Issue 4 Animals Fall 2001
Towards a Military Ethics at West Point: An Interview with Colonel Anthony Hartle
Jay Worthington and Col. Anthony Hartle
Founded in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson, the United States Military Academy was originally an academy for training military and civil engineers based in part on the French model of the École Polytechnique. Though West Point’s curriculum has always been heavily weighted toward engineering, mathematics, and the sciences, a lively debate has occurred throughout its history as to the proper role of the humanities in a military education. Colonel Hartle is Deputy Head of the Academy’s Department of English which administers the Program in Art, Philosophy, and Literature. The author of numerous books and articles on military ethics, including Moral Issues in Military Decision Making, Col. Hartle is also responsible for instruction in philosophy and ethics to a group of cadets who will one day be in command at the highest levels of decision making in the US Army. Jay Worthington met with him at the Academy to discuss the evolution of ethics at West Point and in the US Armed Forces in general.
What is the formal academic training in ethics and moral philosophy that cadets receive here?
It’s not that easy a question to answer, because I think what you’re driving at is the ethical component of character development, and we view that as a much broader issue than what cadets receive in the classroom. The Academy has a mission, like every organization, and an important part of that mission is graduating commissioned leaders of character. That raises the question of what we mean by that term.
West Point has in fact published a definition: "A leader of character seeks to discover the truth, decide what is right, and demonstrate the courage and commitment to act accordingly." You talk about the warrior spirit. Has that definition evolved over the past few decades that you’ve been here?
I don’t think that it’s changed much at all. What has changed is our attempt to understand the process of character development and to enhance that process.
And what evolution has occurred there?
By introspection and heightened awareness of the interaction between personal experience and institutional structure. The watershed event during this period we’re talking about was the 1976 cheating scandal here at West Point—it made national headlines, and a blue ribbon commission from outside the army came in to examine the overall curriculum and to make recommendations, one of which, somewhat euphemistically, was to increase the offerings in philosophy.
We didn’t have any.
Interesting. So before 1976, there were no formal courses in philosophy here.
Right. So we established one, and all cadets are now required to take one course in philosophy. As you might expect, the content of that course focuses on ethics to a significant degree. The idea here is to move cadets from a place of knowing about institutional values and adhering to institutional standards to internalizing them, accepting them as their own, and then progressively moving them to the point where they influence others and their thinking.
If West Point’s definition of character has remained stable throughout this period, how much have shifts in the moral world outside changed the Academy’s sense of the kinds of procedures it needs to use to instill character in its students?
Quite a lot. During the 1950s and 1960s, during my experience at West Point, there was an assumption, not an altogether reliable assumption, but nevertheless an assumption founded with some confidence, that there was a certain common perspective on core values in the cadets entering the Academy. Of course, it wasn’t altogether reliable, but certainly, it was a more reasonable assumption to make in 1960 than in 2000.
What’s your short list of those values of 1960?
A commitment to the idea of honesty, an understanding that the world is structured and that most of the people with whom one is going to interact will have the same value perspectives that you do. Now, on the other hand, we certainly recognize that the people coming into the Academy are highly capable and intelligent, but they come from a widely diverse spectrum of backgrounds, with widely diverse attitudes, and we know that we need to do a better job of educating them about values, about responsibilities in an institutional setting, about the whole idea of commitment to an institution and a profession, than we would have thought was necessary 40 years ago.
Do you find that the students here still arrive with the expectation that they are entering a lifelong profession? Certainly, the expected career length of a young officer today is dramatically shorter than it was in 1960.
That’s right, but I’m not sure that we surveyed student expectations in the 1950s and 1960s. We do now, though, and what we find is that the majority of cadets coming in are uncertain about their career commitment.
Does that create a reluctance to fully enter this morally differentiated military world?
I think it would be too strong to say that they’re more skeptical, but there’s certainly a tendency to examine carefully claims that the institution makes.
In ways that might not have occurred 40 years ago?
Without putting any negative spin on the word, would you say that incoming cadets have a more selfish attitude towards West Point than in the past, viewing it as an opportunity to get an education rather than as an entry into the more traditional military culture of duty, self-sacrifice, and the rest?
