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Military Practice Between Ethics and Tragedy: Moral Dilemmas in the Context of Peace Education for Armed Forces

Why and in what way do the actions of armed forces present moral dilemmas? What are these dilemmas? How does peace education in the armed forces deal with them? What educational concepts exist in this field? Are they effective? In the search for answers, this essay discusses insights from various branches of the social sciences, social philosophy and theology. In conclusion, we ask what contribution spiritual pastoral care can make during military training to raising awareness of moral dilemmas.

Methodological starting points

In his Methodologische Schriften, the German sociologist and historian Max Weber argues that the definition of social and political action should be based on precisely those means that are crucial for this action. Thus, according to Weber, states should be defined by their monopoly on the use of force within their own territory.1 Therefore, the armed forces – in the context of the mandate given to them by states that have a monopoly on use of force – should be defined based on their use of force.

This emphasis on the use of force is also a fruitful methodological starting point for peace and military ethics. First, however, the goals of this ethics must be defined: the attainment of a just peace, for example, or – not quite so comprehensively – the protection of sovereignty, territorial integrity, the central institutions of democracy, the rule of law and the international legal order. The explicit definition of these goals places peace ethics in the tradition of Clausewitz, for whom war is merely the continuation of politics by other means. In other words, it is politics that sets the goals, and the armed forces arrange their implementation. Without this insight, peace ethics remains, at core, incomprehensible.

Not without reason, the administration scientist van Braam wrote that politics in particular was a “battle for values.”2 For the same reason, and rightly so, peace ethics and military ethics pay particular attention to the foundations of post-war peace – meaning the systems for conflict prevention and the quality requirements for peacekeeping measures. These goals should influence the modus operandi of the armed forces. Accordingly, peace ethics and military ethics are primarily focused on instruments of non-violent conflict resolution. These range from active non-violence, to informal and formal diplomacy, to sanctions imposed under international law. Here, in the context of conflict escalation and de-escalation, the armed forces are located as part of a wide-ranging repertoire of instruments.

The existence of democratic constitutional states is interpreted ethically in different ways (cf. John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas).Within different currents of social ethics, the morally paradoxical character of the armed forces, as an organization that uses force to prevent war, is discussed in various ways. It should be borne in mind here that democratic constitutional states can only function adequately if they have not themselves defined the values, moral principles and moral duties of their citizens and social institutions.3

The ultima ratio as a starting point for military ethics

In democratic constitutional states, armed forces are exclusively used as a means of last resort (ultima ratio)4, i.e. only when all other means of dealing with the conflict at international level have been exhausted.5 The ultima ratio motif can be found in completely different philosophical and religious systems. The same is true of the instrumental character of the armed forces. Military ethics always occupies a subordinate position with respect to an ethics that is oriented toward goals. But even if democratic constitutional states provide for a separation of powers and internally achieve a culture of peaceful coexistence, they do not escape the particular paradox presented by institutionalized military defense using little force. Any military ethics – including the applied ethics of dilemmas which is part of it – must therefore refer to the moral logic of the ultima ratio as a starting point. Any military ethics must be categorically rejected if it is based on business ethics or military professional ethics in the narrower sense and if it equates the armed forces almost with private-sector companies, their employees supposedly carrying out an independent profession like any other. Such a view would not do justice to the role and essence of the armed forces, and would not take them sufficiently seriously.

For reasons of necessity, the armed forces are used as a last resort on the borderline of political self-control in an escalating political conflict, when international justice and international law become the subject of public debate. Then the political question is whether a military escalation is necessary and wanted in the political sense, with all of the associated risks. The legal question is whether what we want, and the means used to get it are legal at all. For military action, deployment in an ultima ratio context means that the armed forces must always operate on the border between ethics and tragedy.6 After all, on the one hand morality and ethics are meaningful as long as self-control is possible in the implementation,7 i.e. in practice. On the other hand, tragedy comes into play where control is impossible due to the actual circumstances in the form of force majeure, or where the double effects of any practice are inevitable, yet at the same time disproportionate or even counterproductive.

