Fighting Right

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Author: Malham M. Wakin '52

About a decade ago a pacifist Catholic group mounted a campaign to have all Catholic universities, beginning with Notre Dame, remove all ROTC programs from their campuses. That unsuccessful campaign came at a time when Notre Dame’s administration had authorized a study of its ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) programs. Having spent a lifetime on active duty with the Air Force, I was one of those invited to campus to contribute to that interdisciplinary commission evaluating the moral appropriateness of offering military training at a Catholic university. At that time about 10 percent of Notre Dame’s students were on ROTC scholarships, and our report reaffirmed the place of ROTC in Notre Dame’s balance of curricular offerings.

Notre Dame’s connection with the military goes back at least to the Civil War. The school, less than two decades old, sent some of its Holy Cross priests to serve as chaplains, and Father William Corby, CSC, entered the pages of history when he blessed the Union troops at Gettysburg. The phrase “God, Country, Notre Dame” is carved in stone over the side door of Sacred Heart Basilica, and a massive war memorial on campus commemorates the many men and women of the Notre Dame family who have served our country in the military services, many of them making significant contributions, including the sacrifice of their own lives.

Were they doing the right thing? Do some of the most competent graduates of a Catholic university have a place in the military profession, or is God frowning upon us for supporting the armed services this way?

In reflecting on these questions, we should remember that when military professionals of a relatively free, relatively democratic republic like ours act, they never act on their own or for their own benefit. They act on behalf of all the citizens of this country. We authorize and commission them to act on our behalf. We provide them with military academies and elaborate training facilities. We pay their salaries and their pensions when they retire. We provide them with a large portion of the national budget every year. We give them our children to lead (sometimes into battle). We provide them with devastating weapons that could destroy all of humanity. And we trust them.

Of course we should be concerned about the kinds of people we trust to act for us as military professionals, and of course we should want people of the finest moral character and competent intellect to be leaders of this profession.

Keep in mind that the very nature of our military profession has changed with the advent of weapons of mass destruction. We share in our collective memory an image of the Minuteman, the citizen-soldier who responded to his country’s call to join the fight against tyranny, who joined the army to preserve the Union, who fought the war to end all wars, who joined his fellow citizens in the fight to make the world safe for democracy. But since 1945, this concept of total war, mobilizing entire societies to fight with all weapons available and seeking the unconditional surrender of the enemy, is no longer a rational concept. As many realistic analysts have pointed out, the first battle in such a war would be the last.

The American concept of “total war” has had to yield to the model of war as an instrument of politics. The primary mission of the profession of arms is to contain violence at the lowest level consistent with the achievement of limited political aims and to avoid or prevent a world-ending holocaust. Given the technology currently available, the underlying rational strategy must be one of deterrence.

Commitments of U.S. military forces in the last half-century verify that they are being used in constrained fashion to address limited political aims. Even when enormous numbers of personnel and military hardware have been employed, as in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, the aims have been clearly political and limited although the fighting itself was fierce and costly in human life. Other commitments of U. S. military forces — in Panama, Grenada, Libya, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo — have been an instrument of U.S. political policies.

The decisions to commit military forces and the size of these commitments were made by civilian political leaders elected by our citizens and so authorized to make these decisions. In a democracy, military professionals do not decide when or where the military instrument is to be employed. Military professionals, however, must be prepared to provide advice and options regarding the capabilities and uses of technology and leadership techniques. They must be politically aware, intellectually competent, and morally sensitive regarding the potential uses of their forces. Is Notre Dame one of the places where leaders of such technical and practical wisdom might get their foundation?

As we look at the American military profession today, two particular questions deserve the consideration of every mature, thoughtful citizen. First, what are the appropriate types of missions we should assign to our military forces in an era when sufficient deterrence exists to make World War III highly unlikely? Some argue that diverting our military from training in future battles in order to have them participate in “operations other than wars” guarantees that they will be unable to accomplish their primary mission of fighting our country’s wars.

The second issue grows out of concerns generated by a politically dictated policy of casualty-avoidance, motivated by federal administrators’ fear that the American people are unwilling to accept American casualties in operations not clearly in defense of the U.S. homeland or national interest.

Writing in the mid-1990s, Colonel Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., a distinguished military professional trained at two Catholic universities, describes a tendency he calls “Postmodern Militarism” generated by “youthful civilian elites” of the ‘90s who lacked sufficient understanding of the nature of the American military profession. “Postmodern Militarism,” he wrote, "is not marked by overt military dominance or even a societal embrace of martial values. Rather, it is characterized by a growing willingness of an increasingly military-naive society to charge those in uniform with responsibilities that a democracy ought to leave civilians. It is a product of America’s deep frustration and disgust with elected government’s inability to work effectively, or even labor honestly. The reason the military’s approval rating far exceeds that of every other institution in society — including, significantly, the ones expected to exercise civilian control — is quite simple: it gets good things done. Embattled politicians are ever more frequently turning to the military for quick fixes: Can’t stop drugs? Call in the Navy. FEMA overwhelmed? Deploy the Airborne. Crime out of control? Put Guardsmen on the streets. Troubled youths? Marine role models and military boot camps. Need health care? Military medics to the rescue. Diplomats stumble again? Another Air Force mercy mission on the way. The unapologetically authoritarian military can ’make the train run on time, “_But at what price?_"

Perhaps because these additional missions were thrust upon the military, and because a few high-ranking officers have been politically ambitious, there is a concern that the military profession itself is becoming politicized. Its status as a profession is diminished. Some writers have sounded the alarm about loss of traditional civilian control of the military. Others have expressed anxiety about recent polls which show that 65 percent of today’s officers are members of the same political party; in the past, the majority have registered as independents.

