Military Ethics

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Military ethics can mean a wide range of things. It can encompass all aspects of military conduct, from writing performance reviews on subordinates, to relations of military personnel with their civilian leaders, to issues related to war. For the purposes of this entry, however, the discussion will be limited to ethical questions concerning the use of military force for the redress of political disputes. As war becomes increasingly dominated by high technology weaponry (at least in the developed countries), there is an intimate link between developments in science and technology and the questions of appropriate military use of those advances as addressed by military ethics.

Fundamental Issues

Traditionally military ethics has emphasized an approach to just war thinking that has roots in classical and early-Christian sources. In post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment Europe, this ethical and religious tradition found secular and legal codification in the Laws of Armed Conflict (both in international law and in the specific military law of individual nations).

Traditional just war analysis attempts to specify the scope and limits of morally acceptable uses of military force. Two independent sets of judgments are involved. The first, jus ad bellum (justice/right toward war) considers whether the use of force under a given set of political circumstances is warranted at all. The second, jus in bello (justice/right in war) frames issues regarding the conduct of military forces in combat.

Jus ad bellum (whether to go to war) questions the extent to which the use of force is justified at all by posing a series of tests. These gauge whether there is a just cause for war, whether there exists a legitimate authority to authorize the use of force, whether there is proportionality in the damage likely to be caused by the use of force measured against the political stakes of the conflict, and whether possibly effective non-military means of resolving the conflict have been exhausted (last resort). There is also a reasonable hope of success criterion, intended to rule out pointless violence. Because, paraphrasing the great philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), war is politics by another means, it is important to see whether the desired political result is likely to be attainable. In addition, for a war to be justified, it must be waged for the sake of returning to a better state of peace and conducted with that intention.

It is important to note that although decisions about use of force at this level are clearly military ethics insofar as they are ethical decisions about the use of the military instrument of national power, they are not decisions that involve many military personnel. With the exception of the most senior military advisers to civilian authority, most individuals involved in this level of discussion are the civilian leadership of the nation.

The jus in bello (how to conduct war) considers whether care is being taken to be discriminant (i.e., to attack directly only military objects and to take precautions against destruction of civilian individuals or objects) and proportional (i.e., to expend only the amount of destructive force on a given target that is justified by its believed military importance). Unlike the global assessment of justification and proportionality made at the highest levels of government about whether or not to go to war, these decisions are made at all levels of combat, from the smallest tactical decisions of a rifle squad to the decisions of a theater commander regarding the structure and targets of a strategic bombing campaign.

While both the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello decisions belong to individual leaders in their official capacities at all levels, the broader society can and does also engage in ethical discourse about those decisions. Especially in a democratic society with abundant technologically mediated public sources of information, citizens as individuals, members of the press, opinion leaders, and so forth all make independent assessments of the ethical quality of the decisions of political and military leaders. Leaders must persuade their citizenry of the justifications for the use of military force in the world, and individual actions of the nation's military (sometimes down to the lowest tactical level) can and do become objects of national scrutiny and ethical assessment. The strength of the connection of the military to the democratic society it serves is decisively influenced by the degree to which the military and the society share a common moral frame of reference and a sufficiently robust common understanding of the realities of military affairs.

An emerging challenge in the area of military ethics and society is that, in large-scale democracies that eschew compulsory military service, fewer members of the society have any direct experience with the military—including pivotal opinion leaders and civilian political leaders. This creates the risk of a diminishing realistic sense of the scope and limits of the capabilities of military power in the society at large and a commensurate risk that the military will be challenged to explain its choices and actions to fellow citizens.

Military Ethics and Technology

Practical military ethics is intimately connected with the military technology available to combatants. Further changes in available technologies have profound ripple effects in the ethical assumptions and accepted ways of behaving of the military—often in ways wholly unanticipated when the technology was introduced and applied. In a phrase commonly attributed to Immanuel Kant, Ought implies can, meaning that it is pointless to say someone ought to do something unless the person is possessed of the capability to do it. But in areas of ethics and military technology, at least in some cases, capability calls for use or that Can implies ought. As technology makes it possible for military operations to be conducted in novel ways, especially insofar as these come closer to honoring the sprit and letter of the just war criteria, the requirement to do so becomes more stringent. Once acceptable weapons and tactics may, at least for militaries that possess new capabilities, be considered objectionable. With increasing precision in the targeting of air bombardment, it is difficult to imagine militaries possessed of that capability reverting to less precise weapons in any but the most dire of circumstances.

