a strict sort of 'brotherhood,' where there are complex rules and traditions that apply to the members and are not intended to apply outside it.[26] 

To be incapable of taking one's enemies, one's accidents, even one's misdeeds seriously for very long -- that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate and to forget .... Such a man shakes off with a single shrug many vermin that eat deep into others; here alone is genuine 'love of one's enemies' is possible..... How much reverence has the noble man for his enemies! -- and such reverence is a bridge to love.  For he desires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction; he can endure no other enemy than the one in whom there is nothing to despise and very much to honor![27] 


Nietzsche adheres to a remarkably conservative (and some would say outmoded) view of war: combat between equals is war, an art, a vocation to be practiced by inducted members; combat among non-equals is a massacre with no honor or nobility involved – killing for its own sake.  This is an important distinction in Nietzsche's argument that war and the warrior are valuable and life affirming.  It is not the killing, maiming and terror that are themselves valuable, but within specific contexts they can be a means to creativity, life affirmation and value.

            What conclusions can be drawn from this praise of the warrior archetype?  First, Nietzsche’s focus on the warrior archetype reveals the larger importance of the relationship between a moral perspective and the identity (either individual or communal, or both) out of which that moral perspective arises.  The sense of ‘vocation’ that the warrior has gives rise to the moral requirements of that vocation, and this sense of moral commitment reinforces his sense of himself as a warrior.[28]  This unique vocation (just as the nurses in the study cited above) is also pursued in a unique community (even in democratic societies - we do not all suit up and wage war, we have professionals to do it on our behalf) which will also generate a group identity, and in turn and internal group morality which serves to reinforce that identity.  This sense of “professionalism” is the starting point for Nietzsche’s warrior to reflect on what is means to be noble; a similar sense of “professionalism” might spur a businessperson to reflect on what it means to be ethical in the practice of business.

Second, Nietzsche’s sense of the noble (the distinguishing trait of the warrior) depends on the fact that the other members of the group have internalized and are seriously committed to these values and will therefore uphold and enforce them as a part of their own identities.  Part of the reason these values are so effective lies in the moral commitment borne by the other members of the group and the possibility of expulsion from the group (or other sanction) if the standards are not upheld.  The same could be seen to apply on the individual level; compromising one’s moral standards is not just about breaking a rule or violating a principle (as we see also in the empirical studies highlighted above), but involves betraying part of one’s identity, failing one’s own sense of self. 

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





            Taking these two key insights from Nietzsche’s view – professionalism and internalization – we turn to loyalty to examine the applications of an identity based view.  Loyalty is an important virtue in military communities (both as a part of individual as well as group identities) and will allow us to see both the advantages of an identity-focused moral perspective, but also the problems created by and the dangers of identity.

            What does loyalty mean in the military community?  A good place to start is The Soldiers Guide (FM 21-13), which is designed to orient the new recruit to the military community and begin to foster the military ethos.

            To be a good leader and a good soldier, you must be loyal.  Stand by your                             organization and the officers, non-commissioned officers, and fellow                           soldiers in it....The habits of obedience....are a necessary part of Army life.                             Obey promptly and cheerfully the orders given to you.  Obedience and                                     teamwork will make your performance better and your fellow soldier's tasks                         easier.[29]


In combat, the success of the mission and the lives of fellow soldiers and herself may well depend upon obedience.  However, it is not simply a matter of blindly, unreflectively doing what one is told;  a good soldier needs to develop a sense of duty which can help her ascertain what she should be doing, she cannot simply do as told.  The best soldiers are ones that can be given a task with very little direction.  They know what is required and have a guidance system of sorts, reflecting Nietzsche’s idea internalization, which allows them to carry out the order in the most efficient, correct or consistent way

