On the Psychology of Military Incompetence: Revisited, Or Why Some Veterans Support 45

 IN 1976, British psychologist Norman F. Dixon published a book titled On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.[i] The book may be said to have spawned subsequent writings on the subject but, despite a new edition in 2016, it seems to be but little read today, and that may be a pity. Aside from addressing the important and timeless subject of why bad military decisions are made, the book offers a clue to a divide which affects both armed forces veterans and the nation as a whole.

Like other veterans, I have sometimes wondered why it is that we can seem to draw such different conclusions from our service. Like most veterans of my own acquaintance, I came back from deployment with an awakened sense of a common humanity. War, it seemed, in its paradoxical way, had done more than any other experience to convince me that all people were brethren, that America had a role to fill in the community of nations, that we need allies and friends, and that to ignore or shut out the rest of the world was both morally wrong and impractical. This is why, like other veterans and many of our fellow citizens, I find the current U.S. policy and practices with respect to immigrants and refugees so painful. I feel that I know in my heart and in my head that this is wrong, both for the suffering it causes and for the long-term effects of a new isolationism.  That this spirit of isolation is fueled by terrible rhetoric of xenophobia and racism, some of it coming from the current administration, makes it even worse. And that’s not all. The chief executive’s contempt for the truth, his bullying and delight in other people’s discomfiture, typified recently by a gleeful reference to “gently” throwing immigrant children back to their countries of origin, seem to me to strike at the heart of personal integrity and good leadership, maybe the two common pillars of military service throughout the armed forces. His failure to condemn the racists and fascists who see themselves as acting under his banner, as in the wake of Charlottesville, has been a terrible blunder. More than this, it has been the sign of a lack of concern for ethical matters that unfits him as a leader of any kind.

Still, we veterans who find this appalling and contemptible know that not all veterans share our opinion of the President, his words and policies. This presents something of a mystery. I once said that I thought I knew veterans who would let you rip off an ear before they told a deliberate lie, but who now supported a man who lies all the time, in matters big and small. A tactical leader trains herself to face facts, to proceed empirically. The President often seems delusional, perhaps in keeping with his contempt for science and other forms of expertise.  Most of all, most veterans have learned that leadership is a matter of caring for people and bringing out their best. A real leader literally encourages, sharing courage and not preying on fears. We’ve all seen and suffered under the wrong kind, the “toxic” leader, but thankfully they are in the minority, and usually forgotten for the nonentities that they are.

The loyalty of those still serving in the reserves or on active duty presents less of a mystery. Absent a clear case of illegality, military members must by oath obey the orders of the President. There is the option of a refusal to obey or of resignation based on principle, but the path to these courses of action is murky and mostly untrodden.

The allegiance of veterans is a greater mystery and a greater problem, but Dixon’s book and some polling conducted over the last couple of years provide some clues and insight.  According to Dixon, the great besetting reason for military incompetence is that the armed forces tend to attract and cultivate people with authoritarian tendencies. Self-selection is at work to ensure that most people entering the armed forces are comfortable with giving and taking orders. This tendency becomes habitual in the hierarchical military culture. Subordinates tend to refrain from questioning the orders and views of their superiors, and senior officers too often do no brook objections to their plans and instructions.

The authoritarian tendencies of military people neatly fit the profile of Trump supporters that has emerged from some polling.[ii] According to some polls, authoritarian tendencies are a better indicator that someone has and will support the current President than gender, income, education, race, or religion.  Behind Trump’s blustering and bad manners, these people see a legitimate authority figure, someone comfortable giving orders and therefore, by that measure, fit to command.

To break out of this way of thinking requires someone to step out of personal tendency and see the requirements for leadership in its greater complexity. Leadership is a moral act as well as the exercise of authority. It involves ends as well as means, and often those most anxious to give orders are those least fit to do so, since they find the pleasures of power too attractive. There is evidence that this change is coming. A small majority of veterans now seeking elected office are Democrats. This may be said to represent a diminishing conservative consensus that had generally existed in the military, in the upper ranks especially. There may be evidence to show that even a few defections can spell the end of groupthink, by introducing the idea that conformity to a certain point of view may not be necessary for group membership.[iii]  If conservative veterans are willing to be their own devil’s advocates, perhaps more will see that he really does not represent their values.

