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Military Ethics Education – Bridging the Gap or Deepening the Chasm?

The Huntingtonian Paradigm and European Militaries 

For centuries, we as humanity have been aware of the fact that Scientia potestas est. The scope of our overall knowledge, the greatest of powers known to man and our most vital resource, is perpetually widening as we accumulate more and more knowledge in all existing fields of human existence, throughout generations. Despite this undeniably constant and ever-lasting process of knowledge accumulation in every particular area of life, in which hundreds if not thousands of people partake throughout millennia, there are certain moments at which individuals shake the very foundations of the system and the “framework” of existing knowledge through “revolutions” which establish new paradigms, i.e., new frameworks, systems and horizons of knowledge. This extreme simplification of Kuhn’s vision of how our accumulation and use of knowledge actually works is by no means meant to explain the development and “historical flow” of science and knowledge, but rather to accentuate the importance of individuals who change the way we think about certain aspects of the world we thought we knew. These individuals not only introduce a new paradigm with superior explicatory power, but by doing that also normatively and prescriptively shape how we interpret reality and to some extent even how we organize our institutions and societies. When it comes to the realm of what we today call civil-military relations, it wouldn’t be too controversial to claim that the paradigm of the relationship between modern armed forces and their civilian societies, within which we function today, was created by Samuel P. Huntington with his seminal book The Soldier and the State. As Brooks notes, Huntington’s understanding of these relations is today considered to be the “normal” one, while all other perspectives are measured against it.

The Huntingtonian paradigm is essentially founded on the concept of “objective control”, which relies on strict, profound and clear-cut separation between military and politics in order to ensure an apolitical military. Such a military would then ideally serve politics in an outmost professional manner, i.e., it would be subjected to society’s interests, obediently and loyally, with the sole focus on maximizing combat effectiveness. Huntington’s vision was a noble one, formulated in order to prevent previous catastrophic historical outcomes of inadequate relationships between realms of military and politics which at times had the tendency of becoming overly interwoven, even indistinguishable. Moreover, it could be argued that he based his concept of objective control on the necessary separation of military from politics, not necessarily from the overall society as such, despite the fact that at some points he admittedly did allude to desirableness of even such separation, to a certain point. Some would rightfully say that Huntington truly observed the military caste ideally completely separated from the rest of society, especially democratic society. However, what the Huntingtonian paradigm of civil-military relations contributed to, in almost seven decades that followed his book, is in fact a very troubling separation of the military from the entire civilian society, not just the realm of politics. The evident and seemingly widening civil-military gap that exists today in European societies, some might even say a crisis in civil-military relations, represents not only a significant challenge for armed forces, but also for societies in general. And while much has been written about the role of the changing cultural strategies of (post)modern societies in distancing and even alienating civilians from the military culture, values, and identity, there seems to be much more that ought to be said and discussed in regards to the contribution of the military itself to this process of widening the gap, i.e. the military side of the proverbial gap. Military ethics education holds a very ambiguous, perhaps even a precarious position in these dynamics, and can even be detrimental, if not understood and executed properly.

Separation, isolation and alienation

The concept of relatively strict military professionalism necessarily implies separation and even isolation of the military from the rest of society, in pretty much all aspects, including literal physical separation of military facilities. This concept also produces the need for separate, parallel “institutions” within military facilities which provide “civilian” services to military personnel, to the extent that they pretty much have everything they need on-site, and no particular need to seek services outside of the military. From a certain perspective, such type of separation to the point of deliberate isolation is prudent and purposeful, due to the highly specific mission of the military, unique means of fulfilment of such mission, peculiar challenges, distinctive value system, idiosyncratic culture, etc. To use Huntington’s notions, the “military mind” is distinctly different from the non-military one, as it is the mind needed for military effectiveness; as such it entails some type of separateness from the “normal” mind which simply couldn’t optimally grasp and deal with what is expected in the unique context of the military. But the necessary separateness of the military from society does not necessarily imply alienation from it – it seems virtually impossible to have a military alienated from society if society actively partakes in the military via some form of temporary military service of citizens. However, if societies transition from the various traditional models of time-limited mandatory military service for all citizens (or at least male citizens) and conscription, this permanent separateness and isolation can indeed evolve into estrangement and alienation.

