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The Ethics of Modern War

August 19, 2013 - September 4, 2013


War is an inescapable part of the human condition, with the course of history and the character of civilizations often shaped by the legacy of past conflicts and the possibility of future ones. Courage and cowardice, heroism and tragedy, love of country and hatred of enemies, loss, blood, death, and memory—the human drama plays out, in sharp relief, on both ancient and modern battlefields. To think seriously about war, we need to engage both morally and strategically; we need to think historically and philosophically; and we need to prepare for the future in full awareness of the old tensions and new realities—political and technological—that will challenge us as statesmen and citizens.

This course will focus on the great moral dilemmas of warfare—looking back at some of the classical thinkers and decisive moments in military history, and forward at some of the novel dilemmas posed by new weapons of war and new geopolitical clashes. Is war a moral activity? Are there rules of warfare? If so, how durable have they been over time? Do new technologies fundamentally alter the way we ought to prosecute wars? How do we deal with tough cases—including preemptive strikes, targeted killing, torture, drones, nuclear deterrence, and the use of civilian shields? Led by three of the world’s leading experts on war—classicist and commentator Victor Davis Hanson, strategist and historian Frederick Kagan, and political scientist Peter Feaver—our core text will be Michael Walzer’s classic work Just and Unjust Wars, read carefully and critically, in search of a true modern ethic of war.

Key Texts & Topics

  • Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars
  • Selections from Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, General Sherman, Churchill, and Reinhold Niebuhr
  • Case studies on the American Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Six Day War, and current conflicts in the Middle East
  • Serious discussion of current issues—including preemptive strikes, targeted killing, torture, drones, nuclear deterrence, and the use of civilian shields