For me, Trump’s damning deficiencies come out in stark relief when he is compared to the man who for me is the gold standard and my personal hero: George C. Marshall. Marshall’s personal courtesy and magnanimity, his scrupulous integrity, attention to and command of facts, the breadth of his humane vision which resulted in the plan for post-war European recovery that bears his name, all are a rebuke to Trump and his methods. Like other demagogues, he may enjoy some short-term success, but these are built on a rotten foundation of ignorance and preening self-regard.

Trump is almost a caricature of the bad leader: closed to the views of others, humorless except at others’ expense, more interested in perks and deference than in real achievement.  Support for him, I believe, rests on a tenuous thread of unreason, of exaggerated deference to authority. Among veterans, there may even be a note of nostalgia for a time when our lives consisted in doing as we were told.  More powerful than these impressions, I believe, is the example of integrity and genuine leadership that is the greatest benefit of military service, and the legacy of the armed forces to its own members and the rest of the nation.

[i] Norman F. Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. 1976 (New York: Perseus-Basic Books, 2016). 

[ii] Matthew MacWilliams, Politico. Online. “The Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter.” January 17, 2016.

[iii] Douglas T. Kenrick, Adam B. Cohen, Steven L. Neuberg, and Robert B. Cialdini, “The Science of Anti-Scientific Thinking,” Scientific American, July 2018, pp. 37-41.

Strategic Thought and the Military Officer (Concl.)

Last post on “Strategic Thought and the Military Officer.”

Soldiers and Civilization

A Complex Environment

Strategy provides an illustration of one of the abiding themes of modern thought, which is that the relationship among things and persons often counts as much or more than the characteristics of the things themselves. From relativity, psychiatry, and existentialist and post-modernist thought onwards, persons, political bodies, ideas and events have been seen to be defined by how they interact. The challenge of strategic thought may be expressed as the attempt to bring elements into agreement in spite of their antagonism. The paradox of military strategy is that the means are violent, inherently unsettling, as likely to inflame antagonism as to extinguish it, or to only temporarily quell antagonisms, leaving the real cause untouched and as ignitable as ever.   Not only is strategy dependent on the relationship of opposing forces to one another, of force to the geopolitical landscape and to policy, but (as we have seen)…

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Strategic Thought and the Military Officer (Concl.)

A Complex Environment

Strategy provides an illustration of one of the abiding themes of modern thought, which is that the relationship among things and persons often counts as much or more than the characteristics of the things themselves. From relativity, psychiatry, and existentialist and post-modernist thought onwards, persons, political bodies, ideas and events have been seen to be defined by how they interact. The challenge of strategic thought may be expressed as the attempt to bring elements into agreement in spite of their antagonism. The paradox of military strategy is that the means are violent, inherently unsettling, as likely to inflame antagonism as to extinguish it, or to only temporarily quell antagonisms, leaving the real cause untouched and as ignitable as ever.   Not only is strategy dependent on the relationship of opposing forces to one another, of force to the geopolitical landscape and to policy, but (as we have seen) the production and execution of strategic thought is also based on many relationships among individuals and organizations, from small departments to nation states, non-state actors, and other international organizations. The officer-as-strategist must navigate in this complex social and political terrain in which perceptions of commitment and credibility count as much as the inherent merit of plans and ideas. Even the most brilliant plan, lacking necessary support and imaginative and determined execution will fail to be adopted or will simply fail.  To accept and execute the best strategy, there will often have to be learning, new ways of thinking, the overcoming of habits and even of allegiances.  Strategic thought often involves the overcoming of narrow or parochial loyalties and relationships in favor of a broadly national, global, humanitarian outlook.

The political and pragmatic aspects of strategy must never be confused with moral relativism.  It is a challenge for every officer, especially given the sometimes-brutal nature of her calling, not to lose sight of the precious things she serves and guards. Whatever role they occupy, the credibility and authority of officers continues to depend on their being persons of honor.



            What can be done to improve the contributions of officers to strategic thought? The solutions are both structural and cultural. On the structural level, the armed forces should consider adopting some of the non-hierarchical organization of some businesses and becoming less rigid and authoritarian. This may appear anathema to military ideas of discipline and command and control, but real discipline is more a matter of compliance than compulsion. The armed forces must do a better job harnessing its own brain power. The rigidity of military organizations is responsible for some of the “brain drain” among some of the brighter junior officers and NCOs.[i] They see weary years ahead before their ideas can have much impact, and so are seeking occupations that are not so tied to mere seniority.

