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.

Joint Ethics Code of the Armed Forces of the United States of America (Draft)

Here is my attempt at a Joint Ethics Code. Comments welcome of course.

This Joint Ethics Code will apply to all members of the Armed Forces of the United States and Defense Department. It reflects and encapsulates aspects of the U.S. Constitution, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). In effect, the Joint Ethics Code supplements and reinforces the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the service Core Values, the U.S. Code of Conduct and the Constitutional Oath. The Joint Ethics Code states the values that inhere in the Constitution and other documents that broadly define the ethical obligations of service in the Armed Forces of the United States.         

  1. As a member of the United States Armed Forces, I will never dishonor my country or my uniform by turning my weapons on the unarmed: on civilians, on the wounded or disabled, on prisoners or those attempting to surrender. Nor will I engage in beatings or torture towards any person.
  2. If I learn of acts of violence towards the unarmed, I will report this to my chain of command, without fear or favor.
  3. If in command, I will pursue all reports of violence towards the unarmed until I am satisfied that the demands of justice and of the highest traditions of an honorable profession have been met.
  4. I will set an example of my commitment to human rights and diversity, to gender, racial, and ethnic equality, and I will exert myself to ensure that my fellow service members do likewise.
  5. I will refrain from private commercial or partisan political activity on duty or in uniform.
  6. I will respect the religious beliefs or absence of religious belief in my fellow service members, and I will never seek to impose my own beliefs on those junior to me in rank.    
  7. I will demonstrate respect for the institutions of democracy and support for the electoral and legislative process.   
  8. I will never place loyalty to my unit, to an individual, or to my service branch above the interests of the nation, the lives of my fellow service members, or the truth in all matters.   
  9. In war, I will seek an honorable victory gained at the lowest possible cost in lives and suffering.   
  10.  I never forget that my I and my fellow service members are members of an honorable profession, American citizens with Constitutional rights, and human beings entitled to opportunities to grow and flourish, that our lives have value even as circumstances may require us to hazard our lives.   

Wanted: A Joint Ethics Code for the Armed Forces

     This post follows on some suggestions I’ve made in the past concerning a military ethics code. I may want to submit the piece as a op-ed somewhere. Comments welcome.

About a year and a half ago, I attended the annual McCain Conference on military ethics held at the U.S. Naval Academy. The subject was “Moral Injury and Moral Virtue.” I came away from that conference with the sense that the American military needed an explicit moral code. Recent events have renewed this belief, and I want here to state briefly why we need such a code, what it might look like, and how the armed forces could put the code into effect, making it a part of military culture, one that is much needed.  

            At the 2019 McCain Conference, the prevalence of Moral Injury, or MI, was a major concern. Why were so many servicemembers reporting that had been witness or a party to dubious or very reprehensible behavior, leading in some cases to the undermining of their own moral foundations, to feelings of apathy and hopelessness? One speaker cited an estimate that between 14-28% of Operation Iraqi freedom veterans have been responsible for a non-combatant death. How could this be prevented? Many theories were advanced, but a few simple ideas stood out. Character is not enough to prevent the actions that lead to MI, and that of course can have other, even more serious and immediate effects, such as the death of innocents. The enforcement of standards is often required to restrain misconduct, especially in in extremis conditions like combat. Clear cut rules of behavior have to be invoked and repeated. 

Some developments in the culture of the armed forces have reinforced the need for a written moral code. White supremacist groups have been able to recruit in all branches. Some of those who attacked the Capitol on 6 January were, shamefully, military veterans, reserve, or active service members. The idea that racist and fascist ideology is compatible with military service, even that it complements service in the American armed forces has been allowed to take hold and to grow.

A positive way for the armed forces to combat this unacceptable view is to adopt an ethical code that spells out the ethical requirements of military service. Such a code could also have the effect of helping to deter the kinds of action that bring on MI, actions often harmful in themselves and that bring discredit on the uniform.  Such a code would lay stress on the importance of human rights, dignity, and diversity. It would prohibit the maltreatment of prisoners and other noncombatants, in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). It would call on individuals to report violations of the code, and on leaders and commanders to pursue such reports until they are satisfied that the demands of justice and of the highest traditions of an honorable profession have been met.

Some might argue that since the armed forces already have the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the Code of Conduct, the Oath to the Constitution, and the various service “Core Values,” the addition of an ethical code is unnecessary. I reply that all of these aspects of military culture, while necessary, are not sufficiently explicit or effective in the ethical arena, as indicated by some of the best thinking on the subject of military ethics and some current challenges to the honor and effectiveness of the military. It is possible that some of the veterans who attacked the Capitol may have been suffering from MI, and that this may affect, although it does not excuse, their behavior. The point must be made too that the wide-ranging authority and sheer firepower often wielded by military personnel places ethics at the heart of the military profession, not as mere adornment but as the sine qua non. Moral purpose is what most significantly distinguishes the soldier from the thug or gunman.  

A written code, however carefully written or widely disseminated, will of course not be enough. It should be subject to extensive input and scheduled review. It will need the support of commanders and of the military’s extensive education and training system. It will require resources and new expertise, but done right, it will be worth the cost in time and money. In a sense, such a code would join the armed forces to the rest of the nation in what many of us hope will be a period of national renewal, a time of unity, of liberty and justice for all, and an opportunity to renew our ideals and sacred honor.