While for some this seems significant, my experience with current military leaders suggests that the principle of civilian control is not in danger. A large number of men and women of decent moral character occupy senior leadership positions in the military today and understand clearly the role of the military profession in a democratic society vis a vis civilian control. But with added missions and limited resources, we have given the military some enormous issues to resolve.

Under the concept of “constabulary forces” envisioned as early as 1960 by sociologist Morris Janowitz, we have required our military forces to project a presence in a large number of places outside the continental United States: patrolling the skies over Iraq; a 50-year peace preservation mission in South Korea; peacemaking and peace preservation roles in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti; U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf. We have added the missions of information warfare, drug interdiction, humanitarian intervention; assisting with the influx of illegal immigrants; and dealing with rogue states, worldwide disasters and terrorists. We use terms like “low intensity conflict” and “operations other than war.”

Thus far, the military has adapted by restructuring organizations that have been severely downsized since the end of the Cold War. Units are deployed to such places as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bosnia or Kosovo for 30, 60, 90 or 180 days. This process has placed additional strain on family life and severe strain on the morale of military professionals and their families. Yet it seems clear that, in general, our military professionals have been good at getting things done. Increasingly, however, military professionals are venturing concerns about our ability to respond to a major crisis, as these military operations severely limit opportunities for training in fighting skills.

Senior commanders are in the process of requesting from Congress an increase in personnel to meet the array of requirements they now face. At the same time that a large number of functions (logistics, supply, food service, motor pools, base housing, communications, administration) have been moved to the civilian sector, the uniformed forces have been reduced. To the commanders, it is questionable whether we will have sufficient operational forces and weapons in the field if major fighting becomes necessary.

The second issue worthy of our attention has to do with the very nature and quality of the military profession itself. In a recent article about professionalism and the military ethic, three West Point professors drew attention to the orders being given to our peacekeeping units in Bosnia. They quote combat leaders from Bosnia as follows:

- “I tell my men every day there is nothing there worth one of them dying for.”

- “[A]bsolutely minimizing casualties was the mission prioritized as first.”

- “If mission and force protection are in conflict, then we don’t do the mission.”

Such standing order can certainly confuse our traditional view of the very nature of the military profession, which includes courage, selflessness and self-sacrifice as essential attributes. It also can lead to episodes (rarely publicized) of U.N. or NATO forces standing aside and permitting armed aggressors to murder, rape and pillage an undefended village ostensibly protected by peacemaking forces. Casualty avoidance is, of course, important to every military commander. Accomplishing a military objective with minimal harm to your own troops is the watchword of every competent leader. But making casualty avoidance the primary mission marks a severe departure from professionalism. It seems to contradict the essence of the soldier’s ethic as signaled by General Douglas MacArthur at the close of World War II.

MacArthur, in confirming the death sentence for the Japanese commander in the Philippines whose men had committed horrible atrocities against civilians, said: “The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed. It is the very essence and reason for his being. When he violates this sacred trust, he not only profanes his entire cult but threatens the fabric of international society.” When peacekeeping forces, whose mission is to protect “the weak and unarmed,” place the safety of their own forces ahead of that mission, the entire concept of military professionalism has gone awry. Who ought to do something about this state of affairs? Where will we find the officer leaders whose integrity and moral understanding will recognize the corruption of professionalism in this context and do the right thing?

Faced with these new and nontraditional missions, who is capable of redefining what constitutes our national security and reorganizing our forces to make them effective in carrying out the complex responsibilities we now require of them? Where shall we find men and women who have the talent and leadership skills to lead a battalion or company or flying squadron in warfighting and at the same time can adapt flexibly to assist the State Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Border Patrol, the CIA, FBI? Who will have both the maturity and technical understanding to plan and command joint operations with all the service branches, with NATO forces, and within the structure of the United Nations? Where shall we find the officers who, carrying out peacemaking functions on our border or in a village in a foreign country, will exercise proper restraint and decent moral judgements in resolving crisis conflicts?

In our present circumstances, many competent junior officers in all branches of the armed services are leaving the military. Frequent and extended deployments have caused severe strains in young families. Technical skills are in great demand in a flourishing civilian economy and the pay far exceeds military salaries. And yet we must continue to attract and retain young men and women of decent moral character and exceptional competence to carry out the complex responsibilities we assign to a military profession that we believe does good things well.

