Ethics & Military Strategy

Clausewitz’s original analysis of war relegated ethics to the side-lines in favor of political realism, interpreting the proper use of military power solely to further the political goals of the state, whatever those may be. This book demonstrates how such single-minded focus no longer suffices to secure the interest of states, for whom the nature of warfare has evolved to favor strategies that hold combatants themselves to the highest moral and professional standards in their conduct of hostilities. Waging war has thus been transformed in a manner that moves beyond Clausewitz’s original conception, rendering political success wholly dependent upon the cultivation and exercise of discerning moral judgment by strategists and combatants in the field. This book utilizes a number of perspectives and case studies to demonstrate how ethics now plays a central role in strategy in modern armed conflict.


Tell me a little about your book 

The book traces the gradual but steady transformation of military strategy and the political uses of warfare, particularly since Korea and Vietnam.  The analogy I draw heavily upon is the transformation of classical Newtonian physics in the wake of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Those later developments did not dispense with Newtonian physics, but completely transformed the perspectives with which we view the physical world.  Clausewitz himself was heavily influenced by Newtonian physics, and uses the metaphors of classical mechanics, in particular (force center of gravity, etc) to describe the physical and political impact of warfare.  Likewise, Clausewitz continues to be a powerful symbol of warfighting, especially for Army personnel, even though the classical Clausewitzian ground has shifted under us in the wake of everything from humanitarian military interventions to terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare.  In such a transformation, essential laws and principles remain, but their meanings and relationships change.  My book is devoted to examining these “post-Clausewitzian” perspectives and practices that have quietly replaced classical notions of warfare.

What experience caused you to see a need for “Ethics and Military Strategy in the 21st Century”

As my title suggests, the single largest transformation in warfare is the movement of ethics from the periphery of warfare (where Clausewitz located it) to the center of military strategy.  Ethical principles and humanitarian concerns for peace, justice, the protection of vulnerable victims, and re-establishing the rule of law in rogue states and failed states have emerged as the central goals of military strategy.  Failure to grasp this feature endangers the fundamental purposes for which wars are fought.  Marine General Chuck Krulak’s famous “strategic corporal” in a “three-block war” offers a well-known illustration that is fundamentally distinct from classical Clausewitzian principles.  A single individual, enlisted or officer, making a critical or tragic mistake concerning his/her moral and legal responsibilities can undermine the entire military strategy and threaten to bring the entire war effort to ruin (as we witnessed on many occasions in Afghanistan and Iraq).  I believed it vitally important to explain and illustrate how these new, post-Clausewitzian principles must now inform our strategic planning, preparation and training, and finally, execution of military strategy in the pursuit of the political policies of our nation and its allies.

What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from “Ethics and Military Strategy in the 21st Century”

Many have tried and failed before to write the “obituary” for Clausewitz.  I am not attempting to do that.  Instead, I am seeking to show how his core principles and teachings regarding the political purposes of military strategy remain largely valid but are taken up and transformed within a wider contemporary context that emphasizes both the central role of the ethical and legal conduct of combatants and the moral principles which lie at the heart of our nation’s political policies.  I would hope that readers would see that such core values are no longer peripheral, but central to our nation’s military planning, preparation, and execution of war itself.

What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?

I believe President Donald Trump mis-spoke seriously, even though he reflected the mistaken beliefs of many Americans, when pardoning SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher of war crimes, that “we train these people to be killers and then punish them when they do.”  That is not correct.  My many uniformed and civilian colleagues who have spent our careers in the education and training of Junior Officers and enlisted recruits do not do any such thing.  Chief Gallagher’s own fellow SEALs provided eloquent testimony to this fact when they condemned him and repudiated his actions.  We must remain crystal clear on the professional role of our nation’s combatants in upholding human rights and humanitarian laws in the face of adversaries who ARE, in fact, killers and murderers.  Our junior officers, in particular, need to avoid being taken in by such reckless rhetoric from those who have not served regarding the fundamental nature of the profession of arms.  They must seek instead to embody in themselves, and imbue in their fellow officers and enlisted personnel, the core values of this nation and its allies, whom they seek to serve and protect.

What are you reading now?

Current books include a history of Dutch colonial New York by Russell Shorto (“Island in the Center of the World”), which provides a whole new perspective on the evolution of our nation’s founding heritage and commitment to democracy, diversity, and tolerance; and a book grounded in dramatic leadership lessons drawn from the Gettysburg battlefield (“Battle Tested,” just published by Col. Jeff McCausland, former Dean of the Army War College and military historian, Col. Tom Vossler [Post Hill Press, 2020]).  Finally, I have been deeply impressed by a new book by Valerie Morkevicius, “Realist Ethics: Just War Traditions and Power Politics” (Cambridge 2018), which provides a unique and profound analysis of many of the developments I also discuss in my work.

What books do you recommend and which influenced your thinking about leadership?

Rather than the usual leadership literature, I find I get much more out of histories and case studies, and the personal memoirs of great leaders.  So historical studies of Churchill always intrigue me (Richard Toye, “Churchill: a Life in the News”; Andrew Roberts, “Churchill: Walking with Destiny”), as well as recent books by Robert Gates and Gen. James Mattis (“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War”; “Call Sign ‘Chaos’: Learning to Lead).

What books had the most impact on you and your development?

Over the course of my life, I would single out three authors.  The mathematical physicist and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, particularly for his elegant portray of the transformation of Newtonian physics in the wake of Einstein and quantum mechanics.  And the historical novelist’s Gore Vidal and James Michener, for their numerous works of illuminating fiction concerning the political and cultural evolution of America and (in Michener’s case) other key regions and cultures with whom we interact today.

Why is reading important for our Military and/or the Nation?

Reading provides insights into our nation’s heroes, history, and values – those things that military personnel ought to revere and respect, and for which we ask them to sacrifice.  Reading provides windows onto other cultures, people, beliefs, and practices that help us understand and sympathize with their unique challenges as we frequently interact and engage with them.  All of these, in turn, help to foster wisdom, compassion, and maturity of judgment which effectively guide our actions and temper our own beliefs and conduct.

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Professor Lucas is “Distinguished Chair in Ethics” Emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Public Policy at the Graduate School of Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.  He has taught at Georgetown University, Notre Dame University, Emory University, Case-Western Reserve University, the French Military Academy (Saint-Cyr), and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and most recently served as the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Professor of Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College (Newport RI).  His main areas of interest are applied moral philosophy and military ethics, and he has written on such topics as irregular and hybrid warfare, cyber conflict, military and professional ethics, and ethical challenges of emerging military technologies. Publications include Ethics and Military Strategy:  Moving Beyond Clausewitz (London: Routledge, 2019), Ethics and Cyber Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2017), Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016), The Routledge Handbook of Military Ethics (Routledge, 2015), and Anthropologists in Arms: the Ethics of Military Anthropology (AltaMira Press, 2009). His most recent book is The Ordering of Time: Meditations on the History of Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

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