The cultural changes are more numerous and important. A military culture stressing brain over brawn would help to create an atmosphere for better strategic thinking. This might include diminishing the fetishization of athletics at the service academies, for example. We should not reduce physical standards, but we should consider the evaluation and recognition of mental achievement to match. Currently, professional military education seems to be getting poor grades for the development of strategic thinkers.[ii]  A more rigorous and reflective approach to professional education is part of the solution, but the military should also consider sending more officers (and some enlisted members) to graduate school to earn degrees in fields like history and the humanities.[iii] These fields can prepare officers to think in the ways required of strategists, to grasp ends as well as means, to consider history and the future as well as the present and immediate effects.  The pursuit of strategy is a grand drama of epic and tragic proportions. It requires an historical perspective, human and ethical understanding, a poetics of war as much as doctrine. Military officers literally invest their lives in the pursuit of victory. They must also invest in the intellectual capital that make strategic success and victory attainable.



[i] There has been much writing on this subject over the last fifteen years. One of the most extensive and influential contributions to the literature of military retention is Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) by ex-Air Force officer Tim Kane.  Kane calls for radical changes in the military personnel system and military career patterns to keep and cultivate the brightest and best.

[ii] War Room. Online. “Whiteboard: How Well Does the Army Develop Strategic Leaders?” June 25 2018.

[iii]See Christopher D. Miller, “Creating the Force of the Future,” interview with Brad R. Carson, Acting Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness).  Journal of Character and Leadership Integration, Volume 3, Issue 2, Winter 2016 Special Edition, “Leading in the Profession of Arms.”  Carson laments the small and diminishing number of senior officers with advanced degrees in areas like literature and military history.  See also Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli and Major Stephen Smith, USA, “Learning From Our Modern Wars: The Imperatives of Preparing for a Dangerous Future,” Military Review, September-October 2007, pp. 2-15.  Chiarelli observes that, despite his numerous “muddy boots” assignments, “the experience that best prepared me for division and corps command in Iraq was the 5 years I spent earning a masters degree and teaching in the Social Sciences Department at the U.S. Military Academy.”

Strategic Thought and the Military Officer (Cont.)

Officers as Strategic Thinkers

            The officer will function as strategist in one of three roles, as commander, as staff officer, and as adviser. Most officer-strategists are staff officers.  Among commanders, only the very senior, those at the three or four-star level, are usually considered to be functioning as strategists. Although junior, tactical leaders should also understand strategy.[i] The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior American unformed officer, is the president’s principle military adviser. Officers’ strategic roles may appear to be straightforward and well-delineated by statute and table of organization, but they are in fact defined by personal, cultural, and organizational factors. Strategic thought involves and often demands a multiplicity of voices, of competing concerns and outlooks.  This can both inform and impede the strategic process. At times, strategic thought and direction, overwhelmed by the difficulties of reconciling the many departmental mouths to feed, has come to a halt, opening a fatal gap in the transmission of policy into military action, leaving to operational and even tactical commanders the task of wrestling with strategic issues that should have been worked out for them. In these cases, officers can become strategists by default, the task of strategic direction having been abdicated by those nominally entrusted with it. Historical examples of this are almost too numerous to mention. That of Vietnam has already been discussed. Korea may offer another. U.S. strategy regarding Korea turned quickly from indifference to commitment to World War II-style decisive victory.[ii] Shaped by the experience of victory in the recent war, it took U.S. planners some time to acknowledge that this was a different kind of war in which there might be a different kind of victory. Sometimes absent clear strategic guidance, commanders in the field from MacArthur to Van Fleet flirted with and sometimes danced attendance on the idea of decisive victory, reuniting all of Korea at the point of the sword and punishing or even openly warring with mainland communist China. Aiming for intervals at victory, the U.S. and its allies achieved stalemate, or status quo ante bellum. It might be useful to contrast this with Vietnam, a war shaped by the previous experience of Korea, in which aiming at a stalemate produced defeat.

The tendency for American strategic direction to be hazy and “ad hoc” continues into our own time. In “National-Level Coordination: How System Attributes Trumped Leadership,” Christopher Lamb and Megan Franco depict a strategy process dealing with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that turns out “consensus” strategy documents that are largely ignored, leaving real strategy in the minds of a few senior officials, and sometimes to be guessed at.[iii] Important questions regarding the nature of the terrorist threat and the priority given to nation-building were left unanswered, to be improvised or intuited by those in the field.

