On Writing How to Think Like an Officer, Part II

How To Think Like An Officer - By Reed Bonadonna (Hardcover) : Target

George C. Marshall

George Marshall was Army Chief of Staff in World War II, Secretary of State and Defense under Truman, and he remains the only American professional soldier to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. I was introduced to the Marshall legacy as a plebe at Virginia Military Institute, our common alma mater, and he’s been my personal hero ever since. In the writing of How to Think Like an Officer, Marshall was my gold standard for officer thought for his combination of integrity, sheer professional competence, and broad humanity. I mention Marshall often in the book, and at times I felt that I could feel him watching me from the framed portrait that hangs on the wall opposite the desk where I write. Not least among Marshall’s achievements was that he inspired the writing of the original, 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer.

The Armed Forces Officer

I was issued a copy of the Defense Department publication The Armed Forces Officer at the Marine Corps Basic School as a second lieutenant. We were never assigned to read or to discuss the book that I can recall, but I exceeded my instructions, read it and fell in love with it. The Armed Forces Officer is highly literate, personal, and allusive, in contrast to the abstract and frankly unlettered tone of many other works on leadership. The idea of writing a guide for officers originated with The Armed Forces Officer, and much of the spirit of the The Armed Forces Officer also enters into How to Think Like an Officer

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

At the other end of the spectrum from Marshall and The Armed Forces Officer, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon inspired me to think about the pitfalls to military officer thought, about why we hadn’t learned to do things better. Dixon advances the fairly simple thesis that much military incompetence can be traced to a prevailing authoritarianism in military culture. Others have written on the subject in a more nuanced way, but Dixon gets credit to being first, or at least staking out the field, and for writing what is still, over forty years later, a very interesting book.  I came to believe that the limited diversity of the largely male-Caucasian officer ranks can be another impediment to clear thought, as can the complex relationship of military service and masculinity. The nature of armed conflict can also offer obstacles to thought.  Officers must think under very stressful conditions, and they may take refuge from the chaos of the battlefield in overworked formulas and unimaginative solutions.  Military service can also take a mental toll, bringing exhaustion, isolation, and various forms of psychological trauma. These factors make the care and development of the mind a high priority.      

Moral Prudence

One way out of incompetence was suggested to me by a lecture at the Stockdale Center of the U.S. Naval Academy by Gregory Reichberg. Reichberg drew my attention to a little- known section of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica in which Aquinas argues that military command is not a matter of mere fortitude, nor of art, but that it is an act of moral prudence, a trait involving both intellect and character. Moral prudence enables the officer to go beyond the pursuit of military victory or narrow national interest to encompass a greater good. This struck me as a powerful tool through which to view and guide the thinking of officers. I wound up meeting with Dr. Reichberg and later writing a review for his book, Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace. I later wrote a couple of articles on military command as moral prudence, and in revised form these formed an important part of the chapter on the intellectual virtues in How to Think Like an Officer.

Soldiers and Civilization

A late entry into my inspiration line-up was my previous book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence. In that work, I traced the historical and literary origins of the military profession in order to make the argument that (to quote from the book) “The soldier has played a vital, inescapable, and neglected role in the formation of human civilization.” Having made this argument, How to Think Like an Officer in effect became a book about how the officer might continually learn and grow to fulfill the expansive role I had claimed for her. Much of the research I had done for Soldiers and Civilization was helpful, although far from sufficient, in the writing of How to Think Like an Officer.  The latest book required other forms of learning. Soldiers and Civilization had organized itself in chronological order, starting in classical time and slogging   into our own century. No such ready-made organization was on hand for How to Think Like and Officer. I wrestled with the organization, juxtaposing pages and chapters until the pieces seemed to fit.    

Next: “Something Urgent”

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