Reading and Reviewing Pauline Shanks Kaurin’s On Obedience

           I read On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community in the weeks after the Presidential election.  I had frankly had the book on hand for a few months but, anticipating a demanding read, I had put off reading it. But then the matter of military obedience seemed to suddenly loom very large. There were (and still are) questions about what the presumably outgoing president will do for a finale, or perhaps even an encore. There was (and maybe still is) even the possibility that the armed forces would play some role in the transfer of power, or it might be more accurate to say in the attempts to transfer power, from one chief executive to his successor.

            Circumstances aside, On Obedience turned out to be a very engaging read. I marked up my copy with many check marks and questions. I communicated with the author, and I offered to review the book for a suitable journal. This offer was accepted. Meanwhile, I will post about some of the issues raised in Prof. Shanks Kaurin’s excellent book.  

There were times reading On Obedience when I had the thought that some of the other ideas related to military ethics and culture under discussion (honor, loyalty, discipline, etc.) were more interesting than the rather bald matter of obedience. But I realized that if someone says, “I’m a loyal, honorable, disciplined person, committed to my profession and Constitutional Oath, + I’m smart and thinking all the time,” a reasonable question might be, “That’s fine, Devil Dog, but what are you going to do when the boss gives you an order, one you find dubious?” Whether and how “we” obey orders is where the rubber meets the road. 

The matter of obedience is important because it is at the heart of what we think about military professionalism, civil-military relations, and civilian control of the military. Military professionals may perhaps be divided into two camps: those who stress the “military” and those who emphasize the “profession.”   Those in the “military” camp tend to highlight the need for obedience and discipline.  They see the battlefield as the defining space of the military profession, and they believe that it is only through discipline that the chaos of the battlefield can be mastered.  The “profession” school tends more to emphasize the attributes traditionally and theoretically associated with professions: expertise, autonomy, and a high-minded or service ethos.  One’s attitude toward dissent by military professionals is likely to be shaped by how one comes down on these differing views.   Those in the “military” camp tend to see dissent or disobedience as a dangerous unraveling of the basic fabric of a military organization. The “professionals” may perceive the failure to dissent or even disobey as a lapse in knowledge and of responsibility.  A key feature of the concept of professionalism is autonomy. But how much independence is allowed in a military professional? We should also recall that an officer or member of the armed forces is really more than either soldier or member of a profession.  Membership in the armed forces is also an expression or intensification of the responsibilities of a citizen.  The idea of the military as a profession may define too narrowly the responsibilities incurred by our oath of allegiance.  We are not simply technicians with a field of expertise (war).  As our Constitutional oath has it, we are citizens pledged to uphold certain principles as well as to defend the nation from external threat.     

Obedience is also at the center of civil-military relations. Part of the great prestige of the military is due to its ability to stay above political matters. But if soldiers are selective about what orders they obey, they may be seen as taking sides in matters of policy, even of politics, eroding the faith civilians ought to have in the armed forces. The area of civilian control is perhaps where the matter of obedience becomes most fraught, although we might also consider the matter of military effectiveness. If senior officers refuse the orders of their civilian masters, the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. military power might be undermined. If military members down the chain of command also took it on themselves to disobey, perhaps imitating the example of their seniors, this could further diminish military effectiveness, even to a critical extent.

Against the above objections are some compelling reasons why the right of soldiers to disobey, on legal, moral, and practical grounds, must be considered. There is also the fact that disobedience does take place in the military, perhaps more than most civilians think. Some military disobedience is the product of rank indiscipline, but it may also be a response to bad leadership, to unreasonable demands, to ignorance, incompetence, or even moral failings on the part of those giving the orders.  

Coming Up: How to Disobey

Weapons and Hope

                Like many people mostly confined to quarters these days, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading. Also like others, I suspect, some of this reading has consisted of renewing my acquaintance with the books in my collection. The books I pull off the shelves are sometimes at random. Some  might be picked because I think I may have paid them insufficient attention, or because I have the idea that an old book contains something needed anew.

