Why Military Honor?

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When I moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, I discovered a four chapter manuscript that I had at some point written on the topic of military honor. (Old school hard copy and I cannot find the disks or files now…) Reading through it, it was not really that bad! So I started thinking that this might provide the core for a book project that I could use to procrastinate on my Broicism, Stoicism and Emotion book project.

But why? Why would one want to write about or think about military honor in the context of military ethics? This topic was quite a popular way to approach military ethics post Vietnam in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, especially by military authors. In 2004, my colleague and friend Dr. Shannon French published her influential Code of the Warrior https://www.amazon.com/Code-Warrior-Exploring-Values-Present/dp/0847697576 which examined warrior codes across time and cultures and argued that the code was essential to the moral identity and function of the warrior and also could provide protection against moral injury. This is still an excellent book and it was also ahead of its time in focusing on the links between morality, ethics and moral injury in military ethics. So the whole military honor thing seems to have been done and done well in Dr. French’s case!

Since 2004 there has been much more work on military ethics, especially focusing on debates in Just War Thinking and energetic arguments about the moral and ethical concerns with the idea of the warrior, not to mention a large and emerging literature on moral injury. The literature on military ethics, in my reading, falls out along some familiar (at least to ethicists) lines: virtue ethics (within which discussions of the warrior, the Profession and my ‘Guardian’ archetype could fit), universal rule or principle based conceptions and various utilitarian approaches, with treatments of Just War Thinking (including Revisionist critiques of the standard views) often figuring prominently.

But one might wonder if something is missing? In my view, the warrior versus Profession debate and the Revisionist versus Walzerian Just War Thinking discussions are a reflective of a larger issue that ethicists are trying to work out about identity in military ethics and then how those questions might relate (or not) to different accounts of moral agency – individual, collective and/or hybrid. In addition, the terrorism, counter-insurgency, humanitarian intervention and jus ad vim discussions and geopolitical events since 2004 have raised the question about the role of violence in military ethics and whether it ought to be the sole or primary focus of moral and ethical questions. During this time, a focus on civil/military relations, politicization and polarization in political philosophies and orientations as a part of military culture has emerged and is now raising ethical questions about nature of the military, the Profession, and its function and identity.

In my own work, I started more in the warrior discourse camp (following French), shifted to discussions of the Profession, made an argument that a ‘Guardian’ view is a better frame for thinking about military ethics generally and specifically with reference to jus in bello questions in asymmetric conflicts. More recently, I argued that Alasdair MacIntyre’s community of practice notion could be helpful in adding depth to my arguments about the Profession and military ethics if paired with some concepts from Just War Thinking. I also continued to get pulled (more by events than my own will) into discussions of civilian/military relations and events really pushed me to think about the link of ethics to CMR.

All of these scholarly meanderings also intersected with trying to bring Care Ethics into Professional Military Education as a fourth perspective to the standard three in military ethics discussed above. This also got me rethinking my ‘Guardian’ arguments from my first book to make more explicit what I think I had in the back of my mind – that Care Ethics could help us with identity and nature of the military discussions. However, Care Ethics also brings relationality and moral emotion into the discussion (part of the inheritance from the Stoics via David Hume, I have argued.) The move to thinking more seriously about Care Ethics and military ethics oddly enough brought me back to thinking about what the role of military honor might be in military ethics. In particular, I now wonder how military honor fits (or fails to fit) in the military ethics landscape sketched (in a vastly oversimplified way) here.

Is it possible that military honor, or some revised notion of military honor, might help bridge some of the gaps and tensions, or a least provide light to, in the current discussions within military ethics as both an academic discipline and ethical practice? I am tempted to say yes.

What do you think? What is military honor for you? What place does it have in military ethics? I really want to know.


Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

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