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Military OR ethics. (Features).

Editorial Abstract: Dr. Toner explains that military ethics is about knowing what is true and then doing what is right. He takes an interesting approach to make his points memorable by using three Os (owing, ordering, and oughting), three Rs (rules, results, and realities), and three Ds (discern, declare, and do). He concludes by asking readers to first remember those who have gone before, who have worn the uniform, and have served the nation. He then challenges them to live a life that attempts to earn the sacrifices their predecessors made to ensure the survival and success of liberty.

THE TITLE OF this article is deliberately "cute" or misleading because it suggests exactly what I wish to argue against. I oppose the idea that there is either the "military" (by which I mean the profession of arms, the military services, or combat operations) or "ethics" (by which I mean morality, concern for righteousness, or principles of goodness). That division between what is military and what is moral is properly referred to as a false dichotomy; that is, we are arbitrarily and unfairly separating what must not be torn asunder.

Having taught military ethics for 12 years at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, I have never had to make the case to my students there that military ethics is necessary, possible, or ordinarily makes plain good sense. That simple fact--that senior officers almost without exception buy into the reality (not just the ideal) of military ethics--is a great compliment to them and their services. It is also something that the severest critics of the United States military too frequently (and willfully?) overlook. Let me say that another way. I do not have to go on an academic campaign with war college students to persuade them that they can be airmen (or soldiers) and moral men and women. About that, they already agree--and that is no small matter.

So the title is not meant to argue that airmen must be either militarily competent or personally decent. From experience and from personal conviction, senior officers whom I have taught for more than a decade know, accept, and teach this to their subordinates by their own words and works. What I do suggest is that military ethics is based upon two letters, O and R A sense of ethics compels me to admit that I will sneak in P and D also, risking alphabetical overkill, but I intend thereby only to make some precepts of moral ethics clearer and perhaps more memorable. If there is one principal thesis in what is to follow, it is this: Military ethics is about our learning what is good and true and then having the courage to do and be what and who we ought to. For military ethics is not about his or her successes or failures; it is not about their virtues or vices. Military ethics is about our heritage and history, and it is about our responsibility to be men and women of character.

The Three Os

Military ethics is rooted in three Os: owing, ordering, and oughting. (OK, so I am fudging a little on the third one!) About a decade ago, the movie Saving Private Ryan appeared. In it, Capt John Miller of the US Army leads a patrol during World War II to save Private Ryan, all of whose brothers have already been killed. Miller and his soldiers, dying in the effort, do manage to save Ryan. Miller has given Ryan "life," and the dying captain wants young Ryan to make his life count and instructs him to earn this ... earn it." Many years later, an aging Ryan returns to France to visit the military cemetery where his captain is buried. He tells'' the captain that not a day goes by that he doesn't think of the sacrifice of Miller and his men so that he could live. He turns to his wife, plaintively asking whether he has, in fact, kept the faith. Has he "earned it"? Has he lived up to the charge given him so many years earlier by his dying captain?

Military ethics based upon "me-ism" or "egotism" cannot function. Military ethics is about knowing whom and what we owe. Like Private Ryan and then Mr. Ryan, airmen must understand that they owe a debt of gratitude to their country, families, services, chain of command, and comrades. That is exactly what is meant by "service before self' (in the Air Force), "selfless service" (in the Army), or "commitment" (in the Navy and Marine Corps). Military ethics cannot properly exist without the concept of owing. If we know why we owe what we do, we are able to recognize the obligation, responsibility, and duty which give rise to moral thinking and ethical reasoning. If I think I owe nothing to anyone, then I am a moral psychopath unable to distinguish the basis of honor, which is an understanding of my moral indebtedness to those who have given me life and learning. (1) Indeed, without a sense of owing, I am little more than a self-indulgent child, of whom we say, quite properly, that "he has no sense of responsibili ty."

