Centre for Military Ethics

Playing Cards

Starting with the assumption that playing cards are a ubiquitous, everyday part of life, the idea is to use them as a vehicle for raising ethical awareness. 54 questions from across the broad area of military ethics have been carefully developed by leading researchers and ethicists based on professional military ethics education curricula, in conjunction with research and testing on military focus groups, and in consultation with specialist lawyers. The cards will be made available to military units and can be used to prompt informal discussion and debate, normalising the discussion of ethical challenges faced in military environments.

Each card has a web link to the King’s Centre for Military Ethics where each question on the card is supplemented with additional prompts for thought and discussion, explanation and information on supporting reading should you wish to explore the topic further. More material will be added on an ongoing basis. Groups of questions will be thematically linked so impromptu or pre-planned supported discussions can quickly be developed using the open-access material.

Category: Individual ConductIntegrityJustice/LegalityLaws of WarLeadershipMilitary and Society All
Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 2 2 2 2
If a soldier is faced with an order they think is unjust, what should they do?
Is there a difference between unjust and unlawful? Does the difference matter?

Making sound professional judgments on all matters is part of the job description of anyone involved in the military- this includes judgments on whether a war is just. However, the unlimited liability contract tells us that so long as an order is legal (even if it is suicidal or perceived as unjust) a military member is normally expected to obey it (Coleman 2015). This presents a challenge: should an individual’s conscience be able to trump superior orders regardless of whether or not they are legal?

If soldiers MUST follow orders that are legal, and they MUST consider whether any order is just: what do they do when these two things contradict? A good leader should be willing to listen to their team and their concerns. But, most military organizations will expect lawful orders to be followed regardless of individual beliefs. This makes it very important to think about potential situations before they arise.

See 3 of Clubs

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 3 3 3 3
If a soldier is ordered to do something that they believe is illegal, what should they do?
Is it obvious that the order is illegal? Does the person issuing the order understand that the order is illegal?

• If an order is clearly illegal, military personnel MUST refuse to follow it.

• A member of the military should challenge the person who issues the order to make them aware that it is illegal.

• Doing something illegal because you are following an order is not an excuse or legal defence for the individual.

See 6 of Clubs

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 4 4 4 4
It is okay to make offensive jokes if it's just ‘banter’?
What do you think? Consider how others around you might feel

While banter is often acceptable, consider whether any joke you make might offend others. All military and civilian personnel, regardless of rank or grade, have a right to be treated with dignity. All military and civilian personnel also have a responsibility to do all they can to ensure that the working environment is free from all forms of bullying and harassment and that the dignity of others is respected.

In the UK, according to MOD policy, all personnel are expected to:

• ensure that their own conduct does not amount to bullying or harassment

• have the moral courage to challenge inappropriate behaviour

• be prepared to support those who experience or witness bullying or harassment and

report bullying or harassment against themselves or others

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 5 5 5 5
Should you always report someone who has broken the rules?
Does it matter if you don’t think the rule is important? Think about the value of loyalty and integrity.

Loyalty applies not only to immediate friendships but also to the nation, humanity, and to moral principles like truth. Your ultimate loyalty should be to higher values like the state and the military. Placing your loyalty to your friendships above loyalty to the military and the state can lead to behaviour which breaks rules and laws. Trust is a vital component of cohesion, breaking of the rules brings trustworthiness into question.

• If you place loyalty to your friends and comrades above loyalty to the military and the state, this can lead to behaviour which breaks rules and laws.

• This is not to say that you should not be loyal to your comrades, but you should be prepared to resist peer pressure to do the right thing.

See 8 of Clubs.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 6 6 6 6
Is it ever acceptable to challenge an order from a superior?
What do you think? Are there any circumstances in which you can or should question a lawful order?

The unlimited liability contract tells us that so long as an order is legal (even if it is suicidal or perceived as unjust) a military member is normally expected to obey it (Coleman 2015). Wilfully disobeying a lawful order is insubordination.

However, constructive dissent is different to dissension or insubordination. Respectfully pointing out when something is wrong can be an important way of making sure mistakes do not happen. Working to uphold the standards of the military profession and obligations to the people by disagreeing with a wrong decision, is an important theme in the military. Dissent can therefore be an expression of loyalty for the military. However, a ‘service member simply “voicing” opposition to a policy or order that they don’t like is much closer to an act of dissension - that is, trying to undermine, rather than correct, a policy…An act of dissent may be constructive; an act of dissention is always corrosive.’

• If you challenge a superior via constructive dissent, you can be demonstrating loyalty for the military profession by preventing mistakes.

• Dissent can therefore be a method of upholding the values and standards of the military.

• Whilst dissent can be constructive, dissention can have very negative effectives on units and individuals.

See Queen of Hearts

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 7 7 7 7
Is it okay to humiliate someone under your command if it helps motivate everyone else?
Think about the greater good. Can the ends justify the means? Should you treat everyone the same? Should a team look after all its members?

