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HIST3230 The Ethics of War

Module Overview

Wars have been fought throughout the history of mankind. Ethical concerns that they raised, or, in other words, the rights and wrongs of waging war, have been discussed from time immemorial. War has often been seen as an evil, a necessary evil, to be avoided when possible. On the other hand, there have always been circumstances in which the resort to war and violence was accepted or justified, and even, in particular instances, praised or celebrated. The ‘if’ and ‘why’ a war can be fought are at the heart of the ethics of war and the so-called ‘just war theory’. However, the legitimacy of a war is not the only concern, not at least, according to modern International Humanitarian Laws (IHL), according to which a just war has to be fought in a just way. The IHL rules over the conduct of war, defining the rights and status of both combatants and non-combatants alike. Historians often see a fundamental rupture between pre- and post- Geneva Conventions, rebuffing the legacy of the past. Yet the past may help to understand why the Conventions are not always successfully upheld in the modern world. This module will take a wide historical perspective on the ethics of war, looking at ancient, medieval and modern interpretation of why and how wars should be fought. By no means, however, will our reflection remain purely theoretical. In order to understand the context and evolution of the establishment of the norms or rules of war (and the societies that make them), it is fundamentally necessary to observe their historical applications: why and how wars were fought is at least as important as why and how wars should be fought.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

- Consider theories on the ethics of war and just war - Examine and compare approaches to the ethics of war in different periods of history - Investigate how the ethics of war are applied in practice from the ancient to the modern world - Evaluate the degree of continuity or rupture in these approaches over a large chronological span

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The evolution of the concept of just war and the just war theory
  • The concept of a culture of war
  • The connections between law, politics and religion
  • The framework for the development of the laws of war
  • The distant origins of International Humanitarian Laws
  • The status of the combatant and non-combatant throughout history
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Work independently and unsupervised on complex tasks
  • Display effective time management
  • Interact purposefully, productively and confidently with both your tutor and peers
  • Make valuable, critical and valued contributions to discussions and debates
  • Communicate a coherent and convincing argument on both oral and written formats
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Gather, assimilate, synthesise and interpret a range of primary and secondary material
  • Comment upon complex debates, citing relevant evidence in support of your own views
  • Demonstrate significant depth of knowledge and insight into the just war theory and the laws of war
  • Draw upon your acquired knowledge in debate, essays and under timed conditions
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Identify key factors that influence the conduct of war
  • Explain discrepancies between theory and practices of war
  • Appreciate and discuss the historical dimension of the laws of war
  • Critically analyse foundational texts relating to the ethics of war and assess their relative impacts on behaviour during war
  • Identify and explain diverse types of warfare from conquest and occupation to civil war


An indicative list of seminars, depending on lecturer availability: - What are the ethics of war? - The concept of just war in the Roman world - The status of the Roman military - The status of the conquered in the Roman world - The concept of just war in the medieval world - The status of men-at-arms and prisoners of war in medieval world - The status of non-combatants in the medieval world - The concept of just war in the modern world - The status of combatants in the modern world - The status of non-combatants in modern world

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include - Lectures - Seminars including detailed reading and analysis of primary sources – including texts, images or objects - Student presentations on key examples and events Learning activities include - In depth analysis of primary sources - Preparatory reading and individual study - Individual participation in seminars, group work and short presentations on seminar themes

Follow-up work56
Completion of assessment task100
Preparation for scheduled sessions108
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Dillon S. and Welch K, eds (2006). Representations of War in ancient Rome. 

Duffy, H. (2015). The “War on Terror” and the Framework of International Law. 

Stuart Gottlieb (ed.) (2013). Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Conflicting Perspectives on Causes, Contexts, and Responses. 

Walzer, M (2015). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 

Roberts, A., and Guelff, R. (2015). Documents on the Laws of War. 

Campbell, B., and Tritle, L.A, eds, (2013). The Oxford handbook of warfare in the Classical World. 

Solis, G. (2010). The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War. 

Afflerbach H., and Strachan H., eds. (2012). How Fighting Ends: A History of Surrender. 

Wright, N.A.R (1998). Knights and Peasants: the Hundred Years War in the French Countryside. 

Russell, F.H. (1975). The Just War in the Middle Ages. 

Jordan Paust (2007). Beyond the Law: The Bush Administration’s Unlawful Responses in the “War” on Terror. 

Rich, J. and Shipley, G. (1993). War and Society in the Roman World. 

Keen M. (1965). The laws of war in the later Middle Ages. 

Ambühl, R (2013). Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages. 

Goldsworthy, A.K (1996). The Roman Army at War. 

Howard, M., Andreopoulos, G.J, and Shulman, M.R., eds. (1994). The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World. 

Myra Williamson. Terrorism, War and International Law: The Legality of the Use of Force Against Afghanistan in 2001. 

Reichberg, G.M., Syse, H., and Begby, E., eds. (2006). The Ethics of War: Classic and Contemporary Readings. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 50%
Exam  (2 hours) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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