The majority of European countries went through such a transition in the period between the end of the Cold War and the end of the first decade of the XXI century, with Germany being one of the last countries to do so in 2011[1]. There are certainly some exceptions[2], but the majority of European militaries are today professionalized, at least to a point, and thus completely separated and practically isolated from the rest of society. Modern fully professionalized militaries are perhaps the pinnacle of Huntington’s vision of apolitical armed forces separated from politics in all aspects, but they have also unfortunately proved to be completely separated and alienated not just from politics, but from the entire realm of the ontologically political, which translates into alienation from the rest of the true and basic Kommunität. Undoubtably, such a model of small fully professionalized armed forces which function “outside” of society has certain benefits, particularly in the zeitgeist of our post-modern individualistic “societies of right-claiming” as the famous Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori dubbed them. But separation of armed forces from society, to the point of alienation, obviously and incontestably brings about many challenges and has numerous unfavorable implications causing the said crisis of civil-military relations and the widening gap between the society and the institution that protects it.

Challenges of military alienation

 Challenges and implications of military alienation have been addressed and discussed to some length, especially in the context of the widening civil-military gap in the United States of America. Of course, the fact that the United States transitioned from conscription to a model of an all-volunteer professional military already in 1973, historically fairly early in comparison to European countries bar the UK, contributed to the volume and depth of these discussions which relied on decades of separation and isolation of the US military from the rest of American society. Despite the fact that these implications are observed in the American context and experience, they don’t seem to be entirely endemic but rather universal for societies with professionalized armed forces not relying on conscription. Therefore, it is quite uncontroversial and safe to assume that European nations can learn a great deal from the US experience. American authors who dealt with the issues arising from total military separation and alienation which inevitably followed identified many potential contributing factors to the widening gap but also practical problems generated by it.

Separation of the military to the point of its alienation from society, especially over a prolonged period of time, causes complete disengagement of civilians from the military as a vital social institution – there is insufficient visibility of the military in “normal” everyday social life and lack of personal contact with anyone in uniform resulting in practical ignorance of the nature, role, function or even purpose of the military. Expectedly, this causes utter disinterest in military service, major recruitment problems and erosion of the social status of military personnel. Additionally, holders of key political offices who control, use, and take care of the military often have no military experience and have never been a part of the military, while apolitical armed forces with severed connections to the political life of their societies become disinterested in political consequences of their actions and decisions. Ultimately, all these issues, along with many other, tend to contribute to the military being placed somewhat outside of the limits of the “normal” civilian society, slowly becoming a “state within a state”, a problem addressed by many researchers who dealt with the problem of the growing civil-military gap. We are, however, at this point more interested in the military side of the chasm, i.e., exploring and discussing factors contributing to this alienation process but on the military side of the gap. More precisely, the unfortunate emergence of mistrust, contempt and even latent hostility towards the civilian society within the military, closely tied to the sentiment of organizational, procedural, cultural and even moral superiority of the military over the rest of society.

Mistrust, contempt and superiority

Several US authors not only identified the phenomenon of “military superiority” but also conducted empirical studies and surveys in order to examine the depth of the issue[3]. When observing the results of these studies conducted in the US, it can be concluded that they are worrying for the American society to say the least. Moreover, and equally important, having in mind the abovementioned processes of military professionalization via abandonment of conscription in Europe, the results of the US studies should worry European societies too, but also provide an insight into potential issues down the road, as European armed forces become increasingly separated and alienated from their societies. All empirical studies confirmed the hypothesis that complete separation of the military leads not only to isolation and alienation from the society but also to the emergence of mistrust, sense of moral superiority and even contempt for the civilian society.

