Military ethics are a broad set of codes and standards, both written and understood, that military members are expected to uphold. They are usually designed to guide soldiers’ actions in battle, their decision-making in the field, and their interactions with others both in their chain of command and at home. Actually defining these standards can be a little bit tricky since they tend to vary a lot by country and military. Most militaries publish their “official” codes and train their personnel when it comes to how the standards are meant to be lived into. They can include everything from leadership standards and the value of human life to appropriate sexual contact and other interpersonal details between soldiers and regimental members. Violating the code, even just in perception, usually leads to some sort of disciplinary action.
Where They’re Learned
In most cases, servicemen and women learn about the ethical standards that apply to their service as soon as they enroll in the military. During military training, often called “boot camp,” there are certain ethical guidelines that are reinforced and instilled in members. Ideas about responsibility, honor, trust, accountability, and loyalty are some of the most common.
Service members learn what these ethics mean to their military, and in most cases are required to abide by them to remain in active duty. Sometimes the standards are clearly set out in a list or other tabulation that new recruits are required to memorize and repeat on demand, but the implications are usually much more profound and wide-sweeping than simple facts to be recited. In most cases, the goal is for these principles to actually govern and shape behavior. Military ethics are usually designed to become a part of military life and become habitual standards that servicemen and women live by.
Why They Exist
One of the main reasons that militaries enact ethical standards and guides is to create uniformity not just in what soldiers do, but also when it comes to why they act at all. Codes are typically established is to help servicemen and women adhere to a single, defined standard of integrity, to ensure that conduct is legally admissible, and to promote trust among members. In many places ethical standards are captured in “creeds,” which are poetic sayings that repeatedly remind a solider of his or her necessary duties. Military creeds are considered dogma, which means that they are authoritative and are not to be disputed. Creeds are also meant to serve as a reminder that military members have an obligation to never disgrace their uniform or country.
Consequences of Violation
Ethics violations are usually treated pretty seriously by military officials, though of course a lot of this depends on the nature of the wrong-doing as well as its impacts. At the very least, the person who committed the infraction is usually subjected to reprimand; in extreme cases, he or she may face administrative consequences and may even be expelled from service. This is usually the case even if the violation wasn’t technically illegal: within the military, the code often serves as law, and violations may be treated by military courts with the same sort of reverence and weight. If the ethic that was violated also results in criminal misconduct, disciplinary action may extend into the military justice system and military members may be held accountable for any criminal activities that resulted from their action or inaction.
It’s important to understand that military ethics vary from country to country. A military's ethics often reflect the same ethics of the society or nation that the military is a part of. For example, in the United States Army, the core values or ethics that members abide by are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. These ethics form the acronym LDRSHIP, or “leadership.” This standard is by no means the same everywhere, though. Some codes of conduct that may be considered acceptable in an American military may seem unethical to another’s nation’s military system, and vice versa.