Soldiers and Liberalism: No Unlikely Pairing

       The equation of the military profession with conservatism was enshrined in Samuel Huntington’s 1957 The Soldier and the State, a book that continues to influence perceptions of civil-military relations. To be fair, there are historic and cultural reasons why the military profession and military institutions have tended to be conservative, but there are, equally compelling forces pushing the profession of arms in the direction of liberalism.

            Why have military forces tended to be seen as and to see themselves as conservative?  In ancient times, military rank was closely tied to birth and social position. Military leaders had a vested interest in the status quo. Aristocratic commanders communicated some of their conservatism down the ranks, partly through the “glamour of class distinctions” which philosopher Kenneth Burke considered the basis for discipline in regular armies.  Class distinctions apart, the military profession sets great store by tradition and hierarchy. It often looks to the past for example, and it has made common cause with other conservative institutions, most notably with the churches, although also sometimes with conservative political parties.

Perhaps for these reasons, the armed forces still often attract people who might be called social conservatives: comfortable with continuity and authority, resistant to change and lack of order.  To speak personally, and as an American, I was a Republican for many years, a party affiliation that sometimes seemed the implicit home for the relatively non-political patriotic military person. What changed me was a combination of what I saw as the party’s sharp turn to the right, and a consideration of my own experiences, the deployments in particular, that convinced me of the need for liberal values in preserving peace. 

If it is the conservative person who is often drawn to military service, I would argue that the most important lessons of military service, properly considered, ought to tend us in the opposite direction. Soldiers (and I use this term in the broad sense of applying to all military members) meet people from all over the world, and they often come away with an awakened sense of a common humanity across regional and national lines. The soldier sees and experiences things that the civilian is usually spared. Soldiers of the past two decades have been deployed to places on the brink or over the edge of complete breakdown and disorder. Sometimes these conditions were frankly the consequence of military operations. At other times they preceded the intervention of military forces. In either case, soldiers often bear witness to the need for change in the status quo, for a diminution of the power of vested interests, for greater rights, freedom and opportunity for individuals. Often, it has been a neglect of such liberal values as individual rights and social justice that has pushed societies to the edge. The corrupt and authoritarian regimes that routinely deny these rights also often resort to force to stay in power, and they may give people no outlet but violence. Another lesson the soldier learns is the importance of peace itself, which is more than the avoidance of war. The high cost and frequent futility of war are things borne in on the soldier, who will often come to say to say, like Eisenhower, “I hate war as only a soldier can.”

          Thanks in part to all that soldiers see of a world in turmoil, alongside the conservative military tradition is one of liberalism. Soldiers like Lafayette, some dissatisfied with the autocratic ways of their own monarchical countries, came to America to fight in a revolution for a new form of government.   Marine General Smedley Butler blew the whistle on what he considered his country’s imperialist policies in Central America. Internationally, armed forces have often sided with constitutional government against tyrants and oligarchs. Also, military practice has changed. The old, top-down approach to military command has gradually given way to greater emphasis on teamwork and inclusion, as recently championed by such distinguished commanders as Generals McCrystal and Dempsey. 

Perhaps the most compelling reason for American military members and veterans to self-identify as liberal is the Constitutional Oath that defines our service. Colonel Anthony Hartle has identified the essentials of the Oath as a pledge to “constitutionalism, representative democracy, individual rights, the rule of law, and greatest equal liberty.” In 1789, these principles were radical, but nascent. Today, they are liberal, and endangered. Much of what passes for “conservatism” today is not a longing to return to Constitutional principles, but rather for reactionary, racist, even atavistic cultural forces that have long held in check the aspirations expressed in the Constitution. This kind of toxic, faux-conservatism is on the rise worldwide. In fact, the same authoritarianism, often under the guise of “conservatism,” the damaging effects of which a soldier may have witnessed on a deployment abroad, might be encountered at home on returning to his or her own country.

  Soldiers are justifiably subject to some restraint in the area of political activism, but they are allowed to think, and with some restrictions to speak and to act. In Washington’s words, when we assumed the soldier, we did not set aside the citizen. Soldiers may express their opinions in the proper setting. Not all political activity is partisan. It is perhaps even more important for military liberals to uphold principle rather than candidate or party. Military liberals are not as outnumbered as they may think. They should speak up, in a manner informed by their service, in touch with the traditions of liberal thought, and consistent with the laws of their countries.

