The Code of Silence, the Statement of Defence Ethics and the Canadian Armed Forces

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Marc Imbeault, Royal Military College Saint-Jean


There has been a strong backlash in France recently as a result of public statements made by a group of former French officers and anonymous members still serving in the military in two opinion pieces published by the magazine Valeurs actuelles.Footnote 1. In the publication’s wake, three historians, arguing that armed forces members owe deference, were scathing in their comments about the articles: [Translation] “What is extremely serious in these two consecutive opinion pieces is not the supposed state of French society, but the actual state of a segment of military society that, while ignoring its duty of neutrality, while preaching the breakdown of civil society on the pretense of wanting to repair it, debases republican principles and loses all sense of honour.”Footnote 2

There is no question that it is important for active duty members of the military to show deference to political society. When military members are no longer able to support a duly elected government in their country owing to their deeply held convictions, they should consider leaving the armed forces instead of signing anonymous calls for a revolt. Nevertheless, caution is needed. Although the armed forces of a democratic country are not supposed to take political action, their mission implies the right to speak up internally. In other words, this is the right to question outdated methods and traditions and, especially, call out behaviour that undermines the dignity of all persons. This is why we need to put an end to the code of silence, an unwritten rule that has been in place for far too long in the Canadian Armed Forces and which soldiers learn to follow as soon as they enlist. [Translation] “It’s at the individual training and recruit schools where we learn the code of silence. That’s where it begins.”Footnote 3

Indeed, when a young officer realizes that their superior is not in the least interested in hearing about their opinion on ethics, they tend to keep quiet about reprehensible behaviour in their units. Not only because this simply is not done in keeping with such values as esprit de corps and their desire to fit in within the group and the institution, but also out of fear that speaking out may have repercussions on their military career. Slowly but surely, recruits internalize the code of silence.

The code of silence should not be a feature of the armed forces. If a country’s inhabitants agree to equip their army with the most powerful and sophisticated weapons at their disposal, it is certainly not with the intention that they operate as opaquely as the worst criminal and terrorist organizations they are called upon to combat. Professional armed forces are expected to uphold principles and values that are incompatible with this kind of behaviour, especially since internal Canadian Armed Forces directives, as expressed in the Statement of Defence Ethics (the Statement), are perfectly clear in this regard.Footnote 4

I will address only two aspects that, in my view, illustrate this statement. The first, respect for the dignity of all persons, is absolutely fundamental. This is the prime principle of the Statement, according to which we cannot abuse authority, practise any form of harassment or discriminate based on sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or lifestyle. Application of this principle requires that members of the armed forces be able to express their views freely at all levels of the organization regarding all aspects of its operations. This presupposes that differing viewpoints are accepted and critical thinking becomes part of the institutional culture, which leads me to address two key obligations of the military world: loyalty and courage.

Let’s look at loyalty first. It’s difficult to imagine an armed force without a robust reporting structure. The success of military missions depends on obedience to orders. Of course, there may be some grey areas. For instance, a commanding officer of military operations may communicate an intention that subordinates can interpret to a certain extent depending on the reality on the ground. But the authority of a commanding officer is always the cornerstone of any military operation. For this reason, loyalty holds a key position in the constellation of military virtues of any army. In the Canadian Armed Forces, the sense of loyalty is enshrined in the Statement. This means that all Defence personnel, whether they are military members or civilians, must honour their commitment to Canada, democracy and humanity.

Let’s recap the three principles of the Statement:

1) Respect the dignity of all persons

2) Serve Canada before self

3) Obey and support lawful authorityFootnote 5

Although loyalty clearly falls under the third principle, it is constrained by legal and ethical obligations. Loyalty is thus not an unconditional obligation. Whereas military authority is fundamental and loyalty presupposes obedience, this authority and compliance with it are nevertheless conditional upon fundamental ethical principles and, above all, respect for the dignity of all persons. It therefore is clear that a soldier must question any breach of this principle by anyone, failing which the code of silence supplants moral law and a criminal culture usurps military culture. We could add that nobody has the right to ask someone else to lie. Superiors may legally ask soldiers to risk their lives—which leads to the concept of unlimited liability—but never to lie.

To bring about this change in culture, we need to demonstrate courage, another military obligation for which the Statement provides an informative definition. First, it addresses physical courage: being able to confront anything that is recognized as dangerous, even life-threatening risks. But the Statement also specifies that courage can take a different form: for both public servants and military personnel, courage is demonstrated when they seek out and use legitimate voice mechanisms. Courage is also demonstrated when they take a stand publicly, if necessary, for the democratic and ethical values inherent in fulfilling their responsibilities.Footnote 6 These ideas are crucial as part of a change in culture.

As we see here, courage and loyalty actually go hand in hand, since loyalty to the National Defence mission may require courage to challenge a policy, a directive, an instruction or even an order. Nevertheless, it seems that it is the unwritten rules that are the most difficult to challenge because of their inherent nature. In fact, they are more systemic than systematic, more invisible than visible. That is why we need to demonstrate loyalty to the Canadian Armed Forces as opposed to people and show courage to transform a culture of secrecy and silence which has enabled high-ranking officers to stay in their positions in spite of the presumption of abuse of authority against them.

A misconception of loyalty can lead individuals to lie to others and even themselves in order to protect a colleague. Lies can lead to moral injury that can be even more serious than combat fire. Do we need more courage to report on a member of one’s team than to confront an armed and dangerous enemy?

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