#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.

#98 Failure is an Option...Kind of

Last week I received an email from a friend of mine who posed an interesting question, one that lies at the heart of many of the ideas being floated around regarding leadership, risk and adaptability. He asked me the following:

"When is it OK to accept failure for the sake of learning? More importantly, is failure acceptable in the Army or in any institution? How does the Army leadership view failure?"

He then went on to state the following:

“If you are allowed to fail, then you learn from your mistakes…hopefully. We need to experience failure somewhere so that when it comes we, as leaders, don’t get to far away from our overall objective. We also as leaders need to understand that we will not be crucified for failure. Everything in the Army is success oriented. Army mentality…If you don’t succeed, then you are an ineffective leader and no one listens to you anymore.”

His thoughts are a very important consideration for our leader development programs and one the Army should spend significant time thinking about. In order to gain experiential knowledge, three things must occur. First, we must be given the latitude to experience something new. While it might not be new to our superiors, it is new for us. Second, there must be a recognition that simply because it does not have the intended outcome does not mean that failure has occurred, and finally, there must be a mechanism to learn from the experience. To figure out where, when, how and (most importantly) why the outcome was not the one that was intended. Without this experience we do not gain another important leadership trait called judgment.

I came of age in the 'Zero Defect' Army of the 1990's. Although I didn't realize it at the time, the idea that there were "No accidents, only failures of leadership" would play a large role in many of the behavioral and institutional struggles we are experiencing today. 'Zero Defect' gave rise to the idea that every Soldier action was completely controllable. That by putting enough mandated control measures in place, we could literally protect people from themselves and their lack of judgment. Like an over-protective parent, the Army was determined to wipe out any act that might endanger a Soldier. What was never considered was the effect of removing responsibility for mistakes in judgment from the individual. We wouldn't have to worry about developing that critical skillset because there would always be Uncle Sam to tell us what to do. If we didn't follow his edicts, we were punished not for the act of misjudgment itself, but for failure to follow his instructions.

Sadly, that mentality is still extremely prevalent in many places throughout the Army and has put an undue burden on all levels of leadership to ensure a successful outcome for each and every action. It is an ingrained cultural problem. It makes risk something to be avoided, and does not enhance decentralized operations. In fact, it works in the opposite manner. It makes passing the buck - and therefore avoiding responsibility for the outcome - a norm, and further centralizes all decision making at higher and higher levels within the organization. Without a cultural change that accepts that combat and leadership happen in an extremely dynamic environment where thousands of decisions must be stacked one upon the other in quick succession and then adapted and changed in the face of decisions made by the enemy, we will never be able to gain the critical experiential knowledge at the ground level that will allow people to take advantage of new and unfolding opportunities. We have unwittingly enhanced bureaucracy and degraded the capacity for critical judgment just at the time we need it most.

The central problem with risk-taking and experiencing failure in military leadership is that the price is so very high. Unlike the corporate world where the only real loss is money, when one fails in combat, there is a great possibility that a Soldier will die or be severely injured. The central question then becomes, is that Soldier's death worth the learning that occurred because of the decision made by the leader?

If you sit back for a moment and look at how the Army is manned it is simply amazing to me that we have succeeded as often as we have. Take an infantry platoon for instance. We take a 24 year old Lieutenant and place him in charge of 38 people and send him off to war. He has no experience in this realm, has very little self-awareness, and his grasp of the tools and requirements of the profession is almost completely theoretical. He has never taken a class in human behavior, let alone the behavioral dynamics of high stress situations. Then we place him in incredibly complex situations which demand quick judgments that can have life or death consequences for people on both sides of the equation. If you had to draw it up on paper, that wouldn't be the way you would do it. In fact, you would likely do it in the completely opposite manner. We would take the most senior amongst us and place them where the most critical decisions would have to be made. Lieutenant Colonels would lead companies, Colonels would lead battalions and Generals would lead brigades. That way we would have the greatest levels of experience and judgment at the place where it is needed the most - that piece of ground between success and failure, between risk and reward, between life and death. It would be on the battlefield.

