Categories: communal human being, Freedom and Structure in Human Life, Moral nature
Military men, even the warriors or “rough boys”, hold a variety of opinions on political issues, including how to use the military. My readings in history and in the news and blogging sites of the Web have led me to believe their opinions tend to be better founded and better reasoned, in terms of basic moral instincts and reason, than those of any recent President of the United States and the vast majority of American public leaders in general—including cultural and religious leaders. The opinions of those military men who blog or write articles on the Internet or for paper publication (exclude those who move into highly-paid jobs in the military-industrial-political complex) are most certainly better founded than those of American citizens but those military men tend to come from the intelligence operations or to have moved from combat roles into academic roles during their careers.
I think many of even the most clear-sighted of military men tend to put what might be called “national greatness” too high on the scale of values, especially in the United States which has a people who are not warriors and are quite immature as a people. As Patton noted, Americans do make tough citizen-soldiers and we should be content with that and get on with our true callings in life. I think that Americans, no matter how well-educated, tend to ignore the importance of community and this might be one reason so many convince themselves they are warriors or potential warriors—their lives are separated from communal critique and their dreams become blurred with reality, especially if reinforced by television and other forms of entertainment. Military professionals, especially those with intelligence or academic backgrounds, are far less likely to make this error because they have a truer community if one with a limited purpose from the viewpoint of a total human life. Certainly, military professionals assume the reality of military communities and the reality of their own selves as shown in the communal mirror.
True military men, and even the dedicated short-termers who are citizen-soldiers, enter into a real form of being which is most directly perceived in their loyalty to their unit. If they serve on the battlefield during wartime, it’s a common claim they will fight for their comrades in that unit rather than for the greater communities of family and nation and all those in between. This makes sense because our foundational being remains flesh and blood no matter how many abstract loyalties we form and no matter how much a particular man or woman might come to understand the nature of those abstract loyalties. Apparently, even a wife and children are a little abstract on the battlefield when the bullets and missiles start flying. The guy lying out in a no-man’s zone with a bad wound to a thigh is of more immediate concern and so is the guy a few feet away. When the the command comes to move into the gunfire—will he hesitate or move out like another Audie Murphy? Often, according to combat veterans, courage is at the group level at that point.
I’m comfortable claiming that communal being in the American military is better formed than is nearly any other communal being in the United States. For reasons I can only partly intuit, the US military matured in this way far faster than other communities in this country still so young though I can put forward one likely reason. As I’ll discuss in another context, military communities are different in having more limited but better defined moral natures.
At the same time that there is a far greater moral order in American military communities than in nearly any other American community, I’m under the impression that our political class has succeeded in partially corrupting the men in uniform, partly because the Department of Defense as a whole, including all the civilian bureaucrats, and the military-industrial complex as a greater whole, seem to be one of the most corrupt of major segments of the United States, public and private. When he was Comptroller General of the United States (from about 1998 to 2005), David Walker had estimated there was a cumulative total approaching $1 trillion dollars of money and supplies in the Department of Defense which couldn’t be accounted for. I’ve read that the estimates for cumulative money missing in the US government as a whole now total to something like $4 trillion. And now we’re witnessing the spectacle of an increasing number of officers, including generals and admirals, going to jail for simple thievery or for crimes worse than that.
Yet, there remains something to the discipline necessary to military life and operations which is not just conducive to moral order but is actually at least a limited but substantial form of a higher moral order and which does reach a much higher level in men such as Robert E Lee and arguably a number of military leaders in the American Revolution—I write `arguably’ only because most of those men were citizen-soldiers. If we strip away our idealistic and self-righteous illusions about the nature of morality in the real world, we can add even two of the Indian-fighting generals, George Crook and Nelson Miles, to the list of those who fought hard but tried to treat enemies, at least when defeated, in a just and sometimes merciful manner. Ulysses Grant and John Pershing and George Patton and Matthew Ridgeway would also be on that list of men who fought hard and with great competence but within the the moral limits of war as they understood those limits. I’m no military historian and I’m certainly missing American warriors of great moral integrity from my list. I’ll move on with that disclaimer.
