Ethical Challenges For The Military Profession

Fashionable, but more than Fashion

Ethics, values, morale are «in». No institute is without its seminars, theologians have found new engagements as industrial advisers, industries are producing their checklists, and religious groups and churches feverishly strive to adjust inherited interpretations to the contemporary world. Being fashionable, ethics are often presented and sold as fashion, an injection for short–time satisfaction over the fact that the question is raised and covered in the business strategy. Fashionably enough, the subject has even got its many abbreviations with which experts may signal their expertise; the American military version is PME (Professional Military Ethics).

But much of the contemporary focusing on immaterial values, clearly go beyond the fact that the subject is «in». In whatever culture, individuals who are intellectually and emotionally awake see more in life than material goals and achievements only. Fully consciously or not, also existential questions – from what, to what and why – are in the minds of the many. And then, there is a general acceptance of the fact that in any endeavour involving people in co–operation for a common purpose, an understanding of man in his entirety is a prerequisite for success.

A Common Heritage

We say to share a common cultural heritage. Common, yes, but whatever inherited message – religious or political – took colours of when and where the seeds were sown. The Christian ideas got on Russian territory their distinct Russian flavour, in the Spanish lands they became Spanish. Not to forget, the German–invented pietism found its most receptive congregations on the American and Norwegian «bible belts». The message of Marx and Engels, in every way the fruits of our culture got the colours from red to pink and from blood to ink, pending whom picked it up. In moral and ethical terms our culture has fostered its saints as well as its Machiavelli´s and its Dr. Strangelove´s. The latter most opportunistically also using the banner of the cross. Very recently prelates in black carrying the cross on their roomy stomachs blessed the performers of ethnical cleansing and systematic murder in what used to be part of «Classical Europe».

But in spite of dramatic setbacks throughout history, in spite of the fact that banners of black as well as red are still being hailed by severely misguided cultures and sub–cultures around, we seem to have come to some rather common ideas as to what is basically right or wrong. A combination of a religious heritage and con­tinuos practical experience teaching us what best furthers our worldly well being, the two elements not always easy to keep apart, have led us along. The term ethics, «ethos» also stands for custom, for habit. The often in frustration reference to a so–called «norm–less society» is only possible when there is an acceptably common perception of «norms».

The seeds sown by the 3O–year old Jew and his assistants and chronicle–writers are still very much with us. Not many, in contemporary terminology «leaders of excellence», may hope to see their strategic ideas surviving two millenniums and being translated into 758 languages. In every sense applying great leadership, he furthered the already then inherited notion that man is unique and hence the commandment: You shall not kill. But he was fully aware that his world was not the one upon which he hung on the cross.

May be more than ever, the inherited purely religious thoughts are in our time being questioned by many. The result is a secularisation, but also a search for the essence of the message, rather than the only too often man–made dogma, constructions not seldom being of questionable historical as well as ethical quality. In any case, the inherited humanistic ideas have survived time and found their contemporary expressions in many fields of life, such as in the Geneva Conventions and the United Nation and the European Declarations of Human Rights, which even aim at being universal. International courts and tribunals are attempting to follow up. If these ideas and rules are not being hailed by all, may be even not by a majority on this globe, at least they illustrate the efforts to further the ideal of a humanistic, civil society. For some this implies a Christian society.

A Challenge and a Dilemma

We may all agree that within the contemporary interpretation of a «western» and of some related cultures, a fundamental feature is the respect for the human being and for human life. With such values imbedded, few people are confronted with greater ethical and moral challenges than those who on behalf of the society are expected to use lethal force against man. Soldiers, sailors and airmen are in battle, not during theorising exercises at seminars, not behind desks, not behind the computer of the R&D scientist, demanded to combine respect for human life with the use of lethal force. They are on the battlefield challenged with the demanding task to draw the line between when to kill and when the law of war or the individual conscience makes this legally unacceptable or morally unbearable. The strain may most directly be felt by the infantryman in close combat, often as a reaction thereafter, although the weaponry delivered from a less directly committing distance may indeed be more indiscriminate than the bayonet.

