About the Book

Soldiers and Civilization covers the history of the military profession in the Western World from the ancient Greeks to the present day. Drawing from military history, sociology, and other disciplines, it goes beyond traditional insights to locate the military profession in the context of both literary and cultural history. Reed Bonadonna maintains that soldiers have made an unacknowledged contribution to the theory and practice of civilization, and that they will again be called upon to do so in important ways. The comprehensive nature of the book and the extent to which Bonadonna draws on the disciplines of the humanities to make his points set this volume apart from others on the subject. The military profession, in its broadest consideration, might be viewed as an interdisciplinary branch of the humanities. A soldier is made of the words of history, poetry, and the laws and language of his calling. With each new conflict, the military may be called upon to preserve the values of civilization. To fulfill its future role, the military professionals of today must know, heed, and apply the examples and narratives of the most successful and exemplary military professionals of the past at their best.

Review of On Obedience, Part 1

Posting here the first half of the review I’ll be sending to a journal (with prior approval) in a couple of days. I’ll post the second half tomorrow. I repeat some of my earlier comments on the book, but also some new material. Comments welcome, especially (but not only) if you’ve read the book!

On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community, Pauline Shanks Kaurin (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2020), 288 pp. $37.95 cloth, $28.49 ebook.

Professor Pauline Shanks Kaurin, a professor in the College of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College and the Admiral James B. Stockdale Chair in Professional Military Ethics, has written an important, engaging, and timely book on obedience. As her subtitle suggests, Professor Shanks Kaurin’s latest book is a work of military ethics that is also concerned with civil matters.

            I read On Obedience in the second week of November, 2020, a time when questions of military and civil obedience had suddenly become very pressing and immediate. There were serious questions about what the defeated incumbent president would do for a finale, or even an encore. If the president tried to use military force to remain in power, imposing some measure of martial law, or to launch an unprovoked attack somewhere as a final gesture of defiance and unhinged self-assertion, would the military obey? Later, flagrant disobedience was shown by the service members who participated in the January on the U.S. Capitol, an act  in clear violation of Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice which prohibits “mutiny and sedition.” Prior to these events, the incumbent president had engaged in behavior which had the potential to weaken the legal and moral underpinnings of military discipline: cancelling courts martial or overturning their decisions on scant justification and attempting to politicize the armed forces by involving military personnel in partisan political events.  The crisis of military discipline represented by the last administration and its disorderly departure seems to have passed, but we have been given a reminder of the importance, and the complexity, of the matter of obedience in the military and civil spheres.

Along with its importance to civil-military relations and civilian control of the military, obedience is at the heart of military professionalism. Military recruits are trained from their first day to obey orders virtually without question. The often-stated justification for this is that their civilian lives have been so undisciplined and free from constraint that a corrective must be applied. Another professed rationale for strict military obedience is that the battlefield demands unhesitating obedience in situations when it might sometimes be quite reasonable to refuse an order, for example in the interests of one’s safety!   The military also prizes initiative, however, and it might be argued that battles are won, not so much by blind obedience, as by soldiers taking intelligent actions often in the absence of orders and sometimes even against their instructions. It was Tolstoy who observed that nowhere was man so free as in a life and death struggle.

            Professor Shanks Kaurin approaches the matter of obedience first in a manner consistent with her background in ethics. She correctly asserts that discussions of obedience have tended to focus on matters of practicality and legality, neglecting ethical arguments. Painstakingly, somewhat in the manner of Aquinas, she tries to map out the “elements, nature, and essence” (p. 17) of obedience, placing it alongside such other categories as duty, obligation, respect, honor, and discipline. Some of these other concepts may seem richer and more beguiling than the rather bald matter of obedience, but obedience is where these other matters translate to action. Professor Shanks Kaurin concludes, aligning with Alastair Macintyre’s work on virtue ethics, that obedience is a social virtue, related to the moral virtues of justice and prudence, and that it is best understood in a historical and cultural context of shared experience and values.  Her model for the practice of obedience/disobedience is negotiation. The question of whether or not to obey is not simply a matter between the person giving the orders and the individual receiving them, but a discourse taking place within a community of values. In the negotiation presumably initiated by the questioning recipient of orders, a conversation would take place based on a common language of some of the elements Shanks Kaurin discusses in her book: duty, obligation, honor, along with the restraint of force and the ideals that inhere in the Constitution. Obedience and disobedience for her is not a simple either/or distinction, but a “range of intention and action” (p.111). In effect, Shanks Kaurin steers a middle course between those who would grant a large amount of autonomy to the recipient of orders, based on conscience or some other individualistic sense of right and wrong, and those who expect a presumption of obedience except in the most extreme or clear-cut cases.

