Best Defense

What would realistic ethical training be like? And why don’t we have it?

 While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on November 3, 2011. There’s a terrific, thoughtful piece on the need for realistic ethical training in the November issue of Army ...

fortbraggparaglide/Flickr
fortbraggparaglide/Flickr

 While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on November 3, 2011.

There’s a terrific, thoughtful piece on the need for realistic ethical training in the November issue of Army magazine. It is by Kevin Bell, who was an Army captain and left to do graduate work in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton.

Why, Bell wonders, do we have tough and realistic combat training, but not equally realistic ethical training? Here is what I think the nut of the piece is:

As a profession we have to adjust our training so that we know what to do when rage tells us that it’s OK to go beyond the limits of tactical questioning with a captive. We can’t stop there, though. We need to talk to our peers and subordinates about the real challenges of ethical leadership in a way that acknowledges how our job culture can warp our understanding of morality.

There is a lot more to quote in the article. First, he says, let’s stop pretending that there is a huge distance between someone who tortures and someone who is a good officer. Also, don’t make people think through the ethical distinctions for the first time when they are seized with rage and grief over the death of a comrade. But, he continues, "lack of realism in detainee training is only the most obvious problem."  

Don’t just preach to small unit leaders, he says. Give them concrete support that enables them to operationalize ethical standards. "It isn’t enough to know the rules if we are still unsure in a time of weakness what to do with detainees who might have tactically useful information."

Bell’s only misstep, I think, is his last sentence, about how if these changes are made, "The next generation of junior leaders will thank us." This rings false to me. Actually, if he is right — and I believe he is — I doubt they will thank anybody, they will just assume this is the right way to do things. (As a writer, I think people often go on a little too far in their conclusions.)

But that’s a minor gripe. It is an article worth reading, and Army magazine is to be commended for running it. I hereby award it The Best Defense prize for best defense commentary of the month. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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