Doing Military Ethics with War Literature
Robert Reed Bonadonna
70 Prospect Street
Gardner, MA 01440
(978) 632-1715


I'll start off by trying to explain my title. First, what is it to "do" ethics? For the purposes of this discussion, I will say that we are doing ethics when we discuss questions of right and wrong, of goodness and virtue roughly in the form of a dialectic, as abstractions being mediated by concrete reality, by the facts of the lives of men and women. (In the backgound of this remark are both Hegel’s dialectic and Bakhtin’s dialogic, which has been seen as morally neutral, but more recently reconsidered as conducive to ethical readings. See Holquist, 181.) To do ethics is therefore to speak, and to attempt to unite fact and value. Doing ethics may be seen as the necessary middle point between merely and passively learning about ethical ideas and acting on them.

How do we engage in this conversation "with," that is, using, literature? It is certainly possible to use literature as a means to ethical discussion or instruction in a number of ways. Literature has arguably been misused in the role of moral text, a fact which contributes to the controversy over such use that still goes on within the academy in particular. Moral judgments derived form literary works may be crude or overly facile (Richard Posner 394 and Iris Murdoch 19). But literature has three great, intrinsic strengths as a medium for ethics. These are the importance that literature gives to the imaginative use of language; the potential for literature to create vivid, unmistakable and unforgettable characters; and literature’s use of the narrative form. The foregrounding of language that takes place in the literary work is important because of the complex dependency of ethics on language. Ethical problems are often problems of speech. In order to articulate our desires, to engage with a social organization, or even to do private moral reasoning, language is the diverse tool kit (to borrow Wittgenstein’s image), to which we must have recourse. An emphasis on the varieties of available language is helpful in keeping us from judgments which are crude, overly-judgmental, or over-simple, by allowing us to get under the hood of the textual apparatus, to inquire into the language through which the author and characters are communicating their ideas. In pursuing the subject this way, we are concerned with virtue as it is: often delimited (although not entirely prescribed) by luck or circumstance, and by the linguistic tools available.

Literature relies on language, and may even sometimes be about language, but the interest of literature, for most readers, is elsewhere: in character and narrative. Virtue ethics, the approach to moral philosophy originated by Aristotle, gives us some tools for discussing the importance of the literary character to literature’s ethical function. It is probably no coincidence that Aristotle was both moral philosopher and literary critic, and that most moral philosophers who are interested in the literary work could be described as Aristotelians or virtue ethicists (see Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre). Virtue ethics admit that which literature is best at addressing: the complex and divided, the human-all-too-human. Both virtue ethics and literature lend themselves to a consideration of ethics which is not reducible to prescriptive rule or predictive formula (respectively deontological and utilitarian). We defer judgments about character more than we do about actions, outcomes, or rules. In a literary consideration of ethical matters, we learn that some ethical questions are dilemmas that allow no easy solution, they are tragic, representing the conflicting claims of (for example) personal honor and public duty.

The high-quality literary work not only grounds abstract ethical ideas, it does so in a way that can render ethical matters interesting and even exciting. It is the narrative aspect of the literary work, the "call of stories," as Robert Coles puts it, that is perhaps the most important to the student. It allows ethics to be done as story.

It is time for me now to focus on the genre of war literature, the type of literature with which I propose to "do" ethics. From a consideration of the histories of ethics and of literature, it becomes obvious that to combine these two subjects is no random pairing. Literature and ethics share an inescapably bellicose ancestry. Both western literature and ethics begin with Homer and the dramas which constituted the ancient Greeks’ main moral "scriptures." The bellicose origins of storytelling are even more ancient and culturally diverse than this, as is represented by the Old Testament and Gilgamesh. But Homer’s influence on the genre has probably been the greatest. In fact, I want to suggest that three key figures from Homer may be said to provide virtual archetypes of the soldier as literary character, and as moral representative.

