Professional Conduct and Morality, a Paradox?

Major Rock Hau

Major Hau is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Military Psychology and Leadership at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the course co-ordinator of the Military Professionalism and Ethics course, which is mandatory for all fourth year RMC cadets. Maj Hau holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Winnipeg and a Master of Arts in Psychology from the University of Manitoba.

The CF leadership has always been concerned with the professional conduct of its members. However, following a number of highly publicized events that have raised questions regarding the level of professionalism within military ranks, in the last five years the CF has turned a critical eye towards the conduct of its members. As a result, we have seen a series of new initiatives across the CF aimed at enhancing the ethical and moral conduct of individuals in uniform.

There now exists a sense of urgency for providing a mechanism for stimulating discussion and debate on moral issues related to professional military ethics. However, if we are to cultivate and foster a worthwhile discussion on this essential topic, it is important to understand what professional and moral conduct implies. If we intend to promote and give ‘a voice for ethics’ within DND, it is n necessary that we come to grasp with what it is we want to give a voice to.

The aim of this presentation is to discuss the apparent paradox that is often reflected in ethical dilemmas; that of having to conduct ourselves in a professional manner yet at the same time behaving morally and upholding the values of the nation. As I will demonstrate, these two concepts can at times conflict with one another and create difficult choices for military members. The ‘ultimate liability’ that is placed on military professionals and the responsibility that is bestowed to leaders as to who lives and who dies, creates demanding situations that cannot always be easily answered by the professional tenants of our military ethic. Coming to terms with this apparent paradox is vital if we are to give ‘voice for ethics’ some substantial clout.

One of our main concerns is that CF members must first and foremost behave in a professional manner at all times, and that their conduct reflect the military ethos and the military ethic. But, what does it mean to conduct oneself professionally? Typically, and to simplify grossly, it means that members of a profession must behave according to the ethical standards that have normally been set out for that profession. And for most professions, these guidelines are written down for all to see, for example medicine, law, psychology, to name a few.

For the military profession, it is the professional military ethic (PME) (Hartle, 1989), that is supposed to govern the conduct of its members. However, in contrast to most professions, there is no written code of ethical conduct for CF military personnel. While the pros and cons of not having a written code for the military profession can be debated, we can likely agree that military members generally have a good awareness of how they should behave when performing their professional duties.

An underlying theme that is often repeated in terms of the PME is that: a) the members of the profession must not only have the values of the nation, but that they must demonstrate these values to a higher level that which would normally be found in society; and, b) that military personnel must be of the highest moral character (Wakin, 1986). This should not be surprising. The reason that nation places people in uniform is to protect and promote the values of their society, or more simply stated, to protect their way of life. More importantly, they must be willing to sacrifice their lives when called to do so. This ultimate liability is now reflected in the statement of Defence Ethics "As members of the Canadian Forces, liable to the ultimate sacrifice....". In short, it is generally accepted that members of the CF must conduct themselves in a professional manner and behave morally at the same time. Initially, this makes perfect sense. However, what happens when professional demands and moral principles conflict, and seem to suggest more than one course of action?

The scenario that has been circulated illustrates such a dilemma and will now be addressed in some detail. The young officer in the scenario is faced with a rather difficult choice and as the young officer ponders for a brief moment the courses of actions that are open to him, several factors will come to bear on the decision that has to be made. On one hand this officer is bound by the PME that is, be faithful to his troops, follow the directives of his superiors and complete the mission. On the other hand, he is also morally bound to help others in need. So, what should this officer do? Continue his mission with the idea that the rations, the medical supplies and the warnings of his superior are what matter most, or follow the dictates of his conscience and provide assistance to the refugees? What would you do?

I would imagine that several of you would say that the officer should follow orders, complete the mission and regrettably deny assistance. Certainly, most would argue that in doing so, the young officer is behaving as a professional soldier should. You might also conclude that this officer is showing competence, loyalty to the mission, faithfulness to the troops, integrity and character. After all, one does not decide to deny the assistance easily and that it would weigh heavily upon one’s conscience is only natural. It might even be suggested that he is displaying moral courage in this instance by denying the assistance.

On the other hand some of you may be thinking that providing the assistance is the ‘right’ thing to do. Perhaps you feel that the officer must show compassion and caring for the refugees and that there is more to being a ‘good’ officer than simply executing orders and completing the mission. With this perspective, there is the notion that an officer must show judgement and wisdom in the decisions that he or she takes. There is also the expectation that ‘good officers’ must be of the highest moral standards, and that their conduct and judgements must be beyond reproach. In fact, it has been suggested that being of good moral character and conduct is in fact part of what it means to be a professional officer. In providing the assistance, wouldn’t the officer be displaying many of the officer-like-qualities listed earlier?

