About a year and a half ago, I attended the annual McCain Conference on military ethics held at the U.S. Naval Academy. The subject was “Moral Injury and Moral Virtue.” I came away from that conference with the sense that the American military needed an explicit moral code. Recent events have renewed this belief, and I want here to state briefly why we need such a code, what it might look like, and how the armed forces could put the code into effect, making it a part of military culture, one that is much needed.
At the 2019 McCain Conference, the prevalence of moral injury, or MI, was a major concern. Why were so many service members reporting that they had been witness or a party to dubious or very reprehensible behavior, leading in some cases to the undermining of their own moral foundations, to feelings of apathy and hopelessness? One speaker cited an estimate that between 14- to 28 percent of Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans have been responsible for a non-combatant death. How could this be prevented? Many theories were advanced, but a few simple ideas stood out. Character is not enough to prevent the actions that lead to MI, and that of course can have other, even more serious and immediate effects, such as the death of innocents. The enforcement of standards is often required to restrain misconduct, especially in in extremis conditions like combat. Clear cut rules of behavior have to be invoked and repeated.
Some developments in the culture of the armed forces have reinforced the need for a written moral code. White supremacist groups have been able to recruit in all branches. Some of those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 were, shamefully, military veterans, reserve, or active service members. The idea that racist and fascist ideology is compatible with military service, even that it complements service in the American armed forces, has been allowed to take hold and to grow.
A positive way for the armed forces to combat this unacceptable view is to adopt an ethical code that spells out the ethical requirements of military service. Such a code could also have the effect of helping to deter the kinds of action that bring on MI, actions often harmful in themselves and that bring discredit on the uniform. Such a code would lay stress on the importance of human rights, dignity, and diversity. It would prohibit the maltreatment of prisoners and other noncombatants, in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). It would call on individuals to report violations of the code, and on leaders and commanders to pursue such reports until they are satisfied that the demands of justice and of the highest traditions of an honorable profession have been met.
Some might argue that since the armed forces already have the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the Code of Conduct, the Oath to the Constitution, and the various service “core values,” the addition of an ethical code is unnecessary. I reply that all of these aspects of military culture, while necessary, are not sufficiently explicit or effective in the ethical arena, as indicated by some of the best thinking on the subject of military ethics and some current challenges to the honor and effectiveness of the military. It is possible that some of the veterans who attacked the Capitol may have been suffering from MI, and that this may affect, although it does not excuse, their behavior. The point must be made too that the wide-ranging authority and sheer firepower often wielded by military personnel places ethics at the heart of the military profession, not as mere adornment but as the sine qua non. Moral purpose is what most significantly distinguishes the soldier from the thug or gunman.
A written code, however carefully written or widely disseminated, will of course not be enough. It should be subject to extensive input and scheduled review. It will need the support of commanders and of the military’s extensive education and training system. It will require resources and new expertise, but done right, it will be worth the cost in time and money. In a sense, such a code would join the armed forces to the rest of the nation in what many of us hope will be a period of national renewal, a time of unity, of liberty and justice for all, and an opportunity to renew our ideals and sacred honor.
Reed Bonadonna is a retired Marine Corps infantry officer and field historian; his most recent book is “How to Think Like an Officer: Lessons in Learning and Leadership for Soldiers and Other Citizens.”
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