Strategic Empathy and US Foreign Policy Workshop, Part 3: Empathy in Literature, History, and Philosophy

Empathy in Literature, History, and Philosophy

All engagement with literature is an act of empathy. By reading, we are concerning ourselves with the thoughts and lives of people we have probably never met, and in the case of fiction who never existed. The fictional characters, historical figures, and poetic persona about whom we read are expressions of our common humanity. They are the creations of the writer but also of the reader, and as such we may empathize with them very deeply. In order to enhance the ability of literature to develop our sense of empathy, it may be useful to “name it,” to explicitly ask ourselves and one another how this reading can expand our range and depth of empathy, and perhaps most important how it can develop our ability to practice empathy in the world outside of our reading. Some of the most valuable reading for empathy may be of works about people most different from us, and even neglected or even derided for some reason, because of their race, or gender, or sexuality, their temperament, and even their values. There may even be a special benefit to be gained from reading about frankly unsympathetic or dislikeable characters, even the wicked, those who appear to be without empathy themselves. We may have to deal with such people in the world of the living, after all, and we must know how to meet them and overcome them, if necessary, while perhaps recognizing some of them in ourselves. I will mention two examples.

In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, both the cynical tribunes and belligerent Coriolanus fail to understand other people’s real motives. The tribunes can’t imagine anyone acting other than out of self-interest. Noble motives, observes one character, comparing the tribunes to Coriolanus, are as alien to them as the mysteries of heaven. Coriolanus himself possess a kind of nobility, but his unrelenting belligerence and self-involvement limits him as a military leader, and it is fatal when he ventures into politics.  His end is tragic, and the receptive reader or audience will likely experience the strong empathy and even sympathy with him that is typical of tragedy.

In the Herbert Read poem “Meditation of a Dying German Officer,” part of a longer work, “The End of a War,” the dying German officer is intelligent and thoughtful, but also a dangerous, murderous fanatic. Read was an infantry officer in World War I who had first-hand knowledge of some of the tactics employed by the Germans as they retreated in the last days of the war. They laid deadly traps for the advancing allies and killed French civilians who might have revealed them. Read likely found this conduct inexcusable, but his poem is an extended effort to understand why someone would fight this way in a war already lost.

Empathy might be considered a neglected subset or product of the ancient virtues of prudence and wisdom. In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas concludes after consideration that military command is an act of moral prudence. An attribute that distinguishes the morally prudent commander is that she will consider, not just her own military objectives, but the good of mankind. As I have written on this blog and elsewhere (for example in How to Think Like an Officer), literature and history are replete with examples of both prudent and imprudent command, Marshall and Coriolanus among them respectively. Aquinas also called for amity among nations in addition to legalistic virtues like faithfulness to treaties. This was echoed by Kant, whose formula for peace included open borders and limits on government secrecy, two practices which could contribute to empathy. War is the product of human relationships gone terribly wrong on a large scale, sometimes of a failure of empathy expressing itself in tyranny and violence, of a failure to consider the feelings of others, or even of a failure to see others as human and entitled to feelings at all.

 I’ll end with a few personal thoughts on empathy. The first is that empathy often requires that we let go of anger. In a time of maximum political divisions and social estrangement, this may be important to remember. It is also often necessary in war. Good leadership, as noted by military historian Corelli Barnett, is a matter of cherishing human relationships, even perhaps with an adversary, even with those we consider bad, whether in order to defeat or to redeem them, or both. My reading of military history has often given me a feeling of kinship with the soldiers of the past. I’ve felt their burdens, their pride and fear partly because I have experienced these things myself. Still, my own reading should be more diverse. I probably spend too much time reading about “military types” like myself! I will say that it helps to belong to a book club, which has one reading books that would probably not have been picked up otherwise. My current book club selection, a biography of Leonard Bernstein, is an example. Another was a collection of poems written by Navy wife Jehanne Dubrow, which gave me a perspective on military service of which I have taken too little mind. Writing as well as reading can develop empathy, whether we are crafting a fictional character, researching an historical person, philosophizing about the human condition, or rendering some of the paradoxes of our common existence into poetry. Lastly, a necessary preliminary to empathy is a strong degree of self-understanding, the form of knowledge most prized by Socrates. The posturing and lack of authenticity that may come of insufficient self-knowledge are surely impediments to empathy. Unless we have faced our own faults squarely, with perhaps some indulgence mixed with a desire for self-improvement, how can we understand and aid others? We’re all in this together.            