Certainly more self-centered, yes. And it’s what you’d expect, over the last ten years.
Why, specifically, over the last ten years?
Many of us see this whole period of economic prosperity, the whole dot-com concept, as being accompanied by a focus on one’s own interests, with less concern about society as a whole and about service to the community. So what do we do about that? We put more emphasis on values here than we have in the past.
How exclusive are these values? There seems to be some debate over whether the Army’s core values program is expressed at such a level of moral generality that it simply describes characteristics that any society would like to see in its soldiers and officers, regardless of the morality of their actions.
I think that’s probably true. It gets back to the idea of the role of the laws of war—when we talk about the expected behavior of the members of the military profession, we find that the boundaries are circumscribed by functional requirements, and these functional requirements are further circumscribed by the laws of war, the customary practices of warfare. I’ve argued that we also have another significant constraint, and that is the values of society. There are examples of behavior, permissible under the laws of war, which might be constrained by societal values. At the end of the Gulf War, attacks on retreating Iraqi forces, quite acceptable in terms of the laws of war, were terminated because of the adverse reaction of the news media and the American public.
How stable do you see these core values as having been over time?
That depends on your definition of core values. If you talk about core values like freedom, the rule of law, individual equality before the law, commitment to democratic institutions, they’ve been extremely stable.
You could argue that individualism, say, only started to appear in a form recognizable today with the reconstruction amendments after the Civil War. Prior to the Constitutional revolution in the 1860s and 1870s, it seems hard to argue that universal equality before the law was the sort of core value that you seem to see as foundational to the military’s code of ethics. What happens to your idea of foundational, stable, social values if their constitutional and ethical underpinnings have been evolving over the course of the history of the US?
Well, the processes have always been with us, I would argue. If you think about the whole frontier concept and the rugged frontiersman—if that’s not individualism, I don’t know what is. And that’s been with us from the beginning. We’ve always admired that spirit—you can characterize the revolutionary period as exemplifying precisely that ideal.
So you don’t think there has been evolution in America’s understanding of its core values, or even of the role of individualism, for example?
Well, the manifestations of those values certainly have taken different forms. When we look at the pre- and post-Civil War periods, things look a lot different.
You could also look at the 1930s—accelerating in the 1960s—and see concern with the right of citizens to certain procedural limitations on the power of the state to act upon them. If you go back to the turn of the turn of the [19th] century and before, you don’t see that as such a pressing concern.
Is that an example of a value that’s evolving over time?
We almost seem to be overwhelmed with the idea of due-process and individual rights today, don’t we?
We could argue about whether that’s a good or a bad thing in American society, but it does seem like at least the form of the relationship between individuals and the state has evolved pretty significantly over the past century or so.
One might argue, though, that that’s a different manifestation in our society of a continuing commitment to the rule of law. It certainly looks a lot different now, but it may be the same core value that’s been there all along. Does that help any? Maybe not. It may be that looking at core values that way makes them so plastic that they don’t give us much lift.
What is the military’s reaction as custom and formal law diverge? One of the obvious examples would be the laws of air warfare, and the bans on bombing of civilian targets, the attempt to maintain a bright line between military and national infrastructure. These days, national infrastructure often appears to be a primary target of the US military.
There’s some sense in which people say that this is an evolution of traditional concepts. Others, including some here, say that we need to redefine the military profession, and that we need to consider that kind of question in order to understand what the limitations on the military should be.
Certainly, much of the just war tradition appears to hang on a set of categorical distinctions, between the civilian and military, combatants and non-combatants, say, which look increasingly hard to defend. How does that apply when you’re bombing the electrical infrastructure of Serbia? Is the just war tradition still the foundation of the ethical training here?
Discussion of the just war tradition and the codified laws of war are certainly included in our course, but I wouldn’t say that we use that as our moral foundation—we turn to ethical theory and core social values for the moral foundation of what we teach cadets.
What would you say is your moral foundation here?
We’re trying to generate a conception of professional military ethics. Just war theory doesn’t necessarily play that big a role for us. It’s important to understand it, to understand the relationship between this tradition and the laws of war as they exist today, and it’s really important to look at the justifications for the just war tradition, which evolved from the religious context into a secular context, and we can construe that in terms of human-rights theory. But it’s not foundational in the sense you suggest.
