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.

Heroes and Villains, Part 2

How to tap the considerable potential of veterans to the larger society?  The armed forces, the civil community, and veterans themselves, in groups or as individuals, can contribute to this undertaking. Maximizing the contributions made by veterans can begin during military service. Without endorsing any organizations, but perhaps offering choices of veteran’s groups, the armed forces might include a conversation on continuing service as part of the transition to civil life. This conversation could involve current veterans, to include those with disabilities, who have continued to serve after being discharged.  Some veteran’s organization are largely social, others political or service-oriented, or a mixture of all three. Some have largely been concerned with veteran’s rights and privileges. Others, especially recently, have served wide causes of social justice and civil rights, in effect extending the soldier’s ideal of selfless service beyond the period of enlistment. College students have formed veteran’s groups to foster community and explore solutions to the problems of the transition from the military to the academy. Other groups specialize in creative and artistic pursuits for veterans, sometimes as means of therapy. The veteran’s organizations that are active in a newly discharge veteran’s hometown or region should welcome the returning veteran, in person if possible. Of course, not all public service organizations are composed of veterans. Volunteer firefighter and rescue, service clubs, scouts, big brother/sister, to name only a few, offer opportunities for service and for the membership, affiliation, comradeship and sense of purpose many veterans find lacking in their post-military lives. Steering veterans towards lives of useful service could also serve to draw them away from affiliation with extremist groups or gangs, from rootlessness and self-destructive behavior.        

Veterans themselves have the biggest role in deciding whether and how they will contribute to society. Some may find meaning in the kind of work they do, as public servants, teachers, professional activists or artists. For others, work may be just a job, and they will seek greater meaning elsewhere, as a volunteer or amateur. But perhaps the greatest choice of all for veterans is the spirit with which they pursue their post-military selves. Veterans must decide how to interpret and live with their own backgrounds of military service. In simplest form, the choice is this, whether to retreat into a small tribe, perhaps consisting of fellow veterans and family, or to join a wider circle of their community and of humanity. In many cases, the choices veterans make affect not just themselves but others, and sometimes many others. Aside from troubling their own friends and family, veterans can become a burden and even a threat. Unfortunately, his service has often equipped her to be serious threat, just as it has given her some of the skills and abilities to be useful and helpful.

Military service has the potential to either limit or expand a person’s range of of the people we regard as fully human. It can result in a broadening or narrowing of sympathies, in feelings of responsibility or of entitlement, in humor or humorlessness, in righteousness or self-righteousness, in kindness and charity or callousness.  The veteran’s attitude will of course be shaped by her experiences, by the caliber of leadership to which he was exposed, frankly in part to fortune. Veterans have seen people at their best and their worst: heroism and cowardice, kindness and cruelty. They may be both proud of their service and ashamed of things they’ve done, witnessed, or been a party to.   I admit to being lucky in this regard. Most of the leadership and conduct I was exposed to was on the plus side, and my interactions with local people on campaign, in Lebanon and Iraq, served to enhance my sense of a shared humanity. I remember visiting a family in Iraq. They were living in a bombed-out building and seemed to own almost nothing, but they insisted on us taking tea with them. We gave their little boy some hard candy from our MREs, and his delight in this treat was infectious, maybe to me especially, as one who had left three boys of my own at home, standing on the train platform with their mother in Larchmont, New York.

The veteran’s attitude and approach to civil life is also a matter of choice. Veterans with severe physical or psychic wounds have nevertheless gone on to lives of service, while others who are unscathed descend to bitterness and self-righteousness, blaming others for choices of their own and for troubles of their own making.  The veteran may be suffering from trauma or some other form of impairment that make good choices difficult, but positive relationships with a diverse group of people can be part of the cure.  The veteran has the choice of whether to seek out and cultivate human relationships, some of them perhaps outside his own circle, not all of them with veterans, and some at least with people different as to race, religious and political views, or to reject them.

Veterans should also be aware of that for which they are most admired. It is neither for combat skills nor toughness nor for the figure they cut in the combat or dress uniform. It is for the ideal of service that they represent, their professed willingness to subordinate self to a worthy cause and to others. It is humility, not pride, which most becomes the veteran, although perhaps both have their place. To serve was a privilege for which they should be grateful. They may choose inclusion or isolation, service or entitlement. Even if damaged, they could play a great part in the healing of our divided country. 

Heroes and Villains, Part 1

Heroes and Villains: Military Veterans and Civil Society, Part 1

            Since the beginning of armies and organized warfare, that is, since the start of human society, soldiers and former soldiers have been feared and revered, deified, and despised in roughly equal measure. The extremes of opinion have often been unjustified, if not entirely incomprehensible. Soldiers and military veterans have been associated with some of humanity’s highest ideals and aspirations, and inescapably with scenes and acts of atavism and barbarity.  They have played a unique role in the saga of nations, culture, and civilization.[i] Recent events have raised the question of the veteran’s role in civil society. There is an historic gap, it would seem, between the potential of veterans to contribute to society and the success with which they realize and fulfill this role.   