            I frankly can’t remember why I reopened Freeman Dyson’s Weapons and Hope, written in 1984, but I’m glad I did.  A Cambridge-trained mathematician, Dyson was recruited in World War II by the British Bomber Command to do Operational Research (OR) on the effectiveness of the British bombing campaign against Germany. As he recounts in Weapons and Hope, the young Dyson came to believe that the bombing was extremely inefficient militarily as well as murderous to both German civilians and British aircrews. He recalls carrying on with his work at Bomber Command in a state of sickened moral apathy. He was intensely relieved at the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, simply because it freed him of the possibility that he would be sent to the Pacific to plan the bombing of Japanese cities after two years of bombing the Germans.   

            After the war, Dyson taught physics at American universities, starting with Cornell and ending up at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He also wrote extensively on the use of force in the modern world, with a focus on nuclear weapons. Dyson’s theme throughout much of Weapons and Hope is the way in which the bombing from the air with conventional or nuclear weapons can come to appear normal and even acceptable. His discussion of the development of “tactical” nuclear weapons is scary and informative. By Dyson’s account, J. Robert Oppenheimer exerted much effort on promoting tactical nukes. He defended this stand later by saying that he had been appalled at the apocalyptic doctrine of the U.S. Air Force concerning nuclear weapons, and he hoped that the smaller weapons (under the direction of the U.S. Army) would provide a pause or even a check in the march to Mutual Assured Destruction. The Army incorporated tactical nukes into its doctrine as if they were just another weapon of war, but Dyson points out that the simulation conflicts involving the use of tactical nukes invariably escalated to larger weapons, suggesting that the Army’s and Oppenheimer’s attempt to tame nuclear weapons was flawed, maybe hopeless.

            In our time, nuclear weapons are perhaps taken for granted even more than when Dyson was writing, over thirty years ago. Other things have changed. China now occupies a large place in American strategic thinking. China may be the new USSR, the arch nemesis, the near-peer competitor we plan to fight, the assumed, even if unnamed object of war games and exercises. Even a conventional war between China and the US would be terribly destructive. If it crossed the nuclear threshold, it might be impossible to contain. Are the military planners on both sides are considering these risks realistically, not presuming to control that which might be uncontrollable, or to countenance that which no one wishes to endure?  

            The final chapter in Weapons and Hope is called “Tragedy is Not Our Business.” In his final words in the book, Dyson addresses the prevailing pessimism of his day, which might have relevance for our time as well. The language of the title of the chapter is taken from the writing of British soldier and explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, chronicler of the Scott and Amundsen Antarctic expeditions. The Norwegian Amundsen expedition was a success. Its goals were achieved, and no men were lost. The British Scott expedition ended with the deaths of nearly all the explorers, Scott included. Dyson points out that the Scott expedition became famous as an example of fortitude and self-sacrifice. Partly because of literary examples, we tend to enshrine tragedy, but, as Cherry-Garrard points out, the business of an explorer or of a soldier is not tragedy but survival (and, he might have added, victory). The fact is that sacrifice is sometimes required, but Cherry-Garrard is right to say that the sagacity of Amundsen is preferable to the bullheaded persistence of Scott, however heroic. Dyson ends his book with a contrast between themes of tragedy and those of homecoming, using the Iliad and the Odyssey as respective examples. In difficult times, hope and not tragic resignation are needed; intelligence and resourcefulness are required over fatalism and acceptance.             

Some of Weapons and Hope is dated, but the nuclear weapons that worried Dyson are still there, waiting for the order to fire, although this is less thought of today than in the 80s. The current pandemic has perhaps put us in the mind of managing or averting global catastrophe. The dangers of war and global pandemic are still looming. Neither producing smaller weapons nor defeating one virus is really a solution. Global cooperation, even friendship among nations, as thinkers on the subject have recognized at least since the time of Thomas Aquinas, would be a new normal that we could all live with, and the best hope of all.

A Movie About Marshall? With Thoughts on Hero-Worship

In this post, I will continue to review some of the thought-process that went into the writing of the screenplay currently titled George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory. At the end of the post, I will append some of my reflections on hero-worship.

