Regardless of the challenges we face, our leaders, especially our officers, must share a moral foundation and practice a common professional ethic. Our tactics, techniques, and practices may change, but our bedrock principles remain the same.
– General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., USMC Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
The Armed Forces Officer, 2017
By the time this article is published, most of the general public will have forgotten the name of the Marine Corps battalion commander who pleaded guilty at a special court martial after videos he recorded disparaging senior military leaders’ handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan went viral. The most alarming aspect of this event, one that strikes at the heart of the U.S. military professional ethic, is not 20 years of failed Afghanistan policy, a botched withdrawal, or one officer’s failed attempt at martyrdom, but rather the deep divide the debate that followed exposed within the ranks. When field grade officers and senior enlisted leaders publicly endorse the mutinous actions of a sitting commander because they share his pain, incredulity, or disdain for the current administration, politics has supplanted the professional ethic. The comfort level with which senior officers and enlisted leaders—who should know better—publicly expressed partisan political positions is troublesome and dangerous. A nonpartisan military is essential to a functional democracy. The military must step back from the abyss and refresh its professional ethos.
Since the advent of democracy, there have always been enemies—foreign and domestic—who sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of a free society for their own gain. The threat of populism and identity politics within the ranks predates this Republic and can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Founding Fathers anticipated the danger posed by partisans and demagogues, especially those with ties to the military, and believed that virtue was the antidote to partisan strife. In the article “On Public Virtue,” Vice Admiral James Stockdale quoted constitutional historian Forest McDonald’s warning that: “No shortcoming has been as surely fatal to Republics as a dearth of public virtue.”1 Stockdale’s remarks reflected the deep political divide and the lack of public confidence that defined post-Vietnam America. In time, the nation healed itself, and the ghosts of Vietnam were eventually vanquished in Desert Storm, though politically, the country did not come together fully until 12 September 2001.
This unity, however, was short lived. Twenty years of foreign military intervention took its toll in blood, treasure, and public confidence in the military. Politicians and pundits on the left and right capitalized on this disenchantment to sow the seeds of division and erode confidence in U.S. institutions for their own political gain. U.S. adversaries adroitly exploit these divisions and penetrate deep into the American psyche with new social media tools. Though the medium and the means are new, the toxic material and how it metastasizes is not. The solution, therefore, can also be found in the past.
It was not Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars or Rome’s failed excursions in Gaul that led to the collapse of their Republics, but the moral vacuum that followed. Sophists, the pundits of the day, filled this void with political speech—unanchored in truth—to persuade people to act against their best interest. It was in this milieu that Aristotle’s moral philosophy was born. Aristotle’s moral theories are ethics for the real world and remain just as valid today as at their inception. The foundational principal of his Nicomachean Ethics is moderation. Rather than focus on the elusive concept of virtue, Aristotle begins with the assumption that real life’s moral deficiencies and excesses are readily apparent.2 He defined virtue as the mean between the extremes.3 It constitutes a situationally defined midpoint between the deficiency and excess of one’s character. For example, courage is equipoised between rashness and cowardice. Loyalty lies at the midpoint of excessive devotion and priggishness. Temperance is neither insensibility nor self-indulgent careerism. Doing one’s duty, therefore, appropriately balances loyalties to one’s self and self-effacing martyrdom. Virtue, to Aristotle, is always defined by the circumstances. It cannot be codified but is exhibited by individuals of good character in response to a given situation.
Except for George Washington, the U.S. Founding Fathers all had classical educations. They studied the Greeks and the Romans and were inspired by Cato, Cincinnatus, and other defenders of the Republic. Virtue, in their day, was personified by putting the common good before one’s own interests. They were acutely aware of the fragility of the Republic and the threat posed by demagogues. These great men viewed virtue as the lynchpin of public life.4 The Founding Fathers’ interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy influenced their design of the Constitution. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton collaborated to create a framework that balanced man’s excesses and deficiencies. The resulting system of government has proven remarkably resilient. The country has bounced back from wars (including a civil war), economic depressions, pandemics, and civil strife without the military’s intervention in politics. Yes, there were the Generals McClellan and McArthur episodes that challenged civilian control of the military, but they were the exceptions, and their dim place in history shows the exception proves the rule.
It was George Washington, as the Commanding General of the Continental Army, who laid the foundation for our military’s professional ethos. Outside Newburgh, New York, in 1783 the Continental Army had legitimate grievances with the Continental Congress. After eight years of war and deprivation they had gone without pay for eight months. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide-de-camp, wanted the general to use the Army to intimidate Congress. On the “Ides of March,” Washington gathered his officers, and “in as much anger as he allowed himself to show in public,” issued a stern rebuke of an anonymous letter circulating among the ranks.5 When Washington learned of Hamilton’s personal involvement, he admonished him as well, reminding all that: “The army is a dangerous instrument to play with.”6
Political Malfeasance Today
Many politicians today seem to have no qualms about playing with the military to advance their political agenda without concern for the long-term implications to national security. One side seeks to use the military to advance its social agenda without respect to the readiness of the force; while the other, under the guise of patriotism, seeks to quash criticism and lawful dissent by labeling it as anti-American and disrespectful to the troops. Political campaigns on both sides lure the endorsements of retired flag and general officers to exploit their credibility. Overcome by hubris, these retired generals and admirals convince themselves to set aside their professional ethic because of the “danger” posed by the opposing candidate.
