Within the Department of the Navy, Marines experience the most immediate, sustained interaction with foreign populations. They therefore must assume the responsibility of cultural and historical understanding, so they can build relationships with friends and better judge the actions of enemies. In addition, because the Marine Corps engages with human violence intimately and regularly, its officers must be deeply educated in morality and psychology, so they can discern the appropriate use of force and understand the consequences.
To this end, the U.S. Naval Academy should accelerate service selection, pare down the current core curriculum, and expand the practicum course so prospective Marine officers can spend more time in the humanities, cultivating a stronger culture of intellectual warriors.
An Expectation of Intellect
Currently, the Academy strongly encourages physical prowess, and rightfully so. Marine Corps missions often demand physical strength, rucking for hours or simply enduring the hardships of long-term field life. Exercise also demands discipline, commitment, and a willingness to embrace pain for a worthy goal, all of which are necessary traits of a military leader. Yet, this is not enough. Without brains, an officer is incomplete.
The accepted moniker of “Crayon eaters” hints ominously at the larger culture of the Marine Corps. This expectation of unintelligence cripples the creative power of the Corps, which, as the nation’s expeditionary force, should be among the sharpest and most agile. As Thucydides famously warned, “The state that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” The Marine Corps subculture at the Academy must cultivate a devotion to intellectual improvement that matches its dedication to running and barbells.
Specifically, future Marine Corps officers should pursue education in the humanities, starting with an immersive cultural education that imbues an appreciation for foreign peoples. Such an appreciation is necessary to avoid the trap of false hierarchies, which hamstring efforts to build cross-cultural relationships.
The image of strong American heroes saving weak natives from evil men is especially pervasive in the Middle East, where it often is deeply resented. In Shahad Al Rawi’s novel The Baghdad Clock, the narrator loathes the victimhood the United States often ascribes to Iraqis, which ignores the centuries-old history of cosmopolitan Baghdad.1 Such condescension insults potential allies.
Failure to understand the nuances of foreign cultures also enables tactical errors, such as the ones that mired U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Our support of the mujahideen in the 1980s derived from the faulty logic that the enemy of our enemy was our friend, with the result that our troops soon found themselves staring down the barrels of U.S. rifles in Afghan hands. We failed to understand the complexities of the Afghan warlord system and the motives of the anti-Soviet rebels.
To avoid these missteps, the next generation of Marine officers must dedicate themselves to studying foreign allies and adversaries. This cultural education should revolve around language and foreign stories, which expose and acknowledge the fullness of foreign cultures.
Language—and the enabled one-on-one conversation—provides equality and interaction between speakers. Emmanuel Lévinas expounds on this premise with his theory of “the Face.” The “immediacy of the face-to-face encounter” necessitates the mutual recognition of each party as full, vulnerable human beings who must be treated with respect.2
Between allies, this recognition is the foundation of any relationship and fosters trust. Between adversaries, it lays the grounds for ethical warfare and acknowledgment of the intricacies of enemy intentions and strategies.
In addition, language skills allow U.S. troops to converse with foreign militaries and civilians, acquiring intelligence and building direct connections without the crutch of translational support.
Language also reveals social cues. For example, Arab custom dictates that parties exchange a series of greetings before getting to the heart of a conversation. This reveals a broader Arab tendency to move slowly through conversations; to address an issue directly (as most Americans might) would be rude. These social expectations are the trellis on which relationships grow.
Even a limited language ability demonstrates respect, suggesting that Marines understand their presence is invasive and acknowledge the culture of their hosts.
The study of language must be accompanied by education in others’ stories. These stories—history, religion, and literature—are the roots of the belief systems that drive enemy actions. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu argues that an understanding of one’s enemy is indispensable. An intimate knowledge of the enemy reveals tactical tendencies, underlying motives, and other forces that influence enemy actions; unraveling these allows a unit to predict and outmaneuver its adversary.
