Strategic Empathy and US Foreign Policy Workshop, Part 2: Empathy and the Officer

Empathy and the Officer

            Roughly the second half of the workshop consisted of prepared questions put to Capt. Maybaumwisniewski and me. We were asked about times we had experienced victories or failures of empathy in our careers. Capt. Maybaumwisniewski recalled some stalled discussions with the Japanese over anti-submarine warfare. A shared meal of noodles with a subordinate and a Japanese officer revealed that the Japanese felt that they were not being treated as equal partners in these discussions but were being dictated to. Greater regard for their feelings and self-respect resulted in far more successful negotiations. I cited OIF1 as a clear failure of empathy. I participated in OIF1, and I saw little sign that we were making an effort to understand the culture and worldview of the Iraqis. We saw them as a mirror of ourselves, and we told ourselves that a few material improvements (Pizza Hut, a Mall) would reconcile the Iraqis to our presence and a change in government. Any rigorous thinking was devoted to a fairly narrow understanding of the purely military aspects of the situation, as in a tactical exercise. I was complicit in this, once shrugging off a suggestion from another officer that some cultural education for the troops might be useful. I added, however, that I went home at the end of my deployment with a far greater sense of empathy for the victims of war and an understanding of the importance of allies. In fact, war had paradoxically given me an enlarged sense of my kinship with other members of the human race, however different on the surface. Seeing people in flight on the road from Nasiriya, having tea with a family living in a bombed-out ruin, visiting an artist’s studio where was hung his dead daughter’s picture, very possibly the recent victim of American firepower, these experiences forced an empathy on me that I had never experienced in the same intensity.  I felt it almost akin to agape.

            Capt. Maybaumwisniewski and I were asked about our participation in the “Partnership for Peace,” a kind of minor leagues for NATO. Capt. Maybaumwisniewski noted that, although this organization was instituted primarily to instill the concept of military subordination to civil authority, it had the added benefit of encouraging understanding among the member nations. My involvement in PfP was limited to a single exercise called Cooperative Determination 2000 conducted in Luzerne, Switzerland. I recalled having a meal in the dining facility with a group of foreign officers who observed that it was rare for an American officer to speak with them as I had. I was able to clear up a couple of misconceptions. (Some Europeans think of America as a land of rootless cosmopolitans.) I had the thought later that both Capt. Maybaumwisniewski’s contact with the Japanese Navy and my time in Luzerne illustrated the point that American officers and Americans generally fall too comfortably and naturally into the role of leader or senior service, and are sometimes incommunicative regarding their own culture and incurious concerning others. For empathy to be developed, these tendencies must be overcome. They both also illustrate the importance of shared meals to a growth of understanding.

            I was asked how empathy was involved with the three main areas of officer thought I had identified in my recent book How to Think Like an Officer: organizer, warfighter, and visionary. I replied that empathy was necessary in all three areas. As an organizer the officer developed and trained units to survive and prevail in the stress of armed conflict. The resilience required is material and tactical but also related to matters of the spirit, to morale and esprit de corps. To develop the resilience and fighting spirit required, the officer must strive to understand the feelings, fears, and hopes of her soldiers. In his role as warfighter, the officer must continue to empathize with those under his command, but also with the adversary, with the affected local population, and even with the people at home. The officer must not yield to the soldier’s occupational maladies of insularity and self-righteousness, to a Kipling-esque stance of unappreciated virtue. In her visionary role, the officer is often concerned with the post-conflict environment and her own life as a veteran.

            There is no doubt that military service and culture can impede empathy. The military path is arduous, and soldiers are taught to ignore or at least overcome danger and discomfort. If this stoical attitude is projected outwards, as it often is, it can tend to dismissal of others’ feelings. The competitive, hypermasculine atmosphere of many military units also works against empathy and can lead to a distrust of feelings in general. On the other hand, and in answer to those who find empathy a sticky or enervating business, I would cite as an example of empathy allied with humility the officer who may be America’s professional soldier par excellence, George C. Marshall. Marshall was the World War II Army Chief of Staff and the only American career officer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Marshall was far from a slave to his feelings. In fact, he was notably self-controlled to the point that he struck some people as unfeeling. But Marshall had disciplined himself to keep his feelings to one side, lest they interfere with his judgment or wear him out. He warned his subordinates not to be people who felt deeply but who thought only on the surface. Marshall cultivated detachment but also a deep empathy with those who fought and who suffered the effects of war. He displayed this in a thousand acts of personal consideration and in the plan for European recovery that bears his name. From his small-town, nineteenth-century beginnings, he developed a vision of the world entire. His service was as global as national. I cited two Marshall quotations at the workshop.

“We have acquired, I think, a feeling and concern for the problems of other peoples. There is a deep urge to help the oppressed and to give aid to those on whom great hardship has fallen.”

“Don’t expect too much. There will be no miracles of an abiding peace. We must take the peoples of the world as we find them, with their imperfections, their prejudices, and their ambitions, and do the best we can to live with them.” 

Next: Empathy in Literature, History, and Philosophy            

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