Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence

Jun 23, 2017

The soldier "is at once the most and the least civilized of persons," says Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Reed Bonadonna. In this thoughtful conversation, he discusses his new book; military ethics through the ages; and the relationship between the army, the state, and the culture at large, both past and present.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Welcome to this Carnegie Council podcast. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council. Our guest today is Reed Bonadonna, author of a new book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence. It's published by the Naval Institute Press.

Reed is a retired Marine Corps colonel, having served as an infantry officer and field historian. He recently retired as director of the Ethics and Character Development Program at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Among his current activities, Reed is now a senior Fellow at Carnegie Council, directing the council's new project on "The Living Legacy of the First World War." Reed is also a good friend, and it's a particular pleasure to have him here to talk to us today.

Reed, I wanted to start by just talking about the origins of the book. So maybe you could tell us a bit about how you came to write it.

: I do talk about that a little in the book. One thing I don't mention in the book is that a long time ago when I was, I think, still a junior officer I came up with the rather grandiose idea of thinking, Oh, so what's your goal in life? What is your lifetime strategy? And I once put it, "Well, I want to restore the soldier to his rightful place in the vanguard of Western civilization."

It is rather grandiose, and some people would question the premise that the soldier has ever occupied quite that lofty a position, but some of those are the deep origins. I also talk about very early childhood reading of military history, some of it fictionalized, as constituting my interest not just in soldiering but in writing about soldiering, and how it began with that.

Then I was working on an article about the early modern period, the 16th and 17th centuries, making an argument for developments in professionalism that had taken place during this period of time, which is also sometimes referred to as "the military revolution." As I wrote this and finished it, I realized that a lot of the trends that I was talking about had roots further back in time, so I started reading more about medieval warfare. Then I realized that these trends were also important in more recent times and today, so I started reading in more recent military history and thinking about the current implications. So it sort of gathered the historical periods to itself from this more or less right in the middle nugget of early modern military history.

Then I devised a class at Kings Point [the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy] called "Leadership in Action: War and the Military Profession," so I wanted to focus on the role of the officer corps in developing ideas about leadership, which I hoped would be valuable to the midshipmen at Kings Point, who were the students here, and looking around for a history of military professionalism that would suit this purpose. I looked around, I asked around, and no such book existed. So, nothing for it but that I must write this book myself.

: You do say the military profession is a branch of the humanities.


In that sense, could you say a little bit more about that? You're making an important bridge there. Is there a tradition of that looking back?

REED BONADONNA: I think there certainly is in all of the writing that is about the military profession. As one literary critic, John Liman, put it, "Literature begins with war and has never forsworn it." There is a clear link because so much literature of history is about military operations of necessity. More than that, I think the military profession, its need for language, and its contributions to the language, its rootedness in values, in what it means to be human, what makes human life worth living, what might be worth risking your life on behalf of, questions like this, it seems to me, are only addressed fully in the humanities.

I started off thinking—I'll do a plug to one of my students, and I wish I could remember which one it was—I was talking to my students in the command and staff course one year, and I said something like, "Well, officer education is a branch of the humanities."

And one of my students looked at me and said, "Sir, what you really mean is that the military profession is a branch of the humanities."

And I said, "Yes. Let me write that down."

Great. Pushing on that a little bit, you say that the soldier is "at once the most and the least civilized of persons." And you have a great phrase; you said, "Soldiers walk the 'weird wall' at the edge of civilization." I love that image of the weird wall. Can you say a little bit more about that?

REED BONADONNA: This is something that soldiers have to deal with. Soldiers inhabit places; they're sent to places; they serve in places. And most in particular, when they are really doing their job, involved in armed conflict in some way, whether it's conventional operations or counterinsurgency or peace ops, the places they serve are places where order has broken down, where the only law seems to be that of violence. These are circumstances that can appeal to the worst in people, and we sometimes see people at their worst under these conditions, very degraded, put to flight, living almost animal existences because they have been chased from their homes or their homes have been destroyed.

Of course, the soldiers themselves are living in these rather bestial conditions sometimes. I sometimes tell people that I went without a shower for six weeks once. Under those kinds of conditions your hold on civilized values can be threatened.

The point is that under these circumstances the soldier is supposed to be—the military professional in me in particular—the one who upholds whatever civilized values there are under these very threatened conditions. I think that the fact that the soldier expresses a willingness to serve his society or her society without stint or limit to the extent of risking their lives, even sacrificing their lives, this is the mark of a civilized person who is willing to make that kind of sacrifice on behalf of others as a professional obligation.

I could also talk about the constitutional oath. Maybe we'll get to that, but I think to the American soldier this clearly attaches the enacting of the soldier's profession to important human values which armed force tends to threaten, such as the rule of law.

