NEWPORT, R.I. – The Naval War College’s (NWC) “Enduring Ethical Dilemmas” ethics conference explored the rights and responsibilities of the professional military officer, Feb. 1-3. The event is part of a three-stage ethics program that supports the overall core curriculum at NWC.
“The leadership at the Naval War College has provided us with golden opportunities to deal with military ethics throughout the academic year,” said Dr. Martin Cook, Stockdale Professor of Military Ethics with the College of Operational & Strategic Leadership (COSL). “This critical issue is addressed with the entire student body during Convocation in August and prior to graduation in late spring. We also schedule this annual three-day event each February for the intermediate class.”
Cook emphasized that each occasion is not intended as a stand-alone event, but integral to NWC’s broader approach to ethics. He also noted that the ethics of warfare itself—which is a perennial theme for people conducting military operations—is for officers to think clearly about the ramifications of their behavior.
“Our core subjects usually involve civil military relations and the proper understanding of the role of the military officer as well as the ethical and moral challenges he or she faces on a daily basis,” Cook added. “The intent is for the faculty to pick up on the themes and topics of these conferences and weave them through their instruction during the year.”
The conference also provides NWC with the opportunity to invite the leading academics on civil military relations to Newport to instruct the students on ethics or related issues-of-the-day.
“One of topics last year focused on ‘Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell’ during the time the U.S. government began looking into changing the policy,” said Professor John Meyer, Assistant Dean for Leadership at COSL. “We brought in an expert on the issue to encourage our students to thoroughly debate this controversial issue.”
Cook delivered this year’s kickoff address, “Framing the Conference: Professional Ethics,” which laid the framework for the event’s extensive agenda by examining ethics as a profession and thinking of military service in professional terms. He also provided students with reference materials for important guest presentations and discussions.
“Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional” by Lt. Col. Andrew Milburn, USMC, was distributed to students prior to a formal dialogue and panel discussion with Milburn, Dr. Richard Kohn from the University of North Carolina, and Cook. Students were also issued the book, "The Morality of War," written by Dr. Brian Orend, Director of International Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
“We asked them to read the chapters which specifically addressed issues of justice after conflict,” Cook said. “His lecture specifically applied those principles directly to the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Other presentations included “Strategic Leaders: Stewards of the Profession of Arms,” “Ethics and Emerging Military Technologies” and “Lawfare: Legal and Ethical Constraints in Modern Warfare.” The students also attended afternoon classroom seminars to recap, discuss and debate relevant issues of the day.
“These lectures, seminars and readings help students understand that they have a growing set of responsibilities as they become senior military leaders,” Meyer said. “These obligations require that they look at ethics through the lens of the profession of arms, and not solely through the lens of a large bureaucracy.”
Another plus for NWC students and the public is that conference lectures were videotaped and will be posted on the college’s Internet in the near future.
“By recording these discussions and making them available to distance education classes and larger military audiences, we can provide high-quality instruction to students and officers not in residence in Newport,” Cook said.
Meyer and Cook also noted that the conference is tackling the immediate concerns of U.S. military leadership.
“Just last month the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, in an address at the National Defense University, expressed his concern over the state of the profession after nine years of war,” Meyer noted. “The program of Professional Military Ethics at the War College is directly addressing his concerns and this conference is a great example of how we are taking on that challenge.”
“Overall our conference met our objective of presenting high-quality speakers and seminar discussion opportunities to allow our students to engage in the kind of careful critical thinking about the state of their profession Admiral Mullen asked us all to do,” Cook said.
By David Reese, Naval War College Public Affairs