Thus, seen through the lens of ethics, armed forces are deployed when the morally good can no longer be achieved in international relations. At most, one can still talk about “morally right” action; but this is always in light of the imponderables of action on the borderline separating ethics from tragedy. Armed forces do not choose their own political objectives – individual soldiers even less so. In his classic work,8 Samuel Huntington emphasizes the “top-down” character of military ethics with good reason. He refers to a logical decision for an instrumental organization that is also hierarchically structured within itself. Precisely because armed forces can be deployed in an ultima ratio context, moral dilemmas are intrinsically associated with their deployment.

Types of moral dilemma

Ethics has provided at least seven different definitions of a “moral dilemma”.9 In this article, we will assume a very general definition: a dilemma is a moral problem concerning the choice between two alternatives.10 The question is whether an action should be performed or not, or which of two available alternatives should be chosen. The latter may mean comparing conflicting obligations and objectives, but the same also applies to a choice between two alternatives that have significant double effects. In armed forces, not only dilemmas of the kind “good compared to good”, which take the form of clashing positive obligations, are the relevant ones. It tends instead to be dilemmas of the type “right compared to right”. Thus it is a question of deciding under sub-optimal conditions, in which each decision also has negative consequences that weaken its moral justification. The likelihood of morally failing and of feeling permanent unease about the moral quality of one’s own actions is therefore considerable, and occurs mainly at the frontier between ethics and tragedy. This, then, is where man’s ability to control the consequences of his actions reaches its limits.

The latter is all the more true as a moral dilemma has consequences for the identity of the actor and is felt in the form of a setback. If one’s own actions in a dilemma situation have bad consequences, this changes one’s own moral identity in a way similar to a boomerang effect. The perceived “defilement of the self” subsequently changes one’s own sense of identity, one’s own feeling of personal innocence and professional pride. For this reason, veterans usually seek social and political recognition after completing their missions. In their role, they were not primarily representing themselves, but rather also the state and the civilian population, which gave the state a mandate for military action through its elected representatives. Therefore both their positive achievements and their “dirty hands” are common property.

Before a military deployment takes place, the following categories of moral dilemmas have to be discussed in the armed forces. First: What does it mean to define justice and just peace as the objective of a military operation, and what role do the legitimate interests of the enemy play in this context? The dilemma that results from this conflict of values can be clearly seen in the political decision-making process and in the choice of military strategy.11 Second: Are there moral dilemmas which arise from the importance of security? For example, which takes priority: (inter)national security or human security? And what is the relationship between these and force protection, the security of one’s own troops during military operations outside of combat deployments? Third: Are there dilemmas of compassion? What moral weight should armed forces attach to the humanitarian tasks that arise during their deployment for justice and international security?

Of course, moral dilemmas also arise in the areas where these three values overlap. A classic example would be the dilemma between the (neo)realist orientation toward security on the one hand, and justice in international relations on the other. And what about justice at the end of an armed conflict? Is it appropriately weighed against the need for reconciliation and reconstruction? After all, punitive justice stands in stark contrast to the pursuit of reconciliation.12

Understanding these fundamental value dilemmas is essential, as is a certain sensitivity to them. Above all, this applies to moral leadership in the higher ranks of the armed forces, who firstly are confronted with strategically relevant decisions at all times, and secondly also have to build a moral bridge between the political realm and their subordinates. This is because, empirically speaking, the moral motivation of armed forces participating in missions is usually not determined by fundamental values: they fight for their own survival, for the lives of their fellow soldiers, and for their military commanders. Empirically speaking, political legitimation and moral participation on the home front are only of secondary importance here.