: How does this actually happen, this connection of ends to means? The soldier fundamentally you're talking about—I remember General Dempsey when he was here. I think he used the phrase, "We disperse violence on behalf of the state." That makes the point. We're talking about violence; we're talking about the potential taking of life; we're talking about course of activity. So how do you think about that connection? Obviously that is a means, but it has to be connected to an end in some way?

REED BONADONNA: Right. General Dempsey—as I'm sure he is aware—is almost channeling the phrase—and I forget which one of the military sociologists coined this phrase—"managers of violence," in reference to the officer corps in particular. [Editor's note: It was Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State.]

I would say a couple of things. First of all, I think what distinguishes the military professional from other people who use violence, and there are others—the thug or the marauder; the criminal; the pirate or terrorist—is the willingness to withhold force, not just to levy force. And something we probably don't do enough is to, as you say, consider the connection between military force and the outcome: What are we doing this for really?

We kill people and blow things up to create a better world. There is a built-in paradox there. I think one of the things that military professionals have to do, even at the tactical level—and this was a point made by a book written by another marine, B. A. Friedman, on tactics, and the Naval Institute Press just published it a little while ago—the officer is thinking strategically, thinking about the end of conflict, thinking about the postwar environment in terms of restraint and how much force is being used, questions like that.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: By the way, your chapters on the Greeks and the Romans were fascinating in terms of just the historical development of the technology and the organization of warfare, but I want to just focus in on the moral or the ethical dimension to it in some way.

The Greeks famously say, "War is a test of character." It's a test of personal character but also civic character as well. Do you think that still holds up today? Is that still kind of a universal observation? I want to push you a little bit. I don't want to get too political, but there are certain restraints that are expected on the personal level, the soldier level, in terms of what we consider to be moral or just.

But now we have a president of the United States who says, in his personal opinion, the use of torture would be effective and in his view okay to be used against terrorism or suspected terrorists. How do you sort that out now, because our code of justice says "no" and our leader says, "Well, it's okay with me"?

REED BONADONNA: I think we have to remember, too, that things have changed with the new administration; it is hard to say exactly how much. But we have used torture in the past, and it has been both tacitly and explicitly permitted. I think most particularly in the environment after 9/11 a lot of people were willing to use almost any methods necessary to prevent another event like that or to strike back against the terrorists. So this isn't completely new.

I think that the idea that warfare is a test of the character of the individual and also tests the collective civic virtue of the city or the state is something that is still with us. It is probably not as strong or pervasive culturally as it was with the ancient Greeks because almost everything that they wrote reflected this point of view.

I would say there is going to be more dissent on that subject now and generally less discussion of it, but I think within the armed forces certainly—I believe, at least—military service is seen as a test of character and an activity in which character is extremely important, more so than intellect, maybe even more so than acquired knowledge. This is the sine qua non, that only the person of character can be trusted to wield the kind of power over others, over firepower that the soldier can potentially be carrying.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to connect that to an important point. At the end of your chapter on the Romans, you end up by asking whether an army can make up for the deficiencies of the larger culture. In other words, you have an organization of virtue or certainly of a code, certain restraints, and you raise the question as to whether the Roman army could have saved the empire.

But if I read you correctly, your point is that the army is almost always a projection of the society. In other words, it can't outperform in terms of virtue; the army represents society. Is that your current position on that?

REED BONADONNA: Right. I do think that a society's institutions can help it when it is subject to stress or it has problems in other areas. I think that today, for example, with all the problems that are occurring in government, frankly, the fact that the United States possesses a sizable, well-trained, well-educated, dedicated federal bureaucracy is one of the things that might help us to get through this time with honor intact. I wouldn't even limit the idea that an institution or an organization can perhaps lift society, get it through hard times, helping to do so through the military.

I think the military can be part of the problem or it can be part of the solution. I even say somewhere in the book that really important military reform can't take place just within the military; the military has to reach out to the larger society as it is trying to reform itself.

An interesting example—I think we might have talked about this before—is you have one serving officer [H.R. McMaster], one recently retired officer [James Mattis], marines and army, serving in high positions in the federal government right now, and I think that some Americans—I count myself among them—are heartened by these two thoroughgoing professionals, both of whom I think have an extremely strong sense of the moral import of what they do and how they serve, and that these two men are in the positions in the government that they are in now. I don't know if I'll say "officer corps to the rescue," but it is at least not hurting that we have men like this in the government. [Editor's note: See Carnegie Council interview with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.]

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Along those lines, you mentioned before about the issue of the Constitution and the overall framework in which the military profession operates. Is there something distinct about the American system that is different from other professional militaries in that regard?

