Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 2  /  

Military Self-Definition as Strategy

Military Self-Definition as Strategy Military Self-Definition as Strategy
To cite this article: Fleming, Bruce E., “Military Self-Definition as Strategy,” Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2012, pages 31-34.

Most military strategy discussions, devoted to choosing actions meant to achieve ends efficiently, presuppose the actors that undertake the actions. That the actor is a military is taken for granted, and discussions are limited to whether they should fight in this way or that, with these weapons or those, here or there, or fight at all as opposed to not fighting; at least not here and now. Thus the strategic aspect of the military machine itself, namely the question of whether it is well equipped to undertake any action at all effectively, tends to be neglected.[i] This is conceptually wrong as well as dangerous for strategy: it’s as if we spent all our time mapping where the car was to go without considering the strategic implications of keeping it low on oil. If the tank spews oil or grinds to a halt, all subsequent questions of tactics are moot. All strategy is compromised, or at least threatened.

The forms these strategic threats take in Western and Western-allied militaries concern issues of military self-definition: how do standing militaries designed to serve democracies conceive themselves, or of their very nature? If their conception is contradictory, as I argue it is, or ill thought out, as I also argue it is, they build inefficiency and problems into the very machinery itself. It is the equivalent of grit in the gears. Military self-definition is as fundamental to strategy as the equally nebulous but hyper-important notion of “morale” is to battlefield action: how does the military understand itself? Morale, the tactical cousin of strategy’s “self-definition,” is notoriously hard to measure, yet we talk about it all the time, and recognize its essential nature. A military that doesn’t understand itself is a strategically impaired military, just as a fighting force low on morale is unlikely to perform effectively.

Strategic inefficiency in military design

I will be focusing here on two sources of strategic inefficiency within militaries: a sense of moral superiority and the “cult” of leadership. This assessment acknowledges that the world’s militaries of course vary to a great degree, but all are at least generically militaries, and hence heir to the same ills of the genus.

The first source of strategic inefficiency is the dangerous notion, apparently the creation of the military itself, that the military is morally superior to the citizens it is meant to defend. This produces disdain of the military for the very civilians for whom it exists. Such an effect firstly leads to uncertainty about why they are fighting at all: why put your life at risk to defend lesser mortals? That then in turn leads to a sense of wounded defensiveness: why are they not acknowledging our sacrifices?

This attitude was documented at length in a Washington Post Magazine article by Kristin Henderson from 2007, what was arguably the nadir of the Iraq and Afghani wars for the U.S. It begins with the realization that fewer than 1% of the American public is in uniform in this age of an all-volunteer force.[ii] I have argued that this sense of distance from civilian society on the part of the military has only gotten more pronounced since then.[iii]

More importantly, the military’s notion that it is morally purer than the civilians it serves sets up a situation where inevitable moral or indeed even tactical lapses within the military tend to be covered up for as long as possible. In effect, lying to its civilian paymasters and those it is exists to protect. Numerous ongoing problems created during my time at Annapolis by the military’s ham-fisted treatment of women, whether too harsh or too lenient, are vociferously denied until they are uncovered by civilian Freedom of Information Act requests. The same is true of the academies’ preferential treatment of non-white applicants for admission, also documented by civilian journalists in the face of military denials.[iv] And consider the way the U.S. Army vociferously denied that the death of the football star Pat Tillman was the result of “friendly fire.”[v] This lying both to military and civilians is, I argue, a fundamental breach of the contract between civilian paymasters and the military that exists to serve them. It is furthermore quite contradictory for a service that claims to be morally pure must then lie to preserve this reputation.

Occupying the moral high ground has certain public relations benefits. (Polls consistently suggest that the U.S. populace has great faith in the military.)[vi] But it also has huge disadvantages, especially if it’s difficult to actually occupy this moral high ground, rather than merely claim it. Every time a problem is discovered, the discovery doubly wounds the military: first in the revelation itself, then by “counting twice” for damage, given the assertion of the military that it’s abnormally moral. Under the current situation, hearing about problems in the military is like discovering that the preacher has been guilty of impropriety, sexual or otherwise: if it hadn’t been for his pretense of greater virtue, his actions wouldn’t be so shocking. This damage is self-inflicted, and can be minimized or eliminated by simply going back to the more defensible (World War II era) notion of the military as effective rather than virtuous.

