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.


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