Korea Military Academy



I was honored today to learn that Soldiers and Civilization will be used in a course taught to senior cadets at the Korea Military Academy.  The colonel instructing the course and I will stay in touch. Could be very interesting!

More Moral Prudence

Thos Aquinas

I’ll get back to the Romans eventually, but for now I’m going to stay with the subject of moral prudence and command. The latest national news appears to be keeping the subject timely and essential.

One of the reasons I think the equation of moral prudence and command is so important is that it unites two headings, ethics and leadership, that are sometimes kept separate.   The matter of ethics is sometimes treated as if it were the icing on the leadership cake. On a college or academy campus, they are usually pursued by separate departments. There is also a culture gap between the ethicists and the exponents of leadership, with the former usually more academic and the latter more hands-on and “applied.”  At the service academies, most of the leadership instructors are military types, while the ethicists are more likely to be civilians. If military command is indeed a form of moral prudence, then the two groups ought to at least communicate more than they normally do, breaking out of their stovepipes. Maybe the heads of ROTC departments should be renamed from Professor of Naval/Military/Aerospace Science to Prof. of N/M/A Prudence!

Every now and then, some midshipman at Kings Point, thinking that he’d hit on a brilliant thought, would tell me, “You know, sir, Hitler was really a great leader!” I would generally start off by saying that, just going by the record, Hitler had not performed so well. 12 years into his reign, German armies were defeated, German cities in ruins, and Germany itself covered in a special kind of shame from which it may never fully recover. Beyond this, I might say, a proper definition of leadership, certainly one which we were capable of embracing at a service academy, entirely excluded Hitler and his actions, which should be classed under tyranny, or demagoguery, as not just vexed leadership but really the opposite of leadership. Leadership brings people forward, towards the better angels of their nature. It cannot appeal to the worst in us, to our resentments, prejudice, or lust for power over others, tendencies that lie dormant in all, and that only need the right spark.

A leader who is incapable of moral reason, or who is indifferent to moral issues, or who lacks moral courage, isn’t a leader at all, but the reverse, and such a person in a position of authority may be far more dangerous than someone who is merely incompetent.  We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if someone is technically competent, or if we agree with him on issues, if she has made an effort to reach out to us, if we see some of ourselves in this person (if perhaps not our better self), then this should make up for even serious shortcomings in what I’ve called moral prudence. This is a dangerous path. Employers and teachers are coming to realize that this kind of thinking puts the cart before the horse. We don’t need saints, but we need need people who are willing to confront the unavoidable ethical questions that are running through the decisions they make and the example that they set.

Reading up to this point, some may be thinking that am lacking in moral prudence by failing to name the specific incidents and statements that are lurking behind this discourse. Well, I must pursue my own way, allowing others to draw their own conclusions, perhaps inciting some discussion.







Military Command as Moral Prudence

Thos Aquinas

I indicated in my last post that I planned to write more about the Romans, but the news over the last couple of days has prompted me to discuss today a subject that I had planned for a later date. If you read this post, the relevance of this subject will likely become fairly obvious.  In much of this discussion, I am indebted to the work of Gregory Reichberg, to presentations by him and some talks we’ve had at the annual McCain Conferences at the U.S. Naval Academy, to some of his shorter writings, and to his recent Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace (Cambridge, 2017). 

War has been compared to an art, to a science, to commerce and to sport. These are metaphors, and as such all may have their uses, but a little-known section of Thomas Aquinas’ massive Summa Theologica posits what is possibly the richest and most accurate characterization of command in war, which that it is an act of moral prudence.

In his typical interrogatory style, Aquinas begins by asking, “Whether military prudence should be reckoned a part of prudence?” He notes three objections. First, that warfare is an art, which (citing Aristotle) is distinct from prudence. Second, that although military affairs come under politics, so do other matters, such as trade, which are not of prudence.  Third, that soldiers have need of fortitude rather than prudence. Aquinas both poses a general answer to the objections to military prudence, and he also addresses the three objections individually.  He acknowledges that war has aspects of art, such as in the use of “external things, such as arms and horses,” but that as it pertains to the public good, it belongs to prudence. His argument against the second objection also invokes the “common good” as an aim in warfare that relates it to prudence. Thirdly, Aquinas says that the direction of war requires prudence as well as fortitude. As noted by Reichberg, the arguments of Aquinas concerning war and prudence have been neglected, eclipsed by other descriptions and metaphors for how soldiers think. To revive this idea for modern readers, a few words of translation are necessary.

