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.

George Orwell, Class and Race in America

            A few weeks ago, I bought at a library book sale a copy of Wendy Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering. Lesser revisits some of her old literary favorites, reflecting on their appeal and how they have worn with her. One writer whom she still admires, but more guardedly than when she was an undergrad or graduate student, is George Orwell. I share some of Lesser’s enthusiasm for Orwell. I was impressed by the nuanced way she put this almost unimpeachable figure, this literary saint, into perspective, reminding me a little Orwell’s own reflections on Rudyard Kipling and the “penny dreadfuls” of his youth.    

            One of the Orwell passages that Lesser quotes with apparent approval is from The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell writes about social class in England.

“…to get outside the class-racket I have got to suppress not merely my private snobbishness, but most of my other tastes and prejudices as well. I have got to alter myself so completely that at the end I should hardly be recognizable as the same person.”

Orwell might be talking about attitudes towards race among white people in the US. Our attitude towards race, which comes down to a presumption of Caucasian superiority, is so deeply ingrained by history, culture, and education that it probably requires a transformation to overcome. I don’t take Orwell or Lesser to mean that it is not worth the effort to overcome race/class prejudice, but that people (liberals and progressives especially) may imagine that they have rid themselves of them while they have really only scratched the surface, merely redecorating when structural change is necessary. Orwell became a tramp and dishwasher (as recorded in Down and Out in Paris and London) as a form of penance for his own class privilege and possibly to help rid himself of class prejudice. His military service in the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War may have had a similar motive. My own military service, my deployment to Iraq especially, gave me a sense of the kinship of all people, despite the fact that I saw the country as a combatant, and that I found much of Iraqi alien and even repellent.

            I was reminded of this feeling listening to a podcast featuring Harvard psychologist Donna Hicks.  Hicks’ main subject is dignity, a regard for the “inherent value and worth” of individuals, a form of regard that does not have to be earned, unlike respect, or trust, which must be earned and once forfeited are hard to regain. Hicks also argues that behavior can alter attitudes. By expressing ourselves and acting on the principle of universal dignity, an inner belief in dignity may begin to take hold.  The Black Lives Matter movement is an appeal to dignity, to the worthiness of all lives, even if we feel remote or even estranged from them, separated by race, class, culture, or nationality.

The idea of dignity is related to empathy, a subject on which I have posted in this blog following a workshop on strategic empathy and foreign policy that I attended in May. Dignity has the advantage over empathy in that it is not dependent on shared experience or even values. Dignity is a given. It may be that both ideas are valuable in the areas of human relations. An attention to dignity may enable us to uncover unexpected commonalities that can lead to empathy, trust, and respect, perhaps eventually overcoming the prejudices that we have been so carefully taught.

Coming: More on Dignity   

Can the Wicked Govern Well? With Examples Classic and Contemporary

I have been considering an article on this subject for some time. Finally, and not for the first time, it took an article from the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) to get me going. British politician Rory Stewart wrote an essay in the 20 August TLS called “Take off the mask.” Drawing on what he terms the “moral corrosion” of his own life in politics, Stewart defends against Machiavellianism an earlier humanist tradition that stressed the importance of virtue in those who govern. In doing so, he cites a recent book, Virtue Politics by historian James Hankins (reviewed in the 20 February TLS). This tradition of Renaissance humanism chronicled by Hankins begins with Petrarch, and it was opposed to the ideas of those who thought that better laws were the answer to the lawlessness and violence of the 14th century. Citing the Roman example, Petrarch and the others who followed him argued that the key to better governance and relations was not to be found in law, but in the character of those governing. Modern political scientists also generally have returned to a focus not on virtue but on “Constitutional structures.” In fact, this is in the American tradition, as Stewart points out.  Since James Madison’s Federalist Papers it has been assumed that a separation of powers could make up for the personal deficiencies of those in authority.

            Among kings, the poster-child for the unvirtuous but generally successful ruler may be the English Henry VIII. Henry was a bad man in many ways. He was a manipulative bully who catered greedily and ruthlessly to his own appetites. He also strengthened and enriched the English nation as perhaps no other monarch before him. He laid the keel of the Royal Navy and sent English ships to explore the globe. I would argue that Henry is something of a special case. He was, first of all, born and educated to rule from the beginning, undergoing a preparation for the monarchical role he would eventually fill that few can equal. He also began fairly well, as courtier, athlete, and scholar. Later, perhaps, falling victim to the “moral corrosion” of the life political. If someone begins as, say, an amoral, unlearned, outer-borough real estate salesman, that person has far less distance to travel before hitting rock bottom, maybe especially given a family history of criminal megalomania.        

Reading Stewart’s article reminded me sometimes of Anthony King’s book Command, on which I have posted in this blog. From King’s book, I came to conclude that human factors, like character and community, count even more than the structures and organization of military command. I think the same rule applies to government. To answer my titular question, the wicked cannot govern well. In fact, it probably requires more than the absence of wickedness to resist to tendency of a career in politics to erode one’s ability to reason ethically and critically, to overcome the political tendency to think in slogans, to tell people what they want to hear instead of what is so. The low opinion of humanity implicit in the Machiavellian view that now seems predominant may seem knowing and even inevitable, but it ignores the truth that people can be motivated by high ideals like justice.  The state and the individual are best served if we seek both a belief in the potential for virtue in ourselves and our fellows and in the importance of virtue, the “ordinary virtues” espoused by Michael Ignatieff and others: truth-telling, civility towards others, courage combined with humility. Without these, no political system can save us.  

