Early each morning this semester, Marine Corps Col. Andrew Wilcox awakes to the call of reveille in the silent darkness. By 07:30 hours, he’s conducting a mandatory leadership and ethics class for seniors in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Pennsylvania.
One day, each member of his class will be weighing the many factors involved in making military choices that can have a deep, long-lasting impact on the lives of others and their families, as well as the country’s reputation and international relations efforts.
It’s not easy to make possibly life-altering decisions like these. Nobody knows that better than Wilcox, the commanding officer of the NROTC Philadelphia Consortium at Penn.
He became a Marine in 1985. Since then, Wilcox has seen his fair share of ethical predicaments.
“Nothing we do in life can possibly prepare one for the leadership dilemmas a military officer will face. Only by study, reflection and experience do we learn and sense what is right,” says Wilcox. “We are in the business of leadership and decision making and often it has life or death consequences.”
As an infantryman in the Corps for 28 years, he’s led Marines into combat during the first Gulf War, managed humanitarian efforts and disaster assessment response teams after the tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia, participated in overseas deployments, taught students at Officer Candidate School and served as a commander in Afghanistan.
Additionally, he has earned degrees from the Naval War College, Naval Postgraduate School, Averett University and Texas State University. In 2013, Wilcox brought this wealth of knowledge and leadership to Penn.
His active duty military experience and education translates easily into the classroom, when he teaches officer candidates about real-world scenarios in the capstone of the NROTC program, Naval Science 402: Leadership and Ethics.
Naval Science 402 provides a learning opportunity for soon-to-be ensigns and second lieutenants to identify, research and prepare themselves for the issues that may await them upon their commissioning as active duty officers in the Navy or Marine Corps after their Pass in Review and Commencement.
As a part of the discussion-based seminar, Wilcox provides young military officers with a foundation in moral and ethical leadership, the tools to negotiate difficult moments in combat and ultimately, the ability to make fair, objective choices. NROTC candidates will share perspectives, ideas and suggestions for alternatives, critically evaluating leadership and ethics concepts.
“An officer’s job is to lead and make decisions,” Wilcox says. “Not making a decision out of the fear that it will be the wrong one is always the wrong decision; for even the deliberate process of deciding to not make a decision is a decision.”
Wilcox teaches concepts like Utilitarianism, or asking if the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which calls one to act only according to the maxim that you’d be comfortable with turning that action into universal law. Additional concepts covered include Aristotle’s perspectives on character, virtue, courage and friendship and Thomas Aquinas’ view on constructing rules of morality around natural human behavior.
During the seminar, the Geneva Convention is taught, and themes of justice in war, the military professional in international relations, honor on the battlefield and the role of religion in military ethics are explored.
As a young lieutenant colonel, Wilcox led the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan, and his unit organized a successful program that issued reward money and gave public recognition for police personnel who made drug busts. In a matter of a few months, they confiscated nearly $100 million in narcotics. The program caught the attention of the national government in Kabul, which sent two representatives from the Department of the Interior to take possession of the drugs and move them to Kabul for destruction.
While it was Wilcox’s mission to support the national Afghan government, he was very much aware of rampant corruption.
“It was a difficult ethical and leadership dilemma,” Wilcox explains.
He listened to his intuitive response and followed his strong suspicions that the drugs would never make it to Kabul to be destroyed.
“I made a command decision: I tore up the ‘official paper’ and had all the drugs loaded onto five-ton trucks to be moved to a U.S. Forward Operating Base for destruction,” he says. “It took three days to burn that much opium.”
Afterwards, Afghan government officials warned him to be “especially careful.” In other words, he was being told to “watch your back.”
“Destroying $100 million in drugs will make you an enemy of someone,” Wilcox quips. But, this is a very real example of what kinds of decisions and potential consequences that await tomorrow’s military leaders.
Wilcox also challenges the NROTC candidates with questions about terrorism, war, rape, racism, acts violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, technological advances and how all of these relate to effective decision-making.
“More than any other course that they’ve taken, the fundamentals of leadership and ethics will be what they will most immediately apply in the fleet,” says Wilcox.
Naval Science 402 also allows students to develop personal leadership philosophies and styles based on solid ethical reasoning.
“We earn our ranks through sweat and keep them through luck — or good decision making,” Wilcox adds.