Neither can military ethics properly exist without the concept of ordering. By ordering, I do not mean telling subordinates what to do. I refer, instead, to moral structuring and ethical priorities. In the movie A Few Good Men, a Marine lance corporal tells his lawyers that the "code" is based upon "unit, corps, God, country." He has it, of course, all wrong. In fact, many illegal activities or stupid mistakes in the military services are the result of leaders' failures to order wisely and well.

In the meantime, let us suppose that our Marine lance corporal attended Officer Candidate School and has now risen to the rank of, say, lieutenant colonel. He is about to appear before a congressional committee to testify about a weapons system which still has a kink or two--but one which the Marine Corps may really want. Is it all right for him to withhold crucial information about that weapons system from the committee that might terminate it? Or even to lie to them about it? Of course it is--if we put "corps" ahead of "country." Please: I am not saying that the Marine Corps should or would agree to the colonel's deception or lies. But if the colonel's sense of ordering were that anything the corps wants the corps should have because the USMC is more important than the country, we are looking at potential ethical disgrace and disaster. By the way, just to be clear, I have never known a senior Marine Corps officer who thinks that way.

Before getting to the third 0, let me suggest that the way to think about the Os is in the context of three Ps: principle (truth-telling and honor) first; purpose (mission accomplishment and duty) second; and people (countrymen, airmen, and soldiers) third. We know that military ethics demands that we look out for more than ourselves. An ancient military leadership principle, after all, is "know your troops and look out for their welfare"; but there is much more to it than just that. If military leaders put their people first, then the armed services would be little more than morale, welfare, and recreation operations. The point, though, is that the proper ordering, in my view, is God, Country, Corps (or Air Force), unit. (2) A great deal of ink has been spilled over the question of "purple" officers. I am not trying to argue the case here for or against "jointness," but I am only saying that every leader ought to be able to see on his BDUs that before the name of his or her service come two letters--US. That makes my point.

As I mentioned, the third 0 stands for oughting, by which I mean an understanding of what airmen or soldiers should do or ought to do. The three Rs which follow are the guidelines to oughting, but the key for military ethics is this: What airmen do may not be the same thing as what they ought to do. Sound simple? Yes, but it isn't, for military hierarchies sensibly insist upon obedience to orders and upon prompt, total discipline. Ethics, however, demurs, insisting upon conditional and contextual obedience to orders, which ought to be obeyed if lawful. So there is often, but not always, tension between the demands of military authority (or command) and the demands of ethical judgment (or conscience). So we have here not just what is (which is might and power or the man-made or positive law) but also what ought to be (which is right or ethics or the natural or moral law) (3) Some things we cannot deny knowing, for anyone of normal mental and moral development must understand certain things (such as knowing tha t the slaughter of the innocent is wrong).

It is a defense to any offense that the accused was acting pursuant to orders unless the accused knew the orders to be unlawful or a person of ordinary sense and understanding would have known the orders to be unlawful.

--Manual for Courts-Martial, Rule 916

One does not have to become embroiled in theology or philosophy here, for an AF pamphlet titled International Law--The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, states the matter plainly: "The fact that an act was committed pursuant to military orders is an acceptable defense only if the accused did not know or could not reasonably have been expected to know that the act ordered was unlawful. Members of the armed forces are bound to obey only lawful orders." (4)

In simple English, then, there can be no proper military ethics without a sense, not merely of what we have been ordered to do, but also of what we ought to do. I said that military ethics is necessary, but I did not say that it is simple.

The Three Rs

So what guidance can we give airmen as they sort out owing, ordering, and oughting? This is where the three Rs come in--not reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, but rules, results, and realities. Unless there were rules, we would have to say that we know little or nothing about ethics. (In fact, there are some scholars who--in my view, mistakenly--would say exactly that.) Rules are minicourses in, or compressions of, ethical guidance. Much of what is, or passes for, ethical education amounts to our teaching rules, which are shorthand moral prescriptions, to our children, our students, or our cadets. The scholarship, jurisprudence, and wisdom of the ages become the theory of just war, which, in turn, becomes the law of war which, in turn, becomes rules of engagement.