Officers are expected to be professionals and the experts on military strategy, but Georges Clemenceau’s statement that war was too important to be left to generals still resonates.  It is the means of war which is officers’ area of expertise, not the ends, and this suggests that an incomplete grasp of the ends limits even their understanding of how the means should be employed. The officer, by her training and experience, will often stop at the military victory, with insufficient thought or preparation to securing the peace.  This predilection was arguably played out as the allies approached victory in World War II, when large sections of Europe were left to Soviet control, in the difficult Civil War Reconstruction, when the freedom of many ex-slaves was rendered almost nominal by a revival of racist policies in the southern states, and most recently following the American and allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The matching of military strategy to policy presents a problem. Officers (especially those at the strategy level) are expected to be politically literate and even sophisticated, but not politically involved or motivated.  In effect, the respect of the civilian leadership and the public for officers as strategists rests on their expectation that officers’ expertise and code of honor will see that they render well-considered advice that is neither partisan nor self-serving. Of course, it may be both, as well as simply and honestly wrong, because officers are human, subject to their limitations and sometimes to outside pressure. Interpersonal and inter-agency relations have a strong influence on the development of strategy, and so may the consensus or “laundry list” approach that sometimes seems to be encouraged by doctrine and the bureaucracy.

The military strategist looks up and down. He implements policy and also creates the conditions for success on the operational and tactical level.  Part of this falls under the officer’s role as organizer, under training and force planning, but the strategist is also a warfighter.  Working at a greater remove from the fighting, she is also expected to think across a broader area, even the whole of earth, and a longer expanse of time.  In focusing on the fight, he must always consider the position at the end of conflict, of the moment when the fighting ends and the long denouement begins, as the armies return home, reduce in size, change from waging war to keeping peace, as rebuilding begins and the political map is redrawn.


Next: A Complex Environment + Conclusions

[i] B.A. Friedman, On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017).

[ii] D. Clayton James and Anne Sharpe Wells, Refighting the Last War: Command and Crisis in Korea 1950-1953 (New York: Free Press-Macmillan, 1993).

[iii] Richard D. Hooker and Joseph J. Collins Eds. Lessons Encountered: Learning From the Long War (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2015), pp. 168-169.

Strategic Thought and the Military Officer

Soldiers and Civilization

I recently submitted another article to The Strategy Bridge. I plan to post the article in 3 parts over the next few days. Below is the introduction and a section titled, “The Nature of Strategic Thought.” Next will be “The Officer as Strategic Thinker.”

                                     Strategic Thought and the Military Officer

For officers, strategic thought is a subset, along with tactical and operational thinking, to their roles as organizer, planner, and warfighter. But strategic thought is distinct from the other forms of thinking in which officers must engage in its much greater complexity. It is also the way of thinking which most requires the officer to be self-conscious, or “metacognitive,” and in effect to distance herself from the kinds of thinking required for the tactical and operational levels of war at which she…

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Strategic Thought and the Military Officer

I recently submitted another article to The Strategy Bridge. I plan to post the article in 3 parts over the next few days. Below is the introduction and a section titled, “The Nature of Strategic Thought.” Next will be “The Officer as Strategic Thinker.”


                                     Strategic Thought and the Military Officer


For officers, strategic thought is a subset, along with tactical and operational thinking, to their roles as organizer, planner, and warfighter. But strategic thought is distinct from the other forms of thinking in which officers must engage in its much greater complexity. It is also the way of thinking which most requires the officer to be self-conscious, or “metacognitive,” and in effect to distance herself from the kinds of thinking required for the tactical and operational levels of war at which she normally functions.  In its complexity of means and ends, strategy is more than just another level of war. Perhaps this is why the record of strategy is so marked by error and failure. Failure in war in most often a failure a strategy. For the officer, this means that all the effort, sacrifice, and success at the tactical and operational levels may well come to naught because of a flawed strategy. In this article, I will consider the nature of strategic thought and the officer’s role in it to determine why this is so, and what is to be done.