Next: Training and Reading for better obedience.

Joint Ethics Code of the Armed Forces of the United States of America (Draft)

Here is my attempt at a Joint Ethics Code. Comments welcome of course.

This Joint Ethics Code will apply to all members of the Armed Forces of the United States and Defense Department. It reflects and encapsulates aspects of the U.S. Constitution, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). In effect, the Joint Ethics Code supplements and reinforces the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the service Core Values, the U.S. Code of Conduct and the Constitutional Oath. The Joint Ethics Code states the values that inhere in the Constitution and other documents that broadly define the ethical obligations of service in the Armed Forces of the United States.         

  1. As a member of the United States Armed Forces, I will never dishonor my country or my uniform by turning my weapons on the unarmed: on civilians, on the wounded or disabled, on prisoners or those attempting to surrender. Nor will I engage in beatings or torture towards any person.
  2. If I learn of acts of violence towards the unarmed, I will report this to my chain of command, without fear or favor.
  3. If in command, I will pursue all reports of violence towards the unarmed until I am satisfied that the demands of justice and of the highest traditions of an honorable profession have been met.
  4. I will set an example of my commitment to human rights and diversity, to gender, racial, and ethnic equality, and I will exert myself to ensure that my fellow service members do likewise.
  5. I will refrain from private commercial or partisan political activity on duty or in uniform.
  6. I will respect the religious beliefs or absence of religious belief in my fellow service members, and I will never seek to impose my own beliefs on those junior to me in rank.    
  7. I will demonstrate respect for the institutions of democracy and support for the electoral and legislative process.   
  8. I will never place loyalty to my unit, to an individual, or to my service branch above the interests of the nation, the lives of my fellow service members, or the truth in all matters.   
  9. In war, I will seek an honorable victory gained at the lowest possible cost in lives and suffering.   
  10.  I never forget that my I and my fellow service members are members of an honorable profession, American citizens with Constitutional rights, and human beings entitled to opportunities to grow and flourish, that our lives have value even as circumstances may require us to hazard our lives.   

Wanted: A Joint Ethics Code for the Armed Forces

     This post follows on some suggestions I’ve made in the past concerning a military ethics code. I may want to submit the piece as a op-ed somewhere. Comments welcome.

About a year and a half ago, I attended the annual McCain Conference on military ethics held at the U.S. Naval Academy. The subject was “Moral Injury and Moral Virtue.” I came away from that conference with the sense that the American military needed an explicit moral code. Recent events have renewed this belief, and I want here to state briefly why we need such a code, what it might look like, and how the armed forces could put the code into effect, making it a part of military culture, one that is much needed.  

            At the 2019 McCain Conference, the prevalence of Moral Injury, or MI, was a major concern. Why were so many servicemembers reporting that had been witness or a party to dubious or very reprehensible behavior, leading in some cases to the undermining of their own moral foundations, to feelings of apathy and hopelessness? One speaker cited an estimate that between 14-28% of Operation Iraqi freedom veterans have been responsible for a non-combatant death. How could this be prevented? Many theories were advanced, but a few simple ideas stood out. Character is not enough to prevent the actions that lead to MI, and that of course can have other, even more serious and immediate effects, such as the death of innocents. The enforcement of standards is often required to restrain misconduct, especially in in extremis conditions like combat. Clear cut rules of behavior have to be invoked and repeated. 

Some developments in the culture of the armed forces have reinforced the need for a written moral code. White supremacist groups have been able to recruit in all branches. Some of those who attacked the Capitol on 6 January were, shamefully, military veterans, reserve, or active service members. The idea that racist and fascist ideology is compatible with military service, even that it complements service in the American armed forces has been allowed to take hold and to grow.

A positive way for the armed forces to combat this unacceptable view is to adopt an ethical code that spells out the ethical requirements of military service. Such a code could also have the effect of helping to deter the kinds of action that bring on MI, actions often harmful in themselves and that bring discredit on the uniform.  Such a code would lay stress on the importance of human rights, dignity, and diversity. It would prohibit the maltreatment of prisoners and other noncombatants, in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). It would call on individuals to report violations of the code, and on leaders and commanders to pursue such reports until they are satisfied that the demands of justice and of the highest traditions of an honorable profession have been met.

