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An Introduction to Military Ethics: A Reference Handbook

An Introduction to Military Ethics: A Reference Handbook by Bill Rhodes. Praeger Security International, 2009, 165 pp.

In the last decade, military ethics has inspired a number of opinions and has come under much debate during the global war on terrorism. The subject raises the question of what constitutes a just war and how a state might rightly conduct such a thing. According to Miguel Alzola, "Since the late eighteen century, just war theory has been separated into two parts, jus ad bellum--which concerns the justice of resorting to war in the first place-and jus in bello-which concerns the justice of conduct within war after it has begun" ("The Ethics of Business in Wartime," Journal of Business Ethics 99, no. 2 [2011]: 62).

Author Bill Rhodes confronts adversaries as well as the 2,500-year legacy of just war theory by demonstrating how acts of terrorism by nonstate participants require a new theory and a fresh way of thinking about the justifiable use of armed force. Furthermore, he analyzes how new and emerging theories may alter the fundamental identity of traditional military forces. A scholar and lecturer, Rhodes conducts research and observes developments in professional ethics for the company Aerworthy Consulting. He also serves as director of the International Society of Military Ethics, a nonprofit organization. Rhodes holds several important positions in both the private sector and nonprofit organizations, providing consulting services in the field of military ethics.

The author notes that "military ethics works in a specialized problem space tied tightly to political philosophy, history, and psychology. Influences from all of these characterize the field, helping to define its limits and contributing depth. Its jurisdiction is further characterized and enriched by the nature of military service itself and the functional requirements that nature imposes on military members" (p. 49).

The book "provides an overview of the moral challenges faced by military members. In a practical world of military life, there is no adequate substitute for honest assessments, wise judgments and committed, competent, action" (p. 1). It includes eight well-organized, well-written, enriching, and engaging chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the fundamental concepts of applied ethics, which enhance the philosophical groundwork for framing the practical issues; chapter 2 examines the literature on the Western just war tradition from its inception to the present; chapter 3 explores the importance of military life, military members, and the "use of military force in the name of a political community" (p. vii); chapter 4 addresses ethical aspects of the resort to armed forces in the contemporary arena; chapter 5 conveys the conduct of armed hostilities and the ethical structures of the rules of warfare; chapter 6 notes emerging controversies as well as challenges confronted by modern militaries, setting the stage for humanitarian intervention and dealing with terrorism; chapter 7 addresses cultural issues in the modern military as well as the integration of women and religion into the military; the final chapter evaluates the necessity of addressing professional identity for the modern military. Clearly, chapters 3-6 are the most powerful ones in the book.

The author conveys the concerns and innovative thought required to advance the comprehension and appreciation of military ethics among the populace and the armed forces as well as the business community. He makes excellent use of realistic, applicable examples derived from his research and recognizes the contributions of previous research on virtue theory, consequentialism (utilitarian theory), deontological theory (rights theory), and military training communities. Rhodes clearly communicates the paramount concerns of military ethics within military leadership along with the influence of the global community.

The author highlights the responsibility and obligations of military members and the problems they encounter during both war and peace. Although he does not offer a specific list, the core element of responsibilities and obligations rests on the premise that "an obligation to help cannot justify overriding the rights of others" (p. 17). Moreover, these responsibilities and obligations may be altered by agreements "as some members of a community freely take on obligations that they otherwise would not have"(p. 17). No one has to become a service member; however if someone does indeed assume the responsibility to perform a certain duty, it becomes an obligation to serve and protect. Rhodes observes that "military people occupy a special place in society. . . . They enjoy privileges and bear burdens that, taken together, form a unique sociological landscape accompanied by equally unique ethical issues" (p. 50). Today, military ethicists are challenged--not with making the right decisions but with doing the right thing at the right time. These issues are associated with concerns of "anticipatory strikes, aid to third parties including political communities that do not enjoy status as full-blown states, and terrorism" (p. 84). The nobility of military service is the moral act of giving oneself to protect and serve for those less able.

A pillar of the commitment of ethics, Rhodes's work reinforces the merits of value for both the armed forces and external communities. In the final chapter, he brings to the reader's attention that military training environments emphasize professionalism and "typically convey the message that 'being professional' is an ethical obligation" (p. 148). He further ascertains that "the question is not whether a military member ought to 'be professional,' but rather just what professionalism means" (p. 148). The caveat of this activity in which obligation is developed and deployed is neither separate from nor ancillary to commitment and responsibility. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is actually practiced in wartime as well as peacetime.

An Introduction to Military Ethics is enriching and informative. This reviewer highly recommends it to individuals working in the discipline of ethics, specifically military ethics. Advocates of military policy and compliance, along with lecturers on military leadership and academic researchers, are likely to benefit from Rhodes's exemplary contributions, as are those who embrace the opportunity to enhance the dynamics and practice of global ethical behavior.

Albert Chavez, PhD
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide Online Campus


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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