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J-SCOPE January 26-27, 2006



Teaching Military Ethics

Personal Development versus Moral Drill



By Mrs. E.M. Wortel

Faculty of Military Sciences

Netherlands Defense College




Major J.P.M. Schoenmakers

Netherlands Royal Military School







Rawahgedeh in West Java, December 1947

A deliberate and ruthless action of Dutch military in Rawahgedeh: A Dutch commander ordered the mass execution of the inhabitants of Rewahgedeh, assuming that there were guerilla among the villagers. Indonesian sources claim 400 civilians lost their lives, including many women and children (Dutch sources estimate 150 civilians lost their lives). There were no weapons found in the village. On the Dutch side there were no casualties.[1]


This Dutch equivalent of My Lai,[2] in the Dutch colonial war in the former Dutch East Indies, now the Republic of Indonesia, did not receive much media attention even after the facts became clear. The lack of attention shows that there was little insight in what was actually going on when the European military powers were fighting themselves out of their colonies. Its easy to find fault in the military operations of other nations, but history shows that almost every country and community has its share of abuses and war crimes.


Despite cases such as Rawahgedeh, most members of the military take pride in their country, for their culture and the values that they cherish. This is of great importance to our society, as societies do not depend on rules and regulations but on the deeper values and self-discipline of its people to accept and understand those rules and regulations and live by it as a statement of ‘who we are and who we aspire to be’.[3] Members of the military should by definition have this self-discipline.


While it can never guaranteed that war crimes and abuses will never occur again; we can do as much as possible to prevent it. Ultimately, the actions of individual members of the military can be subject to moral evaluation: Each soldier has a moral responsibility. Military ethics is an important tool to stimulate moral awareness and moral competence.


The aim of this text is to discuss useful methods of teaching military ethics. This paper is divided in three main sections. First, we state that moral competence should be the aim of military ethics education. We will elaborate on the exact definition of moral competence. Second, the importance of introspection and personal development versus the image of a moral drill sergeant will be discussed. The idea of a moral drill sergeant displays a view on moral pedagogy which is instrumental and which turns soldiers into automatons, while introspection and personal development reflect a view of moral pedagogy which aims at the development of inner discipline. Third, we will offer a comprehensive proposal on how to enhance teaching military ethics. Like in other Armed Forces, in the Royal Netherlands Army military ethics has become part of basic and advanced training courses of both officers and NCOs. At the moment the ethicists of the Netherlands Faculty of Military Sciences and a working group of NCOs are developing a course that aims at further deepening the moral competence of NCOs. Pedagogical methods in this Train the Trainer course will serve as an example of the proposal how to further stimulate moral competence.



Moral competence



Since the end of the Cold War, military deployments for ‘military operations other than war’—have increased significantly. These deployments lead to new ethical challenges. Since it is impossible to discuss all possible ethical dilemmas beforehand, it is essential to guarantee that military personnel involved has both the necessary skills and moral competence that prepares them for the ethical dilemmas they may encounter. Military ethics should be taught at all military education institutions.


The Royal Netherlands Army educational institutions aim at teaching competences. That is, a combination of knowledge, skills and attitude.[4] Teaching military ethics aims at developing moral competence.[5] Moral competence is the capacity and willingness to perform one’s tasks while considering the relevant facts and interests of different parties.[6] It entails five main components. First, the ability to recognize a moral dimension. Without this capability there will be moral blindness; ethical dilemmas will not be noticed. The second component is the ability to define the moral dimension of a situation or dilemma and to describe which values are at issue. This is vital in order to arrive at a judgement about an ethical dilemma. The third component is to be able to communicate this judgement towards others. Which assumes that one understands which values are at issue. Fourth, one needs the will to act upon one’s decision and fifth one needs to be accountable for one’s actions.[7]


Part of developing moral competence is to stimulate moral commitment to local communities. Psychological processes in groups such as de-individualization, group conformity but also frustration, can easily lead to aggression towards these communities.[8] In order to avoid this, it is important that members of the military are aware of and can recognize such psychological processes. It should be recognized that ultimately everyone has his own responsibility.