Now we get to the heart of the matter. First of all, I’ll once again refer to one of my pivotal essays: Intelligence vs. Intellect, where I responded to two related insights of Jacques Barzun in his important book, The House of Intellect. First, he pointed out:
We [in the United States] have in fact intelligence in plenty and we use it perhaps more widely than other nations, for we apply it with praiseworthy innocence to parts of life elsewhere ruled by custom or routine. [page 4]
At the bottom of that same page, he claimed:
Intellect is the capitalized and communal form of live intelligence; it is intelligence stored up and made into habits of discipline, signs and symbols of meaning, chains of reasoning and spurs to emotion—a shorthand and a wireless by which the mind can skip connectives, recognize ability, and communicate truth. Intellect is at once a body of common knowledge and the channels through which the right particle of it can be brought to bear quickly, without the effort of redemonstration, on the matter in hand.
Institutions which rely on discipline, such as militaries, are heavier on intellect than individual intelligence. This isn’t to say there aren’t highly intelligent men and women in the military—there most certainly are such men and women. It is to say that a highly disciplined community will emphasize the communal mind or intellect. Judging by the books and essays on the Web written by retired, or sometimes active, military officers, I’d say the American military might well be better than the Catholic Church at bringing members’ minds in line with the communal mind without crippling the individual minds. This is perhaps due to the extreme reaction against modern empirical knowledge by Catholic intellectuals in recent centuries, rooted in a mindset seen as early as the persecution of Galileo but showing itself in full bloom during the retreat from modern thought at the end of the Enlightenment, a period which gave us a lot of potential good—not yet well developed.
Because Christian thinkers and leaders have refused to properly respond to the Enlightenment (actually a complex of different enlightenments) which defined the Modern Age, the ordinary Christian has had to deal with a fragmented world on his own. He lives in a real world and then goes to church once a week or perhaps more often to hear of claims which seem increasingly dream-like, having less and less to do with any Creation this universe could be part of, less and less to do with any promises of salvation which make sense or are even attractive to flesh-and-blood human beings. See one of my relatively early essays, The Only Sane Christian in the Modern World, where I discussed our modern inability to say anything intelligent or even sensible about Heaven.
The ugly result of this fragmentation of perceived and conceived being is typically a fragmentation of the human being of Christians or else an effort to maintain integrity of human being by leaving Christianity or else dropping belief in the creedal claims of Christianity and then bracketing Christian practices as simply something done out of habit or for the sake of celebrating the fun Holy Days such as Christmas and Easter.
The intellect of the Christian churches is in bad shape. Children are provided with an understanding of God and Creation which makes little sense in light of modern empirical knowledge. At the same time, the formation of individual intelligence in the more talented children is ignored. Christian children aren’t provided with much to help them to deal with the forces of fragmentation and any later education they might seek about Christianity usually relies on books which, however loose and `liberal, simply build upon that earlier indoctrination.
The intellect of the modern American military is limited in scope and is troubled but is in far better shape than that of the Christian churches or other communities in the United States—except for some scientific communities but those are made of the Americans who somehow make it through the educational system with enthusiasm intact and at least some self-discipline. Young men and women entering military service are indoctrinated more than educated, though often real education is offered to those who can benefit and wish to do so. It seems possible to make a good career in the American military without doing much to develop your individual intelligence, but you’ll at least have to become part of a communal intelligence, or intellect, in decent shape though ragged at the edges. You’ll think in ways learned by the hard experiences of the battlefield or the sustained campaign.
To a certain extent, education or training similar to that of the military can be justified to indoctrinate young Christians even at the expense of nurturing a deeper understanding—especially given our egalitarian refusal to differently educate those who might be able to develop more creative or more powerful minds which might find pleasure in dealing with such understandings. In fact, my experiences and what I notice in others leads me to conclude our modern educational systems, public and private, teach us to consider study and even the pleasurable reading of good literature to be a grind, something to be done only when you’re trying to attain your diploma, your credentials for the real world. Even a pretense of learning largely stops at graduation, certainly any learning related to such matters as history or literature or the sciences. In healthier times, even some working men and women would read serious works in those fields, for sheer pleasure of using their minds. As our general educations teach us to hate reading even serious literature which was very popular in past generations, such as the novels and essays of Mark Twain or the political writings of Thomas Jefferson, so do our Christian Sunday Schools and CCD classes teach us to avoid reading the Bible or other great works from various religious traditions.
