#99 Moral Autonomy

I was searching around the Net this morning to see what was new and came across the an article in last Fall's issue of Joint Forces Quarterly that caught my eye. The article is titled, "Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional" written by Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Milburn, United States Marine Corps. You can find a copy of it here:


About half-way through the piece, I found the following paragraph:

"A survey conducted among students at the Marine Corps War College (MCWAR) in January 2010 reveals a view of the military profession that contrasts sharply with the Huntingtonian model espoused in "Salute and Disobey?" The sample is admittedly small; nevertheless, it represents a cross section of 20 senior field-grade officers from all Services and two foreign countries. Without exception, they agreed that there are circumstances under which they would disobey a lawful order. Their criteria vary little, as these excerpts illustrate:
  • "If the officer cannot live with obeying the order, then he must disobey and accept the consequences."
  • "When I cannot look at myself in the mirror afterwards."
  • "When I deem the order to be immoral."
  • "When it is going to lead to mission failure."
  • "When it will get someone injured or killed needlessly."
  • "When it will cause military or institutional disaster."5

These comments reflect the view that the military professional has moral obligations more fundamental than obedience and loyalty to their leaders, civilian or military. Myers and Kohn imply that the term moral is too subjective to be defendable. However, I argue that the military profession is founded on clearly defined moral principles.

For the purposes of this article, I use the term military professional to apply to military officers. I make this distinction based on the nature of the officer's professional military education, which focuses on developing an abstract body of knowledge; his code of ethics, which reflect the "special trust and confidence" conferred on him by the President and Congress in his commission; and his oath of office, which differs in an important aspect from the enlisted oath. These defining characteristics of the military profession impose on him obligations beyond obedience."

It is a widely held belief that all Soldiers have an inherent right and a moral responsibility to disobey an unlawful order. For example, I cannot direct someone to shoot an unarmed noncombatant. I cannot order someone to deny an enemy prisoner of war food or water or basic sanitary needs. Even more so, I cannot order someone to shoot a combatant who has laid down his rifle and no longer poses a direct threat to me or my Soldiers - even if that combatant has killed or wounded some of my people. It is further understood that following orders such as these do not enhance the standing of the American Soldier in the eyes of our enemies, the population of the country we are fighting in, or with the American public. The Soldier is always expected to take the higher moral ground. The question becomes, where is that 'higher' ground? Does it have limits? And critical to the study of any profession, who gets to be the judge?

If you look at the bullet comments above, something else becomes very apparent: The senior officers interviewed, almost without exception, have decided that they, individually, are the arbiters of what is moral. Consider the first three quotes:

"If the officer (I) cannot obey the order then he (I) must disobey and accept the consequences."

"If I cannot look myself in the mirror afterwards."

"When I deem the order to be immoral."

That final bullet troubles me greatly. Suddenly a brigade commander in charge of 3,500 - 5,000 troops gets to decide for his/her organization what proper moral order is? What qualifies him/her for that, and more importantly, who gave them that type of authority in the first place? Their oath reposed special trust and confidence in them granted by the President, it did not grant them the ability to impart any particular moral belief system except that of the Nation to their subordinates.

As we study the ethic of our profession over the next year or so, questions such as these quotes raise, must be answered first. Are we, or are we not going to cede control of the moral / ethical decision making of the institution and it's members to leaders who may, or may not, share the same moral / ethical values as the organization does?

My point here is not as much about not doing something because it is wrong as it is moving in the opposite direction, doing too much. Going further than the norm expects. For example, we have leaders in the Army today who believe that we are engaged in a type of holy war against radical Islam. They believe that they have a moral obligation to fight - almost crusade-like - not against a country, or a terrorist group, but rather against a faith. I worked for a leader once who, when speaking before large groups, would espouse Christian crusade-like language to buttress the reasons for going to war. If we are to give leaders such as these the power to define the actions of their units in their own personal moral code, then we had better ensure that we know what that code is. Is any action permissible if the commander finds it morally sound? What happens when the leader's personal code is not one that the Nation, the Army, nor their Soldiers can live with. A commander who targets all males between certain ages, a commander who publicly states he does not believe in counterinsurgency techniques and needs to conduct counterguerrilla operations instead. These are real examples and in both cases, the commanders ability to define the moral / ethical landscape led to tragic outcomes. Both these commanders used their position within the organization, and their ability to persuade those beneath them that theirs was a noble calling to rid the battle space of radical fundamentalists who were oppressing others. The methods used however, fell far outside the scope of the expected or accepted.