Under any circumstance, the ethical dilemmas, which may confront the soldier in the field, may affect the very foundation of the military discipline and obedience, which is so very necessary in any force in action. There is no easy way out of this dilemma. The Nuremberg process and later international courts and tribunals have confirmed that no «rule of engagement», no regulation or code of action is freeing the individual behind the weapon from such very difficult personal evaluations and decisions. These are challenges, which must be considered and digested in quiet and in advance. The battlefield is not the environment for quiet contemplation. Not the least should the leader destined for military action in the field aim at being prepared.

Beyond the Dilemmas of the Battlefield

Of course, ethics for the military profession encompass more than the dilemmas, which I have so far discussed. To a considerable extent, however, the challenges as well as the answers to them in other fields of military life do not decisively differ from those needed to be met within any complicated and demanding endeavour, military or civilian. Even the need for the immediate obedience once a decision has been taken may be shared with at least some other undertakings, such as with the surgical team and the firemen in action. The fundamental difference between the military and any other endeavour lays in the seriousness of the military mission and tasks and, indeed, in the seriousness of the consequences of success or failure.

The Weapons at Hand – The Ethical Implication

The ethical challenges related to the use of lethal force against man is enhanced by the ever more destructive power at hand. In spite of the continuous refinement in precision of delivery, some of the most advanced weapons may have indiscriminate effects beyond control. In the forefront stand the mass–destruction weapons – the chemical, the biological and the nuclear – their invention being irreversible. The contemporary proliferation of such weapons to some very unstable hands con­stitutes a most disturbing part of the picture. As we well know, the international agreements aiming at controlling such developments are far from watertight. Weapons of mass–destruction are morally beyond apprehension. But this does not free us from considering which counter–measures and counter–threats are available, and which may also in ethical terms defend their role. Not an easy task.

Choosing Pacifism

Religious conviction, or the danger of a man–made Armageddon, may for some lead to the conclusion that under no circumstance is military force a means of furthering political aims, not even in self–defence, pacifism being the conclusion and the personal choice. Naturally, the implication of a right to refuse military service is in practical terms most directly felt where a system of compulsory service has been applied. The ethical validity of pacifism versus taking on the normal military service is here a subject for engaging debate. Those who select pacifism usually claim that the only weapon against military aggression is to demonstrate a superior ethical standard and the good deeds, preferably in the form of pre–emptive measures. The aim is to convince the potential aggressor that he his wrong. This notion is also extended to a situation after a possible defeat and during an occupation. Unfortunately, a precondition for the success of such policies is that the opponent, the aggressor, is himself reasonably civilised and that he is fascinated by the thoughts of the pacifist confronting him. This has proved to be a rather rare eventuality.

A pacifism rooted in religious or humanistic conviction is, however, generally accepted in all western societies. The condition being that the conviction is real, not the result of fashion or of seeing the alternatives to be more lucrative or comfortable. A further condition may be that the individual in question takes on other tasks on behalf of the society as are being given to him. Only the person in question will in his heart know whether the conviction behind his choice of pacifism is valid and honest. Those who select to refuse military service have, of course, freed themselves of the ethical dilemma, which may confront their comrades, the soldier in the field. So has the «Rambo», with no other comparison between the two, although he might be in the field. Admittedly, those who accept their obligatory service may not always come to their conclusion through in depth considerations.

