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

By Fred van Iersel

In a democratic constitutional state, the ultima ratio is the starting point for military action. Armed forces are only deployed in the most extreme cases, when all other peaceful means of conflict resolution inherent in a democracy have been exhausted. So it is simply in the nature of things for democratic armed forces to perform a delicate balancing act between ethics and tragedy. Moral dilemmas are an intrinsic aspect of deployments. Soldiers as individuals face the enormous danger of morally damaging their own identity – besmirching it – through their actions in dilemma situations. This explains the desire for recognition that soldiers often express after a deployment. Civil society, which gave soldiers the mandate for military action, is no less affected by dilemmas of this kind. Fred van Iersel begins by outlining this very fundamental framework under which military deployments take place, before addressing the question of how to deal with the dilemmas that inevitably arise. He suggests a recourse to the Aristotelian ethics of virtue. Military action should be understood as practice, as action based on prudence (phronèsis), in which the choice of one’s own goals and means has to be harmonized with the situational reality as it appears in one’s own sharpened perception.

Using Christianity as an example, the author finally turns to religion and explains how a religious moral perfectionism can help to deal with moral dilemmas. Christian ethics takes the search for moral truth seriously that soldiers give expression to in their desire for recognition. This search can shape their role as moral actors. Their religious self-image offers military personnel a way to see themselves as more than just variables in a geopolitical equation. To the extent that faith promotes an intellectual confrontation with dilemmas, Christian spiritual and pastoral care can stimulate and encourage character development in the armed forces, and so make an essential contribution to the humanization of warfare.

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