This review was originally published in the Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (2021), 115-117.

Militaries across the globe are rethinking the demands of military ethics in the face of technological advancements and changing dynamics of warfare. They are also rethinking how to instruct military members of all ranks in understanding the importance and application of military ethics, not least because of the costs when ethics are breached.

Making the Military Moral offers ten chapters on military ethics education from thirteen contributors – a mixture of military ethicists and educators with a psychologist, public servant, and chaplain. Seven contributors including the editors are from UK, four from Canada, one from Finland, and one from the USA.

James Connelly’s introductory chapter “On making the military moral” raises the importance of ethics education for all ranks, given recent ethical scandals and the pace of military change. Connelly suggests military virtues are developed in practice rather than the classroom, but the classroom can be used to reflect on moral reasoning. Soldiers need to “do the right thing because it is the right thing to do” but they first need to learn how to know what the right thing is; that is, they need a clear moral compass. They also need practice in navigating morally problematic situations, whether ethical dilemmas or tests of integrity (to use Stephen Coleman’s terms). This is where case studies or scenarios are helpful which can teach and test features of a moral concept or theory. For example, whether to use torture in exceptional cases such as to avoid the ticking time bomb and what different theories say that can inform that decision.

David Fisher argues “Why morality matters to the military”. Scandals of Abu Ghraib prison and Baha Mousa’s unlawful killing remind us of the importance of moral principles. Sometimes morality may be ignored because it is considered mere personal preference, but Fisher says it is essential both because it is right and because ethical practice will better help win the hearts and minds of locals. Fisher narrates an inspiring story of a soldier teetering on the edge of unethical violence until a colleague reminds him “Marines don’t do that” (p. 16). To foster such attitudes, Fisher urges training in moral principles but also habits, skills and virtues – especially practical wisdom, moral courage, self-control, and justice. This is the kind of training that can automatically take over when faced with challenges of unacceptable behaviour, illegal orders, or misplaced loyalty and a “wall of silence”.

George R Lucas Jr, from the US Naval Academy, discusses “Military ethics and the importance of cultural competency”. Responding to cultural insensitivities epitomised by soldiers burning prisoners’ copies of the Qur’an in Afghanistan in 2012, he appeals for cultural sensitivity training as part of a moral military. Human Terrain Teams are one capability that can enhance this with their understanding of regional knowledge, anthropology, and cultural awareness; but cultural competency is needed for all ranks and roles.

Peter Bradley and Allister MacIntyre draw on their Canadian experience in “Solving the military moral bystander problem with ethics instruction”. This is an excellent background chapter on severe unacceptable behaviour (UB) including war crimes of rape, murder of a wounded enemy, and brutality and cruelty – but especially the related issue of the 'moral bystander' and lack of whistleblowing. The chapter explains bystander dynamics and overviews relevant whistleblowing research. A military overlay means that bystander behaviour can be exacerbated by obedience and deference to authority, peer loyalty and self-justification. Training implications include that we need more than a few hours; that response needs to include individual training but also collective cultural change; that all soldiers need a moral awareness of UB, tools for ethical analysis, processes for how to intervene and report, and a solid sense of professional identity; and that training needs evaluation and research on the extent it leads to ethical action. Bystander behaviour at Abu Ghraib and when Canadian soldiers murdered a Somali teenager underlines, “There should be little doubt in any soldier’s mind that there are no circumstances that can possibly justify torture, physical abuse, rape and murder” (p.37).

Stéphanie A H Bélanger and Michelle Moore explore ambiguities of tasking, language around war and enemies, and difficulties of identifying targets and clarifying objectives in Afghanistan in their chapter “Ethics at and after war: challenging battlefields”.

Sally Rohan explores “An organic professional military ethic and the educational challenge”. She articulates why the nature of Armed Forces is a profession and argues soldiers need education for this Professional Military Ethic, including:

  • Moral authority which derives from service and moral principles.
  • Moral purpose to answer why and to what end soldiers are fighting.
  • Moral expertise as an ethical shield against immortal acts.
  • Moral community, where a corporate culture cultivates a 'learning organisation' of reflective practice.

