Military Ethics: Some Lessons Learned from Manuel Davenport

By Ficarrotta, J. Carl | Air & Space Power Journal, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Military Ethics: Some Lessons Learned from Manuel Davenport


Ficarrotta, J. Carl, Air & Space Power Journal


Editorial Abstract: Military leaders at all levels face difficult moral and ethical decisions. Originally presented at a memorial conference for the late Manuel Davenport, this article aims primarily to underscore Professor Davenport's example as an excellent teacher of military ethics, examine several unique themes in his work, and recommend his effective method for approaching problems of military ethics in general.

STARTING AND FIGHTING wars is a morally hazardous business. The philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe describes the peril well: in starting wars, our common foibles have too often led nations to "wrongly think themselves to be in the right."1 The deadly serious work of fighting wars presents to the military professional in combat even more pitfalls: "Human pride, malice and cruelty are so usual that it is true to say that wars have been mostly mere wickedness on both sides. . . . The probability is that warfare is injustice, that a life of military service is a bad life."2 We might disagree with Anscombe's estimations of the probability that we will fail, but certainly no other context presents so many opportunities for the worst kinds of immorality. In the face of this danger, some people have actually embraced war as a moral catastrophe, allowing without condemnation any use or abuse of power in international relations and any method of fighting in the prosecution of war. Fortunately, many more of us rightly set our faces against this kind of moral nihilism with respect to war.

With the opposition to nihilism and its radical permissiveness should come yet another worry: that we will do a poor job of formulating our moral judgments (and the accompanying, well-intentioned attempts to remedy or prevent problems). We must not proceed naively, too quickly, or from the "outside" without an appreciation for the real nature of the moral difficulties found in statecraft and the prosecution of warfare. Numbers of thinkers have avoided these risks, become wise and informed specialists in the morality of war, and made many helpful contributions to coping with the thorny problems posed in military ethics. Manuel Davenport was one of those thinkers. Indeed, we can understand in retrospect that he was part of an elite group of military ethicists who have done this vital work truly well.3 The thoughtfulness, moral conviction, and discipline he brought to the enterprise of doing and teaching military ethics

provide us with a great example. We should reflect on that example and see what lessons it can teach us in the present.

Lessons on How to Teach Military Ethics

The places where Davenport taught military ethics allowed his work as a teacher to have maximal reach and impact. Texas A&M University's Aggie Corps of Cadets normally has as many as 2,000 members, making it one of the largest groups of uniformed students in the country.4 During his long tenure at A&M (starting in 1967), Davenport taught a course in military ethics that touched many of the cadets from this rich source of officers. Moreover, he twice served as a distinguished visiting professor at the Air Force Academy, where he taught military ethics to hundreds more future officers. Here is the first lesson to learn: at the very least, we must place courses in military ethics close to all of our commissioning sources.

On many occasions, I observed Davenport engage these undergraduates, who would soon become our leaders; he was always at their level-engaging, memorable, kind, and funny. Yet at the same time, he remained rigorous and intellectually demanding. In time his teaching provided a widespread, positive influence on how many of us throughout the armed services think about moral problemsinfluence planted one student at a time. So here is another lesson we should learn in reflecting on Davenport's teaching: we cannot teach military ethics properly by using only posters, pamphlets, or short motivational speeches. Reasonable concerns for efficiency and leveraging our resources must not trump what is essential to the educational process. …

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