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 battles and the possibility of future conflicts. Death and memory, heroism and tragedy, love of country and hatred of enemies—the human drama plays out, in sharp relief, on both ancient and modern battlefields.

Like any significant human activity, war raises profound moral questions for statesmen, soldiers, and citizens. When is war moral, and when is war unjust or even barbarous? Are there ethical and legal rules that should govern all warfare, and what happens when our enemies play by different rules? Do new technologies of war fundamentally alter the moral choices we face and the moral issues at stake? How do we deal with tough cases—including preemptive strikes, targeted killing, torture, drones, nuclear deterrence and nuclear proliferation, and the use of civilian shields?

Led by Harvard Professor Stephen Rosen, one of the world’s preeminent teachers of strategy, and Gen. James Dubik, one of America’s most experienced military leaders, this institute will think morally about war by looking at a series of key moments and great texts in military-political history: How do we evaluate the moral decisions of ancient peoples—such as the Athenians as portrayed in the Melian dialogue, or the Israelites as portrayed in the book of Joshua? Why continue fighting on the Western front in the First World War once the deadlock in the trenches emerged? Why firebomb the cities of Germany and Japan in World War II? Why not bomb death camps at Auschwitz? Is it right to use torture for prisoner interrogation in counter-terrorism campaigns? What about campaigns to starve civilians, as in the British blockade of Germany in World War I? And what about recent struggles—in Bosnia, in Iraq, and in Gaza? Or future dilemmas—such as the possibility of a nuclearized Middle East?

Our aim will be to analyze such cases in a way that takes seriously the political and strategic dilemmas, so that our moral judgments will be grounded in the real choices that leaders and citizens face, both in deciding when to fight and how to fight. In addition to lectures and seminar discussions, the course will utilize role playing simulations. Institute participants will be called upon to make ethical arguments for and against alternative courses of action from the standpoints of the statesmen, citizens, and soldiers affected by the decision.

This course was offered in conjunction with the Tikvah Fund.

Images courtesy U.K. Government | U.S. Army

Stephen Rosen on our geopolitical challenges


James M. Dubik

LTG James M. Dubik (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and a Professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. General Dubik has extensive operational experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Bosnia, Haiti, Panama, and in many NATO countries.

Stephen Peter Rosen

Stephen Peter Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University. He was the civilian assistant to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Case #4: Blockade and Starvation





Case #5: Humanitarian War: The Case of Libya




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