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True Faith and Allegiance:

The Burden of Military Ethics

Bibliographic Content

James H. Toner, PhD


The University Press of Kentucky

Kindle, Hardback (pgs 256)

Synopsis from Publishers Weekly

Toner, professor of international relations and military ethics at the Air War College in Alabama, addresses this volume "to those who hate the things and thoughts of war but accept its necessity when the alternatives are greater evils." He argues that military ethics, the study of honorable and shameful conduct in armed forces, is not an oxymoron. He distinguishes between the ethics of military institutions, which are collectives, and the ethics of individuals in the military. The latter begins with training and education that develop character as well as competence. General codes of conduct, he maintains, while important, cannot replace personal ethical choices. Ultimately, concludes Toner, private morality-the ability to distinguish right from wrong and abide the consequences-is fundamental in maintaining the integrity of the profession of arms. In the era of Tailhook and the Iran-Contra scandal, his is a down-to-earth approach to a vexed subject.

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Summary of Book from War Is My Business

Toner discusses how the uniqueness of the military profession creates a set of expectations of the warfighter during military operations. How they should engage with enemy combatants and noncombatants, and the codes and traditions that history has shaped for them. Societies develop cultures through shared experiences, and those cultures develop norms that manifest in specific ways for its warfighters; the ethics that they must follow or be judged to have violated.

It is from the way that militaries that develop their codes and ethics that businesses can learn to adapt. Since the consequences of warfare are naturally more severe than that of business ventures, businesses can still suffer from unethical behavior. Learning the ways in which warriors shape their traditions so that its people can act as moral agents under the extreme duress of combat, can also be taught to your people.

Toner will cover what makes the military profession different from that of others. He will discuss the nature of the United States Military and its government. How to train ethical responses into your people and how to shape their educational curriculum. It is a quick and easy read, and its greatest value is in how to assess ethical quandaries and act accordingly. Perfect for decision-makers.

He identities that social norms are for the betterment of society, and ethics becomes a tool to ensure that individual and group behavior don't work against them. He states, "As a moral philosophy, ethics is about trying to separate right from wrong, honor from shame, virtue from vice."

Ethics is used to harm those that work against the whole, and since humans are social creatures, we desire to fall in line lest we damage our reputation and socially ostracize ourselves. We feel it is "right" to support a norm, while it is "wrong" to violate it. We feel it is "honorable" to act at your own expense, while it is "shameful" to do it at the expense of others. We feel it is "virtuous" to impose self-control and reason behind our actions, while it is "vicious" to act uncontrollably or unreasonably. It is understandable that social creatures, like humans, would evolve to develop socially beneficial paradigms like this, as the collective effort to follow norms through an informal application of ethics provides an overall positive outcome to the advancement of societies.

That being said, Toner identifies four sources of ethics that we use to judge the action of others. "It is important to note that ethical conduct normally is based upon a wise blending of customs, rules, outcomes, and circumstances. Blindly following the dictates of one source alone can lead to trouble." Whether an action is ethical or not is difficult to determine due to the many variables that go into the decision to act. With these four categories, we have a process to determine whether specific actions we could take are ethical by themselves.


The unwritten rules that people within the profession follow. Failing to follow these won't result in civil or criminal punishments but may cause damage to interpersonal relationships. In a people-oriented organization, like within the military or in businesses, these relationships are important. Customs can include values that these organizations profess, and you may be blacklisted within their professional circles or simply be evaluated negatively.


Laws, regulations, codes, and anything stated that one must follow or suffer some form of established punishment. Within the military, there are codes of conduct and unique laws applicable only to the armed forces, while civilian courts and federal agencies dictate their own laws and regulations.  Contracts also have rules as there are stated requirements that must be met in order to avoid a known negative response; fines or firing as an example.


This very much relies on the ends justifying the means type of ethical assessment. A particular behavior or action may not violate a custom or a rule, but still be unethical if you foresee that the subsequent end is likely to be a net negative. For example, poor labor conditions overseas are commonplace in some countries, and though it may be economically beneficial to outsource to those locations, it may cause adverse effects to them and damage your company or brand reputation.


Even if under normal circumstances something may be considered unethical, there could be special considerations that justify it. The law has what is called extenuating circumstances, and this is what it refers to. That there are times that are so extraordinary that it would be understandable for an individual to break with customs, rules, and outcomes and not be adversely punished for it.  For example, killing in self-defense.

By assessing an action or behavior against these four areas, we can begin to make a determination on its ethical value. If it doesn't violate the customs of our profession, its laws and regulations, if it provides a generally positive outcome, or the circumstances allow it, then it is ethical or at least not unethical. Most of us are capable of assessing things in this light and do it naturally.

At this point, there hasn't been much in the way that norms and ethics are established that is any difference between human activities; war or business. So what makes the military's norms and ethics different from that of business or any other endeavor? It should be obvious that it is the ways and means of the warrior's profession that shape how their social groups see as proper behavior for its members. Toner, however, really emphasizes this in the following quote that was displayed prominently in The Profession of Arms: An Army White Paper published on December 8, 2010.

“The preeminent military task, and what separates [the military profession] from all other occupations, is that soldiers are routinely prepared to kill… in addition to killing and preparing to kill, the soldier has two other principal duties… some soldiers die and, when they are not dying, they must be preparing to die.”

