Military Ethics

By Maj Dennis W Katolin

The DOD does not have a comprehensive approach toward ethics. While many leaders place emphasis on the subject, they do not have a simple and comprehensive approach toward defining ethics. In light of this shortfall, the following article is designed to provide a tool for leaders to link ethical conduct with the Marine Corps’ success across the range of military operations.

With a basic definition for ethics (adherence of one’s actions to their values), one can address military ethics and how they are valuable to the Marine Corps. Military ethics focuses on the qualities that are valuable to a military organization. These qualities become a unit’s values, and military ethics are the application of those values through action.

Ethics and Trust

Trust is defined as reliance on the integrity, strength, and ability of a person or organization. Ethics is the foundation of facilitating trust. Our actions (good or bad) communicate our true intentions and speak to what is (or is not) valuable to us. Consequently, a person’s actions will show others if he truly believes in his values. If someone is behaving ethically, he is communicating that he believes in certain values and will allow those values to drive his actions. This is often referred to as “character.”

When a Marine demonstrates his strength of character, others will gravitate toward him because the consistency of his ethical action makes him reliable. Reliability is the fundamental component of trust.

Trust and Maneuver Warfare

Warfighting states that “Maneuver Warfare is the warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions.”1 Cohesion is critical to this philosophy. Without it, an organization’s will to fight will erode, leaving it unable to cope with the deteriorating situations in which war places us. Our warfighting philosophy is centrally focused on cohesion. It is critical to any unit’s ability to succeed in war.

Sustaining The Transformation states that

cohesion is the intense bonding of Marines and units that results in absolute trust. It is characterized by the subordination of self and an intuitive understanding of the collective actions of the unit and of the importance of teamwork, resulting in increased combat power.2

The Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy focuses on the destruction of the enemy’s cohesion, not the enemy itself. This emphasizes the value of cohesion as a potential source of strength for our unit. To facilitate cohesion, Marines must become trustworthy; they must be consistent performers whose actions are reliably driven through institutional values. A clear understanding of values and morals compels a person’s ethics; ethics make a person reliable and trustworthy to others; and this facilitates cooperation, which provides the cohesion. Cohesion leads to success in war. (See Figure 1.)

Military organizations require strong teamwork, unit cohesion, and loyalty. These qualities are at a premium on the battlefield, given the complexities, friction, and danger that are inherent in war. One source of friction and uncertainty are other Marines. Uncertainty in the unit’s ability to perform, to adhere to guidance, or to be obedient to orders deteriorates trust, thus minimizing cooperation and, ultimately, compromising our cohesion.

Marines can minimize such uncertainty by serving as “known goods.” Ethical adherence to our core values of honor, courage, and commitment will facilitate trust and cohesion. The stronger our cohesion, the less likely the enemy will be able to destroy it, minimizing their ability to use maneuver warfare against us.

Trust, stemming from ethical conduct, is the most important element of unit cohesion. By demonstrating ethical conduct, a Marine earns the trust of others. When a Marine shows he is trustworthy, he becomes a source of reliability, minimizing the impacts of friction.


Ethical Leaders and Followers

The understanding of vertical cohesion requires that both senior and subordinate alike are trustworthy and cooperate with each other so they can facilitate a unit’s cohesion. To become an ethical leader, one must strive to uphold the Marine Corps’ leadership traits. These traits are the values of a leader. Consequently, ethical leaders must use the values in JJDIDTIEBUCKLE (judgment, justice, dependability, integrity, decisiveness, tact, initiative, endurance, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty, enthusiasm) to help shape their actions, consistently aligning them with our core values. In doing so, a leader will become trustworthy and inspire others to follow him. Being ethical allows unit leaders to cooperate with good followers and achieve unit cohesion. (See Figure 2.)

While being an ethical leader is challenging, it is made easier by the fact that the Marine Corps has clearly defined these traits and educates all its leaders on what they are and how to achieve them.

It is a common misconception that leadership is more important than followership. This is often the result of an overemphasis that we have placed on leadership in our history. While many Marines are leaders, all Marines are followers. Without followership, vertical cohesion cannot be achieved, and a unit will fail.

Consequently, a Marine must strive to be an ethical follower. This means he must be someone who can complement his organization’s leadership to facilitate cooperation. In order to be an ethical follower, one must adhere to values that help him complement his leader.

What are the values of an ethical follower? They are the exact same as those of a leader. The only difference between a leader and a follower is the moral lens of how he applies those traits. Just as a leader uses bearing, integrity, and loyalty to become reliable and trustworthy to his followers, a follower must show bearing, integrity, and loyalty to be reliable and trustworthy to his leaders.