REED BONADONNA: That's interesting. I haven't done a comparison with all other militaries. The Romans would swear an oath to their commanding general. This may have been a weakness because they would then perhaps tend to serve the general even when it went against the interests of the state and the senate and the people, SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus). I believe that British officers, for example, swear an oath to the sovereign. Infamously, German officers at one point swore a personal oath to the führer, to one man, and that was Adolf Hitler, not the person you should be swearing an oath to if you had to swear an oath to one person.

I think it's misunderstood—and I think we need maybe more explication—the Israeli Armed Forces actually, the IDF, have an explicit ethical code called "The Spirit of the IDF." I think that maybe the American armed forces should consider adopting such a code too because of the misunderstanding of the constitutional oath.

I will be perfectly frank. For a lot of my service, when it came time for me to raise my right hand and swear the constitutional oath because I was being promoted, or I was signing up for another tour of duty, or something like that that happens periodically in a military person's career, I really had the thought, Whoa, ooh la la, the constitutional oath, because I would think of myself as a person—Well, I'm in a profession where I take life. I order people around. I silence them sometimes, frankly. So the ideas of liberty, right to life, and the pursuit of happiness and things like that are sort of an icing on the cake from what I really do in my professional role.

Really I think I did not get it because, of course—and all federal employees swear an oath to the Constitution—but for the military person I think it is particularly pointed because that is exactly the point; that because you are in a profession where the power you wield can be so absolute and destructive and you can mess with people's lives, you can in theory wage private wars, that a commitment to, and I think the basic ideas of the Constitution—this has been discussed by among others, Colonel Tony Hartle, who taught for a long time at West Point—the rule of law, individual rights, and I think he also breaks out the restraint of government authority. Those are the three sort of basic principles that you are swearing your oath to, and I think the idea of human or individual rights being the most important.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Reed, is there also, though, a more universal code of a profession of arms? In other words, the code that you would share with your brothers and sisters as professional military, maybe not United States military, but professional, meaning this is a universal kind of enterprise?

What I'm getting at is that there are international courts, which I understand then have force of law within the national framework, but there are international courts, prohibition against genocide, atrocities, use of poison gas, treatment of prisoners, and so on. How does that work into your thinking about soldiers and civilizations today, especially again in this moment where there are forces within our government that are saying, "Well, you know, that's fine, but that doesn't really matter, this international agreement around these professional codes"?

REED BONADONNA: I think we're both in agreement that allies and working with people from other countries in partnership, exerting leadership sometimes, but also being a strong and faithful partner with the countries to include their militaries is extremely important to the future, not just of the United States, but of the globe in the 21st century.

For example, in the book, of course, I spend most of the book talking about periods of history that predated America. Until the chapter on the 18th century I really don't talk about Americans at all until the colonies here start to become a nation, and then I start to talk about this distinctive American military profession.

So in most of the book I suppose in effect I'm encouraging American soldiers and others to look at this tradition going back to the Greeks and Romans, late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period, as part of their legacy. These rules that are eventually codified in the 19th century are in effect written forms of a lot of the ideas that evolved over time, which for a long time did not have the force of law. A medieval knight had a chivalric code, but in a lot of circumstances was under no legal compulsion to act in accordance with this code or how he understood it.

But these ideas have evolved over time, and I think it is important for soldiers to plug into this because this is an extremely rich narrative and poetic, I think, which can give us a greater humane sense of the meaning of our profession and a greater pleasure in serving. Perhaps if we understand and relate to the best that we have been as soldiers, this will encourage us to be at our best, not to give way to the scenes that we may have to witness or the insularity, for example, that can sometimes afflict any professional group and to which the military may be particularly prey at times.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Along those lines, you say that in any profession, most especially in the profession of arms, "a soul as well as skill is required." How do we promote this? What I want to turn to now is in professional military education.

You come out of teaching some of these lessons. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how the profession of arms replicates these ideas and so on within the confines of professional military education and what needs to be done there.

REED BONADONNA: I think that obviously the humanities has to be a part of the picture. I read a quotation from General Mattis the other day. He had a write-up in The New Yorker. Dexter Filkins wrote a feature piece about General Mattis after his appointment as secretary of defense. I don't remember the exact words, but Mattis said, speaking to officers—I think he was at the naval academy—"You'll derive as much benefit from, say, reading Angela's Ashes or Schindler's List as you will from reading von Clausewitz or The Peloponnesian War." I think that is a very nice thing to say, this idea of using literature to instruct us in humanity. The empathy for suffering that is exhibited in works like Angela's Ashes or Schindler's List should be part of your equipment as much as a knowledge of tactics or ability to use a weapon.

I was thinking about this on the train in today. I don't know how much of this is done anymore in school; memorization. When I was in school we had to memorize passages of Shakespeare, for example. I remember doing this in the eighth grade, and they have stuck with me to a surprising degree. They are part of my internal equipment now. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace."

