Colorado Springs, Colo. — ``What if I was the one sitting in the silo and the message came to push the button?'' Cadet Andrew Mueller, in starchy blue military attire, pauses for a moment, then rocks back in a chair at the US Air Force Academy here.
``For me, if it was an order, I would do it.''
The earnest, plain-spoken cadet seems clear on what his actions would be in such a critical situation. But until a year ago, this future military officer hadn't given much thought at all to the rights and wrongs of nuclear war and how pushing a button might affect millions of civilians.
That was, at least, until he walked into Philosophy 310 -- a class for cadets at Air Force that explores many of the thorny ethical questions, from napalm to nuclear war, that could confront today's soldiers.
The moral dimensions of warfare are being probed increasingly on college campuses around the United States, both civilian and military.
Motivated in part by the moral Angst over the Vietnam war and modern weapons that threaten global existence, colleges are attempting to turn out a generation of ethically alert warriors and to foster more critical thinking about the fundamental issues of war and peace.
``What's happening is that increased technological capability is giving human beings more power to produce good or evil,'' says Philip Rhinelander, a philosophy professor at Stanford University who, together with decorated Navy hero James Bond Stockdale, periodically teaches a class on the moral issues of war and peace there. ``What is beginning to be recognized is that we need new ways of thinking'' about these issues, he says.
That Kant and killing are surfacing in the same classrooms today perhaps shouldn't be surprising. There is, after all, something of a revival of interest in applied ethics in general today. Doctors, lawyers, scientists -- all are increasingly being pressed to understand the ethical dimensions of their professions. In part, this shift is being driven by technological change: Consider the new moral dilemmas raised by advances in genetic engineering alone.
Concern about the morality of warfare is one more reflection of this trend, with today's arsenals, particularly nuclear ones, posing greater complexities for soldiers and societies alike.
``When you're using a nuclear weapon, you deal with it a lot differently than a muzzle loader,'' says Lt. Col. Kenneth Wenker, a professor of philosophy here at Air Force.
Other contemporary ethical questions are surfacing as well. These range from what tactics modern armies should use in combating terrorism to the growth of the military-industrial complex. When combined with more enduring might-vs.-right problems -- the justifications of war and how much force is necessary, for instance -- they have made the field ripe for inquiry.
``War is the most important ethical problem we now face, particularly in light of nuclear weapons,'' adds Robert Phillips, director of the program for the study of ethical issues in war and peace at the University of Connecticut, Hartford.
Some of these issues have been dealt with in applied ethics courses, as well as in the many classes now devoted to Vietnam and nuclear arms. But the study of the morality of warfare in general is becoming popular as well. Programs dealing with the subject now exist at Stanford, at Emory University in Atlanta, and at Texas A&M, among others. The three military academies -- Air Force, the Military Academy at West Point, and, to a lesser extent, the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. -- also have been stepping up their moral tutoring.
``The people at the military academies are doing a good job of trying to keep the My Lais from happening again,'' claims Nicholas Fotion, professor of philosophy at Emory, referring to the massacre in Vietnam that led to a celebrated war crimes case.
Here at Air Force, nestled at the foot of the Rampart Range of the Rockies, the focal point for much of this moral calisthenics is Philosophy 310. The class might be similar to any college philosophy course, except that some graduates will one day be in the front lines of the military -- and may have to make one of those decisions with incalculable consequences.
Soldiers, too, can't always get by with simple rule-book formulas. One of the more compelling testimonials to a need for better grounding in morals and ethics comes from Mr. Stockdale, a retired vice-admiral, who refused to break under torture during eight years of captivity in North Vietnam. The Congressional Medal of Honor winner credits much of his ability to survive those tortuous years to his schooling in philosophy. All of which, indirectly, helps explain why the ethics course at Air Force became mandatory for cadets in the mid-1970s.
``The most important thing he [the cadet] can do to train for military leadership is to concern himself with his own moral character,'' says Col. Malham Wakin, who, after 26 years of teaching philosophy here, is considered one of the deans of military ethics.
The course begins inauspiciously enough, with students studying the general principles of moral reasoning, probing Kant, Mill, and Plato. But in the second half of the semester the emphasis shifts to the morality of war and military ethics. Students wrestle with such things as the theories of just and unjust wars, human rights, pacifism, and nuclear weapons -- as well as discuss the importance of basic ``virtues'' like integrity, honesty, and discipline. Ideas explored are as contemporary as the Roman Catholic bishops' letter on nuclear war or as ancient as Aristotle. Outside speakers, from clergy to pacifists, are brought in to express a variety of viewpoints.
Classes are usually spirited. When studying deterrence, for instance, Colonel Wakin will use the example of a person who wants to assassinate the Pope. You know he plans to shoot him. You also know the would-be killer's daughter is in the crowd. You grab the daughter and threaten to kill her if the man doesn't abandon his plot. Will this deter him? If it doesn't, should you kill the daughter?
Often, just when cadets think they have a logical answer, the wily Wakin, a Socrates in soldier's garb, trips them up with a view from the extreme utilitarian or Kantian school of thought. There are, of course, no handbook answers to such conundrums, which is the point. ``There are moral ambiguities that can't be solved by simple school solutions,'' says Colonel Wakin.
Students seem to like the freewheeling exchanges. ``The class made me confront a lot of feelings I normally wouldn't,'' says the square-shouldered Cadet Mueller, who took the course from Wakin last year.
``I really think it is the most worthwhile class I've ever taken,'' echoes Cadet 2nd Class Steven Fuss, who had it last semester. ``I understand a little better why I'm in the military.''
Which is also the point. Questioning an officer, even if on sound moral grounds, isn't always the way to win friends and influence people in the military. On the other hand, academies want graduates who can think for themselves and who are clear on what they believe.
Although he may be making advances in instilling truth and honesty in cadets and improving their moral caliber, Colonel Wakin still has ground to cover. A reminder of that came earlier this month when two cadets were charged with possession and sale of marijuana and cocaine -- a breach of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.