One important theme of the just war tradition is the attempt to make war as humane as possible, even for the combatants. This is manifest in the elaboration of the Geneva Convention rules requiring that combatants who surrender be entitled to benevolent quarantine by their captors, including medical care, adequate food and housing, and more. Underlying these rules is the sense that combatant is a temporary status overshadowing the more fundamental common humanity of adversaries. When combatant status is lifted, humanitarian concerns with the suffering and welfare of the individual reassert themselves.

Humanitarian concern, even toward combatants, in the tradition of military ethics is evidenced by periodic attempts to rule out whole classes of weapon technology as inherently inhumane. Such efforts began with medieval Christian church efforts to ban the crossbow as being too accurate and deadly over too long a range. Later the bans on asphyxiating gas weapons, blinding lasers, and hollow-point (so-called dum-dum) bullets, and attempts to ban nuclear weapons, all reflected an impulse to identify unethical classes of technology.

A review of these efforts, however, points up their largely ineffectual and erratic character. When each technology first emerged, it presented as a novel and horrific new weapon system. Some bans (most notably that on asphyxiating gas) have held as a matter of customary practice among civilized nations. But it is hard in almost every case to say precisely why certain weapons are uniquely horrific in comparison to other weapons systems developed and deployed later. The ban on gas, for example, may continue in part because of the depth of the historical memory of World War I and the unique horrors gas weapons caused in that conflict, but also because they are not especially effective weapons systems in comparison to alternatives developed later. It is hard to see, from any objective moral perspective, how being shot with a hollow point bullet (deemed inhumane because of the gratuitous destruction of tissue caused by the tumbling bullet in contrast with the clean penetration of a rigid bullet) is less humane than being bombed with a fuel-air explosive that generates tremendous heat and overpressures, and kills by blast and by sucking oxygen out of the environment.

The link between military ethics and technology is not primarily in connections between specific technologies and guiding ethical principles. Specific, technology-by-technology restraints will always be piecemeal, sporadic, and difficult to justify or explain on the basis of a uniform set of moral principles. The connection between military ethics and technology is more subtle and complex. The development of air power is perhaps the clearest example, and worthy of extensive specific review, of the general issues in raised in this regard.

Between the two world wars, a number of air power thinkers developed a theory about the best strategic use of the airplane and bombing. Italian Giulio Douhet and American Billy Mitchell both speculated that long-range bombing would obviate the need for a frontline and trench warfare, both of which were required in World War I. Instead, they argued, the bomber would fly deep into enemy territory and bomb factories, transportation, and other infrastructure essential to the adversary's war effort. They also proposed (without always noting that this was quite another matter) bombing civilians and whole cities directly in the effort to so demoralize the population that the will to continue the war effort would collapse.

The latter proposal ignores, at the most fundamental level, the principle of discrimination that is a cornerstone of the jus in bello element of just war thinking. Before World War II, world leaders publicly declared that indiscriminate attacks on cities were completely outside the realm of military ethics and never to be ordered. The U.S. policy of so-called daylight, precision bombing was an attempt to maintain the principle of discrimination. Given the technology available at the time and the inherent inaccuracy of bombing from high altitude, it was an effort that had little practical meaning. At the end of the war, all pretense of discrimination was abandoned as the Allied air campaigns culminated in the conventional firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One might have thought that the principle of discrimination in military ethics had effectively been rendered obsolete by this pattern of practice, but it was not. Nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction of the biological or chemical type would, if used, be impossible to justify under any reasonable interpretation of the just conduct of war. But on the more conventional side of war, the principles reasserted themselves after the end of World War II. The Vietnam era (1964–1975) practice of free fire zones in which it was declared that, after notice, all in a given area would be deemed combatants was at least a verbal and legalistic effort to maintain the distinction. More importantly, the introduction late in the Vietnam era of television-guided precision munitions hinted at a whole new connection between technology and military ethics just over the horizon.

