Soldiers and Civilization

How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence

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.

Lecture at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, 1200, 29 November

Come one, come all! Copies of SAC for sale and signing.
Nat'l Museum of USN
LECTURE: Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence

12 P.M.-1 P.M., Bldg. 70, Washington Navy Yard, DC

In this lecture, Reed Robert Bonadonna will summarize some of the main arguments of his book of the same title including the profession of arms has made an important and usually unacknowledged contribution to the development of civilization, the profession of arms may be considered a branch of the humanities, and that soldiers will be called upon both to protect and to embody the values of civilization in the future. In effect, he is making a historical argument for the sense that many military members are much more than “managers of violence.”

General Kelly: Back to the Civ-Mil Divide?


The remarks of Gen. Kelly at a press briefing last week have excited considerable comment, quite a bit of it negative. Kelly stands accused of widening,worsening, or exaggerating the culture gap between civil and military communities in the U.S. In effect telling his civilian audience that they are not capable of understanding the experience of service members, maybe especially those who have seen combat and who’s friends have been killed.

That’s not quite what Kelly said, and maybe even less what he meant. Some of his remarks to the press were likely those of man still grieving and angry because he lost a son, and who probably gets fed up with his job sometimes, which must be one of the toughest in America. However, I’d like to weigh in on the matter of the civ-mil divide. It is a subject that keeps coming up. It’s important and it needs frequent re-revisiting.

First, I don’t think that Kelly said or meant that it was impossible for civilians to understand the experience of military people. I do think he was and is skeptical as to how many in his audience have made the effort. There really is nothing unique in human experience about being in the military and even going to war.  Anyone who has even been scared, tired, too cold or too hot for long periods, or for that matter has experienced deep feelings of professional satisfaction, of connectedness with others, can have a handle on what it’s like to be a soldier. But it’s not automatic. It takes an effort of empathy and imagination. People aren’t compelled to make this effort, but it is probably valuable for at least a segment of the civil populace to make the effort, especially those who, like many of those in the press briefing, write about defense and security issues. They should try to understand what might be called, in the words of novelist James Ellroy, the private nightmare of public policy.

One of the ways in which the gap can be bridged is through literature. More than this, some war literature offers a demonstration that the gap can be bridged through empathy, imagination, and language. Two of the greatest writers on war, Shakespeare and  Stephen Crane had never experienced when they wrote works like Henry V and The Red Badge of Courage (although Crane later witnessed war in Cuba).  Interestingly, one of Kelly’s favorite military books is The General, by C.S. Forester, who also never served.   

An understanding of military service on the part of civilians is attainable but neither automatic nor easily given.  In fact, such understanding isn’t inevitable even for service members themselves, absent a degree of reflection and again imagination. Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote that if suffering made us wise, all would be wise.  To understand ourselves and our own experience has always perhaps been the greatest challenge.




Roman Religion and The Spiritual Exercises.


I’ve been promising to get back to the Romans for some time, but been “out of integrity” on that promise, until now.  My stated intention was to talk about the Roman army and its approach to religion, and my reasons for putting off this post go beyond simple procrastination. (Although that was certainly involved.) In the terms I’ve introduced before, this is a 2nd to 3rd order question for me. I do address this matter in SAC, and I’m capable of saying a few things about it, but I’m quite sure that I don’t have the complete answer. In fact I haven’t even been very confident that I had a good handle on the subject. But after reflection and some additional reading, I do have some thoughts.

First, I like the rather eclectic, even tolerant and diverse approach to religion that was on display in the Roman army.  Especially as their holdings and empire spread, Roman soldiers had their pick of an assortment of local religions. They would have been expected to be respectful of the official Roman deities from Jupiter on down, but they could embrace other religions and even make up their own.   A favorite among soldiers was Mithraism, a Persian faith. It was based on a simple creation myth in which Mithras is ordered to kill the first living creature, a bull, by the sun god and his emissary the raven.  Mithras carries out his orders loyally but remorsefully, like an obedient soldier with a conscience.   Membership in Mithraism involved painful rituals that tested the applicant’s endurance.  The pragmatic Romans saw religion as a force-multiplier, but you had your pick.  Roman soldiers also worshiped gods with names like Honus and Disciplina. The relative open-mindedness of the Roman army on the subject of religion reflected their approach to citizenship. Former adversaries and subject people could qualify as citizens, especially if they were willing to serve in the army.  Again this was pragmatic.  If a person was willing to observe Roman law, there was a path to at least partial citizenship. If a man could make the timed marches and other requirements for a legionary (or auxiliary), no one much cared what he believed or what gods he worshiped.  The Romans also don’t appear to have fought wars over religion, although as we know if they got it into their heads that a religious group might be an enemy, they could be ruthless, maybe beyond what was called for.

Edward Gibbon, the author of the classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, thought that Christianity had an enervating effect on the Romans, but most modern historians who weigh in on this subject disagree.  Constantine converted to Christianity when he experienced an ecstatic vision of the cross just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which he won.  Like the earlier religions, Christianity could be a force-multiplier. Unfortunately, it didn’t go along with the old inclusivity. Christianity doesn’t seem to pair well with other religions, although Christian soldiers have embraced quasi-religious practices like Freemasonry. Later soldiers of empire from Christian backgrounds have also embraced the local forms of spirituality in the places where they were stationed, as depicted for example in Francis Yeates-Brown’s Lives of a Bengal Lancer. 

One of the reasons that I’m a little reticent on this subject is that I don’t have much of a religious sensibility myself.  I know that religion has been a powerful force in the lives of soldiers and others, but when I consider this phenomenon, I’m on the outside looking in. I’ve sometimes tried to fill this gap. Lately, I’ve been reading the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Loyola was a soldier who laid aside the sword to embrace a religious life. (He later founded the Jesuits.) Loyola’s laying aside of the sword was literal, since he placed his sword before the statue of the Virgin of Montserrat, but in a figurative sense his approach represents a fusion of the military officer and the religious person. Even his choice of title “Exercitia spiritualia” evokes the Latin word for army,“exercitus,” reflecting the Roman identification of the army with ceaseless training.  Loyola’s guide is intended to be read by the “spiritual director,” the religious mentor of the student undergoing the exercises. The routine of meditation, contemplation, and prayer is quite demanding, especially when combined with the cloistered and and ascetic surroundings in which they are meant to be conducted. There is also an emphasis on “discretio,” an ability to distinguished the greater from the lesser course, even when the distinction might be clouded.  The person doing the exercises is in search of self-knowledge as much as of faith. Loyola’s Exercises unite the dedication and self-denial required of both the religious and military professional. It may not be an exaggeration to describe his twenty-eight day intensive program as a spiritual “boot camp.” (Although he allows for a more spread-out, “distance education” version!) It may also be thought of as the classical mold for military mentoring, and not without its secular uses today.