“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I have lost count of the number of scandals regarding the ethical failures of American military leaders. Today at lunch I was talking with a gentleman in charge of the military outreach for a local university where I am considering beginning a Ph.D. program in Organizational Leadership.
There are many reasons given for the these ethical failures, everything from the disintegration or the nuclear family, to the lack of religious upbringing, to the supposedly liberal educational system. However, while I think some of these issues may have some impact, I am not convinced that they are the root cause of the ethics crisis that seems to be plaguing the military.
As we discussed aspects of the program the subject got to the subject of military leaders being fired for ethical, legal and moral lapses. This is something that I am giving much though since I am now teaching ethics at a senior level military staff college. What I am noticing is that many officers struggle with basic concepts regarding history, philosophy, ethics, political science, religion, the arts and literature and other subjects that because I immerse myself in them just assume that any military professional should know.
But that is not the case. For the last thirty to forty years the commissioning programs of our services have given preference to those in the STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields. In fact the probability is that the liberal arts or social science major will not be admitted to service academy or ROTC program, even a non-scholarship program unless they are in a STEM major. This is especially true of my own service, the Navy and the Air Force but is not absent from the Army and the Marine Corps.
This is not new. In 1981 I joined Army ROTC because the Navy told me that even to be a non-scholarship student in the program I would have to change my major from history to a STEM major.
This is not simply a military issue, but it is a systemic issue in higher American education programs, programs which due to the demands of the business and technology sectors have gutted liberal arts programs and the social sciences. All of this has been done in the name of making sure that people are “prepared for jobs” and that education is related directly to employability and again jobs. That is why in large part for profit schools have proliferated offering programs focused on narrow job fields in technical majors. This has impacted higher education in public and private universities which at one time had thriving liberal arts, humanities and social science programs as well as the military where the emphasis on STEM has created havoc in terms of ethics.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“The ‘polymath’ had already died out by the close of the eighteenth century, and in the following century intensive education replaced extensive, so that by the end of it the specialist had evolved. The consequence is that today everyone is a mere technician, even the artist…”
Education is now viewed by most as a pathway to a better job, not a quest for understanding, knowledge or even personal improvement. That attitude is enmeshed in our culture and has been for decades. It even shows up in seminaries where programs are not focused in the classics and timeless subjects in theology, history, philosophy, ethics, languages and hermeneutics but instead methods of “growing” a church or running a program. When I was in seminary, a large conservative evangelical seminary many students complained about having to take classes that had nothing to do with running their church. Many of my fellow students despised Church History, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and even Systematic Theology and then complained that the courses that were oriented to running a church would be out of date in a few years.
The common theme whether this be in the for profit schools, the public and private universities, the military and seminaries is that we have trained two generations of people to be good technicians and technocrats. Men and women very skilled at getting at job done but that lack the basic ethical and moral grounding that those in previous generations received as part of their education, in the home, in their religious institutions and in the educational system.
The problem is that when you strip away a solid grounding in the arts, liberal arts and social sciences you breed people who may be very good at getting a job done. However they are people who lack the knowledge passed on by people who have shaped civilization for millennia. They are ignorant of Hammurabi, Moses, Plato, Cicero, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas, the great philosophers and thinkers from the East and the West, those who brought about the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and even the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, Universal Suffrage, Emancipation and Civil Rights.
Their technical education divorces them from those that developed the legal, ethical and moral codes of our culture. They lack the cohesive understanding of social responsibility and connection that have held western civilization together. Those have been replaced by ethics that are dominated by pragmatism or utilitarianism, even in seminaries where classes on ethics or moral theology are often relegated to elective status. How else can we explain the wholesale disintegration of moral and ethical codes of behavior across the vocational spectrum be it business, government, the military or religious institutions?
The question for many people, and maybe most people in our society, including the military is not what is moral or ethical but what is “legal,” and what are the loopholes in the law that allow one to escape the consequences of their immoral, illegal or unethical behavior.
We have raised at least two, maybe three generations of technicians and technocrats, and that trend shows no sign of abating. In North Carolina last year the Republican Governor proposed eliminating tuition assistance from any program not directly related to “jobs.” By that he meant eliminating such assistance from non-STEM programs.
What this does, and I think we are seeing this today is produces people who are good at doing jobs, but have a difficult time in critical thinking or looking at the logical consequences of their ideas and actions.
Many cannot see the moral or ethical dimensions of life and even turn religion to an exercise designed to benefit them in a tangible material way. Thus there is a proliferation of churches that preach some kind of “prosperity Gospel” and those that pervert religion and use it to suppress the freedoms of others by force of law.
But let me return to the military implications of my thesis. What I have observed in my career of over 30 years of military service is a culture that has developed in an ethical vacuum. We have sought to inculcate a service culture based on Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps “values” such as “honor, courage and commitment.” However, for many maybe even most those are mere words. They are shibboleths akin to religious creeds recited by people for whom they are irrelevant because they are not job related.
Now this is not an attack on those in the military, for those in the military simply reflect the culture that they come from. This includes the family, religious, social and educational systems of our society. In fact I actually believe that for the most part people in the military do a better job with values, ethics and morality than many in the civilian society. That being said there is something seriously wrong in what we are doing. If there wasn’t there would not be so many egregious lapses that call the moral fitness of senior military leadership into question.
This is especially important because the trust of the nation is invested in these men and women. The responsibilities that they have regarding the lives of people, the security of the nation and the maintenance, security and use of powerful weapons, including nuclear weapons and information technology that can be used to pry into the private lives of unknowing citizens all dictate that the ethical and moral standards of the military have to be above those found in the private sector.
Unfortunately there is no immediate “fix” for the problem because it it so systemically rooted in our society. However something will have to be done, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense have directed the military redouble its emphasis on teaching ethics at every level. However it is my opinion that we will have to go far beyond the recitation of creeds and repetition of words about “values” that have little relevance to people educated and brought up to simply do a job. This will be a difficult task, especially in military organizations being reduced in number while still engaged in war and increasing other operations around the world.
As to the broader societal issues, those run deep, but one thing in my mind is certain, there has to be a renewed emphasis on the humanities, liberal arts and social sciences to include the classics of western and world literature, art, philosophy, history and thought. We cannot reduce education to technical elements that require little in the way of critical thought, or for that matter provide people with “education” that does not force them to deal with the dark areas of life that are uncomfortable and the gray areas that fill our universe.
In the Second World War many of the best and brightest of young German intellectuals joined the SS and its sister organizations, organizing and executing the extermination of the Jews and others in Germany and occupied lands. Most of these men did not give their actions a second thought. They were doing their jobs, most of the time in a very dispassionate matter. They carried out orders because they were “legal.” Ethics and morality were no concern simply because they were sworn to obey orders.
The task to change this cannot be that of the military and its leadership alone. If we fail to change our education systems, our home life and even our religious life we will unleash the greatest generation of amoral technocrats who have ever walked the face of the earth. They will be men and women who will have no problem committing the greatest crimes, simply because they are “legal” and because they have only been taught to do their job.