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 possible 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 international. 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            

Strategic Empathy and US Foreign Policy Workshop, Part 1

Introduction/Prof. Yorke’s Remarks

          Recently, I participated in subject workshop, which was sponsored by the Kissinger Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). I was invited by Mary Barton. Mary and I were both World War I Centennial Fellows in a project run by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. She is currently an America in the World Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow at SAIS. She is the author of the recent Counterterrorism Between the Wars: An International History, 1919-1937 (Oxford, 2020). Also participating were Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate Ashlyn Hand and retired Navy Captain Susan Maybaumwisniewski. Prof. Claire Yorke, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy, King’s College London, was the real “duty expert” on this subject.

           We had a few introductory meetings among ourselves to work out the sequence of events and develop some of the questions and issues we wanted to pursue. Then on 11 May we had the main event, with about 30 in attendance. All of this was on zoom. 

           For my first blog on this event, I will try to summarize the opening remarks made by Professor Yorke. In subsequent posts I will go on to the remarks made by others, myself included, perhaps followed with a concluding call to action/further study and my own reflections.

            Prof. Yorke led off by quoting Robert McNamara to the effect that there is no contradiction between a soft heart and a hard head. Empathy is a matter of seeking to understand another person’s perspective. This may be difficult, particularly perhaps when it crosses cultural and other boundaries. Empathy can lead to compassion, although it is not the same as compassion. Empathy can humanize relations and also open up opportunities for more information and data in the diplomatic and political arenas. Empathy involves humility, the realization that ours is not the only possible world view. Prof. Yorke identifies three types of empathy, while acknowledging that there are others discussed in the relevant literature. Her three are interpersonal, strategic, and manipulative. The last category may not be true empathy. How do diplomats and others “signal” that they are open to or intending to show empathy? Despite the literature on empathy, which includes writings by “realist” theoreticians and work on “cognitive biases,” the subject of empathy in politics and foreign policy is probably under-theorized. The effect of such feelings as anger, shame, grief, and joy on people’s actions in the public sphere is little understood. Foreign affairs theory tends to focus on questions of power, interest, and security. These are important matters, and an understanding of empathy can improve our grasp of all three. Empathy can serve to break down the walls of mistrust that are at the heart of what has been called the “security dilemma.”            

        Prof. Yorke discussed “Constructivist” theory, which is concerned with how we construct meaning. Some Constructivist writing is concerned with marginalized voices. Prof. Yorke cited the work of Franz Fanon, Edward Said and others on this subject, along with feminist writers. The practice of empathy raises the question of with whom do we empathize, and why. In the foreign relations arena, it may be important that empathy is institutionalized. It may not be enough that heads of state or principal negotiators form bonds of empathy, if rank-and-file diplomats and bureaucrats do not cultivate empathy as well. Seeking empathy can be an uncomfortable and even offensive undertaking, involving compromise and difficult ethical choices. Empathy must also be theorized so that we better understand its nuances and the insight it offers, and so that we continue to ask questions about empathy as feeling, state of mind, and aspiration. What is the story we don’t know?

            For empathy to be practiced more effectively, we need a greater, more detailed and nuanced picture of empathy in action as well as in theory. Done right, empathy has the ability to provide vital information to practitioners, and to transform crises.

            Some questions from the audience, moderated by Ashlyn Hand, followed Prof. Yorke’s remarks. One listener asked about the elected officials who seem to display empathy in foreign relations, but who rely on simplistic, even callous formulas and stereotypes when discussing domestic issues. Prof. Yorke expressed the hope that people would see through such hypocrisy. Another listener asked what features of government lent themselves to empathy. Prof. Yorke identified a willingness to tolerate failure and a healthy media that encourages discussion and that tolerates different points of view. Prof. Yorke concluded by noting the importance of curiosity. This may be vital in all forms of learning, but in empathy it is likely especially important that difference and strangeness provoke curiosity rather than fear, incomprehension, or distaste.

Next: Empathy and the Officer