Shielding Humanity: a New Approach to Military Honour


In recent years there has been a growing interest in approaches to military ethics that focus on guarding the moral character of soldiers against the horrors they may be required to commit in war. This approach, which Christopher Toner calls the “shield approach”, offers a variety of mechanisms by which soldiers might shape their characters (or have their characters shaped) in ways that reduce their vulnerability to moral corruption; specifically, the likelihood of their committing moral atrocities. Two prominent examples of the shield approach are those of Nancy Sherman and Shannon French. Sherman argues that the inculcation of empathy within soldiers; empathy for the plight and humanity of noncombatants, enemy soldiers, and colleagues, is the best way for soldiers to guard themselves against committing atrocities. French, on the other hand, argues that appealing to a warrior code of honour provides soldiers with an internalised set of beliefs about the type of things that soldiers should and should not do. In this paper I will argue that Sherman’s approach, whilst effective in preventing the killing of noncombatants, will do little to restrain soldier’s passions when the target of those passions is culpable for some wrongdoing (i.e. killing a member of the troop). French’s approach, on the other hand, relies on a soldier seeing himself primarily as a warrior (and thus being governed by the warrior code). The difficulty here is that the soldier’s conduct is governed by what the rest of his peers (fellow warriors) see as laudable or blameworthy.

A better approach, I believe, is revealed to us by Shakespeare in Coriolanus when the protagonist, Caius Marcius, is persuaded against destroying Rome by the exhortations of his mother, who reminds him of the shame he will bring on himself as a son, a husband, a father, and as a Roman. Coriolanus is swayed by the prospect of shame not by fellow soldiers, but by society generally. In a similar vein, this paper will argue for a variant on the shield approach which appeals to the soldiers’ self-identity outside of the military, as well as his role as a warrior. Coriolanus’ eyes are brought to “sweat compassion” out of love for his mother, and his memories of home. This approach is also appealing in that it can be applied more easily to the growing number of military operators who do not fit the warrior archetype, such as drone operators. Thus, soldiers will do well to remember their moral commitments on the “home front”, as well as the expectations of fellow soldiers.


just war theory, military ethics, moral injury, human rights, soldiers, fragmentation, ptsd, empathy, honour, the Iliad, Coriolanus, Shakespeare, Homer


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