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UNITED KINGDOM

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?

It is fortunate for Britain that the universal language gaining traction year on year is English, opening up the world in normal knowledge, discourse and professional understanding. But this has its problems, as the USA particularly and other nations using it internationally are developing new English languages, with dynamics of their own from other cultures. This does not always assist in true universal understanding. For instance, the meaning of terms ‘moral’ (from French and Latin) and ‘ethical’ (from Greek) are confused.  

The national learning culture of Britain, led by England the dominant nation, has been Aristotelian and empirical. Until recently the nation has always had problems with abstractions and complicated nouns, in relation to verbs. The British military has always been disdainful of intellectualization, again until recently (since 1989 to give it a date), and what has been learnt as ‘ideal’ war that adjective in mainstream English has a different meaning from Clausewitz’s. Practicality had taken precedence over theory, but in Britain theory has been tackled with characteristic enthusiasm in recent years. That is not to say that there were some or many very intelligent officers in previous generations, bringing about peace after war.

During the Cold War, the British military certainly grasped the character of ‘nuclear deterrence theory’, but ‘military ethics’ was not spoken about, researched or taught, other than in the background in the publication ‘Law of Armed Conflict’ (LOAC), military law and service discipline, articulated or understood by osmosis. The British Amed Forces were highly successful and professional. Interestingly AF professionalism was developed alongside the recognition and practice of strong ‘leadership’ by commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers, for the Army under the Sandhurst mission of ‘Serve to Lead’ from as long ago as 1947. Teaching and developing the leadership function carried the British Army through the period of de-colonization, Cold War, Northern Ireland operations, the Falklands’ and first Gulf war of 1992. It was after then that moral understanding was becoming more questionable in British society and ethical principles were first considered as becoming of main stream military concern.

Since 2000, what one can call ‘institutional’ and ‘operational ethics’, have been embraced and research-led by various people within the military infrastructure and by outside independent academics. Codes of conduct as ‘Values and Standards’ have been embraced willingly and meaningfully. This intellectualization process has been accepted, as well as practical wisdom, even though the term ‘phronesis’ (Aristotle) is not on everyone’s lips, while ‘common sense’ (G.E. Moore) is.

Finally, the military profession is highly regarded and trusted, above many other institutions of state. This is due to the persistent voluntariness of the Armed Forces over history, conscription rejected. The ‘Military Covenant’ was introduced formally in 2000, and is now the ‘Armed Forces Covenant’. This expresses the acceptance of the contradiction of using ‘force of good’ and the ‘ethics of fighting power’, at best a reserved power for which armed forces exist.

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

There is normally little public debate in Britain on the ‘just war theory’ and ‘ethics of war’. The public tends to sway instinctively towards the ‘underdog’ in international relations. The advanced nature of accountability and specific ‘public enquiries’ – such as the Chilcot Report on the Iraq Inquiry of 2016, exposing mistakes over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – are well received and indicating that lessons learnt will be a matter of trust between people, government and the military (Clausewitzean ‘trinity’). 

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 people of the British Isles have seen ‘defence’ rather differently in history without the number of external borders faced by most European nation-states. This has made ‘defence’ a more simple concept and practice. Only three times has Britian faced existential threat since 1066, twice briefly and once of longer duration. 

The nature, study and education of ‘military ethics’ – in the view of this writer, who took part in the St Cyr published research exercise (2013-16) – has been greatly influenced by the military-cultural narrative of the flux and history of the nation-states of Europe from Spain to the Urals.

That having been said this author sees huge convergence in recent years on the subject of the ‘ethics of defence’, but still with language and cultural difficulties as noted above.

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

Some in Britain saw the invasion of Ukraine coming. To others there was a massive ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ beforehand (S.T. Coleridge). The British people, expanding in cosmopolitan ways, are optimistic and this writer – visiting Ukraine in 2000-02 in ‘defence sector reform’ interventions – with others considered that a spirit of ‘détente’ was developing. Other forces prevailed.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is not well understood in Britain although Human Rights law is.  The reaction from February 2022 has been hugely supportive of the people of Ukraine. But the thinking public has great difficulty in understanding Russian aggression, putting world history back one or two hundred years in development. Political, military, social and humanitarian assistance has flowed generously to support the Ukrainian people.

It is obvious that the just war theory requires revisiting. Some thinkers in Europe believe that jus post bellum (references supplied if required) and jus ad bellum are only loosely connected. Common sense and intuition indicate the opposite – of cause and effect – and it is suggested that if asked many people in Britain would agree. 

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

‘Values and Standards’ are now part of the curriculum of training in every part of the British Armed Forces, and thereafter developmental training, with military ethics education for promoted ranks, particularly officers.

Since about 2010 ‘military ethics’ education and training has been led by the UK Defence Academy, with in-house academics in partnership with military staff. Despite attempts, including as often recommended by this writer, there is still no formal MOD ‘doctrine’ as such, on account of coyness in articulating empirical findings, which can change with each new operation and campaign. Although since 1989, the ‘moral component’ of military ‘capability and power’ was identified as being different from the ‘physical’ and ‘conceptual’ (intellectual), lack of military doctrine in support of IHL and LOAC is problematical.

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

  1. What are the dynamics of changing connexions between ‘jus post bellum’ and ‘jus ad bellum’?
  2. What are the inter-connexions between ‘military ethics’ and ‘existential threats’ to humankind and the planet?

 

Patrick Mileham

Dr Patrick Mileham, MPhil Cambridge, PhD Lancaster, Regular British Army officer 1965-92


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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