#Reviewing: Military Virtues

Military Virtues. Michael Skerker, David Whetham, and Don Carrick (eds). Hampshire, UK: Howgate Publishing, 2019.


In 2015, a U.S. Air Force crew flew an MQ-9 Reaper—a remotely piloted aircraft—somewhere in the Middle East.[1] The crew was supporting a friendly ground force involved in a village clearing operation. As the situation on the ground developed, a battle broke out and friendly forces formed two elements to converge on the enemy fighters in between. The Reaper crew maintained contact with a joint terminal attack controller who watched the Reaper’s video feed in real time from his position on the ground. The controller passed an attack briefing and asked the Reaper crew to engage enemy forces at a specific coordinate location. After looking at the fighters on the screen, however, the Reaper pilot and sensor operator disagreed with the controller’s assessment. “These guys’ tactics, the way they’re dressed, the weapons they’re carrying; they seem way too organized for the type of enemies we’re [used to] seeing in these villages and I don’t think these are the bad guys,” the sensor operator told me after the fact. After confirming “two or three times” with the controller on the ground, the controller insisted—even after reviewing the video feed—that the fighters under the crosshairs were “not his guys.” After another discussion among the crew, the Reaper’s pilot in command refused to take the shot, confident in his assessment that the fighters under the crosshairs were friendlies. “It was probably another eight to ten minutes,” Lt Clifton explained, “once the firefighting on the ground had stopped that the [controller] had realized, ‘oh, yeah. Those are our guys.’”

Though professional military organizations rely upon strict chains of command and cultures of rule following, the justified application of violence in war consists of art as well as science. There are many times subordinates ought simply to obey the orders they have received, and aircrew ought simply to put the weapon where the controller asks. There are other times, however, that it is not so simple. There are many circumstances in which combatants must use their best judgment to apply standing guidance to the individual case presented to them, and this is no easy task. The Reaper crew above acted well, all things considered, even though acting well in this particular case meant refusing a fellow combatant’s request for support. Any mere system of rules will fail to capture this sense in which refusing to deliver on a teammate’s request can be a moral good—and yet virtue ethics can capture it quite well.

Why Virtue?

Though virtue ethics has waxed and waned as a theory of morality over two millennia, in recent decades, it has become central to many military’s conceptions of military ethics.[2] We might explain this primacy in two ways. The first is that because justified killing in war is at the very fringes of morally permissible behavior, and because justified killing is the domain of just warriors, we should expect just warriors to encounter life-and-death moral dilemmas more frequently than most non-military people. In difficult cases, virtue can prove a more apt moral guide than the two other common moral theories, one of which focuses on maximizing outcomes for as many people as possible and the other on submitting to a strict set of moral rules sometimes in spite of the consequences.[3]

A second explanation is that while the other two competing systems are primarily concerned with actions, virtue ethics is primarily focused on character development.[4] This, too, is relevant to military operations. Clausewitz suggests war will destroy us if we do not possess a “strength of body and soul.”[5] In his analysis of Clausewitz’s aphorism, Christopher Coker suggests that of strength of body and of soul, strength of soul is more important.[6] If this is correct,  virtue ethics is salient for the warfighter because, for example, she must not only know when advancing against the enemy’s position is the morally right or best thing to do, but she must also have the strength of character to do it despite the risks. Virtue ethics has a decided advantage over its two modern counterparts because its contribution to “strength of soul”—character virtue—is central to the theory in a way that it is not in deontology and utilitarianism.

The Martial Virtues Today

Even as virtue ethics has become well established in military ethical thought, it has also faced some recent scrutiny. One contemporary challenge is that some warfighters in the 21st century seem to be in no need of the traditional martial virtues, chief among which has always been courage. Though the locus for this critique has been remotely piloted aircraft (sometimes called “drone”) crews, it seems equally applicable to cyber operators, space operators, and perhaps even more traditional warfighters who employ standoff weapons, for example, naval and bomber crews who employ cruise missiles. If physical courage has no place among many contemporary warfighters, is it still the paradigmatic martial virtue?[7] And if not, can the martial virtues remain central to military ethics?

