Captain Abraham Osborn & Captain Michael Robillard


“The Moral Dilemma of an Unjust War: A Junior Officer Perspective”




At last year’s JSCOPE the main topic revolved around the topic of preemptive war. Many of us here took part in lengthy discussions and presentations analyzing the ethics of preemption.  Coming away from the conference, CPT Osborn and I couldn’t help but feel that although this question of preemption was both important and valid, and did in fact bear addressing, much of what was discussed lacked relevance to our present situation as uniformed military officers; finding ourselves already taking part in a major military conflict.  Since, at the end of the conference, one could safely conclude that the current conflict in Iraq did not meet traditional just war criteria, it compelled us to ask, “if I, as a uniformed member of the armed forces, find myself taking part in a conflict that does not meet traditional just war criteria for preemptive war, then, what do I do?” It is our contention that this moral dilemma has gone relatively under-addressed in the contemporary analysis of military ethics, yet is a significant concern for a large segment of the population comprising today’s armed forces.  This segment of which we speak is that of the junior leader (Lieutenant, Captain, junior Non-Commissioned Officer); those of us directly involved in regulating ethical conduct in war at the tactical level, who still cannot help but look to the strategic and political levels of jus ad bellum; those of us who are simultaneously just as concerned with why we fight as with how we fight. What then is the proper course of action for a morally concerned junior leader who finds himself involved in what he determines to be an unjust war?  Let us clearly define the moral dilemma.  The primary difficulty at hand exists between the leader’s sworn duty to defend the Constitution and his opposing duty not to participate in an unjust war.  In essence, this dilemma forces us to consider and determine which is the higher duty to uphold, and furthermore, under what set of conditions, if any, may the seemingly higher duty be countermanded.  We seek in this paper to investigate the ethical interplay between these potentially conflicting moral duties and to shed light upon the sets of conditions that impact this delicate dilemma, from ethical and legal implications to one’s devotion and duty to the troops entrusted to one’s care.  From this investigation we hope to arrive at a clearer ethical understanding of the issue at hand, to stimulate much needed discussion regarding this issue, and perhaps to set forth several normative guidelines for the consideration of our fellow junior leaders.



From the day soldiers enter the military, they are instructed on the importance of loyalty and duty.  The Army has a dictated hierarchy of loyalty.  First, soldiers must be loyal to the Constitution of the United States, then to the office of the President, followed by loyalty to one’s unit and chain of command, and finally, to one’s self.  Although this provides clear instruction to some, it fails to address an important component of loyalty, namely, the ethical struggles that are bound to arise in a craft that directly concerns infliction of casualties upon a determined enemy.

Along with instruction on loyalty, soldiers are also informed and educated on the importance of ethical conduct in war, or what is more traditionally referred to as jus in bello.  FM 27-10, “The Law of Land Warfare,” explicitly lays out what is considered to be ethical and unethical conduct in war under a traditional just war model.  Furthermore, soldiers going into combat are given an explicit R.O.E. or “rules of engagement” by commanders to guard against the chance of harm to noncombatants.  The general, underlying assumption in both of these cases is that the jus ad bellum aspect of war is already in good order; that the war in which the soldier finds himself is already adequately justified in terms of the just war tradition, leaving his ethical concerns to fall solely on the fight at hand.  What is not often considered is the scenario in which a soldier finds himself in a war that is not justified by traditional just war criteria.  It is at this point that the soldier and leader feel a conflict of loyalty between defending the Constitution and obeying the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, and his personal commitment toward ethical conduct.

This dilemma is even more distressing for the ethically concerned junior leader because he is concerned with more than just himself.  This leader often has a greater concern for the welfare of the few soldiers under his command than for his own.  Let it be understood that, even though a battalion, brigade, or division commander is indeed concerned about the welfare of his troops, and very much so, the junior leader is still the one to whom the senior leader has entrusted this welfare.  Therefore the junior leader is greatly torn between maintaining the good order and discipline of his unit (which contributes to the overall well-being of the troops) and ensuring the ethical welfare of his soldiers. At this point, a junior leader may begin to think, for the first time, that it is permissible to participate in an unjust war in order to safeguard his troops.   The ethically concerned leader may even begin to think that it would be immoral to abandon his soldiers.  The sentiment for many is simply, “My troops need me.”  Although that may sound a bit presumptuous, the commitment to one’s soldiers is evident.