Prudence meant more to the ancients and later Latin-speakers than it does to modern English-speakers. Today in common use prudence is almost synonymous with caution.  When we pair it with “moral,” it is to emphasize its status as more than mere caution, and as a moral as well as an intellectual virtue. When we speak of military prudence, we are assuming a prudence that has already accepted the unavoidable hazards and mischances of war. It is in fact these very elements of armed conflict that make moral prudence perhaps the sine qua non of the exercise of military leadership and command. Art is concerned with things to be made, prudence with things to be done. Art (and also science, craft, business, or sport) do not require complete virtue in a person, but prudence does.  Prudence is a “thick” conception of virtue that calls for character plus skill. Further, the truly prudential commander would not seek victory alone, nor a narrow national interest, but a common good. Aquinas’ identification of military prudence accords with his precepts on just war. Just as skill is not enough for the commander, justice or law is not enough among nations. There must be amity as well. The officer who thinks as an artist or scientist, even if subject to law, but who lacks the virtue of military prudence is more likely than the prudent commander to confuse ends and means, to act in a short-sighted way, to surrender to expediency. Since prudence is both a moral and an intellectual virtue, the principle of the golden mean, of navigating between extremes is given emphasis. Few have greater need for this principle than the military commander, who is constantly performing a balancing act between undesirable courses and outcomes. In military operations, the apparently better course is often the lesser, since it will be too obvious and anticipated by the enemy. The need for progress and victory must be weighed against the cost, and the tendency to escalate, and the need to exert superior force against the potential for excessive, engulfing destruction.

I’ll have much more to say on military prudence in my next book, “How to Think Like an Officer.”





The Romans: Legis et Legio

trajanIn the Teaching Guide, I ask “What were the Roman approaches to education and to religion? Can we learn from these?”  This is another second-order question in that more research could be done on Roman educational and religious practices.  It may be a third-order question (a puzzler) in that the influence of education and of religion on a society and on the military is a nearly bottomless subject that no one can claim to have mapped out definitively. A discussion of this question could lead to another on how students view the importance of education and religion (or the lack thereof) in their own lives. Like the question on the experience of Greek battle that I posed a few days ago, this one could serve as a “distant mirror” (to use Barbara Tuchman’s titular phrase) reflecting on our own lives.

But before we get to that, we should reflect on the Romans themselves, their approach to education and to religion and how the army both influenced and was influenced by them.  The Romans inherited from Aristotle and the Greeks a system of rhetorical education that involved the memorization and recitation of certain texts, and also such arts as imitatio, the imitation of the styles of authors. Roman writers like Cicero and Quintilian wrote extensively about the mean and ends of education.  Through rhetoric, Roman youths were instructed in history, they gained an appreciation for and a facility with language, and they were also indoctrinated in the values of the Republic and Empire. It is fair to say that the works of such Roman writers as Virgil, Plutarch and Tacitus constituted a poetics of military virtue, which the Romans had also inherited from the Greeks through Homer, the Greek dramatists and historians. For Roman boys of the middle and upper classes, their education was intended to prepare them for positions of civic and military leadership.  Many Romans held civic and military posts alternatingly in the course of lifetime.

The picture above shows the Emperor Trajan addressing some soldiers.  Most modern officers are frankly amateurs at the art of public speaking, and many tend to avoid opportunities to speak in public and are often tongue-tied when they try, but Trajan and his fellow Roman officers had been prepared by their education to face such an occasion with confidence and to speak effectively as the occasion demanded: whether to exhort, instruct, rebuke, or inspire. They had practiced this from boyhood. In it’s complete sense, rhetoric was also a moral art, eschewing unworthy appeals and raising standards of conduct.

Modern education might take a page from the Roman book.  The system of education by rhetoric survived the western empire by a thousand years, and its influence can still be felt, but it may be time for a more deliberate revival.  Memorization adorns the mind. Recital embodies the words of the past and present. The practice of rhetoric not only prepares the student to speak, but it involves a clarification of values, defining what she is willing to literally “stand up for.”

How well have our own educations prepared us to lead lives of service, to know ourselves and strive to be better?  This is for each to consider.  Many of us would say that our most important education was self-tutelage, but the schoolhouse is a valuable place too, sometimes as a place to resist, to experience doubt, to make us uncomfortable enough to think of changing ourselves.

I’ll save my comments on Roman religion for my next post, and then maybe a little skit on the Second Punic War.

Book Signing and Sale

USMMA SealIt looks like I’ll be doing a book signing and sale for Soldiers and Civilization at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Navy Exchange (NEX) on 1 September.  Copies of the book will be available for sale and signing, and of course those who already own copies are invited to stop by to get them signed and maybe for a chat. The NEX is in the underground passageway referred to as “zero deck.” This area is open to Academy visitors. Hours planned are 0730-1630.

I’ll be posting a flyer, confirmation and reminder as we get closer to the date.  Hope to see you there.


Postscript to the Greeks and Future Blogs


I’ve been pretty remiss about posting lately, but I’m going to buck up and post more regularly for awhile. I plan on future posts on the Romans, on some of my recent book acquisitions with some thoughts on books and their uses, on the theory and practice of military prudence, the Early Moderns, running, Dreams and dreams.