Homer's three main characters, Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ulysses, have shaped the rendering of the soldier-persona in literature throughout its development. Achilles represents the solitary warrior, the union of man with atavistic and elemental forces; he is the figure of rage and transgression (King 14). His descendants include Shakespeare's Coriolanus and James Jones's Private Prewitt. Agamemonon, and Virgil's Aeneas, represent the gentleman-soldier, who sees war as social performance, as proof and confirmation of traditional and patriarchal social allegiances. Descendants of Agamemnon include Shakespeare's Hal, Tolstoy's Prince Andrei, and Evelyn Waugh's Guy Crouchback, about whom I will have more to say later. The Ulysses of the Iliad is a competent staff officer, a gentleman like Agamemnon who is devoted to the army as a cohesive social institution within the larger patriarchal and aristocratic social structure of which he is member. But, even in the Iliad, Ulysses is a man of words and imagination, and in the Odyssey he becomes a storyteller, my third category, his adventures an encoded account of the terrors and mystery of war, until he finally demonstrates to the suitors and to his own household what war is all about by recreating its violence in microcosm. His influence can be seen in the sublime and self-reflexive aspects of war literature to our own day. The three character types I have identified are often distinguished by differences in language that have ethical implications. The warrior's speech is often rhetorical: it imitates the act; it tends to silence other speakers; it is the command or exhortation. In the pre-war army depicted by James Jones in From Here to Eternity, a kind of crackdown on or renunciation of speech seems to be taking place, both on the part of the army and by Jones's Achillean hero, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, named for the military rebel par excellence. Prewitt seizes on transgression as a means of in effect intensifying disciplinary rhetoric, moving from regimental band, to infantry company, to post stockade in a search for greater control over language until he silences himself by refusing to answer the challenge of American sentries guarding the beaches of Hawaii after Pearl Harbor, and is killed. The gentleman's speech is usually what I call discursive. He engages in a discourse that is part social and part historical. Such a conversation is entered into by Guy Crouchback, hero of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. Guy views military service as a way of atoning for his expatriate isolation, and through many errors in practice and in translation, his time as a soldier does permit him to re-establish his family in the ancestral property called "Lesser House" bequeathed to him by his father, perpetuating a perhaps diminished but arguably authentic patriarchy. The speech of the storyteller is often sublime, reflecting both the illimitable nature of artistic creation and the terrible beauty of war itself, the undeniable appeal of its scenes of power and immensity, an appeal that is often evoked, although mostly so that it can be undermined, in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

What are the ethical implication of these forms of speech? This is the real rub, the friction of any effort to do ethics through literature. I have already said that we do ethics through speech, that speech is necessary to ethical practice, that the lack of language is often, along with bad luck and limited opportunities, one of those circumstances which tends to impede the fulfillment of virtue. But an increase in the ability to speak does not necessarily lead to a more virtuous life. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that since ethics cannot be divorced from its social context, the demands for speech will vary according to the context in which a character finds himself. It may at times be more fitting to be a speechless warrior than a reasonable gentleman or prolix poet. Speech is not always desirable, only appropriate speech is always desirable. In certain settings: command, great stress or danger, in which succinctness and strict self-control are the greatest desiderata, a limiting of speech can be a moral imperative. Another check on language's usefulness in ethical terms that is particularly applicable to the genre of war literature is the complex, divided, one might almost say inverse relationship between language and maleness (alluded to by writers as diverse as linguist Carol Gilligan, philosopher Steven Smith, and literary and cultural critic Peter Middleton). If virtue is to be thought of as a kind of ethical flourishing or fulfillment, I would argue, then some part of the terms of that fulfillment are established by one's gender. On the way to becoming a good person, a male must become a good man, which means that certain types of speech are problematic or even proscribed for him. Too much speech, especially about the emotions, may be inconsistent with virtue for the male.

Given the social context of virtue, the discursive, socially embedded stance that I have labeled gentlemanly is probably generally preferable to the other two, but this is not an absolute. The tendency of language to aid ethics, like that of war towards its absolute form, must always be reckoned with, even when practical matters impede this tendency. The three character-types that I have identified may be thought of in terms of a trajectory of aspiration, in which the soldier's tale depicts efforts to learn more appropriate speech.

I would like at this point to call on the pull of narrative to bring some of these points together. I'll use a passage in the middle volume of Waugh's trilogy. This passage illustrates some of the points which I have been making about how to do ethics with language, since it shows two characters who are having a conversation about ethics, and about the limitations of trying to apply rules or predict outcomes as fruitful ways of doing ethics. It also provides a link between talking about ethics, "doing" ethics as I have defined it, and ethical practice, the word and the act. A key moment in the trilogy occurs when Guy and his friend Ivor Claire learn that the general commanding British forces on Crete has fled the island, leaving behind him orders that those units remaining are to surrender to the advancing Germans in the morning. The conversation between the two men, and its aftermath, demonstrates some vital aspects of the gentlemanly discourse in Waugh:

"Guy, what would you do if you were challenged to a duel?"


"Yes, of course."

"What made you think of that now."

"I was thinking about honour. It's a thing that changes doesn't it? I mean, a hundred and fifty years ago we would have had to fight if challenged. Now we'd laugh. There must have been a time when it was rather an awkward question."

"Yes. Moral theologians were never able to stop dueling -- it took democracy to do that."