Developing a moral competence is to become aware of one’s own ethical codes and standards, this will assist in communicating one’s judgement towards others. This is an important part of the process of stimulating ‘inner discipline’, of understanding rules and regulations and actually living by them. The process takes place at a cognitive, emotional as well as at a volitional level.[9] All three levels are essential. Rules and procedures do not guarantee ethical behavior. Moral responsibility and moral commitment begins with realizing and experiencing that certain activities are not acceptable. When codes of conduct are viewed as rules only, it will be much easier to abandon them in times of temptation and fear. In order to guarantee that codes of conduct are internalized, the process of internalizing ethical codes should also take part at an emotional and volitional level. Therefore, it is essential that members of the military can develop their values themselves instead of being forced to change them.


Shannon French depicts moral competence as ‘the warriors code’; it is the shield that guards ‘our warriors’ humanity.[10] A ‘warriors code’ as advocated by French cannot be reduced to a list of rules, rather it is an internalization of regulations, concepts, culture and traditions, which together result in an understanding of what it means to be an honorable member of the military. Without such an attitude or ‘warriors code’ military personnel are no good to themselves or to those with whom and for whom they fight.



Personal development versus moral drill



The concept of a moral competence we describe assumes that people are capable of developing themselves morally. This view is opposite to a moral drill; what Pauline Kaurin describes by the metaphor of a ‘moral drill sergeant’.[11] According to Kaurin ethics should be taught by drill: ‘frequent repetition some instruction and less discussion’.[12]


The military drill as described by Kaurin, as well as by Farrell,[13] is important for ‘outer discipline’. It teaches (new) conduct or behavior primarily by repetition.[14] It is designed, for instance, to enable a military commander to move a unit in an orderly manner and to provide formations for combat. Obviously, battle drill is of crucial importance in the accomplishment of the mission. Members of the military should always be able to respond immediately in case of specific enemy actions and it is obvious that they should be drilled in, for instance, the use of their weapons.[15] The legitimacy of the drill depends on the specific situation. Therefore, military personnel should always be able to explain the necessity and legitimacy of a drill in a concrete situation.


On the other hand, moral competence and ‘inner discipline’, cannot be taught by means of drill. If one teaches ethics by drill, immoral drills and orders cannot be distinguished from drills and orders which are morally sound. Since a drill aims at immediate action without reflection, there is no possibility to consider alternative actions. In other words, teaching only by drill will lead to moral blindness. A moral drill cannot provide the consciousness to understand and realize the possible inappropriateness of a battle drill (as an order that can immediately be recognized as manifestly criminal).[16] A morally blind person can never have moral competence, he cannot define a moral dimension and therefore cannot come to a reasonable judgement about a specific ethical dilemma.


A moral drill presupposes a rather deterministic view of human development. Accordingly, moral education would aim at replacing a person’s former values with those values that are viewed to be essential to the organization.[17] It is assumed that the best way to accomplish this is to push people to conform themselves to (new) norms. This is completely different from the idea of internalizing values on the basis of a free will.


Personal development presupposes the possibility of moral development and of inner discipline. Moral development is not the product of indoctrination but it emerges from our own thinking about rules, values and moral problems.[18] While this Kohlbergian idea might suggest that development only occurs through formal reasoning, we acknowledge the importance of the emotional and volitional aspect of moral competence and moral development. What is central is that our view on moral development is opposite to the deterministic idea of moral thinking. We argue that by experience and education people are capable of developing themselves morally. According to this view, teaching military ethics should stimulate people to think for themselves, to discuss assumptions, and when they feel it is necessary, to challenge the teacher's suggestions. Moral development remains a product of the students’ own efforts.