Moral dilemmas of military action

At the operational level, moral dilemmas mostly concern the legitimacy of the use of force in the tensions of the specific situation – such as in fulfilling mandates and following the rules of engagement (ROE). Political and legal legitimacy13 in the use of force are not identical and do not belong in the category of moral legitimacy. Political mandate and legal admissibility are not a priori identical to moral and ethical justification. After Canadian troops under the UN mandate had witnessed the genocide in Rwanda, for example, Major General Dallaire said there really ought to have been an option to extend the use of force in this case.

The development of second-generation peacekeeping operations after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 also raised new moral dilemmas. The repertoire of military tasks and roles was substantially expanded with diplomatic and negotiation skills. In addition, there were development policy tasks such as the 3D process (defense, diplomacy, development), which is closely linked to the problem of prioritization, role conflicts and moral dilemmas.

Both phenomenological limitations and a perceived incommensurability are evident in military action.14 The former arise as a result of imponderables in the use of military power and the associated unruliness of military practice. Other actors – one’s own political authorities, the United Nations, the enemy, irregularly operating non-state combatant groups – create additional uncertainties through their power. The perceived incommensurability stems from the contrast between the description of the mandate by the employer and the analyses of the military situation on the one hand, and one’s own perception and actual experience in this context on the other.

It is precisely these phenomenological limitations and the perceived incommensurability that influence how moral dilemmas are experienced by military personnel. They lead to a feeling of powerlessness, for example when armed forces are not allowed to use their military power, even though this is a core area of the military job description and forms part of the professional self-image.15 As members of a community that shares a common fate, military personnel depend on each other for survival. Yet they find little guidance in the image conveyed to them in military briefings on the one hand, or in programs for coping with the consequences of deployments on the other. Here too, they experience this incommensurability. Since good and evil are distributed differently in a conflict area between the fighting parties and population groups than had been expected, based on training and the mission, such an experience has a moral dimension, too. Witnessing violence shakes the basic trust in the good in human beings in general – in so far as this trust existed before.

Military action as practice

If we consider at least military actions as practice in the tradition of Aristotle, then the focus on the moral dimension in the experiences of the armed forces, which can be traced back to Snow et al., is not at all so surprising.16 Aristotle made a useful distinction between epistème (theoretical science), technè (technical knowledge) and praxis (action based on phronèsis or prudence).17 Prudent action requires vision and anticipation, as in the case of strategic foresight, for example.18 As a moral virtue, it is based on wisdom and the ability to choose appropriate goals and means based on (critical) considerations and an assessment of the situational reality. The forms of morality and ethics derived from this do not regard ethical casuistry primarily as a form of legal application of laws and principles in the context of an action. Rather, they are based on a vision that regards social reality as dynamic, and action in this situation as expedient, but sees both power and insight into social realities and possibilities for action as being tied to imponderables. According to the philosopher C. Verhoeven, violence is always “anti-technical” because it gets out of control and as it goes on, it is no longer self-determined behavior.19

To regard the action of the armed forces in this sense as practice means – to put it in negative terms – that military action is seen not only as a question of technical and technological professionalism (or, if you prefer, of skilled and instrumental professionalism). But military action cannot be understood by being interpreted as a derived application of theory (epistème) to reality, either. On top of that, the question of the military ethics perspective does not arise only at the end of the deployment or with the judgment concerning the lawful application of laws, rules and principles. Formulated in positive terms, the key to understanding the moral experience of military personnel lies in prudence. A prudent soldier does not primarily apply theory to reality; instead he or she shows prudence in reality. Soldiers have to take their own observations and assessments as a starting point, in order to make a decision in light of the uncertainty of possible courses of action.

Accordingly, in the Aristotelian understanding of military practice, moral dilemmas are neither primarily due to a lack of epistème (theoretical knowledge about the military reality) nor to a lack of compliance with laws, regulations and policies, nor again to a lack of professional skills in the sense of technè in the field of technology or management. These dilemmas, however, are related to awareness: this denotes the ability to assess the moral significance of an existing situation during action, and, as a result of prudent assessment, to make an expedient decision to use appropriate means. This professional skill is present whenever military personnel are able to recognize the moral dimension of the social reality in which they are operating, as well as the moral significance of their own actions, and act accordingly with foresight – here the virtue of prudence is evident again. And it also follows from this that no soldier can escape the importance of dilemma ethics: moral dilemmas do not appear in isolated cases. Rather, they form the core of a professionalism based on prudence.

