How big a role does ethics play in the training programs of modern armed forces?

In today’s militaries, do training programs discuss the ethics of warfare much (or at all)? By “ethics”, I’m speaking broadly: anything from specific rules of engagement to more philosophical discussions on otherization, dehumanization, tolerance of enemy cultures and religions, etc.
Perhaps the question could be condensed thus: When a young, new soldier first signs up and undergoes training, how will s/he be taught to deal with the enemy?** Is it “KILL THEM ALL!” or something more nuanced?

I’m most interested in the US armed forces (because that’s where I live), but any non-hearsay answers are welcome.


As part of our 16-week infantry basic training (Israeli military), we had “Education Week”, the only period of time we spent in classrooms. We were taught (and asked to discuss) issues regarding the IDF’s military philosophy and doctrine, personal and group responsibility, ethics as pertaining our fellow soldiers and ethics as pertaining to the enemy - including the different types of legal and illegal orders, treatment of prisoners and so on. It was an interesting week - relatively relaxing, too, although we still did plenty of pushups between classes.

Fascinating. Did anything in particular stand out to you?

Was religion discussed at all?

lol what’s that quote from Apocalypse Now? Something like, “We train our boys to drop fire on people but that writing profanity on their vehicles is wrong because it’s offensive”

I’ve seen a British Army training film on how to treat female civilians. It was pretty basic – letting a woman go by with a cheery wave right: pushing her into a corner and harassing her wrong.

A few years ago, I believe when General Krulack was the Commandant, the Marine Corps initiated a specific program in boot camp to deal with ethics. Memory serves, he was very concerned that today’s teenagers/recruits were lacking in this regard. Can’t say as though I totally disagre.

In US Officer training, there was (& presumably still is) a pretty good sized section on the Laws of War, command responsibility both upwards & downwards, the nature & necessity of restrictive Rules of Engagement, etc.

In the course of various leadership lessons there’s also a lot of stuff about ethics in the sense of honesty, trustworthiness, & reliability. Both in the sense of you always being / doing those things, and of the necessity of believing & acting like your superiors, subordinates, & peers all did so too.

I don’t recall anything which specifically addressed the ethics of combat & killing as such. If there was, it was a pretty straightforward “We’re the Good Guys. We wouldn’t be fighting them unless they were Bad Guys. Better them than you or your Mom. Besides, they started it.” The legitimacy of that attitude from 1914 up through the collapse of the Soviet Union is pretty clear & straightforward. How applicable it is to today’s world is another question.

Ultimately, the DoD is a large government bureaucracy, but with weapons. We want/need the whole organization to reliably represent most of the ideals of the country, while still getting the mission done. You don’t get reliable performance on ethics or anything else unless you train for it.

Massacres don’t help win the battle, much less the war. Neither does dithering about whether that particular target is troublesome enough to warrant destruction. If told to take it out, you’re supposed to go take it out. But as neatly & cleanly as is practical. Which is to say with an eye to the ethics of avoiding death & destruction for its own sake.

Nowadays, with peace making / nation building a large part of routine operations, I’d bet that ethics & cultural sensitivity /awareness training is a much larger part of at least Army / Marine officer training. If the goal is to influence civilians, not kill them, your effectiveness depends on communication, not firepower.

Just last week the battalion commander gathered us up to talk about the Mai Lai masacre.

At Basic training, there are a couple classroom hours or so devoted to Laws of War, dealing with prisoners, treating wounded enemy, POWs, and such. “Rules of Engagement” is not a standard set of rules. ROE is guidance a commander puts out to ensure the Laws of War are not violated and/or that our military or political agenda is not compromised. So Drill Sergeants might talk about certain different ROEs they have operated under, but a specific ROE is not taught.
During tactical training, these things are reiterated. We make sure they don’t execute their prisoners or otherwise operate outside the law.
As for other ethics, the Army has 7 Army Values. Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage. At a minimum, one day a week is set aside to teach each value using personal anecdotes and so on.
As a culminating “Values” event, the privates are sat in a room and they watch RESTREPO, They complete a work sheet while watching the film that asks them about their thoughts and feelings, the Army Values involved during certain scenes, etc.

After Basic, a Soldier receives at least annual SERE B training which reiterates the laws of war and treatment of POWs, etc. When a unit deploys to a combat zone, each Soldier receives another couple hours of that same training, as well as the current ROE in place, and a couple hours on the culture and behavior and values of the civilians in their area of operation.
The Soldiers may also receive some language traiing. If I remember currectly, I received 8 hours of Pashtu training and was given material to study it and Dari on my own.

As far as respecting religion? Soldiers are hammered to death about respecting other religions and cultures, and now sexual orientations. It isn’t so much so they respect and tolerate their enemy or the foreign cultures, though. This is so that they can work together as a team. Remember that there will be Jews and Muslims together in the same Platoon, bigots and females, blacks and closeted racists, etc…
So in Basic most of the “tolerance” type training is to make them respect each other and work together.
But before a deployment, a Soldier receives culture training specific to their area of operation and taught how to respect the civilians and even the beliefs of their enemy. (no burning the bodies, for instance)

It is something the Army takes very seriously. In Afganistan, our entire COP semi-observed Ramadan practices. In other words, we were ordered to not eat or drink in open view of any local nationals on the COP from sunrise to sunset. So we had to eat in our bunks, no chewing tobacco outside, no chewing gum, designated smoking area moved far from everything, no walking out of the dining facility with food, no drinking water in the guard tower if you are pulling a shift with an Afghani, etc.
Frustrating, because it seemed like we were more observant than the muslims on our COP… But that’s just the Army and it’s often mis-guided “awareness”. Like in Korea when command decided that they didn’t like the way Soldiers called Korean men “Adjasshi”. To some ‘higher-up’ this seemed very insulting. So the order went down to stop referring to Korean men as “Adjasshi”. If we wanted to get their attention or something, we were told to say “Sir” or call him buy his name (as if we knew it) or something more polite.
Ridiculous, because that is basically the Korean word for “sir”. And it is used by all Koreans to politely refer to or call to a man they do no know. Then they didn’t want us calling our Korean partners “KATUSAs”. We couldn’t refer to them as a KATUSA because “that is a program, not a person”. So fucking lame. I doubt either of those stupid rules got very far.

Until you get into action, it seems like it’s all to do with respecting the customs of nations or cultures. Etiquette is not ethics.

Nothing about how to treat each other. Does ethics have any place in training, or is combat too much “what it is” to allow ethics into the process that makes soldiers? You can’t make soldiers without training in that end run around the conscience that allows instant obedience. I think maybe addressing ethics too specifically would erode that instinct to obey.