Soldiers in Combat Facing Ethical Dilemmas Including Self-Values and Ethics

In a contemporary world wrought with sporadic skirmishes, soldiers operating across a broad spectrum of conflict scenarios have to grapple with the reality of making moral choices in combat scenarios. These ethical dilemmas present difficult selections that are all too common in nearly all levels of military organization. Since moral competence may be lacking in military organizations, soldiers are often forced to make difficult decisions that usually present a quandary.  Recent evidence has revealed that soldiers in combat experience a relative degree of tension whenever they are required to follow a direct order that present an ethical dilemma or fall back to their personal values (Baarda, Baarda, & Verweij, 2006, p. 73).

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Nevertheless, military apparatus across the world are increasingly beginning to focus on ethics as an integral part of their modus operandi. This is because incidents such as those that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq and the Mỹ Lai Massacre in Vietnam presented instances where soldiers made blatant unethical decisions. These instances would also serve as a constant reminder that every single individual is fallible and prone to making wrong choices when discharging their duties. It is for this reason that various service academies and professionals of the military cadre have shown renewed interest in studying ethical principles, while still exploring the dilemmas that service personnel face.

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The essence of this nascent interest has been to find feasible ways in which officers can construct their code of conduct during military service. Even so, it is of the utmost importance that military organizations acknowledge the complexities that ethical dilemmas present to soldiers in combat situations and the effect that this may have on their values. An in-depth analysis of soldiers in combat facing ethical dilemmas hinging on self-values and ethics is therefore essential, in addition to providing an evaluation of whether or not current military personnel level of decision-making skills is adequate. 

Civilian-Military Relations

Civilian-military relations have long been ignored by the upper echelons of military leadership and the primary reason why soldiers are faced with difficult ethical dilemmas while in combat situations. Heads of military organizations have, over the past century, found it quite difficult to strike a healthy balance between civilian and military relations. Most of these career soldiers usually go by a simple rule; the military and all the decisions it makes take precedence over views held by civilians. This usually occurs against a backdrop of a reality that many seem blind to. The military owes its allegiance to civilian leaders who are tasked with passing crucial legislation that may even effect conscription, benefits and funds allocated towards their activities (Elßner & Janke, 2016). Still, the chief debacle faced by military organizations is in developing a healthy relationship with civilians, which is usually down to the fact that top-leadership actively, ignores this integral part of their operation. A bone of contention that has emerged in recent years between these two groups concerns the use of force and to what degree it should be implemented. The military conservatism school of thought is customarily of the opinion that a standing army should have sweeping powers that allow it to act undeterred. Here, the assumption is that military personnel are competent individuals capable of making informed decisions whenever required to make an executive decision when faced with a quandary. A comparative look at soldier’s code of conduct from all countries with an active military presence reveals that guiding ethics are not underscored (Baumann, 2007). For instance, the typical assumption in the United States has always been that military personnel in various platoons, crews, units and companies are well aware of their oath of allegiance and rules of engagement. This may be far from being true. On the flipside, civilian attitudes are often in opposition to such an eventuality with the prevailing opinion being that it would have far-reaching consequences. For instance, the use of force has been a hotly debated issue with civilians proposing the establishment of a clear system of checks and balance that would make certain that they practice oversight. In the case of lengthy military operations or excursions into far-flung frontiers, the commanders are expected to also report back to civilian policy makers regarding extended force posture and any possibility of extended force.

An Inadequacy of Guiding Ethics within the wider Military Community

Ethical dilemmas are truths that most military personnel have to contend with specifically because guiding ethics are non-existent within the military community. The education and basic training provided in the military makes use of a lopsided approach that only focuses on combat related activities. Recruits are drilled continuously for a specified time-frame for them to be physically fit while also being taught how to handle various standard issue weapons. All this takes place while ignoring the fact that deployment into a warzone would put most of them in a difficult position where self-values would come into play. Therefore, military personnel are left exposed to a myriad of situations that may require them to ponder seriously about ethics and self-values before acting. In particular, confronting the issue of human needs has exposed the military’s underbelly and a general lack of guiding ethics. For instance, a military commander will be given a wide range of responsibilities, some which may also include making difficult decisions that they are unprepared for. These scenarios often include making judgment calls in war scenarios and deciding, in an instance, whether an approaching subject is a civilian or an enemy combatant.  A lack of clear rules of engagement in such instances may create disunity amongst members of a unit, platoon or company with the commanders bearing the full brunt of such discontent (Schulzke, 2012). Commanders are aware of the complexities that exist when leading a team of individuals, a fact that is often exacerbated when a succinct guiding ethics are non-existent (Mompeyssin, 2014). Soldiers in combat situations usually require a certain level of consideration, encouragement and recognition; a hodgepodge that also requires guiding ethics for them to function at optimum. Moreover, commanders are cognizant of the fact that leadership is more than just barking orders at their subordinates. They acknowledge various difficulties those soldiers may encounter in a warzone, especially when guiding ethics are not spelt out. This fact became apparent during the U.S-led incursion into Iraq and Afghanistan after the September 9/11 attack. Military personnel were typically forced to make split-second decision on whether to bomb a target close to civilians or use torture tactics to extract crucial intelligence from militants.

Ethical-Decision Making Skills as a Basic Requirement for all Command and Control Elements

Ethical-decision making skills are a basic requirement for all command and control elements in a military organization. In recent years, the misguided assumption that only junior officers should enroll in ethical training courses is cited as one of the primary reason why integrity may ultimately be compromised in military organizations. High-ranking military officials have ignored the fundamental nature of education on ethical matters, which is a worrying trend considering that they occupy positions of power and influence. All players require an in-depth comprehension of ethical-decision making skills to make sure that they are well-versed in what is expected of them in combat (Olsthoorn, 2010). Soldiers deployed in flashpoints should always expect to be faced with ethical pressures of varying complexities where they will be required to make informed moral decisions. During this period they should also expect to encounter various situation-oriented demands that may supersede their rule-oriented obligations.  It is from this point that they will then juggle the moral requirements of a particular situation and determine the course of action that should then be undertaken. These often include universal norms that all soldiers, regardless of rank, need to adhere to as a requirement by all social institutions. Ethical-decision making skills are a core dimension that every active duty member of the military needs to attain, develop and implement while dispensing their mandate. Begin by basing the training on tangible case studies is an important starting point for soldiers from all ranks for they are the best future reference points. In addition to this, the ethical decisions made will also include an integrity component to ensure that ground-level reformation is included and soldiers conversant with these requirements. The Dutch Armed Forces is at the forefront of introducing an all-rounded approach during training with the primary aim of preparing soldiers from all ranks on how to make ethical decisions (Iersel et al., 2001). The Netherlands Defense Academy thus offers a “train-the-trainer” course meant to instill integrity, transparency and responsibility in all their soldiers while on the battle-field.


In finality, ethical dilemmas for soldiers operating in conflict zones is a reality that military organizations have to contend with and implement appropriate approaches to better prepare their personnel. An analysis of soldiers in combat facing ethical dilemmas hinging on self-values and ethics is essential, in establishing whether or not current military personnel level of decision-making skills are adequate.  Poor civilian-military relations and a general inadequacy of guiding principles have emerged as primary reasons why most soldiers find themselves in such situations. Nevertheless, making ethical-decision making skills a basic requirement for all command and control elements is a commendable step that will ultimately improve the standing of military organizations

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