History, religion, and literature offer insight into the undercurrents that shape actions. Jonathan Shay writes in Odysseus in America that “no soldier ever threw himself on a grenade for the laws of thermodynamics . . . but has done so for a story.”3 Sam Harris explores the same power of beliefs in End of Faith, the opening pages of which examine the thoughts of a suicide bomber. “Beliefs,” he argues, “define your vision of the world; they dictate your behavior.”4
For those involved in international relations, few things are more important than careful exploration of the stories that drive other people’s beliefs. If on-the-ground officers are to understand the nuances of foreign motives, cultures, tactics, and traditions, they should read foreign literature as often as doctrinal publications.
Ethics in Combat
Marine Corps officers also should use the humanities to study morality under the stresses of combat. In its ethics classes, the Naval Academy touches the surface, glancing over Stoicism and Aristotelian theories. This does not suffice. Many questions haunt the modern battlefield: Where is the line between obedience and personal integrity? How has the nature of honor evolved, and how does this affect my Marines? What is the comparative worth of my Marines’ lives to foreign civilians’ lives? To combatants’ lives?
These and other questions must not be confronted for the first time under enemy fire; the stakes are too high.
One way to tackle these issues is through philosophy—wading through and debating theories, unpacking subtleties, and revealing shortcomings or gaps in different approaches. Another way is through literature, from the wartime epics of the Greeks to the post-World War I poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. Literature is adept at uncovering the complexity of wartime situations, exposing the humanity of enemies (and the occasional inhumanity of our own forces), and exploring the relationships and influences that overcome fear to enable violence.
Simply, philosophical and literary study allows individuals to appreciate and grapple with the moral and mental complexities of warfare, thus training reflective officers who can be trusted with the deliberate use of violence.
Finally, Marine Corps officers should pursue a more comprehensive education in psychology, so they may better understand the mental states of their Marines before, during, and after combat situations. Volumes of psychological investigations have detailed the effects of violence and fear on the human psyche. While officers need not understand the intricacies of these issues, a basic comprehension of psychology would help them to plan effective training, build cohesive units with healthy decision-making, and respond to the post-combat reactions of their Marines.
Start at the Academy
The Naval Academy must alter its core curriculum to better achieve its intellectual goals. Leadership education, for example, emerges more naturally from military history, literature, and stories that explore the character, behavior, and choices of effective and ineffective leaders. Two of the best leadership books on my shelf are Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and Frank Herbert’s Dune—far more valuable than any textbook.
Problem solving is more appropriately learned through a course such as Foundations of Mathematical Logic—teaching students how to think and apply mathematical tools—than with two years of plug-and-chug calculus. By matching the intent of each class with the appropriate execution, the Academy can pare its core curriculum, thus opening room for midshipmen to take new classes.
The Academy also should shift its summer training so midshipmen can service select in their second-class year, opening up three semesters to begin a 13-course practicum specific to that service. Although this would accelerate decision-making for midshipmen, it would enable more comprehensive academic training that would prepare mature, intellectually aware officers. By eliminating the third-class fleet cruise—almost universally loathed—and moving summer events forward by a year, midshipmen could commit to their communities early, creating more direction for the second half of midshipmen’s Academy careers, placing them in meaningful classes with community-specific mentors. Within this curriculum, Marine selects would enter a heavily humanities-based set of courses focused on the essential human element of Marine Corps leadership and the intimacy with which Marines experience violence.
Overall, the most necessary action for the Naval Academy is to shift the warrior culture toward meaningful intellectual pursuits. Language training, literature, history, philosophy, and psychology offer a better appreciation of human complexities. Through them, we can empower a new generation of creative, curious, effective leaders whom we trust with the responsibility of moral violence.
1. Shahad Al Rawi, The Baghdad Clock, trans. Luk Leafgren (London: Oneworld Publications, 2018).
2. Bettina Bergo, “Emmanuel Lévinas,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017).
3. Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (New York: Scribner, 2002), 242.
4. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), 12.