The recent skepticism of military virtue is complicated. It does seem, after all, as though moral virtue is utterly relevant to the Reaper crew in the story above, even though they face no discernible physical risk to themselves in the moment. They are faced with a moral dilemma that demands a decision. According to Aristotle’s system of ethics, the virtues are those states of character that enable a person to act “to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, for the right end, and in the right way.”[8] What is the right amount, the right way, and the right time to use force in, for example, the Reaper case above? If the crew is to answer these questions well, whether or not they will need physical courage, surely they will have to rely on other Aristotelian virtues such as justice, mildness, and practical wisdom.[9] This is the crux of the contemporary critique of martial virtue and the erstwhile lacuna in the literature: If the old sets of martial virtues are insufficient for the modern warfighter, what should a revised set look like? Military Virtues offers one answer to that question.[10]

Military Virtues

Given the changing character of war—and unchanging human nature—one viable proposal might be to accept the system of virtue ethics, but to admit a new list of military virtues for a new era of warfare. This is what Michael Skerker, David Whetham, and Don Carrick have attempted in their recent edited volume, Military Virtues.

The book is laudable for a number of reasons. First, the editors and contributors have set for themselves the task of leveraging the resources of academic scholarship for a non-academic audience, specifically, for the military practitioner.[11] Such a task is not easy, as academics can quickly slide into the native dialects of their narrow disciplines. Though this temptation seems to have arisen at a few places, on the whole, the authors have made good on their commitment.

The second benefit the book offers its readers is its structure. Each of the fourteen virtues under consideration is introduced with a general overview, followed in all but one instance by two case studies. The twenty-seven collected cases, when taken together, represent the book’s singular achievement and serve as a valuable resource. Though the book’s contributors intended the book primarily for practitioners, I suspect it will also be of great value to educators. From unlikely coalition-building in Sierra Leone to dangerous working conditions for Australian aircraft maintainers; and from Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea to corruption across the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet; Military Virtues is a treasure trove of real-world, international cases of military moral dilemmas—and at times, outright moral failures—of enviable breadth and depth.[12]

A third factor worth mentioning is that at 372 pages and with 38 contributors, Military Virtues is no insignificant achievement. Surely Howgate Publishing, too, deserves some credit for offering this paperback tome for an affordable price.

Readers might prefer to drop in on the various virtues or cases as interest arises. Reading the book cover to cover can be slow-going. Though ostensibly, each of the 14 chapters consists of a single theoretical overview and two real-world cases—with the exception of the final chapter on professionalism, which has only one case—many overview sections provide their own mini cases and many of the cases open with another overview. The end result in a number of chapters is some unintended redundancy.

These minor quibbles notwithstanding, to the contributors’ great credit, Military Virtues tackles the problem raised in the opening story. The list of 14 virtues the book offers its practitioner-readers is intended for 21st century warfighters across international boundaries.

One potential downside, however, is that by pursuing an ecumenical list of militarily advantageous character traits, the individual virtues (so-called) may have become unmoored from the broader system of virtue ethics.

Virtues and Values

In its prolific effort to develop a list of virtues, relevant not just to 21st century warfighters, but also to military organizations the world over, Military Virtues’ editors have perhaps wittingly allowed for some tension between the proposed military virtues and the system of virtue ethics.

What Aristotle—the father of virtue ethics—offered was a systematic account, not just of human virtue, but also of human flourishing.[13] Virtues, for Aristotle, are those states of character and of intellect by which we flourish as humans. The long history of particularly military virtues has most often suggested the military virtues are a subset of the moral virtues. Thus, when the soldier cultivates courage, or honor, or loyalty, she flourishes, not just as a soldier, but also as a human.