The paragraph that follows the thoughts of those interviewed also caused an almost visceral reaction in me. LTC Milburn's decision to only talk about the officer corps in his discussion of professional military members I found completely offensive. At the point of attack, it is not he who will routinely have to make the tough ethical / moral choices that can happen in an instant, it is the enlisted personnel beneath him that will need to be able to do so. And do so quickly. To imply that due to education, schooling, and their oath of commissioning that only officers must contend with moral / ethical decision making is not only untrue, but flat out incorrect, naive, and dangerous. If anything, there must be an even greater effort at the lower levels to get Soldiers to really look at their decision making process specifically because it is likely to get called into question more often than those further up the chain of command. Consider the following: An infantry battalion commander controls approximately 20 - 25 subordinate squads. On any given day in combat, the likelihood of one or more of those squads making contact and those Soldiers having to make tough moral and ethical choices is infinitely higher than it is for the commander or his staff. Apparently, LTC Milburn believes that somehow an officer's rank and station within the organization confer upon him a special set of skills and judgment abilities that those below him in the organization do not possess. If this belief is widely held throughout the institution, then we are certainly in for some tough times ahead.

Let me paint the picture this way: A brigade or battalion commander believes that he is waging some form of a cataclysmic battle between right and wrong, good vs evil etc, pitting his own moral code against those of the enemy. He then uses operational terms and the discipline of his Soldiers to gain acceptance of his moral understandings and designs operations in furtherance of those aims. His 25 squads patrolling the battlefield now believe that they too have the moral certitude to conduct operations and act in a manner that they believe to be morally sound. Can anyone but me see the potential messy outcome? Check the latest Courts Martial proceedings and watch what happens.

While LTC Milburn's article was written to discuss the role of civil-military operations and the methods of dissent that military leaders have available to them, it also raises some very interesting thoughts at the individual level. What equals an immoral order? When does a behavior, although militarily justifiable, become unethical? And, most importantly, at what level does one get to decide these questions? Is it really an unalienable right of a Soldier to disagree on moral grounds?

If the Army is to call itself a true profession, one thing that it must concentrate it's efforts on is the development of ethical decision-making at the lowest level. It cannot take these abilities for granted and assume that every Soldier possesses the same understandings and ability to act with commonly held moral beliefs. They must be tested, checked, educated, and challenged. If we are to grant the immutable right of refusal to the Soldier, then we owe them an understanding of the decision itself - a way or process to choose - and we owe them an understanding of the potential consequences for their actions. Either way, there must be a baseline understanding that each Soldier is a person who possesses within them the ability to make (for better or worse) moral judgments. This is not the purview of only the officer corps. Responsibility for our personal moral decisions belongs solely to each of us.

A little further on in the piece is the following quote:

"The military professional's core values and oath of office demand the exercise of moral autonomy in carrying out orders. He has sworn to defend the Constitution and safeguard the welfare of his subordinates. Implicit is the obligation to challenge orders whose consequences threaten either without apparent good reason."

As we study the profession, and what it means to be a professional, we might consider LTC Milburn's point about moral autonomy very closely. I too have sworn to defend the Constitution. I too have a responsibility to safeguard the welfare of my subordinates. I too have an obligation to challenge orders whose consequences would threaten either. Ultimately, I too possess moral autonomy. If we are to have 1.5 million morally autonomous people running around making decisions from local to strategic in scale, then we might want to spend some time in their development process along the way to provide them the tools and framework to make such decisions. It cannot simply be something the profession takes for granted. There is too much at stake.

A final thought. This article was written before 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' was repealed. Consider the thoughts above in that light. Moral and ethical decision making is not only a battlefield requirement. In the months and years ahead as the military comes to grips on a day-to-day basis with implementation of the repeal, many leaders and Soldiers will be forced to make potentially large moral and ethical decisions. What tools will we provide them to make those choices? Go back to Milburn's 3rd quotation from the interviews, "If I believe it to be morally wrong..." Those 20 senior officers he interviewed have direct influence over between 70,000 and 100,000 servicemembers. Something to consider.

Thank you for your service, Sir. Have nice day. I swore to uphold the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. You do not have the right nor the authority to reinterpret that. I respect your moral choice to resign over this, I really do. However, I will not let you make decisions for the rest of us. For I too retain the right of moral autonomy - as do each of my Soldiers, regardless of race, color, gender, creed or orientation.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. It would be a rare occasion when one would consider usurping the legal authority by which we are all bound secure in your knowledge that ones interpretation of the order does not have the fuller context. I am aware that should I choose to act autonomously I would fully expect to have to face judicial processes. The only reassurance I can offer regarding the leader who considers our operations in Afghanistan to be a crusade is that as a Christian he worships a God who did not die as a martyr but a substitute, generously giving his life for a people who betrayed and deserted him. This is a noble calling to serve people whatever their colour, creed, religion, or nation.

