Albert C. Pierce, once an instructor at the National War College, is the first director of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, established less than five years ago at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The center is working on a variety of programs, including assembling resources for use by teachers, designing workshops and creating courses on military ethics.
QWhy is there such a big emphasis on ethics now?
AEthics and character have been a part of the Naval Academy since its founding. . . . But the increased attention toward these issues in the military is part of a larger trend. Ethics is taken much more seriously today in medical education than it was 30 years ago. The same is true in law schools; the same is true in business schools.
Here at the Naval Academy more specifically, there were some scandals and controversies regarding ethics in the early '90s. The superintendent [at that time, Adm. Charles R. Larson] decided he wanted to create a number of methods to deal with that. He created an ethics course, a character development program and this ethics center as different ways to address the ethical challenges these young midshipmen face.
What do you mean when you say "military ethics"?
I put these in different baskets. The first basket of military ethics issues is what I call the individual in the profession, the individual military member in the profession of arms. In that basket are things like the Navy core values: honor, courage, commitment. . . . The second basket is ethics in the use of military force, the "just war" tradition, both about the decision to go to war and the conduct of war. And then the third basket is what I call the profession and the larger society, civil and military relations.
How do you teach how to think about ethics?
You give them practice in working their way through problems. I think people learn inductively in many, many ways. I think that's why the core ethics course, and a lot of our programs, are case-study programs. I've used Michael Walzer's book "Just and Unjust Wars" for a dozen years in teaching. He goes back and forth between theory and case studies, and it's a wonderful way to do it. It helps them develop the skills to be able to think their own way through. They are not always going to be able to call their boss, or call their chaplain, and find out what to do.
How do you get midshipmen to discuss these issues?
One way is through an informal discussion group we have, called Friday Night at the Movies. . . . We invite up to 20 underclassmen at a time, give them pizza and soft drinks, show them movies with ethical issues and then guide a discussion. They love it.
What are some of the movies?
"Breaker Morant." It's about the court-martial of three British officers in the Boer War [who are tried for murder after following orders to take no prisoners]. There are layers of ethical issues. How do you treat prisoners? There are issues of integrity in the midst of a court-martial, about how truthful is your testimony. We also show "A Man for All Seasons" [about Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded by Henry VIII rather than renounce his religious beliefs] and an old Kirk Douglas movie called "Paths of Glory," which deals with loyalty up the chain of command and down the chain of command. We show "The Caine Mutiny." We're trying to give them practice and experience in talking out loud.