Military Ethics

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Military Ethics In a Changing World

Major General Robert N. Ginsburgh, USAF (RET)

As a junior officer—and before that as a senior Army brat (teen-aged)—I took part in bull sessions where a favorite topic was "the military mind." Was there such a thing as "the military mind"? If so, how did it differ from the civilian mind?

As a "junior colonel," I found that the semantics had changed. The topic for debate was whether or not the military was a profession. In view of the spate of writings on military professionalism over the past fifteen years, we are inclined to forget that the very term "military professionalism" was virtually unknown until Professor Samuel Huntington's landmark work The Soldier and the State, published in 1957. *

* One of the first published references to "military professionalism" by a military professional was my "Challenge to Military Professionalism" in Foreign Affairs, January 1964.

Now there seems to be a consensus, both inside and outside the military, that there is a military profession. Thus, today, the topic for debate in the professional military schools has become: Is there such a thing as a "professional military ethic"?

My answer is: "Yes. If there is no ethic, there is no profession."

There is in fact a general recognition of the existence of a military ethic which differs from a personal ethic or from the ethics of other recognized professions.

It is not just ethics that makes the military profession unique. Professor Huntington, for example, points out that there are three characteristics of any profession: expertise, corporateness, and responsibility. All three of these characteristics have aspects which uniquely define the military profession. But what about professional military ethics? Simply speaking, ethics is encompassed in the characteristic of professional responsibility.

All systems of human ethics have some common elements; at the same time there are some elements that make the military ethic unique.