Since the idea of personal development assumes that people can develop morally, it does not aim at breaking their personal ethic down. The Dutch Armed Forces takes all military personnel serious as individuals who can improve their ethical skills and their ‘critical’ attitude. We take into account the existing skills, knowledge and experiences of students. Regardless of rank, we assume that everyone has this capability. The most important aspect of a critical attitude is to have a critical relation to pre-established norms, in opposition to a blind obedience to authority.[19] Michel Foucault describes ethical engagement as ‘freedom practices’. In living through such ‘freedom practices’ we are able to find the correct attitude towards the community. According to Foucault, a situation in which power relations are static; a situation of domination, such ‘freedom practices’ are impossible.[20] Maintaining an independent mind in no way undermines a rule-following approach. Rather it should be viewed as ‘enlightened obedience’.[21] The Dutch Armed Forces aim at such a loyal-critical attitude. Military are loyal but can be critical once there is a concrete situation that gives cause to protest. Ethical education does not undermine proper authority, rather, it helps achieve strong support for authority that is legal, moral and ethical.[22]Moreover, it gives much needed guidance when the rules are not enough.[23]


Codes of conduct[24] speak of fulfilling one’s tasks in a disciplined way with integrity. We characterize integrity as a virtue—a key virtue for understanding the quality of a person’s character.[25] In this Aristotelian perception, virtues flourish only in the context of other virtues.


A person’s integrity is expressed in the way he or she deals with (ethical) dilemmas. The greater the dilemma, the more the chosen course of action says about one’s integrity. Joseph Badaracco states there are three key aspects of importance in making decisions in ethical dilemma’s. First, they reveal one’s true priorities, The decision shows which values or principles are most important. Second, ethical dilemma’s function as a test; are the values which are always claimed to be important really prioritized in actual dilemma’s? Third, the decision’s made in dilemma’s are of major importance in a persons character development.[26]


There are acts a person of integrity cannot do. For that reason, there has to be a normative aspect to integrity. It is unacceptable that a person can do morally horrific acts and still have integrity; even the most loyal Nazi can never be a person of integrity. A suicide-bomber or a fanatic, can also hardly be a person with integrity. There are normative constraints on the principles or commitments of a person of integrity. While the list may not be definite, there are some constraints about which we can be certain. It is likely that some combination of hypocrisy, self-deceit, weakness of will, cowardice, unacknowledged greed and rationalization are involved.[27] The lack of integrity of war criminals is primarily rooted in these features. A person’s moral integrity can be judged in term of overall reasonableness of their moral views and how they arrived at them, the sincerity with which they are held, the fidelity with which they are acted upon and the extend to which a person’s moral point of view is integrated with the rest of his life.[28]


How does one become a person of integrity? Learning to be morally responsible is not, as Kaurin suggests, achieved merely through frequent repetition, some instruction and less discussion.[29] The best way to ensure that military personnel will not commit a war crime even if given (illegal) orders to do so by a superior officer, is, not to drill them on codes of conduct and provisions of international law but rather to help them internalize the significance of the history and tradition of the military and of concepts such as honor and courage in order to develop a coherent sense of what it means to be a member of the military.[30]This will help them recognize and reject a criminal direction from their officers.


Developing ‘inner discipline’ and an attitude of ‘enlightened obedience’, will help military personnel to cope with difficult circumstances. To be conscious of one’s own values will make it easier to discuss those values with others. Moreover, knowing why one holds on to certain values will make it easier to understand other perspectives. People will be able to discuss ethical dilemma’s with others in a meaningful way.



The Train the Trainer course



The Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) is the backbone of the Armed Forces. The NCO is a commander, trainer and combat leader; he also serves as a role model for his soldiers. Therefore, how he behaves morally is crucial. In our view, it is necessary to put at least as much effort in educating NCOs as Commissioned Officers.


How does one make military ethics understandable to people with little or no background in philosophical discourse and vocabulary? This section will discuss some concrete proposals of how to enhance teaching military ethics to the NCO.


Teaching military ethics is unsatisfactory if it is reduced to discussing ethical dilemma’s. If ethics is limited to discussing case studies, the result would be that people don’t really think through the problem but rather search for a trick to come to a quick decision. It needs to be recognized that in order develop moral competence and therefore to teach military ethics in a significant way, a considerable amount of time needs to be invested. Character development takes time but is a necessary precondition for discussing dilemmas. Students should reflect upon their own ethical standards.