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great (Charles Laplante/Wikimedia)

The list offered in Military Virtues can be read as a departure from this trend in that it includes such traits as obedience, discipline, and professionalism.[14] While these might certainly be traits contributing to military effectiveness, it is not at all clear each is a necessary condition for human flourishing on Aristotle’s account. A thorough discussion falls outside the scope here, but briefly, under a tyrannical regime, morality might demand disobedience, rather than obedience.[15] Likewise, while discipline of a sort might be a necessary condition for human flourishing, this does not seem to be what the contributors to Military Virtues have in mind.[16] Finally, one can imagine humans flourished long before they invented professions and, therefore, professionalism. And if professionalism is not a necessary condition for human flourishing, then it is not a moral virtue in the Aristotelian sense.

Military Virtues’ editors are well aware of the concern. In the book’s introduction, Philip McCormack recognizes the role values—as distinct from virtues—might play in military organizations, but offers a word of caution. Overreliance on values, McCormack goes on to say, can make an organization vulnerable to “ethical drift.”[17] In the Aristotelian sense, virtues are intrinsically valuable—they are valuable for their own sake. Some entries in the Military Virtues list are not. McCormack’s claim is these traits that enable the organization to function well are moral traits only if the organization exists for, or works toward, moral ends. One thinks of obedient members of the SS in the 1930s or disciplined ISIS fighters in Raqqa. In these cases, the values are not good because they are being used toward evil ends.

Perhaps if we were to accept a list that includes both virtues and values, we should insist upon a hierarchy between them. The natural temptation in the crucible of war might be to prioritize compartmentalization over compassion and proficiency over prudence. If overreliance on values, as McCormack suggests, can lead the organization into ethical drift, this is all the more reason to cultivate human character virtues—some of which have been and remain also military virtues. So many of the cases offered in Military Virtues depict a military machine ethically drifting toward moral catastrophe until one or more virtuous members are willing to throw the wrench. Perhaps it is those who have cultivated genuine virtue—rather than merely those who have lived up to values—who will be able to recognize and prevent the ethical drift against which McCormack warns. This might be the paradigmatic role of military virtue.

“The Battle of Trafalgar” painted by Clarkson Stanfield (Wikimedia)

Admiral Lord Nelson instructed his subordinate captains to direct the movements of each line and to submit to Nelson’s signals. But if the signals either could not be seen or could not be understood, Nelson famously said, “No Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy.”[18] Operating within a sea of laws, rules, standing orders, commanders’ guidance, operations orders, individual conscience, and even institutional values, conflicts will undoubtedly arise. In such cases, perhaps no combatant can do very wrong if he or she has cultivated the military virtues—but notice the past tense. If military members wait until they are faced with the moral dilemma to begin cultivating virtue, they will have waited too long.

Joseph O. Chapa is an officer  in the U.S. Air Force and a doctoral student in philosophy at Oxford University, where he focuses on just war theory. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: M81 U.S. Woodland Camouflage Pattern (U.S. Army/Wikimedia)


[1]I spoke with both the pilot and the sensor operator about this event. Neither of them wished to confirm the theater of operations in which the story took place. Both interviewees preferred to be cited only by rank and first name. Capt Andy, interview by Joseph O. Chapa, 14 March, 2019, Audio, Shaw Air Force Base South Carolina; Lt Clifton, interview by Joseph O. Chapa, 14 March, 2019, Audio, Shaw AFB South Carolina,

[2] A systematic approach to ethics began in the West with Aristotelian virtue ethics, but during the modern period, virtue ethics was largely overshadowed by utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. A resurgence in virtue ethics began in the late 1950s and was reflected in military organizations. Thus, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, virtue ethics has been central to many military organizations’ approaches to military ethics. For Aristotle as the father of systematic ethics, see Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 1. For Aristotle’s primary ethical text, see Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000), xiv-xv. For the resurgence of virtue ethics, see Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1; and for the seminal text that sparked the resurgence in virtue ethics, see G. E. M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958).  Finally, for the claim that virtue ethics is central to many military organizations’ conceptions of military ethics, see Peter Olsthoorn, Military Ethics and Virtues : An Interdisciplinary Approach for the 21st Century (London; New York: Routledge, 2011), 4; Michael Skerker, "Preface," in Military Virtues, ed. Michael Skerker, David Whetham, and Don Carrick (Havant: Howgate Publishing Limited, 2019), xxv.

