Infinity Journal Volume 2, Issue 2, Spring 2012 - page 35

Volume 2, Issue 2, Spring 2012
Infinity Journal
Page 33
on to their equally inexperienced successor. Asking for nay-
saying input that is seriously considered is a better option
than merely “leading.”The Light Brigade, after all, was “led.”
These two sources of strategic weakness can be corrected:
the military can simply, quietly, abandon its strange pretense
to greater moral purity than those it defends, the way the U.S.
has retired the strange and far too ill-defined (not to mention
terrifyingly ambitious) notion of GWOT, Global War on Terror.
Officers can be encouraged to arrive at decisions based on
evidence and rational considerations of probable outcomes
rather than on their gut instincts,personality,or the exercise of
“leadership.” Dissent and “what if?” scenarios from those not
in agreement would be encouraged rather than punished,
as is now all too frequently the case.
Both the pretense to greater moral purity on the part of the
military and its reliance on the smoke-and-mirrors concept
of “leadership” that concentrates power in the hands of
a single individual rather than relying on rationality and
group strength pose serious strategic threats to any military
endeavor. They create a machine riddled with what I have
elsewhere called structural weaknesses which compromise
or render risky any subsequent strategic decision.[ix]
Held to a higher standard?
The notion that the U.S. military—and also, Western militaries
in general—are “held to a higher moral standard” than the
civilians they defend has become so widespread in recent
decades and is repeated so often as to have become one
of those things everybody says and nobody questions. The
pervasive nature in the U.S. of the notion that the military is
defined by its greater moral purity is articulated by J. Carl
Ficarrotta of the U.S. Air Force Academy, who puts it this
It’s beenacommonplace for avery long time thatmilitary
professionals are ‘held to a higher moral standard’. It’s
certainly part of the image some in the larger society
have of the profession. The sentiment is especially
prevalent inside the military. The military establishment
represents itself as embracing higher expectations,
even if there are occasional (perhaps inevitable) moral
failures. There are codes and public espousals of a
special moral commitment. Commanders exhort their
troops to moral goodness and chastise them when
they fall short. Military education is full of courses on
professional ethics. Indeed, from the top down, part of
the background noise of professional military life are
these ‘higher’ expectations, and a belief that somehow,
this line of work is one shot through with a special moral
status, special moral problems, and special moral
Certainly I hear this notion constantly at the U.S. Naval
Academy, usually to defend midshipmen (officer cadets)
who have been caught red-handed doing one of the many
things they have been discovered doing during the decades
I’ve been there: assault with a deadly weapon, credit card
fraud and drug dealing, to name just a few.
Ficarrotta implies that the military itself created this view (he
says it’s “especially prevalent within the military”). I think this
likely,as there is no reason why civilians in a democracy would
have come up with this—though the notion that individuals
have to subsume their volition to a common law is congenial
with conservative ethics, and certainly provides the reason
why right-wingers, whether American conservatives or
European fascists, are typically great boosters of the military
for its own sake.[xi] (Of course there are countries such
as Turkey where the military sees itself and is seen as the
defender of secular ideals, though this view seems to be
Yet if it is undeniably part of military self-image in the modern
age, where did it come from? I’d say: because the militaries
of Western democracies no longer have a clear purpose.
(The same is not true of separatist wars of fragmented
countries, or perhaps of striver countries such as China. But
even Israel’s military has lost moral ground as its actions are
less clearly defensive in nature.) The notion that the military
is morally purer than the civilians it defends fills a void for an
understanding of itself that the U.S. military has experienced
since Vietnam; the French, arguably, since Algeria; the
Germans and Austrians since the Third Reich; and other
Anglophone militaries sinceWorldWar II.We are not so clearly
defending ourselves against an attack as at Pearl Harbor, nor
even against a plausible threat. And now even the Cold War
is long over. Our biggest problems worldwide are economic;
we in America can’t define the military as Captain America
any more, fighting the Nazis—despite the successful movie
of 2011.
The notion that the military is defined by greater moral purity
is, in fact, quite bizarre. As Ficarrotta observes later in his
article, there is no clear connection between actions usually
held to be moral, such as giving to charity or being faithful to
a spouse, and military effectiveness. Nor, I would add, is there
the slightest reason to think that someone whose function is
to kill people for the State would be more moral in all aspects
of his or her life than others. The military in a democracy is
the hammer to the civilian hand, part of a larger whole, not
its own world that must replicate all the aspects of the larger.
The more traditional vision of the military as a fire hose
spewingmuscle and testosterone has not gone away in niche
specialties like SEALs or Rangers (or USMC) in our own age.
But in the military as a whole it’s been largely overshadowed
by the claim to being high-powered Boy Scouts, not to
mention chivalrous eunuchs. This self-understanding seems
to go hand in glove with the all-volunteer U.S. military’s
perceived need to attract women and non-whites to fill its
ranks, and hence to be playing political cards unrelated to
combat effectiveness.
This creates problems, however, for the niche specialties,
which have never departed from the more traditional
notion of military effectiveness being the highest good,
not military virtue. Thus the pressure to exhibit the political
values of the society at large poses problems for these
elite combat specialties: the poll of service members cited
as justification for lifting the U.S. ban on openly gay service
members showed that, according to
The Washington Post
“The Defense Department survey . . . found that 58 percent
of those in Marine combat arms units predicted that repeal
Military Self-Definition as Strategy
Bruce E. Fleming
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