Beyond the Ticking Time Bomb: A Case for NCO Ethical Education

Chief Master Sergeant:
Lifts buildings and walks under them.
Kicks locomotives off their tracks.
Catches bullets in his teeth and eats them.
Freezes water with a single stare.
Talks to no one…HE IS GOD
“The sergeant is the Army.”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower


My Lai. TailhookMarines United. Fat Leonard. The depressingly regular cycle of senior level officer and NCO scandals and abuses highlight the ongoing struggle with how the military is approaching ethical matters and educating for ethics. While these issues are not new, it is time for a serious, even radical, rethink. The military needs to approach questions of right and wrong in terms of ethics, not just institutional or persona morals, and in terms of education, not training. In addition, it is time to give more attention to the ethics education of those beyond the officer corps, to include noncommisioned officers (NCOs) and other enlisted members as well.

Some definitions to start the discussion are in order. First, education rather than training is important. Training is designed for compliance to rules/systems or to build upon a particular skill set. While this is a common way to think about ethics in the military, it has serious problems, and it has contributed to a variety of unethical behaviors and institutionalized cultures. Education is a more useful term, because it is designed to prepare one for a range of foreseen and unforeseen circumstances, and therefore must be broader, flexible, and adaptive. In addition ethical rather than moral, should be used, although many people do use them interchangeably. Here moral will refer to the claims or ideas of the individual, group, or institution—what they claim to be right or wrong. The terms ethical and ethics refer to the questioning, analysis, justification, or reflection upon such claims. Putting ethics and education together yields a very different approach and model for military ethics.

In The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare: Achilles Goes Asymmetric, I surveyed ethical education for NCOs in the U.S. military and noted the following common threads:

  1. Issues were often lumped in with and conflated with ‘leadership’ issues.
  2. Training was much less theoretical and in depth than that received by officers.
  3. Training was typically very top-down, reinforcing command control and military hierarchy.[1]

In response to these observations, there are four recommendations for revising ethics education for NCOs specifically, as well as for enlisted personnel in general.

  1. First, such education should become less hierarchical; I was thinking in terms of the Strategic Corporal model, but the discussions around Mission Command point to the same concerns.[2]
  2. Second, the military needs to move beyond the concept of a Warrior ethos to embrace something like the Guardian ethos, which accommodates and encourages the use of multiple frameworks, adaptive thinking, and flexibility.
  3. Third, the military will need to think about how to measure and assess progress which will require failure, learning and growth in ethical matters.
  4. Finally, the change, development, and experimentation necessary (with the associated risks and failures) will require rethinking ideas of identity and military professionalism, as ideas like Mission Command and an emphasis on innovation and strategic thinking (not just from officers) gain traction.

All of these recommendations require a broader approach to ethics (not training) and ethical rather than merely moral values.

Continue reading this article at The Strategy Bridge . . .




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