With regards to military to performance, treating people equally would be counterproductive. People should not be treated as if they can do everything equally, as this would prevent necessary skills from being developed. Different people will need to work on different things if they are to contribute most effectively to the group.

Everybody should be judged by the same standards and rewarded/punished accordingly for their performance. However, this is very different to using humiliation, which is corrosive to unit cohesion and can destroy loyalty.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 8 8 8 8
If you break the rules you should be punished, even if the issue doesn’t seem very important.
What do you think? Is punishment required to make sure people obey the rules?

If a minor infringement is treated in the same way as a major breaking of the rules, does this prompt adherence to the rules at all costs, or simply undermine the difference between things that don’t really matter, and things that are incredibly serious?


If a punishment does not fit the crime, this can lead to people covering up for one another out of a sense of injustice at harsh punishment for trivial offences. Covering up undermines all of the rules, and the authority of those who make them. Therefore, each ‘crime’ must be treated individually and in context, and the punishment should always fit the crime.

“As members of the military we realize the necessity of adherence to orders, yet we also acknowledge that it is our responsibility to make sound decisions when little or no guidance is provided. If we train our future officers to adhere to principles of honesty and integrity because they are punished for not doing so at what point do we encourage their individual responsibility?” (The Honor Concept of the U.S. Naval Academy).

See 5 Clubs.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 9 9 9 9
Is it okay to pass work onto others just so that you can have some rest?
What do you think? Should work always be shared equally? Is it acceptable to refrain from combat if you feel tired?

The functioning of the military is based on high morale, trust, and close professional and personal relationships. Achieving this requires commitment and self-sacrifice and to put the interests of the team ahead of one’s personal interests. Thus while operations and military life will frequently prove tiring, individuals should put the long term interests of the team ahead of themselves.

Tired people are more likely to make mistakes. It is up to the commander and the team to ensure that work is shared fairly. As well as looking after their personnel, good leaders understand that they also need to take opportunities to rest when possible to prevent fatigue affecting performance.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs 10 10 10 10
Should you ever conceal the risks of an operation from those under your command?
What if the operation goes wrong? Does it make a difference if you are at war? Does trust require the sharing of information?

Often commanders cannot foresee all of the risks of an operation. If you have a strong relationship built on trust, it might not be necessary for the commander to outline all of the risks. However, people might be less likely to trust their superior if they believe important information is being withheld from them.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs J J J J
We should always be bound by the values and standards of the military when on duty.
What do you think? What are military values and standards meant to encourage?

Values are clear moral principles designed to develop a person’s spirit and character, and are not abstract concepts only intended for the demands of battle. Standards indicate clear ways for how individuals are expected to behave. Therefore they apply to all service personnel at all times, even when off duty.

The best way to inculcate and promote values and standards is to practice them.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs Q Q Q Q
Is it okay to relax and get drunk in the mess, despite still being on base?
What do you think? As a professional, where do you draw the line?

Everybody needs to be able to relax. But, even when on base or during official social events, alcohol should only be consumed in moderation. If superiors do not prevent excessive alcohol consumption, their own self-discipline and moral courage can be called into question. Alcohol abuse can lead to discharge from the military.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs K K K K
Is it weakness to tell someone if you have been psychologically affected by combat?
What do you think? This might help you receive the support you need to enable you to cope. Are you weak if you ask for help? What about if you don’t ask?

Many people are worried about how others might think of them if they seek help for mental health issues. However, delaying treatment because of this can be a significant and dangerous barrier to diagnosis and receiving appropriate treatment.

The influence of stigma can be so significant that many will choose to endure the impacts of mental health conditions – even when they know they can be relieved or cured with treatment – rather than risk making others aware of what they fear will be perceived as a flaw or weakness. In many ways the stigma associated with mental health problems is actually more disabling than the condition itself.

Perceiving seeking treatment as a weakness is wholly wrong.

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Clubs Clubs Clubs Clubs A A A A
It is acceptable to use offensive nicknames for colleagues if they don’t mind.
What do you think? Does is matter whether or not your colleague finds it acceptable?

“Among close teams, nicknames- even uncomplimentary ones- can help cultivate a sense of belonging and camaraderie” (Brett). Keeping this in mind, it is still important that soldiers do what they believe is right regardless of the situation and the opinions of others. “The man of integrity does what he thinks is right, even in the face of disapproval by others” (Robinson).

While for many, a peer-given nickname will be seen as a badge of honour, for others, even an affectionate nickname can still be considered abusive. Some people will pretend not to be offended in order to ‘fit in’. Therefore, it is not safe to assume that because no-one has complained therefore no-one minds.


The military needs people who will resist peer pressure when necessary.

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 2 2 2 2
As a commander, should you ever pursue an operation if you know that a high proportion of your own troops will become casualties?
What do you think? Should you put a greater priority on achieving your objectives or on preserving as many lives as possible?

