Honor Intact? Or, The Armed Forces After Trump

           Shortly after the 2016 elections, I wrote a short piece in which I said that, of all the consequences of the election of Donald Trump, his assumption of the role commander in chief of the armed forces had the potential to be the most disastrous.  I also outlined the measures that might be taken by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ameliorate the damage that might be done by an unstable, unqualified, and amoral commander in chief.

Some of Trump’s statements during and after the campaign raised concerns that this ex-military school cadet might, like a maddened ex-corporal, find the temptations of military force too great to resist. Some of my fears about the future under Trump came true but, fortunately, the direst did not. Most of his tough, saber-rattling talk proved to be just that, tough talk.  

After the dust had settled in the Capital building yesterday, the electoral votes were counted amid wrecked furniture and refuse, and Trump threw in the towel, I breathed the sigh of relief that I’d been holding for a long time. The American armed forces, an institution of which I was proud to be a member, and that I can even say I have loved, seemed to have emerged from this bad administration with its honor perhaps battered but intact. What’s the report card? The military was put in the position of complying with some very bad decisions. We deserted some allies in the field and broke ranks with others, sometimes it seemed preferring the company of dictatorships over democracies. Trump overturned the verdicts of courts martial and short-circuited others with scant justification, but again likely based on his own insecure need to play the tough guy. Luckily with limited success, he made efforts to press the military into a domestic role when groups he didn’t care for organized and marched. None of this was the military’s fault, exactly, but the honor of a military organization is partly in the hands of its commander. Even a decent article of good soldier can be turned into a thug if she is employed as one. The low point may have come when CJCS Gen. Miley walked down the street with Trump in what was obviously a political event. But Miley quickly recanted of this, and his statements on the Constitution, backed up by those of the members of the Joint Chiefs, have helped to hold at bay any fears or possibility that the armed forces would help Trump to stay in power or to punish his opposition.              

            How much demoralization of the armed forces has taken place under Trump it is difficult to say. Another characteristic of the Trump administration that may have had a trickle-down effect is his insistence on personal loyalty, on the individual over principles, or even law. His divisive views on race and gender have certainly robbed us of the service of valuable persons, and given comfort to attitudes and acts of intolerance, with an inevitable effect on comradeship and cohesion.  

On a national level, Donald Trump has succeeded in radicalizing a large segment of the population. Some of these people are now serving in the military. The events in Washington on 6 January are a reminder of the lengths to which some radical extremists are willing to go. What ought the military to do about them? Surely, if any among the mob that stormed the Capitol were military members, they should be tried under the UCMJ. A host of charges might apply, not least one of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. The armed forces must be sure in its collective mind that the oath to the Constitutional oath is not negotiable. 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. Those with truly radical, anti-government views should be purged from the ranks. This is neither vindictiveness nor foppery. History records the downfall of armies undone and nations brought low when numbers of soldiers and officers came to embrace an extreme ideology than ran counter to mission and combat effectiveness. The recent debacle at the Capitol has yet to give up its secrets, but for now it can stand as an example of what a failure of discipline and defense can look like, as if the Praetorian Guard invited the barbarians into Rome’s innermost sanctum.     

     The military must realize that the relief from command of Donald Trump is probably just the end of the beginning of a moral and political fight that will be with us for a long time, but in just a few days we will have what we have lacked for four years: a Commander in Chief who is a decent, capable person and patriot.  He will need many things to govern effectively, but one of them is a highly principled and effective military force, and this force all members of the armed forces, with the support of the other citizenry, must pledge to provide.          

