The military can no longer presume that families and wider society will have educated new recruits in moral values and standards of behaviour before they join the Armed Forces, the former head of the Army has warned.
General Lord Dannatt said he believed the Armed Forces could set an example to wider society through the education of recruits in the importance of moral and ethical standards.
"In past generations, certainly in this country, it was often assumed that young men and women coming into the Armed Forces would have absorbed an understanding of the core values and standards of behaviour required by the military from their family or from within their wider community," he told the Theos think-tank annual lecture.
"Indeed, such standards would have typified our society more generally. I would suggest such a presumption cannot be made today."
In his speech, Lord Dannatt said mental and moral preparation of soldiers was as important as physical training as they deal with increasingly complex situations and the pressures of a changing society.
Young soldiers must distinguish in a "split second" between a potential suicide bomber dressed in civilian clothes and an innocent bystander, he said.
He added: "They must be able to extract information from captured enemy forces in a timely manner to avoid future loss of life, but they must do so within the rule of law; they must be able to kill and show compassion at the same time; they must be loyal to their country, their regiment and their friends without compromising their own integrity."
Lord Dannatt described the British Army as an "extremely professional military force" which had committed itself in the last decade to "difficult" campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He added that the "overwhelming" majority of soldiers strive to apply the correct standards in the most difficult conditions. But he said it was a "sad fact" that a "small number" of individuals had "let us down". He described the case of Baha Mousa - an Iraqi civilian who suffered a brutal death in British Army custody - as "unforgivable".
Elizabeth Hunter, director of Theos, said: "Following moral scandals across politics, journalism and banking and the shock of the summer riots, Lord Dannatt is offering a way forward for rebuilding a society based on values and virtues."