As a soldier, you have a responsibility to protect the lives of your comrades. However, you must also consider how important the operation is, and whether or not the losses are acceptable for the gain. It is legally acceptable to choose a course of action that incurs more military casualties above another option (especially in the case that this would prevent a higher number of civilian casualties, or that all things considered it would still minimise total loss of life). However just because it is legal to put your own personnel in additional peril, that obviously does not mean that you should or that your actions would necessarily be seen as professionally acceptable.

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 3 3 3 3
You discover a colleague is deliberately avoiding strenuous physical training by falsely claiming to be ill.
What do you do? Why is this a problem?

Knowledge of these actions may present a test of integrity: a situation where the right thing to do is fairly clear however it is relatively difficult for the person involved to actually do the right thing in this particular situation. In the case presented this may be because they may become unpopular with the individual claiming to be ill and possibly other members of their cohort for telling. Doing the right thing is a difficult thing to do and you should consider all of the possible consequences of your actions, including the negative ones, but also remember that the military needs people who will do what is right, regardless of the situation.

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 4 4 4 4
You discover a colleague is making inappropriate comments about other colleagues on social media.
What do you do? Would these comments affect their professional working relationship? Does it matter if they’re off duty?

It is important to acknowledge in the tightly knit military community the need for mutual respect and the requirement to avoid conduct that offends others. Standards of social behaviour therefore need to be upheld at all times – on or off duty.

It is important to avoid behaviour that might offend others, which might damage unit cohesion and unit effectiveness.

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 5 5 5 5
A soldier, sailor or airman is entitled to ignore Rules of Engagement if they are too restrictive.
What do you think? By breaching Rules of Engagement, you might be breaching both National and International Law.

• Rules of Engagement should be lawful and will reflect the law, but they are not themselves laws.

• That does not mean they can simply be ignored if they are inconvenient though!

• Military activity is directed towards achieving a political objective. Rules of Engagement exist to limit military action for political reasons

• Whether or not the RoE refer to it, you always have the inherent right to defend yourself.

‘[Rules of Engagement] must give the commander sufficient authority to use force to enable him to achieve his mission within the political constraints. The commander must understand the political context; the politicians must understand the military context. The military commander, however, must ensure that the rules are not so rigid as to be utterly proscriptive, and to permit soldiers to utilize their initiative and judgement, with the Rules of Engagement providing them with suitable guidelines…Whatever ROEs are in operation in a theatre, the inherent right of self-defence remains.’

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 6 6 6 6
As part of a multinational force, you hear other nationalities criticising the methods of your military
What do you do? Are their criticisms fair? Is this affecting the working relationship?

You should consider whether the criticisms are accurate and true. You should consider whether you are dealing this for the right reasons or not: does this really need to be addressed or is it harmless gossip/banter? Before acting, you should consider what the potential fallout from your actions might be: will it have a greater negative or positive impact on team cohesion if it is addressed?

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 7 7 7 7
Military doctors must treat people according to how wounded they are, not according to what side they are on.
What do you think? Doctors are bound by additional regulations they must follow. Does it matter if the other side don’t respect the same rules?

Whilst military doctors are members of the military profession, they are also members of the medical profession, and therefore have additional rights and responsibilities to other members of the armed forces. Doctors must treat patients according to medical need, rather than any other reasons. They must resist pressure from others to treat patients according to tactical or strategic needs.

While it may be difficult to accept, it is also irrelevant if the other side is respecting the rules or not – it is precisely those rules that we are fighting to uphold and it is therefore essential to avoid descending to the same moral level as those who break them.

‘The essential, and primary, moral duty is to the patient; no matter to which ethnic, religious or combat grouping they may belong. The patient’s autonomy may be compromised by the authoritarian constraints of the military but it is still beholden upon the physician to apply a firm moral code to ensure the best possible outcome for the patient.’ (Blair, 2011).

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 8 8 8 8
As part of a multinational force, you learn of a superior allied officer accepting bribes.
What should you do? What about if people say it is part of their culture?

To accept a bribe is clearly wrong and if you do not report this, you are in effect consenting to someone accepting bribes.

In the UK and many other jurisdictions, the legal situation is that while one is not legally bound to report such action, it would be part of your professional duty to report this up the chain of command in order to reach the appropriate command level to deal with this on an organisation-to-organisation level.


See 9 of Spades

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 9 9 9 9
As part of a multinational force, you believe that another nation is not pulling its weight, undermining the whole operation.
What should you do? Are the allegations true? With whom should you take up the matter?

The first question to ask oneself is “is the situation serious enough to justify taking action?”. An officer in a coalition has to consider the likely costs and benefits of taking action and make a decision on whether or not the ‘right’ course of action really is also the ‘best’ one once the broader context has been taken into account.

• One of the main challenges of a coalition is ensuring that all forces work effectively together, despite differences in culture and tactics.

