Military and Societal Values
Length: 2799 words (8 double-spaced pages)
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Colonel Malham M. Wakin, in his evening address, asks whether Plato's claim that "knowledge is virtue" is true. Much contemporary experience suggests otherwise. To some extent, such an observation could apply to the military as well. Col Wakin argues that we do have some basic knowledge about human conduct, but that we live in a highly pluralistic society in which some practices reject that basic knowledge. Nonetheless, even though we draw members of the military from that pluralistic society, the uniqueness of the military function will always keep its leading practitioners apart from the mainstream of civilian society. The military profession swears to defend the values, the lifestyle that incorporates the minimal conditions for human dignity. After examining the convergence of the values that are functionally necessary for the military and those that we know are fundamental to social existence, he concludes that a competent military profession can serve as a moral anchor for its parent society.
Many years ago when I learned I was going to have the opportunity to study philosophy at the graduate level, I was tremendously excited. What a wonderful opportunity this would be, I thought, to sit at the feet of Socrates and be enlightened by those who studied the crucial problems of human existence. I expected that senior philosophy professors would be marvelous role models in their personal lives and I looked forward with great anticipation to associating with those who had solved the problems of the universe.
Indeed, these senior professors seemed very wise. They were dazzling in their abilities to rattle off the names and theories of great thinkers from every era. They knew the views of those whose names I couldn't even pronounce and I said to myself: "I'll never be able to grasp all of these ideas nor remember them well enough to teach them to others." But as time went on, I was slightly devastated to observe that these senior professors were not, as a group, the congenial masters of everyday living I expected them to be. They were not all basically kind persons--not even to each other. In fact, some would occasionally cross the street to avoid meeting and speaking with a colleague. And some had difficulties in their most important personal relationships--divorce, legal squabbles, envy, character assassination, narcissism--hardly what I had hoped for in the most knowledgeable, most studious persons in our society.
Was Plato wrong then, when he insisted that knowledge is virtue? Does a similar disillusion infect us all when we see the members of our public professions dissemble? When those highly educated attorneys in our society, those most knowledgeable about the law, find ways to use technicalities in that law to frustrate justice, do they not foster a moral cynicism among the rest of us? When politicians abuse power and position, when physicians prescribe unnecessary surgery, when the clergy substitute circus for spiritual sincerity, when military leaders lie under oath to their own citizens--what does the ordinary person conclude?
Clearly we have learned that there is a significant difference between knowing and doing. And we must be very careful how we interpret this difference lest we fall into the convenient traps of moral nihilism or moral relativism. Of course the highly educated members of our public professions know that kindness, and courtesy, and honesty, and justice are virtues important to the success and survival of any society. But knowing this and acting in accordance with this knowledge may be two different things. While wisdom is itself one of the important virtues, it does not seem to guarantee the practice of the moral virtues. Knowledge is surely necessary for the development of virtue but it is not sufficient.
Now how is this rather abstract reflection relevant to the issue at hand, namely, the relationship between military and societal value systems? Some might say there is a clue in the oath of office taken by every member of our military profession. All commit themselves to both support and defend the U.S. Constitution as a condition of military service. Many believe that the basis for our societal value system is contained in that Constitution which spells out fundamental rights and freedoms. Essentially, those values specifically mentioned in the Constitution characterize a way of life which respects human dignity--protected individual rights within the context of a pluralistic community. The military profession in this country is charged with the preservation and protection of that way of life--consistency would seem to demand that military members themselves exemplify in their personal lives those values to which they have made a clear and overt commitment. Does this mean that military and societal values are the same? Does this mean that if military people have knowledge of the values and corresponding virtues to which they are committed, they will act virtuously? Let's consider.
If we ask the empirical question, "What is the status of societal values in U.S. society today?" we are likely to find confusing answers. Contemporary crime statistics are discouraging, both from the numbers and types of crimes being committed. If we turn to the media we discover that according to opinion polls, many Americans admit to doing and tolerating dishonest action (cheating in school, cheating employers, stealing, cheating on taxes, etc.). If contemporary movies and TV depict and influence our behavior, we might conclude from them that infidelity, insincerity, adultery, envy, drug use, selfishness, material acquisitions, are commonplace and desirable as lifestyles or values. Our empirical sources of societal values seem to emphasize the sensational and the sordid. Pressure from these sources is felt mostly by the young (both in age and in moral maturity). It is sometimes difficult for the immature to avoid the message that this is what people are doing, so it must be okay.
