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Teaching military ethics to ROTC cadets.


More officers are commissioned into the United States military services through ROTC than through any other commissioning source. While service academies (Air Force Academy, West Point and Annapolis) have an ethics course as a prerequisite to graduation, ROTC departments do not. In this article, I argue that this should change and suggest a format for an ethics course tailored to ROTC cadets.

The need for Military Ethics

As most US Army officers do today, I was commissioned at a regular university through a program called the "Reserve Officers Training Corps" (ROTC). [1] The program can take as little as two years to complete and may or may not include a scholarship that covers the cost of the cadet's tuition, course books, etc. In addition to obtaining a four-year degree, commissioning requirements include a variety of courses about military doctrine (offered by the ROTC department and taught by military officers), physical fitness tests, and some tactical training in the field. As it stands currently, there is no requirement for cadets to take a course in ethics or morality of war. Instead, the curriculum within the ROTC courses includes a few so-called "blocks of instruction" on ethics. [2] If the university itself does not require an ethics course (more and more universities are), then it is possible for a cadet to graduate and get commissioned without ever having taken an ethics class. Cadets who graduate from military service academies (the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, the US Military Academy at West Point, and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis), by contrast, must take such a class, and in their case they have the added benefit that the course is tailored to their role as future military officers. People expect military officers to make hard choices, those difficult decisions that warrant a strong moral backbone. But how can we demand a strong moral backbone if we are not committed to giving most of these officers an adequate background in ethics?

There is another reason why cadets should take a military ethics class: they should know what they are getting into. Upon completion of the ROTC program, and as part of the commissioning ceremony, these new lieutenants take an oath "to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Knowing beforehand what "protecting and defending" may entail, form an ethical perspective, is crucial if a cadet is to understand the very meaning of the oath he or she is about to take. We owe cadets at least that much: they ought to know the ethics of the profession they are about to pursue. In today's philosophical (and legal)jargon, we would call this "informed consent." It demands nothing more than the understanding of the contract before the parties enter it. It is understandable, particularly in times of dwindling recruiting numbers, that services would all like to meet their enlistment quotas and goals. I was a commander too, and when it came to re-enlisting a prior-service soldier, say one with disciplinary problems in the past, the fact that he would bring me that much closer to my end-strength goal was a deciding factor. But it was precisely as a commander that I realized that I had been ill equipped to handle some ethical dilemmas that are inherent in military life and service. By then I had heard of the infamous My Lai massacre, but I had not been prepared to handle the more day-to-day (and far more common) ethical dilemmas: racial discrimination, alcohol abuse, unsatisfactory performance, command influence, etc. This is why I think a course dedicated to military ethics would be helpful. Even if the course merely pointed out, "Look, these are the kinds of moral dilemmas you will be dealing with in the years to come," I think these cadets (and future officers) will be a little bit better off. ROTC offices throughout the country (perhaps under the direction of Cadet Command or Training and Doctrine Command) should make classes like this available to, and indeed required of, all cadets.

Suggested Military Ethics Course Format

Assuming that the students have a cursory understanding of things-military (rank structure, task organization, customs, etc.), as most ROTC cadets do, the course should begin with a brief history of the ethical dilemmas encountered in war, and who were the key players in formulating (and perhaps even attempting to answer) the ethical questions thereby generated. [3] One could go as far back as one wishes in the first half of the question, but it would also be interesting to point out that the formulation of the questions, let alone the attempts to answer them, came much later. Invite students to explain what Sun Tzu (whom most of ROTC students have already read) had to say about ethics in his famous work, The Art of War (the answer is almost nothing--Hsun Tzu, who wrote two hundred years after Sun Tzu, is the first in that line of research who says anything ethical). Texts like The Art of War typically addressed military strategy and left ethical questions totally out of the picture. Soon enough, however, thinkers who do tackle the difficult questions surface: Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, and Clausewitz. Since assigning the complete works of these thinkers and military figures was unwieldy, handouts that highlight their contributions proved sufficient (see References Mentioned below for recommended excerpts). Other historical figures may come up later in the course, when discussing specific topics. Machiavelli, for instance, proves useful when tackling the dirty hands problem. [4]

