Military Virtue & the Future of the Naval Service

By Captain Michael Dunaway, U.S. Navy

One of the most famous American statements on this subject, William James's 1910 essay "The Moral Equivalent of War," asserts that a society devoid of military virtues such as "intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, . . . discipline and honor" would be hardly worth belonging to. In James's view, society has continual need for a living example of virtuous civic life, and those qualities exist nowhere else with such vitality as is found in the military. This need is one aspect of military service and military institutions that makes them indispensable to modern societies, and explains why even the most vocal critics of the U.S. military continue to insist that the services be held to a higher standard than society at large.

The difficulty, however, lies in determining exactly what that standard should be. The values that society holds in esteem (and that the military is expected to preserve) change as society's needs change. The fundamental question is: Which values are enduring and must be respected and cultivated, and which are transient or faddish and should be resisted?

This problem is the central cultural issue with which American society and the military services currently are grappling. Specifically, is military virtue the same for a fully integrated, all-volunteer military in peacetime as for America's earlier conscripted militaries during wartime? Are they the same virtues for a military whose nation sends it to do nonmilitary missions? Can military virtue be corrupted by the integration of women; by our reliance on technology; by jointness?

If William James was correct—that a society devoid of military virtue is on its way to becoming unworthy of any ideals whatsoever—where should society look for an example of military virtue if not to the military services themselves?

Judging from recent newspaper headlines, the U.S. military is seeing troubled times. Popular analysis of these problems has focused largely on the services' difficulties in incorporating women into the fighting forces.

While this may contain an element of truth, the problem more accurately resides in confusion within the services themselves about which principles the military institution is to be guided by, and the suspicion among senior officers that frank discussion about principles is frivolous at best and a disloyal airing of dirty linen at worst.

However, even though our understanding of military virtue may appear directly relevant to the integrity of the military services as institutions, it inevitably affects the integrity and effectiveness of the fighting forces themselves and the way they are operated.

By way of illustrating the consequences of our current state, I offer two examples: an incident that resulted in my relief from command, and the death of Admiral Boorda.

Moral Authority and Command Autonomy

In the middle of my tour as commanding officer of a guided-missile frigate, I was relieved of command for initiating a man overboard drill by jumping over the side while the ship was transiting between battle-group exercises in the Caribbean Sea. As you might imagine, this is a pretty good sea story, though not germane in every detail to the subject at hand. Suffice it to say that the exercise had nothing to do with assessing the crew's ability to recover a man in the water (which they had demonstrated on numerous occasions), but everything to do with my crew's recovery of a long dormant faith in their own abilities—a faith I wanted them to know I had, and which their subsequent actions affirmed.

What is germane to the current question is the series of events that followed. After completing the battle-group exercises and two more weeks of Caribbean operations, we returned to home port where—a month after the incident—the commodore of my parent squadron relieved me of command and then directed an investigation into the incident. During the succeeding months I initiated a series of letters to various echelons within the administrative chain of command, culminating in a request for review of the case by the Board for Correction of Naval Records (BCNR). In my submission to BCNR, I requested that its determination be forwarded to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) for information in the event that my detachment from command was upheld. The Board declined to honor that request, citing governing instructions, but stated that it would be permissible to write the CNO directly. This I eventually did; excerpts appear on these pages.

There are two reasons why I offer this firsthand account of a bit of recent naval history. The first deals with our collective reaction to Admiral Boorda's death and how I believe we should endeavor to understand it. The second reason is more directly related to the subject of this article—the definition of military virtue in the current political context, and the centrality of ethical and forthright leadership to the future of the U.S. Navy.

As former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman pointed out, the death of a serving Chief of Naval Operations is a question of national magnitude. No one is likely to shed enough light on that tragedy to explain it to the satisfaction of the members of the naval service or to the nation. And yet, we share a collective responsibility to attempt to understand that event in order that, where changes can be made for the good of the service, they are made.

It may be true that one specific event (Admiral Boorda's condemnation of himself for wearing unearned combat devices) may have served as the catalyst for the CNO's decision to end his own life. But the larger reason was almost certainly an accumulation of internal conflicts that he faced in having to reconcile the equally compelling demands of competing value systems.

For example, his decision not to act on my request—that the circumstances of my relief from command be made known to the naval surface force—seemed out of character with his customary style of leadership. The statement in his CNO Weekly Update emphasizing the importance of communications "at a time when communication is vital, when our people want and deserve to hear from their leadership," made his failure to follow his own good advice all the more difficult to comprehend.

Certainly, his distinction as the first commander to authorize the offensive use of force by NATO (in Bosnia, 1994) made his explanation of my failure to consider what "might have happened" on board my own ship seem inconsistent. Nevertheless, as Admiral Boorda himself wrote, without real information, "there are enough conflicting stories about important events that one can get just about any version possible, even remotely possible."

However, there is a much more important reason for the Navy's coming to terms with Admiral Boorda's death. Without a reasoned dialogue about its causes and its consequences, we risk learning the wrong lessons from that tragedy. A frequently heard explanation was that Admiral Boorda was the most visible (though not the first) casualty in a cultural war between the Navy and political factions within our own society. Like all wars, a cultural war presumes the existence of enemies. In this case, however, those enemies would be fellow U.S. citizens in positions of influence and authority within the federal government.

