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Morals and the military [an excerpt]

In honor of Veterans Day, we would like to focus on the men and women around the world who have been committed to the defense of their countries and their fellow citizens. Replacing Armistice Day in 1954, this holiday serves to recognize victims of all wars and the US veterans who have served honorably in the military. However, in times of war, the distinction between moral and immoral are unclear, and factors that determine one’s honor are called into question. As retired US Marine Corps General John R. Allen states in the forward of Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know®, “reconciling the necessity of violence and killing in war with our moral values is one of the most demanding challenges we have faced as a nation.” In this excerpt, George Lucas looks at the ethical aspects of some of the duties that military personnel engage in apart from combat.

Military forces and personnel are frequently charged, or simply left, with the responsibility of restoring order and clearing up the chaos remaining in the wake of a war. This may include tasks like building schools and housing and repairing civil infrastructure (such as roads, sewers, water treatment plants, and electrical grids). These are extensive and expensive enterprises, and so military personnel will serve not only as civil engineers engaged in these activities themselves but also as program managers and procurement agents, contracting with and hiring local personnel, or bringing in outside contractors to assist with these projects, which will then be overseen by military supervisors and paid from funds they administer. The ethical challenges that arise here, especially amid the chaos and disorder and absence of rigorous accountability, transparency, and oversight, are predominantly tests of character: requiring each and every member of the military to avoid involvement in, or tolerance of, graft, corruption, bribery, or outright incompetence in the administration of these important tasks, while seeking always to remain in compliance with applicable laws and regulatory standards.

The military is also perpetually engaged in preparing its members for engaging in war. They must recruit and train new personnel, both officers and enlisted, for example. Especially when recruiting new enlisted personnel, military recruiters may operate widely in far-flung regions of a country without immediate oversight or supervision. They may be required to meet recruiting quotas, which leads to the temptation to cajole, persuade, and even mislead interested civilians in enlisting in military service under false (or, at least, not altogether accurate) circumstances, or even result in the paying of illicit bonuses to leading members of a community (school guidance counselors, for example) to assist in enticing young people under their sway to enlist. In all these activities, temptations to bribery, corruption, misuse of funds, or disseminating false or misleading information to prospects must be resisted. While destructive wherever such abuses occur, these recruiting abuses are especially destructive to the formation of trained, professional military services in developing countries.

Experienced military personnel are likewise expected to train or educate newly recruited personnel for military service. That training or education must be accurate, complete, fully competent, and strictly relevant to the proper performance of duties and discharge of military responsibilities. The training environment itself, however, presents supervisors with myriad opportunities and temptations to do otherwise: for example, to abuse their authority and trust by engaging in or tolerating hazing or bullying in the name of toughening up recruits, or by preying upon vulnerable recruits in other ways. Military forces and organizations, once the exclusive bastion of males, for example, are increasingly integrated across both gender and sexual orientation. Sexual harassment, predominantly (though not exclusively) of females by males, or of gay and lesbian service members by those disapproving or contemptuous of their orientations, are a frequent and vexing problem. Despite the historical tendency of military forces to be asked or ordered to serve in the vanguard of wider social programs to achieve equal opportunity and full integration, racism and sexism remain persistent and nagging problems. These difficulties, in turn, can be exacerbated by the propensities of the military’s individual members, if left unchecked, to engage in alcohol or drug abuse.

A great many of these social problems, to be sure, are endemic to many other professions and organizations, as well as to the wider societies within which military personnel serve. That commonality does not exempt military organizations and their personnel from doing their utmost to combat such tendencies toward abuse of power and disrespect for one another, let alone engaging in outright illegal and immoral activities (rape, theft, drug abuse, or physical abuse or engaging in hateful actions directed at minorities). Military organizations, especially in countries like the United States and the People’s Republic of China, are large, complex organizations providing employment to the widest conceivable diversity of personnel with a range of skills and educational backgrounds. It therefore constitutes an enormous challenge to ensure that all members of the profession are properly trained, well educated, and appropriately supervised in a manner that enables them to discharge their duties responsibly, and to avoid the myriad pitfalls of illegal and immoral behavior outlined above.

Featured image credit: “Veteran” by TammyatWTI. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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