Maneuver Self Study Program

Why Maneuver Leaders Need To Understand the Moral, Ethical, and Psychological Dimensions of War

As leaders, we must embrace the duty to study the moral, ethical, and psychological dimensions of war. Some leaders may argue that that these topics are somehow "peripheral" or "nice to know" in nature versus what Soldiers and leaders really "need to know." However, moral, ethical and psychological preparation of oneself, one's unit, and our Soldiers must be the focus. Applied ethics training through self-study fosters the development of a unique combination of values, principles, knowledge, skills, and abilities critical for decision making and effective leadership in combat. The knowledge, understanding, and application of the moral, ethical, and psychological dimensions of war are critical factors that affect everything we do in combat. Taking into account our firepower capability, the Geneva Convention , laws of warfare, the rules of engagement (ROE) and escalation of force (EoF) procedures, in an environment most likely characterized as predominantly urban and highly populated, all make a powerful case for preparing oneself to face the moral and ethical challenges in applying the necessary array of firepower and lethal force. The need for each of us to become morally and ethically aware becomes even more apparent when reflecting on the recent history of several self-inflicted setbacks we have had as an Army. Several important lessons emerge from the collective events of the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal, multiple investigations involving battlefield murders and cover-ups, contracting money skimming scandals, and politically charged investigations involving the "accused" use of excessive force and airstrikes, to the myriad of tactical level digressions involving investigations.

The assertions deduced from these and other events over the last decade are first, most Soldiers and leaders in combat will face "gray" situations, lacking any clear "black and white" solutions, where a decision or action requires deliberate moral and ethical application. Second, these decisions most likely will be under complex conditions of duress, a time constraint, or peer/subordinate/leader pressure, and involve a level of emotional control in the "heat of the moment," making the decision itself more difficult. Third, a leader's moral and ethical decision, or the lack thereof, can result in mission success and honor, or have potentially strategic damaging consequences, which can result in a loss of momentum of the operation, a loss of morale, and a loss of credibility as an Army institution. Finally, the current effort to institute a "Mission Command" philosophy will most likely empower lower levels of decision making by those with less experience and authority, resulting in the need for even greater moral and ethical consideration and skill.

Simultaneously, the psychological aspects of war are extensive, complex, and require leader awareness and involvement. Few professions require the same level of psychological toughness required than of Soldiers and leaders in combat. As an example on the extreme end of this continuum, the continuous rise in related suicide rates and posttraumatic stress (PTS) rates among our Soldiers continues to be an internal dilemma in which no clear solutions have emerged. Despite a concerted effort to reduce the invisible scars and needless self-inflicted deaths of our Soldiers, the statistics continue at alarming rates. Recently, the Army suicide rate exceeded the number of combat deaths at a rate of one Soldier per day during the early summer of 2012. Unfortunately, becoming more psychologically "fit" is still considered by some as too "touchy feely." However, medical statistics clearly show that the psychological dimension of war is real and a serious issue, requiring all leaders to have a deeper understanding in order to take appropriate actions and measures.

Beyond psychological health and medical fitness lies an even broader dimension of the psychological aspects of war that transcends every aspect of our performance as leaders. The leader attributes of "character, presence, and intellect" and leader competencies of "leads, develops, and achieves" are grounded and woven within the psychological characteristics of motivation, confidence, composure, and resilience that we as professionals aspire to, and even more so, during times of intense combat. These psychological characteristics become the "X" factor under pressure and under stress, and may be the key determinant for success or failure individually or collectively as a unit. Psychological fitness also can be characterized as a key ingredient of bravery, valor, and the Warrior Ethos. Vice versa, psychological characteristics also can be linked to poor leadership, including the hot topic of eliminating "toxic leadership" within our ranks. This self-study series is devoted to help you psychologically prepare, become more self-aware, and morally and ethically astute, in order to bolster your continuous self-development and leader development efforts. Ultimately, our goal is to lead at our best, especially in circumstances when it matters most.