The recognition of prudence – not only as a cognitive but also as a moral virtue – was mainly developed by Thomas Aquinas in his reception of Aristotle. He subsequently succeeded in overcoming the excessive emphasis on confessor morality, which focused on repentance, dealing with guilt, and reconciliation. One of the ways in which he did this was by shifting the emphasis onto prudence, and hence onto anticipation. Moreover, an Aristotelian perspective locates moral dilemmas not only at the individual cognitive level, but also at the level of relationships and feelings and at the collective community level. Moral dilemmas are often shaped by relationships on the interpersonal level, and particularly in a polis they are up for discussion.

Dilemma ethics as a specialist field

Ethics teaching remains important as an academic discipline also in treating military action as practice and in emphasizing the virtue of prudence. Ethics, together with its philosophical and theological branches, should continue to be regarded as an independent epistème. Education in peace ethics is important for strengthening the normative reasoning abilities of soldiers as part of their training. These abilities are relevant to any military intervention based on international law, and also reduce the risk of avoidable incidents among the troops, such as sexual abuse or extremist tendencies. In this context, applied military ethics and dilemma ethics casuistry have the character of a mixed-method approach. They are developed both inductively (as case descriptions based on the moral experience and practices of the armed forces) and deductively, derived from ethical theories of justice, security, reconciliation and compassion.20 The inductive element is essential because of the descriptive elements of casuistry. The deductive element is essential because of the link with the objectives of military action, but above all because of the need for a hermeneutic interpretation of experience – ultimately, this as a whole is a task for the humanities.21

Training sessions on how to handle dilemmas based on applied military ethics deal with hierarchies of values and the principle of the indirect effect. It is also important to practice dealing with the existence of different types of moral dilemmas.

With regard to the handling of moral dilemmas by the armed forces, Wildering,22 with reference to Aristotle, attaches the greatest significance to character development. It follows that prudence as a virtue cannot be considered in isolation from other virtues fundamental to character development, such as justice, courage and frugality. The moral-ethical education of (young) adult soldiers should therefore take the form of self-training. The idea that a state – however democratic it may be – in its function as an employer should impose character development on its employees in its armed forces and shape the content of their characters, is already indicative of totalitarian tendencies. Self-training is practiced as dilemma sharing, as happens on interdisciplinary ethical committees that take the form of a moral advisory body with equal representation.

In the character development that is carried out as part of the training process, the conception or image of the soldier also plays a central role. This image is anchored in beliefs and convictions, and therefore has a philosophical nature. For this reason, it can only really be taught by spiritual communities such as the churches. Since moral dilemmas in the armed forces are always played out on the borderline between ethics and tragedy, collaboration with spiritual advisors in this role is essential. For tragedy, too, is a very philosophical subject. With their activities in the educational system (in schools, in vocational training and in training courses) on the one hand, and in pastoral care on the other, spiritual advisors play a dual role here.

Religion and moral dilemmas

Religion fulfills an indispensable task in the field of morality and ethics, also in the armed forces. Here we will take Christianity as an example. The relationship between Christian faith and moral dilemmas is much more complex than it first appears. It is by no means the case that the moral dilemma simply contains only the question, and the Christian faith, passed on through gospel and tradition, deductively provides guidance for action – as in an oversimplified “divine command” ethics. If a moral dilemma exists, we cannot too readily assume the existence of a fundamentally right or wrong option for action. On the contrary, Christian faith takes the armed forces members’ search for moral truth seriously, and at the same time, it does not proceed from an assumption of ethical relativism. Moral dilemmas can sometimes be aporetic in nature, but in many cases the hierarchy of rights and duties, values and virtues is sufficient to deal with them. In the armed forces, this means a hierarchy based on justice, international and humanitarian security, and compassion.