Of all levels of armed conflict, strategy is most concerned with complex ends and long-term effects which are difficult to plan and foresee. For the strategist, war is the irrational in the service of the rational: force, or the threat of force, in the service of policy. As the theorists Deleuze and Guattari note, the so-called “war machine” is not an efficient instrument, but an unlikely fusion of competing opposites.[i] The war machine is not complete until the two sides come into conflict.  If war is a machine, it operates as if one person worked the gears and another (his deadly enemy), controlled the power source!   History, to include recent U.S. history, is full of examples of military victories, deterrence or dominance that had ambiguous results. Even the allied victory in World War II, although it is considered one of the most important and decisive in history, destroyed three militant and acquisitive empires to set the stage for the expansion of a fourth. On the other hand, the Soviet Union created enormous conscripted armed forces and won victories by proxy all over the world, but none of this prevented the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. nor the receding of the international communism of which it saw itself as the standard-bearer.


The Nature of Strategic Thought


Tactical and operational thought are personal and tribal. Officers leading at these levels are often in direct contact with the people doing the fighting, and they are subject to the conditions of the battlefield or theater of operations. Tactical and operational thought are conducted within the tight-knit tactical unit or in a staff among officers who, even if they are of different services and nationalities, often share a similar outlook and vocabulary of military symbols and structures. Strategic thought is bureaucratic.  It requires bureaucratic resources, is performed by bureaucracies, and often exhibit the good and bad traits of bureaucracies in general. Strategic thought and planning are less tribal than tactical operational thought because much of it is influenced and conducted by non-tribal civilian academics and government officials, and less personal because it is conducted at a considerable remove from the troops and scene of conflict. It is bureaucratic in the sense that it is conducted by hierarchical, rule-bound, expertise-driven standing organizations that meet the criteria on which sociologists generally agree. The term bureaucracy and bureaucrat have evolved into epithets, an evocation of the worst traits of bureaucracies and of organizations in general, particularly those of government. Nevertheless, as Max Weber noted, bureaucracies are in most senses preferable to the kinds of hereditary, ad hoc, and unregulated mechanisms of policy that came before. Some innovative organizations, mostly in the private sector, have begun to adopt forms of organization that depart from the model laid out by Weber and his successors, for example becoming less hierarchical. Currently, the organizations dedicated to military strategic planning and execution follow the traditional model.  Strategic thought takes place in a variety of venues, from the war colleges and other service schools, to civilian academic institutions, to a multiplicity of “think tanks.” Actual strategic planning is focused on the service branch headquarters, the major regional and functional combatant commands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Department.

The bureaucratic nature of the military establishment can be an impediment to clear strategic thought.  A much-read and very detailed account of poor strategic thought (which was perhaps intensified by a lack of moral courage) is H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.[ii]  Service rivalry and careerism contributed to flawed policy and a lack of strategic direction. Strategic direction in Vietnam was guided by complex forces that inhibited clear thinking. In The Irony of Vietnam: the System Worked, Leslie Gelb and co-author Richard Betts present a nuanced argument concerning strategic failure.[iii] To briefly summarize, they argue that the civil and military bureaucracies of the federal government, realizing that victory in Vietnam was probably unlikely, nevertheless fell into line, reluctant to damage their credibility by resistance or half-hearted efforts.  The bureaucracies that create strategy to support policy have the vices of their virtues, which are efficiency and unity of effort. They can implement policy, but they usually do not make or undo it. From the 1940’s to the 1960’s, the military bureaucracy moved from extreme caution to commitment concerning operations in Vietnam.  The Joint Chiefs at first considered the region relatively unimportant, and they warned that effective intervention would likely require a confrontation with China, but once the decision had been made that the perils of disengagement outweighed those of commitment, all doubts were suppressed, even in the face of growing evidence that the war was un-winnable.  As a prescription, the authors of The Irony of Vietnam call for pragmatism over policy and doctrine (and, it might be necessary to add, ideology) in decision-making at the foreign policy and national security level.

(Next: Officers as Strategic Thinkers)



[i] Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Nomadology: The War Machine (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1986).

[ii] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997).

[iii] Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington: Brookings, 1979).


Officer Education and the Humanities

Another excerpt from my (I hope) forthcoming book on how to think like an officer. I devote a great deal of space in the book to reading, not omitting the reading of military doctrine, theory, and history, but in this section I make the argument for reading broadly as an aid to thinking well, and perhaps especially under pressure.