            Speaking at great length with some of our civilian peers on the topic of the war in Iraq and more specifically on this particular dilemma of being uniformed officers taking part in a war initiated on what was at best ethically ambiguous grounds, the question that often has come up is, “why not just get out?” After all, if we do in fact concede that the current military conflict of which we are a part lacks sufficient ethical justification from a traditional just war standpoint, then would it not seem a sensible ethical course of action to resign our commissions or at least assert conscientious objector status and refuse to fight in this particular conflict? Although this option might seem like an adequate solution to our civilian counterparts, we find such recourse to be overly simplistic.

To determine whether or not to remain in the military, several considerations may affect a leader’s decision.  These factors range from personal ability to achieve a local impact in one’s unit, to the evaluation of the greatest net good that can be achieved from either decision, as well as concern for the soldiers entrusted to his care.  Within each of these instances, there is an analytical discourse that must be perpetually considered throughout one’s involvement in the conflict.

            Since war is by no means static, both in a tangible as well as an ethical sense, a leader must continually evaluate his involvement in an unjustly begun conflict.  When faced with such a dilemma, one must consider what factors are at play in balancing these conflicting moral obligations.  The overall analysis of the dilemma for the morally concerned leader, we contend, ought to come down to a gauged spectrum of response to varying degrees of un-justness. That is to say, that all unjust wars are not equal in terms of their ethical status; that some unjust wars are clearly more unjust than others; and that a leader’s actions (to stay in, get out, speak out, etc.) should follow in proportion to the degree by which traditional just war standards have been violated.  For instance, one may ask, “Is this particular conflict a clear, irrefutable violation of Jus ad Bellum or is it ethically ambiguous? Have all Jus ad Bellum criteria been unmet or just one or more?  Is this as gross a display of preemption as Germany’s 1939 Invasion of Poland or is it less severe and to what extent? Although some may think that ‘degrees of unjustness’ is a ridiculous concept, these same people would most likely prefer to be unjustly kicked in the shin than to be unjustly run over by a truck.  When it comes to internal moral dissonance, this may be the best means by which to determine the most acceptable course of action to follow.

When weighing this concept, several elements must be considered.  One must first evaluate the viability of invincible ignorance. A leader must ask himself, “to what degree am I politically informed and knowledgeable about jus ad bellum issues, and to what degree ought I be informed on these issues?  To what extent is my lack of political knowledge and influence on this particular conflict sufficient in justifying my continued involvement in this (unjustly begun) war?”  All of these questions play a role in the leader’s assessment of the interplay between invincible ignorance and personal responsibility.  A moral leader must then continually evaluate the external effect of the war, gauging whether the resulting net good outweighs the original immoral conduct of going to war in the first place.  Having acknowledged that a jus ad bellum standard has already been broken, one’s ethics shift from an objectivist to a more utilitarian mode of ethical judgment.  For instance, if the immorally begun conflict yields such goods as the ousting of a cruel, despotic dictator, the furtherance of democracy, and the propagation of human rights, an adequate consequentialist argument can be made for the junior leader to continue service.  If however, the immorally begun conflict fails to yield such goods, while at the same time resulting in further just war violations, progressively worse ethical conduct from senior/political leaders and adjacent units, and little hope for success, then a strong consequentialist argument can be made for the leader to abandon the war as a lost cause and to work from outside the system instead.  We contend, though, that if a leader concludes that his own military service must be abandoned on ethical grounds, he is morally obligated to aid the plight of soldiers by working outside the military to find resolution to the conflict.  As to how these factors specifically play into the determination of an ethical course of action for the junior leader we cannot say as such discourse unfortunately goes beyond the scope of this paper.  Additionally, attempting to prescribe specific behavior in such a complex scenario would be irresponsible as well as embody the very oversimplification of the problem that prompted us to write this paper in the first place.  However, we offer these factors and considerations as an avenue for future discussion, for academic and practical purposes.

A final consideration that plays into the junior leader’s ethical decision making, that is often not spoken of enough as it does not fit cleanly into a precise analytical formula, is the more human aspect of leadership; the bond between the leader and his soldiers.