Since we are not aligned that way, how do we answer the three questions posed above? How do we provide our youngest leaders the opportunity to fail and learn from their mistakes? First, I think that just as we must paint a picture of what success looks like for our missions, it is equally as important that there is a common picture of what failure looks like. When a leader gives only the intended outcome (success) and does not address it's opposite, then the 'operating box' for the subordinate becomes too large. If I am the subordinate and I lack the experiential knowledge that alerts me to when a decision might lead to failure, then how do I learn to recognize those signs of impending doom? Who will provide me those warning signs to look out for? I also think that by adopting this 'mission command' style we would begin to eliminate a lot of the worries and concerns subordinate leaders have about whether or not they will be held accountable for deaths, injuries or outcomes based upon the decisions they make. This alone will allow them to focus more clearly on the mission and not worry as much about the personal impact of failure. For example: If I am the senior leader and I assign a mission to a subordinate and I give him/her my intent - the expected outcome - that helps clarify the tasks and purposes of the mission. This is what I want to happen, this is why I want it to happen, and this is the outcome I expect to achieve when it happens. Just as critical though, will be my understanding that things rarely go as planned. Therefore, the subordinate and I would then have to address what might go wrong. We would have to look at those things that could cause the mission to fail. As part of that we would inevitably have to address casualties and losses. I might say to him/her, "Look, this is enemy held territory. You must expect to take casualties. I think you can still accomplish the mission and achieve my intent as long as you lose no more than X% of your unit, or Y% of your leadership." By simply stating this, I have done a lot for the subordinate. He/she recognizes that I have a tacit awareness of the potential for things to go badly. They also recognize my judgment that the mission can survive a percentage of casualties and still be successful. It also pays credence to and acknowledges the old saying that, "No plan survives first contact." Now I share some of the burden of execution with my subordinate. They aren't out there on their own wondering if every decision they make will get them relieved or worse.

My friends second question above, "Is failure acceptable in the Army?", is actually more important than the first. As long as there is a belief throughout the force that failure of any type will have a detrimental effect on careers etc, then we can never change. Although there is a lot of evidence that in reality, the Army is pretty forgiving in its' judgment of failure, there is still the widely held belief that one failure leads to career suicide. This is especially true in the officer corps. Too many young leaders buy into the "I'm responsible for everything my Soldiers do or fail to do" mentality, while at the same time recognizing that they cannot actually control these behaviors 24 hours a day. That puts the leader in a perpetual bind. They end up spending as much time worrying about their subordinates as they do about the enemy. I have brought this idea up in earlier posts, referencing concerns by both General Dempsey and Lieutenant General Caslen regarding risk and candor. And it is exactly the point that General (Ret) Campbell brought up in his report on the battle of COP Wanat. Institutionally, we need to move away from the notion that one young leader is collectively responsible for every action of their subordinates and emphasize individual accountability from the first moment a Soldier enters the profession.

Failures are individual acts of willful disobedience to expected norms and behaviors and standards. One cannot 'fail' at a task they do not know how to accomplish, nor can they 'fail' by making a decision for which they have no frame of reference. Failure only occurs when one is faced with a situation that they do know how to accomplish, or have a frame of reference for, and willfully choose to abdicate their best judgment.

Finally, I think that, collectively, the Army has to practice a little more candor with the American public and our elected leaders. The language of the Army is an active one. We state "We will" or "We can". We don't speak in a passive voice. Sometimes that very choice of words can have an effect. "The Army will drive the Taliban from it's strongholds in Afghanistan" is an unequivocal statement. It guarantees something that in truth cannot be guaranteed. What we are really saying is, "The Army will do everything it can, with the resources it is given, in the time allotted to it, to hopefully kill or capture as many insurgents as possible in order to create space for a legitimate government to be able to defend its' borders."

My friends questions raise a lot of interrelated ideas concerning learning, experience, risk, trust, candor and culture. The first step will be to view failure differently than we currently do. The second will be to change the method of discussion between commander and subordinate to include the possibility of unforeseen outcomes to an assigned mission. The third will be to begin to drive home individual accountability to each and every Soldier that will, over time, break down the need for institutional cover-your-ass policies. Finally, there must be a better method than persecution and prosecution to learn from events that have unintended outcomes.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.