• There will likely be a ‘right’ action to take in such a situation, but you may not be the right person to carry out this action.

• However, you should also consider what the effects of your actions might be on coalition relations.

• Sometimes the political benefit an ally brings outweighs any military gain they could possibly make.

See 8 of Hearts

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Spades Spades Spades Spades 10 10 10 10
Is it acceptable to use whatever force is necessary to clear enemy from a position even if this involves killing more civilians than enemy soldiers?
What do you think? Are there other ways of carrying out the operation? The amount of force should never be disproportional to the expected benefit of the military operation.

Proportionality is essential in military operations, particularly when there might be civilian casualties. Expected civilian casualties should not be excessive to the expected military advantage. A small military advantage should not be gained at the cost of what ordinary people would consider a large civilian loss of life. Sometimes it may be better to call off an operation.

This question will necessarily involve a consideration of the Rules of Engagement and the way in which it reflects the political will and the type of conflict that is being fought. Proportionality is the key with a consideration of the anticipated military advantage together with an understanding of the political reality that civilian casualties can affect the perceptions of legitimacy of any campaign.

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Spades Spades Spades Spades J J J J
Can weapons of mass destruction be justified if they help to reduce the overall number of casualties of a conflict?
What do you think? Consider the long-term consequences of the use of these weapons. Remember that indiscriminate weapons are banned under International Law.

Although their use might bring short-term tactical success, this would not be proportionate to the long-term negative effects.

 It is very hard to see how anything other than a last act of self-defence in a national war of survival could be justified in legal or ethical terms.


The use of these weapons has both short and long-term implications that must be considered before deciding if their use is proportional (for example, if the taboo over their use is broken down, what will this mean for future conflicts now that using this type of weapon is ‘normal’, would this lead to more suffering long term?).

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Spades Spades Spades Spades Q Q Q Q
Are civilians who support or help the enemy legitimate targets?
What do you think? Consider the rights protecting civilians under International Law. When do civilians give up their protection?

• Civilians who are not directly participating in hostilities are protected under International Law, and should not be deliberately or directly targeted. For something to count as direct participation, it needs to be a lot more than simply providing food or shelter.

• Only once civilians directly participate in hostilities do they lose their protection and become legitimate targets.

• If you are in doubt as to whether someone is a combatant or non-combatant, you should consider a person a non-combatant, as difficult as it may be.

‘For lawyers and the Geneva Conventions, civilians may lose their protection if it can be shown that they have taken a “direct participation in hostilities”… As modern war has become increasingly industrialised it has drawn increasingly on organised civilian labour to build its tanks, aeroplanes, ships and weapons systems… Is the person who takes up arms in the fight for a part of his of her working day a combatant or a civilian or both? Are they only a legitimate target for the time they are actually on military duty, or can you also shoot them the next day when they are ploughing their fields or bathing their children?… Article 50 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions could see all [these debates] coming back in 1977 and insisted: “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian” and “the presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character”.

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Spades Spades Spades Spades K K K K
Orders which breach the Laws of War must be disobeyed, even if there is a strong tactical or strategic case for obeying them.
What do you think? The Laws of Armed Conflict and International Humanitarian Law are absolutes - but what if you would be punished for disobeying the orders?

• All orders which breach the Laws of Armed Conflict and/or International Humanitarian Law must be disobeyed.

• This is also stated in military law.

• You should not be punished for upholding the law.

• The Laws of War already take into account strategic and tactical necessity.

‘While a member of the military is required to obey all lawful orders, no member of the military is duty bound to follow an illegal order. In fact, the opposite situation usually applies, as in most countries military personnel are thought to have a positive duty not to follow illegal orders. Such a principle is firmly established in military law.’

See 2 of Hearts

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Spades Spades Spades Spades A A A A
How should the presence of civilians in the area of a combat operation affect the conduct of an operation?
What do you think? How might it affect the tactics or weapons used? Are the civilians likely to be harmed by the operation? What if they choose not to leave?

• It is often difficult for civilians to leave combat areas.

• How do you know that they do not have elderly relatives or sick children that cannot be moved? What if they are too frightened to move?

• Civilians are not to be ‘blamed’ for being where the fighting is – they are to be protected from the affects of that fighting as much as is possible.

• In counterinsurgency operations especially, winning the support of the civilian population is key to success. Therefore you must consider the impact on civilians that a combat operation will have.


 ‘…in irregular wars, where lines of combat are not clearly defined, civilians often have little opportunity to remove themselves from the battle space and thus they can easily be trapped in dangerous situations when combat begins…winning the support of the local population actually is the military objective in a counterinsurgency campaign. If this is the case, then in terms of the success of the overall campaign, it may be more important to reduce, or even eliminate, civilian casualties among the local population that it is to kill or capture insurgents.’

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 2 2 2 2
Is necessity ever a reason to break the Laws of War?
What do you think? You should disobey any order that is clearly illegal. The rules already take into account necessity.

