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

Front page of The Plain Dealer on 20 Nov 1969, breaking the news of the My Lai Massacre. (The Plain Dealer)

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.

Staff Sgt. Jessica Spencer, a small group leader, from 640th Regional Training Institute attached to the U.S Army Central Noncommissioned Officer Academy, evaluates a squad leader's mission preparation at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. (U.S. Army Photo/Sgt. Youtoy Martin)

Since the publication of Achilles Goes Asymmetric, we have seen more attention to NCO and enlisted training in terms of self-development resources, reading lists, online resources, and groups (online and within the military structures) to discuss issues of morality, the values of military professionalism, and institutional Core Values.[3] These improvements are still heavy on the concepts of leadership, personal morality and simplistic case studies. Now, there is a movement towards rewarding instruction as a professional value, and also on instruction and discussion in both formal and informal contexts. As opposed to the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation lecture to a large group or online, these training sessions are taking place at the unit level and other smaller groups. There is also more discussion and promotion of strategic thinking and innovation beyond just the officer corps, which in turn seems to be filtering into a reassessment of some aspects of the stark separation of officer and NCO training.

These are certainly positive steps, but there is still more work to do, as these improvements are still within the training for morals framework, not an education for ethics one. So, what is on that To Do List? My comments here are designed to move the military from a training mindset when it comes to ethical matters towards an education mindset, which is a broader, long term endeavor. This will require the rethinking of methods and content, what ethical knowledge and capacities are necessary and desirable for an effective, professional force. To begin, there are three areas of possible focus to consider.

Case Studies

First, the military’s current use of case studies and vignettes are still following a training model. One approach commonly used in today’s training environment is the ancestors model where the cases are to be example of positive or negative role modeling, without acknowledging the complexity of the situation, the ethical reflection process, or considerations that went into the decision-making process. Another approach is the juridical model where the training outcome focuses on deriving the right answer and how one uses moral ideas or preferences to justify a personal decision. Typical cases explored in this process include property issues, reports, interpersonal relations, and sexual harassment. While these are all relevant and important issues to discuss, the current approaches being used lacks complexity, ethical reflection, and deep conceptualization.

Instead of personal morality, it is the Core Values and other ethical principles that ought to be guiding the deliberation and discussion.

When we approach ethical issues as if they are simple moral choices and fail to engage in the ethical reflection process needed to think through the issues, the cases and examples discussed in these contexts will seem easy and artificial compared to the complicated situations that people actually find themselves in. When these complex situations present themselves, there will be a temptation to think ethics is irrelevant, and therefore easily jettisoned. Since these "real life" situations do not bear the same guideposts as the case studies or examples discussed in training, it is also hard to see how they can be used as guidance or for insight. Instead of a morality angle rooted in personal belief and preferences, we need to think about ethical principles (i.e., Core Values, ideas constituting Military Professionalism, principles of Just War Thinking for example. Instead of personal morality, it is the Core Values and other ethical principles that ought to be guiding the deliberation and discussion.

Of course, this will put more pressure on what I term Professional Judgment and Discretion (PJD), which is rooted in an idea of prudence or strategic thinking. In a rough sense Professional Judgment and Discretion is the deliberation about means and ends in a holistic and integrated way. However, it is possible to teach PJD via narratives of various kinds and engage ethical principles without the level of abstraction that opponents of ethical education (as opposed to training) for enlisted and NCOs often raise.

Cover from the Association to Prevent Torture's book, Defusing the Ticking Bomb Scenario (APT)

For example, the idea of candor is an ethical principle deemed important to military professionalism (at least in the army) that can provide rich discussions and acknowledge the complexity involved. I expect one frustration with current models of morality training is that they seem remote or artificial relative to the kinds of actual situations and dilemmas—in much the same way that the Trolley Car or the Ticking Time Bomb are. Trolley Car thought experiments in philosophical ethics are frustrating as a guide to thinking through ethical issues. Instead there are rich, engaging, and complex examples for ethical reflection and discussion in literature and fiction (both historical and contemporary), including film and video games. Engagement of these resources connect on an intellectual, emotional, and empathetic level, and can spark a much deeper kind of ethical education beyond one session. The more complex scenarios do not rely on theoretical abstractions, but present ethical ideas and the process of reflection/analysis as they really occur—within a specific, concrete context.

Separate Worlds

Second, while we find very different moral training for officers, NCOs, and junior enlisted, consider the following. What if the ethical education and development of officers could benefit by active engagement with views from NCOs and junior enlisted? Furthermore, what if the ethical education of NCOs and junior enlisted included engagement with the views of the officer corps, not in a top down way, but as a common experience and dialogue? It makes sense that some of the ethical education for both enlisted and officers would be separate given their different roles and responsibilities, but a few conjunct experiences would enrich the educational process for both by allowing a level of complexity and more holistic approaches than are possible in segregated e training sessions. Considering that officers and NCOs work together in so many leadership contexts, such experiences have the potential to create lasting benefits for both officers and NCOs when it comes to ethical issues.

Ethical Failure and Growth

Third, we should consider the role of ethical failure. What if ethical failures and learning from them is part of the reflection and learning process in ethical education? When it comes to morals/values, current training is really about compliance, and institutions that simply promote compliance breed cultures like the one documented in Lying to Ourselves. These kinds of institutional cultures produce predictable ethical failures, and, inevitably, there is a strong temptation to rationalize these failures as actions undertaken by a few so-called bad apples, the moral degeneration of society, or an individual’s failure of personal morality. These generalizations must be avoided at all costs not only because the military is a community of moral and professional practice but because as an organization it is required to uphold ethical standards that cannot be reduced to a series of simple personal choices made in isolation. If we are to concede that Mission Command and/or the idea of the Strategic Corporal is the future of warfare it seems that engagement with ethical complexity and how to practice ethical and prudential/strategic reasoning is necessary.

What if ethical failures and learning from them is necessary in the reflection and learning process of ethical education?

Part of such ethical reflection and reasoning is reflection on, and learning from, both positive and negative experiences. While I acknowledge the stakes for some ethical decisions in the military are very high and leave little room for failure and growth, there are also areas where there is room for authentic growth and learning. A zero-tolerance approach often is inimical to this and leads to cover ups, ethical fading, and a refusal to deal with ethical problems in the culture as they emerge. Instead we wait for the big scandal and the cycle of shock, condemnation, and very little in the way of accountability beyond the individual.

The way to break this cycle is to shift from training for morality to educating for ethics.

Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Temple University and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, social and political philosophy, and applied ethics. She is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University and a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge.

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Header image: Army rank of a noncommissioned officer. (U.S. Army Photo)


[1] Pauline Kaurin, The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare: Achilles Goes Asymmetric. (Routledge, 2014)

[2] Charles C. Krulak (1999). "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War". Marines Magazine. Air University.

[3] See, for example, the Center for Army Profession and Ethic (CAPE)