Taking Patton as a template, GEORGE C. MARSHALL (the movie) might cover a period of a few years, rather than just a single episode. These might be about the same as the years for Patton, 1942-1945. These were the decisive years of the war that saw the buildup and deployment of the enormous American armed forces that would be needed for victory. This was also the period of the great alliances in action: both the “special relationship” with the UK and Commonwealth, and the more guarded and difficult relations with France, China, and the USSR. Marshall had a key role in all of this. It might be argued that he of all saw the war most entire. Other military men focused mostly on the means to victory, while politicians were more concerned with ends. Only Marshall and Churchill seemed to combine a grasp of both, but Churchill with his commitment to the British Empire and his flights of rhetoric saw the strategic picture less clearly than did Marshall. Churchill has been called by Jonathan Rose the leading poet of WWII, Marshall was its more prosaic narrator. He embodied the idea from Thomas Aquinas that military command is an act of moral prudence. He could not always be right (as he acknowledged, insisting on subordinates willing to disagree with him), but his thinking was unencumbered by petty concerns or egotism. He was interested in victory and a sustainable peace, nothing else. His desire to finish the war as quickly as possible was based on the understanding of the human costs of war that he had gained in WWI.

Marshall was at the head of growing power of the  Army of the United States, and he exerted a strong influence on the overall organization and employment of all allied armed forces and the procurement, production, and allocation of the implements of war being produced by the “Arsenal of Democracy.” At the same time, he kept a part of mind reserved for thinking of the post-war world, as early as 1943 conceiving some of the ideas that would develop into the plan for European Recovery. Marshall had a key role in formulating, presenting and popularizing, and in implementing the plan. In the completeness of his vision and the virtuosity of his implementation, he also resembles the Lincoln portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in the recent feature film. Both men functioned at a similar level, and they shared a genius for committed public service.

                A number of accomplishments mark the period of 1942-1945. Marshall had managed to make the Army a more formidable and ready force by the time the war began, but the process of training and equipping an Army that would eventually number over eight million had just started by late 1941. Numbers were important, but he pressed for thorough training and also for an understanding among the rank and file of the issues at stake. The Why We Fight film series was largely his idea and inspiration. He also ensured a cadre of senior officers to lead this Army, many of whom he had trained or with whom he had come into close contact over the course of their careers. Along the way he weeded out the unfit and those who could not make the transition to wartime mentally or physically. He recognized that his own age might be an issue, but he disciplined himself to a sustainable personal routine. He reorganized the entire War Department in the midst of the greatest pressure to continue functioning seamlessly in a new war that for a time appeared already almost lost. He cultivated professional relationships with his own commander in chief, other heads of state (Churchill in particular), and American and allied officers, showing a rare mixture of dignity, grace, and professionalism that eventually won over nearly everyone. Finally, he provided strategic direction in the councils of war. Marshall’s abilities as a strategist are still debated, but I side with those historians who find his emphasis on a landing in France at the earliest opportunity to be an essential part of the victory. Interestingly, he advocated a use of the A bomb that would limit casualties among Japanese civilians.

My Hero

I wonder sometimes about the nature of my frank hero-worship of Marshall. He was just a man, after all. He had his faults and limitations. He was very ordinary in some ways, although his very ordinariness was generally quite becoming. On the other hand, if we acknowledge his greatness, it may appear that his example is simply out of sight and unattainable. Some recent research into the role of character in ethics may shed some light on this paradox. Dr. John Doris has concluded that character may not count as much as we think it does, but that (then) nothing does. The world, he says, is made is of small effects. To stretch this argument somewhat, we might say that even if Marshall was not so very superior to the average person, his relative strengths and lack of flaws of character are significant, maybe especially if we add them up, and place them in the context of Marshall’s time and circumstances.

Luck certainly had a role in Marshall’s rise to greatness. He received an Army commission when he boldly walked into President McKinley’s office and asked for one. Even after decades of faithful and even brilliant service, his rise to the top job in the Army was far from assured. In fact he was something of a dark horse, and there were times when his career seemed to be over. But once in the position of Army Chief, appointed on the day World War II is generally considered to have begun, he was the right man in the right place. His strengths were just what was needed This was not entirely an accident of course. Marshall had been preparing himself for just such a moment for decades. It was his good fortune, and ours, that the stars fell on him when they did.