Oughting tells us that some things we must know; correlatively, some things we cannot not know. (5) But let's understand too that we cannot invent clear rules that govern every circumstance. That is not to say that such moral guidance doesn't exist--consider, for example, the ancient rule that we should treat others as we wish to be treated--but the more ground it covers, the "thinner" it must become. Even the Golden Rule, which depends upon good reason, fails if the one doing the thinking is deranged or sadistic. Rules are therefore very important, but we cannot create military ethics on the basis only of rules, however valid or virtuous they may be, for they are not a moral "logic tree" or an ethical calculator. (6)

Over the years of teaching military ethics, I have found that many, if not most, senior officers lean toward utilitarianism. What matters is the outcome, the bottom line, and the consequence--thus the second R of results. Ethics instruction frequently amounts to little more, really, than this: Choose the greater (or greatest) good. (7) That is a seductive instruction for military professionals who are and--up to a point--should be concerned with results. (Intelligence, in particular, is driven by a bottom-line concern.) The difficulty with this approach to ethics, of course, is that it ignores a rule: The ends do not justify the means. Although this rule can be debated, I think most of us will agree that even good ends can't justify all means or any means. Would you want as a friend--et alone as a senior commander--someone whose view of ethics is that the only thing that matters is getting a good officer performance report, or passing the inspection, or even winning the battle at any cost, regardless of the p rice, suffering, or deaths involved? Cadet codes of honor, for example, rightly teach that lying, stealing, and cheating are wrong--which is to say that certain means (cheating) are wrong even though the end in sight (passing a test) may be good in itself. Many choices in military ethics are defective precisely because airmen or soldiers forget or ignore the idea that, almost without exception, the end does not and cannot justify the means.

What is good for us is not just to choose freely but freely to choose what is good.

--Professor Alfonso Gomez-Lobo

Morality and the Human Goods

But did you notice the weasel words "almost without exception"? Here we meet our third R--realities. Lying is wrong. But would you lie to a Nazi if you owned a house in Warsaw in 1939 and he knocked on your door, asking if you had seen two fugitive Jews (whom you were hiding in your basement)? Of course you would, for you recognize the importance of the situation, circumstances, or realities. (8) Some would say that rules are inadequate and that we cannot predict outcomes; therefore, all we have with which to make ethical judgments are the exigencies of the moment. This is known as "situation ethics," a moral view I strongly deny--and one I am not trying to defend here. Circumstances condition our choices, I think, but they do not and should not determine such choices. We do know some things (rules), and we often can reasonably predict outcomes (results); but, of course, we do take into consideration present realities. The Nazi knocking on my door in 1939 is not entitled to the truth, and I will lie to him, k nowing that a literal-minded devotion to the idea here of the rule "do not lie" will result in the reality of a gross miscarriage of justice--the likely murder of those two Jewish people. Prudential judgment--not situation ethics, utilitarianism, or even rule-based thinking--informs my conscience here, and I choose to save the Jews by lying.

This is a case of what I have elsewhere called "dueling duties." (9) In the case of lying to the Nazi, I know I owe loyalty to the security of the Jews before I owe loyalty to telling truth to a Nazi who doesn't deserve it, and I order my priorities in that manner, deciding what I ought to do by reasoned moral judgment. I have two duties--one to save the Jews and the other to tell the truth. The rule of truth telling finds exception or exemption in this instantiation. But that does not release me, in the future, from the moral obligation of telling the truth.

If we know whom and what we owe; if we know how our loyalties should be ordered; and if we know what we ought to be and ought to do--then we must still marshal the courage to be a lady or a gentleman true to our formed consciences. I do not think of the late Frank Sinatra as a great philosopher, but his line from the song "Strangers in the Night"-- "dobedobedo"--makes profound ethical sense. For we become what we do and we do what we become (fig. 1). So we fashion for ourselves either a virtuous or a vicious square.

