Soldiers of character in the modern British Army

More than two decades of major military engagements and the changing face of warfare have created a unique set of challenges for the British Army.

The Gulf War and lengthy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have put huge demands on frontline troops and their leaders. Soldiers’ roles can change rapidly as fighting units switch from combat operations and take on responsibility for humanitarian intervention.

The nature of the “enemy” has undergone a radical transformation: in the era of asymmetric warfare, soldiers must contend with both conventional forces and insurgents, whose arsenal includes improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. Battlefields are not clearly defined and encompass towns and villages where families and children live.

Public perceptions of military discipline and behaviour may have been damaged by moral failures exhibited by international forces including Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were tortured by US forces, and the killing of 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children by US marines at Haditha, Iraq.

The British Army has not escaped untainted and was affected by fall-out from the case of Iraqi hotel worker Baha Mousa, who died in custody following ill treatment by soldiers in Basra.

It is against this complex, shifting backdrop that the Jubilee Centre is conducting an unprecedented study into the moral character of the British soldier. The research project, Soldiers of Character, is both timely and justified and will focus on the ethical judgment and character strengths of junior officers.

Our team of Birmingham-based researchers will pilot new methods to assess ethical reasoning and character strengths and will explore the extent to which junior officers display and aspire to the attitudes and personal characteristics set out in the Army Values and Standards Guide.

According to the guide, standards are “the authoritative yardstick that define how we behave and on which we judge and measure that behaviour.” Values are “the moral principles – the intangible character and spirit – that should guide and develop us into the sort of people we should be.” The guide lists six values: courage; discipline; respect for others; integrity; loyalty; and selfless commitment.

Our project will investigate a broader range of character strengths. Not only that, we will ask junior officers how their own leaders and non-commissioned soldiers display the organisation’s values and standards.

We are focusing on junior officers because they will provide the nation’s future generals; they also occupy a unique vantage point in the chain of command, looking both up and down the ranks.

In total, we plan to survey 225 officers, with different levels of experience, from second lieutenants to captains. We will also examine the attitudes of officer cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

All the officers, drawn from different areas of Army service, will be asked to respond to four moral dilemmas. Three are battlefield dilemmas, one of which features a captured prisoner, and the fourth is a non-operational dilemma that relates to a barracks-based scenario.

The soldiers, both men and women, will also be required to report on their own character strengths by completing a questionnaire. The 24 questions focus on characteristics including honesty, perseverance and courage.

A third part of the project will involve semi-structured interviews with 40 officers with different levels of experience. The interviews will be conducted confidentially.

The project is being carried out with the full co-operation of the Army’s high command and forms part of the Jubilee Centre’s wider inquiry into the nature of virtue in public life.

We hope to gain a better understanding of how virtues are experienced by junior officers. The British Army officer is a key upholder of ethical and moral standards but is his, or her, character equipped to deal with today’s hybrid military threats and changing moral landscape? And, to what extent do soldiers accept that desired Army characters and virtues should transfer across professional and personal lives?

It may, of course, be pertinent to ask why the British Army needs to display moral character. After all, don’t we just need fighters who win battles and crush the enemy, whatever the human cost?

Indeed some may wrongly argue that a successful military force needs soldiers who are ruthless and persistent with strong leadership qualities. How soldiers behave over and beyond those values is no concern of the Army and wider society.

Fortunately, this is not the majority view. A good soldier, a soldier of character, also needs to be a good person in a more general sense. The moral authority to be a soldier – the authority to defend, invade and where necessary kill – comes from the fact that the military acts for the good of society.

Ultimately, the Army relies on good teamwork; and effective relations between soldiers relies on good character. You are not going to sustain good teamwork if individuals do not possess good character.
Dr. David Walker, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


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