The fact that Marshall was not a saint or superman means that it may not be so misplaced for us to aspire to emulate his example, or that of some other hero. If we can push for just a bit more ability and suppress our weaknesses with some success, that may be enough for greatness. If our time comes, we should be ready, and having a hero, a star to guide us, might help.

What I Love about George Marshall

Some of you may have read in this blog some of my earlier posts on my hero, George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff in WWII, Secretary of State and of Defense, and author of the plan for European recovery that bears his name. A couple of you may even be aware that I spent part of 2020 trying to write a screenplay about Marshall. Starting this project, someone suggested I write down what it was that I loved about Marshall. I offer an excerpt from the resulting essay below.

                First of all, that he was great man. He combined the vision, the action and achievement, the soul and humanity that add up to greatness, both in terms of his character and his role in history.  He achieved great things, although I suspect that even if he hadn’t, those who served with him and knew him would have considered him a great person. That he is greatness in military uniform makes him more relatable to me than if he had followed a different profession, but I think that Marshall’s greatness is of a generally accessible kind. Like Grant, the American military figure to whom he can perhaps be most compared, he had much of the ordinary in him. He wasn’t eccentric or flamboyant. He cultivated no style or deliberate persona. He was a man at work. If he was a genius, it was as much due to study and application, to an undeterred focus on the problems he had to solve from day to day and year to year in a career of over fifty years of public service.  Marshall spent long years in the junior officer and field grade ranks, perfecting his knowledge of the different levels of military professionalism. For him, the Army became a great school. In an interview he modesty said,

As I have said several times, this puts me in the embarrassing position of seeming to be the one who knew.  Well, as a matter of fact, throughout all of this, I’m largely recording my reactions to the experiences of the AEF and later training the army when I was with General Pershing, and my own experiences in those schools.[i]

Marshall saw himself not so much as a person of special abilities or even knowledge, so much as the repository and conduit of much institutional knowledge.  If he had a special trait (along with his great humility), it was perhaps his receptivity and retention of knowledge that was there for the taking. When he was finally elevated to general officer, he had mastered his profession and acquired an understanding of the nature and dire impact of armed conflict in a way that went beyond the usual confines of military professionalism. Idealistic soldiers may worry that their occupation devolves to killing, that the idealism and ethical claims of the military profession are merely a gloss to obscure the gory details, but Marshall makes of military service what many soldiers hope that it will be: a higher calling. Marshall shows by example how one may become, not just a soldier, but a defender of the republic in the broadest sense.        

His Story?                

I take the movie Patton as my model of a highly successful biopic of a WWII general. The movie begins with Patton’s assumption of command of II Corps after the debacle at the Kasserine Pass. It runs through the infamous slapping incident, his time in limbo in England commanding a “ghost army,” his brilliant command of 3rd Army, victory in Europe, and his summarily relief after more unguarded comments left him vulnerable and when his services as a combat commander were no longer needed. This covers a period of about three years. Patton’s story is of his search for command, the arena in which he could display his strengths. His antagonist was himself, his almost unhinged tendency to speak and act of out of turn. In the film, these are treated as of a piece. His unguarded speech and actions translate to aggressiveness on the battlefield. Indeed, his need to dominate on the battlefield can itself be seen as almost a neurotic symptom. This gives his character an edge and an interest. What’s fueling him, we wonder: Too many falls off a horse, a need to appear tough, overcoming his privileged, even cultivated background, some other deep insecurity, a lack of an ability to cultivate ordinary relationships except for those involving command and combat?  Patton’s story surely illustrates some of the paradoxes of a military career, which involves both discipline and untamed aggressiveness, both civilized and atavistic instincts and behavior. Patton was spoken of as a valuable asset in war but an often uncomfortable presence in peace. In his rise to command, he sometimes had to be protected by others from himself. It was said of Captain Aubrey of the Master and Commander series that he became a better officer but a duller person. Patton was never dull, though perhaps more’s the pity. If he’d been able to tame himself he might have been a better officer and person. Patton defined himself by his proficiency as a warfighter, neglecting the idea that there may be more than this to being a soldier.


[i] Larry I. Bland, Ed. George C. Marshall Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), p. 545.