Some might argue that since the armed forces already have the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the Code of Conduct, the Oath to the Constitution, and the various service “Core Values,” the addition of an ethical code is unnecessary. I reply that all of these aspects of military culture, while necessary, are not sufficiently explicit or effective in the ethical arena, as indicated by some of the best thinking on the subject of military ethics and some current challenges to the honor and effectiveness of the military. It is possible that some of the veterans who attacked the Capitol may have been suffering from MI, and that this may affect, although it does not excuse, their behavior. The point must be made too that the wide-ranging authority and sheer firepower often wielded by military personnel places ethics at the heart of the military profession, not as mere adornment but as the sine qua non. Moral purpose is what most significantly distinguishes the soldier from the thug or gunman.  

A written code, however carefully written or widely disseminated, will of course not be enough. It should be subject to extensive input and scheduled review. It will need the support of commanders and of the military’s extensive education and training system. It will require resources and new expertise, but done right, it will be worth the cost in time and money. In a sense, such a code would join the armed forces to the rest of the nation in what many of us hope will be a period of national renewal, a time of unity, of liberty and justice for all, and an opportunity to renew our ideals and sacred honor.     

PPS to “Honor Intact?” Is Military Culture at Fault?

I’d like first to amend some of my recent remarks on the Capitol police. As the full story emerges, it appears that some individual officers performed well. Furthermore, one died of wounds received and another appears to have committed suicide. I believe that these men were failed by their leadership, an idea borne out by the resignation of senior Capitol police officers. Some of the rank and file were likely responsible for the mission failure, but not all, and some have paid a heavy price.

Another fact that is emerging from the attack on the Capitol concerns the numbers of military veterans, reservists, and active duty members who participated. Some voices have been raised attributing this to white supremacist and other extreme ideologies. The presence of white supremacists among military members and veterans is a problem. Their numbers may not be high, but even a small percentage can have a detrimental effect on unit cohesion and effectiveness, introducing elements of divisiveness that have no place in a military unit. Also, the training that service members receive may make them especially dangerous if they turn to violence, and not only because of their training in weapons and combat skills. Some also have training in communications, in cyber operations, in tactics and small-unit leadership that might be useful to an insurgent or terrorist group.

In this post, I will briefly address some of the root causes for some military members to find extreme ideologies attractive. These root causes include the military tendency towards authoritarianism, the preponderance of males and hyper-masculine attitudes in the military, the appeal of violent solutions to problems, and the self-righteousness and sense of entitlement of some service members and veterans.

In his classic and seminal, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Norman Dixon advances the theory that much military incompetence is due to the tendency of military service to attract and cultivate authoritarian personalities. I have written elsewhere of this tendency to explain why some military members have (and even continue) to support Donald Trump. The authoritarian tendencies of some soldiers may also explain why they are attracted to openly fascistic, racist, even to neo-Nazi movements, all of which are strongly authoritarian. In fact, fascism and Nazism have their origins with discontented veterans of World War I. They are militant ideologies of perpetual war, in which all are subjected to mock-military discipline.

The second feature of military forces that can contribute to extremism is that they are mostly male and often given to hyper-masculine attitudes. This can breed an unbalanced preference for direct action, for harsh language, for (as Ezra Pound says) “love of slaughter, in imagination,” and a contempt for moderation and deliberation. This is connected to the preference for violent solutions. Soldiers have been trained in violence, and they can come to see violent means as the preferred or only solution to a problem. This might even contribute to the military propensity for suicide. Of course, more thoughtful and reflective soldiers, perhaps those with more service, also come to see the limitations, the dual-edged nature of violence, but for others the appeal of violent acts remains.

The last, perhaps most serious and least becoming of the tendencies that lead soldiers and veterans to extremism is the exaggerated sense of entitlement, the Kipling-esque feeling of services and virtue unrewarded. Some military people feel wronged for legitimate reasons, and they may express this feeling in a variety of ways, some productive and some not, but in its extreme form, and especially in an immature or unfulfilled person, the sense of grievance can drive them into political extremism and even political violence: Attitudes and acts which, although political in expression, are usually psychological and even pathological in origin. Related to entitlement is self-righteousness, which a character in Anton’s Myrer’s novel Once an Eagle calls “the occupational disease of the soldier . . . and the worst sin in all the world.”

Some of the forgoing tendencies may be the result of self-selection, but others can be the product of military service itself, perhaps abetted by poor leadership. Leaders should be aware of the signs of extremism in the soldiers they lead and those others around them. A soldier’s comrades can help to talk her down from extreme positions. On an institutional level, to repeat a proposal I made in a previous post (and also elsewhere), it may be time for a joint military ethics code, one that stresses human rights, dignity and diversity along with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).

Anyone interested in reading more on the subject of military group think, mis-think and their cures can consult my book, How to Think Like an Officer!