Global Ethics Corner: A Warrior Ethic: Can Military Ethics be Taught?

Apr 27, 2012

After the recent highly publicized stories of American military members desecrating the remains of Taliban soldiers, many in the U.S. armed forces are learning about the ethics of war through workshops. Will these lessons work? Can warfare morality be learned in a classroom?

War is always violent. It causes devastating social upheavals and often leads to high mortality rates. But sometimes, the horrors of war exceed the bounds of normal warfare.

Infamous examples include the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal in Iraq. But there are more recent examples, too. Take the recently released images of American soldiers posing with the dead remains of a Taliban suicide bomber. Or the allegations that U.S. marines urinated on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan.

In each of these cases, U.S. servicemen have been accused of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and more importantly, of violating core American values. Many worry that they illustrate a decline in U.S. military values.

That's why America's top military leaders are doubling down on the ethics of war. Across the country, sergeants, officers and military cadets are reviewing the ethical standards for America's military. They are sitting in workshops and talking about the meaning of integrity and acceptable military behavior. Combining elements of sociology, history, and religion, these courses are supposed to teach soldiers how to make good moral decisions in the complex world of real-life warfare.

But do these workshops really work? Can a classroom code of ethics impact battlefield behavior?

For some, teaching a military ethic is unrealistic. They believe that ethical theories about right and wrong don't translate to real life. They say true morality can only be learned in practice. Still, others say military ethics training is vital to moral leadership. Without it, military leaders are unprepared to make the difficult choices required in war.

Where do you stand? Can military ethics be learned in the classroom?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Tom Bowman, "U.S. Military Wages Battle Against Misconduct," NPR, April 24, 2012

Thomas E. Ricks, "Want another Abu Ghraib? Keep ignoring ethics training for soldiers," Foreign Policy, February 25, 2010

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance: Taylor, Photographer/Department of the Army Ronald L. Haeberle Department of Defense YouTube Sgt. Reed Knutson/U.S. Army Pete Souza/White House The U.S. Army [also for pictures 8, 11, & 12) Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika/U.S. Army Senior Airman Christopher Gross/U.S. Air Force

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