In the opening hours of the air campaign of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the world was introduced to a new manifestation of the link between technology and military ethics. The generation of precision guided munitions (PGMs) that was used held the prospect (only partially fulfilled in that conflict) of one bomb, one target accuracy, in which strategic bombing might be conducted even in urban areas with collateral damage to civilians limited to weapons malfunctions and intelligence failures in designating targets incorrectly.

Technologies have only continued to improve. PGMs requiring the risky and difficult laser designation by a pilot during the Persian Gulf War had, by the Kosovo conflict in 1999, been replaced with Global Positioning System-guided weapons that were virtually infallible in finding their targets, without requiring pilot supervision. Targeting mistakes still occurred, of course. But these were largely failures of intelligence and programming rather than of inherently inaccurate or indiscriminate weapons. The Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed with great precision, in that the bomb's coordinates were hit precisely; the mistake was in programming those coordinates. Successful conduct of just war has always depended to a large degree on intelligence, of course, because correct identification of legitimate targets rests on intelligence in all but face-to-face encounters between adversaries. However, in combat driven by precision stand-off and robotic munitions of great accuracy, perhaps intelligence will bear the brunt of the moral responsibility for discrimination and proportionality.

Air power is an appropriate focus for a discussion of the connections between military ethics and technology because it is has undergone the most dramatic technological evolution in the post-World War II period. Technological developments for land forces are driven by similar technological and ethical imperatives, however, more in the quest for technologically produced total situational awareness of the battlefield and precisely targeted weapons. Naval forces, too, are increasingly platforms for launch stand-off precision weaponry. The historical review of more than fifty years of the development of air power is instructive in a number of ways, not just for its own sake, but also for what it illustrates regarding the connection between military ethics and technology. Most of that history focused on the ethical test of discrimination. If World War II degenerated into an indiscriminate air war, it was partly out of a misguided strategic idea that bombing civilians would be effective in hastening the termination of conflict and partly from inherent technological limitations of the weapons and platforms available. Subsequent technological development increasingly provided the capability to conduct effective strategic level air bombardment, but to do so in an increasingly discriminate way. So at first glance, here is a clear example of technological development dramatically assisting the abilities of military forces to operate within the boundaries of established principles of military ethics. Further, regarding that development only from the perspective of the ability of the U.S. Air Force and Navy to conduct discriminate strategic air campaigns, technology has provided the capability to meet the requirements of military ethical principles.

The existence of the various technologies of PGMs has, however, generated a number of unanticipated ethical issues as well. Especially stand-off weapons (that is, weapons that can be fired from long distance, placing the operator beyond the range of enemy counterfire such as Air and Sea Launched Cruise Missiles) have already dramatically altered some jus ad bellum calculations. The ethical requirement that use of military force be a last resort was always supported by the fact that the decision of a political leader to use force inevitably involved putting the military forces of that nation at risk and almost certainly suffering some casualties. But stand-off weapons hold out the tantalizing prospect of using military force with complete impunity—thereby dramatically lowering the threshold to the use of force. Last resort remains a moral requirement. But without risk to a nation's own forces, the prospect of using missiles to send a message might be a political leader's course of action when it would certainly not have been if the possible deaths of aircrews or special forces units had factored into the decision.

The capability that PGMs provide generates ethical issues in another area as well. Because only the United States and a few major high-technology powers possess these capabilities, the entire war convention is challenged when such powers engage in conflict with less technologically advanced states. The Law of Armed Conflict that codifies just war principles is intended to apply equally to and to be observed equally by all combatants. Yet this capability creates a situation in which the United States can scrupulously observe those laws and conduct a highly discriminate air campaign against a lesser adversary that, if it follows those rules, faces only certain defeat. Understandably adversaries equipped only with lower technology weapons come to feel that U.S. forces lack honor in conducting war in this way. To the degree that the respect for the criteria of just war rests on a mutual sense that war can be conducted within those limits and still be a fair fight, precision munitions built to honor the principles of discrimination and proportionality may come to undermine respect for those very rules on the part of adversaries.

In practical terms, this asymmetry of capability provides a strong incentive for any adversary to find asymmetrical approaches to offset U.S. capabilities, even if those approaches strain or violate established ethical principles of military conduct. The Iraqis and the Serbs (examples of such lesser powers under attack) have illustrated the consequences of this asymmetry in their use of human shields (their own citizens, captured civilians of the attacking and allied powers, or prisoners of war), deliberate collocation of military and civilian objects (fighter aircraft parked next to mosques, schools, and hospitals), and perhaps dual-use of factories for production of baby formula and chemical weapons (although these cases are less certain).

