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" . , . without a clear notion of who we are and where we came from, we are rootless, amoral, and ill-equipped to make the kind of judgments that democratic citizenship—and leadership—require."
flounder when challenged to explain
appreciate the moral burden that f with the privileges of receiving salk
- .. -shouldl°nd
at the dilemmas faced by the comma
To those of us in the military, the suggestion that leadership may have passed away is nearly as heretical as Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead” once was. Leadership, after all, defines our careers; our lives are heavily invested in its practice. Without its fabric the traditional mantle of officership that we wear is no better than the emperor’s new clothes, so to deny its existence is to admit that we have nothing on.
But what goes by the name of leadership is too often no more than a check list of such managerial aphorisms as “know your men,” “be firm but fair,” “set an example,” “communicate,” “set goals,” and “reward excellence.” These are important techniques, to be sure. More than one command has failed because the basics of decent management were ignored.
In our preoccupation with the mechanics of management, however, we often overlook the elusive quality—the ethic— that really defines leadership. This ethic is shaped by the military leader’s deeply abstract accountability to himself and to his society for the most agonizing decisions in human experience, most of them involving the destruction of life itself— his enemy’s, his men’s, or his own.
That may seem melodramatic these days. Most of us wearing U. S. military uniforms in 1989 will probably never face an enemy in combat; our most taxing moral decision on the job may be whether or not to confess a discrepancy in our work center to an inspecting senior. Our sprawling peacetime military organization sometimes seems to require administrators more than it does leaders, and the official progress of our careers will probably depend on getting the job done and keeping our bosses out of trouble.
Even if we should find ourselves engaged in combat, we tend to believe that most decisions will be straightforward and preprogrammed: kill him before he kills you; drop your bombs on target and hope to hell the lucky shot doesn’t bag you; check the profde of an incoming contact against the rules of engagement matrix and shoot. We are most likely to be involved in short, limited conflicts with detailed rules designed to minimize embarrassment to the government. Of what possible use, then, is a lot of fuzzy rumination on an “ethic” of leadership?
The answer is twofold. First, it simply is not true that decisions—even in a low- intensity conflict—will always be straightforward; ask any wardroom member of the USS Stark (FFG-31) or USS Vincennes (CG-49). Our profession ultimately demands that we make judgments, deny our instincts, and make tangible sacrifices for intangible ideals. Michael Walzer, in his Just and Unjust Wars, quotes an Israeli officer who fought in the Six-Day War: “There wasn’t a single soldier who didn’t at some stage have to decide, to choose, to make a moral decision . . . .quick and modem though [the war] was, the soldier was not turned into a mere technician. He had to make decisions that were of real significance.”1 In short, the job is more than keeping the paperwork squared away and the captain’s ship from running aground, and we cannot afford the moral indifference of thinking otherwise.
Second, we are directly responsible for the lives of those who are, by law, entrusted to us. Too many young officers
ho* their position differs from that of the e listed personnel who work for of They might point lamely to the Unif° Code of Military Justice, or to their no11^ inally superior education, or to Pla dumb luck; but rarely do they cle^
and drawing more pay. They shou.- , ing officers of the Stark and the cennes, for example, who had to cile conflicting obligations to their 1
on one hand and possibly innocent standers” on the other. Armchair * c lysts will long debate the correctne^, their decisions, but the point is that ^ officers accepted the obligation to & j that decision and they fulfilled it- Ea ^ us who wears an officer’s uniforrtl explicitly accepted the same obhga whether we are all ready to fulfil 1 ^p. pends on that fuzzy ethic of leader^} That ethic demands a vivid sens6]^,,; tradition that reaches back into the °.g(l pages of written history. That tra has endured—from Pericles, the of ancient Athens, who in 431 B-L- up over the city’s fallen soldiers, your minds that happiness depen Q<l being free, and freedom depel1 ^ being courageous. Let there be no tion in face of the perils of the fge through the centuries to General Patton, his crusty, profane Holly ^ image notwithstanding, who wrote-
prisons of North Vietnam, ms that:
• ■ • a properly educated leader, specially when harassed and under Pressure, will know from his study of lstory and the classics that circum- ances very much like those he is bueountering have occurred from time time on this earth since the begin- ln§ of history. He will avoid the self-
"We cannot lead men into combat if we share no common design, no ethic."
be a successful soldier you must know history. . . . What you must know is how man reacts. Weapons change, but man '''ho uses them changes not at all. To win battles you do not beat weapons—you ^at the soul of man, of the enemy man.” The words are stirring, but seem of lithe practical use, especially to the young Junior officer standing for the first time in r°nt of his division of raw, mostly unsophisticated young sailors who gaze back at him with varying degrees of curiosity, 'ndifference, or even outright obstinacy.
fur more immediate use to this young b'vision officer would be that handbook managerial aphorisms and a hard- b|«en chief.