Conceptualising self as a professional may serve a military’s moral aspirations well when decision-making in moral ambiguity or appeal to character is not enough. It leads to asking not so much 'what should I do' as 'what should a soldier in my army do?'

John Thomas offers historical perspectives in “Ethical challenges for the modern military”. Nuremberg underlined that all soldiers have individual responsibility. But since Vietnam and through to ISIS, war has been changing with combat happening anywhere, with simultaneous engagements, and it being often where it is impossible to distinguish combatants from civilians. There is this increased complexity, but also longer interventions and increased scrutiny, at a time when our society’s culture makes moral relativism more common and popular. Thomas bemoans how the French lost their moral authority in Algeria when their use of torture became known and General Royal tragically concluded “The French no longer recognised themselves in their army”. Ethics that embrace a respect for life and elevation of human dignity are essential for winning hearts and minds. Armies need to win the kinetic phase but establish and maintain the peace as well.

Janne Aalto, as Senior Chaplain at the Defence Command, Finland, discusses “Challenges in combining ethical education for conscripts and professional military”. Finnish conscripts are trained by chaplains in ethical education and an introduction to regulations and boundaries of Laws of Armed Conflict. Aalto discusses 'action competence' pedagogy where ethics is ideally never just taught, but must be practised. Training must aim for action for soldiers to do the right thing - not just know theoretically 'the right thing to do'. This drives to the core of how military professionals do not just do a job, but work according to a professional ethics code which Aalto and his team seek to inculcate.

George R Wilkes offers what I considered the most valuable chapter in “Evaluating military ethics education: common values, specific contexts”. It is one thing to underline the importance and content of military ethics training – many militaries have been giving extra effort to this area. A few are also carefully evaluating their training and the resultant ethics of their soldiers. There is only a certain amount of time for ethics education, so it is worth evaluating and adjusting its delivery. Internal feedback mechanisms are important for practitioner-teachers. External evaluation is also worthwhile when an academic or outside perspective can pick up on things internal reporting does not and can offer comparisons with other militaries. Wilkes discusses cases of Canada and Singapore which have annual ethical preparedness reporting to assess absorption of training. He also commends the most formative ethical preparedness training he has witnessed: immersion tours, taking recruits to institutions of past genocides, cultural awareness training, and value or identity-based approaches. Foundationally, what makes for effective ethical training – Wilkes suggests – is teaching ethical principles, exploring them with case studies, and having an educator who soldiers see as credible.

David Whetham concludes with “Challenges to the professional military ethics education landscape”, arguing for both education in just war principles and practical ethics training. Education for just war as applied to contemporary warfare is needed in the context of huge changes in the nature of conflict including 'discretionary conflict' when national survival is not at stake. Whetham asks penetrating questions of the application of traditional just war principles. Is pre-empting a threat of weapons of mass destruction a just cause? Does legitimate authority necessarily involve UN approval? How does proportionality apply to cyberattack response? What does a reasonable prospect of success look like today? How do soldiers apply discrimination when an enemy feigns surrender or uses children as shields? What can we learn from the war in Afghanistan about failing to establish an aim; or Somalia about how decisions of small unit leaders have global implications? Soldiers need this deeper level intellectual stretching, but also practical training in how to fight ethically. Whetham suggests staging a progression of training from non-stressful classrooms and then onto stressful scenarios.


My take-aways from the volume are that our character training needs our best efforts in rigorous ethical education and carefully crafted training. It also needs the follow up of a group culture and mentoring that fosters ongoing growth in ethical leadership. Ethical training cannot just be left to a few periods of Laws of Armed Conflict, but needs to exploit opportunities for integrating ethics in other lessons and across the spectrum of Army’s leadership development. Finally, research on decision-making processes and evaluating whether and how military ethics education leads to ethical action is crucial. Making the Military Moral is a valuable resource for those responsible for such military ethics education initiatives.