            The second pillar of loyalty in the military ethos is teamwork, esprit de corps or unit cohesion (as discussed in the studies above).  The soldier owes loyalty to his superiors, but he also owes his loyalty to the members of his unit, to his fellow soldiers.   When asked what helped them when the going got rough, the overwhelming answer cited by the guide (as well as numerous psychological studies) is that they 'didn't want to let the other men down.'[30] The guide goes onto stress this critical aspect of military life:

...you find yourself part of a team, and you will be expected to play your part in it.  This is not all give and no take, for while you are giving strength to your outfit, it will be giving strength right back to you.  The more you put in, the more you will         get out.  This is one of the most important facts of Army life and one of the hardest to put into words.[31]


The unit (or other primary group) comes to have an identity of its own with its own traditions, customs and history into which the new members must be inculcated and which they are expected to support and draw upon for support.  In addition to being a member of a unit, the soldier is part of the larger military community.  We can see how these two pillars of loyalty come together in the oath, Code of Conduct and Soldiers Creed.  First, the Oath (either the commissioning oath or another oath of office given at induction ceremonies) makes clear to the soldier that his life has changed and that he has taken up a new position and way of life.   Upon taking the oath, the soldier enters into a new moral, legal and social situation with its own rules, traditions and norms; it is an entirely new way of life and central to it is obedience to leaders and respect for the bonds with other soldiers.  Consider the Soldier's Creed:

I am proud of my own organization.  I will do all I can to make it the finest unity of the Army.  I will be loyal to those under whom I serve.  I will do my full part to carry out ordered and instructions given me or my unit....No matter what situation I am in, I will never do anything, for pleasure, profit, or personal safety, which will disgrace my uniform, my unit or my country.  I will use every means I have, even beyond the line of duty, to restrain my Army comrades from actions disgraceful to themselves and the uniform.[32]


This statement makes it evident that the soldier is obligated to follow orders given by superiors, but is also obligated to a certain understanding of the military community.  This understanding is stated in the strongest moral terms of refraining from doing anything to disgrace uniform, unit or country, all symbolic representations of the ideals and values of the military community.  To do harm to anyone of them is to harm not just the honor of the individual soldier, but the unit, Army and nation that he represents.  All of these are now part of his identity, not external considerations (as they might have been before.)

            With a better understanding of why loyalty is so important and valued in the military context,  we turn to Michael Wheeler's account of loyalty, which gives us a good way to conceptualize the idea of loyalty.  In his essay "Loyalty, Honor and the Modern Military," Wheeler argues that for loyalty to be effective and meaningful in the long run, it must be inspired by trust and not fear.[33]   Without trust a person may be able to momentarily compel compliance to orders or wishes, but this compliance is not the same as loyalty.  This is borne out by Army Field Manual 22-100: the essence of leadership is to get the men to do what one wants them to do voluntarily, without having to resort to force or threats.  In other words, get them to want to do it.[34]  The idea is that if the men trust their commander, they will be loyal.  Why?  Trust generates sentiments of pleasure, sympathy, empathy, affection etc. which predispose us to take the leader's sentiments, desires, aims etc. as our own.  When that happens, there is a motivation for acting that, unlike fear, can remain potent even when the commander is not watching every move of the soldier. 

            If loyalty is generated by trust, how then do we come to trust someone?  Wheeler argues that trust is usually given if we perceive integrity in the object of trust.  Wheeler acknowledges critique and questioning can be an important part of loyalty, but insists that agents respond to integrity in their leaders and this is what inspires loyalty.  This happens because we, as agents, reflect upon the integrity of the person before us and our recognition of the importance and value, both to ourselves and others, of this integrity generates a certain positive sentiment: trust.   This trust is absolutely crucial to notions of loyalty, as well as other military character traits, because "...This trust can serve to close the gap between the values of the soldier and his commander, for trust creates a sympathetic attitude and propensity to obey."[35]    

            We can see that both the military’s own expressions about loyalty, as well as Wheeler’s more philosophical analysis of the ideas reflect many of the connections discussed both in the empirical literature and Nietzsche’s insights on the warrior archetype.  Loyalty becomes the mark of the professional, as well as a crucial virtue (with many different and sometimes competing aspects) that must be internalized if one is going to be a member of the group.  We also see the connections discussed above in Kirkland of the relation between integrity and unit cohesion, as well as demonstrating the crucial moral role of leadership noted in both the Israeli and Vietnam studies and its implications for unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.