The other source of fundamental strategic weakness in the military is an emphasis on military decision-making through what is called “leadership,” a notion popular in the Victorian era and now largely replaced in the civilian world by less mysterious concepts like reasoning and justification. The military’s cult of “leadership,” decision making by gut intuition and fiat, is related to the personal nature of command in the military (and also to the military’s fetishization of the notion of “character”). The military is one of the last bastions of the attitude of Louis XIV, “l’état, c’est moi”: I am my command and these are “my” people. A command “is” that of so-and-so until (s)he is “relieved” of it. “Leadership” in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, once the mainstay of pre-modern societies based on hierarchical class notion (as expressed in the emphasis on what “gentlemen” do) has been relegated to niches like the military and business. In these niche callings without clear technical capabilities, the notion of “leadership” serves to give an aura of value to actions separated from their basis in the objective world.

The military draws a certain number of people who think that responsibility is power, and power is about aggrandizing themselves. Such people tend to believe that anyone who suggests changes or improvements to their view of mission is inimical to the mission and must be annihilated. This is a fundamental mistake, though one to which the military is prone as a result of its personal nature and its belief that “leadership” is a separable skill, an independent commodity that can be taught; as all Western military academies claim to do.

Of course, in the heat of battle it makes sense to stick to a single course of action until it’s clear it’s the wrong one. But in the planning stages, it makes sense to listen to as many views as possible. Yet if decisions are reached not through rationality but as the result of one person’s instinctive reaction justified by the assertion that (s)he is exercising “leadership,” dissent or questioning will be perceived as a personal affront rather than an attempt to use rationality to look objectively at options. Such a reaction makes certain that once a bad path is embarked upon (the “leader” is “leading,”), it will be relentlessly followed—something which is harmful to mission and a major source of strategic folly in the military.

In the civilian world, the rule-by-personality paradigm of the Victorians has been largely replaced with such things as efficiency and technical expertise. Perhaps for this reason the military frequently draws people nostalgic for the “good old days” of a century ago when “father knows best”, and where following authority was its own end. Victorian notions were based on a class-based society where it was assumed that certain groups of people, usually determined by birth, had the qualities needed to tell others what to do just because of who they were. This was “leadership” of “gentlemen” based on “character” and “honor.” Now we have rejected the notion that people are, have, or can exercise these things based on who they are intrinsically. Yet the military insists that these mysterious capabilities or qualities or entities are accrued to those given a certain rank. Outmoded notions are thus unsuccessfully retrofitted to a new purpose for which they are ill suited. (Perhaps the military would say it intuits that those promoted to these ranks possess these qualities and thus that all those with rank are also “leaders.” This is both circular reasoning, and belied by evidence.)

The civilian world in a democracy in the twenty-first century contains many checks and balances that, while not making wrong courses of action impossible, at least render them less likely. The military isn’t self-correcting to any great degree, at least not as it’s currently run, and it has to reach a major crisis before outside correction intervenes. A Washington Post article about a U.S. Army survey from 2010 notes that:

80 percent of Army officers and sergeants had directly observed a ‘toxic’ leader and that 20 percent of the respondents said that they had worked directly for one. . . . The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making. About half of the soldiers who had worked under toxic leaders expected that their selfish and abusive commanders would be promoted to a higher level of leadership.[vii]

A related article in the Post notes that “the Navy has fired a dozen commanding officers this year [2011], a near-record rate, . . . which follows a similar spike in firings last year.”[viii]

Such a conception of decision making as a separable skill called “leadership” that certain people can exercise and others can’t encourages the formation of “toxic” “leaders”, people who go by their gut instinct, need hear no opposing views, and brook no opposition. Thus the specific tactics that emanate from such a paradigm are highly likely to be flawed, and cannot be addressed if we fail to consider their source. At the Naval Academy, for example, I have seen bad call after bad call from short-term commanding officer Superintendents (who are asked to “lead” a college when they have no experience doing so and usually no understanding of what a college does), all rammed through with great gusto on the grounds that they constitute “leadership.” Some of these have been retired early: the last two Superintendents have been terminated early for egregious misbehavior, one after only a single year—the most “toxic” of all. However, most serve out their time and pass the problems they have created 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 way:[x]

It’s been a commonplace for a very long time that military 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 demands.