I can hear the objections. A good officer has to obey and follow all legal orders regardless of how much he may or may not like them. At least legally that is what is expected. For according to QR&O’s, legitimate orders must be obeyed, and there is little doubt in this case that the orders are legitimate. More importantly obedience is the very foundation on which the military can do what it is required to do.

So, who is more correct, more professional? The one who follows orders and doesn’t help, or the one who follows his conscience and does help? Who is behaving more in line with the ethical code of conduct expected of the ideal professional military leader in the CF?

Perhaps the question that should be asked is what is the most moral act possible here? Would any human being of outstanding moral character provide assistance? I believe most of us would have to say yes they would. Then, doesn’t it follow that our young officer should provide assistance? If he is of good moral character, and we expect him to be so, then the answer would seem to be yes.

I’m also equally certain that some of you would suggest that the officer is being disloyal to his troops, to his CO and to the mission by providing assistance and thereby acting unprofessionally. Thus, giving aid would show that this officer is not of the highest moral character, that there are future missions that must be considered and that can not make his decision based on the present situation alone. Well it seems that we have reached an impasse as to what is the ‘right’ course of action for our young officer and the crux of this paradox I alluded to at the start. Is there a way out of this impasse? I believe there is.

Walzer, a noted military philosopher, suggests that military personnel have a moral duty to meet two types of professional obligations, hierarchical obligations and non-hierarchical obligations. By hierarchical, he means those legitimate obligations that come from the chain of command and the assigned tasks leaders give the subordinates. By non-hierarchical, Walzer refers to "all those people whose lives his activities affect"; that is, all those individuals not directly involved in the combat but often severely affected by it. For Walzer, as human beings, "that is a responsibility we all have." We must acknowledge that civilians are not part of the military hierarchical obligations. In other words we cannot place military needs and duties above that of our duties toward innocent civilians.

In our scenario, forsaking the refugees for the mission or the troops means that the officer values the lives of his troops more than the lives of the innocent civilians. According to Walzer, when an officer thinks this way, he is thinking of his hierarchical obligations only and is forgetting his non-hierarchical duty and thereby failing to behave responsibly. By thinking in this manner, selecting the troops welfare over the civilians, the officer is subsuming the refugees in his hierarchical obligations. Walzer, does not provide an easy solution for dealing with these two obligations. Is there something within our understanding of ethical conduct that can help us clarify matters? I think so.

One of the key principals of the Defence Ethics statement is "respect and dignity for all human beings". That suggests that we should treat the civilians on par with our troops. But this alone does not get us out of our quandary. Or does it? It is recognized that all military members equally accept the ultimate price that comes with duty. Thus, Walzer suggests, they should also have the same obligations of the officer and have the same moral duty of meeting both of these obligations. Thus, the officer who provides aid is not betraying or being disloyal to his troops. As was suggested earlier, to think otherwise indicates you would be concerned only with the hierarchical obligation.

Still the officer who helps the refugees is disobeying legitimate orders and certainly some will see a need for the profession to somehow deal with this issue. The question, which must be asked however, is: are obeying orders of a higher moral principal than that of providing humanitarian aid? I doubt few will disagree that one of the higher moral principals deals with preventing human suffering and death. Does this suggest that the order is immoral or invalid? Not at all. Orders are normally given, without the knowledge of the situational contexts that might occur and that an officer will have to deal with. This is where the military leaders hope that an officer will exercise judgement and wisdom that he or she will use their best professional and moral judgement in reaching a decision. For example, in the movie Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller, played by the actor Tom Hanks, is in a similar situation. The order given by the General to bring back Private Ryan is a legitimate, legal and compassionate one. When Private Ryan actually refuses to obey the Capt because of his loyalty to his fellow mates, Captain Miller is faced with an ethical dilemma. He has to decide which is the more correct course of action. Bring Private Ryan back home or let him stay with his unit and defend a critical position. He decides to stay and help Private Ryan and thereby ‘disobeys’ his orders. For those of you who have seen the movie I believe you would agree with the actions taken by Capt Miller and conclude that he did the ‘right’ thing, that he behaved responsibly, professionally and morally. Throughout the film he seems to portray those qualities we seek in our leaders. He is professional, determined to obey his orders and to carry them out. Yet, in the end, he disobeys his orders or at least delays obeying his orders to extract Pte Ryan on moral grounds. Therefore, when faced with a moral dilemma, the intent of the order can be critically examined and reconsidered.

Similarly, two years ago at the first ethical conference held here, LGen Tousignant described a professional dilemma in which he admitted to disobeying legal orders on moral grounds while he was in Rwanda. LGen Tousignant linked his arguments with Huntington’s notions of military professionalism and obligations, and concluded that it was up to his peers to judge whether or not he had made the right moral and professional decision. So I ask you how is this situation different from the scenario presented here today or that of Captain Miller’s actions in Saving Private Ryan? For me it isn’t.

