Why Character is Important in the United States Army

On my first day of Army Basic Training back in 1998, my senior drill sergeant had us all in formation.  We had just finished doing somewhere in the region of 10,000 press-ups and he said to us in a very calm, slow, and steady voice, “Privates… there are three things you have to do in order to be successful in the Army”.  He held up his first finger in the air and proceeded to add an additional finger as he ticked off each point of success, “Do what you’re told.  Do what you’re told.  Do what you are damn well told”.

Fast forward a few years. As a young Non-Commissioned Officer, I frequently took initiative to do things.  As I saw it, my changes improved the situation, the time, the effort, or the money involved with the task given to me.  On more than one occasion, I was told that the Army did not need free thinkers and that I should just follow the rules and the mission would be accomplished.

Is following the rules such a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Rules are everywhere.  There are rules for driving.  There are rules in sports.  There are even rules at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Rules come in all shapes and sizes.  We have the Cadet Honor Code at West Point and we have Rules of Engagement (ROE) in combat zones.  More generally, we have the Just War theory to engender rules.  We must have mechanisms in place to enforce rules.  To enforce rules in the Army, we have the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

These rules serve a purpose.  As my drill sergeant in basic training would point out, rules are used to impose and enforce discipline.  The Army’s hallmark has been its discipline.  But is that enough?  In my view, just having rules is inadequate. It is insufficient for the Army to be concerned only with disciplined leaders and soldiers.  It can, and must, work towards improving the moral character of its future leaders and develop them into moral agents so that they choose to make moral decisions and not just follow rules.

From time-to-time, most of us are guilty of breaking a rule.  Occasionally I exceed the speed limit while driving.  Whilst this example of rule breaking might not relegate me to the status of a bad person, there are plenty of examples of broken rules leading to unethical behavior.  In the not too distant past, members of the United States Army have broken rules that have resulted in moral failures and human rights abuses. Imagine incidents such as the torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib Prison, to the slaughter of people in the Iraqi village of Hadditha. From the U.S. airstrike that killed an estimated 90 Afghan civilians in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, to U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales who wounded six people and killed 16 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  Ten of the 16 killed were children.  Sometimes unethical behavior is not an act of commission, but rather an act of omission.  Sometimes we fail to do the right thing.  In an effort to maintain good relations with Afghan police and militia, senior Army officers even instructed U.S. military personnel to ignore Afghan soldiers sexually abusing young boys, even on U.S. bases, because “it is part of their culture.”

These horrific war crimes of commission and omission reflect poorly on the Army.  While soldiers will break rules, if we are an Army of character, these types of moral transgressions will reduce.  The Army now takes into account this fact, more systematically than before, by striving to develop character in their officers, soldiers, and cadets.  As in other areas of professional practice, more and more people, are starting to realise that merely following the rules is not enough. Character education is essential for the profession of arms so that soldiers do not just follow the rules, but act ethically because it is line with their character.  This is why character is not only important in the U.S. Army – and in deed in any well-functioning army – but essential.

U.S. Army Major Scott Parsons is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  He recently spent a week visiting the Jubilee Centre.

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