Paul Gagnon answered the dilemma in a recent Atlantic article:
‘When students, and school boards, ask, Why history? What are we supposed to be getting out of this? the best answer is still that one word: Judgment ... a bone-deep understanding of how hard it is to preserve civilization or to better human life, and of how these have nonetheless been done repeatedly in the past.”2
in sh°uld strike a resonant chord, for °ur society military service is quite J"Ply a special obligation of citizenship. ^ e United States, despite its daunting feaucratic immensity, was not con- 1Ved by the Founding Fathers to be ibply an administrative institution that Quid keCp (he highways repaired, the hai delivered, and the borders secure. ^ bcr, they envisioned a community ased on shared political values and de- •j^ued hy the sacrifices of its citizens.
C 6 etbic by which we “support and de- the Constitution of the United ates ’ is only the responsibility of citi- uship carried to its logical end. And tout a clear notion of who we are and . Cre we came from, we are rootless, 0j. °ral, and ill-equipped to make the kind ^judgments that democratic citizenship uud leadership—require. evelstor'cal tradition is the source of ^tything we know about ourselves and, s0hM irnPortant,y, the basis for our per- da|a standards. Admiral James Stock- tUfwb° endured seven years in the tor-
indulgent error of seeing himself in a predicament so unprecedented, so unique, as to justify his making an exception to law, custom, or morality in favor of himself.”3
This historical tradition, then, enables one to exercise leadership—to be able and willing to make moral judgments. But by that standard, leadership, if not in fact already dead, is in delicate shape.
The problem is that schools no longer teach us who we are and where we came from. About the time that the military academies, exalting the virtues of science and engineering, were easing aside the humanities, the universities were groveling in cultural abnegation, denouncing the great books and Western civilization as symptoms of intellectual chauvinism. College catalogs swelled with such offerings as “Third World Cultures,” and “Woman as Victim,” and competed with each other for the most virulent denunciation of the U. S. role in the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Allan Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, writes that:
“the unity, grandeur and attendant folklore of the founding heritage was attacked from so many directions in the last half-century that it gradually disappeared from daily life and from textbooks. It all began to seem like Washington and the cherry tree—not the sort of thing to teach children seriously. . . . There is no immediate, sensual experience of the nation’s meaning or its project, which would provide the basis for adult reflection on regimes and statesmanship.”4
As a result, we came away from our education with little sense of continuity. History, it seems, is dead. It strikes many as passe that serving as a commissioned officer in the U. S. military involves us in a spectacular act of the human spirit, that untold millions have given their lives to ensure its success, or even that we may be called upon to do the same.
We cannot lead men into combat if we share no common design, no ethic. We would like to think that the military profession is immune to such failures of moral unity, but is it? Hundreds of officers are shedding their uniforms to take higher paying, less demanding civilian jobs. In a kind of mutual collapse of purpose the military fails to uphold the fulfilling, old-fashioned standards of professional honor, and relativist new-age officers lack the historical imagination to re-create them. Increasingly our professional performance at both the individual and the unit level is reduced to quantifiable formulas and data that can be analyzed, manipulated, and critiqued by a bewildering galaxy of unaccountable staffers. Combat readiness is measured by pages of unit statistics that fit neatly into a file cabinet or computer disk. The latitude for junior officers to make personal and professional judgments is narrowly constrained by restrictive procedures, and even our “word”—a hollow term in itself—that we will not pollute our bodies with chemical substances has to be corroborated before the fact by laboratory tests of our urine.
In short, much of the exclusive elan and trust of military leadership has been gradually sapped, with the result that too many of its members look at it as just another job—and not a very high-paying one at that.
Perhaps this is an overly pessimistic picture. But certainly many, especially those drawn to military service, seek a cause, service to something larger than themselves. And the success of such books as Allan Bloom’s suggests that not just a few Americans even outside the military sense a gap in their world view.
The flowery writing at the top of our commissions declares that there reposes “special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities” of every officer. To stop the erosion of the leadership ethic in the military we must think about—and teach—what those words mean, and then we must act on them. Leadership will not die if we remember that weapons do not win wars, people do.
‘Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books. 1977), p. 304.
2Paul Gagnon, “Why Study History?” The Atlantic, November 1988, pp. 43-44.
3VAdm. James B. Stockdale, USN, "Moral Leadership,” U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1980, p. 87.
4Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), pp. 55-56.
Lieutenant Golightly is currently attending the University of Konstanz in West Germany as an Olmsted Scholar. He has served as a flight instructor, NATOPS officer, landing signal officer, line division officer, and assistant operations officer.
eMings / June ,989