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Army rethinks how it teaches ethics to soldiers

Dec. 28, 2009 - 07:44AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 28, 2009 - 07:44AM  |  
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FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Army leaders who've been prompted to rethink tactics and war-fighting doctrines because of Iraq and Afghanistan also see a need to re-examine how they educate soldiers about ethics.

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FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Army leaders who've been prompted to rethink tactics and war-fighting doctrines because of Iraq and Afghanistan also see a need to re-examine how they educate soldiers about ethics.

Some of the interest in ethics is tied to the wars: the black eye of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, concerns that stress from unconventional conflict leads to bad decisions, and, for at least one retired general, the sense that the military lost the public's trust in Iraq. But some leaders also say the Army has worried for a while that it hasn't been doing a good enough job of instilling strong ethics.

Officials at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and at Fort Leavenworth, home to the Army's Command and General Staff College, are still in the early stages of developing the material they'll blend into handbooks, papers, online presentations and videos they use to train soldiers. Officers involved in the effort say that eventually a soldier's grounding in ethics — strong or weak — will become a factor in promotions.

The Army's efforts to rethink its training on ethics received a boost this fall, when Texas billionaire and two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot pledged $6.1 million to a private foundation supporting programs at Fort Leavenworth's command college. One result is a new chairmanship in ethics — the kind of post universities set up for academic areas they deem important.

"It can't be, ‘Today we'll do ethics training and that will do for the year,'" said Brig. Gen. Ed Cardon, deputy commandant of the Fort Leavenworth college. "It has to be ingrained in everything we do, on and off duty."

Much of the discussion among Army leaders remains general, with few details yet about exactly how their desire for better ethics training will translate into day-to-day operations.

At Fort Leavenworth's college, Army majors spend 10 months preparing for unit commands or staff positions; the college also has educated more than 7,100 international officers who have gone on to lead their militaries and, in some cases, nations. The new ethics chairmanship will be named for Gen. Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a close friend of Perot's.

And the post recently had a symposium to examine ethics issues. Officers involved in such discussions suggested the goal isn't a new manual or course, but an approach similar to how some public schools have tried to boost students' writing skills by having them write in all classes, including math and science.

Col. Sean Hannah, director of West Point's center of military ethics, told colleagues last year that the Army couldn't do strong research on ethics issues, lacked a way to disseminate what it does learn and didn't have a "common operating picture" for good ethical conduct. Still, he said recently, "The Army is not broken."

"Soldiers do the right thing, but we are in a protracted, persistent conflict and we know what happens when bad things happen," he said.

During Fort Leavenworth's symposium, several officers suggested the unconventional nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affected soldiers' ethical decisions. The fight, they said, has been against an ideology of extremism, not a sovereign state.

Soldiers operate partly as soldiers, partly as humanitarian workers and partly as police officers, often switching roles back and forth on a given patrol.

"The challenge is how be an optimist when you just took a hit, especially when you are dealing with a very elusive enemy, who, in the words of some, don't fight fair," Cardon said.

And there's the military's credibility in general, whether leaders are perceived as open with Congress and the public.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, whose 37 years in the Army included stints as acting chief of staff, said military leaders didn't acknowledge early in the Iraq war that their strategy was wrong, which led to the impression — incorrect, he believes — that they were lying about conditions there. He said the administration was slow to acknowledge that Iraq had turned into a fight against insurgents, requiring a different strategy.

"Sometimes we may not be doing very well. The American people can handle that," he said. "As long as you have trust with them and credibility, I think they can handle that."

Army officials said the heightened interest in ethics started with its chief of staff, Gen. George Casey and wasn't prompted by a single incident, such as Abu Ghraib. In fact, some officers said the Army has plenty of other, lower-profile incidents of concern, such as soldiers who falsify results on skill tests and harassment of women and subordinates.

But there's little doubt that Abu Ghraib's infamous photographs of soldiers mistreating detainees at the Iraqi prison — including images of naked and hooded detainees being led around by dog collars or stacked in human pyramids — still reverberate.

"It was a strategic defeat," said Maj. Doug Pryer, who wrote a book about problems with Army interrogations in 2003 and 2004. "It was a recruiting boon for the terrorists and undermined moral credibility throughout the war."

He added: "There are thousands of reasons why the abuse occurred. The root cause was poor ethical leadership."

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