The Laws of War already take into account necessity and therefore you cannot use necessity as a reason to break the rules.


‘The Geneva Conventions understand the laws of armed conflict as “a compromise based on a balance between military necessity (that is, those measures essential to attain the goals of war) and the requirements of humanity.”’

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 3 3 3 3
Is the pre-emptive destruction of civilian property to deny it to the enemy is a legitimate tactic?
What do you think? Can you ever be certain that the enemy will take possession of that property? Why does it matter?

Proportionality in war is about harm and therefore damage to civilian property must be included in that calculation. Civilian property being targeted because, and only because, it is civilian property can never be justified.

‘… when civilian protection is at the heart of the mission - as in most current operations - “superfluous civilian injury or destruction of civilian property is, in the short term, nearly always at odds with mission accomplishment,”… The perception of such civilian harm has the same effect on mission accomplishment.’

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 4 4 4 4
You suspect the enemy is flying a white flag in order to launch an ambush.
What do you do? What is an accepted or acceptable way of indicating surrender? How do you find out if they mean it or not?

• Certain symbols are recognised under the Laws of Armed Conflict and mean that certain people and places are protected.

• Unless you are certain that these symbols are being misused, you must respect the protection that they bring.

• You must, however, still be cautious about any surrender attempt you think might be false. Goose Green (1982) provides an example of the use of a false white flag leading to the death of an officer

• As weapons technology continues to develop, how important is it that intelligent systems can recognise an accept legitimate surrender attempts?.

‘Given that the white flag is a recognized emblem in Law of Armed Conflict, it is not surprising that there are clauses in international law that discuss the use and misuse of the white flag… attacking someone while you are waving a white flag is an example of perfidy.’

‘The reason that perfidy is seen to be so serious is that it undermines the protection of those who are legitimately entitled to that protection… If…forces had acted in this manner, then opposing forces would be much less likely to believe that the display of a white flag represented a legitimate desire to negotiate and/or surrender, which means that…troops who were expressing a genuine desire to surrender were less likely to be taken seriously and thus they could have been killed, despite their desire to stop fighting and give themselves up.’

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 5 5 5 5
Should you treat your prisoners of war in accordance with International Law, even if the enemy does not?
What do you think? The Geneva Conventions protect the rights of prisoners of war. We uphold the rules because it’s the right thing to do regardless of what the enemy does.

‘Abiding by the conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war’ is desirable if for no other reason than to protect one’s nationals who are the others’ prisoners. [Mistreatment] can also result in war crimes accusations later when the conflict has ended. So, at least for reasons of reciprocity and fear of punitive consequences states may comply with these international standards.’ (Sawicki 2015).

Prisoners of war are protected under International Law and must not be harmed. The enemy might deliberately try to manipulate us into breaching these laws and violate common decency and morality. One of the reasons we fight is to uphold these laws and standards of decency, and to descend to the same level as the enemy would undermine the reasons behind the war.

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 6 6 6 6
Is it acceptable to use the same methods and weapons as the enemy if they have used them first, even if they are forbidden?
What do you think? This would be in breach of International Law. Does the fact that the enemy has used such weapons legitimise their use?

The enemy may use forbidden weapons because it is unaffected by criticism, and wants to draw us into moral dilemmas. Although difficult, we must maintain the rules of war. If the enemy break the rules and we follow them, we descend to the same moral levels as those we are fighting. It is important to remember that responding to an asymmetric enemy in kind may risk turning the very people you are there to protect against you.

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 7 7 7 7
Can a country use whatever tactics and weaponry are necessary if it is on the brink of being defeated?
What do you think? Can the ends justify the means? What about the slippery slope - when would you stop?

• More often than not, it is a political system/party trying to survive rather than a country. Preservation of a political interest is not an excuse for violating the laws of war.

• The Laws of War clearly state what tactics and weapons are banned.


‘…while the rise of a genuinely existential threat cannot be ruled out in the future, political rhetoric aside, it is the challenge of discretionary wars that we are routinely faced with today, where it is political interests rather than national survival that are at stake. It does not matter which side one is on: in this type of conflict, there is no conceivable excuse today for abandoning the rules and violating the ethical norms of war.’

See Jack of Spades

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 8 8 8 8
A local soldier you are working with in their country beats a prisoner.
What should you do? Do you have to accept whatever your allies do? Where do you draw the line?

• Beating a prisoner is clearly in breach of the Laws of Armed Conflict and is therefore forbidden.

• It is very likely to be illegal according to the law of the land you are in as well.

• One can accept that there might be cultural differences between forces in a coalition, but there are still certain types of action that are completely unjustifiable.

• Knowing what to do about it is harder though. Do you have sufficient authority to act, or do you need to find someone who does?