How to Disobey, Part I, With an Attempt at Military Ethical Rules

In this post, I wanted to address some of the practical concerns of practicing disobedience in the military and elsewhere. (As Prof. Shanks Kaurin says, “military, citizenry, and community.”) Disobedience is a serious matter in the military. Much of entry-level military training is given over to instilling the habits of obedience, to simply “doing as you’re told.” After this, service members inhabit a highly hierarchical culture with frequent reminders of the need for obedience in the form of command, ritual and imagery. The justification for this is war and combat. Obedience, we are told, is justified by the need to maintain order in the chaos of the battlefield, to exercise reliable command and control. As Prof. Shanks Kaurin points out, it is a paradox that unquestioning obedience seems to be more prized and practiced in garrison than in combat, which is the setting invoked to justify the military emphasis on obedience to orders. This may be a paradox rather than a flat-out contradiction. Doubling down on discipline and obedience in garrison may help to create the conditions for cohesion and tactical control in battle. In his poem ‘The `eathen” Kipling has a sergeant observe that going into action his men seem to have forgotten nearly all that he taught them-

 Of all ‘is five years’ schoolin’ they don’t remember much

Excep’ the not retreatin’, the step an’ keepin’ touch.

It looks like teachin’ wasted when they duck an’ spread an ‘op —

But if ‘e ‘adn’t learned ’em they’d be all about the shop.        

An’ now it’s bloody murder, but all the while they ‘ear

‘Is voice, the same as barrick-drill, a-shepherdin’ the rear.

For the soldier, especially for the good soldier, obedience is easy, disobedience is hard. In fact obedience may be all-too-easy, because the conditions that call for disobedience often arrive unexpectedly and in circumstances in which little help is to be found. This is why I agree with Prof. Shanks Kaurin that soldiers ought to be prepared for the act of disobedience   

When to Disobey

Legitimate reasons for disobedience might be classified as legal, practical, and ethical. There is some overlap in these categories, and in some circumstance there might for example be both legal and ethical reasons to disobey. The firmest justification for disobedience is legal. If a soldier is ordered to commit an illegal act, or given an order by someone with no legal right to give her an order, she is clearly justified in disobeying. The matter of legality may not be simple, however, for example in the case of Rules of Engagement (ROE) which can sometimes be subject to different interpretations. The question of legality may have to be settled in a Court Martial, based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice, perhaps with reference to the U.S. Constitution.

Disobedience on practical grounds is riskier than the legal variety for the soldier disobeying, but it is also likely the most common of the three justification. Practical disobedience occurs when a soldier is under direct or standing orders or a regulation that seem to him impractical, or impossible, or when the soldier simply has a better idea.  Direct orders, standing orders, and regulations can sometimes be called into question, but there may be circumstances that do not permit this, or when what strikes the soldier as reasonable objections to an order are waved aside, and the order is repeated, perhaps with additional force!  The old Marine Officer’s Guide used to recommend enforcing bad or outdated regulations as a means of getting it changed. This approach carries risks, of course, not the least of making oneself very unpopular!    

Disobedience on ethical grounds is also difficult in practice. I once heard a discussion between a retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a military lawyer of flag rank in which the lawyer asserted, to the former Chairman’s surprise, that there is no provision in military law for purely ethical disobedience. (Unless, presumably, it also has a legal justification.) The Ex-CJCS said there ought to be. Perhaps he was right. Other militaries have ethical codes, like the Israeli “Spirit of the IDF.” The American military has the UCMJ, the Code of Conduct, and the Constitutional Oath, but no ethical code per se, one that might, in some circumstances, be invoked to protect a soldier’s right to refuse an order.             

For the sake of discussion, I’ll append my own modest first draft of a U.S. armed forces ethical code below.   

  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.

There could be more. There might be a prohibition of abusive speech. The UCMJ might be invoked as a warning. We could even include a rule on how service members treat each other. In drafting the code, the widest input should be encouraged.  The three rules above are a start, and the code should be kept simple. Of course, words on paper will not suffice. It would have to be supported by training at education, and the code itself should be subject to feedback and review.

Next: How to Disobey, II

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 morals failings on the part of those giving the orders.  

Coming Up: How to Disobey

Weapons and Hope

                Like many people mostly confined to quarters these days, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading. Also like others, I suspect, some of this reading has consisted of renewing my acquaintance with the books in my collection. The books I pull off the shelves are sometimes at random. Some  might be picked because I think I may have paid them insufficient attention, or because I have the idea that an old book contains something needed anew.