David Kolb´s well-known ‘cycle of learning’[31] represents a learning spiral where the learner 'touches all the bases', i.e., a cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting. The NCO, as a target group, is specifically focussed on the action base.[32] Each time a theory is presented, the NCO immediately wants to know if, and how, it is useful in his daily practice. In teaching military ethics, this is an important point to consider; in to order motivate the NCO is crucial to connect to concrete experiences.


In the Royal Netherlands Army teaching of military ethics has become part of basic and advanced training courses of both officers and NCOs. All cadets get introduction classes in military ethics. In order to foster moral competence, the Faculty of Military Sciences in the Netherlands is developing a Train the Trainer course for NCOs. In order for NCOs to stimulate the moral competence of their students it is compulsory for them to follow the Train the Trainer course. This course in military ethics emphasizes the importance of personal development. A working group of academics and NCOs, from all branches of the military service (the Navy, Army, Airforce and the Military Police), participate in this process in order to make it a joined project.


The basic pedagogical assumption underlying the program is that people acquire insight by thinking for themselves and not merely by having insights being presented to them. In order to foster moral competence there are several central subjects in the course, including: the Socratic dialogue, personal mastery and moral (dis)engagement. We will shortly elaborate on each.


One of the most renowned teachers in learning people to think for themselves was the philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC). We present and use his method ‘the Socratic dialogue’ as background information for trainers; they do not have to be able to teach it themselves but rather they should be able to have a Socratic attitude, which is to ask questions instead of looking for answers only. Socratic teaching is not based on the indoctrination of good values, rather it uses a specific kind of dialogue in which individual careful questioning is stimulated.


If a group discusses a fundamental question, such as ‘what is a good soldier’, the panel chairman or trainer has to persist in asking questions concerning what is being said in order for all participants to get a clear picture of the immediate causes and key assumptions which are made. By doing so, the underlying values will become obvious.[33]This particular use of the Socratic method will help people to gain insight in their own values and principles.


Socrates himself never gave an answer to the proposed questions. Instead, by asking questions he made the person asking the question answering it. Socrates believed in the teachability of virtue. According to him, thinking and talking about virtues such as justice and courage was likely to make men and woman more just and courageous. He called himself a gadfly, to sting people in order to make them think. He also described himself as a midwife whose job consists of assisting others to—by figure of speech—give birth to their thoughts. Some also portrayed him like an electric ray, to paralyze or to perplex, like pure amazement, which feels like the highest state of being active and alive.[34]


While there are some basic learning objectives in the Train the Trainer course, we realized that the development of the trainers will not stop at the end of the course. Personal moral development is a life-long process. Therefore, the course-takers will have to define their own ‘developmental goals’ on the first day as well as on the last day of the course.


Recognizing that learning is a life-long process does not guarantee, by itself, that people are also motivated to engage in this process. It helps to relate to (military) experiences of course-takers, and thus to talk with them instead of talking to them. Peter Senge´s concepts of ‘personal mastery’ and ‘mental models’[35] can be useful in relating to personal experiences and growth areas. It is necessary to take people seriously. By discussing specific growth areas openly, people will become more committed and take more initiative to accomplish their goals. Personal mastery is learning to achieve your personal desired goals and to create an environment that encourages others to develop themselves towards the goals they choose. Discussing what Senge refers to as mental models is to be aware of the biases that exist in our internal pictures of the world. Two people can observe the same event and yet describe it differently. Each one connects with the experience differently by paying attention to other details. We are constantly shaping these mental models and we are basing our actions and decisions on them. In order to make responsible decisions it is important to question these mental models.


