Leaders of the American armed forces are rethinking military strategy, but they increasingly have become aware the most critical aspect of developing new approaches to fighting wars is to have those in command who are bound by ethical imperatives. The Army is in the process of developing new handbooks and videos for members of the armed forces that supposedly will assist them in behaving while in combat as those representing the highest ethical standards of our society. Col Sean Hannah, director of West Point’s center of military ethics, told colleagues last year the Army lacks policy and training processes which educate officers and enlisted men in what constitutes being an ethical soldier. “Soldiers do the right thing, but we are in a protracted, persistent conflict and we know what happens when bad things happen.”
A problem is the necessity in current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for soldiers to be simultaneously humanitarian workers, police officers and soldiers bent on killing the enemy. They must carry out these functions while confronting an elusive enemy who hides within the civilian population. The Abu Ghraib prison atrocities are always in the back of minds of those seeking to instill ethical standards. Maj. Doug Pryer, who wrote about the incidents, notes, “it was a strategic defeat. It was a recruiting boon for the terrorists and undermined moral credibility throughout the war.”
Perhaps, the first step in fostering ethical behavior is to place on trial former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and former president Bush who were the ones in charge of the armed forces. As former President Harry Truman loved saying, “the buck stops here.” And, he meant in the Oval Office.