Having laid the historical background, the next step is to cover the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and FM 27-10 (The Law of Land Warfare) in some detail. These sources give cadets the legal framework under which they will be operating. Other codes of conduct and things like the honor codes at service academies find their way into these discussions. The ROTC department's own military doctrine classes ought to cover these texts in some detail, but a second brush from a different perspective (ethical as opposed to strictly legal) is well worth the time and effort. Covering some basic ethical theory is certainly in order, but the question of when can be tricky. I have found better success when theory is tackled in the middle of the semester, as opposed to at the beginning. The reason is that students will assimilate more of the theory having first gone over some of the substance. Much like in any introductory philosophy class, covering the three major ethical theories (virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism) is vital. Reading primary sources works best, so Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, and Mill's Utilitarianism will do well, respectively (in most cases excerpts will be sufficient, see References Mentioned below for recommendations). Tackling the ethical relativism (and its problems) is also a must. James Rachels' article, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," proved thought-provoking, accessible, and persuasive.

Michael Walzer presents us with the perfect fusion of all that has been discussed so far. His book, Just and Unjust Wars, ought to figure prominently in any military ethics curriculum. Walzer also serves as the perfect transition for the balance of the semester: putting theory into practice. In fact, his genius is in his use of real-world examples, a practice that makes complex ethical concepts more accessible to the reader. Walzer clearly explains the differences between jus ad bellum and jus in bello, a distinction that has shaped modern military ethics. Topics discussed in some depth include: pacifism, ethical realism (the "might makes right" attitude), combatant/noncombatant distinction, aggression, sovereignty, preemptive/preventive war distinction, and humanitarian intervention.

The course should end on a practical note: turn to specific ethical dilemmas encountered in military life and service. These should include those dilemmas likely to be encountered in combat (conscientious objection, illegal orders, etc.), and Walzer is best to bring these issues to the classroom, but they must also include those dilemmas encountered in peacetime (sexual and racial discrimination and harassment, for instance) and lower-level command issues I mentioned before. For these kinds of dilemmas, if the instructor's experiences are not rich enough, perhaps inviting an active duty commander (from a nearby unit, even if it's a Reserves or National Guard unit) to discuss day-to-day ethical challenges would work best.

General Format and Flow

If possible, every lecture should begin by asking the students if they found something pertaining to military ethics in the local newspaper. Students (especially cadets) tend to think philosophy classes are too ethereal (and hence are useless), but this practice would make it clear that the course is indeed meant to address real issues. As the course progresses, the language used to evaluate these events should get more and more ethically sophisticated. The use of an occasional movie or clip is also a good idea. Some of the material covered, especially the theoretical stuff, is at times admittedly a bit deep. When students could identify with a subject visually, their ability to abstract the theoretical aspects of the problem improved dramatically. An episode of Band of Brothers (an HBO series) fits (tightly) in most class periods, while movies like Gandhi, Saving Private Ryan, and Full Metal Jacket were better used by showing clips of pivoting moments in order to illustrate specific ethical points (pacifism, combatant/noncombatant distinction, following illegal orders, etc.).

A course about military ethics, especially when it is offered outside of the ROTC department, is likely to make some people uncomfortable (it is understandable, for example, that an ROTC department would be protective about what is being fed intellectually to their cadet corps). The My Lai massacre, conscientious objection, nuclear deterrence, pacifism, sexual and racial discrimination, and homosexuality are all indeed touchy subjects, but, like it or not, they are part and parcel of the subject of military ethics. One must be careful to use only the latest Field Manuals and Technical Manuals when it comes to discussing doctrinal military issues, but the emphasis of this kind of course should be on critically examining this doctrine. This course should not be viewed by the ROTC department (or anyone else, for that matter) as "pro-military" or as a course on pacifism veiled by a catchy title. A successful course in military ethics allows its students to evaluate the big picture: understand the strengths and weakness of moral realism, pacifism as well as a Walzer-style just war theory.