Although previously indicated, it deserves to be highlighted again that once completely separated and isolated from the rest of society, and without any real meaningful professional contact with the civilian world, the military tends to breed and cultivate a sense of superiority in regards to pretty much all aspects – organizational, cultural, ethical, even moral. Unfortunately, development of such a sentiment only contributes to additional alienation from the rest of society, as the military proceeds to further insulate, almost cocoon itself, as it becomes increasingly inward-looking, incredulous and leery, even contemptuous towards those who are, in many ways perceived as “lesser”. The very sense of superiority is therefore not derived from mistrust and contempt, rather it produces it. It does not seem far-fetched to consider the potentially important role of declining social reputation and genuine respect for military personnel and their growing irrelevance outside of their institution in breeding this sense of exceptionalism and superiority, as an almost spontaneous and subconscious Abwehrmechanismus serving the purpose of reaffirming their sense of value, importance, pertinence, and excellence. Namely, the rising practical irrelevance of military personnel, even high military officers, outside of their barracks and institutions among the civilians in the “civilian world” is primarily caused by the suspension of conscription and military service and complete disengagement of “the rest of society” from its armed forces. In societies in which all young people, or at least young males, spend a not-so-short portion of their lives in military uniforms, under the command of officers who wield power over their troops without any parallel in the non-military context, officers tend to be highly respected, appreciated, or at least relevant in all spheres of society. On the other hand, in nations which rely on some type of a professional armed forces model, even the highest officers in reality have zero practical power, influence and relevance outside of the military, especially in societies in which the overwhelming majority of people never served in the military and are quite ignorant in regards to all things military.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, it is emphatically clear that the emergence of the sense of superiority in armed forces, which produces mistrust and contempt towards the rest of society, not only widens the proverbial gap between the military and its society, but also produces an abundance of practical issues and potential grave problems – from perceiving political decision makers, who in fact have the mandate to control and guide the military, as morally inadequate and contemptible, across not wishing to engage in meaningful cooperation with civilian institutions, to finding the entire society the military is supposed to serve and protect unworthy of fighting and sacrificing for, even loathe-worthy.

The peculiar role of military ethics education

Recognizing the aforementioned severe challenges, perilous risks and potential threats both to armed forces and the “civilian world” which stem from alienation of military from the rest of society, emergence of the sense of superiority within the military, and the overall ominous widening of the civil-military gap, scholars and practical experts in the field have identified several key mechanisms and avenues of countering, or at least impeding, further alienation of the military and deepening the chasm. Notwithstanding various proposed tools and means, a clear convergence of opinion among experts can be noticed in regards to two critical instruments – (re)introduction of some model of mandatory military service and adaptation and improvement of education of military personnel, especially the officers corps. Concerning the first crucial instrument, it is evident that there is a plethora of factors and circumstances which affect the decision to (re)conscript the nation or at least intensify a wider meaningful public debate on the issue. Despite certain developments in that direction in multiple European countries in previous years, Europe is still basically relying on small professionalized militaries meaning that the second avenue must be prioritized if we wish to address the gap before it turns into a steep chasm. Therefore, expanding and enhancing the education process in the fields of social sciences and humanities in the military is necessary in order to diminish the gap by creating a much healthier and profoundly emphatic relationship between military personnel towards civilian institutions and civilians in general. Obviously, military ethics education plays a particularly important, even decisive (!), role in this process; however, equally obviously, this role is prima facie incredibly precarious, ambivalent and ambiguous.

