Seniors at the United States Military Academy at West Point are winding up their last weeks of classes. Ethics have become an important component to the education cadets receive before heading out to their first assignments, many in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Capt. Stephanie Ahearn, a 1995 graduate of West Point, is one of the people leading the ethics discussion with cadets. She has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Now she's an instructor teaching a class called "Winning the Peace."
Twice a week, she and 18 future Army officers gather and talk about the parts of war that aren't so clearly defined. Recently, guest speaker Maj. Devon Blake led a class discussion about something called the "warrior ethic."
"How would you define the warrior ethic? In your own words, in laymen's terms, how would you define what the warrior ethic is?" Maj. Blake asked.
After a bit of silence in the room, senior Chris Bealer piped up: "Well, I was going to recite the soldier's creed."
That would be a standard Army response. And yet it's exactly the sort of response the Army is trying to prevent through classes like this one.
"Winning the Peace" was developed three years ago as an interdisciplinary course, combining sociology, history, religion (Islam, in particular) and personal ethics. As the name suggests, it's meant to prepare soldiers for the complexities of the streets of Baghdad or the mountains of Afghanistan. A lot of the class is about posing ethical dilemmas that require cadets to go beyond standard manuals to come up with answers.
Students watch a video of an Army lieutenant recounting how one of his soldiers paid an Iraqi child $5 to go take a picture of what his platoon believed was an explosive device under a bridge. The students' reactions are mixed. Some say the soldier did what he had to do to protect his men. Some quote the rules of engagement and the Geneva Conventions that protect non-combatants.
"You have to step up and say, 'This is wrong. We're not going to do this. This is why doing this may kill that terrorist, but in the long run it's actually going to hurt our cause,'" senior Melvin Levey said, in response to the story told in the video. "That's what being a leader is."
This is an elective course. But all students at West Point get a strong dose of what's called "professional military ethics." But for some in this class, the whole conversation is suffocating.
"I don't know. I've always had a hard time with West Point trying to shove ethics down my throat," said Tom Brejinski, a senior from Chicago. He says ethics are personal and subjective, and trying to teach a cadet the difference between right and wrong should not be the military's role.
"I feel they could send me to all these classes, all they want, and it's not going to change who I am," Brejinski said. "I just have a hard time buying into all of it."
Maj. Ahearn, who has seen how black and white turns to gray in a war zone, says that's exactly the kind of debate that classes like these are meant to stimulate.
"We're not trying to give them answers," Capt. Ahearn said. "We do make sure that they know what the laws are, and what does 'right' look like, and they usually know what wrong looks like, but how do you work through areas in between."
Right and wrong can get horribly muddled on assignments where soldiers are expected to run a town hall meeting in a local community one day, and conduct a munitions raid the next.
And despite their confidence, Maj. Blake says these young cadets need to do psychological and emotional prep work.
"They are going to be facing situations and dilemmas that are so different from prior engagements," Maj. Blake said. "They really have to have a solid understanding of who they are, what they believe."