One of the pitfalls of political life discussed by Stewart is the desire to remain in power no matter the cost in injustice and unprincipled behavior. In America, this is on display now most of all in the efforts to suppress voting rights. These who are beginning to realize that the national demographics and polling are increasingly against them have resorted to extraordinary measures to ensure that only some American citizens can vote. From this flows attendant evils: the neglect of climate change, the suppression of effective practices to protect people against COVID-19, the privileging of the rights of corporations and the wealthy against those of the majority of citizens.

Americans have sometimes acted as if they could do as they pleased, as long as they stayed within the law, or even as long as they evaded prosecution. Such licentious behavior has even been regarded as in a way virtuous, in that it has been seen as an exercise of liberty, of inalienable or God-given right. This is a kind of moral relativism, and if the nation has even been able to afford this kind of thinking and behavior, we not longer can. The times are too challenging. We are ringed around with existential threats and grave moral dangers. It’s time for us to think of what is right, not just what is allowed, and to hold those who govern to a high standard in this regard.                  

Command, Part 2: The Human and Social Factor, with Remarks on Afghanistan

The failings of Ewell/Hunt are perhaps less conceptual or cognitive than personal, or we might say ethical, failings that fed their drive to deliver results, no matter the methods used or the uncounted cost involved, and furthered heir self-interested desire for advancement.  The personal in aggregate becomes the social. Just as human qualities continue to be a significant factor in war, the social bonds uniting a military organization never lose their significance, although the nature of these connections may vary depending on the type of army, whether revolutionary, citizen/conscript, mercenary, professional, or other.  One place in King’s book where the human or social factor emerges is in his discussion of meetings. Often despised and dreaded as a waste of valuable time, as an occasion for self-promotion and unproductive dialogue, the meeting for King is not just an opportunity to share information, but a time for the participants to cement relationships and renew commitments to the mission and to each other. Some meetings are occasions for “heightened emotional commitment” that may be both rare and significant, and especially needed when it comes time to work together in a crisis. The staff and commander give one another emotional, and in effect professional, support, whether with thanks, humor, guidance or the odd “Airborne!” or “Oo-Rah!” 

             The commander draws strength from the staff as well as ideas. King identifies three main functions of command: mission identification, mission management, and mission motivation. Under collective command, mission identification is the most dominated by the commander; mission management, which may be said to resemble the “control” half of the traditional “command and control” dyad, is most the business of the staff; while mission motivation, normally thought to be the province of the commander, is sometimes shared with the staff, who may be said to both reciprocate and also to relay the commander’s efforts to motivate people to accomplish the mission.

            Another tool of command that has gained in importance is the decision point. In a sense, the decision point represents an act of humility on the part of the commander. The DP is a point in space/time at which the commander may have to make a decision. Modern decision points are ringed around with various requirements and conditions. Some of these are critical go/no go criteria, like helicopter lift for an airmobile or air assault operation; some are more subjective, and they may even be hard to determine, like the state of the enemy’s morale or the attitude of an indigenous population. But the DP is an important tool, albeit less so in crisis or situation that defies one’s earlier expectations. In effect, the DP may be said to limit the commander’s options at the decisive moment by establishing in advance how a decision will be made. The commander may of course go against the conditions of a DP and decide otherwise, although in doing so she acts in opposition to a professional consensus in which he had a part.   

            The voluntary yielding of what may seem the commander’s own omnipotence is not without precedent. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a marked contrast between the command styles of Napoleon and the eventually victorious Russian Kutuzov. Napoleon always insists on imposing his will, in spite of adversity and the will of others. Kutuzov is seen to bow to the inevitable, for a time. For long weeks and months, he recognizes that the conditions to take on Napoleon’s Grande Armee in a decisive engagement have not been met. He allows Napoleon to wear himself out on the Russian countryside and deplete his forces in a deserted Moscow. Command has never been absolute but has always had to take in a variety of competing factors. Those who insist otherwise, who yield to hubris, are those who fail most catastrophically.            

There is a reminder of this in our recent withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those willing to fight on might ask themselves what more fighting, with all the attendant, reciprocal, collateral destruction and loss of life, would accomplish that twenty years of skill and sacrifice could not.  If we were to line up the conditions under which a continued or renewed conflict would be justified, it is hard to imagine that these conditions have been met, even at the most optimistic valuation. We have found before that even the immense resources and military power of the United States do not always prevail. The Taliban may also be getting a lesson in the limits of mere military victory. Afghanistan has changed in the last twenty years, with higher rates of literacy and a greater awareness of opportunities and of the outside world. With the Taliban apparently trying to court some semblance of normal international relations, it may be awkward for them to apply their customary methods to hold back the forces of change.  Meanwhile, like Kutuzov, we may be well to observe events and await our opportunities.