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West Point Classes Focus on War Ethics

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West Point Classes Focus on War Ethics


West Point Classes Focus on War Ethics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Iraq is one of the places that many seniors at West Point are likely to find themselves within the next year. They're winding up four years of classes, military history, tactics and training, and after the scandal of Abu Ghraib, the cadets are talking a lot more about ethics, what's right in war, what's wrong, and what to do when it's not so clear. NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN: There are a lot of rules at West Point. Here's one: if you see a superior officer in a crowded hallway between classes, you have to salute her and she has to salute back.

Captain STEPHANIE AHERN (Instructor, West Point): Good morning. And you'll notice the cadets make sure that they're not all saluting at the same time. She has to salute them all back at different times.

MARTIN: (unintelligible)

Capt. AHERN: Yes. Yes. And the funny part is they don't think we realize that.

MARTIN: That's Captain Stephanie Ahern, a 1995 graduate of West Point who has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Now she's an instructor here. She leads a class called Winning the Peace.

Unidentified Man: Inspection, attention.

MARTIN: Twice a week, she and 18 Army cadets gather and talk about the parts of war that aren't so clearly defined. On this day, a guest speaker, Major Devon Blake, is talking about something called the warrior ethic.

Major DEVON BLAKE (West Point): So how would you define the warrior ethic? I mean in your own words, in layman's terms, how would you define what the warrior ethic is?

MARTIN: There is silence in the room, and then Chris Beeler pipes up from the back row.

Mr. CHRIS BEELER (Cadet): Well, I was going to recite the Soldier's Creed, but I think...

Maj. BLAKE: (Unintelligible)? Okay. That's part of it.

Mr. BEELER: Well, no, I think ethics are probably the most important part of being a military officer because as the monopolizing authority behind force, you have the ability to use it in unethical ways.

MARTIN: And that's what the Army wants to prevent through classes like this. It's meant to prepare soldiers for the complexities that the streets of Baghdad or the mountains of Afghanistan. A lot of the class is about posing ethical dilemmas like one introduced by Major Blake.

Maj. BLAKE: And I'm going to give you a little bit of background. Patrol leader and lieutenant has his platoon and they lost two men...

MARTIN: 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. But senior Melvin Levy(ph) says no.

Mr. MELVIN LEVY (Cadet): You have to step up say, no, this is wrong. We're not going to do this. You know? This is why doing this may kill that terrorist but in the long run it's actually going to hurt our cause. And I think that's where actually being a leader is.

MARTIN: This is an elective course, but all students at West Point get a strong dose of what's called professional military ethics, even more so since 2001. But for some in this class, the whole conversation is suffocating.

Mr. TOM BERGINSKI(ph) (Cadet): Ma'am, I just kind of - I don't know. I've already had a hard time with West Point trying to shove ethics down my throat.

MARTIN: Tom Berginski is 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.

Mr. BERGINSKI: They keep sending me to all these classes all they want and it's not going to change who I am. In just four years of all this shoving down professionalism, this and that, that and this, I just don't - I don't know, I have a hard time buying into all of it.

MARTIN: But Major Ahern, who has seen how black and white can turn to gray in a war zone, says that's exactly the kind of debate that classes like these are meant to stimulate.

Maj. AHERN: We're not trying to give them answers. We do make sure that they know what the laws are and we know - you know, what does right look like and I mean they usually know what wrong looks like. But how do you work through areas in between?

MARTIN: Right and wrong can get horribly muddled in this new kind of war. Major Devon Blake says these young cadets need to do psychological and emotional prep work.

Maj. BLAKE: They really have to have a solid understanding of who they are and what they believe.

MARTIN: After class, a handful of students stick around and talk with me about what they've gotten out of the discussion. Some skeptics, like Tom Berginski, still aren't convinced they need West Point to tell them right from wrong. But after thinking about it, he does see value in asking the question.

Mr. BERGINSKI: Okay, well, maybe these classes are worth it if it gets one or two people to change their mind or teaches one or two people something that they didn't already know. If it makes you think, then it's doing its job - these classes and these talks.

MARTIN: Faculty at West Point say they can't make the moral ambiguities of modern warfare any clearer. The best they can do is to make cadets aware that winning the peace can be much more complicated than winning the war.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

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