IN its dependence on narrative, prescriptive, and lyrical language, in its historicity and close ties to questions of value, the military thought is both dependent on the humanities and has provided the humanities with some of its most valuable themes and texts.  The humanities are valuable to the officer in a variety of ways, in her roles as a leader, as organizer and warfighter.  This may raise the question of how broad a field an officer’s education should cover. After all, there are limits to time and energy, and enough to learn even in the purely military sphere. Is the officer also expected to be a cultivated person with some knowledge of art and history, or is this just window-dressing, even a holdover from the conception of the officer as an aristocratic dilettante whose social obligations outweighed his military duties?  For the forgoing reasons concerning language, values, tactics, and leadership, I would argue, not irrelevant at all, especially if one considers the importance now being discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) of the merging of disciplines and areas of endeavor as essential to “synthetic” thought. Related to the idea of “consilience,” the meeting of art and science, there is a growing awareness of the importance of not limiting oneself to a narrow field of knowledge.  The humanities may be said to provide the best bridge between the practice of any profession and its larger import and impact on the lives of men and women.  An officer may benefit from a study of economics, or mathematics, or a branch of science, but absent the humanities something vital will be missing.  The humanities round one’s view of existence.  Properly considered, they are an antidote to insularity and exceptionalism.  The humanities are a vehicle both to impart values and also for receptiveness to changes in values.  Narrative literature and poetry in particular focus on the individual, on her foibles and familiarity. All stories are alike in that they are made of words and are concerned with diverse but recognizable human concerns, but it would seem that we need a lot of stories to fully understand the human subject that is the basis for all systems of belief and governance, all professions and organizations, all public and private acts and interventions, all armies and armed conflict. Perhaps the most important function of the humanities, of literature in particular, is to hold up a mirror to ourselves.  As I discuss in much greater detail in the next chapter, self-knowledge is vital to an officer, lest her decisions and relationships be burdened by self-delusion, by posturing or lack of authenticity.

A succinct and convincing argument for the importance to officers of  a broad humanities education is made by Robert Kaplan in his editorial piece, “The Humanist in the Foxhole.”[iv] Kaplan holds up as an example of the “soldier aesthete” the recently deceased Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose broad reading and sincere interest in other cultures, even in obscure facts, places, and texts, lent depth to his ability to move among and to mobilize native peoples (on Crete in particular) as a special operations officer during World War II.  Another work in this vein is Josiah Bunting’s article “The Humanities in the Education of the Military Professional.” Bunting cites another special operations officer, Orde Wingate, in speaking of the “tyranny of the dull mind,” as a condition cured or challenged by a grounding in the humanities.[v]  Bunting also quotes another famous proselytizer for humanities education, Cardinal John Henry Newman from his The Idea of the University.  “It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to discard what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Bunting concludes by siding with John Rosenberg, who told West Point cadets that a liberal arts education might make them more sensitive to the value of things they would have to destroy. Bunting adds that it may also make them aware of the value of the things that they defend, and that “military victory must not be purchased in ways that utterly defeat the purposes for which campaigns are undertaken.” Perhaps the most distinguished proponent of an humanities education was ex-officer Winston Churchill.  As Jonathan Rose, author of The Literary Churchill puts it, “For Churchill, literary and strategic creativity were inseparable.”[vi] As an antidote to what he saw as their general lack of imagination, he wanted all officers to read Plutarch’s Lives.  Rose calls Churchill the foremost poet of World War II, and so he was. His language, often allusive and metaphorical, helped to define for many the nature of the struggle and the hopes for the future. Often a master of hyperbole, Churchill had found in the Nazis and their evil cause a fit subject for his Augustan rhetoric.

Under the heading of the humanities, the canonical literature of the United States should be a part of the reading of an American officer.  Along with the foundational documents already mentioned, classic American literature has formed what philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “this new but unapproachable America.”[vii]  Two of the giants in this field are Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Moby Dick likely remains the one great American novel, and the Pequod is, as critics from D.H. Lawrence have noted, a metaphor for America, with its themes of capitalism, uprootedness, racial difference, and religious belief. For the officer-reader especially, Moby Dick is about hierarchy and command, their rituals, use and misuse.  With his essays, Emerson declared the intellectual independence of the young republic.  His work does not define so much as track a course, from the ebullience of “Self-Reliance” to the sadness and knowledge of “Experience,” a path that many officers may take during a career,