Every time we act, we become what we have done. In a sense, I become what I do, and then I do what I have become. Sensible people do not want to think of themselves as liars even though they may have lied at one time or another. If we think that, by telling a lie, we are becoming liars (not just committing an act), we are much more unlikely to do what we should not do, lest we become what we do not want to be. In this process of moral reasoning, we are, in effect, thinking about owing, ordering, and oughting.

The Three Ds

The three Os work in conjunction with the three Ds: We must try to discern the truth; at appropriate times, we declare the truth, as we have discerned it; and then we do what we have discerned and declared (fig. 2).

Consider the name we give to someone who says (declares) one thing but does something different: hypocrite. Although the three Rs are useful, the best ethical reference I know is a man or woman of noble character. Such people--not paid "ethics industry" consultants or newspaper ethics columnists--should be your moral touchstone, a point Aristotle made 2,300 years ago (and without a Web site, a speaking fee, or a regular column in a periodical or newspaper!).

Persons of strong character are the ultimate resource for any military organization, and they are by definition persons of integrity-- individuals whose actions are consistent with their beliefs.

--Col Anthony E. Hartle USA

Moral Issues in Military Decision Making

The three Ds tell us that we have a moral charge to educate ourselves as best we can in light of the truth, to speak up for truth, and then to act in truth. One more D actually comes into play here, for this is a process of moral decision, a word that the dictionary tells us means "the idea of coming to a conclusion after some question, talk, or thinking over." In fact, the word decide comes to us from the Latin meaning to "cut off," for we cut ourselves off from alternatives that we reject as unworthy of what we should do or of who we are.

We "cut ourselves off' from deception and distortion, from prejudice and self-promotion, from lies and lunacies, and we seek truth. For we cannot act as we should or be what we ought to unless we are grounded in what is true. Today's world, however, increasingly tells us that "truth is just a name we give to our opinions." As the scholar Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has put it, "Doubt is the truth of our times--the socially constructed, culturally engineered formula which arises from our own historical context--just as, according to relativism, the truth of every group is fashioned by its needs."(10) If that is correct (one can't say "true"!), then it is only a matter of time until the profession of arms itself becomes "self referencing"--that is, the military becomes its own final authority and ultimate standard, "fashioned by its needs," and then there will be no sense of right and wrong, of honor and shame, which transcends the military ethic and by which the deeds of the armed forces can be morallyjudged. In the Platonic dialogue the Apology, Socrates tells us that "the life which is unexamined is not worth living." (11) That assumes, of course, that there are standards and authorities against which one ought to measure his or her life. Without such authorities, one has only the impetus of one's ego as a moral criterion. By the same token, if the armed services have no ultimate standards by which to judge their actions and orders, we court moral and military disaster.

If we do not confront the soft relativism that is now disguised as virtue, we will find ourselves morally and intellectually disarmed.

--William Bennett

The Death of Outrage

In Anton Myrer's novel Once an Eagle, the hero--a military officer named Sam Damon-- instructs his son in "virtue ethics": "If it comes to a choice between being a good soldier and a good human being, try to be a good human being."'2 Military ethics is about each airman's being a good human being, because an Air Force of competence and character is made up of thousands of "good human beings"--people for whom truth and integrity are not "social constructs" but the very threads of the fabric of their lives. Such airmen know, as GenJohn D. Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, put it on 1 November 1972, that "any order to compromise integrity is not a lawful order." (13)

What's It All About Alfie?

A Summary

What's It All About, Alfie? is a movie and the title of a Dionne Warwick song, a line from which is--"Is it just for the moment we live?" In the movie (and song) the question put to Alfie is asked and answered in a way rather unusual for the entertainment industry. I ordinarily refrain, however, from singing Sinatra and Warwick songs when I speak about ethics! Let me put a gloss on the answer given to Alfie.