‘Military operations do not take place in a vacuum. In the messy moral reality of coalition military operations, careful consideration also needs to be made of the likely impact of one’s actions beyond the immediate situation. After the first part of the question has been answered - ‘am I justified in intervening to prevent an action I disagree with?’ - a military officer in a coalition environment must also make a prudential calculation to answer the second question - ‘should I act?’ The likely costs and benefits of action must be carefully weighed to determine if the ‘right’ course of action really is also the ‘best’ one once the broader context has been taken into account.’

See 8 of Spades

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 9 9 9 9
You should do everything possible to protect and preserve historic sites and cultural property, even during a war.
What do you think? What if the enemy are using the sites as cover?

• Under normal circumstances, historic sites and cultural property are protected from military force under International Law.

• If they are used for any military purpose, they lose their protection and are liable to attack.

• However, military efforts must still remain proportional to the intended outcome of an operation.

Proportionality requires that the damage, losses or injury resulting from any military action, not just to one’s own side but considered overall, should not be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage. How can this be squared with pragmatic strategic thinking? After all, in the words of General Eisenhower referring to the destruction of ancient artefacts and cultural heritage: “If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go.” However, Eisenhower didn’t stop there. The quote continues: “But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.”

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts 10 10 10 10
The military should only be used for defending the state.
What do you think? What about protecting foreigners? Who gets to choose?

Ultimately, as long as it is lawful, it is up to the state to determine what is in the national interest, to decide how their military is deployed and in pursuit of what type of mission.

All states have a responsibility to uphold basic human rights for everyone, including those who are not their citizens. The military should be used if necessary to uphold these rights. States would carry some blame if they failed to uphold human rights for everyone.

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts J J J J
Can service personnel refuse to serve if they disagree with their government’s decisions?
What do you think? Is there a difference between an illegal order and one you simply disagree with?

• Soldiers have a duty to obey legal orders, and to disobey illegal ones.

• However, most soldiers do not know all of the relevant facts behind a government’s decision to go to war - many will be classified and secret.

• A soldier therefore cannot always make an accurate decision about the justness of a particular war, but they are more likely to be able to question the justness of tactical decisions when deployed.


‘Today, all professional militaries around the world acknowledge that there is a duty to disobey or disregard a blatantly illegal order. At the same time however, there is also a clear expectation that such duties are limited to tactical level considerations: it is not up to the soldier to question the policy of his of her government; so one can disagree at the ballot box but not in the barracks or in the context of combat. The assumption is that most soldiers are simply not in a position to know all the relevant facts about their government’s decision to go to war and so are not able to reach a suitably informed judgement on the justice or injustice of the war.’

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Hearts Hearts Hearts Hearts Q Q Q Q
Do you have a duty to find out the reasons behind a particular deployment or conflict you are involved with?
What do you think? Do your superiors always know best?

The unlimited liability contract tells us that so long as an order is legal (even if it is suicidal or perceived as unjust) a military member is normally expected to obey it (Coleman 2015).

At the big picture level, if you are fighting in a war, you should have some understanding of why the war is taking place. If you are fighting a war you believe is ethically justified, then you should be prepared to take some responsibility for the harm that you might cause. If you knowingly follow an illegal order to go to war, some people argue that you should be held as responsible as if you followed an illegal order during a conflict.

See 3 of Clubs

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How should you act if a civilian abuses you for being in the military?
What should you do? How do you uphold military values and standards in such a situation?

You must remember that you represent more than just yourself and that your actions will reflect on your whole organisation, or even the country.

You must first try to understand the reasons for why someone is abusing you, as difficult as this may be. Criticism can both be unjustified and very damaging. By understanding the reasons for criticism, you can much more easily try to change this opinion and eliminate the criticism or distrust.

See 3 of Diamonds

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The use of torture can never be justified.
What do you think? Are there any exceptions according to the law?

Torture as a method of intelligence gathering has been condemned and discredited on the following broad grounds:

• It is fundamentally wrong.

• Its use undermines the moral legitimacy of those employing it.

• The intelligence it yields is unreliable and misleading.

• The use of torture, even if it were to aid a counter-terrorism/insurgency effort, breeds grievances that fuel further terrorism/insurgency and erodes trust in relationships necessary for effective counter-terrorism/insurgency operations.

Both treaty law and international customary law define the obligations of all states with respect to the use of torture, making clear the absolute prohibition under any circumstances. As of January 2010, 146 nations are parties to the UN Convention Against Torture (and another ten countries have signed but not ratified). The UK government, along with every other European state, very clearly opposes the use of torture under any circumstances and without exception.

“Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they are also frequently neither useful nor necessary”

General David Petraeus

The moral imperative—do not torture, at any time, anywhere, under any circumstances—is mandated by the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The convention is explicit: ‘No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, can be invoked as a justification of torture.’ That other states or our enemies may employ torture does not change these imperatives - our compliance does not depend on reciprocity.

Michael Ignatieff, Prospect Issue 121

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Should you discuss and debate the reasons for being deployed with a) those in the military and b) those not in the military?
What do you think? Does everyone in the military have a moral obligation to understand the reason for going to war? Do you need to know why?

