Core Values, the Development of an Ethical Decision-Making Model and the Call for an Ethical Standards Committee in the Royal Netherlands Army


 Lieutenant Colonel drs. Willem H.Th. Heijster,

Military Psychologist

Royal Netherlands Military Academy



Address all correspondence to:


Postbus 90154

4800 RG Breda Nederland


Phone: +31 76 527 3788

Fax: +31 76 527 3255



In this paper I will try to show you how, in the Netherlands, the army tries to become ethically more competent. I will talk to you about ethical leadership, company ethics, core values (the code of conduct), the Ethical Decision-Making Model (EDM) and the call for an Military Ethical Standards Committee.


The year 1991 was proclaimed by the Royal Netherlands Army's Commander-in-Chief (CinC) as the Year of Leadership. In that year he formulated his policy vision on leadership in the RNLA. Two important aspects of his vision were 'mutual trust' and 'freedom of acting'. Freedom of acting was misused by a lot of people and therefore after a while replaced by 'self-reliant acting'.

In that policy vision, for the first time, attention was paid to ethics. Item 28 of that vision:

Leaders on all levels in the RNLA must primarily be motivated and act on the basis of commonly accepted values and norms in society. Besides, a leader must be guided in acting by ethical standards.

It took some time before this part of the vision of our CinC reached all leaders in the army, officers and NCOs. The way to deal with item 28 was rather vague for most of them. For that reason the Armys Leadership Training Institute developed an Ethical Decision-Making Model (EDM) which could be taught to everyone and could help a leader in making ethical decisions by asking him or herself:

Is it legal; are all interests weighed; can it pass muster?

In each military training course for officers and NCOs this model was taught in the way of a drill. That not everybody knew what was legal or not, which and whose interests exactly had to be weighed, or how big the muster was allowed to be, was considered to be inconsequential.


Company Ethics

In the first years after the introduction of ethical leadership, the Army had implemented a program in which all personnel were taught the way they had to behave - ethically responsible - towards colleagues of minority groups: male and female homosexuals, people from ethnic minorities, women and so on. (In the Dutch forces, you are allowed to be a homosexual, but to engage in homosexual behaviour off duty only). Also, the army personnel were taught how to deal with alcohol and drug abuse, as well as in-fighting and extremism. The reason for that program was that we had a lot of problems, like many other organizations. Personnel of minority groups were and are not always judged by their performance, but merely upon their being different. Often in such a way that they started to perform badly, became ill or left the army because the circumstances in which they had to work were too unfavourable. The program was first called "Special Personnel Care", but because care for this personnel category ought not to be special, the name of the program was changed into "Company Ethics". Attention for ethics as such was not part of the program, and neither was the application of the earlier mentioned EDM.

Ethical Leadership

Ethics and the EDM were given more and more attention in leadership courses, in accordance with 'ethical leadership'. A serious incident, the refusal of an order by two NCOs of the Dutch signal battalion in Sarajevo, demonstrated to army personnel the importance of ethics in operational circumstances. Both NCOs had been given the order to join a Ukrainian UN unit in the Tito barracks in Sarajevo. Because of the fact that these barracks had been under fire they decided, together with their major, not to enter the barracks.


In leadership training they had been taught that they should never expose their subordinates to serious danger; they had also been given the order at their departure from Schiphol airport not to take any unnecessary risks and signal corps tactics include the avoidance of shooting as much as possible in order to keep communications going.


Therefore they chose an alternative location, to make sure that signal support continued. However in The Hague, a Brigadier General decided otherwise. He ordered them to enter the Tito barracks. The NCOs refused to do so, were immediately sent back to Holland, were court-martialled and sentenced to prison for four months as well as dismissed from the Service and thus left without income.


All this made a deep impression on the Dutch forces and raised ethical questions for many people: for instance: how ethical is it to make assessments of the situation in Sarajevo in The Hague? Especially when seen in the light of the earlier mentioned vision of our Commander-in-Chief on leadership: mutual trust and self-reliant acting. Without giving it the very name, ethics suddenly came to everyone's attention.


From experiences with UN operations, mainly in the former Yugoslavia, it became clear that not only leaders meet ethical dilemmas during operations, but that every soldier will be confronted by them. Army chaplains in particular, who were already very much involved in the Special Personnel Care programme, began to train the soldiers increasingly in how to deal with ethical dilemmas.


Code of Conduct

In 1997 a code of conduct was introduced into the Dutch forces. Each Service has its own version, its own code. Although military law was thought to provide enough anchorage for appropriate behaviour, a simple code of conduct was considered to be able to contribute much to professional military behaviour. What was written down, in actual fact, was what had always been expected from every soldier.




As a serviceman/woman or civilian employee I make an important contribution to the defense of our country and to peace and safety in the world. In doing so, I adhere to the following code of conduct:

1. I try to do my best and am prepared to learn from my mistakes.

2. Both my attitude and my behaviour show that I am proud to work for the Royal Netherlands Army.

3. As a member of a team, I need my colleagues and they need me. For this reason I also feel responsible for their well-being and, if necessary, I call them to account for their actions.

4. I am responsible for the correct use of the equipment and funds

entrusted to me and of the services offered to me.

5. In all my actions I consider the safety of myself and my surroundings. For this reason, I avoid drugs and limit my alcohol intake.

6. I respect human rights and adhere to the rules laid down in the law of war. I treat everyone equally and with respect, and wherever possible offer aid to fellow humans in need.