The Soldier and the Society

The geographic position, historical experiences and other factors may have led to some differences in the perception of the role of the military and differences in the setting of standards. Has defence of the own territory only, been the rule, or is there for some reason a tradition of extending power onto other theatres. We may within our cultural family observe that members of some of the larger societies may tend to believe that potency is in itself a guarantee for the quality of the seeds, a questionable assumption in whatever connection, I suggest. Naturally, some smaller countries may feel no less sure about the unsurpassed quality of their ideas, but their more limited physical potency may force them to operate with greater caution. There may be differences between the technologically most advanced who might be tempted to believe that technology is the answer to most questions, and those who are more likely to consider psychological reactions on the part of the opponent to the one and other initiative. There may be differences in the approach to leadership between those who live in a society were egalitarianism is nur–
tured, and those who are brought up within a more pyramidical social structure. Societies who draw their soldiers from a system of compulsory service may have challenges and priorities varying a bit from those who rely on professional forces only. Some, usually the majority, within our societies will share the opinion that fighting with weapons in hand to counter military aggression and to save the fundamental values of the society, or indeed its very survival, is an obligation. In countries practising compulsory service it is usually simultaneously emphasised that this is also a burden that should fall upon the shoulders of every able–bodied man.

Under any circumstance, the soldier and the military establishment are part of the society to which they belong. Within any civilised country – within any decent democracy – the soldier is a citizen in uniform. A citizen in uniform does, however, not imply an, in the German language, Uniformsträger. Neither the soldier, nor the army, can be a sheer copy of their society. To an audience like this, this is obvious. But it must also be brought across to the society at large and to those politically responsible. What is required before soldiers are sent into the unparalleled physical, technical and emotional challenge of battle? The duty, and indeed the right, to provide such information rests not the least on the shoulders of those who understand what such engagements imply, namely the military leaders.

To the responsible politician, seeking such information and acting upon it is not only a practical obligation, but also indeed an ethical and moral obligation.

Fighting Terrorism – Interventions across the Borders of Sovereign States

I pointed to the disastrous effects of mass–destruction weapons and to the proliferation of such weaponry to unstable hands. There are the most eager salesmen around, and the production of chemical and biological agents may be the business of anybody willing. Should the financing create a problem, production and sale of narcotics is a way out. And narcotics are also weapons in their own right. This has given international terror a new dimension. Conducted by governments or not, international terror must have a supportive base from which to operate. Consequently, countering international terror might imply the need to cross state borders. I referred to some developments in international law. A further notion is that terror is seen as a crime wherever it is put to practice. «Sovereignty» should not be interpreted to allow any country to harbour international terror. No despotic ruler should be allowed to terrorise his people as he pleases. The extreme version, genocide, is in a UN Convention of 1948 described as a crime against humanity. Furthermore, a perception that internal terror and ethnic cleansing is acceptable may also spread and thus constitute a more direct threat to the internal balance of other societies. But if these are threats, which must be countered, who shall eventually intervene, on the basis of what, under whose auspices and with which means? Should it be only with the blessing of the Security Council, or could it be seen as a regional challenge such as is the opinion of Moscow when confronted with trouble in the Russian so called «near abroad» in the Caucasus beyond Russian borders, or such as foreseen by NATO in the new Strategic Concept of April this year for handling crises in Europe and in Europe’s «near abroad». Could it, to go a step further, be a question of interventions by a state or a group of states appointing themselves to be a world police–force, a force which eventually might act without the consensus of anybody but those very states. Could they then in the process also call to life a perception among many that this is just a new form of imperialism. Naturally, those states who might fear an intervention from outside in their own affairs would attempt to veto or otherwise block such actions of border crossing. The latest demonstration of an intervention from outside is the UN and later NATO actions in former Yugoslavia. These operations have indeed also revealed the many limitations to such an endeavour.

Some might argue that these are political issues only. Military forces and military personnel are the lieutenants who with absolute loyalty and without questions shall carry out whatever task they may be given. But again, this is a simplification. It is a task of the military responsible to advice those politically responsible in every context involving military forces, indeed including the ethical aspects.