In the Train the Trainer course we stress that, apart from personal development, there are some important basic learning objectives every NCO should have knowledge of. The NCO, both as trainer, combat leader and commander, has to give guidance to the group process and needs insight in some basic psychological processes, to recognize moral disengagement.[36]


The psychologist Albert Bandura has listed a number of signals of moral disengagement. He explains how ordinary people are seduced into evil by dehumanizing and labeling others, they can even be persuaded to see an illegal killing as morally acceptable. This persuasion occurs by restructuring inhumane conduct into ‘acceptable’ conduct. For instance by the use of sanitizing language: the expression, for example, of pacifying a village could mean one is ordered to burn it down. The use of exonerative social comparization; our behavior is not so bad if you compare it to what ‘they’ are doing. It is easy to deny personal responsibility in the harm one causes by displacing responsibility; “I am not responsible, I was just obeying orders”. Such pleas are well known from Nazi-War criminal trials. Discipline cannot be an excuse for abdicating moral or legal responsibility in the case of war crimes. The Milgram experiment found that blaming and dehumanizing ‘the other’ proved to be of extreme influence on behavior.[37] In one of Bandura’s experiments an assistant called the test persons "animals" and in another experiment, "nice"; people were more apt to deliver what they believed were increased levels of electrical shock to the other persons if they had heard them called "animals". [38]


While submission to authority and group conformity are important characteristics of the military environment, it is crucial to be aware of these moral disengagement signs. It is important that NCOs are trained to identify them in order to prevent a moral slide. 






Teaching military ethics does not guarantee that there will be no more torture, no more cruel, abusive and degrading treatment of ‘others’, no more cases such as Rawahgedeh, in the former Dutch East Indies, no more My Lai, Abu Ghraib or more recently soldiers burning the bodies of Taliban fighters and ‘using their smoking corpses in a propaganda campaign against the insurgents’.[39] Teaching military ethics is just one of the measures we can take in conjunction with the encouragement of cultural awareness, coherent Rules of Engagement, clear Standard Operating Procedures and an honorable commander’s intent.


Apart from basic learning objectives, such as learning to recognize moral disengagement, military ethics should focus on ‘developmental objectives’; it should stimulate moral competence and ‘inner discipline’, which can be helpful for military personnel in dealing with ethical dilemma´s they may encounter. A moral drill does not stimulate moral competence since it contradicts the idea that people can think for themselves. The focus should be on stimulating an attitude of ‘enlightened obedience’, introspection and personal development. This is realized through openly discussing concepts, values, regulations and ‘mental models’. Since moral development is, in our view, a product of the student’s own thinking, methods such as the Socratic dialogue (and the Socratic attitude) can be specifically useful in teaching military ethics in a significant way.


Military ethics should arm and strengthen all military personnel with an attitude of ‘enlightened obedience’ or a  ‘warriors code’; an attitude that guards their humanity; which will help them during operations as well as when they return home.





[1] De Excessennota,1995, Sdu Uitgeverij Koninginnegracht, Den Haag, p.83

[2] Doorn, T.A.A. van, Hendrix, W.J. Nederlands/Indonesisch Conflict, Ontsporing van Geweld, 1985, De Bataafse Leeuw, Amsterdam, p.38

[3] Slaughter A., ‘America, be Beautiful; Degrading our Soldiers and Ourselves’ International Herald Tribune 0ctober 28-2005

[4]  Competentie Gericht Opleiden retrieved 30-11-2005:

[5] Karssing E., Morele Competenties in Organisaties, Van Gorcum 2000

[6] Iersel van A.H.M., Baarda,van Th.A., Militaire Ethiek, Morele Dilemma´s van Militairen in Theorie en Praktijk’ 2002, Damon  p.331

[7] Verweij D.E.M., ‘Het belang van Militaire Ethiek voor de Krijgsmacht’ in Carré 7/8 2005 p.28

[8] Vogelaar A., ‘Normvervaging’ in Krijgsmacht en Samenleving, Klassieke en Eigentijdse Inzichten (ed.Moelker, R., Soeters, J.) 2003, Boom p.221

[9] Baarda T.A., ‘Morele Oordeelsvorming met een Dynamisch Model’ in: Praktijkboek Militaire Ethiek (ed. Baarda,TA. van Iersel, A.H.M. van, Verweij, D.E.M), 2004, Damon, p.414 (forthcoming in English)

[10] French S., The code of the Warrior, Exploring Warror Values Past and Present p.242

Rowman&Littlefield publishers, Inc. Oxford 2003

[11] Kaurin P.M., The moral drill sergeant: On Teaching the ‘Grunts’ to do the right thing , p. 9

 21-11-2005 Http://

[12] idem.p.9

[13] Farrell W.R., "Oft Forgotten Leadership Fundamentals," reprinted with permission from the Naval War College Review 41 (Spring 1988): 57-65, in Air War College Associate Programs, vol. 1, 3d ed., lesson 8, p.127-28.

