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UNITED STATES

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?

I’m afraid the answers here may be rather different. My understanding is grounded in the philosophical tradition of Just War Theory. It seems to me that the US as a whole takes a fairly legalistic approach: so long as a soldier follows the Rules of Engagement — which can never be more permissive than IHL (International Humanitarian Law), itself grounded in the JWT — he or she is good to go. But I prefer an approach that provides a deeper understanding/grounding.

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

Since we no longer at war, public interest in such matters has sadly waned. Right now, debate centers on how much and what kind of aid the US ought to provide to Ukraine, and now Israel. There had been a lively debate over the use of torture and the treatment of prisoners more generally. Sadly, the last administration did and said some very stupid things in this regard.

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?

I’m not sure I understand the question, but to the extent that I do, I’m quite sure that I’m not qualified to answer it. That said, my sense is that there is a nice consilience between the way military ethics is taught in the US (at least at the service academies and in advanced military schooling) and many of our European allies.

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

Again, I’m not sure I understand the question. I will say that — somewhat to my amusement — the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led some of my colleagues to question their commitment to the Moral Equality of Combatants. There is a broad sense that those who participated in that invasion should have known that what they were doing was seriously wrong.

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

There is no single answer to the question: the way enlisted personnel are inculcated is different from the way officers are. And even among officers, those who attend the service academies get a different education from those from other commissioning sources. But the various service academies (West Point, the US Naval Academy, the US Air Force Academy) all require at least one course with a heavy emphasis on military ethics and the JWT, and I believe the subject is often treated at the various war colleges as well. At the service academies, the courses are taught by officers and civilians alike, most of whom (although not at the Naval Academy) who have some sort of post-graduate degree in Philosophy. Elsewhere, much of the training is conducted by the chaplaincy.

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

Although most of the attention and debate right now focuses on Ukraine and Israel, my own sense is that the moral contours of those conflicts are reasonably clear. I do think that we need to continue to explore the ways in which emerging technologies — AI and LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems) to be sure, but also the use of various kinds of data on and off the battlefield — will change the moral landscape.

Richard Schoonhoven

Richard Schoonhoven, Dr. Richard Schoonhoven, Associate Professor, Department of English and Philosophy, United States Military Academy West Point


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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

Specials

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