  2. Well I must say you make a valid point. Moral code. We all come from different back grounds and have different values and morals. We all have consequences too when we play the moral card. For example a LTC Lakin refused to deploy and now will be serving time. His reasoning to me is quite laughable. I would have imagined someone with that high of rank to be well educated and have good sense. But I guess his morals said he could not serve our president. But, what if you were given the order to kill a child who was unarmed and no threat. Well that is when we may have an issue with the order. In life we all have different views and opinions as your blog shows. If you polled the American people who would they agree with today? So no matter what we our moral code radar we will always be judged for our decisions. We have to be aware that we may be punished wither it be a court martial or even being discharged. Whatever you once again have got my wheels in my head turning, which I think is what matters the most.

  3. I would suspect that LTC Milburn would feel entitled to have a visceral reaction to your visceral reaction. We all have a world view through which we make autonomous moral decisions. You depend on your officer corps to model high standards of ethical and moral behaviour.

    We have many excellently documented cases when this has failed and how well people have been held to account, I am thinking that Mai Lai and Abu Graib would be worthy of consideration. The nature of the national and institutional response to failings in moral leadership are a useful indicator of values.

    Meanwhile, I see that you have the majority of Bde Commanders modeling and demanding high standards of moral leadership which we must celebrate. I would not be so concerned about a commander using language with Christian overtones. Bear in mind that man doesn't worship a martyr but a substitute, the man Jesus who laid down his life for people who abandoned him and betrayed him. If you are going to have people in charge, who all have a moral compass, isn't it reassuring to have someone who understands that love stems from serving those who are not grateful and who will often let you down? Someone who understands the teaching that all people have inherent value, dignity and worth and deserve to be championed and protected from people who would oppress and inhibit? Would you really want moral relativists in charge who accept everyone has the 'right' to establish their own set of moral values. The type who ask who am I to say that the Taliban are wrong? Is that not the kind of liberal existentialism that would hollow out your officer corps and leave chaos in its wake.

  4. Adrian and Jenny -

    Thanks to both of you for commenting. They are appreciated. Below are some follow-up thoughts based upon your thoughts and ideas.

    First, I would contend that as a profession, we should not "depend upon our officer corps to model high standards of moral and ethical behavior", but rather develop those attributes in each service member. Role modeling is simple imitation without necessarily understanding the more deeply held underlying belief. Ultimately what we desire in a Soldier is to push them to become aware of their own deeply held beliefs and where they are consistent with, and where they are not, the institution's stated value system. Discovering that friction point is central to understanding our place in the profession.

    Second, each faith has within its' ranks those for whom their faith alone sanctions actions far outside the norm of acceptable behavior. To say that a Christian who would bomb abortion clinics or protest homosexuality at a Soldiers funeral is any different from a Muslim who would blow up a crowded market place demonstrates a lack of understanding of both faiths equally. Moral relativism aside, they both believe that they are serving their version of God. However, both are acting well outside society's accepted norms of behavior. The same remains true for a Soldier who targets all males because they might be enemy combatants, or a commander who implies to his troops that they are acting with God's sanction, or (as the article also suggests) a leader who 'slow roles' the implementation of policies that they do not personally believe in. All of these things diminish the profession.

    Third, the reason that I selected brigade commanders is because that is the level of officer who attends schools such as the Army or Marine Corps War College - as outlined in the article - and because of the level of influence they have upon so many people. If 20 senior leaders can influence 70,000 service members, the institution had better have a clear understanding of their frame of reference.

    With regard to LTC Lakin, if his personal moral code demanded that he could not serve under this President, then he should have resigned his commission. He did not. And then, when his livelihood was at stake he abandoned his principled stand rather quickly, and now contends that he is willing to serve. Sorry, if the belief is that strongly held, then it will remain so regardless of the cost. No, he was using his position to make a political stand. Thankfully, he failed.

    Finally, my purpose in writing this post has more to do with the discussion of the professional military ethic than it does with individual members or their actions. Once we determine the tenets of the profession that have enduring and immutable value, then we must place Soldiers in situations during their development where they are faced with moral / ethical conflicts between their personal beliefs and the institutions stated norms and values. Only by doing this can we provide the individual the strength of character to understand where, when, and why they would break from organizational discipline and disobey a lawful order.

  5. great points Fen...we can't rely on religion because there are too many and too many interpretations...so we have to put Soldiers in training developmental positions where every choice is "wrong"....and have platoon level conversations about the same...and bring up ethical issues/dilemmas that they don't want to talk about....like abortion, and capital punishment, and revenge killings, and weapons planting, and bribes, and harsh interrogation of non-combatants who you "know" has intel....and and and...
    leading conversations on these topics is DIFFICULT and must be done by a leader who CAN...meaning is not judgmental, can control their own emotions and others, and gets Soldiers to think about issues in ways THAT THEY HAVE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT THEM....that is development....to teach leaders to lead these kinds of conversations take education and training.....it doesn't just happen