"And in the next war, when we are completely democratic, I expect that it will be quite honourable for officers to leave their men behind. It'll be laid down in King's Regulations as their duty-- to keep a cadre going to train new men to take the place of prisoners."

"Perhaps men wouldn't take too kindly to being trained by deserters."

"Don't you think that they'd respect them more for being fly [quick -- clever] I reckon our trouble is that we're in the awkward stage -- like a man challenged to a duel a hundred years ago." (2: 299)

Through the vehicle of a venerable and aristocratic mode of behavior, dueling, Waugh’s characters engage in a conversation about military ethics. The aristocratic nature of this vehicle is not lost in the language of the conversation about honor between these two officers. The gentlemanly evasiveness of Claire's "awkward" and the archness of his reference to being "completely democratic" signal a perhaps mistaken attachment to gentlemanly privilege. Guy defends the gentleman's claim to moral authority and to responsibility against Ivor's irony and particularism. Dueling, or the larger matter of the aristocratic behavior of which dueling formed a part, is used as a way of comprehending the ethical demands of the interlocutors' immediate circumstances, which must be worked out without the benefit of being able to predict outcomes, or even to imagine what outcomes might be considered good, and in the absence of an unequivocal code, outside the suasions of "moral theologians" and of the "King's Regulations," that is, of divine and secular authority. Guy is both an attentive listener and a forthright and committed speaker. Like Claire, he understands that standards for behavior change, but his reluctance to follow Claire's logic to its conclusion demonstrates his attachment to the past even as an imperfect guide to the present. In the event, Claire deserts his men when the timely appearance of a British vessel gives him the opportunity, a piece of luck which may seem good and fitting to Claire, even a confirmation of his special status as an aristocrat, but which is in fact bad for him in ethical terms, or at best a mixed blessing. Guy also leaves the island, but first offers to his men the leaky boat that he has located as their common means of escape, thereby including the soldiers under his charge, as well as his social equal Claire, in the discussion of ends and means. Having assimilated the demands of extraordinary circumstances, Guy does not neglect too quickly, as Claire perhaps does, the claim of the traditional obligation to care for his men. His balances this claim with a modern, egalitarian willingness to treat his men as ethical agents who are capable of speech and of making decisions, of engaging in a discourse of ethical import.

I chose this scene because I think that the spectacle of an officer talking things out in a confusing and changing situation is an appealing and relevant example for us to emulate. I am reminded of the slightly incongruous scene in Saving Private Ryan in which the English teacher- turned infantry captain played by Tom Hanks is engaging his soldiers in a discussion of jus ad bellum while on patrol. As I have said, I believe that literature, from the Iliad and the Song of Roland, through War and Peace, Billy Budd, and Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone, can and should be one of the things we talk about when we talk about military ethics.

I am sorry that time does not allow me to do an analysis of passages representative of my other two character types. I think that the points of view of all three have their uses. The warrior, whom I have dubbed homo furens, sees war as a biological necessity, the gentleman as a social construct, a kind of ritual or game, so that he might be termed homo ludens (Gray and Hadas). The storyteller's view that war is an occasion to gain knowledge, to include self-knowledge has led me to call him homo viator, the stoic philosophers' title for Ulysses, his travels, or travails, a potentially costly journey of moral as well as physical danger. War may be all of these things. In moral terms, and in the spirit of American pragmatism, there is something to be said for choosing the stance that best suits the demands of one's circumstances and condition. The three personae may be said to represent stages in the development of an individual in military service as well as contrasting literary types. We go from young warrior, to mature professional, to veteran and storyteller, and hope to do what is fitting in each role. Most of us in this room have been around long enough to have a few stories to tell. Some may even be partly true. Let us not neglect the great stories as we try to instruct the new generation in this strange, tragic, heroic, sublime, ludic, historic, literary, and essentially moral undertaking of soldiering (Gelven).


Works Cited
Gelven, Michael. War and Existence: A Philosophical Inquiry. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. 1982. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Hadas, Moses. Old Wine, New Bottles: A Humanist Teacher at Work. The Credo Series. New York: Cardinal-Pocket, 1963.

Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. New Accents. London: Oxford UP, 1990.

Macintyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

Middleton, Peter. The Inward Gaze: Masculinity and Subjectivity in Modern Culture. London, Routledge, 1992.

Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. New York: Allen Lane-Penguin, 1992.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Posner, Richard. "Against Ethical Criticism: Part Two." Philosophy and Literature. 22:2 (1998): 394-412.

Smith, Steven G. Gender Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992.

Waugh, Evelyn. Officers and Gentlemen. 1955. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.