            But what about the negative side of loyalty?  Consider the following:

‘Sassaman decided that throwing the Iraqis into the Tigris was wrong but not criminal and that publicizing it could whip up anti-American feeling.  He decided that Saville and the others had made a mistake that was better handled without arrests. “I really didn’t lie to anybody.”….”I just didn’t come out and say exactly what happened. I didn’t have anything to gain by ordering a cover-up.  There was no way I was going to let them court-martial my men, no after all they had been through.”[36]


In examining the role of military culture in the Canadian deployment in Somalia (in particular the role in atrocities and war crimes) Winslow discovered a similar dynamic; she argues that highly intense unit cohesion can be divisive. Exaggerated loyalty to the group can lead members to work at cross purposes to the overall goals of the mission or the larger institution.[37]

            In taking the Oath of Service, each soldier swears allegiance to something larger than the self.[38] This is “the first step in ethical socialization to the in-group – bringing the new recruit into a body of individuals drawn together by a common purpose and thus, a common bond subordinating individualism to group identity.”  This socialization is also a crucial part of basic training in which individual loyalties and preferences need to be broken down and reformed in favor of group cooperation and loyalty.  The importance of unit cohesion to combat effectiveness has already been emphasized; this socialization is crucial to building these bonds.

            Brotz and Wilson (1946) argued that bonding was so strong that covering up for, defense of and devotion to one’s buddy was expected.  This can lead to stonewalling and covering up or preventing individuals from speaking out about inappropriate behavior.  “…If he [the group leader] incites his group to racist behavior they’ll follow, even if they don’t agree, because they won’t distinguish themselves from the group.  Because the group is all you’ve got.  If you’re in battle, no one else is looking out for you….”[39]  By participation in hazing rituals that seem extreme and even cruel to outsiders, the soldiers are proving their readiness to participate in the group regardless of person cost, thus gaining group acceptance.[40]

            Another dynamic within the Canadian Airborne Regiment was the shared sense of elitism, that they were a cut above the ordinary infantry soldier and that the other soldiers were inferior.  This leads to a dynamic of protecting one’s own against the military hierarchy, as well as against demands or investigations by civilian authorities, which was noted in the quote from Colonel Sassaman above.  In addition to this problem, there are concerns about the level of trust (or lack of it) between the junior and senior officer corps, such as those raised by Snyder and Watkins.[41]  The senior officers may be perceived as having more loyalty to the institutional values and not enough loyalty to the people involved, while the junior officers may be perceived as being loyal to their primary group at the expense of the larger institutional concerns and values.  Of particular importance here is the role of the junior NCO’s, since they link the formal demands and values of the larger organization to the norms and sanctions of the primary group.  One needs close supervision by senior NCO’s and officers to ensure these connections between the primary group and the larger organization are preserved in the appropriate way.[42]  The issues raised by the prison abuses at Abu Gharib showed the working of group loyalty without loyalty to the larger values and institution and the consequences of such loyalties.

In the Canadian case, bad behavior (black marketeering, drinking) was not reported up the chain of command, so as not to humiliate the Regiment (the primary group).[43]  Whistle blowing is perceived as an instance of disloyalty, as going against the corporate nature of the military, especially if it involves whistle blowing to outsiders (i.e. civilian authorities.)  This sense was especially heightened in peacekeeping missions where the soldiers were in foreign lands where the primary group bonding is especially intense, since they are the only extended family that is accessible and immediate. One serious danger in the above is the view that bad behavior is unofficially tolerated, even if there is not official approval.[44]  Abu Gharib and My Lai give support to the sense that what is not explicitly spoken against is viewed as permitted on some level or more dangerous, the consequences of having official, spoken policy as one thing, but having the actual practices in the primary group as contrary to those policies.