            The veteran story is very old. One of the seminal works of western literature, the Odyssey, is concerned with the life of a veteran. Another veteran of Troy who returns home to his wife and a different reception from that experienced by Odysseus is his commander Agamemnon!  The legend of Robin Hood is based partly on the medieval soldiers who took to the woods and turned outlaw. Bandit veterans became a scourge during the early modern period. In later years veterans became the object of sentimental social concern, perhaps culminating in the works of Rudyard Kipling and his many appeals for veterans’ relief and respect.  Veterans again become centers of attention after World War I and the “lost generation,” some of whom formed the nuclei of the fascist organizations that troubled the peace of Europe and the world for decades, and of which remnants survive to this day. The dysfunctional, unassimilated veteran was a subject of both fear and solicitude in America after the Vietnam War. Consideration of the veteran has not been limited to the west. The unemployed Samurai is a stock figure of much Japanese literature. The prestige of American soldiers and vets rose in the latter years of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, but veterans have also been linked with higher rates of mental illness and suicide in recent years.[ii] Finally, revelations about the disproportionate number of veterans among those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 raised questions about the nature of military and veteran culture.  The dangerous, outlaw veteran has not left us, it would seem. Since the attack, greater attention has been focused on the appeal for veterans of certain extremist groups, and it has been learned that these groups often actively recruit service members and veterans. Veterans have skills that might be useful to an extremist organization, not in weaponry or combat skills only, but in organizing, leadership, and communications. Because of their service, veterans often possess what social scientists term charisma, a quality of leadership often based on unusual experiences. Further, given the continued prestige of the armed forces in America, the presence of numbers of veterans in the ranks of an organization may serve to give it an aura of legitimacy that it would not otherwise have and that it may not deserve.    

The relationship of the veteran to her military experience may be complex. Leaving the service is often experienced as liberating and humanizing. No longer is one subject to discipline and command. The military dictates where a person lives, the work he does, and what he wears; every moment of the servicemember’s day may be subject to a rigid schedule and set procedures. At any moment, someone of superior rank can make demands that may seem unreasonable or overbearing. Service members often live in harsh, comfortless, dangerous conditions. They may experience painful and debilitating mental and physical wounds, and the wounding and death of friends. Given all of this, it may be surprising that veterans often experience nostalgia for their service. It is sometimes their departed youth that they miss, but it is often much more than that. They may long for the sense of purpose and order, the admiring looks a person in the unform of his country often receives, and perhaps especially the experience of comradeship. For many, at least in retrospect, military service is the most significant period in their lives. The absence left by the termination of military service may be hard to fill, and some veterans spend their lives searching for a substitute. Veterans’ search for meaning may make them vulnerable to the appeals of false gods and corrupt ideologies, or it may empower them to serve. Their charisma may be meretricious, but if united with  strength and probity it can be a great force for good. The adaptability, resiliency, and leadership skills  that veterans may acquire in their service can be useful in bringing about positive change.   


[i] Reed Robert Bonadonna, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017).

[ii] 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed online 31 March 20.  

Review of On Obedience, 2nd Half

Shanks Kaurin defends her “negotiation” approach to obeying orders by citing such aspects of modern military culture as “Mission Command” and what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley has called “disciplined disobedience” (100).  She discusses how wargames and other forms of tactical training can be employed to explore the opportunities for “disciplined disobedience” in war. In fact, one of the benefits of tactical training, in the field especially, has always been that it can help to establish the degree of control and compliance necessary to accomplish a mission. What decisions must be kept at higher headquarters, and what questions can be left to initiative, to an understanding of the stated commander’s intent, and to a grounding in the basics of military operations to include Rules of Engagement (ROE), and the standards of proportionality and discrimination in the employment of fires?   

            For the soldier, especially for the good solder, in fact for most of us, obedience is easy, disobedience is hard. Disobedience based on ethical, as opposed to tactical or legal considerations may be especially difficult, in part because the way of ethical disobedience is under-examined and largely unexplored. I once heard a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff express surprise at a high-ranking military lawyer’s assertion that there was no provision in military for purely ethical disobedience. The fact that someone who had been the senior officer of the U.S. armed forces was unaware of this fact strongly suggests that the matter of disobedience has received too little attention in the armed forces, and I would be surprised if this lack of attention did not extend to most civic and professional communities. Professor Shanks Kaurin has performed a great service by creating a guide for the discussion and the practice of obedience and disobedience. Her calls on military education to aim at developing the “moral imagination,” aided by what she calls the “narrative pivot,” reflecting on literature, history, art, and film (pp. 162-163) have wide relevance. Her book includes a discussion guide, and it is clearly suitable for the classroom, seminar, and informal book club.

            One in five of those who attacked the Capitol in January are alleged to have been military veterans. One of the radical groups that recruits among vets and that was represented in the attack calls itself “Oath Keepers.” That these veterans could imagine that their attack on the U.S. Capitol was part of a project of fulfilling their Constitutional oath clearly calls for greater oversight and more education in the ethical aspects of military service. As General Milley and other senior officers observed in the last days of the last administration, the stress in military service must be, not on loyalty or obedience to one person, but on the higher loyalty to the principles of the Constitution. Those who hold views in favor of non-Constitutional or anti-Constitutional governance measures like mob rule, violence and threats of violence, subverting or undermining the voting or legislative process, these people cannot truthfully swear an oath to the Constitution, and without that oath they cannot serve.

To speak personally, On Obedience had me reconsider some of the occasions on which I may have chosen the lesser over the greater path out of a dull compliance, or when I failed to fulfill my instructions thoroughly because I stayed with the letter of orders instead of trying to understand the spirit and intention behind them. Then there were times when I took the time to enquire and to understand fully, to perform my duties maybe even beyond or better than what my superiors had intended. Those who read this book may be equipped thereby to raise the standard of their obedience, and to know that there may be times, few if foremost, when to disobey is the higher duty.         

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.