Although it is tempting to consider our men and women of the military larger than life heroes, doing so is rather misleading.  In fact, placing our troops on such a pedestal allows many to detach from the reality that very few join the military for the sole purpose of protecting the nation.  The vast majority of young men and women who enter the military are seeking a better lifestyle than that from which they originated, and many are simply trying to collect money so they can go to college.  In our experience, most of our soldiers will be the first in their families to go to college.  Instead of viewing soldiers as a group, as a population of dedicated freedom fighters, we must view our country’s soldiers as people, as individuals with the same concerns and fears that we all have.  If our troops are heroic, it is due to the fact that they carry out their deadly orders in spite of their fears.  Working with troops every day allows one to develop a personal relationship with each.  Some might even put this relationship on the same status as that of family.  If we return to the previously mentioned dilemma, we see that a third variable has been input.  Instead of a conflict of loyalties to the orders of those above the junior leader, there are two other conflicting values—loyalty to one’s own moral code and loyalty to the troops entrusted to his care.  Therefore, the oft-asserted claim that leaders ought to simply get out of the military when faced with a morally ambiguous or unjust war is rendered an even more difficult option than before.  The leader who views his troops as family now must determine whether to participate in an unjust war and remain as a moral standard for his soldiers or to remove himself from the situation altogether.  If the leader views resigning from the military as an option, the question once again transitions to a utilitarian one.  “When does the good I can do for my soldiers no longer outweigh the negative impact of participating in an unjust war?”  Additionally, the leader must weigh the obligation not to abandon his soldiers in their time of need against the duty not to lead them in an unjust cause.





It should be understood that leaving military service before one’s contracted obligation has expired is not as easy as saying, “I quit.”  A service member who chooses not to complete his term of service, especially in a time of war, is subject to incarceration and a less than honorable discharge.  Furthermore, his sworn duties to defend the Constitution and to obey the legal and moral orders of the officers appointed over him are responsibilities that cannot be dismissed as trivial.  Even so, we do not argue that one should never resign from the military in the face of an unjust war.  Surely, there are situations when continued service to an unjust cause would be more immoral than the negative impact of abandoning the soldiers left to one’s care.  Readily available examples of immoral service are the senior and junior officers who carried out the orders of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.  The recent US-led invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein is a more ambiguous example, for which we feel it is not possible to prescribe specific ethical conduct for all junior leaders.  It is enough to simply say that there are moral dangers in a soldier acting with absolute autonomy, or conversely, with absolute obedience and that the proper ethical response, especially for the junior leader, needs to be found somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, with careful consideration of the just war issues and implications that we have discussed thus far.



In this paper, we have analyzed the moral dilemma of permissible conduct once a junior leader finds himself ordered to take part in an unjust war.  The primary dilemma concerns the sworn obligation to support and defend the Constitution of the United States versus the obligation not to take part in an unjust conflict.  The most pressing component of this problem is a leader’s duty to his soldiers not to abandon them when they most need moral, courageous leadership and the obligation not to participate and/or lead them in the unjust war.  We conclude that, in some cases, the utilitarian net good achieved from an unjustly begun conflict and the moral obligation to soldiers outweighs the immoral act of participating in an unjust war.  Therefore, for those who claim that soldiers and leaders should simply “get out of the military” when they are involved in an unjust war, we remind you that the plausible solutions are not so simple.  The military is comprised of people, our family.  Certainly, an officer can resign his commission, and a Non-Commissioned Officer can break his enlistment contract and perhaps endure imprisonment and/or fines.  However, this is probably rarely the most effective solution, as these actions would leave our soldiers without the moral leadership they deserve.

Most of us can agree that there are occasions when it would be preposterous to resign one’s commission, and there are still other situations when it would be immoral to continue service.  However, determining exactly where that line exists is not answerable for everyone in an academic essay.  Ultimately, it is up to each leader to decide when the good he can do in an organization no longer outweighs the negative impact of continued support to an unjust cause.



Richard B. Brandt.  1992.  "Utilitarianism and the Rules of War," Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Department of the Army.  1956.  Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare.  Washington, D.C.:  Department of the Army.