We have tried to look at military ethics in terms of two--well, all right, three--letters: The Os tell us to think hard about whom we owe, to order those debts properly, and to ought ourselves accordingly--to have a "sure sense of should." We live at a time and in a society which increasingly tells us that there are no standards and no authorities to help us develop our three Os. We are told, instead, to regard as our ultimate standard the image we see every morning in our bathroom mirror. Not only is that morally mistaken, but it is also militarily ruinous, for any armed service which is based upon or rooted in its members' self-love is doomed to failure and disgrace.

So we can highlight two negative adages: Be leery of loyalty and be suspicious of sincerity. A loyalty only to self or only to gang or group (or even, by extension, only to service) is dangerous. Loyalty must flow from an ordered sense of ultimate obligation: God, country, corps or Air Force, unit (or principle-purpose-people). And, be suspicious of sincerity because the wolf of evil can easily vest itself in the sheep's clothing of sincerity, and good intentions must answer the test question of the ends or purposes served by those intentions. So we discern truth diligently; we declare our convictions, saying what we will do; and then we consistently do what we say (or discernment-declaration-deed).

Two positive adages also suggest themselves. First, will wisdom. Ethics--to include military ethics--is not about prejudice; nor opinion; nor information; nor knowledge; nor even "processed knowledge," which we call "intelligence." Ethics--and all philosophy--are about wisdom, which may be defined as--well, what? How you define that word will determine your idea of owing, ordering, and oughting. But wisdom can be willed; it can be sought after; it can be pursued. And good men and women do desire it, seek after it, and pursue it. First, they will wisdom. Not for nothing, after all, does the biblical book of Wisdom tell us that "those who despise wisdom and instruction are miserable. Their hope is vain, their labors are unprofitable, and their works are useless." (4)

Second, good people value virtue, knowing the logic of the ancient proverb that "virtue exalts a nation, but sin is a people's disgrace." (15) Everyone has values, but not everyone has virtue, which is a habitual desire to do what ought to be done and thus to become what one should be (taking us back to dobedobedo!). The four classical, or cardinal, or natural, virtues were wisdom or prudence, justice or truthfulness, moral and physical courage, and self-control or temperance. By understanding the three Rs (rules to live by, a thoughtful attention to probable consequences or results, and situational awareness or realities), one forms the habit of detached moral analysis, of circumspect ethical reasoning, and of virtuous deeds. In a word, this is character. (16) Character is merely virtue in action.

Character, for example, is the commitment shown by Private Ryan, who properly perceived a debt he had to Captain Miller and the squad which saved him in World War II; he properly ordered his life as a result, reflecting often upon the example set for him; and he acted in the light of that reflection, as he should have. Truly, the good life led by "Private Ryan"--fulfilling and ennobling as it was for him and his family--was the result of his being able to see things in perspective. My dictionary defines perspective as "a view of things or facts in which they are in the right relation." So, Alfie, I think that is what it's all about! That, in essence, is also what military ethics is all about: Defending the national interest and protecting the innocent with the discrimination and proportionality which flow from seeing things or facts "in which they are in the right relation." And what, exactly, is "right relation"? Here is an Air Force illustration.

A number of years ago at the Air War College, the commandant opened the year with some customary announcements and with the charge to the new students that they were to question and criticize all year long; for that was the reason they had been chosen to read and to study and to think for a year at a senior service institution. The general then added an admonition which I have never forgotten. He told the (mostly) US Air Force students to challenge the speakers, and the readings, and the presented doctrines to their hearts' content, provided that the Air Force officers, in their criticisms, never blamed an ambiguous them, instead of us (i.e., including the students themselves). For it is our Air Force, he said, and not theirs; it is about us, and not about them. That is "right relation."

Military ethics, therefore, is not about them; it is about you--and about your knowing what is true, and doing what is right, and being the man or woman who leads the kind of life you would lead if, every day, you remembered that someone named Captain Miller had saved you from death many years before. And what do we think of all those who served the nation and who wore the uniform before us? Did they not give us a republic, if we can keep it? Did they not tell us about our government "of the people, by the people, for the people"? Did they not tell us to ensure "the survival and the success of liberty"? And did they, in effect, not tell us to "earn [all] this"? Or has our history come to this, that they are dead and forgotten, while we are alive and forgetting? Can it be that the beginning of military ethics is to remember?


