Reading and Reviewing Pauline Shanks Kaurin’s On Obedience

           I read On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community in the weeks after the Presidential election.  I had frankly had the book on hand for a few months but, anticipating a demanding read, I had put off reading it. But then the matter of military obedience seemed to suddenly loom very large. There were (and still are) questions about what the presumably outgoing president will do for a finale, or perhaps even an encore. There was (and maybe still is) even the possibility that the armed forces would play some role in the transfer of power, or it might be more accurate to say in the attempts to transfer power, from one chief executive to his successor.

            Circumstances aside, On Obedience turned out to be a very engaging read. I marked up my copy with many check marks and questions. I communicated with the author, and I offered to review the book for a suitable journal. This offer was accepted. Meanwhile, I will post about some of the issues raised in Prof. Shanks Kaurin’s excellent book.  

There were times reading On Obedience when I had the thought that some of the other ideas related to military ethics and culture under discussion (honor, loyalty, discipline, etc.) were more interesting than the rather bald matter of obedience. But I realized that if someone says, “I’m a loyal, honorable, disciplined person, committed to my profession and Constitutional Oath, + I’m smart and thinking all the time,” a reasonable question might be, “That’s fine, Devil Dog, but what are you going to do when the boss gives you an order, one you find dubious?” Whether and how “we” obey orders is where the rubber meets the road. 

The matter of obedience is important because it is at the heart of what we think about military professionalism, civil-military relations, and civilian control of the military. Military professionals may perhaps be divided into two camps: those who stress the “military” and those who emphasize the “profession.”   Those in the “military” camp tend to highlight the need for obedience and discipline.  They see the battlefield as the defining space of the military profession, and they believe that it is only through discipline that the chaos of the battlefield can be mastered.  The “profession” school tends more to emphasize the attributes traditionally and theoretically associated with professions: expertise, autonomy, and a high-minded or service ethos.  One’s attitude toward dissent by military professionals is likely to be shaped by how one comes down on these differing views.   Those in the “military” camp tend to see dissent or disobedience as a dangerous unraveling of the basic fabric of a military organization. The “professionals” may perceive the failure to dissent or even disobey as a lapse in knowledge and of responsibility.  A key feature of the concept of professionalism is autonomy. But how much independence is allowed in a military professional? We should also recall that an officer or member of the armed forces is really more than either soldier or member of a profession.  Membership in the armed forces is also an expression or intensification of the responsibilities of a citizen.  The idea of the military as a profession may define too narrowly the responsibilities incurred by our oath of allegiance.  We are not simply technicians with a field of expertise (war).  As our Constitutional oath has it, we are citizens pledged to uphold certain principles as well as to defend the nation from external threat.     

Obedience is also at the center of civil-military relations. Part of the great prestige of the military is due to its ability to stay above political matters. But if soldiers are selective about what orders they obey, they may be seen as taking sides in matters of policy, even of politics, eroding the faith civilians ought to have in the armed forces. The area of civilian control is perhaps where the matter of obedience becomes most fraught, although we might also consider the matter of military effectiveness. If senior officers refuse the orders of their civilian masters, the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. military power might be undermined. If military members down the chain of command also took it on themselves to disobey, perhaps imitating the example of their seniors, this could further diminish military effectiveness, even to a critical extent.

Against the above objections are some compelling reasons why the right of soldiers to disobey, on legal, moral, and practical grounds, must be considered. There is also the fact that disobedience does take place in the military, perhaps more than most civilians think. Some military disobedience is the product of rank indiscipline, but it may also be a response to bad leadership, to unreasonable demands, to ignorance, incompetence, or even moral failings on the part of those giving the orders.  

Coming Up: How to Disobey

2 thoughts on “Reading and Reviewing Pauline Shanks Kaurin’s On Obedience

  1. Thanks Reed. I will now have to find that book! I am now teaching leadership at VMI (now part of the core curriculum for all cadets). Should be helpful.

    I was wondering what you thought about remarks made by retired but still prominent flag officers? (Thinking of guys like McRaven,Mattis, etc. when they are publicly critical of a sitting President) or even CJCS testifying before Congress wrt the matter of renaming bases and stating that the confederate namesakes were “traitors “.

    I come down on the “profession “ side pretty strongly, and I feel that these retired officers are betraying the profession by using their still estimable status to make comments they would not have dared make before retirement.

    Your thoughts?

    Mark BRYANT VMI 77

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Hi Mark,
      Great to hear from you. I went to a conference at USNA several years ago where the subject was the 2006 “Revolt of the Generals,” in which 6 retired gen’ls came out very publicly against SecDef Rumsfeld. 2 of the “revolting” gens were present at the conference, one of them my old Bn CO Tony Zinni. They came in for a lot of criticism, but most people at the conf were supportive. I have a lot of respect for Zinni, tho’ I don’t always agree with what he says, and yes I think he’s sometimes trading on his military rank to make comments about non-military matters. Still, he’s a smart guy who’s seen a lot, and he’s a citizen. He has a right to sound off, and then it’s up to the public to listen or ignore, argue back, concur, or whatever. There are good reasons why serving officers need to be more circumspect about this, but once we’re retired I actually think it’s good if we engage in some activism. It could even be seen as another way to serve.

      Hope all well and Happy New Year!


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