Political adversaries notwithstanding, the underlying and dangerous logic of this explanation is twofold. First, it implies that the Navy's leadership lacks the authority or the intellectual stamina to defend itself and the service against such enemies. Second, it assumes that the institution of the Navy can be negatively influenced by external forces to a greater degree than it can be positively shaped by the leadership within it. Either one of these alternatives clears the way for the leadership's abdication of responsibility for formulating the service's policies and defending its principles.

Leadership and Institutional Standards

This leads to the second reason why I offer this brief sea story: the role of leadership in defining the standards of the institution.

In a March 1995 article entitled "On American Principles," George Kennan differentiated between the role of policy and that of principle in the shaping of a nation or its institutions. Chief among them is that a policy requires rational justification in order for it to make any sense. A principle, on the other hand, is guided by the dictates of conscience and a commitment to a specific self-identity, and does not necessarily require any explanation at all.

The phrase "a matter of principle" indicates the existence of a boundary beyond which an individual, an institution, or a nation simply will not go, whereas a policy is a specific rule operating within the broader confines of those principles. Most importantly, the task of defining principles “must be seen as not just a privilege, but also a duty of . . . leadership.”

My experience indicated a considerable lack of clarity within our institution regarding the roles of policy and principle. As I wrote to Admiral Boorda, no officer in my chain of command ever provided an explanation about the nature of my error while I was in command. The CNO's own statement that "we don't need a written rule which says that commanders shouldn't expose themselves to needless danger" begs the question of how that particular policy is to be taken in light of my own experience. Do the consequences of my actions now constitute an unwritten rule for all COs? What degree of authority should be attributed to an "unwritten rule," and how is it to be promulgated and administered? How does that rule relate to the CNO's statement concerning "unnecessary risks," and "objective measures"—which by tradition, if not by actual regulation, have been the specific authority of the operational commander on scene rather than of the administrative chain of command back in home port?

Regarding the role of principle in operational decision-making, one publication of the naval service, Fleet Marine Force Manual One (FMFM-1) Warfighting , offers an unambiguous statement regarding the relationship between risk and leadership:

Boldness is an essential moral trait in a leader, for it generates combat power beyond the physical means at hand. Initiative, the willingness to act on one's own judgment, is a prerequisite for boldness. These traits carried to excess can lead to rashness, but we must realize that errors by junior leaders stemming from overboldness are a necessary part of learning. We should deal with such errors leniently; there must be no "zero defects" mentality. Not only must we not stifle boldness or initiative, we must continue to encourage both traits in spite of mistakes .

This is a statement that transcends military doctrine and could stand as a principle for a life successfully and honestly lived. Whether it constitutes a military virtue that only the Marine Corps is willing to honor in the current political climate is something that the Navy's senior leaders will have to decide. I would offer, however, that a military force that will not tolerate a certain sort of audacity in its day-to-day routines is likely to find audacity lacking when it counts. As we continually tell ourselves, we fight the way we train. Most certainly, we fight the way we think . The alternative is to accept the form of institutional behavior said to have been inculcated in members of the British Foreign Service in the years leading up to World War I: "Actions have consequences; consequences are unpredictable; therefore, take no action."

Policy, Principle, and Precedent

This leads to a final point concerning the issue of precedent. Precedent has an unpleasant way of filling the vacuum left in the absence of either policy or principle. The fundamental question is how the experiences related above are to be understood by officers now aspiring to command. If COs are trained—indeed, compelled—to think first of their own safety and of the viability of their careers, that is surely what they will do.

However, a more worthy precedent for this institution was established in 1779 with our Navy's first engagement between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard —notable among other reasons for the fact that John Paul Jones was not summarily relieved of command afterward because he might have lost.

If any lesson is to be learned from the suicide of a Chief of Naval Operations, it should be that good men find their lives unworthy when they are unable to reconcile their principles with those they believe are forced upon them by circumstances or by a perceived responsibility to maintaining the appearance of infallibility. The same thing can be said of a nation's attitude toward its institutions.

Our failure to honor principles by which we have defined ourselves for more than 200 years—or to establish the extent of the currently acceptable boundaries through a process of corporal punishment promulgated via sanctioned rumor—is an invitation to institutional disaster.

Our responsibility for defining the nature of the military ethos in the modern profession of arms and what that ethos contributes to society can neither be ignored nor delegated. The day we warriors stop endeavoring to clarify our principles and apply them in day-to-day operations is the day we cease being an American institution and become merely a band of technically proficient mercenaries. The American people recognize this—and it forms the basis of their confidence in us as surely as our expertise at warfighting.

For this reason it is not enough that we settle for "the best damn Navy in the world." The nation needs that, certainly; but it also needs a naval service worthy of the nation's unqualified trust and confidence. What we need is not a warfighting revival, but a revival of military virtue: an understanding of where we stand, what principles we stand for, and a resolute refusal to yield to political expediencies—real or perceived. Anything less would be a disservice to our nation and a betrayal of the best that the history and traditions of the Navy represent. It all depends on the principles by which we steer our course.

Captain Dunaway , a 1973 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, serves on the faculty of the National War College.

 

 
 

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