Two Specific Ethical Dilemmas

Confronted with the possibility of interventions in internal conflicts in geographically as well as culturally far away theatres it may well be that neither the causes of the local schisms, nor their solving might be clear to anyone – the politician or the soldier – It may be situations where it is hard to distinguish between the aggressor and the defender, between the doer and the innocent, a distinction that also in this case the pilot may find even more difficult than the soldier on the ground. He or she on the ground might on their side, in order not themselves to be killed, have to shoot children who have been forced to carry weapons and to use them. It would be strange, indeed, if this did not lead to further ethical considerations among many.

Another most appropriate question is of course whether it is right to sacrifice the life of young men and women of the own society in order to save far away people from with dedication committing mutual suicide, not seldom in the form of historical repetitions. Such questions may be reinforced by the observation that only too often an intervention fails to leave behind something very much better. Others may, however, strongly feel the moral consequences of just observing atrocities such as ethnic cleansing, terror and genocide wherever it takes place. They may interpret solidarity to encompass more than concerns only for peoples in their immediate environment. They may feel that if only the resources are available, there is no alternative to the engagement in the form deemed most appropriate in order to calm the acute crises in question and in order to support a selection of courses towards a more civilised way of conflict resolution. Within democracies, these various considerations are those of people at large. In our time when media bring the realities in the field into the homes of everyone, live and in real time, the concerns and conclusions of people at the home front count more than ever. This may serve the cause of moral and ethics, but not always. The message from home may also be: Act as you deem necessary as long as you save the lives of our own.

Co–operation Across Cultural Borders

In environments where political and military co–operation between various national contingents is required, such as in the peace–keeping or peace–enforcement operations as we now see them, there is a particular need to observe and understand the possible differences in thinking and in behaviour from the one participating nationality and contingent to the other. Such variations will often also have their impact on the content and the style of leadership and management. In operations of the nature mentioned the line of command may not always be precise. This adds to the likelihood that ethical and disciplinary conflicts may occur. Some examples from the Balkan theatre are illustrative, the case of the Pristine airport, just to mention one.

Crossing the more Distinct Cultural Borders

Operations may be conducted in theatres where the local culture may significantly differ from ones own. This raises some further demands. There is on the part of the political authorities deciding on such operations, as well as on the part of the military being dispatched to the theatre, no substitute to an understanding of the local culture, why people think and act as they do where they live. What are the historically inherited values of the societies in question, what is the political and the social structure, the level of education? Which are the predominant ethical–moral perceptions? Without such insight, the potential blunders on the part of what might be seen as a foreign intruder are unlimited. Somalia might serve as an illustrative case. Let us here limit ourselves to the observation that while much might differ from our own values, those found in such very other cultures may not always and in every way be of a lesser quality. This does not, however, imply that the troops sent in to help, should not bring with them the basic values of their own, values that might indeed be the very reason for their being there. It is also on the part of the local societies expected that those coming in themselves stand for something. It is a question of honour. And honour is a quality, which in some cultures of the nature in question is highly cherished.