[3] In Michael Skerker’s words, “virtue always had a place in just war thinking, … [as] a purposive inquiry led by thinkers recognizing the moral hazards presented by war.” "Preface," in Military Virtues, xxv.

[4] Michael D. Good puts it this way: “We ought to be concerned with how we can become the kind of people who cannot fail to see the wrongness of their actions and the kind of people who have the will power and inner goodness to turn from wrongdoing.” Michael D. Good, "Case Study 1: Temperance in Practice," in Military Virtues., 225.  See also Peter Olsthoorn, "Military Virtues and Moral Relativism," ibid., 2. ; Benoit Royal, "Case Study 1: The Necessity of Self Control and the Perils of Anger," in ibid., 321.

[5] Pauline Shanks Kaurin points to this passage explicitly. See "Courage Overview," in Military Virtues, 104. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 101.

[6] Christopher Coker, The Warrior Ethos : Military Culture and the War on Terror, LSE International Studies (New York; London: Routledge, 2007), 4.

[7] This point about the changing character of war and its relationship to the traditional martial virtues is made in various ways throughout Military Virtues. See Olsthoorn, "Military Virtues and Moral Relativism," 8, 12; Don Carrick, "Integrity Overview," 171; Michael Skerker, "Humility Overview," 263; Edward T. Barrett, "Justice Overview," 36-38; Pauline Shanks Kaurin, "Courage Overview," 109; Peter Lee, "Case Study 1: Courage in an Age of Technology," 111-117; John Thomas, "Case Study: Professionalism,"  349; J. J. Stringer, "Conclusion," 365.

[8] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 23, 29. See also Skerker, "Preface," in Military Virtues, xxv. Wolfendale also cites Hursthouse’s summary that the virtues are felt “on the right occasions, towards the right people or objects, for the right reasons.” Jessica Wolfendale, "Obedience Overview," ibid., 63 (emphasis in original) ; See also Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 108.

[9] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 26.

[10] Michael Skerker, David Whetham, and Don Carrick, eds., Military Virtues, Issues in Military Ethics (Havant: Howgate Publishing Limited, 2019). ISBN 978-1-912440-99-9. Paperback. £29.99 (GBP).

[11] Skerker, "Preface," in Military Virtues, xxvi.

[12] See Thomas McDermott, "Case Study 1: Doing a Deal with the Devil? Just Cause, David Richards, and the Case of Op Palliser," 41-50; Stephen Coleman, "Case Study 2: Good Loyalty and Bad Loyalty," 94-101; Rick Rubel, "Case Study 1: Wisdom and Judgment," 133-40; Michael D. Good, "Case Study 1: Temperance in Practice," 224-30.

[13] For the distinction between “happiness” and “flourishing” as translations of Aristotle’s “eudaimonia,” see Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 9.

[14] See, respectively, Reuben E. Brigety and Shannon E. French, "Case Study 1: Strategic Dissent in the Military," in Military Virtues, ed. Michael Skerker, David Whetham, and Don Carrick (Havant: Howgate Publishing Limited, 2019), 72. ; Paul Robinson, "Discipline Overview," ibid., 311-18.

[15] In their contribution, Brigety and French even mention the value of dissent and advocate for a balance between obedience and dissent.

[16] Robinson calls discipline a “moral force,” but explains only by saying that without discipline one does not have an army. Later, he argues that discipline is instrumentally valuable for military organizations. “Historical experience,” he writes, “has shown that it is essential to victory.” This might be true, but it does not tell us whether discipline is essential to human flourishing. Paul Robinson, "Discipline Overview," in Military Virtues, 312-13.

[17] Philip McCormack, "Virtues or Values?," in Military Virtues, 25, 27.

[18] The capitalized “Captain,” “Ship,” and “Enemy” appear as in the original memorandum. Horatio Nelson, "Nelson’s Trafalgar Memorandum," in Learning English Timeline, ed. British Library (London: British Library, 1805), https://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item106127.html.