I suspect the military indoctrination as well as its more profound sorts of education are more effective than Christian indoctrination and leave the minds of soldiers open to learning just because it teaches a way of life but not a commitment to an understanding of reality which is a poor encapsulation of that reality.
The military is in the job of understanding a more limited aspect of Creation: defending country and all it contains against those who have attacked us or preparing to defend country against potential attackers. (For the purpose of this part of the discussion, I’ll ignore the misuse and perhaps corruption of the American military by the political class of the United States or—more generally—the military-industrial-political complex.)
At its best, military life is built around the principles so many honor in the breach:
- we must be willing to pay any price to do what is right and important;
- we must be willing to pay lesser prices for what is right and less important; and
- we must not willingly do positive evil though sometimes forced to act with incomplete knowledge or forced to act when there is a complex balance of good and evil revolving around our various options.
I’ll ignore the problem that the last `principle’ is a catch-all which allows weasels to get to any point they wish—and their points will be accepted by a conveniently ignorant citizenry with manipulable minds—see my recent essay Unreliable Memories, Minds Like Silly Putty.
It is quite possible that military men will find themselves called to fight certain wars against dangerous enemies even if they know those wars came about, or came about in a more serious form, because of immoral or unwise decisions made by the civilian leaders of the government, American or otherwise. There are other, similar problems which military men might have to ignore in waging war against those who may not have truly been our enemies before we engaged them in battle. At a different level, combat officers, including the commanding officers in the field and their staff, are bound to beat that enemy for various reasons including the protection of soldiers under their command even if they know we shouldn’t be in that country, perhaps in the backyards of proud men who have to carry weapons because of violent men who would dominate others against their will.
Order is good, order which respects the basic moral instincts built into our genes and order which respects the best (not most self-righteous or self-serving or…) thoughts and feelings which come from our philosophers and theologians, our politicians (real ones) and business leaders, our social and cultural leaders including artists and musicians.
Much of this order is gone in the Modern West and never existed in a strong form in the United States, largely because generations of Christians have practiced a sort of ghetto-thought allied with a feel-good philosophy toward our emotions. The American military, and some other militaries have a better defined, and necessarily more limited, understanding of moral order, an understanding in the context of their roles as soldiers.
I would maintain that, even in the deeply corrupt United States, the military is still a community with a good percentage of men with true moral character and moral courage. You don’t have to agree with them on all matters—even the non-interventionists in American military uniforms, or formerly in those uniforms, tend to be a bit more aggressive than I would recommend in international matters. Yet, some have looked at the damage we’ve wreaked throughout the world and inside the minds and hearts of young American men and women, as well as having looked at all those who have died or been crippled—American and otherwise. Some of those are at least considering a fairly strict position of “defend our own borders and don’t get involved in faraway lands unless absolutely necessary to defend American lives or property.” (I think there are some adopting a stance which is more to the non-interventionist side than they would prefer because of their perception of that lack of moral order in the American political class and general citizenry—they don’t trust us or our elected representatives to even bother to learn where a country is before bellowing to attack because those evil people, whoever or wherever they are, “hate us for our freedom”; maybe they’ll love us when they understand we are descending toward a relative material poverty to match our moral and cognitive poverty.)
I would also maintain that we Christians, warriors or citizen-soldiers or pure civilians, can learn much from that more limited but firm moral code still honored by many individual American military men and, to a lesser extent, by many American military institutions—though often honored in the breach because of the corrupting influence of the American political class or the military-industrial-political complex as a whole. I’ll mention two lessons similar to principles held by the military. We should form children to the principal that they, and we, should always be living for the greater good of God and our family and our country and our other communities, including those of medical professionals or anthropologists; when necessary, we should be willing to die for God and our human communities. We should also recover a respect for habit-formation, not in a totally mindless way but in a firm and authoritative way.