The Canadian forces had a tradition of strong unit cohesion, teamwork and loyalty as part of their group identity and their actions reflected the desire to preserve this.  This dynamic is surely not a unique one in military culture, and therefore highlights the dangers of loyalty.   If individuals will preserve their participation or connection to the group identity since it is so connected to their own self-perceptions, what is to be done in terms of training and moral education to deal with this dynamic while not sacrificing the benefits of an identity oriented view?




Given the importance of identity to combat effectiveness and military culture, but also considering the dangers of such connections (especially given our above discussion of loyalty), what can be suggested in terms of training and moral education?  In this section, I want to offer a cautionary tale and some thumbnail suggestions about how to deal with these issues.  There are two core issues I will address: first, dealing with the challenges of multiple identity frameworks; second, training that addresses loyalty to more than just the primary combat group.

According to Kirkland, for a military organization to maintain its effectiveness in time of rapid technological change, it must be receptive to feedback and change which includes the ability identities and work with multiple identity frameworks.[45]  This is an issue both for the individual solider, well as for the larger institution.  There has been much discussion of how the military (the Army in particular tends to get singled out) is or is not embracing an identity that is flexible enough to deal with the issues in contemporary and future warfare: Is the Army and its identity oriented around fighting a conventional land battle with China, when most warfare will be asymmetrical and small scale?  In such a context (where the future roles and threats are murky at best), the ability to have some flexibility with respect to identity, or even better to be able to negotiate between multiple identity frameworks would be advisable.

The same, of course, applies with regard to the individual soldier.  Military historian Alan Millett: notes “The officer’s identity is partly inherited, partly self-developed. He inherits the broadly defined characteristics of his career and the special institutional setting within which he finds himself.  He must develop stable and lasting concepts of self that are compatible with his profession.  This transformation or ‘professional socialization’ is not taken lightly by the other practioners with whom he begins his career.”[46]  While in the past, notions of professionalism tended to be oriented around the warrior model (as reflected by the primary orientation of the military as large-scale combat), it seems that contemporary soldiers have at least three major roles or identities with which they wrestle and among which they must be able to effectively navigate – 1) warrior (combat); 2) peacekeeper/police functions (even in domestic situations) and 3) peacemaking/humanitarian roles.

Franke argues for an integration of the warrior and peacekeeping identities: “…soldiers and officers who view war fighting and peacekeeping as equally important components of their central life interests will more easily be able to switch among mission requirements without jeopardizing their self conceptions.”[47]  He also encourages training that requires negotiation between multiple identities; facing these kinds of identity dilemmas for the first time in the field is not a good thing since it limits behavioral choices (denial, bolstering strategies, not wanting to let the group down).  Therefore, the military needs a new identity with both combat and non-combat identity components.  In other words, soldiers must be able to embrace multiple identities and practice integration and negotiation between them before they get out there in the field.

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


Even if soldiers are able to effectively embrace and negotiate multiple identities, the dark side of an identity-oriented perspective must be addressed.  Kirkland argues that the soldier who reports criminal acts risks retaliation by his comrades, but he helps maintain the standards of the organization and therefore protects his comrades.[48]  We should think about training in the ethic of loyalty to mean loyalty not just to one’s comrades (which is certainly important within certain limits and in ways that do not abuse or undermine trust), but also loyalty to the institution and the values of service (to the country) for which institution stands.   Sometimes whistle blowing is an expression of loyalty, not a violation of it.[49]

We also need to understand the dynamics of atrocities and war crimes.  Having once done something bad they can be offered an escape from guilt by praise or membership in a prestigious group but this only works for a short time.  In the long term it requires that the soldiers continue to validate their initial atrocity by performing more and by participating in rituals (with the group) of justification since they are dependent on one another for mutual validation.[50]   We see numerous examples of this point in the literature on gang warfare and  child soldiers where committing violent, atrocious acts is seen as a way to bond the individual continually to the group (and so such actions must be regularized) as well as isolating the individuals from prior moral, social, religious or familial support networks and identities.

