A book on the scope and limits of moral military activity

A Moral Military

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Sidney Axinn

"Sidney Axinn addresses the hardest questions raised by the experience of war and argues his way to clear and forthright answers. His book is a virtuoso display of intellectual energy and moral courage."
Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study

Should a good soldier ever disobey a direct military order? Are there restrictions on how we fight a war? What is meant by "military honor," and does it really affect the contemporary soldier? Is human dignity possible under battlefield conditions? Sidney Axinn considers these basic ethical questions within the context of the laws of warfare and answers "yes" to each of these questions. In this study of the conduct of war, he examines actions that are honorable or dishonorable and provides the first full-length treatment of the military conventions from a philosophical point of view.

Axinn gives a philosophical analysis of the "Laws of Warfare" as found in the Hague and Geneva Conventions, which have been agreed to by almost every nation in the world. The aims of his study are to establish a basic twentieth-century framework for moral military action and to assist military personnel in analyzing their won professional ethic. Stating that moral reasoning is required by people in military uniform in a wide variety of situations, the author examines the question of the limits of military obedience.

Axinn argues for the seriousness of the concept of military honor but limits honorable military activity by a strict interpretation of the notion of war crime. Major chapters deal with military honor, prisoners of war, spying, war crimes, the dirty-hands theory of command, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and covert operations.

This philosophical study of the line between honorable and dishonorable military action cautions that in compliance with the war conventions professional military personnel and knowledgeable civilians must not lose their moral nerve nor abandon honor to satisfy immoral political requests.



"This is an excellent and long-overdue text on the ethics of the profession of arms. It will be welcomed by both students and instructors due to its straightforward yet entertaining approach to this complex subject. I recommend it highly for both the professional soldier and the citizen concerned with the way his or her country conducts its defense."
LTC John Nugent, USA

"In order to make warfare more humane, the [Geneva and the Hague] Conventions require nations to teach their provisions to their entire military and civilian populations. This book is written to promote and achieve that end, to defend the rules of war and to explain the reasons for them. …it goes a long way toward teaching the basic Conventions of war and showing strong reasons for following them."

"An interesting read. If war is immoral, can a war be fought morally? According to Axinn, yes."
Reference and Research Book News




1. Introduction
The kind of question involved in moral military action • Must every order be obeyed? • Forbidden weapons? Nuclear weapons? Terrorism? • The good soldier • Relations between officers and enlisted personnel • The moral foundations of soldiering • The order of topics • The scope and limits of this study

2. Morality: Why Sacrifice Myself?
What are moral questions? What is the meaning of duty? • The four different theories of morality • Universal fairness • Social utility • Individualism • Religious foundations • The range and limits of the different moral styles • The professional army ethic • Choosing among the four moral styles

3. Military Honor and the Laws of Warfare: When Can I Lie to the Enemy?
Military education • Honor: dual duties • Honor and personal risk: hero or coward? • Conclusions

4. Hostilities: All Is Not Fair
Protecting powers • The Hague Rules and some history • A declaration of war • The nature of law • Status of civilians • The principle of double effect • Hostilities: the general principle • The Hague Rules, Article 23 • Protected buildings • Legitimate and illegitimate strategy

5. Prisoners of War
A history of the POW • Defining the POW • Treatment of POWs • Humane treatment • Fact vs. fiction

6. Spies
Defining a spy • Treason • Punishment for spying • The morality of spying • Morality out of uniform • Conclusions

7. Non-Hostile Relations with the Enemy
Parlementaires • Armistices • Surrenders • Safeguards • Military passports, safe-conduct passes, and cartels

8. War Crimes, Remedies, and Retaliation (Dirty Warfare)
Defining a war crime • Biological experiments • Taking hostages: "Surrender, or I'll kill this child!" • Remedies and reprisals • Punishment for war crimes • Terrorism and the concept of war crimes • A moral defense for terrorism?

9. The Dirty-Hands Theory of Command
Dirty Harry • Four styles • The so-called moral value of guilt • Collective morality • A Kantian solution to the problem of dirty hands • The principles of publicity • The fallacy of many questions

10. Nuclear Devices and Low-Intensity Conflicts
Nuclear weapons • Low-intensity conflicts, covert actions, and psychological warfare

11. Conclusions
The war conventions as a moral code • The war conventions as international law • Education: military and civilian • Military honor: a romantic myth or a serious matter? • The need for publicity • Enemy morality • Summary of themes

Appendix A: Are the Hague and Geneva Conventions Obsolete?
Appendix B: Topics Not Considered in the Text
Appendix C: Text on the Laws of Land Warfare
Brief Bibliography


About the Author(s)

Sidney Axinn is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University.

Subject Categories

Philosophy and Ethics



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