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Ethics and Military Operations

IS 'REALISM' THE ONLY WAY?

By James A. Stegenga | May 1988
James A. Stegenga is Professor of International Relations at Purdue University. He is the author of The United Nations Force in Cyprus, The Global Community (with W.A. Axline), and a play, Dunbar's Bremen, which explores the ethi­cal issues associated with the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Does it make sense to include moral questions when considering or conducting or evaluating mili­tary operations? Or is injecting ethics impossible or silly or even dangerous?

Skeptics, cynics, and self-styled “realists” of­fer several reasons for their reluctance to include ethics as a proper part of the study of military af­fairs. Moralists, humanists, some practitioners, and people unafraid of being labeled “idealists,” on the other hand, have developed their rebuttals.

Before examining these arguments, it would be well to recognize a couple of structural or socio­logical reasons why ethical matters are frequently slighted or altogether avoided in the field of mili­tary affairs.

First, ethics is closely connected to religion. The scholars in the secular universities of a prag­matic society with no official state religion and a laudable, ongoing effort to keep church and state separate have been inclined to remove ethics along with the study of the Bible from the curriculum and from the books they write about human af­fairs. The teacher who starts talking about ethics in a public classroom is apt to be regarded as violating understood rules. The military affairs scholar who includes the questions of moral philosophy in his writings is apt to be seen as illicitly practicing the marginalized (if not delegitimized) profession of theology.

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