A brief note about grading. Exams work best to assess whether the students are tracking the day-to-day material. Short-answer tests were especially helpful to assess understanding of historical development of just war theory, ethical theory, and Walzer. Reading comprehension quizzes, though unpopular, also served well as a motivation to keep up with the readings. But this is, after all, an ethics course, and none would be complete without one major essay that asks students to tackle an ethical subject. Allowing students to pick their topic is a good policy, since they are more likely to get something meaningful out of the experience if they write about a subject of interest to them.


I have seen in recent years a marked improvement in the emphasis the military is placing on ethics training. But if we compare the military service academies with ROTC programs, the latter is at a disadvantage: all service academies require a semester-long course in military ethics while ROTC departments need only to gloss over the topic within their regular core courses. Cadet Command ought to look into standardizing some of the material in ethics provided to cadets in our non-military universities. After all, the majority of military officers come from these institutions and not from the service academies. The best solution is to create and offer separate course called Military Ethics, but alternatively, I believe that a cadet's professional and military education (PME) requirements ought to include an introductory ethics course offered by the university's philosophy department.


[1] Rough numbers were obtained from Army Personnel Command, via email. ROTC accounted for 3570 commissions in 2002. West Point has about 1000 graduates per year and OCS (Officer Candidate School, both state and federally run) accounts for about 300 commissioned officers per year.

[2] This information was obtained from MAJ Patrick Moore, who teaches at the ROTC department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (phone conversation, August 13, 2003).

[3] Courses like this typically also attract non-ROTC students who are interested in just war theory. If these students don't have the benefit of knowing military rank structures, etc., it would be well-worth covering these subjects anyway. Cadets can actively participate in the instruction of these topics.

[4] The "dirty hands problem" refers to the fact that being "in charge" comes at a cost: having to make difficult decisions. Machiavelli's suggestion to the ruler who wants to hold on to power is to "learn how not to be good" (p. 48). For a summary of this problem see Michael Walzer's "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands" in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1973-74.


Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, David Ross Trans., Oxford University Press, New York, 1980. Recommended excerpts: Books I, II, III (Section 6, on courage), and Book X.

Clausewitz, Carl Von-, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret Eds. and Trans., Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1976. Recommended for handout: Book One (On the Nature of War), Chapters 1, 2 and 7; Book Three (On Strategy in General), Chapters 3 and 4.

Davidson, Donald, Nuclear Weapons and the American Churches: Ethical Positions on Modern Warfare, Westview Press, 1983. Recommended for handout: Chapter entitled "The Development of the Just-War Tradition." Among others, Davidson describes Cicero's and Augustine's contributions to the just war tradition.

Grotius, Hugo, The Rights of War and Peace, A.C. Campbell Trans., Hyperion Press Inc., Westport, Connecticut, 1979. Recommended for handout: Book I, Chapter I, pages 17-21; Chapter II, pages 31-34; Chapter III, pages 55-58; and Book III, Chapter I, pages 290-292.

Kant, Immanuel, Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, H. J. Paton Trans., Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1956. Recommended excerpts: Preface, Chapters I and II.

Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, David Wootton Trans., Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., Indianapolis, 1995.

Mill, John Smart, On Liberty and Utilitarianism, Bantam Books, New York, 1993. Recommended excerpts: all of Utilitarianism.

Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Random House, New York, 1986.

Sigmund, Paul E., Ed., St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics, Norton Critical Edition, New York, 1988. Recommended for handout: pages 64-65 (excerpts from Summa Theologiae, II-II, Questions 40 and 42).

Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd Edition, Basic Books, New York, 2000.

Carlos Bertha, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy. Disclaimer: View expressed here are solely the author's and are not necessarily shared by the United States Air Force Academy, or the United States Air Force.
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Author:Bertha, Carlos
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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