This is the Roman tradition of rhetoric because Roman boys of the upper classes, going on to become officers in many cases, were expected to memorize and then dramatically recite portions of their own classical literature. There is something about memorization that really gets it inside you. It's best done when you're young, I think. It can be done when you're older, but the poems memorized in childhood become part of you and stay with you.

I had to memorize some things at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) as a freshman student, a rat at VMI, that have stayed with me, and they are part of my ethic now. They are part of what I believe.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: For those of us outside the professional military system, what is being done now within the system in terms of this kind of education? What's built into it, and maybe what needs to be done into the future? I know you're working on a book that is related to this.

REED BONADONNA: Right. I have to find out more, frankly, about what is being done. When I was down in Washington at the conference that I mentioned last week, one of the speakers was General Odierno, a retired army chief. He spoke very well about the issues that the conference was addressing. He also made an allusion to the reform in officer training which has taken place based on the experiences of the last 15 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am not as familiar with that as I should be. I was close to officer education working at Kings Point. I had relationships with representatives from all of the other service academies—army, air force, and navy, maybe navy in particular—and I did not see this, not anyway at entry level.

But obviously I think that military officers receive a smattering of the humanities, depending on what the curriculum with their source of commissioning is, whether it's service academy or Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). I think there should be more. I also think that making this point, drawing the line between the humanities and their professional obligations should be made more explicit.

I'd like to see officers and officer candidates with more time for thoughtfulness, for journaling, for mentoring, to clarify their values and how they plan on going about their jobs when they are assigned. I think that should continue to take place actually throughout an officer's career.

Sometimes the ideals of young adulthood are lost later on—we were talking about this earlier—and they need to be renewed. We need to stop thinking just in terms of my career and my assignment and my advancement and things like that, and come back to what the service is supposed to be about. It is supposed to be about service.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: One of the great ways to do that is through providing historical perspective. We have been here before in a way, and that is what your book does.

I wanted to finish up by pointing forward for both you and for Carnegie Council. Toward the end of the book you mention Paul Fussell, who really wrote one of the great books in history, war, and the humanities, and it was called The Great War and Modern Memory. It is about the literature really of the First World War and the lessons we can learn from history. You quote Fussell and you say, "A consideration of the past can be intellectually liberating, giving wings to thought and imagination."

As people from Carnegie Council know, we're just starting a project called "The Living Legacy of the First World War," and you're going to be helping us out with that. Maybe you could just reflect for a moment. For you, what is the value of thinking back a hundred years about the experience of that war, and also how that experience in some ways is still with us? How can that help both soldiers and citizens think about the world we're living in today?

REED BONADONNA: Another military writer, J. Glenn Gray, wrote a book called The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. J. Glenn Gray apparently, from what I've read, got his draft notice into the army and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia on the same day in 1941, and he served through the war. He writes regretfully about a lot of the things that he saw and did in war, but he concludes at the end that the war hadn't changed him enough, that the experience of war had the potential to humanize him, to make him wiser, and that he hadn't perhaps taken full advantage of his experience.

The experience of World War I for America, I think, did not change us enough, is one of the things that I've been thinking of. The war for us was fairly brief, about a year and a half, only about six months of which were active combat operations; it was limited in scope; we fought with borrowed weapons to a considerable degree and with tactics that we got from the French and the British when we eventually realized that we had to adopt those tactics, because our own prewar tactics were very outdated already at the start.

We had sort of been pushed out onto the world stage, but were still a very provincial America. Woodrow Wilson, in particular, said: "This war has shown us how much we need to reach out to the rest of the world. We need to have a League of Nations. We need to join this League of Nations and be active in it." The war had not been instructive enough to show us the necessity of this, and I think it would have been a good thing. Could it have prevented the Second World War or the Holocaust? That is very speculative.

I wrote a little piece recently about the conflict between American provincialism and American cosmopolitanism, and they both have their virtues. They can benefit us in different ways. But the aftermath of World War I was a period in which we should have been more cosmopolitan, and we fell back on being provincial.

I think we're doing that now. We're retreating into this imaginary America of the past, this idealized small-town America which lived in isolation from the rest of the world at a time when we need to be more cosmopolitan. Again, as in 1918, 1919, we're retreating into this mostly imaginary provincial America.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's why the Carnegie Council was founded, in a way, to try to find our way to what a responsible internationalism would be, and it's an open question and still very much open.

REED BONADONNA: I agree with you. I think the lesson of the First World War—we don't know what papers we'll be getting, but it could be very instructive and interesting.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you for writing this book and giving us this historical perspective but also this moral, ethical, broad perspective on the evolution of the profession of arms and how important it is to, as you say, the modern world. Also, thank you for your service to our country as well.

REED BONADONNA: Thank you very much, Joel.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Looking forward to working with you on our new project, and I'm sure we'll have a podcast to follow on that. Thanks.


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