Military Book Reviews

Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know

Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know by George Lucas (Oxford University Press, 2016, 280 pages)


Military Ethics focuses on the ordinary men and women around the world who wear a military uniform and are committed to the defense of their countries and their fellow citizens. It is about what they do, how they do it, what they think about it, how they behave when carrying out their activities, and how they are expected to behave, both on and off the battlefield (whether in, or out of, uniform) – and what everyone (and not just military personnel themselves) needs to know about this.

The book also examines how military personnel are treated and regarded by those whom they have sworn to defend and protect, as well as how they treat and regard one another within their respective services and organizational settings. Finally, the book discusses the transformations in military professionalism occasioned by new developments in armed conflict, ranging from counterinsurgency warfare and humanitarian military intervention, to cyber conflict, military robotics, and private military contracting. From China to Russia, author George Lucas effectively sheds light on today’s military ethics in existence throughout the world.

Ethics and the Military and the Author

The author provides an engaging exploration of how ethics and ethical considerations factor in defining the profession of arms. It is an interrogative framing of both the timeless and modern challenges confronted by soldiers, statesmen, and citizens when a nation wages war. The book approaches the philosophical quandaries of warfare in a question-and-answer style that makes the esoteric information accessible to all. It also provides sufficient background and context to equip any reader for a serious discussion of the role ethics must play in the personal and institutional decisions common in today’s militaries.

The book is only one of many works on military ethics written by Dr. George Lucas. He also wrote The Routledge Handbook of Military Ethics. He is, the Distinguished Chair in Ethics Emeritus at the US Naval Academy and Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and has an extensive career in instructing ethics to the military including at Saint-Cyr, France’s military academy. Interestingly, he came to hold his Ph.D. in Philosophy following undergraduate work as a physicist. During this time, he was awarded the Sigma Xi research award for his work in intermediate energy particle physics. A rational scientist’s approach to inquiry can be detected in his approach in this book.

Lucas’ broad discussion of the history of military ethics includes the philosophies that dominate the subject in the American context. Also discussed is the specific dilemma of application for current and future defense leadership. These make it an excellent starting point for any student new to the topic. Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know is aptly named. It provides a wide gateway into a subject that is crucial for military members to understand both for their own application and exposure to topics for further study.

The Discipline of Ethics and Contemporary Challenges

The first part of the book covers the discipline of military ethics and the second explores contemporary ethical challenges for those in service. The question-and-answer approach used through both portions is a well-chosen device. It not only makes what some consider dry material uniformly engaging, it also whets the reader’s intellectual appetite by inviting thoughts on the matter. This is a critical component in the broader philosophical study at hand. Salient topics include whether any means should win a war, what is the authority of international law, and how does military ethics relate to security contractors. It also includes how does all of this apply to drones or cyberspace. Throughout the text, Lucas provides a wide ranging, intellectually challenging, and critical treatment of the core issues of ethics in warfare, whether transcendent or emergent.     

The chief benefits to the uninitiated reader are the sweeping and uncomplicated treatment of a truly vital topic. These features make it a valuable read for cadets, midshipmen, and importantly for young non-commissioned officers just beginning their study of ethics in the profession of arms. For more seasoned leaders, this book is an easily read refresher. Consider teaching it as a book club read for your professional military education group. It comes with the added benefit of examining the dilemmas of 21st century warfare using familiar ethical frameworks.

If there is a flaw, like many books that explore philosophical topics, it struggles to provide sufficient justification for any underlying moral framework. I say, “if there is a flaw”, because readers identify that foundation for themselves. That fundamental human challenge of ethics was present at creation and remains still for us all. Reading this book is part of that essential work. At the very least, having asked and answered Dr. Lucas’ questions, in confronting the ethical dilemmas of service in the military, leaders are well served to have read Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know.  

Book review contributed by Lt. Col. Matthew R. Crouch, USMC.

Matthew R. Crouch is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he holds master’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration and is an Olmsted Scholar. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Additional information about Matthew Crouch can be found at:

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.

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