(1.) Plato has Socrates mal(e this point in the Crito, 360 B.C. A translation by Benjansin Jowett can be found on-line, Internet, 18 March 2003, available from html.

(2.) Compare Acts 6:29: "We must obey God before men."

(3.) The concept of the natural or moral law can be found, for example, in Rom. 2:14-15; Ezek. 11:19, 36:26; and Jer. 31:33.

(4.) Air Force Pamphlet (AFPAM) 110-31, International Law -- The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, 19 November 1976, 15-6.

(5.) I am indebted to J. Budziszewski for this insight. See J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience (Dallas, Tex.: Spence Publishing Co., 1999), xvi. See also Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002).

(6.) Rule-based thinking is deontological ethics, associated with Immanuel Rant (1724-1804).

(7.) Outcome-based thinking is teleological or utilitarian ethics, associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and with John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

(8.) Sometimes termed situation ethics and associated with Joseph Fletcher (1906-1991).

(9.) James H. Toner, Morals under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics and American Society (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 82-85.

(10.) Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Truth:A History and a Guide for the Perplexed (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), 204, 206. Femandez-Armesto is simply saying that many today hold that truth is what we call our opinions; he does not agree with that view.

(11.) Plato, Apology, 360 B.c. A translation by Benjamin Jowett can be found on-line, Internet, 18 March 2003, available from

(12.) Anton Myrer, Once an Eagle (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968).

(13.) Quoted in Maiham M. Wakin, ed., War Morality, and the Military Prefession, 2d ed. (Boulder, Cob.: Westview Press, 1986), 180.

(14.) Wisd. of Sol 3:11, New Revised Standard Version. Wisdom, a book of the Old Testaments grouped with other writings referred to as either Deuteroncanonical or Apocryphal; it was included in the original King James Bible of 1611 but is often not included in today's protestant Bibles.

(15.) Prov., 14:34, New American Bible.

(16.) I highly recommend James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character. Moral Education in an Age without Good or Evil (New York Basic Books, 2000). I know that a number of ethical consultants, institutes, seminars, and one-day or weekend workshops promise miracle cures for businesses and others willing to pay great chunks of money for these services. There is no royal road to character, however, and it is certainly not developed by "ethics gurus" who are modem sophists and shills for the new national ethics industry. The best ethics consultant I know died nearly 2,000 years ago, and other great ones died more than 2,000 years ago. Their books (e.g., Aristotle's Ethics) are available in any good bookstore, and these thinkers do not charge exorbitant speaking and consulting fees!

Dr. James H. Toner (AB, St. Anselm College; AM, College of William and Mary; PhD, University of Notre Dame) is a professor of international relations and military ethics in the Department of Leadership and Ethics at the Air War College, Dr. Toner is on leave from the college until June 2004 to serve as The Ambassador Holland H. Coors Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development at the United States Air Force Academy. A graduate of Infantry Officer Candidate School and of the Airborne School, Dr. Toner served as an Army officer on active duty in Germany from 1068 to 1972 and was honorably discharged in 1074. He is widely published and lectures frequently on ethics, character development. and moral issues in national security. His articles, reviews, monographs, essays, and columns have appeared in scores of scholarly journals, popular magazines, and newspapers. Dr. Toner frequently serves as a consultant for religious, military, media, educational, and athletic leaders. In 2001, as a panelist on the Ar my Professionalism Study, he authored an essay on reconciling Christian ethics with contemporary duty, which was included in The Future of the Army Profession (McGraw-Hill, 2002). His books include The American Military Ethic: A Meditation (Praeger, 1902), The Sword and the Cross: Reflections on Command and Conscience (Praeger, 1993). True Faith and Allegiance: The Burden of Military Ethics (University of Kentucky Press, 1995), and Morals under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society (University of Kentucky Press. 2000).
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Author:Toner, James H.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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