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Giles Fraser: A regiment forms a moral soldier

18 January 2012

This week, a second wave of re­dundancies in the army has been announced — the rumour being that some historic regiments face the chop. This comes as I prepare to go up to the Defence Academy in Wiltshire again to lecture on ethics and leadership to a new batch of majors. For some of these career soldiers, things are looking bleak. I expect morale to have taken another knock.

But there is something more here than simply morale. For several years now, my brief has been to try to talk about how you make moral decisions on the battlefield. The challenge is not only that these decisions are obviously a matter of life and death, but also that they have to be made quickly, and in a fast-moving and inherently confusing environment. For the most part, in civilian life, we are given a certain leisure to reflect on the decisions that we have to make. We can chew things over, and take our time to get things right. This is a luxury that soldiers often cannot afford.

This pace of moral decision-making poses insuperable challenges to several ways of thinking about right and wrong — not least a de­ontological approach that tries to capture what is right within a set of rules (such as the Ten Command­ments). I have a copy of the rules of armed combat, and it is a weighty volume. Add to it the human-rights law that applies here, and the whole thicket of law feels overwhelming.

Can a soldier really know all this stuff, and recall it in the very instant when bullets are flying around? Can he or she be thinking about whether a particular rule applies to this particular situation, when no one has had much sleep for 24 hours, and the fog of battle feels like complete chaos?

My own sense is that this is where moral formation takes over. In these circumstances, you make decisions out of instinct, not out of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules. So the vital question is how your moral instincts are shaped. I suspect that, in reality, when instant decisions are called for, the soldier comes pre-loaded with an instinctive moral response.

This instinct is shaped by several factors, but most importantly by a sense of identity that has been shaped by his or her moral community, the regiment. It is this community, with its traditions and practices — its pride and self-understanding captured by stories of former glory and oil paintings in the mess — that is the moral context for decision-making.

We act morally out of a sense of who we are. When these historic regiments are messed about with or scrapped, this context is disrupted. This is why the reorganisation of historic regiments can be a danger­ous business. Morality is much more than the law.

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