Good leaders in every calling must possess at least two critical attributes: They must have both technical expertise and moral authority. Their technical expertise comprises the ability and knowledge necessary to accomplish the objective desired. Their moral authority stems from knowledge of and concern for what is best for those who follow. Good leadership does not merely consist in inspiring others to follow. Unless skills and knowledge are placed in the service of moral goals, there is no true leadership. One who leads others to the accomplishment of bad goals may have the technical skill of leadership but is not a good leader. One who has great moral intentions but leads others to disaster for lack of ability to do what is necessary is also not a good leader. We need good leaders in all of our societal professions, but the need for them in the military may be the most crucial because the lack of good leadership in this arena can be so costly in human life, national treasure and national survival.

We have had, for some time, officers who qualify as good leaders. Even in a controversial conflict like the Vietnam War, we can admire the courage and perseverance of Admiral Jim Stockdale and his fellow prisoners of war, sustaining themselves through years of vicious torture and deprivation to return eventually with honor to their confused country. At the same time we condemn the leadership of those responsible for the massacre of unarmed prisoners, as happened at My Lai in March 1968. No person of decent moral character could have given the command to kill those villagers. In this profession, competence is not enough. Integrity, moral purpose and decent moral character are essential.

Our service academies have taken the responsibility to produce leaders of good character seriously. Each of our academies teaches courses in applied ethics, and each of the three larger academies now has a designated center focusing on ethical issues and on fostering good character. A recent meeting at the Naval Academy’s center involved faculty members from the academies, the war colleges and civilian universities. The seminar discussions dealt with war strategy, strategic bombing, laws of war, conflict prevention and humanitarian intervention — all within the context of the just war tradition.

This meeting calls to mind the period of the early 1980s when our country was involved in both scholarly and emotional debate over nuclear deterrence policy. Both the pope and the U.S. Catholic bishops were issuing opinions about the moral status of nuclear deterrence as a strategy. A number of uniformed officers were called upon to analyze these positions and to formulate responses and policy suggestions. Many of these officers were graduates of universities with strong religious ties, including Notre Dame. One of these efforts was the reconfirmation of the rejection of the strategy of mutually assured destruction and, somewhat later, the Weinberger Doctrine, which was grounded in classic just war theory.

“Just war theory,” springs from the valid concept that decent people, in and out of uniform, have forever been concerned about applying moral principles even, or especially, in the context of intentionally killing other human beings in war. These concerns, we learn from reading the account of Thucydides, date back at least as far as the Peloponnesian War, when the Melians appealed for justice in their dialogue with the Athenian generals. Fundamentally, we reason that the obligation to avoid harming others can only be violated when it is overridden by some conflicting obligation we may have (the duty to protect the innocent against aggression, for example). Thus, several doctors of the church and others over the centuries have argued that waging war may be morally permissible or even obligatory if legitimate authority perceives a just cause, has a right intention (related to that just cause), and employs moral means, which includes proper proportion and discrimination between the innocent and non-innocent.

These moral constraints have perennially been of concern to the military professional of Christian conscience. In the current context, the possible conflicts between following orders and moral constraints have not disappeared. On one level, the conscientious soldier, however committed to the necessary military chain of command, must decide if the military action (full-fledged combat or some “operation other than war”) being ordered, passes the test of moral correctness. Often, sufficient information is not available for a soldier to make an informed judgment, and he or she will assume normally that governmental authorities have satisfied such conditions as just cause or right intention. If, however, one has adequate information and is clearly able to judge that his or her country has embarked on an unjust operation, then that person of decent moral character must refuse to participate. The consequences of such refusal can be severe, but we have always acknowledged that both the moral life and the military life require courage.

On a more specific level, military professionals may occasionally find conflicts between moral principle and an individual order that requires illegal or immoral action. An order to bomb population centers for the express purpose of destroying civilian morale, for example, would violate both our national laws and the moral law against harming the innocent. (The “innocent” may be classified as those not engaged in the attempt to destroy us.) If such was the order given recently in the action against Serbia, then it was clearly wrong (although my colleagues assure me that no such operations were launched and that recent discussions of such a possibility were created by the media). On the other hand, the order Lt. William Calley gave to kill prisoners at My Lai was an outrageously clear example of an immoral order that any soldier’s conscience should have rejected.
Leaders of conscience must be in place to develop tactics and guide operations that bring force to bear only against legitimate military targets. If civilian authorities select targets or direct operations that violate the principle of discrimination or proper proportion, then military leaders must advise them of the moral considerations which should temper, constrain and redirect their planning.

These reflections are leading to a very specific conclusion. Unless the world we live in changes very dramatically (which seems unlikely), we are going to need the profession of arms at least as critically as we continue to need the medical, legal, educational and clerical professions. Military leaders must be men and women who are both intellectually competent and morally sensitive. The national service academies alone cannot provide sufficient numbers of officer leaders to fulfill the need, nor should they. The University of Notre Dame and other distinguished colleges and universities should continue to prepare men and women of significant competence and character to lead our nation’s military services. Our military professionals always act on our behalf and in our name. During a crisis, when we want a correct moral decision to be made, our best hope is that a person of decent moral character is in command.


Malham M. Wakin, a Brigadier General (retired) in the U.S. Air Force and professor emeritus at the United States Air Force Academy, is the author of Integrity First: Reflections of a Military Philosopher.


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