By Mark Richards, 2019
“Philosophy” often is thought of as an impenetrable academic topic where “some rumpled guy in mismatched tweeds ambels up to the podium and starts lecturing on the meaning of ‘meaning.’” (Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein; Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…, [New York; Penguin Group, 2007}, pg. 4.) However, some of history’s most influential philosophical thinkers also had military service in their resumes. Rene Descartes, for example, was a military man in addition to being a foundational thinker in the Enlightenment. Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War, and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent a great deal of his reign on military campaigns along the Danube.
A coherent command philosophy should keep subordinates pulling the oars together and on course, even when their leader is not present to give direction. People will listen and act on what they hear and see, so, written or unwritten, a command philosophy should contain wisdom. Philosophers have been capturing their views on wisdom in writing for millennia, so knowing where to start can be daunting. If you are commanding a military unit, you are leading a community with the larger nation. Thus, the place for an American to start is the Enlightenment, as this nation is a product of Enlightenment thought.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual rebellion against the establishments of the church and state and the control those institutions exercised over the lives of individuals. By our era, the idea that the individual is capable of making rational choices independent of direct state or religious control is fundamental to how the United States conducts military, police, and even civilian operations. Young men and women are deployed to remote postes, standing watch at night in ships and alone in aircraft with weapons, and expected to make rational, ethical, life-and-death decisions. The fact that the vast majority of the time they do make sound decisions under the most trying circumstances seems to validate the Enlightenment ideal.
Immanuel Kent was arguably the most important figure of the Enlightenment and in the history of philosophy. If a non-philosophy professor is going to know anything about Kant, it is his categorical imperative (what one ought to do, because it is good in and of itself and conforms to reason). [Immanuel Kant; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic Morals, translated by T.K. Abbot (Amherst, New York; Prometheus Books, 1988), pp. 41-42]. The first formulation is, “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Immanuel Kant; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic Morals, translated by T.K. Abbot [Amherst, New York; Prometheus Books, 1988], pg. 49). While this might sound like a noble goal – even a secular version of the Golden Rule – this formulation sets a low standard. Ultimately, leaders want those they command to take actions that go above and beyond what we could expect as a universal law. Kant’s second formulation is, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” (Immanuel Kant; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic Morals, translated by T.K. Abbot [Amherst, New York; Prometheus Books, 1988], pg. 58). Certainly, the U.S. military’s challenges with sexual assault, hazing, and revenge porn are the result of those who treat others to an end.
The challenge with both of these formulations in a military command is that when you follow the logic to its conclusion, you find “the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will. “ (Immanuel Kant; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic Morals, translated by T.K. Abbot [Amherst, New York; Prometheus Books, 1988], pg. 61). As philosopher Joseph Brennan writes, “Kant’s constructed community is an enlightened philosophical anarchism.” (Joseph Gerard Brennan; Foundations of Moral Obligations [Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994], p. 93). Military leaders want individuals they lead to make sound decisions, but they do not want anarchy, even it if is an enlightened philosophical anarchy. The rational, ethical decisions we expect members of the military community to make must be founded on and fall within the bounds of good order and discipline and the laws of conflict. Further, to be considered lawful combatants, military members must be subject to military discipline, as the ideal of every rational human being making sound, ethical decisions in all cases is not borne out by experience. The recent actions of English trolls against my family and myself being an object example.
The larger challenge with Enlightenment thought is the shift in focus to the individual independent of the state, which created a divergence of the value and identity of the individual as separate from and superior to the larger community. This tension can be found in the Constitution the U.S. military is sworn to protect. It begins with the words “We the people” and ends with the Bill of Rights. So, American military commanders are given a group of people raised on the Declaration of Independence’s “inalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” and in a society that increasingly views the community as existing for the purpose of enabling individual pleasure. Yet, these leaders must forge an effective organization where members must limit the size and location of their tattoos, restrain their speech and social media activities, and also swear that they are willing to give up their inalienable right to life in accordance with Article I of the Code of Conduct. Here is where Aristotle can help.
Most will agree that Aristotle did not get everything right; however, what has endured includes brilliant insights that are fundamental to an effective military (or business) command. First is his observation that the “city which is best adapted to the fulfillment of its work is to be deemed greatest.” (Aistotle, Politics, from The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon ed. [New York; Modern Library, 2001], pg. 1, 293.) The single word that applies here is telos, the end to which something aims. (Joseph Gerard Brenna: Foundations of Moral Obligations [Novato, CA; Presidio Press, 1994}, pg. 93.) Individuals in the U.S. military have joined and remained in the service for disparate reasons, but they all raise their hands and swear to support and defend the Constitution – that is a unifying force. Further, using authorities granted by the Constitution, the mission of each service has been defined in law as being prepared to conduct proper and sustained combat operations in support of national interests. That is the telos, and it is something that everyone in the command must understand and the end to which all effort ultimately leads.
The second useful idea from Aristotle is: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (That famous quote is not Aristotle’s, but a summation of his thoughts in his Nichomachean Ethics by historian Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Frank Herron, “It’s a MUCH More Effective Quotation to Attribute It to Aristotle, Rather than to Will Durant,” (University of Massachusetts, Boston \; 2013), found at the website: http://blogs.umb.edu/quoteunquote/2012/05/08/its-a-much-more-effective-quotation-to-attibute-i-to-aristotle-rather-than-to-will-durant/.) This is a point of which I am sure the scumbags currently assaulting my family and myself have not concept, as none of them have ever been ‘excellent’ at anything other than being failures. As Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in his 1513 work The Prince, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Difficulty does not excuse complacency, of course; any more than selfish motives of momentary advancement by attacking an old friend who is temporarily an easy target can be forgiven.
To be continued…