Morally and ethically, Christian faith stands for moral perfectionism: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)23 This ideal continues in the pursuit of that which is morally good and right. It does not contradict this pursuit, but in return lends it strength. For it is essential to internalize morality, to bring values and behavior into harmony, not to limit the universal validity of morality to one’s own value systems, to include also the enemy and people outside the mainstream of society, and to withstand external pressure to abandon values. Such an approach can help to counteract moral disengagement.24 This is fundamental, since soldiers are and remain responsible actors, even under extreme circumstances. It is therefore important to prevent them from seeing themselves as tragic victims of geopolitics. Precisely through its moral perfectionism, Christian faith can stimulate character development.

At first glance, moral perfectionism seems to produce an opposite effect, namely to constitute moral failure. High demands ultimately confront those on whom they are imposed with their own lack of ability, and entail an intrinsic risk of disloyalty toward and betrayal of the idealistic self-image – in a way that recalls Jesus’s disciples when confronted with his suffering and death. Yet it is precisely this experience of moral inadequacy that can raise actors’ moral sensitivity and make them aware of the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. The latter – in the light of Christian faith – is not only essential, but also possible, and actually given (John 20). And precisely this prospect of forgiveness has an enlivening, stimulating effect, as it shows the path of acceptance of guilt and shame. Thus the path to moral development and self-training is reopened in the form of character development.25 

The paradox of Christian faith in confrontation with moral dilemmas – precisely because and not despite its ability to demonstrate moral failure – thus enables faith to stimulate character development at the highest level. As a result, moral dilemmas become both subjectively acceptable and communicatively manageable. This point represents an essential contribution to the humanization of warfare, which in itself remains morally ambivalent.26 And it is precisely here that substantive justification can be found for the necessity for Christian and spiritual pastoral care in the armed forces, to train soldiers to deal with moral dilemmas. This applies in knowledge-oriented training courses, in relation to social and emotional skills, and – last but not least – in character development.

1 Weber, Max (1968): Methodologische Schriften. Frankfurt am Main, p. 357.

2 (Translated from Dutch). Braam, A. van (1986): Inleiding bestuurskunde. Muiderberg, p. 14.

3 Iersel, A. H. M. van/Baarda, Th. A. van (eds.) (2002): Militaire ethiek. Morele dilemma’s van militairen in theorie en praktijk. Budel.

4 The term ultima ratio is meant qualitatively, not consecutively. This means that smart assessments can be used even if not all other means have actually been tried, for example because they are considered ineffective.

5 If armed forces are not used as ultima ratio, legitimacy issues are provoked.

6 Tragedy means a relationship between goal and intention on the one hand and the effect of action on the other, which is characterized by counterproductivity. A classic model is described by the author Sophocles in his tragedy Antigone, in which the King Kreon acts completely counterproductive and thus forfeits his moral identity and future. In the field of biblical wisdom literature, this theme is found as a contrapassum. In the field of military practice, tragedy is similar to the dilemmas with disproportional negative indirect effects, over which the soldier is constantly in danger of losing control.

7 Geyer, Anne L., und Baumeister, R. F. (2005): “Religion, Morality and Self-Control: Values, Virtues and Vices.” In: Paloutzian, Raymond F./Park, Crystal L.  (eds.): Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. New York/London, pp. 412–435.

8 Huntington, Samuel P. (1957): The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Harvard.

9 Schumm, George F.: “Dilemma.” In: Audi, Robert (ed.), (1995): The Cambridge Dictionary for Philosophy. Cambridge, p. 203.

10 So dilemmas exist not only in the sense of negative indirect effects of various options but also, for example, in the case of conflicting realizations of human rights.