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 weakening.)

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 since World War 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.[xii]

The more traditional vision of the military as a fire hose spewing muscle 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 would negatively affect their ability to ‘work together to get the job done’”, compared to 48 percent in Army combat units.[xiii]

Members of the military are not more moral, they’re just required to exercise what I call technical or professional virtue. In tight quarters with a mission that takes precedence over all else, each sailor (or soldier, or Marine) has to know where his/her gear is: thus stealing is moved close to the top of the list of military sins. Lying is probably at the very top: for mission effectiveness the Commanding Officer has to be dealing with correct information. A machine made out of human beings only works with correct information, to the extent that it works, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for mission effectiveness. But the military should have no pretense to an overall moral caste or stance: the military is a separable tool of the civilian world. Morality in general is irrelevant to its definition, and the attempt to create such a definition out of morality shows just how inefficient and insecure Western militaries, especially that of the U.S., have become since World War II and the traumas of Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.

Aside from these technical needs of the tool, the same morality works for both the civilian and the military worlds. And decisions have to be reached in the military the same way they are in the civilian world: by considering evidence and weighing input, not through individuals exercising their gut instinct and passing this off as “leadership.” It need not in fact be “held to a higher standard”—and indeed, it’s the military that set this notion abroad to begin with, not the civilian world. If the military ceased to create problems like this for itself, it could get back to its real mission: fighting the country’s battles, as The Marine Corps Hymn has it. As it is, the military sets up unrealistic expectations. It then has to deal with the consequences when these expectations are shown to be disappointed.


If the military gives up its pretense to greater overall morality and leadership through the personal gut instincts of individuals, it has some hope of reducing the strategic flaws that beset it to manageable levels. If the machinery is not intrinsically ill constructed and maintained, we can put it into play with some confidence it will, or at least may if the fog of war permits, achieve its tactical goals. But it is part of strategy too—a fundamental part—to make sure the machinery can actually function in whatever circumstances we put it in.


[i] An exception to this conceptual blindness is offered by the US Marine Corps manual Warfighting (MCDP1; PCN 000006 00) which starts Chapter IV, “The Conduct of War” (pp. 70 ff.) by reiterating the importance of having a “concept of warfighting that will help us function effectively” (p. 71). Self-conception grounds action, and the lack of a coherent self-conception renders action ineffective and chaotic. (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1997).
[ii] Kristin Henderson, “Their War,” Washington Post Magazine, July 22, 2007,
[iii] Bruce Fleming, “Does the US military have a clear purpose?”, Christian Science Monitor Magazine, June 2011, p. 34.
[iv] Earl Kelly, “’Best and Brightest’? Academy’s admission of minorities, recruited athletes comes under scrutiny”, Annapolis Capital, January 30, 2011. Also covered by The Washington Post: On women: Earl Kelly, Annapolis Capital, “Academy Justice was tilted toward women,” May 17, 2009,
[v] For example:
[vii] Greg Jaffe, “Army worries about ‘toxic leaders’ in ranks,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2011.
[viii] Craig Whitlock, “Navy has spike in commanding-officer firings,” The Washington Post, June 17, 2011,
[ix] Bruce Fleming, Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2010).
[x] J. Carl Ficarrotta, “Are Military Professionals Bound by a ‘Higher’ Moral Standard?”, Air and Space Power Journal/Chronicles Online Journal, .
[xi] I have developed this idea in Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash (New York: Routledge, 2007).
[xii] Fleming, Bridging, especially Chap I.
[xiii] Craig Whitlock, “Marine General suggests repeal of ‘don’t ask’ could result in casualties,” The Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2010,

Copy link