The Humanities in its relationship to officer thought might usefully be divided into two tracks, the narrative and the poetic.  Narrative is the basic form for much writing in the Humanities, perhaps history and literary fiction (the novel, play, and short story) in particular. The cognitive benefits of narrative are well-established.  Drawing on research by others, literary critic Terry Eagleton describes several distinct benefits, to include enabling readers to think beyond the here and now, to process information, to anticipate risks and opportunities, and to prepare for setbacks.[viii] Narrative is akin to diagnosis, to pattern-recognition and problem-solving. By the poetic I refer to works in the humanities which are not necessarily in the poetic genre, but which address various seemingly irreconcilable values and unanswerable questions. Many have to do with the human mortality, the gap between our limited earthly lifetimes and the limitlessness of our desires and aspirations. Both narrative and poetic forms relate to how officers must think, especially in wartime, when the demands on decision-making and resilience are the greatest, and when paradoxes of the kind addressed in a poetics become most acute and immediate. A poetics as well as a narrative is needed to address the fragile, even tentative endurance of the values for which soldiers fight, and the impermanence of the things and people we value and love. The analysis of narrative and poetics is akin to diagnosis and to tactics, to an understanding based on incomplete knowledge and partly dependent on abstract and ineffable values such as that of human lives and of future generations.

For examples, there is an abundance of poetical works to choose from, new and old, works about war and those that have nothing to do with war.  William Meredith was a Navy pilot in World War II who had a distinguished career as a poet and teacher until his death in 2007. In 1970 he published “Reading My Poems from World War II” in Poetry magazine.[ix] Meredith recalls the beautiful and gallant images he created out of war, not to reject them exactly, although certainly to complicate them. The young poet “dressed as a lieutenant,” “wears his insignia with pride, nevertheless/You feel something is wrong; he is rendered with all the compassion Velasquez reserved for his dwarfs.” Meredith says that his wartime poems “seem impelled by a moral purpose,” which is that we not “blame the men/Even transformed into beasts in a stylized chase.”  The figure of the dwarf re-appears at the end of the poem. His “eyes glitter as though in that whole scene/he saw no one worse than himself, and he prays for us all.”  The poem expresses through a variety of images the complex mixture of pride and guilt over complicity with war. The purpose of the chase is left in question.  The image of the dwarf reflects a diminishment of humanity, but it is the dwarf who sees the humanity of all involved in the struggle (“no one worse”) and who “prays for all.”  Perhaps along with a loss of stature the dwarf-lieutenant-poet has acquired a wry knowledge. Do his eyes glitter with amusement, or like those of the murderers in The Duchess of Malfi “dazzle” with tears?

The officer does not only make use of the humanities. Her profession is in effect a branch of the humanities, a union of fact and value, history and language, influence, allusion, and creativity. The language of soldiers is often derided as dry, evasive, even disingenuous, but it may also achieve a poetic compression and guarded meaning. The repetitiveness and metaphors of military-speak, of leadership in a military setting, can be unforgettable. In the hands of a veteran practitioner, it “comprehends all human tragedy,” as the officer and novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote in his Sword of Honour trilogy on World War II.   The soldier’s calling often calls for poetry, and it has not been lacking in this regard.


“Land of Song!” cried the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel Boy[x]

[i] Ward Just, “Introduction,” in David Hackworth and Julie Sherman, About Face: the Odyssey of an American Warrior (New York: Touchstone-Simon and Schuster, 1989) p. 13 and Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. 1924, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, trans. (New York: Random House, 1934), p. 792-799.

[ii] Brian Holden Reid, “Commanding heights,” review of The Lords of War, From Lincoln to Churchill, Supreme Command, 1861-1945 by Correlli Barnett. Times Literary Supplement September 27 2013, p. 28

[iii] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: Thomas Egerton, 1813).

[iv] Robert D. Kaplan, “The Humanist in the Foxhole,” The New York Times, 14 June 2011.

[v] Josiah Bunting, “The Humanities in the Education of the Military Professional,” in Lawrence J. Korb, The System for Educating Military Officers in the U.S. (Pittsburg, PA: International Studies, 1976), pp. 155-58.

[vi] Jonathan Rose, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 351.

[vii] Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Alburquerque, NM: Living Batch Press, 1989).

[viii] Terry Eagleton, Review of  On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, Fiction by Brian Boyd in London Review of Books, 31 (18), pp. 20, 22. Posted summary on blog Poiesis and Prolepsis by Allan Parsons, 13 October 2009.

[ix] William Meredith, “Reading My Poems from World War II.” Poetry Foundation website. Accessed 18 May 2017.

[x] Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Written after the Irish Rebellion of 1798.