So it is from the simple addition of these two critical aspects, killing and dying, that shape how we regulate the conduct of military professionals. The remainder of the book expounds on this understanding. Providing examples of ethical quandaries that service members have faced in the past, and judging them according to our understanding of how we should behave; given our unique norms and desired responses, so that our organizations can succeed in their mission. Sometimes this calls for sacrifice and other times it calls for uncommon bravery and courage in the face of overwhelming pressures that aren't experienced in the private sector. But again, this is all because the "preeminent military task and duties" that warriors of the state face in their line of work.

True Faith and Allegiance for Business

There have been other books that have discussed the importance of ethics in the conduct of business. There have also been many prominent business persons and managers that have made ethical considerations a part of their decision making processes. True Faith and Allegiance, however, provides a valuable perspective of ethics in action under extreme duress. Ethics is all well and good until you must decide whether to sacrifice your life on ethical principles; something that the conduct of warfare and military service may require. In the business world, you won’t necessarily be under the same pressures that warfighters would be, but the temptation to take the “easy wrong” over the “hard right” can still be there.

What Toner can provide to us is not what it takes to be an ethical Soldier in combat, but a person that is able to see the bigger picture on the implications of our actions and a way to move forward even in times of great hardship. He will show you how to look at an ethical quandary, where extenuating circumstances may put us into a predicament, and provide us a rational methodology for weighing what we should and shouldn't do. Not something that one will easily find in other books on ethics.

Using Toner’s four categories; customs, rules, outcomes, and circumstances, we can look at a particular situation, assess all the expectations that our professions would demand of us, and weigh our courses of action accordingly. For example, when looking to outsource work overseas or keep it in the country, you can use them to determine how others might judge you. Expounding on this example:


Outsourcing is a viable option, as other businesses have been able to do it, but recently it has come under increased scrutiny. First and foremost, it must be economically viable, as the purpose of all businesses is to make a profit. Your shareholders may expect for you to optimize profit by reducing expenditures, and outsourcing may do that, but what of local clients and customers who may be angered that jobs weren't offered to those in the community. You may have conflicting values here, in that you may not be able to optimize supporting your shareholders with supporting your communities.  Additionally, with increased concerns on ethical labor conditions you may be judge on the management of workers by contracted suppliers.


Outsourcing overseas is legal so long as no international laws or national laws are being violated. Even if you outsourced to an economically depressed country for cheap labor, and their laws permitted poorer working conditions, it may violate certain international labor regulations in which your own country; like the United States, supports. Additionally, you must be cautious that the management of overseas factories and suppliers are being held accountable, as even if your company doesn't have direct control of their operations, you may still be held responsible in the courts. You will have  to be prepared to support or defend yourself against your own nations' legal system, the international labor organizations, and host nation and municipal courts. It may just be easier in the long-run to keep your assets at home.


There is a reason why customs and rules get established, and they are the result of avoiding bad outcomes and promoting good ones; as far as the group is concerned. A hypothetical course of action, one in which we may not even be able to fathom until it occurs, may not violate any values or unwritten rules that customs would tell us are bad, and no laws or regulations are being broken. But the outcome has the potential of being so bad that your company becomes the example of what not to do, and who can be blamed for a new series of government regulation to come out. Even for yourself, just looking at the net positive or negative that you anticipate will result should be enough to tell you whether to move forward with outsourcing overseas. Does increased profit offset the potential customer backlash of moving jobs overseas? Does keeping it stateside for fewer profits now, mean greater company recognition, and increased patronized from happy customers overall? As long as profits are being made, which outcomes do you see as being the best in the long-term?


The mission of militaries are to achieve their nation's strategic aims, and the mission of their warfighters is to accomplish the objectives in which they are assigned. An objective of all businesses, as is their purpose, is to continue to make a profit. Failing to do so, even for a short time, may not be fatal, but it could be a death sentence that will eventually see the end of the company in the near future. As they say, "desperate times call for desperate measures," and the potential bankruptcy or dissolving of the business would indeed be an extenuating circumstance. This category would simply be an assessment of the situation you and your company sees itself in, and if violating one of the other categories would be justified for your survival. Depending on your business, massive layoffs and store closures may be an overwhelming net negative for the long-term financial success of the company, and a betrayal of any loyalty you had to your employees, but given the immediate extreme danger you may be forecasting, it could be understandable.

What happens when you are judging courses of action to take given these different categories, but all seem viable, or none of them seems to be a clear winner. Then Toner provides his next step in assessing courses of action in which you judge them based on principles, purpose, and people as the final determination for an ethical quandary. But I will leave that to you to discover when and if you decide to pick up his book.

True Faith and Allegiance: The Burden of Military Ethics was a fabulous book and a relatively quick read. As a Soldier in the United States Army, it taught me a lot about our philosophy of how we should act and carry out our mission while upholding the highest ethical standards my country expects of us. As a businessman, it has provided me a great rubric with which to judge all future business dealings, engagements with our company's agents and clients, and how to carry out any course of action in life. Understanding, in even the most basic terms, of why we have ethics, and how we use it to shape the behaviors of others, is a valuable tool.

Some books on military studies make great resources but are of limited in scope. The scope of Toner's book, however, includes every single decision you may make in your life, and not just in the military and business spheres. Making evaluations quickly and holistically in the way that Toner provides the military can give you a sense of ethical righteousness. It gives you the confidence to move forward in any decision because you made the conscious effort to determine whether it was ethically acceptable at the time. Even if unforeseen variables end up working against your course of action, in failure, you can keep your chin up. A great book and I would suggest adding it to your library.

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