Let’s get back to my original question, which was—how necessary is it to the military that core social values actually be stable?
Well, we’re tied to the core values of society. If those are variable to an extent that they undercut the military’s core ethics, then we have a cognitive dissonance when it comes to our value commitments.
And if this outer, societally limiting moral boundary is in flux, what implications does that have for the military’s sense of itself as a morally coherent institution?
Well, I don’t think that’s the case. Having said that, if the laws of wars and functional constraints of the military profession are fixed, and this social limit changes, then the institution has to react in ways that hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions have a lot of trouble with.
How important to the army is the differentiation between the military and the civilian worlds?
To the extent that these values and the behavior that follows from the values are critical to the functional activity.
So you would argue that these are military values to the extent that they are functional requirements of military activity, and that if civilian morality identically incorporated this same set of values, there would be no need to find some additional differentiation in order to set the military apart in some way. So that there’s nothing necessary to the differentiating aspects of military morality; it just happens to be that way?
I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, though it is the case that commitment to a military career includes commitment to what General Sir John Hackett describes as the ultimate liability. Committed soldiers commit themselves to putting their lives at risk as part of fulfilling their function in serving society. That commitment sets the military apart.
When did the core values program start?
In the mid-1980s. About that time we came up with the four C’s—courage, candor, competence, commitment, the so-called soldierly values—which was the idea of a four-star general, and we had the ideas of General Meyer, another four-star general, who supported a set of professional values: loyalty, responsibility, and selfless service. We combined the two sets in initiating a values approach, which is embodied in the Army’s LDRSHIP program [Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless service, Honor, Integrity, Personal courage]. That was in the era when we were trying to reconstruct the profession.
Where does the Army’s fascination with moral acronyms come from?
You’d find it in every military organization in the world, I think.
Still, I wonder about the origins of the impulse to come up with LDRSHIP or the five Cs. Is there something at odds with setting up a moral code but making it appear that the underlying principles might be contingent upon how comfortably they fit into an acronym?
Actually, LDRSHIP was an afterthought. The sergeant major of the army came up with that. That was enough to force the re-labeling of courage as personal courage so it would fit into this easily remembered label.
But wisdom and truth-telling ended up being dropped because they didn’t fit the acronym.
That’s not my understanding. Actually, the guy who did the original drafting was committed to an Aristotelian model, and he wanted to provide enough intellectual substance so that the manual would be different from what we had provided in the past. He did include wisdom, but in the process of staffing this over the course of two years it was winnowed out as not the most effective way to present values to the members of the US army. The Army leadership may have concluded that influencing behavior is a sufficiently challenging goal. In implementing the values program, we tend to focus on what soldiers who adhere to the Army values do.
To what extent does this concern for professional values require West Point to help cadets establish themselves as autonomous moral individuals? You’ve written about the obligation of officers to remain independent moral evaluators of decisions both up and down the chain of command, about the obligation to resign in protest, if necessary, and to express themselves about moral issues throughout their careers.
There’s a psychologist named Keegan who has done a study of people in the professions—not the military, specifically, but the professions generally. One research group here at the Academy now is pursuing his work. We talk about people who are at a stage II development, which is roughly people who are at the point of asking what they can do for themselves within the limits of their professional activities. At stage III development, one commits him or herself to achieving the purpose of the professional activity, which sometimes requires subordinating one’s own interests, and then there’s a stage IV, in which professionals make autonomous choices within a framework of understanding the profession’s purpose and how it achieves its ends. Now there have been some surveys, and they show—and this is all very loose—that cadets are in the process of moving from stage II to stage III, and that if we look at junior officers, people up to the rank of major, attending the command general staff college out of Leavenworth, people are still in the process of moving from stage II to stage III, though there are larger numbers at stage III.
At what levels do you start seeing what you call stage IV awareness become the dominant professional norm?
The research is going on now, and I’m not sure what they’ll come up with, but that’s one way to answer your question about autonomy. Yes, we’re going to give them the foundation for that. No, we don’t want to graduate programmed, robotic soldiers. Now, how to do that is a real challenge.
