Surviving Ethical Dilemmas In The Military

Life is full of decisions.

Many of those decisions are made in reflection of our moral and ethical values.

And then, we are faced with those circumstances when we feel as if we are in a corner.

It is an ethical dilemma, and we must choose the proper path.

As a freelance writer, I consistently face decisions that are made because of my beliefs and morals.

A potential client may want me to write on a subject I am firmly opposed to.

I will not go into those areas, but I find these ethical decisions easy; I just say no.

But in the military and in other vocations, these ethical decisions are not always that easy.

After all, you are in a “family” of warriors.

You are supposed to follow orders and “back-up” your fellow soldiers.

Ethical dilemmas can be harder to handle in these situations so in today’s post, I am going to explain my opinions on how to survive ethical dilemmas in the military.

This being the debatable subject that it is, we ARE open to your comments and opinions, but please keep them civil and respectable.

We all have our beliefs, and in many cases they will not match other beliefs.

That is what makes the United States so great.

We can have our beliefs and morals in opposition to our neighbor, and still live in peace and harmony for the biggest part.

I recently read an excellent paper written by Chaplain Colonel Kermit Johnson entitled Ethical Issues of Military Leadership.


There is a quote by Chaplain Johnson that resonated with me:

“Perhaps in order to have an ethical consciousness we should be aware of our personal fallibility.”

Just consider some of the possible ethical dilemmas you could be in if in war or peace as either an officer or a soldier:

  • You are in charge of supply and you are aware of a local family who is in danger from opposing forces. You know that you have extra bullet proof vests and these people have asked you for help. You know it is against regulations to hand these to the people. Do you?

  • You are ordered by a 2nd Lieutenant who recently was transferred to your unit to shoot a small child who is holding a IUD. Do you?

  • 2 soldiers in your unit are on trial for raping an Iraqi woman. These men were good soldiers in wartime, but they broke the law. You saw what happened and your testimony could ruin their lives and careers. Do you testify?

These are some “hard-core” ethical dilemmas, but all of them have been faced by soldiers and officers.

Maybe not in exactly the same picture I painted, but close.

It is my belief that every human at some point in their life will “break” an ethical dilemma.

I know I have; have you?

You don’t have to answer that to me, but please do not lie to yourself.

Here is where I am going with this.

Before you judge another about breaking an ethical issue, you should first take a close look in the mirror.

My opinion about ethics training in the military

Personally, I think the military ethics training needs a lot of work.

But, I also understand why it is in bad shape.

Ethics in the United States have disintegrated as well as in much of the world.

It seems it is okay to lie if you don’t get caught.

You can steal if it is for the good of you, your family or someone else.

I consider former Presidents of the United States who have done unethical things and were actually praised for doing them.

But enough of my opinion, how do we revert back and mend our ethical issues?

It starts with leaders

Leaders must practice what they preach!

If the rules say no, it means no.

It really is that simple.

You then stand your ground in all circumstances.

  • With you subordinates

  • And, with your boss

  • With your spouse

  • With your children

The key is consistency.

Once those around you realize that you will stand strong on your ethics, they will be less apt to test you in those cases.

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Your leadership style and ethical dilemmas

The leadership style you have can reflect how you handle ethical dilemmas.

Leadership styles can also help those under those leader decide whether to “break” an ethical standard.

Let’s look at these leadership styles.

Commanding leadership

This is the most prevalent leadership style in the military.

The focus is fast results without input from workers.

I call it the “Git “er Done” form of leadership.

With ethical dilemmas, the worker reflects the leader.

If the leader shows it to be okay to break ethics, the follower will normally follow suit.

Visionary leadership

The idea with this form of leadership is creating a common goal.

If followed correctly, the visionary leader will develop both a mission and a vision statement.

These statements will cover ethical issues, and workers will not tolerate unethical behavior under this leadership style.

Set the pace leadership

These leaders are go-getters.

They often set hard paces and workers are usually under heavy pressure.

While the leader may be ethically correct, workers may face temptations to break ethics, and if the see others breaking ethics, they will often ignore them.


The coaching leadership style is excellent in my opinion.

The coach is approachable but is set on the ethics and will immediately deal with any ethics violations in a fair and just way.

Democratic leadership

While we may believe in a democratic political system, in the military or any other similar organization, democratic leadership can equip those who break ethical standards.

The idea is to meet and discuss.

The time standard is so drawn out the unethical issues are usually “swept under a rug.”

Affiliate leadership

This style is about having a harmonious and happy workforce.

While that can be a beautiful thing, if ethical situations arise, affiliate leaders will often turn their heads the opposite way because if they do anything else, it may drop the overall morale.

Personally, I believe leaders should try to utilize all leadership styles with a focus on the coaching leadership style in the terms of ethics violations.

Ethical decisions in combat situations

One of the most difficult places to make ethical decisions is in combat situations.

A decision must be made quickly and cannot be a 2nd thought, or you or your fellow soldier may die or be seriously wounded.

There have been officers and soldiers brought up on ethical violations that felt they made the correct decision at the time.

Many of the people that are judging that warrior is a person who has never been confronted with making a life and death situation.

I do question if these people should be the judge, jury and executioner.

I often read a blog of a Danish soldier and writer who has given those in combat a solid way to make these ethical decisions in combat.

Soren Sjogren in his blog post titled Ethical Decisions In Combat Leadership explains that before any decision is made, 3 questions need to be asked in order.

  1. Is the action legal? Soldiers are provided with rules of engagement along with the Geneva Convention rules of warfare. If there is any chance the action is illegal, the soldier must find a different option.

  2. Is the action proportional? As a leader that has determined the action is legal, they must determine if it is proportional. How will it ultimately affect the entire mission? Is it too much for too little? If so, it should not be carried out.

  3. Does it feel right? Here is where some people may argue, because killing another human should never “feel right.” What Soren means is, does it feel as if you are doing what is best in service to your country, your military and the overall situation you are in. What does your intuition say? If the other 2 questions were positive answers, if your gut says yes, then by all means squeeze that trigger, pull that pin or push that button.

Some actual military ethics violations

When you read some of these, you may ask, “What were they thinking?”

But again, think about your life.

Have you been ethically wrong at some point?

I would bet that the answer is yes.

  • A military purchasing agent recommended a new AT&T system. He then received a free ticket to Hawaii from an AT&T employee. In 1992, he received 1 year of probation, restitution and a $5,000 fine.

  • Several service members defrauded the military marriage allowances by “marrying” Russian women that they never even lived with. They were all court-martialed, reduced in rank and had to pay full restitution.

  • An officer in Afghanistan used military transport and his own personal soldier as a courier to transport rugs and shotguns for cash to the U.S. The officer was relieved of all duties and had to pay full restitution.

Those are just a small amount of the long list of military ethical violations.

Final Thoughts

So let’s hear your thoughts on ethical dilemmas in the military.

Do you think the military is doing enough to stop ethical violations?

Feel free to leave your comments or questions below.

Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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