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Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality: A Christian Military Ethic
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Article Index
Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality: A Christian Military Ethic
Self-formation and the Ethical Military Professional
Moving Beyond the Limits of Codified Morality
The Soul as Ethical Substance
A Christian Military Ethic
The Cost of Serving
Conclusion: Honoring God by Living Up to His Standards
All Pages

"The Christian combatant, like those of any other faith and none, is required to conform to the various written and unwritten codes that shape the common life, purpose and actions of the armed forces in which they serve. However, the Christian is called to more than obedience to rules, laws and injunctions: he or she is called to a life in the Spirit wherever they find themselves, whether in peacetime or wartime." — an excerpt from this paper

by Peter Lee, Ph.D., King’s College London, Senior Air Power Lecturer (Academic) at Royal Air Force College Cranwell in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom

This article will explore the question: What are the means by which the ethical Christian military professional is formed?1 The parameters of this exploration will be set out in the first section, using a conception of ethical subjectivity as being simultaneously constituted through conformity to codes as well as through creative ethical self-formation that goes beyond the limits of those codes.2 This study assumes a minimum ‘thin’ conception of identity whereby the self-reflective individual is capable of constituting herself or himself in relation to both social situations and religious and ethical discourses as a work of self upon self.

The first section of the paper will highlight how the development and enforcement of a professional military ethic prioritises codes, both written and unwritten, through conformity to military law, law of armed conflict, Geneva Conventions, Just War, honor codes, regimental traditions, and so on. These codes, both written and unwritten, are enforced by proscriptions, interdictions and punishments, and examples will be used to demonstrate that the mere existence of such codes is insufficient to ensure conformity to them. Consequently, the focus of the second section will shift to what will be called creative, ethical self-formation: an ever-present yet frequently overlooked dimension of the military professional. Aspects of ethical self-formation will be explored in response to the following questions:3 1) What is the ethical substance of the military professional? That is, the essence upon which beliefs, qualities and characteristics of ethical behaviour is constructed. 2) How are individuals incited or encouraged to recognise their moral obligations?  3) What are the ways in which individuals change themselves in order to become ethical military professionals? 4) What is the type of being or existence to which an individual aspires when behaving in a moral way?

The final section of the paper will frame a specifically Christian military ethic in response to the four aspects of ethical self formation set out above. Given the importance of his place in the pantheon of Christian just war proponents, as well as his wrestling with issues of faith and morality in the domains of war and power politics, this paper will draw upon the writings of Augustine in addressing some of the challenges facing the Christian military professional in forming himself, or herself, as ethical today. The paper will conclude that as well as conforming to ever more detailed military codes of behaviour, for the Christian military professional creative ethical self-formation should not only be acknowledged but encouraged and nurtured.

The military professional and moral codes

In a study of the formation of the subject in the classical Greek and early Christian periods, Michel Foucault identified systems of morality based on rules and prohibitions, which he named the ‘moral code’.4 This moral code comprised laws and customary practices: both written and unwritten. These were, in turn, juxtaposed with ‘ethical problematizations based on practices of the self’5: different aspects of creative self-forming that operated, at least to some extent, independently of the wider moral codes. This section will consider the place of moral codes in shaping the ethical military professional, focusing

…on the instances of authority that enforce the code, that require it to be learned and observed, that penalise infractions ... where the ethical subject refers his conduct to a law, or set of laws to which he must submit at the risk of committing offences that may make him liable to punishment.6

The codes to which the modern military professional must conform are many and varied. For example, some of the codes that guide the lives and conduct of Royal Air Force (RAF)7 personnel are the set out in Queen’s Regulations for the RAF, which state:

Every officer is to make himself acquainted with, obey, and, so far as he is able, enforce, the Air Force Act, the Queen’s Regulations for the RAF, and all other regulations, instructions and orders that may from time to time be issued. He is also to conform to the established customs and practices of the Service.8

This list of codes to which military personnel are expected to conform is extensive and contains both written and unwritten elements. In both peace and war the written elements, such as Military Law, are enforced by judicial process either at Orderly Room hearings or full Courts Martial, with punishments for infractions ranging from administrative action to detention in a military prison. Transgression of unwritten customs and practices can be punished by administrative action or the reproach of both peers and superior ranks. In addition, all personnel deployed to operational theatres are subject to the Law of Armed Conflict and related rules of engagement: ‘All personnel must be aware of the basic rules of the law of armed conflict, including the practical application of the principles of military necessity, proportionality, distinction and humanity’.9 Furthermore, as well as obligations under domestic civil and military law, every combatant of a signatory state is obliged to conform to the constraints set out in the Geneva Conventions. According to the Geneva Conventions, all combatants should be made aware of their responsibilities under international law, with compliance achieved through regular instruction. Instructional methods are even suggested: ‘lectures, films, slides, audio-visual methods, war games including questions and answers etc’.10 The British armed forces – like American and many other armed forces around the world – use such techniques to ensure that their combatants are familiar with the law and know how to act in conformity to it. The combatant consequently forms himself, or herself, as ethical by conforming to the multiple and various aspects of codified morality set out above: with conformity enforced through the threat and exercise of sanction and punishment.

In recent years ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided numerous examples of valor and selfless commitment above and beyond the call of duty, but they have also provided instances of dereliction of duty where the codes that govern military conduct have been transgressed. Amongst the most notorious, and politically damaging, of those failures to conform to military codes was the abuse of prisoners by both US and UK military personnel in Iraq. In those instances, and others, the military judicial systems of both allies provided appropriate investigations, trials and, in turn, punishments for the perpetrators. As a result, Standard Operating Procedures were reviewed and applied with greater diligence, with changes made where necessary in order to prevent any subsequent reoccurrence. To be clear, however, these incidents did not occur because of a lack of codes that proscribed such abuses; these incidents occurred despite the presence of the codes: the codes were simply ignored.