So how do these examples provide a voice to ethics? I believe it does in the sense that if we are to judge the acts of others we must understand and come to terms with this apparent paradox. As LGen Tousignant stated he was never asked to justify his ‘disobedience’ and perhaps he should have. It is examples like this one that we must bring to light and discuss openly in an effort to understand the deeper moral issues that underlie them. By doing so we will heighten the basic tenants of our profession. I believe the profession failed, when it did not ask LGen to justify himself. By not doing so, the profession essentially suggested that ‘disobeying legitimate order’ is permissible, and that there is no professional requirement to justify decisions made that contradict professional norms.

As LGen Dallaire previously alluded to here at the inaugural conference we must show compassion and understanding when it comes to ethical and moral behaviour. We need to be able to take the kinds of situations discussed in this presentation and understand that making the correct moral decision is it at the very foundation of understanding what military ethics is all about.

The scenario and examples that I have referred to today are difficult ones to deal with. The more you reflect on these issues, the more the complexities of the moral issues are revealed. Discussing ethical dilemmas regularly and critically tends to make us more aware of daily ethical issues that arise and may lead us to recognize ethical failings in the most simple of cases and bring them to light. Thinking about ethical issues before we are confronted with them will go a long way to make members of the CF sensitive to daily events, and how they affect our professional conduct. Giving a "Voice to Ethics" has to be more than indicating what is right wrong conduct. It is also important to realize that both sides of the coin may both be right, what we must realize and emphasize is that there is a personal and professional responsibility that must be accounted for. So, whether you decide to provide or deny humanitarian assistance, you must accept the responsibility of your decision and be able to justify that decision on both moral and professional grounds, that in my view is the true mark of professional conduct.

The Case of the Caring Lieutenant

Your infantry platoon has been on patrolling operations for five days in the Medjak pocket of former Republic of Yugoslavia. The men are filthy and bone-tired after running contacts with elements of the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian combatant forces and long nights of half-on, half-off duty. In three days they will consolidate with other elements of the company and move to landing zones about three miles to the south for helicopter pick-up.

Late that afternoon, as the platoon moves to the position they are to establish for the night, they encounter a civilian wearing a Red Cross armband. He introduces himself as Gustav Arminieri, the local official in charge of Red Cross relief operations in the nearest town. He informs you that he is sheltering a group of Bosnian Muslim civilians, about 30 older men and women with a few children. The civilians are fleeing the battle area to an enclave to the west after a Bosnian Serb battalion moved into their village and collected most of the inhabitants for supply transport duty. They have no food or supplies of any kind and are physically spent and in bad shape. In fact, a number of them need medical attention for wounds. Gustav’s arms gesticulate wildly, and tears flow from his eyes as he describes how the children are near starvation, and how due to the raging battle he has no food or medical supplies left to give them. He implores you to help them out.

You disengage from Gustav with some difficulty and talk to the platoon warrant officer. He suggests helping the Bosnians. He wants to collect the rations that were airdropped yesterday and give them to the group of civilians. He notes that they have a long way to travel to get out of the Medjak pocket to the western enclave. He also states that they are in critical need of medical assistance. One of the section commanders pipes up that the platoon needs to keep its food, that anything could happen between now and the time the company is picked up. If orders change, you could be out for even several more days. He is especially incensed about the platoon warrant’s suggestion about using the medical supplies. The few supplies available were those deemed strictly essential for this mission and the number of soldiers in the platoon. The medical kit consists essentially of gauze, antibiotics, dressings and pain killers. Fighting is on the increase, and the chance of soldiers getting wounded is high. In the rugged terrain of the Medjak pocket, resupply and evacuations of casualties are problematic. The belligerents often obstruct helicopter evacuations and casualties are usually transported by road, so giving away supplies would be risky. You also recall the commanding officer cautioned you strongly against giving supplies to civilians. Such actions have, in the past, resulted in charges that the Canadians favoured one side over the others and caused considerable political and operational difficulties.

Just then, Gustav returns, carrying a limp child in his arms, and implores you to help. Behind them, you see a CNN camera crew setting up, and the reporter is approaching, microphone in hand. Should you share some of the platoon’s supplies with these civilians? Should you tell the medical assistant to use some of his medical kit to treat the injured? Your gut reaction is to provide whatever assistance you can to the refugees. A moment’s reflection, however, reminds you of mission considerations and the advice of your commanding officer.

[Assume that you cannot get instructions from the chain of command for the time being. Broad-band jamming by the belligerents has rendered your radio useless.

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