The difference between an ethical leader and a follower is not what his values are but how he applies them to achieve unit cohesion. The moral lens determines if he is doing so.

Ethics and the Nature of War

War is the violent clash of wills to achieve a political end. By its nature, warfare is painful, difficult, dangerous, and stressful. These characteristics cause a military force’s power to erode. The ability to think, move, and communicate become more and more challenging as war progresses, resulting in a culminating point. The concept of culmination is often applied to physical and mental capability, where someone either physically can no longer move, or mentally cannot concentrate, focus, or even think.

Just as war can cause someone to culminate physically or mentally, it can also cause a Marine to culminate morally. In the extreme environments of war, a person will begin to see that adherence to one’s values may come at a cost, which will exacerbate the elements of friction.

The elements of fatigue, hunger, or sleep deprivation naturally make a person long for rest, food, and normal comforts. When these qualities in warfare become extreme, a person may become desperate to end them. This begins a tendency for someone to “go internal” and focus on his own discomfort.

Ethics can be perceived as a meta-motivation, which is to say that we can afford to be motivated by values because our basic physiological needs are met. But when the physiological needs of food, water, clothing, and shelter are absent, people naturally focus their efforts toward fulfilling those needs.

This is outlined in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The level 5 need of “self-actualization” facilitates a Marine’s ability to reflect on values and how to apply them in action. A failure to meet levels 1–4 will compromise a Marine’s ability to think on level 5 issues.3 (See Figure 3.)

It is at this point when a Marine may fail to incorporate her/his values. This occurs as s/he slowly slides down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and begins to realize the basic need for safety is not being met. As war persists, the removal of basic needs (or perceived removal of basic needs) will tempt Marines to focus internally. When this happens, views on values shift. Values that were once the bedrock of one’s moral character have now become an unaffordable luxury. War quickly compels someone to focus on the need for survival or sense of belonging to a team. Those needs will take priority over self-actualization, which allows us to reflect on values.

Ethics and Will

Warfighting states that

one essential means to overcome friction is the will; we prevail over friction through persistent strength of mind and spirit. Human will, instilled through leadership, is the driving force of all action in war.4

With this in mind, Marines must understand what will is, how it is cultivated, and strive to develop it as much as possible.

Will is the purpose or determination to choose one’s own actions. A key principle of will is having the resolve that what one is doing is necessary or right. Consequently, a Marine’s need to think about what is right and how to put that into action is a critical component to his resolve. Ultimately, one’s understanding and belief in what is right strengthens his will.

Ethics’ inherent requirement to reflect on traits and qualities that are valuable helps Marines to internalize the importance of the institution’s values. While being able to state those values is good, the understanding of their worth is what compels a Marine to act in accordance with those values. This helps a Marine determine what the right thing to do is.

The more a Marine understands and believes in those values (and why they are important to him and his unit), the stronger his resolve will be to ensure his actions reflect those values. In short, ethics is the critical component to human will.

Ethics’ Value in War

War is an extension of both policy and politics with the application of military force. The single most important thought to understand about our theory of war is that war must serve policy. While militaries may perform tactical tasks well during combat, their actions will be useless—and possibly counterproductive—if they do not help achieve our political end.

As a result, the Marine Corps is obligated to conduct war in a manner that will achieve those ends. Military rule of law, the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, the Law of Armed Conflict, and the Geneva Convention are grounded in these principles.

The Marine Corps does not fight to simply destroy armies. Our doctrine of maneuver warfare states the opposite: that we want to erode the enemy’s will with a rapid and focused application of combat power. Though wars often compel Marines to mass destructive power when needed, the use of that power can harm our ability to support policy.

While Marines must strive to maximize combat power (both at the individual and unit level), the application of that power must fit within the guidance of policymakers. Everything from treatment of enemy prisoners of war, restrictive rules of engagement, constraints when engaging civilians, personal appearance, and the tactics, techniques, and procedures we employ all have an impact on our ability to impose the will of our political policy on the enemy.

The ethical demands of war in this context is for a Marine to honor the oath he made to obey lawful orders, even if it means less desirable outcomes in the immediate future. To do otherwise is to make tactical gains to the detriment of operational- or strategic-level goals.


Ethics is a critical component to our success in war. The inherent requirement for will, trust, cohesion, and cooperation in maneuver warfare compels us to understand ethics and place it at a premium. Being an ethical Marine is necessary to prevent the enemy from shattering our cohesion and facilitates the unity of command that maximizes the collective capabilities. Leaders must strive to train and educate Marines on the value of ethics in maneuver warfare and the importance of being an ethical warrior.


1. MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1997).

2. MCRP 6-11D, Sustaining the Transformation, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1999).

3. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was proposed in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” published in Psychology Review, (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association).

4. MCDP 1.