Snyder and Watkins point out several problems with Army professionalism within the Institution (as opposed to an attribute of particular soldiers) as one source of difficulty.  First, they see a lack of connection (increasingly) between the Army’s notion of professionalism and the personal self-conceptions of the soldiers and insist on a need for better integration between these.[51] Second, there is an inability to control unprofessional behavior at top levels which is fueling distrust especially between the higher and lower officer corps groups.  This dynamic seems to me to be the more serious of the two issues when it comes to the role that primary group loyalty plays in war crimes and other unethical (or illegal) behavior; we see it clearly operating in Vietnam, the Somalia case cited above as well as in Abu Gharib.

What is to be done about these problems?  What are some specific strategies in training and education what would address these issues?  Winslow argues that discipline and leadership can do much to offset excessive group identification and the issues that come with it.  A unit with a strong sense of professionalism as part of their group identity would be able to avoid and deal with infractions because individuals are then invested in an identity which has components of self-discipline and ethics (even at personal cost) embedded in it.  These need to be continually reinforced by leadership at all times and in all situations.[52]

I would agree with this by a reminder that for Nietzsche both professionalism and internalization of community values are central for the warrior archetype.  Both of these elements must include components that relate to multiple roles, but also include the values not just of the primary group, but also the larger institution and the society which it serves.  This is the difficult task.  It is not hard, as we have seen, to inculcate individuals into the values of the primary group, but it can be challenging to provide the same kind of internalization when it comes to the values of an institution or a larger social group – especially if the members of the primary group regard those values as inferior or contrary to their own.[53]  Soldiers must be given opportunities to bond with and practice the values of the larger institution and society in a similar way as they are given these opportunities with the primary group members.  Training and education must not just take into account one aspect of the soldier’s identity, but also many aspects as possible so that the soldier sees these aspects as integrated (or at least that they can be integrated) and internalizes the ability and confidence to maneuver between them (reducing the adverse power of the group identity.)



I have tried to make the case here that an identity based perspective on military ethics is a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relation which leaves open a great deal of room for internal and external critique, questioning and accountability, but still takes seriously the idea that the ethical life of the warrior, the physician and the businessperson are neither interchangeable nor reducible to one another.  One must start with both the group and individual elements of the military identity (or identities) and use those elements and insights to produce ethical frameworks and perspectives, rather than trying to take a general ethical framework as given and then look at how it applied to the military profession.  Such an approach opens the bridge between ethical reflection and the demands of the professions – providing common ground for both theory and identity.



[1] A Few Good Men (1992)

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

[3] Thomas Britt, “Aspects of Identity Predict Engagement in Work Under Adverse Conditions” Self and Identity  Volume 2 (2003), p. 32

[4] Ibid., p. 33.

[5] Ibid., p. 37-8.

[6] Ibid., p. 39-40.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Volker C. Franke, “Resolving Identity Tensions: The Case of the Peacekeeper”  Volume XIX No. 2, Fall 1999, p. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 1.

[10] Ibid., see Franke’s notes 4 and 5 for further elaboration.

[11] Ibid., p. 4.

[12] Ibid., p 4 see note 26.

[13] Ibid., p. 4 see notes 23 and 24.

[14] Ibid., p. 7 see notes 41-46.

[15] Faris R. Kirkland PhD, “Honor, Combat Ethics and Military Culture” in Military Medical Ethics  Volume 1, p. 159.