In summary, the moral, ethical, and psychological dimensions of war have emerged as critical issues that must be addressed as both a personal and professional responsibility. These unique dimensions of warfare are complex topics requiring a lifelong learning mindset to achieve a level of unwavering proficiency as a professional. This self-study series, the attached resources, and questions provided will help you begin taking ownership on topics that we as professionals must closely consider and master for the next fight.

Moral, Ethical, and Psychological Dimensions of War

"One of the insurgents' most effective ways to undermine and erode political will is to portray their opposition as untrustworthy or illegitimate. These attacks work especially well when insurgents can portray their opposition as unethical by the opposition's own standards. To combat these efforts, Soldiers and Marines treat noncombatants and detainees humanely, according to American values and internationally recognized human rights standards. In COIN, preserving noncombatant lives and dignity is central to mission accomplishment. This imperative creates a complex ethical environment."

COIN Manual

The challenges and complexities associated with the moral and ethical dimensions of warfare can be traced back to ancient times. As early as 760-710 BC, Homer's Iliad describes how during the Trojan War, Achilles desire for revenge and preservation of his own honour manifested itself in unrelenting fury and contributed to the death of Achilles' comrade Patroclus. Fast forward to the modern era, numerous nations engaged in international legal discussions, agreements, and charters to limit, constrain, and establish criteria that sanction the use of violence in warfare. The international framework of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and documents such as the Laws of Land Warfare, FM 27-10, published in 1956 by the US Army, provide the principles, rules, and laws leaders must consider during the wartime conduct of their duties. Today, our Army faces many unique threats requiring that our Soldiers and leaders to have an even greater understanding of adhering to ethical standards in the face of enemies that do not adhere to those standards.

Likewise, the complexities associated with the psychological dimensions of war continue to be a significant challenge for leaders. The key leader responsibilities to ensure psychological protection and preparedness continues to be leaders that create tough realistic training conditions, leaders who build and maintain unit cohesion, and leaders who demonstrate the qualities of "humaneness." Additionally, leaders must ensure appropriate grief counseling and grief work is provided during tough times, as well as ensuring leaders observe and identify critical warning signs of Soldiers in distress. Lastly communication is vital in "making meaning" of the risks and sacrifices Soldier's make in the achievement of the unit's mission and objectives.

An Approach to the Study of the Moral and Ethical Dimensions of War

First, review the basic underlying legal doctrine to include Laws of Land Warfare and the Geneva Convention. In order to gain a deeper understanding and context, read one of the articles or read one of the selected books listed below. Third, the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic (CAPE) has a top notch website with multiple online learning opportunities to broaden your understanding and to practice handling actual moral and ethical challenges that have occurred in combat. Using the CAPE homepage, click Virtual Simulators and then click Moral Combat. Moral Combat is a combat-scenario, first-person shooter game sponsored by CAPE. The game introduces a series of ethical dilemmas that can prompt discussion among Soldiers regarding their decision making. Further, using the discussion questions below, reflect on how these resources relate to one another, and what this means in terms of your responsibilities as a leader now and in the future. Further, ask leaders questions regarding their personal experiences in handling moral and ethical dilemmas. Identify your strengths and weaknesses regarding the application of moral and ethical principles and determine what other resources are available to improve your confidence and competence in this area.

An Approach to the Study of the Psychological Dimension of War

First, access the CSF2 website and take the current Global Assessment Tool Questionnaire (GAT). Review your score, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and proceed to one of the many modules designed to improve certain areas of resilience. Based on your personal interest, identify an article or book below to read. Using the discussion questions below, reflect on how these resources relate to one another, and what this means in terms of your responsibilities as a leader-now and in the future. Determine what additional resources you might want to read to improve your psychological fitness and understanding.


  1. How well am I prepared to identify and lead my unit through moral and ethical challenges in combat?
  2. How can I integrate applied ethics training into my unit's training scenarios?
  3. What is the best way to "steel" Soldiers against combat trauma?
  4. How does psychological fitness effect moral and ethical behavior and vice versa?
  5. How does CSF2's resilience and performance enhancement training foster leader development?
  6. How does cultural expertise and historical perspectives of the operating environment enhance moral and ethical conduct?
  7. How would you create a guided LPD with subordinates using the resources available in this self-study series?
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