            I frankly can’t remember why I reopened Freeman Dyson’s Weapons and Hope, written in 1984, but I’m glad I did.  A Cambridge-trained mathematician, Dyson was recruited in World War II by the British Bomber Command to do Operational Research (OR) on the effectiveness of the British bombing campaign against Germany. As he recounts in Weapons and Hope, the young Dyson came to believe that the bombing was extremely inefficient militarily as well as murderous to both German civilians and British aircrews. He recalls carrying on with his work at Bomber Command in a state of sickened moral apathy. He was intensely relieved at the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, simply because it freed him of the possibility that he would be sent to the Pacific to plan the bombing of Japanese cities after two years of bombing the Germans.   

            After the war, Dyson taught physics at American universities, starting with Cornell and ending up at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He also wrote extensively on the use of force in the modern world, with a focus on nuclear weapons. Dyson’s theme throughout much of Weapons and Hope is the way in which the bombing from the air with conventional or nuclear weapons can come to appear normal and even acceptable. His discussion of the development of “tactical” nuclear weapons is scary and informative. By Dyson’s account, J. Robert Oppenheimer exerted much effort on promoting tactical nukes. He defended this stand later by saying that he had been appalled at the apocalyptic doctrine of the U.S. Air Force concerning nuclear weapons, and he hoped that the smaller weapons (under the direction of the U.S. Army) would provide a pause or even a check in the march to Mutual Assured Destruction. The Army incorporated tactical nukes into its doctrine as if they were just another weapon of war, but Dyson points out that the simulation conflicts involving the use of tactical nukes invariably escalated to larger weapons, suggesting that the Army’s and Oppenheimer’s attempt to tame nuclear weapons was flawed, maybe hopeless.

            In our time, nuclear weapons are perhaps taken for granted even more than when Dyson was writing, over thirty years ago. Other things have changed. China now occupies a large place in American strategic thinking. China may be the new USSR, the arch nemesis, the near-peer competitor we plan to fight, the assumed, even if unnamed object of war games and exercises. Even a conventional war between China and the US would be terribly destructive. If it crossed the nuclear threshold, it might be impossible to contain. Are the military planners on both sides are considering these risks realistically, not presuming to control that which might be uncontrollable, or to countenance that which no one wishes to endure?  

            The final chapter in Weapons and Hope is called “Tragedy is Not Our Business.” In his final words in the book, Dyson addresses the prevailing pessimism of his day, which might have relevance for our time as well. The language of the title of the chapter is taken from the writing of British soldier and explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, chronicler of the Scott and Amundsen Antarctic expeditions. The Norwegian Amundsen expedition was a success. Its goals were achieved, and no men were lost. The British Scott expedition ended with the deaths of nearly all the explorers, Scott included. Dyson points out that the Scott expedition became famous as an example of fortitude and self-sacrifice. Partly because of literary examples, we tend to enshrine tragedy, but, as Cherry-Garrard points out, the business of an explorer or of a soldier is not tragedy but survival (and, he might have added, victory). The fact is that sacrifice is sometimes required, but Cherry-Garrard is right to say that the sagacity of Amundsen is preferable to the bullheaded persistence of Scott, however heroic. Dyson ends his book with a contrast between themes of tragedy and those of homecoming, using the Iliad and the Odyssey as respective examples. In difficult times, hope and not tragic resignation are needed; intelligence and resourcefulness are required over fatalism and acceptance.             

Some of Weapons and Hope is dated, but the nuclear weapons that worried Dyson are still there, waiting for the order to fire, although this is less thought of today than in the 80s. The current pandemic has perhaps put us in the mind of managing or averting global catastrophe. The dangers of war and global pandemic are still looming. Neither producing smaller weapons nor defeating one virus is really a solution. Global cooperation, even friendship among nations, as thinkers on the subject have recognized at least since the time of Thomas Aquinas, would be a new normal that we could all live with, and the best hope of all.