In West Point’s terms, what’s involved in establishing leaders as seekers after truth?
There’s a fine line between the Aristotelian approach and the Kantian approach. It’s a combination of education and training. We want people who understand institutional values, of West Point and the army, and we want people who are competent. We also want people who have the ability to react to unexpected situations.
Morally and culturally unexpected situations?
Both. Because that’s what we have young people doing right now, in Bosnia and Kosovo, and other places where we have peacekeeping operations and multi-national operations. Being mentally inflexible or dogmatic simply isn’t adequate, so we want people who have open minds. So I think that’s what we mean when we talk about the pursuit of truth.
How much does the increasing importance of missions other than war, such as peacekeeping, affect the cadets’ sense of their role in society? If the clearest ethical justification for a military is that it’s manning the ramparts, how do these new kinds of missions affect the military’s sense of its ethical place in society?
This year is the first year that we’ve implemented an effort to educate the cadets about their professional identity. That’s a shift in our program, education about professional identity. As part of that, the idea of the military officer as a servant of society is a central piece. That’s different from the warrior ethic that you’ve seen in our literature. That’s different from being trained to fight and win the nation’s wars as an essential element of professional competence, because it says that the military is to do what society requires. That may be peacekeeping missions; it may be domestic disaster relief missions; it may mean fighting wars.
What is the cadets’ view of the value of those kinds of missions, and of the social value they imply for the military profession?
There’s an institutional bias against some of these things, that somehow they detract from our core mission of winning wars. That’s not just here at West Point, that’s received from current faculty members, from outside the institution; it’s profession-wide. It’s a change that I think will occur on a somewhat bumpy road over the next decade or so. But it is a change we’re aware of as being significant, and it makes a big difference in the professional identity of people here.
You now have a generation of cadets entering who were children when the coverage of events like the sieges of Srebenica and Sarajevo were being broadcast on national news. They were at a formative age when these humanitarian missions became perceived as pressing. Are they more open to them than older officers?
Yes. This is a discussion that captains have with colonels periodically here at West Point. Colonels say that we really have to work at changing people’s attitudes and the captains say, "Sir, they’ve changed. We already see that. That is the way we look at the world." And the senior people say, "No, it isn’t."
Are the cadets also more open to civilian intrusions into what is perceived as the traditional technical expertise of the military? The land mines debate, in which tremendous political pressure has been placed upon the US military to accept a ban on the use of land mines, would be a good example, where the military seemed to perceive it as an unwarranted civilian intrusion, on moral and ethical grounds, into an area which should more properly be reserved to the expert judgment of the army.
One way to look at that is that it’s simply a piece, an important piece, of what I talked about before, about the concept of oneself as a servant of society, in that we’re talking about changing jurisdictions, and how the boundaries of jurisdiction evolve and move over time. If the way to fight a war is exclusively the jurisdiction of the military, then it’s an incursion. If that jurisdiction is shared to some extent with NGOs, with civilian perspectives, then it’s not an intrusion; it’s an area that is of concern to more than just the military.
Hasn’t military conduct always been subject to larger social pressures and moral forces?
The perception was that the attitude of military commanders was, "The civilians tell us when to go fight and who to fight, and we’ll decide how."
That seemed to be how the land mines debate played out. At least some senior voices in the military seemed to be deeply skeptical of whether it was proper for civilians authorities to interfere.
And this generation of cadets is now entering from a civilian world that has become willing to make those sorts of intrusions.
Insistent on making those kinds of intrusions might be a better characterization.
That’s fair. Is it changing the cadets’ perceptions of the proper relationship between civilian and military society?
I think so, yes. Achieving the same level of commitment to principle with these shifting attitudes is a matter we sort through on a regular basis here. How do we best provide the army and the country with officers with the education, the background, and the perspectives that best suit them to do what the nation will require them to do?
And if that doesn’t involve fighting conventional threats to the nation’s security, then so be it?
Well, the Chinese are coming, but they haven't arrived yet [laughs].
Col. Antony Hartle is deputy head of the department of english at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Jay Worthington is an editor-at-large at Cabinet. He is also a founding member of the New York-based non-profit theater company Clubbed Thumb.
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© 2001 Cabinet Magazine