• When discussing or debating the reasons for a deployment, obviously operational security must always be respected.

• It may be worth distinguishing between personal feelings and professional duties.

• Most members of the military do not know all of the relevant facts behind the government’s decision to go to war, and therefore cannot always make an accurate judgement about the justness of the war.

• If they are uncertain, they should be able to trust that their chain of command are leading them into a just war.

• They should, however, consider whether orders given to them when deployed are legal or just.

‘…most soldiers are simply not in a position to know all the relevant facts about a government’s decision to go to war and so are not able to reach an informed judgement on the justice or injustice of the war. While in some contexts, the position taken by one’s state might be clear enough, in others it might be horrendously complex and the ability to find out the truth about what is really going on may be compromised in many ways. In such circumstances, surely, they cannot be to blame for fighting in the war, only held accountable for their actions actually within the war if those actions violate the dictates of conscience directly, such as targeting non-combatants. If they have doubts about the justice of the actual war, they should exercise humility and accept that they should not follow the inner voice of their consciences but defer to those who are in a better position to judge. This might of course require a good deal of faith in one’s chain of command - soldiers must have a genuine belief that the right questions have been asked by the right people at the top of that chain and that only once those senior officers have been satisfied with the answers will orders be issued to everyone else in the chain of command.’

See 3 of Diamonds

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The military must always act as an ambassador for the state.
What do you think? The actions of a nation’s military always reflect on the state. Is that a good thing?

Soldiers must maintain their professionalism at all times. This is key to maintaining both the army’s operational effectiveness and its reputation. By maintaining this professionalism and high standards, the Army should be a positive ambassador for the country at all times.


See King of Hearts

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How can I justify being paid to kill people?
What is the ultimate purpose of the military? Is killing essential to this? Why are military personnel sometimes allowed to do things that other people are not?

• Killing others may be a regrettable necessity in certain circumstances, but it is not the primary purpose of the Armed Forces.

• People who are members of a profession have certain rights that others do not, due to their specialist training and expertise.

• Military personnel, as professionals, have the right to lawfully kill others in certain situations.

• These situations are in the service of the public in order to protect both domestic society and people overseas. 

‘Members of professions are often granted special rights or privileges as a result of their professional status…However, along with these special rights come moral obligations beyond those held by ordinary members of the public…The public service that members of the military perform is obvious, in that they protect the whole of society from external threats…When considering the role military personnel perform, the ability and willingness to harm others in the pursuit of important objectives might well be considered to be a virtue…This often means that what military personnel are ethically required to do will be different from what is required of others in similar situations.’

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Should the military ever be used to keep order at home?
What do you think? Is the military the correct organisation to fulfil this role?

• The military should not regularly be used to keep domestic order.

• In Britain, there are civilian units, such as riot police, better trained in dealing with such situations. Whilst the military could fulfil such a role, it may have negative consequences and cause the situation to deteriorate further.

• Also consider whether or not using the military to suppress civilians at home is considered an act of war upon the populace given the act of engaging an opposing army is considered an act of war.

‘Those who are trained in the use of lethal force, trained for battle, trained to impose their will by force on an enemy, trained for the express use of defending the territory and citizens of the country against external threats, they should not be regularly used as an instrument of force against the citizens of that same country. Many countries continue to maintain gendarmerie type forces specifically to deal with major riots or insurrection often under the command of interior ministries rather than defence ministries. But crucially these gendarmeries, like our own riot police, are trained to deal with the circumstances they are likely to face, mobs of civilians, maybe even lightly armed. They are also, like our own riot police, fully aware of the legal underpinning of what they are doing. This is not what our armed forces are trained for, not what they joined to do. They would of course have done what was asked, and they would have acted professionally and with self discipline, but it would not have been fair to ask them.’

See King of Diamonds

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Should soldiers expect to be treated well by their government and by society when they leave the military?
What do you think? Should there automatically be such a relationship between the state and the military? Is this fair if you are no longer protecting your society?

• The Armed Forces make sacrifices on behalf of the Government and the citizens.

• Society therefore has a moral obligation to treat current and ex-service personnel fairly

• All of those who have served in the past should not be disadvantaged in any way in the provision of public and commercial services. In some cases special consideration may also be appropriate for example in the case of those who were injured while serving.

‘The first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. Our Armed Forces fulfil that responsibility on behalf of the Government, sacrificing some civilian freedoms, facing danger and, sometimes, suffering serious injury or death as a result of their duty. Families also play a vital role in supporting the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces. In return, the whole nation has a moral obligation to the members of the Naval Service, the Army and the Royal Air Force, together with their families. They deserve our respect and support, and fair treatment.

Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.’

See Jack of Diamonds

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You discover a colleague who has money problems is selling military equipment for personal gain.
What do you do? Does their financial difficulty have any bearing on whether their actions can be justified?