11 Stone, Deborah (2012): Policy Paradox. The Art of Political Decision Making. New York, pp. 264–268.

12 In the post-war period, radical execution of punitive justice counteracts the process of reconstruction and reconciliation, because otherwise politics, culture and society may lack the motivation to rebuild.

13 In the sense of Max Weber, legitimacy is understood as a formal concept, namely as a social acceptance of authority.

14 Snow, David A. et al. (1986): “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation.” In: American Sociological Review 51, p. 473.

15 Rietveld, Natasja (2009): De gewetensvolle veteraan. Budel.

16 Byrne, David (2011): Applying Social Science. The Role of Social Research in Politics, Policy and Practice. Bristol.

17 Flyvbjerg, Bent (2001): Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge, p. 2.

18 Korsgaard, C. M. (2009): Agency, Identity and Integrity. Oxford, p. 52.

19 Verhoeven, C. (1967): Tegen het geweld. Utrecht, p. 15.

20 Baarda, Th. A. van/Iersel, A. H. M. van/Verweij, D. E. M. (eds.) (2004): Praktijkboek Militaire e Ethiek. Ethische vraagstukken, morele vorming, dilemmatraining. Budel.

21 Cf. Elßner, Thomas R. (2016): “Didactics of Military Ethics: From Theory to Practice.” In: Elßner, Thomas R./Janke, Reinhold (eds.): Didactics of Military Ethics: From Theory to Practice. Leiden, p. 9.

22 Wildering, Ger (2014): Morele vorming in de krijgsmacht. Een katholiek perspectief. Budel, pp. 239–341.

23 According to Timmons, Mark (2013): Moral Theory. Lamham etc., pp. 73–77, perfectionism – the orientation towards perfect life – is found in the natural law approach of the Catholic morality of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, all virtue ethics is basically about excellence. In the Catholic context, this orientation is not only moral and ethical in the field of character formation, but also linked to a spirituality of sanctification. Examples include the saintly soldiers and veterans, such as St. Martin of Tours and Ignatius Loyola.

24 Bandura, Albert (1999): “Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities.” In: Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 3. 

25 McCulough,. M. E./Bono, G./Root, L. M. (2003): “Religion and Forgiveness.” In: Paloutzian, Raymond F./Park, Crystal L. (eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. New York, p. 407.

26 Filibeck, G. (2003): “The Church and Humanitarian Law.” In: Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Congregation for Bishops: Humanitarian Law and Military Chaplains. Vatican City, p. 45.


Fred van Iersel

Prof. Dr. Fred van Iersel studied theology at Nijmegen (Netherlands) and graduated with a master thesis on the virtue of prudence in the context of the ethics of responsibility. He wrote his Ph. D. thesis on peace education in Catholic ­parishes. He has taught Catholic social teaching and peace ethics since 1982. In 1994, he was appointed to the chair of ­religion and ethics for the armed forces at Tilburg (Nether­lands). He is the founder of the office for military ethics in the  Dutch armed forces and a co-founder of the “Journal for Military Ethics” and the e-journal “Ethics and Armed Forces”.

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All articles in this issue

The Relationship between Peace Ethics, Military Ethics and Security Policy
Bernhard Koch
Values and Norms: Don’t "Teach", Encourage Independent Acquisition!
Gerhard Kruip
Ethical Education – A Central Component of Training and ­Development in the ­German Armed Forces
Friedrich Lohmann
Ethical Education in the German Armed Forces: Embraced Values and Moral Judgement
Matthias Gillner
Military Practice Between Ethics and Tragedy: Moral Dilemmas in the Context of Peace Education for Armed Forces
Fred van Iersel
Innere Führung – Normative Basis of Personality Development in the German Armed Forces
Angelika Dörfler-Dierken, Markus Thurau
Medical Ethics in the Military Context – a Challenge for Research and Teaching
Rupert Dirk Fischer
The Military Chaplaincy as a Discussion and Cooperation Partner in Personality Development Training for Military Personnel
Dirck Ackermann


Martin Jürgens Bernward Mezger Jens Pröve