A Code of Ethics for the US Armed Services? A Counterpoint

An Ethics Code for the Armed Forces: A Counterpoint

Col Bonadonna’s central thesis is clearly stated up front: “The American military needs a code of ethics.”  He argues such a code would “communicate a commitment to the American people.” He goes on to claim “the code would serve as doctrine…concerning the most vital ethical underpinnings of military service.”  Finally, he claims “An ethics code would help the American military secure and retain the respect and the recruits it deserves.”  While it may sound surprising coming from someone who has directed two military ethics centers as well as taught, researched and published in the field for a significant portion of his professional life, I stand opposed to the idea on the following grounds:

  1. Simplistic platitudes, such as the 10 suggested, rarely result in actual belief or behavior modification. Worse, they can sometimes become counterproductive as ‘doctrine’ often is when involving aspirational concepts.  Doctrine and the straightforward mechanical processes of tactics, techniques and procedure are established for very different purposes.  Ethics ‘training’ is notoriously ineffective.  This is unsurprising considering we train for certainty and educate for uncertainty.  Having been engaged in military ethics education for over two decades, I have yet to find singularly useful doctrine, theorems, or algorithms.  Military ethics education, like it’s twin discipline leader development, resists checklists.  The author would have been better served to design curriculum than to suggest a checklist.
  2. The 10 points of the code are so far-ranging as to be incoherent. Two mention the ‘profession’ yet don’t provide context for the meaning of ‘profession.’   Several invoke practices already encoded into law or policy (e.g. I will refrain from private commercial or partisan political activity while on duty or in uniform, I will respect religious beliefs and never impose my beliefs on others, and I will set an example of my commitments to…gender, racial and ethnic equality).   Yet others focus in traditional in bello conduct of war requirements (e.g. I will never turn my weapons on non- or post-combatants,  I will report acts of violence toward the unarmed, and I will pursue reports of acts of violence toward the unarmed). If these 10 items are meant to be one-stop shopping for all military ethics matters the author has failed.  If these 10 items are meant to be just those elements worthy of formal recognition the author has failed. 
  3. Perhaps the most counterproductive of the author’s positions is the conflation of military ethics with poor personal and political judgment on the part of senior military leaders and veterans generally. From the Jan 6th attack on the US Capitol to Gen Milley’s mistakes as CJCS, to Confederate monuments, Col Bonadonna suggests that a 10-point code will somehow be understood universally.  This ignores the complexity of the varied lenses through which the nation sees these events. Even an all-volunteer force is a reflection of the society from which it is drawn.  It may not be the broad, direct reflection that a conscripted force is, but it is a cross-section of society.  Therefore, it’s understandable that different people will see the same events quite differently.  We see the world as we are and not as it is.  A formal code will not change that fact.

I mentioned at the start I directed two military ethics centers.  The first was the MajGen John A. Lejeune Leadership Institute at Marine Corps University.  The Corps chose Lejeune’s name for that institute because the warrior-philosopher deeply understood the complex challenges of leadership when he developed his classic “Teacher-Scholar Model” in which he claimed that leaders should consider themselves responsible for the moral development of those in their charge as much as their physical and mental development.  The relationship between leader and led must not be that of superior-inferior but rather that of teacher-scholar or even parent and son/daughter.  Lejeune intuitively understood modeling was important—and so was teaching—especially when it came to the moral domain.

Similarly, the US Navy’s most iconic warrior-philosopher, VADM James B. Stockdale, for whom the center I currently direct at the US Naval Academy is named, recognized the complexity of developing moral responsibility.  In fact, he rejected the idea that rules or codes could have an impact.  Stockdale even spoke about how absolutely counterproductive the Code of Conduct was for real-life Prisoners of War in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton.’   For example, the guiding principle of providing the enemy with only name, rank and serial number was not only impossible in the crucible of torture experienced by Stockdale and his fellow POWs, but it contributed to a sense of failure and shame in those who broke under torture.  I have personally spoken with many POWs who identified Stockdale’s subtle, flexible approach to the realities of their circumstances as having saved many lives.  When Stockdale was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as a result of his inspirational leadership as a POW, it was broadly recognized that leadership, not iron-clad codes, were the secret to survival and, ultimately, successful resistance.

I’ve known Col Bonadonna for many years and salute his service.  I also salute his intentions in authoring “Face in the Mirror: An Ethics Code for the Armed Forces.”  However well intended he might be, mandating a formal code of ethics for the military will not accomplish what he hopes.  The US Armed Forces need to invest time, effort and resources toward holistic development based on best educational practices.  Had Col Bonadonna proposed his 10 points as learning outcomes in some broader curriculum I would provide my full-throated support.  As it stands, however, I hope readers reject his ideas for their superficiality and over-reach.

Dr. Joe Thomas is a retired Marine currently serving as Director, VADM James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the US Naval Academy.  The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and don’t reflect those of the Naval Academy or US Department of Defense.  

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