PPS to “Honor Intact?” Is Military Culture at Fault?

I’d like first to amend some of my recent remarks on the Capitol police. As the full story emerges, it appears that some individual officers performed well. Furthermore, one died of wounds received and another appears to have committed suicide. I believe that these men were failed by their leadership, an idea borne out by the resignation of senior Capitol police officers. Some of the rank and file were likely responsible for the mission failure, but not all, and some have paid a heavy price.

Another fact that is emerging from the attack on the Capitol concerns the numbers of military veterans, reservists, and active duty members who participated. Some voices have been raised attributing this to white supremacist and other extreme ideologies. The presence of white supremacists among military members and veterans is a problem. Their numbers may not be high, but even a small percentage can have a detrimental effect on unit cohesion and effectiveness, introducing elements of divisiveness that have no place in a military unit. Also, the training that service members receive may make them especially dangerous if they turn to violence, and not only because of their training in weapons and combat skills. Some also have training in communications, in cyber operations, in tactics and small-unit leadership that might be useful to an insurgent or terrorist group.

In this post, I will briefly address some of the root causes for some military members to find extreme ideologies attractive. These root causes include the military tendency towards authoritarianism, the preponderance of males and hyper-masculine attitudes in the military, the appeal of violent solutions to problems, and the self-righteousness and sense of entitlement of some service members and veterans.

In his classic and seminal, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Norman Dixon advances the theory that much military incompetence is due to the tendency of military service to attract and cultivate authoritarian personalities. I have written elsewhere of this tendency to explain why some military members have (and even continue) to support Donald Trump. The authoritarian tendencies of some soldiers may also explain why they are attracted to openly fascistic, racist, even to neo-Nazi movements, all of which are strongly authoritarian. In fact, fascism and Nazism have their origins with discontented veterans of World War I. They are militant ideologies of perpetual war, in which all are subjected to mock-military discipline.

The second feature of military forces that can contribute to extremism is that they are mostly male and often given to hyper-masculine attitudes. This can breed an unbalanced preference for direct action, for harsh language, for (as Ezra Pound says) “love of slaughter, in imagination,” and a contempt for moderation and deliberation. This is connected to the preference for violent solutions. Soldiers have been trained in violence, and they can come to see violent means as the preferred or only solution to a problem. This might even contribute to the military propensity for suicide. Of course, more thoughtful and reflective soldiers, perhaps those with more service, also come to see the limitations, the dual-edged nature of violence, but for others the appeal of violent acts remains.

The last, perhaps most serious and least becoming of the tendencies that lead soldiers and veterans to extremism is the exaggerated sense of entitlement, the Kipling-esque feeling of services and virtue unrewarded. Some military people feel wronged for legitimate reasons, and they may express this feeling in a variety of ways, some productive and some not, but in its extreme form, and especially in an immature or unfulfilled person, the sense of grievance can drive them into political extremism and even political violence: Attitudes and acts which, although political in expression, are usually psychological and even pathological in origin. Related to entitlement is self-righteousness, which a character in Anton’s Myrer’s novel Once an Eagle calls “the occupational disease of the soldier . . . and the worst sin in all the world.”

Some of the forgoing tendencies may be the result of self-selection, but others can be the product of military service itself, perhaps abetted by poor leadership. Leaders should be aware of the signs of extremism in the soldiers they lead and those others around them. A soldier’s comrades can help to talk her down from extreme positions. On an institutional level, to repeat a proposal I made in a previous post (and also elsewhere), it may be time for a joint military ethics code, one that stresses human rights, dignity and diversity along with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).

Anyone interested in reading more on the subject of military group think, mis-think and their cures can consult my book, How to Think Like an Officer!

Postscript to “Honor Intact?”

When I posted the other day, I made the comment that the debacle at the US Capitol had still not given up its secrets. Surely the full story, even a fairly complete picture of the reasons why a mob was able to enter and even briefly occupy the halls of Congress will take some time to emerge. An aspect of our national failure to defend our Capitol was the fact that no National Guard soldiers were defending the building when the insurgents staged their attack.

The attack itself doesn’t appear to have been especially clever or well-coordinated. It was more of a crown surge or crowdsource. As an attempt at a coup de etat or actual government takeover it had considerably less chance of success than those conducted in Germany in 1945 or Algeria in 1961, both of which failed miserably. The only advantages it had were numerical and demographic: It was fairly large and mostly white, making it difficult for law enforcement to manage or target.

The Capitol police seem to have underestimated the threat, rejecting calls for aid and taking little effective action when the attack came. Pictures show them in undignified flight, and they have been described as simply standing aside to admit the insurgents on the Capitol steps. They appear to have been both mentally and materially unprepared. Better barricades and non-lethal weapons would have helped, as would have a realistic sense of the threat they were facing and the means necessary to bring it under control. Certainly “unfunding” this play police force and replacing it with more effective security seems to be justified!

The military appears to have been formed up but not fully ready to intervene. There may be a difference between (to use some military parlance somewhat loosely) being “on order” to execute a mission and in a “be prepared to” condition, between being willing and able to execute orders and being intelligently proactive, “leaning forward in the foxhole” as I’ve heard it put, in a fluid situation. On 6 January, perhaps still stinging from criticism about its actions during the protests in the summer, the military may have been reluctant to get involved, like any bystander unsure of what might be the best action, and maybe afraid or being hurt, or humiliated, or subjected to legal action.

But the situation on 6 January was different, in a number of significant ways. Handling the recent incidents with much less force than those of the summer is another example of people of color, African Americans especially, being more roughly dealt with by the various armed representatives of the state. The actions and intentions of the two groups are also in contrast. Unruly as they occasionally were, the protests neither approached the level of criminality nor presented as great a danger as the attack on the Capitol, in which some at least had murder in mind. I can’t adequately address here the nature of the causes being espoused on either side, but they are also wildly different. The anger of the summer protesters was understandable. Their cause was respectable and at least comprehensible. The people who invaded the Capitol appear to have been motivated by a mish-mash of extreme right ideology often crossing over into fascism, by crackpot mysticism, racism, and sheer, irrational delusion.

To consider the military response to 6 January is not merely a matter of finger-pointing or “Monday-morning quarterbacking.” The military may be faced with future insurrections requiring its intervention. There is talk of an encore on 17 January. Then there is the Inauguration on the 20th. After that, a segment of the populace, its odious champion brought low at the polls and perhaps impeached, with the attack of 6 Jan. to serve as an “Alamo” for their cause, may be ready to strike again, and to do it better. The Defense Department has to be ready with a menu of responses to events similar to those of 6 Jan. It also has to use its intelligence resources and collective imagination to envision future threats and plan to meet them, or head them off. Nothing less to uphold its own honor, the Constitution, and the Democracy it serves.

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