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For the Special section in this issue, the editors of “Ethics and Armed Forces” have presented experts from various countries with a six-item list of questions on the subject of military ethics and ethics education in their respective armed forces. These pages do not claim to be representative, but are intended to provide further illustrative material for the question of a common European approach in this area.

What is your and your country’s understanding of military ethics? What does it essentially deal with, and what is its main task?

Military ethics is about reflecting on decision-making situations that arise for professional soldiers (and, similarly, for those doing military service and civilian personnel), bearing in mind that the scope for decision-making depends on the hierarchical level. The main task of military ethics, as I see it, is to present the different ethical systems (ethics of duty, virtue and utility), the basic conception of humanity and what it means to serve in the armed forces in Austria, based on the relevant legal texts (Federal Constitution, the general service regulations for the armed forces, human rights declarations), along with concrete examples of decisions and their consequences (recent incidents in the Austrian armed forces mentioned in the report of the Parliamentary Armed Forces Commission and the Disciplinary Commission, incidents during overseas missions). In keeping with the tradition of the Military Order of Maria Theresia, the focus is on successful examples, courageous correct decisions that might as well have been refrained from without punishment.

Is there a public debate in your country on related issues? If yes, on which ones?

Because the military tends to be perceived more as a domestic disaster relief force and assistance organization – for guarding embassies and policing border areas, for example – specific issues in military ethics are rarely the subject of public debate. When it comes to “comprehensive national defense” under the Austrian constitution, however, there is a recurring discussion about Austria’s continuing neutral status that is at least linked to military ethics. Political questions, such as which international missions Austria should participate in, and in what form, are also relevant to military ethics in the broadest sense.

Do you see any commonalities between the EU member states and other European countries in the understanding and/or concrete questions of military ethics? If so, what are they?

The main similarities are found in the basic documents. For European countries, the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms with the associated European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg reflect the European conception of humanity, which stems from the roots of Greco-Roman antiquity and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. These rights and freedoms are also enshrined in the Austrian constitution, and they clearly define the limits of any military action (even in the face of arguments based on utility ethics and motivated by day-to-day politics).

Furthermore, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union ties almost all EU states together and the actions of state institutions are bound by this common catalog of rights.

Since all European states are also members of the United Nations and many other international organizations (such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)), or have signed relevant conventions with military significance (Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, etc.), these principles can also be regarded as shared principles of a European military ethics.

Has the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine led to a significant change in that sense?

On the contrary. Despite all the media propaganda, it is precisely in the case of this attack that adhering to the principles of international humanitarian law in the larger context and military ethics on a personal level is of central importance. Just because one state violates the international order does not give all other states carte blanche for their own (planned or impulsive) breaches of the law. It is sad to note that this war has produced many new examples of how controversial weapons systems with long-term consequences for the civilian population (e.g. cluster munitions) are judged differently by the media depending on whether the aggressors or defenders are using them. With a view to Ukraine’s future (and based on experiences of deadly remnants of war that are still found today in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Kosovo), a strong military ethics might provide an even better explanation as to why certain weapons systems are outlawed internationally. It could possibly even draw political decision-makers’ and the public’s attention to the existing conventions and their purpose. After all, the law of armed conflict is there to be observed precisely during such conflicts, not in peacetime before and after the war at academic conferences or political conventions. Military ethics could explain why, contrary to all day-to-day political utilitarianism, upholding international norms is vitally important (and essential for survival).

To what extent and for whom are ethics and military ethics part of military training and education? Who gives the classes?

Military ethics is taught as a subject during the training of professional military personnel, but not to military service conscripts or civilian employees (this might be an option in the future). As part of NCO training at Austria’s Army Non-Commissioned Officers’ Academy (HUAk), the military chaplaincy handles ethics training (16 teaching units for Unteroffiziere (NCOs), 10 for Stabsunteroffiziere (senior NCO ranks)). For prospective officers, military ethics is part of the “Leadership, Law, Morality” module, which is taught by various senior teaching officers and guest lecturers at the Theresian Military Academy. The National Defense Academy has its own chair of ethics, which is responsible for the most advanced courses (for example the Master’s degree course – general staff course, or the basic training course for specialists such as doctors, psychologists or other academics).

In your opinion, what are the most important questions or the most pressing problems of today that military ethics should address?

In my view, there are currently three particularly pressing challenges for military ethics, which I would summarize as singularization, digitalization and tribunalization.

The various anti-pandemic measures of the recent past intensified a process that has been underway in many European countries for a long time: a singularization of the individual. Spatial isolation merely made visible a social isolation that began much earlier. Yet a spirit of camaraderie and showing consideration for one another are essential in military life – knowing the strengths and weaknesses of individual group members and providing targeted support based on ability. In any kind of training, it is dangerous if the group disintegrates into individuals who have lost all sense of solidarity, who want to achieve and enjoy their goals alone – even at the expense of their fellow soldiers. A focus on what unites us, and on the fact that military goals can (almost) always only be achieved together by integrating different talents and skills, would be one aspect of military ethics training.

The digitalization of life and the delegation of certain decisions to convenient “smart” solutions is an everyday reality, and it massively simplifies routine processes like personnel and materials management. However, many people are starting to complain about the lack of control, or perceive the loss of control as a personal affront (the “machine” can do something better than me) – and not just since AI entered the scene. To avoid sinking into a modern-day Luddism, a smart military ethics can give prominence to the soldier’s role as user of any legal technology, and establish the primacy of humans and their military leadership decisions over the suggestions of automated “battle computers”. At the same time, to remain credible, such a military ethics must also be able to impose the same criteria on the development, acquisition, implementation and use of such systems.

Media and social networks encourage the trend of immediately taking a definitive stance on every issue, while at the same time condemning all those who do not share this opinion. This is increasingly leading to verbal as well as physical excesses and activism, including terror. Even if it goes against the spirit of the times, military ethics can invite caution, restraint, careful examination of data, facts and opinions, and level-headed statements. It can also defend the judicial competence of national and international bodies (such as the International Criminal Court) against the court of supposedly public opinion and political grandstanding, thereby providing certainty for the individual soldier. Finally, military ethics can point to the success story of the development of human rights – even when confronted with all manner of totalitarian systems – which terrorists of all kinds dismiss as unimportant, citing the shortage of time in “final”, apocalyptic decision-making scenarios.

In the best case, military ethics strengthens individuals who responsibly practice their profession as soldiers for their home country, the entire human family, and nature too – not because they are forced into it, but because they want to do with joy what they recognize to be right.

Stefan Gugerel

Stefan Gugerel, military dean, NCOs Academy, Theresian Military Academy, Enns-Wiener Neustadt

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All articles in this issue

Military Ethics and Military Ethics Education: In Search of a “European Approach”
Lonneke Peperkamp, Kevin van Loon, Deane-Peter Baker, David Evered
Just peace despite war? In defense of a criticized concept
Markus Thurau
Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Not a Bit of the Old Ultraviolence
Arseniy Kumankov
Military Ethics Education – Bridging the Gap or Deepening the Chasm?
Dragan Stanar
The Retransformation of Soldiers’ Identities
Patrick Hofstetter
The Army is No Place for a Warrior
Christopher Ankersen
“Try to get more emotion into the classroom”
Deanna Messervey


Roger Mielke Janne Aalto Michaël Dewyn Patrick Mileham
Stefan Gugerel
Evaggelia Kiosi Mihály Boda Richard Schoonhoven