‘Unless the demands of loyalty are properly understood by the personnel involved, then such situations are much more likely to be viewed as genuine ethical dilemmas. It is only in recognizing the disloyalty inherent in a demand by a colleague to help to cover up their misconduct, despite the duty to report it, that military personnel are likely to start to view such a situation as a test of integrity.’ (Coleman, 2013)

So the question here is, if knowledge of these actions creates an ethical dilemma, poses a test of integrity, or neither, what is actually at stake, and why should you care?

• There is obviously a right answer here: you should report your colleague, despite their money problems.

• If you don’t report your colleague, you are both acting without integrity.

• If you cover up for your colleague, you may also find yourself on the wrong end of the law.

You should consider what is actually at stake here, and what the positive and negative consequences of your action/inaction might be.

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By joining the military, I realise and acknowledge that I forfeit certain rights and privileges for the duration of my service.
What do you think? Should you have to forfeit them? Which rights do you think you give up?

• By joining the military, you must accept that you can be lawfully ordered into dangerous places.

• You must also accept that you may be exposed to, or be likely to suffer harm from a variety of causes.

• These might include physical harm, including death, injury, ill health, capture and imprisonment

• There are also non-physical forms of harm, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, being subjected to trial in case of wrong-doing, as well as possibly having a troubled conscience about things which occurred during your service.

• You may be separated from your family and friends for long periods of time.

• You may have other rights, such as freedom of speech, curtailed for security reasons.

• However, your fundamental human rights are not affected and the state has a duty to look after you as far as the circumstances make possible.

See Queen of Diamonds

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Should the military have positive discrimination to recruit a more diverse workforce?
What do you think? What might the effects of this policy be? Should all appointments be based only on merit?

It is sometimes useful to look at both the pros and cons:

• If you agree that a society’s armed forces should try to reflect the society they are serving, then due to the barriers that many people from disadvantaged groups face, it is very difficult to make this happen without some form of positive discrimination or affirmative action.

• Positive discrimination can be a way of maximising a military’s capability by recruiting good people that would not normally have had a chance. It can also positively influence the military’s position in society.

• Is there any reason why someone with some kinds of disability (such as a lost limb due to military service) cannot carry out supporting roles?


• Sometimes it can be (or appear to be) discriminatory against those who are not part of the disadvantaged group.

• Some military roles cannot be undertaken by those without certain physical capabilities.

• Despite trying to remove divisions, such policies can be seen to be divisive by singling out one group of people for special attention.

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Is it in the best interests of society if the military is transparent and its actions can be examined freely?
What do you think? Should the causes of war and the actions in war always be examined? Is there anything that must be kept secret?

• Some information might have to be kept secret in order to protect individual and/or operational capability.

• If the military and its actions are as transparent as possible, and people are clearly accountable for their actions, then it can help it to develop its moral code and to promote good conduct.

• Public trust in military can also be maintained and enhanced by people being able to see it is working properly,

• As long as the government is accountable to the people, then the military should be seen to be working for the whole of society rather than vested interests.

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Should veterans have priority access to healthcare if they are injured during military service?
What do you think? What if this deprives civilians affected by the same condition of the healthcare that they need?

• Priority access to healthcare for those injured in service reflects the nation’s moral obligation to service personnel.

• This extends to both physical and mental conditions which may only become apparent in later life.

• Health professionals should have some understanding of the armed forces and armed forces culture.

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I should be fully prepared to die for my country before joining the military.
What do you think? What about if you change your mind whilst serving?

By enlisting in the military, you realise and acknowledge that you surrender certain rights, due to the nature of your job.

• You are therefore in a position of unlimited liability, as you may be subjected to situations which result in grave injury or even death.

• It is the Unlimited Liability Contract which sets those in the military apart from civilians.

• If you are no longer prepared to do this, it is not simply a matter of changing your mind – you have made an agreement which can only be changed under certain circumstances. 

See 8 of Diamonds

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You should be entitled to refuse to serve if you are ordered to use force against your own citizens.
What do you think? Is the order legal or not? Could the order ever be right?

• By enlisting in the military you lose a certain amount of your individual freedom and decision-making. You subordinate yourself to the chain of command and the collective will.

• However, although you are not fundamentally free to choose your mission, you still maintain your humanity – you cannot be made to do something that you fundamentally believe is wrong.

• You are obliged to disobey any order that is illegal (such as an order to use lethal force against unarmed peaceful protestors). However, force may be permitted if it is being employed in order to protect life.

See 5 of Diamonds, and 2 of Clubs

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Should those bereaved by military service be entitled to extra support from the state?
What do you think? Should support from the state extend to military families as well as to military personnel?

The Armed Forces Community includes the bereaved family members of military personnel. As part of the community, the bereaved should be supported by the state. This could be at any stage, including during any inquest into the death of a service person.

See Jack of Diamonds

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