[16]Gregory Belenky, Shabtai Noy and Zahava Solomon, "Battle Stress, Morale, Cohesion, Combat Effectiveness, Heroism and Psychiatric Causalities: The Israeli Experience" in Contemporary Studies in Combat Psychiatry, ed. Gregory Belenky (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), pp. 15-16.


[17] Gweneth A. Hartrick Doane, “Am I Still Ethical? The Socially-Mediated Process of Nurses Morality Identity” Nursing Ethics  9 (6) 2002, p. 626.

[18] Kristen Renwick Monroe, “Morality and a Sense of Self: The Importance of Identity and Categorization for Moral Action,” American Journal of Political Science Vol 45, Issue 3 (July 2001), p. 491.

[19] For a fuller account see Phillip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. 

[20] Monroe (see above) also reported similar responses in her study participants. See pg. 494.

[21] For the critique of the ‘slave morality’ see On the Genealogy of Morals (specifically the First Essay) and Beyond Good and Evil.  For his discussion of Dionysian and Appollian models of the artist, see The Birth of Tragedy.

[22] Fredrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kauffman, Beyond Good and Evil.  (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 348.

[23] Fredrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kauffman, On the Genealogy of Morals.  (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 467.

[24] Fredrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kauffman, Beyond Good and Evil.  (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 393.

[25] Ibid, p. 402.

[27] Fredrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kauffman   On the Genealogy of Morals.  (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 475.

[28] Nietzsche always talks about the warrior/noble in terms of a male archetype and so I maintain this consistency to be true to what Nietzsche has in mind, but I do not necessary agree that this archetype must be male only. However, a sustained discussion of this issue is outside the scope of this paper.

[29]US Army, The Soldier's Guide (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 1961), p. 9.


[30]US Army, The Soldier's Guide (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 1961), pp. 48, 79.  See also Richard A. Gabriel and Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 8, 94.


[31]US Army, The Soldier's Guide (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 1961), p. 48.


[32]US Army, The Soldier's Guide (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 1961), pp. 125-6. See also Sidney Axinn's discussion of this topic in A Moral Military, pp. 48-9.


[33]Michael O. Wheeler, "Loyalty, Honor and the Modern Military" in War, Morality and the Military Profession, ed. Malham M. Wakin (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986), pp. 171-179.


[34]US Army, Military Leadership FM 22-100, (Washington D.C: Department of the Army, 1973), pp. 1-3, 13-1 through 13-7.


[35]Michael O. Wheeler, "Loyalty, Honor and the Modern Military" in War, Morality and the Military Profession, ed. Malham M. Wakin (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986), p. 178.


[36] (Dexter Filkins, “What the War Did to Colonel Sassaman” New York Times Magazine October 23, 2005, pg 92

[37] Donna Winslow, “ Misplaced Loyalties: The Role of Military Culture in the Breakdown of Discipline in Two Peace Operations” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies Volume 6, Issue 3 (2004), p. 2-3.

[38] Ibid., p. 4.

[39] Ibid., p. 5.

[40] Ibid., p. 6.

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

[42] Donna Winslow, “ Misplaced Loyalties: The Role of Military Culture in the Breakdown of Discipline in Two Peace Operations” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies Volume 6, Issue 3 (2004), p. 13-14.

[43] Ibid., p. 11-12.

[44] Ibid., p. 13.

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

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

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

[48] Faris R. Kirkland PhD, “Honor, Combat Ethics and Military Culture” in Military Medical Ethics  Volume 1, p. 161.

[49] I thank Brad Lubken for helping me to see this point.

[50] Faris R. Kirkland PhD, “Honor, Combat Ethics and Military Culture” in Military Medical Ethics  Volume 1, p. 174.

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

[52] Donna Winslow, “ Misplaced Loyalties: The Role of Military Culture in the Breakdown of Discipline in Two Peace Operations” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies Volume 6, Issue 3 (2004), p. 14.

[53] This is one of the serious dangers posed by a military-civilian culture gap, which I have discussed elsewhere.