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The most important medium of "Lebenskundlicher ­Unterricht" is the teacher

By Monsignore Bernward Mezger

Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (LKU) in the German armed forces is more than ethical education. It helps military personnel to deal with life in general, which includes many other topics in addition to, for example, questions about partnership and family, concepts of humanity and identity, and coping with operational stress and other difficult situations. But ethical education – which means thinking about one’s own judgment and actions from a moral perspective, examining moral principles and norms, and practicing their application in different situations – is what LKU is all about at core. The Bundeswehr’s guiding principle of the “citizen in uniform” means that soldiers are expected to cultivate a certain character. They should practice conscientious obedience, be responsible and decisive, have good leadership skills, and above all set an example both in and outside the military. To do this, they need to develop a set of virtues, be proficient in dealing with complex, morally demanding situations, and be able to deal critically and vigilantly with questionable ways of thinking and behaviors within and outside the Bundes­wehr. LKU probably provides the best learning environment for this purpose – a protected and above all judgment-free space for free thought and speech, for critical engagement and mentally trying out solutions. It is where they can learn about and experiment with the ethical toolbox.

In courses at the Federal Armed Forces Command and Staff College (Führungs­akademie der Bundeswehr), course par­ticipants as well as teachers show a greater interest in ethical questions concerning the fundamentals of the soldierly self-image, the legitimacy of military action and ethical aspects of leadership. Outside of the course, as is the case in the Bundes­wehr as a whole, attitudes towards the classroom topics are more nuanced. For some, LKU is a welcome change from a sometimes monotonous daily routine, while others see it as more of a disturbance that keeps them from supposedly more important activities. There is also the seemingly ineradicable practice, not covered by the regulations, of identifying soldiers who have time for “a few hours with the military chaplain” by means of a “voluntary sign-up”. This is contrary to what is supposed to happen, which is that all soldiers should be given the opportunity to take part in lessons to which they are entitled. Defensive reflexes against church representatives are encountered occasionally; in this respect, too, the Bundes­wehr reflects social reality. Such attitudes may stem from prejudice or from personal bad experiences; teaching theologians should take them seriously and accept them as a positive corrective to their role. It is not their role to preach the church’s message here but rather to facilitate an authentic encounter for the development of each soldier’s own identity and to improve their moral judgment. One asset that the military chaplaincy cannot overemphasize, as a creator of LKU, is its operational experience: a useful ethics for soldiers is an ethics suitable for deployment.

In general, however useful and necessary the professional use of media in the classroom may be, the most important medium of LKU is the teacher. Despite the concept still being somewhat blurry, competence-oriented learning is becoming increasingly important in the Bundes­wehr. Here the teacher sees his or her task as being primarily a learning facilitator. This seems to be especially important in ethical education, where it is not only possible to score points on the basis of superior knowledge and experience, but also essential to provide guidance on how to exercise conscientious judgment and take responsibility for actions. Although the career courses specify many subjects to be taught, the participants’ requests for topics always have priority and increase their willingness to participate actively. The existing curriculum provides a sufficiently broad framework, and the zebis online teaching portal with its now extensive range of teaching materials and media offers good support for familiarization with new topics, as well as various suggestions for the methodological implementation.

A prudent choice of topics, targeted methodology and a credible approach lead in the best case to a culture of discussion in which soldiers also talk about personal experiences. This often provokes strong feelings when difficult operational experiences are brought up, such as witnessing torture as a disciplinary measure during a training mission, or child abuse by senior officers of a partner nation (where normally the orders are “don’t intervene, it’s the local custom”). The long-term effects of severe moral dilemmas can be felt here too. Reports about courageous and intelligent solutions to conflicts of duties are also moving, and it can be astonishing what ethical education is able to achieve. No less impressive, however, is the sensitive culture of discussion fostered by excellent tutors in many classrooms or learning groups that allows precisely these affective approaches.

It would be desirable for the Bundes­wehr to have more time for such talks. The Soldiers’ Working Time Ordinance and the tight constraints of duty set limits to this; the benefits would presumably consist in higher motivation and, above all, even better decision-making process quality. The new joint service regulation in its final drafting stage proposes that in the future, ethical education in the armed forces will no longer be taught only in LKU and otherwise by way of example and guidance. If this is to be the case, and it is instead to be taught explicitly by disciplinary superiors, then it is to be hoped that the instructors will be more extensively qualified for it in all areas. Military chaplains do not acquire the ability to teach LKU by the laying on of hands. They have to carefully work out topics and methods. Similarly, superiors will also need extensive education and training in this area before they can deliver good lessons. The necessary resources, in terms of personnel and time, would certainly be well invested.

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Monsignore Bernward Mezger, Military Dean, member of the military chaplaincy since 2011, Catholic military chaplain’s office Hamburg II, Federal Armed Forces Command and Staff ­College (Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr) (Photo: Bundeswehr)