It is hard to say what exactly follows from these points regarding the status and future of military ethics. It is ironic that weapons developed precisely to return air power to scrupulous respect for the ethical principle of discrimination have the unforeseen and unintended consequence of contributing to undermining the shared respect for those very principles on the part of adversaries. What is clear is the difficulty of predicting non-linear relationships between developments in military technology and the law and practices of military ethics.

The more general point about the relation of technology and military ethics concerns not a single technology and its implications, but rather the aggregate effect of the overwhelming technological superiority of the United States and, to a much lesser degree, its allies in the whole panoply of military technologies. Taken together, they provide the tools for those militaries to intervene effectively and widely against less technically advanced powers—at least powers whose militaries are conventionally structured. The example of Vietnam and other guerilla wars suggest that some kinds of asymmetry are relatively immune to high-technology capabilities developed to date, although there too, improved sensor and surveillance technologies offer advantages for land forces as well.

The jus ad bellum requirement of just cause has, during the twentieth century come to be restricted to defense against the aggression of others. However, since World War II, a body of human rights law (starting with the Genocide Convention) has begun to sketch out a parallel body of international law that gives less weight to national sovereignty and suggests that the rights of human individuals and groups might provide a basis for legitimate intervention if the state failed to properly protect those rights. Kosovo provided a possible model for the future when the technologically superior powers intervened with relative impunity to protect human rights.

But the existence of the capability also suggests a danger: The superior powers may no longer be constrained by the risks to their own forces and may use their unmatchable technologically-based military power in ways that destabilize rather than stabilize the international system. At its roots, the relatively stable system of mutually respected military ethics developed among the European powers worked, insofar as it did, because powers felt that respecting the rules of military ethics still made it possible to have a fair fight. This asymmetry of capability may make it possible for the technologically superior to operate in bello in ways that adhere to the rules of discrimination and proportionality, but within a wider frame ad bellum of excessive interventionism.

The Historical Development of Military Ethics

In almost every culture, the warrior class develops some internal sense of appropriate military behavior. While it would be wrong to suggest that the rules are equivalent, the need warriors have to distinguish honorable from dishonorable conduct in war seems nearly if not completely universal.

The specific version of military ethics that evolved into the ostensibly universal principles embodied in the Hague and Geneva Conventions has specific roots. These principles may be traced back to ancient Roman thought and practice, as mediated through history by the European Christian Church and its secularized successors.

Although elements from pre-Christian Roman thought and practice (e.g., Cicero), feed into the origins of just war, the Christian writer Augustine's work is the origin of the unbroken stream of Christian military ethics that leads to the elaborated tradition that exists in the twenty-first century. Augustine wrote during a period when the Roman Empire was collapsing under the weight of barbarian advance and, unlike most of his Christian predecessors, he advocated Christian participation in the military defense of the Empire. While it was far short of Christian religious and ethical ideas, Augustine argued, use of military force to defend the tranquility of order provided by the Empire was a legitimate act of Christian love. Military struggle and even death in defense of that order was an act of love for one's neighbors who, if that order were to fall, would endure great suffering.

The Christian soldier is governed by restraints in combat. It is the enemy's misconduct rather than the soldier's wish that brings about the war. The Christian soldier goes to war mournfully, accepting the blessing of Jesus as the peacemaker struggling to restore order on behalf of the neighbor. But most importantly, the soldier recognizes the common humanity of the adversary and avoids personal hatred or animus.

Augustine lays the foundation for a tradition that accepts the necessity of coercion and even violent conflict in the name of maintaining order. But it also imposes rules of restraint and caution that are elaborated in subsequent Christian tradition. In the medieval period, for example, Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics developed and elaborated the intellectual framework for military ethics, even as the Code of Chivalry formed the basis of ideal military ethics among the warrior class. During the same period, the idea of a Law of Peoples (jus gentium) evolved: a concept that became customary international law in later versions of the tradition.