7. I carry out my assigned tasks professionally, even in difficult

circumstances or in the event of danger to my own life.

8. I never abuse the power entrusted to me. I shall use force if ordered to, but never more than is necessary for completing my tasks. Anyone, certainly my opponent, may be sure that I am resolute and persistent.


Its introduction and the code of conduct itself stirred up a lot of commotion, in the Dutch society as well as in the forces. People thought the code was unnecessary, childish, or not realistic. Even the Inspector General of the armed forces stated that the code was too abstract.

Despite all the criticism that was voiced, the code of conduct was maintained and is now part of the model that is intended to make army personnel ethically more competent. It is also intended to allow personnel to deal with ethical dilemmas during peacekeeping operations, with a peacekeeping nature or those executed during an actual war.

Nowadays, during basic officer and NCO training, as well as in the common soldier's training attention is paid to Company Ethics including the code of conduct. Ethical behaviour is fostered by the constant attention paid to the application of the code of conduct in daily practice. Attention for ethical questions under operational circumstances is provided through dilemma training.


For example: You are a tank commander and under fire of a sniper on the roof of a large building. You see the sniper. At the very moment you want to give the order to fire at the roof of the building, you see women and children on the top floor behind the windows. What are you going to do and why? Use the EDM.


We hope that the better soldiers have been trained in dealing with these sorts of dilemmas, the better they deal with them under operational circumstances, even though these may be very different.


There are people in the army however, who believe that these dilemma training sessions will lead to diminished battle power. Research has to be done to make this clear, if possible.


Changes in the EDM

The Ethical Decision-making Model has been developed to help make careful and balanced decisions when confronted with dilemmas. The model offers a conceptual framework, which allows people on a individual basis or in consultation with others, to arrive at an informed decision when confronted with moral dilemmas or situations where it is difficult to decide. Answering the questions of the Ethical Decision-making Model helps make an ethically sound decision. By using this model against a backdrop of training and exercise situations, people learn to deal with ethical dilemmas in a more conscious manner. Moreover, if required, the model enables one to account for the particular decision taken, both to oneself and to others.



The Ethical Decision-making Model is a model that is used to make informed decisions on the basis of a step-by-step plan whereby facts and conditions are viewed in the light of good and bad, norms and values, responsibility and choices.


Last year the EDM was changed after the publication of an article in the Military Spectator, a Dutch magazine for all army and air force officers, in which the first EDM was severely criticized. The most important change made in the model is that the question whether the chosen solution is legal is now the last to be answered.


The adapted EDM:

1. Identify the central problem;

2. Identify who are involved in the dilemma and what their interests are;

3. Name possible solutions for the dilemma and test them:

* Did I weigh all interests of those involved and what priority do I give them?

* Which solution is in my opinion most just and why?

* Is that solution legal?

  1. Take a decision.



A problem with this model is that the solution considered to be most just might not be the best or the ethically right one, under the given circumstances. Besides, when I have chosen a solution which, in my opinion, is also legal, I don't need to make a decision any more. Instead I have to carry it out.


Last year, due to the abolition of conscription, our CinC promulgated a renewed vision on RNLA leadership. In it he introduced a new topic beside 'mutual trust' and 'self-reliant acting': 'mutual respect'. The earlier mentioned item 28 (about ethics) is no longer part of his vision, to the great regret of a lot of army personnel.

Another point of concern is that the EDM will not only be considered as an aid to soldiers in order to make better ethical decisions. Some people are concerned that the model could, in addition, be used to settle accounts with them as far as their ethical behaviour is concerned. Will a court martial judge do that? Or someone else?

In a court martial legal arguments only are taken into consideration, and not the way a soldier came to his behaviour. Besides, it is possible to have acted in the right legal fashion, but have behaved non-ethically. Who will decide that? A court martial?


Or, the other way round, one has acted most ethically, but contrary to the orders of the higher commander. Should one be tried by a court martial?


For example: Suppose a soldier meets a seriously wounded civilian and, contrary to his orders, provides medical aid by giving him an infusion. Must he be punished?


Military Ethical Standards Committee

For this reason an informal working group in the army, led by a retired colonel, who wrote the 1991 vision on leadership for the CinC in which ethics was introduced, has made a plea for the introduction of a Military Ethical Standards Committee. That committee should not only advise a court martial and/or the Defence Secretary about ethics in general, but should also do this in cases where soldiers are called to account for their behaviour, having appealed to their application of the EDM. Also, soldiers with ethical problems then have the possibility to turn to the committee for advice.


The members of that committee should be excellent , non-military, ethicists.


The working group has also asked the CinC to give his vision on ethics in the same way as he did last year on leadership, so that it is clear to all personnel what he thinks about ethics in the army.


In January 1999, Carré the magazine of the union of army and air force officers, published a special edition on ethics in which the working group gave its vision on ethics from a psychological, a legal, a military medical, and a chaplain's point of view. Also an officers’ wife made a plea for more attention to ethical problems of the military and its effects on military families.




The RNLA is made ethically more competent by the introduction of a Code of Conduct, of training programmes to improve the way its personnel deals with minority groups, with alcohol and drugs, with violence, and by the introduction of training in using the Ethical Decision-Making Model in dilemma training.


My personal hope is that this will be supported by a vision on ethics by our Commander-in-Chief and by the formation of a Military Ethical Standards Committee, because I'm a member of that earlier mentioned working group.


Breda, January 23, 1999

Lt-Col drs. W.H.Th. Heijster