At a less dramatic level, the events described below as Incident 1 took place during the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom and capture a different, though still negative, attitude to military codes:

Incident 1

The author – white, British and at that time a Royal Air Force chaplain – was lifting weights in the gym with two US Air Force NCOs: both African-American Firefighters. British Forces’ radio was playing quietly in the background and a relaxed training atmosphere pervaded the gym. A new group arrived and one of their number – early 20s, white, American, tattooed and wearing a Confederate bandana on his shaven head – replaced the radio music, without consulting anyone, with a Death Metal CD and cranked up the volume to maximum. The atmosphere changed instantly when the ‘music’ mentioned killing Jews, n****rs and wh***s. The author immediately switched off the music and a tense stand-off ensued. Following the customary exchange of pleasantries (“Who the **** switched off my music!!”  “Me – the chaplain!  Who’s asking?”) the first line of defence adopted by the protagonist concerned was, “I don’t see any sign that says I can’t [play this music]!”

This single individual, with the encouragement and tacit support of three colleagues, set out to make – at the very least – some kind of warped personal statement; probably intended to cause offence; and possibly sought to provoke some kind of reaction from the other gym users: specifically, the African-American personnel. When challenged about the offensive and inappropriate nature of the music that had been played at maximum volume the individual concerned avoided the language of right and wrong and sought to justify his actions on the basis that there was no specific, publicised prohibition written on the wall of the gym. In other words, if it was not specifically banned by a publicised rule then it must be allowed. The lack of a specific prohibition was taken as a licence to denigrate and disrespect fellow Americans and allied partners in a time of war, as well as contravening equal opportunities legislation. (Note: following the initial confrontation the ranking non-commissioned officer present intervened to pursue follow-up disciplinary action.) Emboldened by a combination of anger that my training partners would rather accept the offence and ignore the hate lyrics than challenge the perpetrator -- and a quick mental calculation that if events spiralled towards violence there would be enough numbers supporting me to ensure I did not take too much of a beating, --I produced the best challenge I could think of in the circumstances: “Does your mother know what kind of music you listen to?”  His response took me by surprise: “Yeah, she bought it for me.”

Taking the two previously mentioned examples together – the prisoner abuse and the racial incitement – it can be seen that the presence of military codes, written and unwritten, does not in itself ensure that conformity will follow. Not even the risk of judicial intervention or administrative punishment managed to deter inappropriate or illegal conduct in these situations. The establishing of codes to which individuals are expected to conform is only one aspect of the formation of the ethical military professional. Furthermore, regardless of the care with which codes are defined, enacted and enforced, they are limited in their efficacy because they remain externalised, limited in the extent to which they explore the internalised, creative, self-forming aspects of military conduct. These include the ethical substance which enables an individual to make ethical choices; the means by which the individual is made to recognise his, or her, moral responsibilities; the changes in behaviour that are required in order for the individual to form himself, or herself, as ethical; or the goal to which the ethical military professional aspires.

Looking again at the gym confrontation, there was no opportunity to explore in depth with the offending individual the reasons why he acted in a manner that would cause offence to most people, in a military environment where discipline is strict and equalities laws enforced. It would appear from our brief conversation that his racial attitudes were brought to the armed forces rather than learned in the armed forces. More importantly, deeply entrenched racial views had clearly survived throughout the military training process and his introduction to all the laws, rules and other written and unwritten codes that regulate behaviour in the armed forces.

In contrast, consider the events that took place only a few days later, described here as Incident 2:

Incident 2

A US Air Force chaplain colleague suggested that we use the Chaplaincy Centre facilities (a former Mess Hall with kitchen and large dining area) to lay on pancake breakfasts over two consecutive days. Breakfast was timed to catch the shift changeover so that personnel could eat either before or after their 12-hour shift. When the breakfasts were first advertised, several days in advance, volunteers of different ranks came forward and offered to flip pancakes, serve coffee, wash dishes and clean up afterwards. For some, this entailed an 0400 start and two hours less sleep before going to work; for others it meant two further hours of work following a 12-hour night shift. After the success of the first breakfast even more volunteers came forward to help the following day. More than 1000 pancake breakfasts were served over the two days.

Over the course of the two days I was interested to find out what motivated tired, hard-working and homesick individuals to give up their time (and especially their sleep time) to do something altruistic for their colleagues, most of whom would be unknown to them. Responses to my enquiries included: a religiously inspired desire to do something for others; “I miss making pancakes for my kids”; “to remind me of home”; “because I’m bored”; “to remind me how much I hated my first job flipping pancakes”; and, “to do something I choose to do”. Everyone involved gave up their time to help out, but the reasons for doing so were many and varied. For some it was about being a particular kind of person – neighbourly, religious, caring or dutiful – while for others it was an external expression of values and attitudes: in all cases there was a sense of contributing to the common good. However, no orders were given or inducements made to motivate the volunteers to make and serve pancakes. Furthermore, while written and unwritten codes may encourage individuals to place a concern for others above a concern for self, this particular action was not enforced in any way. The decision to give up time and make a positive contribution to community life during deployed operations illustrates a positive, creative, aspect of what it is to be an ethical military professional.

The notion of ethical self-creativity will be examined further in the next section by exploring both the strengths and limitations of the use of codes, drawing upon the author’s experience of teaching moral education within the RAF.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 April 2012 13:17