But what does our society know about moral values? From our Constitution, from human history, from our churches, and homes, and teachers (sometimes) and our reasoning abilities and experience we have acquired over thousands of years some basic knowledge about moral conduct. We know that honesty is better than dishonesty, that courage is better than cowardice, that truth telling is better than lying, that promise keeping is better than promise breaking, that humane treatment is better than torture, that protecting the innocent is better than intentionally harming them, that justice is better than injustice, that respecting human dignity is better than destroying it, that human freedom is better than slavery, that goodwill is better than envy, that courtesy is better than rudeness, that respect for others' property is better than theft or destruction, and essentially that there is a fundamental difference between right and wrong human conduct. We know these things and they are easy to express in general terms apart from the infrequent specific circumstances in which they may seem to conflict and require resolution.
Now, which are our societal values in the United States? Do we value truth and justice and courage and honesty or do we value selfishness, acquisitiveness, and infidelity? Notice that the sources of these sets of values differ. We know that honesty is better than dishonesty and we do not openly teach the immature that dishonesty is morally right. But depicting dishonest lifestyles in an almost approving manner may influence the conduct of the immature more than the value knowledge we have and are sometimes fearful to teach. We know what we ought to do but we do not always do it. Some may wish to conclude that we value all of those virtues and vices already mentioned because we are such a pluralistic society. I cannot accept this as a satisfactory answer since reason and experience and human history, plus a decent smattering of common sense, all loudly proclaim that dishonesty, falsehood, drug addiction, infidelity, selfishness, and a host of other values we once labeled as vices, if universally practiced, can destroy all the conditions of existence that make human dignity possible. If, as a matter of fact, we do value all of these virtues and vices, then it becomes extremely difficult to be hopeful about our future as a society.
In his classic 1957 study, The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington points out that the American military became professionalized when it was most isolated from the mainstream of American society and its basically liberal value system. He describes the professional military ethic as a form of "conservative realism" which is considerably different from American liberalism but nevertheless compatible with the U.S. Constitution which he views as a fundamentally conservative document. Huntington describes various periods in the history of the American military when it attempted to become more involved in the mainstream of politics and business but quickly returned to its isolation and more conservative value system. American society generally fosters individualism and the freedoms and rights of the individual. The military profession generally fosters conformity, obedience, hierarchical organization, and subordination of the individual to the unit. The military values unit and mission loyalty which can often be in conflict with extreme individualism. For Huntington, the military's isolation from civilian values seemed to guarantee its professionalism; its pessimistic view of human nature guaranteed its readiness to respond to national emergencies--its preparedness to fight.
In 1960 and again in 1970, Morris Janowitz (The Professional Soldier), observed that the American military had in fact, after World War II, become less alienated from American society and was indeed adapting to civilian values. He did not see that as necessarily diminishing military professionalism and indeed saw a need for more understanding of international politics and more interaction between the military and civil society. General Sir John Winthrop Hackett in his modern day observations of the military and civilian society also comments on their merging both socially and in their skills. But all three of these scholars of the military profession perceive rightly that the uniqueness of the military function will always keep its leading practitioners slightly apart from the mainstream of civilian society and certain societal values.
Where do military and civilian values converge and where must they diverge? It seems that healthy convergence flows from those virtues and values mentioned earlier as elements of human knowledge confirmed by reason, experience, and human history. The elemental human rights mentioned in the U.S. Constitution comprise an abbreviated listing of values critical to the way of life worth defending. Military professionals swear an oath to defend those values, that life style which incorporates the minimal conditions of human dignity. These values must be shared by military and civilian alike. Military professionals, however, in order to perfect the instrument of defending these values, of necessity curb their own exercise of some of these freedoms. They accept restrictions on the liberty to speak, they refrain from partisan politics, they are denied political office while on active duty, they accept restrictions on their freedom of movement, and in general subordinate personal preferences to the good of the military unit and the good of the country. In these ways, military values differ from civilian values--in ways involving the exercise of certain freedoms to act. Notice that the oath taken by military professionals constitutes a serious promise and recall that we pointed out earlier that we know that promise-keeping is better than promise-breaking.