The Selection and Training of the Military Leader and other Ranks

We have all the way discussed matters, which indeed must influence the selection as well as the training of soldiers, sailors and airmen. To an audience like this, some consequences of our reflections so far are self–evident. Let us nevertheless remind ourselves of a few points. As we have already touched upon, some of the qualities that we search for in a military leader are to a great extent the same as those being required within any complicated and challenging undertaking: Respect for the uniqueness of the individual, openness, trustworthiness – being the foundation of the building of a mutual confidence –, a desire and a wish to strive for the freeing of the latent energies in every individual and for a mutual exchange of energies. These qualities are well known in theory and to some even in practice. We may sum it up to «professionalism», a professionalism including, but also going well beyond the practical techniques and technicalities of the branch involved, a professionalism which encompass the dealing with man. Additional to all this are, for the soldier, the very special moral and ethical challenges – in cases the dilemmas – which may confront him in battle. As we all here know, for the military leader these challenges are enhanced by the fact that he, or she, is not only taking the lives of the opponent and risking loosing the own life, but is ordering others to take lives and to risk their lives, sometimes with very meagre chances of survival. In the selection of candidates for military leadership some will stress, not necessarily wrongly, the significance of the basic and inherited qualities of the candidate, the qualities of the so–called born leader. Others put the weight on what might be developed by the means of an appropriate education and training. Easy this evaluation is not. Psychology is no exact science, thanks God. Of course it is important that the officer candidates possess an acceptable IQ, some common sense, an ability to quickly sort what is important in a specific situation from the less important, for then to act applying strong will and dedication. If the candidate may further demonstrate coolness and balance under stress, and may be even a charisma in its better interpretation, the chances that he, or she, might develop into a good leader should be good. But it is worthwhile to note as a warning that an IQ is not synonymous with common sense and not synonymous with an ethical standard. There is reason to stress that the toughest in language and in style, the «Rambo», also the one who might camouflage much under an acceptable IQ and a polished appearance, nor in advance, neither in battle, may see ethics as a potential dilemma. He may lack the necessary sensitivity and the wish as well as the ability genuinely to care for his soldiers and to inspire soldiers to serve under severe stress for something they hold to be worth it. To avoid any misunderstanding, the sensitivity that we search for does not imply softness; the necessary coolness under stress is not the same as coldness. Sensitivity should neither for any military leader imply that he under stress allows himself to be one among other possible clients for experimenting psychologists. It is indeed under severe stress that the leader should lead. The search is for the sound candidate for leadership not, as some seem to think, for the flawless candidate. The absolute flawless individual is seldom holding much imagination. He or she might lack the ability to understand those who are not perfect, and very few are, and also lack the imagination required for the crossing of cultural borders. To illustrate from one field of life only, one might risk a system implicitly saying that you may hate as many as you like as long as you never have loved more than one.

Let me mention one aspect of training that by the first look may seem impressive, but which may not produce the best results when put to the ultimate test. The observation applies whether the question is training of candidates for leadership or for soldiering in general. The attempts in some quarters to break the will and the dignity of a young man or women in the belief that this is a necessary first step toward making a good soldier, is in practical as well as in ethical sense a highly questionable procedure. The process, not always conducted by intellectual or psychological brilliance, is more likely to produce just the «Rambos» who I have already referred to, not the self reliant soldier acting on the basis of what Field–Marshall Montgomery termed «an intelligent discipline». And the rebuilding of someone broken is a task that hardly can be trusted to just any regimental NCO.

Soldiering for “Sold”

Some might state, «a soldier is a soldier», and that’s it. «My country, right or wrong» is the next step before «Right or wrong, I am a soldier» becomes the slogan. Then one is a mercenary, doing whatever, wherever for whomever provided that the pay is good, operating solidly outside the ethical and moral principles which we wish to defend. Although the word «soldier» actually means the one who is paid, soldiering in whatever capacity or rank cannot, and should not, plainly be seen as a «job» paid by the hour, a job to be picked among other jobs if only the pay and other physical conditions are competitive. It is not just a job to kill if need be. This message is not for export only. In this matter we are in this country balancing on a rather slack rope. Soldiering is neither a form of a he–man sport.

Dealing with the «Absolute Evil»

Let me conclude with again stressing the uniqueness of the ethical and moral challenge of military men and women of our societies: To combine You shall not killwith doing just that. We know,  however, that the application of lethal force may be unavoidable. The alternative may be unbearable. Only too often the «absolute Evil», in the form of an individual or a system, may appear in a position destructive to man. The absolute Evil is seldom reparable, but the absolute Evil may be neutralised or destroyed. The means will often have to be of a kind, which causes decisive pain. It is a demanding task to define when such means should be applied.

But it is not an alternative to withdraw from that task.

Ethical Responsibility rests with the Individual

The ethical challenges, which we have discussed, are confronting the individual as well as the collective. They may both be praised or blamed for their performance. The final responsibility, however, rests with the individual. Ethical responsibility can seldom be collectivised. The collective consists of individuals.


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