To Learn the Army’s Ethic, Officers Should Study the Army’s History

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A senior officer says to a junior one:

You are placed in a position where conflicting laws, with adverse authorities and interests, operating powerfully upon the worst of the bad passions of man … combine to render your command … delicate and difficult … When we recollect that we are solemnly sworn to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America and to serve them honestly and faithfully against their enemies or opposers … we [see] the strong outline by which we are to pass through the labyrinths of conflicting legislation and opinion.

Though these words are topical, they date back two centuries, to August 1832. Brig. Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote them to a subordinate company-grade officer as the U.S. Army began the project of Creek Removal in the sweltering Southeast. His message was simple. The officers on the ground, tasked by President Andrew Jackson’s administration with a legal though odious order, would have only their professional ethos as a guiding light in that task’s execution.

This emphasis on an Army professional ethos has survived the centuries. The Joint Chiefs only this spring reiterated, in a new Officer Professional Military Education Policy, “sound moral judgement and the embodiment and enforcement of professional ethics” as one of professional military education’s central aims. Yet, the core curriculum for company-grade officer ethics is incomplete and abstract. This risks giving rise to a generation of company-grade officers with a tenuous and disjointed understanding of the Army’s ethic, ill-prepared to “pass through the labyrinths,” wherever those may be.



As a remedy, the Army should prescribe its company-grade officers a curriculum that teaches the Army ethic through historical case study. Teaching ethics through history would preempt the skepticism with which hypothetical dilemmas are often met in class. It would walk the ground between what is right and what is merely legal. It would provide officers with a vocabulary to discuss, rather than ignore, some of the Army’s darkest episodes. It would obviate the “bad apple” trope by examining systemic failing. In short, teaching the Army ethic through historical case study promises better results.

The Army Ethic 

The Army has several times sought to state and disseminate its ethic, from George Washington’s address to the New York Provincial Congress, to the 1950 publication of S. L. A. Marshall’s The Armed Forces Officer. After the Vietnam War, this effort took on new urgency. The Peers Inquiry into My Lai found, among other failings, widespread ignorance of the laws of war. A 1970 report found the issue ran deeper: Beyond legality, officers shared little belief that a professional ethic existed. Grumbled one major, “Duty, Honor, and Country is becoming — me, my rater, my endorser, make do, to hell with it.”

Calls and efforts grew to fill this doctrinal and ethical gap. In their 1978 Vietnam post-mortem Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, former officers Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage argued that the officer corps had drifted towards a dangerous amorality. A central issue was that the “officer corps has given precious little attention to evolving a code of behavior or statement of ethics.” Over the next two decades, such a statement would emerge, in the form of such manuals as Field Manual 1, The Army, reissued in 2001, complete for the first time with the seven Army values as they currently exist.

Today, the two doctrinal references directly concerned with the Army ethic are Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession, and to a lesser degree Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development (though commonly cited in Army ethics discussions, Army Doctrine Reference Publication 1 has been decommissioned). The two forward a “framework for the Army ethic” that sums up the moral and legal dictates of Army service, and together constitute a 21st-century solution to the concerns raised as far back as the New York Provincial Congress. But ensuring leaders, particularly company-grade officers, understand that solution is a question all its own, and as of yet without a good answer. 

Ethics and the Company-Grade Officer

Doctrine and commentary agree that all soldiers, from new arrivals at basic training to the Department of Defense’s senior leadership, should act ethically. But getting company-grade officer ethics education right is of particular importance for three principal reasons. First, doctrine charges commanders with the ethical conduct of their formations, and Army officers first command in the company grade. Second, company-grade officers rise through the ranks to become field-grade and then general officers, and take their ethics with them. Third, company-grade officers are often the senior-most leaders “on the ground” when ethical dilemmas present themselves.

Doctrine unambiguously charges commanders with their formation’s ethical conduct. The preface of Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 states that “Commanders at all levels ensure their Soldiers operate in accordance with the Army ethic, the law of war and the rules of engagement.” Army Regulation 600-20, Army Command Policy, names as the first characteristic of command the promotion of the Army ethic. And Army Regulation 165-1, Army Chaplain Corps Activities, preempts the false notion that this responsibility can be delegated: Though the Chaplain Corps advises commanders on spiritual and moral matters, “Commanders establish and maintain a climate of high moral and ethical standards.”