Obedience is an important military virtue because it is intrinsic to the military function. Obviously it is not an absolute; there are times when bad orders must be disobeyed. But in general, obedience is crucial in carrying out any ordered activity and in a military crisis it will spell the difference between success and failure. Notice that obedience is an important virtue in many areas of civilian society although its absence in civilian enterprises is rarely as catastrophic as in the military environment. When schoolchildren are undisciplined and disobedient in the civilian classroom, chaos results, education is diminished, and bad habits are learned but the immediate survival of the nation-state can hardly be viewed as at risk. Loyalty or fidelity to military mission, unit, and country are crucial to the fulfillment of the military function but infidelity to spouses in ordinary life often simply leads to divorce, not national disaster. Dishonesty in reporting the readiness of a military unit for battle could lead to national disaster while dishonesty in reporting the financial status of a corporation might merely lead to a business failure. A lack of courage in handling a domestic crisis might lead to individual harm; a lack of courage in carrying out the military function might lead to the loss of a battle and a country (way of life).
It seems clear that certain values and virtues are held to be important in both our civilian society and the military profession. Some values receive more attention and emphasis in civilian society (for example, personal freedoms) and some in the military profession (for example, obedience, loyalty, and courage). But having noted this, perhaps we should return to reflecting on the difference between knowing and doing, between knowledge and virtue.
Knowing that certain virtues are so essential to the military function that it cannot be accomplished without them is not the same as inculcating those virtues in military professionals. Knowing that respect for human dignity is essential to the success of the democratic society is no guarantee that people will respect those around them. Our knowledge of right and wrong does not come from merely observing current practice even though observing what others do does influence us. When we see many others looting during an urban riot, that may soothe our consciences if we decide to loot as well, but the fact that so many are doing it will not make looting morally right. For the military professional who observes false reporting becoming widespread among defense contractors there may be analogous temptations and rationalization of dishonest conduct but no amount of such conduct will make dishonesty morally right.
Military values and moral rules for military members can well be identical with societal values and moral rules so long as these fall into the category of the moral knowledge that is validated by human history, reason, and experience. Questionable moral practices, however, no matter how widespread they become should not become part of military practice (nor anyone else's) just because they are widespread. The question always must be, is this conduct morally right as tested against that fundamental moral knowledge already mentioned. What we do can only be morally correct when it conforms to what we know is morally right. If this formula is reversed, then the distinction between right and wrong conduct must inevitably disappear.
Military ethics is, like ethical standards for other professions, applied ethics. Applied ethics is a subset of ethics generally. Some ethical rules and moral values receive more emphasis in certain professions because of their unique services to society. Respect for patient autonomy (derived from respect for human dignity and the basic right not to be harmed) receives special attention in the medical profession. The obligation to obtain informed consent from competent patients is a very serious moral obligation for health care practitioners. Client confidentiality and serious efforts to obtain justice are special emphasis moral concerns for the legal profession. But all of these special obligations emanate from our more general moral principles regarding respect for human dignity, promise keeping, honesty, and our quest for a just society.
When doctors, lawyers, judges, clerics, teachers, government leaders, and military professionals fail to live up to our moral expectations (fail to do what we know is right) we feel cheated. When a society provides the professions with opportunities for education and training, and when the authority to act on our behalf has been bestowed, and when human life, justice, the national treasury, or the existence of the nation-state itself are at stake, then we expect our professionals to exhibit the best of the relevant moral virtues. When they substitute personal gain for societal service, when they harm patients or clients, when they behave in incompetent or immoral ways, then we react with moral outrage no matter what the popular practices in society generally might be at the time. When members of these public professions truly exemplify moral virtue through what they do in accordance with what we all know to be right, they can have an enormous positive moral influence on society.
Strange as it may sound, a competent military profession whose practitioners are characterized by loyalty, obedience, courage, integrity, and selflessness can be a moral anchor for a parent society that sometimes founders on huge waves of moral relativism, egoism, and acquisitiveness. In a 1990 Gallup Poll 68 percent of Americans responded to the question "Who do you trust?" by expressing confidence in the military. No other U.S. institution (newspapers, banks, Congress, religions) came close to that percentage. I wonder why.