General Kelly: Back to the Civ-Mil Divide?


The remarks of Gen. Kelly at a press briefing last week have excited considerable comment, quite a bit of it negative. Kelly stands accused of widening,worsening, or exaggerating the culture gap between civil and military communities in the U.S. In effect telling his civilian audience that they are not capable of understanding the experience of service members, maybe especially those who have seen combat and who’s friends have been killed.

That’s not quite what Kelly said, and maybe even less what he meant. Some of his remarks to the press were likely those of man still grieving and angry because he lost a son, and who probably gets fed up with his job sometimes, which must be one of the toughest in America. However, I’d like to weigh in on the matter of the civ-mil divide. It is a subject that keeps coming up. It’s important and it needs frequent re-revisiting.

First, I don’t think that Kelly said or meant that it was impossible for civilians to understand the experience of military people. I do think he was and is skeptical as to how many in his audience have made the effort. There really is nothing unique in human experience about being in the military and even going to war.  Anyone who has even been scared, tired, too cold or too hot for long periods, or for that matter has experienced deep feelings of professional satisfaction, of connectedness with others, can have a handle on what it’s like to be a soldier. But it’s not automatic. It takes an effort of empathy and imagination. People aren’t compelled to make this effort, but it is probably valuable for at least a segment of the civil populace to make the effort, especially those who, like many of those in the press briefing, write about defense and security issues. They should try to understand what might be called, in the words of novelist James Ellroy, the private nightmare of public policy.

One of the ways in which the gap can be bridged is through literature. More than this, some war literature offers a demonstration that the gap can be bridged through empathy, imagination, and language. Two of the greatest writers on war, Shakespeare and  Stephen Crane had never experienced when they wrote works like Henry V and The Red Badge of Courage (although Crane later witnessed war in Cuba).  Interestingly, one of Kelly’s favorite military books is The General, by C.S. Forester, who also never served.   

An understanding of military service on the part of civilians is attainable but neither automatic nor easily given.  In fact, such understanding isn’t inevitable even for service members themselves, absent a degree of reflection and again imagination. Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote that if suffering made us wise, all would be wise.  To understand ourselves and our own experience has always perhaps been the greatest challenge.




Roman Religion and The Spiritual Exercises.


I’ve been promising to get back to the Romans for some time, but been “out of integrity” on that promise, until now.  My stated intention was to talk about the Roman army and its approach to religion, and my reasons for putting off this post go beyond simple procrastination. (Although that was certainly involved.) In the terms I’ve introduced before, this is a 2nd to 3rd order question for me. I do address this matter in SAC, and I’m capable of saying a few things about it, but I’m quite sure that I don’t have the complete answer. In fact I haven’t even been very confident that I had a good handle on the subject. But after reflection and some additional reading, I do have some thoughts.

First, I like the rather eclectic, even tolerant and diverse approach to religion that was on display in the Roman army.  Especially as their holdings and empire spread, Roman soldiers had their pick of an assortment of local religions. They would have been expected to be respectful of the official Roman deities from Jupiter on down, but they could embrace other religions and even make up their own.   A favorite among soldiers was Mithraism, a Persian faith. It was based on a simple creation myth in which Mithras is ordered to kill the first living creature, a bull, by the sun god and his emissary the raven.  Mithras carries out his orders loyally but remorsefully, like an obedient soldier with a conscience.   Membership in Mithraism involved painful rituals that tested the applicant’s endurance.  The pragmatic Romans saw religion as a force-multiplier, but you had your pick.  Roman soldiers also worshiped gods with names like Honus and Disciplina. The relative open-mindedness of the Roman army on the subject of religion reflected their approach to citizenship. Former adversaries and subject people could qualify as citizens, especially if they were willing to serve in the army.  Again this was pragmatic.  If a person was willing to observe Roman law, there was a path to at least partial citizenship. If a man could make the timed marches and other requirements for a legionary (or auxiliary), no one much cared what he believed or what gods he worshiped.  The Romans also don’t appear to have fought wars over religion, although as we know if they got it into their heads that a religious group might be an enemy, they could be ruthless, maybe beyond what was called for.

Edward Gibbon, the author of the classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, thought that Christianity had an enervating effect on the Romans, but most modern historians who weigh in on this subject disagree.  Constantine converted to Christianity when he experienced an ecstatic vision of the cross just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which he won.  Like the earlier religions, Christianity could be a force-multiplier. Unfortunately, it didn’t go along with the old inclusivity. Christianity doesn’t seem to pair well with other religions, although Christian soldiers have embraced quasi-religious practices like Freemasonry. Later soldiers of empire from Christian backgrounds have also embraced the local forms of spirituality in the places where they were stationed, as depicted for example in Francis Yeates-Brown’s Lives of a Bengal Lancer. 

One of the reasons that I’m a little reticent on this subject is that I don’t have much of a religious sensibility myself.  I know that religion has been a powerful force in the lives of soldiers and others, but when I consider this phenomenon, I’m on the outside looking in. I’ve sometimes tried to fill this gap. Lately, I’ve been reading the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Loyola was a soldier who laid aside the sword to embrace a religious life. (He later founded the Jesuits.) Loyola’s laying aside of the sword was literal, since he placed his sword before the statue of the Virgin of Montserrat, but in a figurative sense his approach represents a fusion of the military officer and the religious person. Even his choice of title “Exercitia spiritualia” evokes the Latin word for army,“exercitus,” reflecting the Roman identification of the army with ceaseless training.  Loyola’s guide is intended to be read by the “spiritual director,” the religious mentor of the student undergoing the exercises. The routine of meditation, contemplation, and prayer is quite demanding, especially when combined with the cloistered and and ascetic surroundings in which they are meant to be conducted. There is also an emphasis on “discretio,” an ability to distinguished the greater from the lesser course, even when the distinction might be clouded.  The person doing the exercises is in search of self-knowledge as much as of faith. Loyola’s Exercises unite the dedication and self-denial required of both the religious and military professional. It may not be an exaggeration to describe his twenty-eight day intensive program as a spiritual “boot camp.” (Although he allows for a more spread-out, “distance education” version!) It may also be thought of as the classical mold for military mentoring, and not without its secular uses today.





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.