Company-grade officers’ ethics also matter because these people do not remain company-grade officers. In Crisis in Command, Gabriel and Savage urged ethical education “be particularly strong at the entrance level, for it is the young officers who can be expected to carry the new values throughout their careers and to eventually internalize them, so that they become part of their personal and organizational codes.” Doing so promises greater return than rehabilitative training for unethical senior leaders, as “how much real change can be expected through this process is unclear.” By the time senior officers report to staff and war colleges, their worldviews have often ossified.

But most importantly, company-grade officers’ ethics matter because they are the officers closest to the ground, where the worst ethical transgressions occur. That is why the military has often held company-grade officers accountable for ethical failings throughout the Global War on Terror, as it did 2nd Lt. William Calley of My Lai decades before. In the 2006 Haditha killings in Iraq, nearly half of the marines charged were company-grade officers. In the 2011 Maywand District killings, Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty’s official inquiry put, in the words of the Washington Post, “virtually all the blame on junior officers.” Though in neither case did company-grade officers reach Calley’s outright depravity, they were nonetheless held at least partially responsible. One convicted soldier, Spc. Jeremy N. Morlock, put the ethical climate’s collapse, and its relationship to the company-grade officer, in layman’s terms, “None of us in the platoon — the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant — no one gives a fuck about these people.”

Even when company-grade officers are not on the ground to partake in, witness, or prevent transgressions, they are often the first to arrive on the scene afterwards, the first to investigate, and the first to report. Investigating and reporting are an ethical test all their own, one that leaders have failed in the past. For example, the Marine Corps investigation into the Haditha murders illustrate this behavior starkly: Many of the officers’ charges concerned obstruction of justice or dereliction of duty relating to investigation.

This is not to suggest that the military is picking on company-grade officers. It is not. Rather, the military is holding those officers to their particular doctrinal responsibility, which includes the ethical conduct of their formations. One might expect the company-grade ethics curriculum in professional military education to be commensurate with the standard to which the Army holds company-grade officers. It is not.

The Incomplete Curriculum

The ethical education of company-grade officers remains incomplete. Both the Basic Officer Leaders Courses, which train all newly commissioned lieutenants, and the Captain’s Career Courses, which train newly promoted captains, provide common-core classes on ethics. But that instruction suffers from an abstraction that on its own lends itself more to flashcards than to the field.

The Basic Officer Leaders Course common-core curriculum comprises approximately seventy tasks approved each year by the Training and Doctrine Command’s Center for Initial Military Training. Nine of 70 directly concern ethics and character. One such task is “Identify Key Concepts of the Army Profession,” which requires students to “list the seven Army Values” and “explain ethical reasoning and ethical orders in a clear and concise manner.” Another is “Employ the Army Ethic,” which requires students to “review the legal and moral foundations of the Army Ethic.” Instructors evaluate student performance of all common-core tasks via a “Go/No-Go” checklist. This binary is well-suited for the loading and unloading of a medium machine gun, but ill-suited for the nuance of ethical conduct in uniform.

In turn, the Captain’s Career Course common-core ethics curriculum consists of a three-hour lesson plan authored by the Army University’s Instructional Design Division. The lesson plan requires students to prepare by reading existing Army ethics doctrine, and measures students’ performance by their ability to “Make a decision using the Army’s ‘Ethical Lenses’” (a reference to Dr. Jack Kem’s ethical triangle). A practical exercise, either concerning social media use or collateral damage in combat (the instructor can pick), is a rare opportunity for application. Though the lesson plan invites discussion, and its instructor script acknowledges that “to be an ethical leader requires more than knowing the Army Values,” it remains decidedly abstract in its instruction.

Part of the issue is the limits of existing doctrine. The chief references of ethics classes are the two remaining doctrinal texts on the Army ethic, Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 and Field Manual 6-22. But the latter only names ethics’ role in leadership, and offers somewhat circuitous means of recognizing an ethical leader. A leader needs ethical development if she “inconsistently demonstrates” the Army values, and is a strong ethical leader if she “models” the Army values. One displays Army values if he “takes an ethical stance” but does not if he acts “without regard for what is ‘the right thing to do.’”

Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 in turn can read as a mass of telescoping lists that overlap, compete, and confuse. Rather than consume a single cohesive ethic, the student must track the characteristics of the Army profession, the Army ethic, expectations for the Army profession, the Army values, the “Attributes associated with CHARACTER,” the warrior ethos, and a soldier’s creed. Many of these refer to each other such that definitions lead nowhere, rather than to a practicable formulation — a succinct example being that the text defines the Army value of “honor” as to “live up to the Army Values.”

When taken on its own, the publication presents more like an inventory than a philosophy, itemizing values like subcomponents of a sterile machine. Then-Lt. Col. Brian Imiola wrote in 2013 that the “framework for the Army professional ethic … makes an Army Ethic appear as if it is everywhere when in fact it is nowhere.” Imiola wrote elsewhere that this abstraction makes ethics doctrine’s content extremely hard to teach, “We cannot express our ethic in terms of values or rules and expect it to be educational and inspirational.” The core ethics curriculums of Basic Officer Leaders Course and Captain’s Career Courses bear Imiola’s observation out.

Turning to History

Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 and Field Manual 6-22 do not need rewriting in order to be teachable. They need a complementary narrative to render tangible the Army ethic. Military history offers a deep catalog of case studies from which authors of ethics curriculums might draw. Such a case study would have to differ from the current perfunctory vignettes found in lesson plans. It should be long and researched enough to sustain an entire ethics curriculum. This depth would afford students the opportunity to grapple with the profound complexity and importance of ethical conduct in uniform.

The use of narrative and military history to teach doctrine is not a new idea. The Army has long hosted staff rides and taught case studies to render doctrine real for students. This practice ought to be applied to ethics doctrine as well. Samuel Huntington, though his Spartan conception of military ethics is far removed from that of the current Army, declared that the military ethic demanded a “ordered, purposive study of history.” Darrel Driver similarly argues that narrative is a more natural vehicle for ethical frameworks than the sort of bulletization that occurs in Army Doctrine Publication 6-22. “An individual’s own ‘stories’,” he writes, “provide a flexible means of organizing beliefs and of connecting those beliefs to actions.” The Joint Chiefs have in the past year endorsed the study of history towards this end. Their vision statement for the future of Professional Military Education calls explicitly for the use of history “to help students develop judgment, analysis, and problem-solving skills.”

There are several entities within Training and Doctrine Command well-positioned to partner in authoring a new curriculum that complies with the Joint Chiefs’ vision. The Center of Military History can marry academic rigor in history with the Center for the Army Profession and Leadership’s expertise on the Army ethic’s doctrinal structure. The resultant company-grade curriculum would then go before the Center for Initial Military Training and Army University’s Instructional Design Division for vetting before reaching lieutenants and captains.

Candidates for case studies include oft-discussed examples such as the breakdown of humanity and subsequent torture at Abu Ghraib or the massacre at My Lai. But a less-known example from which company-grade officers stand to learn much is the story of Creek Removal, of which Brig. Gen. Edmund Gaines spoke nearly two centuries ago, as quoted above. In at first protecting Creek land claims against insurrectionist squatters, then jousting with state governments that decried federal overreach, and finally removing Creek to west of the Mississippi, the officer corps’ attitudes and actions run the gamut of ethical conduct. That Gaines’ words and these ethical issues remain relevant captures history’s value.

The Army has long required ethical conduct of its officers. It has long charged company-grade officers with the ethical conduct of their formations, in war and in peace. The American public expects much of officers on this head, as recent events have revealed. Yet the Army has not prescribed an ethics curriculum commensurate with this charge. The abstraction of Army Doctrine Publication 6-22 has failed to fill this void, as have Manichean concepts of right and wrong. The study of history promises a path forward to educate company-grade officers on the complexities and considerations of ethical orders, the ethical execution of those orders, and the officer corps’ relationship with society.



Theo Lipsky is an active-duty U.S. Army captain. He holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army National Guard (Photo by Capt. Brendan Cassidy)