As discussed by many authors, an optimal approach to military ethics education relies on the presupposition of development of a sound and firm military ethos which synthesizes both traditional approaches to military ethics education – aspirational and functional[4]. Successful development of a military ethos as a spiritus movens of military personneland a deeply internalized system of specific values, virtues and norms which become inherent elements of one’s personal identity and character relies on comprehension and genuine understanding of moral excellence of the military profession, rather than just its moral justification. Any military ethics professor worth his salt must aim to instill an understanding of moral excellence and the supererogatory moral nature of military service, derived from a multitude of factors, in his students. It is precisely this grasp of the truly morally exceptional nature of military service that ought to be the primary motivator of military professionals and that in reality can only provide the desired and optimal behavior of men and women in uniform, both in peace and in war, and is as such the “holy grail” of military ethics education. But looking through our prism of the issues of alienation and military superiority, it becomes conspicuous that military ethics education which develops military ethos also seems to contribute to the creation of very fertile ground for nourishing the sense of superiority within military profession as it aims to instill a deep understanding of moral exceptionality and sublimity of a soldier’s duty.

So then, can military ethics education help bridge the gap, rather than deepening the chasm between the military and the rest of society in the absence of mandatory military service in Europe? We firmly believe it can and it must. An optimal approach to teaching military ethics, which would take into consideration the potential generation of highly undesirable exceptionalism and superiority towards the society the military is supposed to serve, will necessarily have to take an almost anti-Huntingtonian approach and accentuate the essential, almost metaphysical bond between the nation and its military. Armed forces do not exist and operate outside of nor above the people, even if they are completely and utterly professionalized, physically and organizationally separated and isolated, and if they are in fact alienated due to lack of mandatory military service; military personnel are of the people, an integral part of their nation produced by their nation. Armed forces are, simply put, the embodiment of the people’s will and readiness to defend their freedom and their collective way of life even if it requires taking on extreme mortal risk and facing lethal danger, which essentially represents a profoundly ethical choice and decision.             

Military ethics education must therefore unquestionably aim to develop consciousness and awareness of military personnel, officers in particular, about the inextricable bond between the people and its military, but not as two separate entities; rather as military emanating from the people but without ever ceasing to be the people. This bond seems perfectly epitomized in the US Army Reserve motto “Twice the citizens”, referring to the duality of status of men and women in uniform, who do not simply stop being citizens and “the people” once they put on their uniform and become members of the military, nor become some sort of ÜberCitizens. Similar can be said about the high-minded idea behind the German concept of Innere Führung. This intimate cognizance of the ontological unity of the military and its society should not and must not be achieved by militarization of the society, but rather by “peopleization” of alienated and estranged professionalized armed forces using various means, including the vital instrument of well-devised military ethics education. Such an education would ideally include topics of the ontological status of war, the underlying political nature of the military, peace ethics, etc., and would place more focus on non-military traditions and values that the military is supposed to protect. Finally, military ethics education could also tremendously benefit from practical assistance and inclusion of the “civilian realm”, meaning civilian institutions and civilian personnel.


[1] Interestingly, the UK ended conscription already in 1963.

[2] Certain countries in Europe, both EU member and non-member states, have some form of mandatory military service. Some of them never suspended the military obligation, while some returned to mandatory military service after short periods of suspension in the first decade of the century.

[3] The most important studies relating to the phenomenon of military superiority in the US are the TISS (Triangle Institute for Security Studies, survey published by Feaver and Kohn) survey of 1998-99 and the YouGov survey of 2014 (published by Schake and Mattis). The most recent study, conducted among West Point cadets in 2020, further corroborated the previous findings, i.e., that military personnel perceive their organization, culture and values superior to the civilian ones. 

[4] Cf. Stanar, Dragan (2023): Moral education in the military: Optimal approach to teaching military ethics. In: Theoria 66 (1), pp. 37−51.


Dragan Stanar

Dr. Dragan Stanar is Associate Professor of Military Ethics and Moral at the Military Academy of the University of Defence in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy from the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, on the topic of Military Ethics. Dr. Stanar is an elected member of the Board of Directors of the European Society for Military Ethics (EuroISME).

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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