For now, I’ll content myself with a short PS to my last post on the Greeks.  I’ll state what is likely obvious by saying that the question posed on the Greeks in that post is a “second order” question as I have previously defined them; I only know part of the answer. In fact, this question on the experience of Greek battle is one that  could benefit from further research and even experimentation. In order to enhance my own understanding of Greek and other ancient battle, I relied heavily on two books that I reference in Soldiers and Civilization.  These are Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives and The Cutting Edge: Studies in Ancient and Medieval Combat.  These works represent efforts to recreate ancient weapons and fighting techniques.  Additionally, many reenactment groups have tried to simulate the conditions of ancient battle. Teachers and students can use these as resources, and even attempt reenactments of their own. These could be very fun and exciting! Still, as I’ve suggested before, the greater and more interesting challenge than the recreation of the physical or material aspects of ancient combat is in re-imagining the mindset of the combatants, some of it humanly familiar but some very strange.  Greek soldiers went into battle bearing a belief in the gods, in savage rites, in an ancient social order that included slavery, and the whole dramatic, poetic, tragic basis of Greek civilization.

Can we think like this, or at least imagine what it would have been like to think like this?Do we want to? There are dark places in the mind of ancient Greece where we might prefer not to venture, but the journey could cast light on our own dark places, on aspects of humanity that the Greeks were more comfortable publicly exposing and enacting than are we of a more sanitized age. Battle can be an avatar for getting inside the Greek mind. To know the Greeks better is to better understand ourselves, and this, as Socrates and the Delphic oracle contend, is the knowledge most worth having.

Soldiers and Civilization Discussion Questions, Part 2

10_Facts_Greek_Hoplites_1The Teaching Guide has 8 questions on Chapter 1, “Greeks and Macedonians: Poetry, Philosophy, and the Phalanx.” Question 7 asks, “Can we imagine what it would have been like to train as a hoplite, to exercise leadership as a Greek commander, to fight in a phalanx?” I sometimes refer to this type of question as a “time machine.”  The past is a very strange place, and the remote past may be almost unknowable, but perhaps we can, by an effort of imagination and empathy, by stressing the human essentials, make at least an honorable effort at understanding history as it was experienced by those who lived it.

When asking a time machine question, I encourage students to use what may be like experiences to approach the subject. In this case, an experience of contact sports, military drill in formation, of any highly taxing physical effort may help us to get closer. If the sport involved the wearing of protective equipment, so much the better. Of course, if any students are veterans, this can give them a special insight.  I recall the part of Bill Mauldin’s WWII memoir, Up Front in which he tries to describe the experience of the infantryman to a civilian. Fill a suitcase with rocks; walk around the neighborhood with it all day; come home and dig a hole in your backyard; stay in it all night, trying to stay awake with thoughts that someone is going to come out of the darkness, beat you over the head, attack your family and rob your house (etc.)  Across the years and even the centuries, the experience of fear and fatigue, of trying to stay on top of a situation getting out of control, of acting both in unison and as an individual in a rough and dirty game, have not changed to be unrecognizable.  Next time you march in formation, imagine at the end of the march you’ll be launched into a deadly, hand-to-hand fight. Imagine your worst football, rugby, hockey, or lacrosse game. OK, imagine 10 times rougher, the stakes much higher, friends who never walk off the field.

Away from the classroom, the reading of history and literature can have an influence on how military life is experienced.  The sand berms, body armor and helmets, even our location in the land of the Tigris and Euphrates constantly reminded me of the Roman Legions when I was in Iraq, so that I named my OIF-1 monograph “Desert Legion.” Even more vivid and lasting were my thoughts of Homer’s “wine dark sea” one time flying over the Mediterranean in a CH-53.  On this occasion, I was flying back to my own vessel the Bataan leaving the task force flag ship Kearsarge.  This was 2003. We were headed to Kuwait and Iraq.  I’d gone to the Kearsarge to get some interviews I needed in my role as field historian. The Marine task force operations officer, a Basic School classmate, had done me the honor of briefing me on the tentative plan of attack and asking for for comments. On the flight  back, I had the thought that, yes, we were going to do this: we’re going to invade Iraq, one way or another. Then I had my Homer moment. The aircraft banked and I caught a glimpse of the dark sea over the rear ramp.  I thought of all the fighting ships and men who had passed this way: Homer’s (or Helen’s) 1,000 ships, galleys and galleons, men of war, dreadnoughts, escorts and merchantmen in convoy.  My part had been written long ago, and all I needed to do was play that part. The worse things got, the more I might be needed, to help and encourage, as long as I remained standing.  These thoughts stayed with me the rest of the campaign.

Maybe the best way to get inside the head of a Greek hoplite is to read Homer and some of the Greek plays that deal with war, like Sophocles’s Ajax. That was what they carried in their heads on the way to battle, along with thoughts of home and family, the fight ahead, their own chances of victory and survival, as have soldiers in every age.