News | Feb. 3, 2020

A Persistent Fire: The Strategic Ethical Impact of World War I on the Global Profession of Arms

By Timothy S. Mallard and Nathan H. White NDU Press

A Persistent Fire: The Strategic Ethical Impact of World War I on the Global Profession of Arms
A Persistent Fire
A Persistent Fire: The Strategic Ethical Impact of World War I on the Global Profession of Arms
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 191030-D-BD104-001

The profession of arms in the 21st century is at significant risk of losing its status as a profession due to several salient factors.1 Because of the rapid development of technology in relation to warfare, for instance, there are growing questions as to how much control human beings will retain of future combat, particularly given the speed of decisionmaking required for victory on the modern battlefield. As well, with the rise of new geopolitical and military coalitions, many are concerned as to how much war will remain an act of and in accordance with the political interests, values, and histories of individual nation-states, especially considering the thornier problem of developing the same for coalitions or allied forces. Furthermore, amid an increase in value-neutral societies (and the concomitant lack of personal moral formation of individual citizens), it may rightly be asked whether values-based institutions such as professional militaries can be adequately shaped to reflect any coherent national ethical consensus.

As a derivative of this problem, the increasing issue of strategic leader moral failure among professional military forces raises significant questions regarding the efficacy of standing programs for the ethical development of military leaders, not to mention the corrosion of trust in the institution by both their external clients (civic populations) and internal members (military formations) in the wake of such failures. Given the rise of fifth-domain warfare and multidomain battle (simultaneous, integrated combat action in and through land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace), there is basis to question whether traditional nation-state constructs such as land borders, the rule of law, and even regulating theories (for example, jus ad bellum, in bello, and post bellum) will allow militaries to retain control of warfare in concert with their national interests. In the aggregate, then, it may be candidly wondered whether the utility of the profession of arms has passed in its service to the post-Westphalian nation-state.

These are but a few of the major strategic questions facing the profession of arms today. Such questions, however, do not adequately address other challenges in contemporary warfare, such as transnational threats from weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, resource shortages, immigration, climate change, the rise of mega-urban population centers, or even the increasing costs of war—not only monetarily but also in the resulting moral and spiritual injury among combatants and noncombatants alike.2 But exploring such other challenges will not be the purpose of this edited volume. Rather, its purpose is to focus on the dominant strategic ethical challenges to the profession of arms in the first half of this century. In short, as a profession, what strategic questions should be answered for war to remain both under human control and guided by the exercise of the discreet, reflective judgment of morally formed military leaders? Answering that question is the specific purpose of this work.

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1 Don Snider, “Remarks on Acceptance of the Malham M. Wakin Lifetime Achievement Award,” speech before the Annual Meeting of the International Society of Military Ethics, Washington, DC, January 26, 2017. Snider’s concerns center around threats to the two central underpinnings to the maintenance of any profession: the retention of human control and the continuing exercise of human judgment in the discrete application of a profession’s expertise.

2 The words of World War I veteran Rifleman Fred White, 10th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, evoke the continuing societal cost of moral and spiritual injury on warriors, their families, and their communities: “Us fellows, it took us years to get over it. Years! Long after when you were working, married, had kids, you’d be lying in bed with your wife and you’d see it all before you. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t lie still. Many and many’s the time I’ve got up and tramped the streets till it came daylight. Walking, walking—anything to get away from your thoughts. And many’s the time I’ve met other fellows that were out there doing exactly the same thing. That went on for years, that did.” See “Reflections,” in Max Arthur, We Will Remember Them: Voices from the Aftermath of the Great War (London: Orion Books, 2009), 157–158.