[14] ‘Defensie Begrippenlijst’ retrieved 30-11-2005:

[15] Koninklijke Landmacht Handboek Leidinggeven in de KL, PlantijnCasparie Zwolle 2002

[16] Osiel M.J., ‘Obeying Orders, Atrocity, Military Discipline & The Law of War’ 1999,Transaction Publishers, p.55

[17] Farrell W.R., "Oft Forgotten Leadership Fundamentals," reprinted with permission from the Naval War College Review 41 (Spring 1988): 57-65, in Air War College Associate Programs, vol. 1, 3d ed., lesson 8, p.127-28.

[18] Crain W.C., ‘Kohlberg´s stages of Moral Development’, in Theories of Development. 1985, Prentice-Hall., p.118-136.

[19] Foucault M., ‘De Ethiek van de Zorg voor Zichzelf als Vrijheidspraktijk’, in Breekbare Vrijheid (eds: Helsloot,N., Halsema,A.), 1995, Boom/Parrèsia Amsterdam, p.89  

[20] Idem. p.91

[21] Wakin M.M., Integrity First Reflections of a Military Philosopher, 2000, Lexinton Books, p.67

[22] Toner J.H. ‘Teaching Military Ethics’ in Military Review May 1993 p.33

[23] French S., The code of the Warrior, Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present 2003

Rowman&Littlefield publishers, Inc. Oxford  p.15

[24] Codes of Conduct such as: United Nations ‘Ten Rules of Personal Conduct for Blue Helmets’; ‘Code of Ethics for the US Armed Forces’ and ‘Gedragscodes in de Krijgsmacht—een Overzicht’.

[25] Cox D., La Caze M. and Levine,P.L., Integrity and the Fragile Self, 2003, Ashgate p.xix

[26] Badaracco J.L., Onmogelijke Keuzes, Managers en Morele Dilemma’s, 1998, Schouten en Nelissen, p.62

[27] Cox D., La Caze M. and Levine,P.L., Integrity and the Fragile Self, 2003, Ashgate p.59

[28] Idem. p.68

[29] Kaurin P.M., The Moral Drill Sergeant: On Teaching the ‘Grunts’ to do the right thing , p. 9

 21-11-2005: Http://

[30] French S., The code of the Warrior, Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present 2003

Rowman&Littlefield publishers, Inc. Oxford  p.14

[31] Kolb D.A., Experimental Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development

1984, Englewood-Cliffs, NJ Prentice Hall

[32] Beleidsvisie op de Rol en Positie van de Onderofficier in de Nederlandse Krijgsmacht. December 2004, 30-11-2005:

[33] Verweij D.E.M., Becker M.J., ‘ Socrates in de Krijgsmacht: De Rol van het Socratische Gesprek in Militaire Opleidingen’ in: Praktijkboek Militaire Ethiek (ed. Baarda,TA. van Iersel, A.H.M. van, Verweij, D.E.M), 2004, Damon, p.451 (forthcoming in English )

[34] Arendt H., The Life of the Mind, Volume one Thinking, 1978 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  p.173

[35] Senge P.M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 1990, New York: Doubleday, p.139-143

[36] Bandura A. ‘Selective moral disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency’, Journal of moral Education 2002, 21-11-2005: retrievable from:

[37] Milgram S.,  Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View 1974 New York: HarperCollins (2004)

[38] Bandura A., ‘Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of inhumanities’, Personality and Social Psychology Review. [Special Issue on Evil and Violence], 1999, 3,p.193-209.

[39] Schmitt E., ‘ U.S. Investigating Report that Soldiers Abused 2 Taliban Corpses’, International Herald Tribune, Oct, 21 2005 p.5