Although the major actors of the Reformation produced their own versions of just war and military ethics in the sixteenth century, the collapse of the unified Christian civilization of Europe and the encounter of Europeans with the inhabitants of the New World spurred the need for a less religious and Eurocentric understanding of just war and military ethics. Catholic thinkers such as Francisco Suarez and Franciscus de Vitoria argued that the indigenous peoples of the New World possessed rights. Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorff, and Emmerich de Vattel laid the foundations for a non-religious framework of military ethics and just war, grounded in human reason that would be valid (as Grotius put it) even if God does not exist.

The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century completed the work of secularization. Rationalist thinkers such as Kant argued that ethics generally must be grounded in the nature of human reason alone and that reason dictated a more rational system than war for the adjudication of international disputes. He envisioned a League of Nations, willing and able to provide world governance on principles better reasoned than the perpetual conflict of interstate rivalry. Such ideas set in motion the hope of a united global community operating in accordance with shared ethical and political principles—an endeavor manifest in the creation of the League of Nations and the United Nations in the twentieth century.

Abraham Lincoln's charge to Francis Lieber to create General Order 100 marked a milestone in the establishment of a state-mandated set of rules for military conduct. Military Codes of Discipline came to replace customary Chivalric Codes as official guidance for governing the conduct of military personnel of the various nations.

At the end of the nineteenth century, under the auspices of the Hague and Geneva Conferences, treaty law governing the conduct of military operations and the treatment of civilians, the rights of neutral powers, prisoners of war, and so on, began to grow. This body of law is the partial codification of the long moral tradition of military ethics, and constitutes customary international law for all states and their militaries.

At the conclusion of World War II, war crimes trials, held in Nuremberg and Tokyo, established the precedent of individual responsibility of commanders and soldiers for war crimes. Although criticized by some as victor's justice, they laid the foundation for the idea of individual culpability for war crimes that has evolved into ad hoc war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In 1998 the United Nations adopted the Rome Statute calling for the establishment of a permanent standing war crimes court. That treaty received a sufficient number of national ratifications and entered into effect on July 1, 2002; the process of appointing members and establishing procedures was ongoing in the beginning of 2004.

In the early 2000s, the United States was among a small number of states opposed to the creation of the war crimes court due to fears that it would be dominated by political considerations rather than disinterested justice, and by awareness that U.S. forces are more widely deployed (and therefore more likely to be subject to the court's scrutiny) than those of other powers. It is too early to say what the effect of the war crimes court will be. But in intention, it represents the culmination of efforts over many years to give legal shape, form, and enforcement to the fundamental principles of military ethics.


SEE ALSO Airplanes;Baruch Plan;Biological Weapons;Chemical Weapons;Geographic Information Systems;International Relations;Just War;Missile Defense Systems;Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty;Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Bainton, Roland. (1960). Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. New York: Abingdon Press. The standard historical survey of Christian thought on ethics and war

Best, Geoffrey. (1994). War and Law Since 1945. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press. A superb discussion of the evolution of international law since World War II. Especially helpful in tracing the development of humanitarian and human rights law as a parallel legal stream to the older state sovereignty-Westphalian legal framework.

Best, Geoffrey. (1980). Humanity in Warfare: The Modern History of the International Law of Armed Conflicts. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Christopher, Paul. (1994). Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Moral and Legal Issues. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hartle, Anthony. (1989). Moral Issues in Military Decision Making. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press. A very useful ethical analysis by a distinguished U.S. army soldier-scholar.

Kelsay, John. (1992). Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press. The best short discussion of Islamic thought on war in English.

Mendelsohn, Everett; Merritt Roe Smith; and Peter Weingar, eds. (1988). Science, Technology and the Military. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. An important collection of papers covering a broad range of topics.

Moorehead, Caroline. (1999). Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross New York: Carroll & Graf.

Nardin, Terry, ed. (1996). Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. A useful attempt to compare Islamic, Jewish, pacifist, feminist and realist ethical traditions to the standard categories of western just war analysis.

Smith, Merritt Roe. (1985). Military Enterprise and Technological Change: Perspectives on the American Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. The results of a discussion among historians of technology that helped initiate contemporary studies of war-technology relationships.

Walzer, Michael. (2000). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd edition. New York: Basic Books. The first edition of this influential book was published in 1977.


Mitcham, Carl, and Philip Siekevitz. (1989). "Ethical Issues Associated with Scientific and Technological Research for the Military." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 577. Available at

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