When this occurs, the dangers to the Republic are multifaceted and far reaching. If the nation continues along this path, it is reasonable to predict that in the future flag and general officers will be nominated and confirmed to three- and four-star positions based on their political fealty instead of their proficiency. Jim Golby, a prolific writer on civil-military relations, portends that politicians will then pick lesser-qualified officers because they will pose less of a political threat should they enter politics in the future.7 But most concerning will be the impact on the readiness of an all-volunteer force. The discipline, cohesion, and readiness implications of a diverse force being led by partisan political admirals and generals point to an untenable future in which the most senior leaders, rather than act as instruments of national power, become political pawns.
For the most part, military officers are mindful about their personal appearance and therefore are cognizant about what they put into their bodies. The same may not be true about what they put into their minds. Just as they were taught in grade school that “you are what you eat,” today’s military leaders are a direct reflection of what they put into their minds. The “law of exposure” holds that the mind absorbs and reflects what it is exposed to the most.8 Social media algorithms and cable news “infotainment” are designed to continually reinforce one’s cognitive biases to create a subjective reality that benefits the producer but misinforms the consumer. This constructed reality dictates how one responds, behaves, and leads.
In an address to students at the Marine Corps Command & Staff College in 2019, then–Major General Matthew G. Glavy, the Commander of Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command, discussed how cyber enables “10-digit grid quality information operations (IO).” In other words, operations in the information environment (OIE) can target populations down to an individual commander. It is reasonable, therefore, to suspect U.S. enemies can do the same. The 2015 Office of Personnel Management hack provided adversaries with a “treasure trove” of personal information that can be used to target future commanders. It is imperative, therefore, that U.S. military training and education focus on steeling the resolve of future commanders while simultaneously developing their decision-making skills in an information-contested domain.
Officers must pay attention to where the information they are consuming is coming from and practice some ethical reasoning. Senior officers, in particular, need to remind themselves that the public is watching and that their authority to lead derives exclusively from the faith of those being led. When officers—active or retired—“retweet,” “like,” or “share” on social media they give credibility to misinformation and disinformation and become able pawns of U.S. adversaries. Six years ago, the general public—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—held the military in the highest esteem. Two presidential election cycles later, however, there has been a precipitous drop in the nation’s confidence in the military. How did the military fail institutionally to enforce norms in which personal political views were not shared publicly by officers? When did they lose this basic norm of officership? Rebuilding the reputation begins with restoring the professional ethos and refraining from partisan politics. Developing principled leaders—men and women of virtue and character—to bridge this political divide is a national security imperative. Military professionals need to turn away from social media feeds and turn off cable news’ incessant “infotainment,” and rise above the fray.
A Code for Professional Ethics
Military professional ethics and standards of conduct are codified in public law. Title 10 (“Armed Forces”) and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) prohibit participation in partisan events in uniform. Professional ethos and collective norms are reflected in the military’s culture and can be traced back to the Founding Fathers’ Greek and Roman influence. This culture must be continually cultivated, or the ethos will corrode. It is all military leaders’ responsibility to regain control of the military culture’s trajectory as a profession of arms. Populism has no place in the military. In Federalist Number 10, James Madison warned that “enlightened statesman will not always be at the helm.”9 Yet a cornerstone of the Constitution upholds the concept of civilian control of the military. As notable Duke University civil-military relations expert Peter Feaver observed, U.S. civilian “leadership has the right to be wrong.”10
The strategic failure in Afghanistan should be studied and fiercely—and honestly—critiqued in professional blogs and journals through a lens of integrity that trumps concerns over legacy. It is when this criticism turns contemptuous and partisan, however, that contributors violate the professional ethic. Military men and women of character and virtue cannot allow themselves to be pulled into this partisan fray.
Those familiar with information operations should be astute enough to know when they are being targeted and manipulated. U.S. adversaries are opportunists. Demagogues and populists across the political spectrum have attempted to usurp the military since the Greeks first experimented with democracy. It is too convenient to blame adversaries for stoking divisions without acknowledging how these divisions got there in the first place. The critical fissure is the broken norms as an officer corps. A commission is for life. The nation needs military leaders with the strength of character and virtue to resist being recruited by partisan agendas. An officer corps need not be agnostic, simply professional and mindful that accountability, in a functional democracy, occurs at the ballot box, not on social media.
- VADM James Stockdale, USN (Ret.), Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stafford, CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1995).
- Claudia Hauer, Strategic Humanism: Lessons on Leadership from the Ancient Greeks (Chicago, IL: Political Animal Press, 2020).
- J.E.C. Welldon, The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle (London: MacMillan and CO, 1902).
- Thomas Ricks, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2020).
- Ricks, First Principles.
- Jim Golby, “Beyond the Resignation Debate: A New Framework for Civil-Military Dialogue,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 9, no. 3 (Fall 2015).
- Craig Groeschel, Winning the War in Your Mind: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Books, 2021).
- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003).
- Peter D. Feaver, “The Right to Be Right: Civil-Military Relations and the Iraq Surge Decision,” Quarterly Journal: International Security 35, no. 4 (Spring 2011): 87–125.