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Civic education and use of force.


It is imperative that citizens in a democracy be educated on topics related to the use of force, particularly critical thinking and ethical decision making, in order to fulfill their role in the democratic process. We believe that the way we in the United States educate our military, especially senior officers, provides a model for civilian education on national security issues. Moreover, we believe that the officers we educate at the War College level are an underutilized resource for character development education in the communities in which they live and serve.


Although Americans historically shun a large standing military, they consistently list their armed forces among their most respected government institutions--even when confidence in those institutions overall is down (The Harris Poll #4, 2003). One reason for this may be the emphasis placed on character development throughout a military career; thus, when public attention turns to character development education, military practices might logically be of interest.

Few public decisions are as momentous as the decision to go to war, and for a "government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people," it is essential that all the people--those who will risk their lives in such enterprise and those who will participate in the democratic processes leading to it--possess the critical thinking, ethical decision making, and lifelong learning competencies to faithfully discharge their roles. While this need may at one level be obvious, a compelling explanation of the political dynamic underlying it is provided by the 19th century German strategist, Carl yon Clausewitz. In his classic treatise, On War, Clausewitz describes war as being governed by a "trinity" of distinct and balancing forces: the passions of the people, the creativity of the military, and the rational calculus of the government with regard to the policy aims for which war is being pursued (Clausewitz, 1832, 89). Clearly, when this is understood within the context of a democracy, it is especially dangerous for each of these forces to think only of its own domain--for ultimately, the people are the government; should they not possess the education and skills to evaluate the policy arguments they hear (in effect, exercising their governmental role) the Clausewitzian "passion" (which may run either for or against war) has the potential to infect and disable the rational consideration of national interests.

At the nexus of government with the military "leg" of the trinity, the role of balance in a democracy is equally clear--and has long been understood within the American system. A military that did not possess sound ethics, civic virtue, and strong character as its bedrock would be a danger to the very society it was supposed to protect. Such an absence of "professional integrity" would contradict "the very reason for the existence of the professions" (Wakin 1996, 26). Consequently, these subjects have been staples of American military education almost since the U.S. Military Academy opened in 1802 (Bogle 2002). While efforts early in the career must aim to lay a strong foundation of personal character (White 1996, 32, 33), education at the War College level--where the authors teach--builds on this foundation to reinforce ethical and responsible stewardship of the lives and resources entrusted to the leader's care, and to ensure that the decision to employ military force, when made, conforms to the highest moral standards. Maintaining the Clausewitzian balance demands an educational investment in a democracy's military; it also pays a dividend when this investment is made. Soldiers are members of their communities no different than their neighbors--and should the community desire to enhance character development education, officers who have studied these matters throughout their careers are available to help.

Character Development in Senior Officer Education

Before considering the implications of this, it is useful to examine the character-building objectives at America's War Colleges--with examples drawn from the Naval War College (NWC) and the Army War College (AWC), the two such institutions with which the authors have been directly involved. These objectives fall broadly into three categories: International Law, Strategic Decision Making, and Military Ethics--each of which is equally relevant for citizens evaluating a proposed use of force.

The body of International Law governing military action is divided into the jus in bello (law governing conduct once armed conflict is under way) and the jus ad bellum (law governing when armed conflict may be initiated). The former, including the Geneva Conventions, has long been taught formally within the NWC curriculum (Joint Military Operations Department 2003, 69-79). The latter, represented by the "Just War Theory," has equally ancient origins (Walzer 2000, xx, 21) but has seemingly been in hiatus; this is often attributed to the premise that, in the nuclear-armed context of the Cold War, the concept of a "just war" was meaningless (ibid., 282-283). Significantly, the post-Cold-War renewal of interest in the jus ad bellum is sometimes attributed not to the needs of lawyers and statesmen, but precisely to the need being highlighted here--for informed public discourse surrounding the decision to go to war (ibid., xvi).

Strategic Decision Making addresses critical thinking and lifelong learning competencies within the context of stewardship of society's "blood and treasure" (the lives and resources entrusted to the nation's defense). Most obviously, officers must possess those competencies to intelligently implement the government's decisions--that is, to craft military strategies likely to achieve the policy objectives. Yet the officer likewise has a duty to provide feedback to the government, which may be either for or against military action. For example, at the end of Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, advised the President to cut short the operation when Iraqi resistance dissolved in frantic withdrawal along the so-called "Highway of Death" (Gordon & Trainor 1995, 423). It must also be remembered--as George Washington himself observed--that, "When we took up the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen." In addition to the above roles, officers retain the responsibility all Americans share, to provide feedback to the government through the political process--and this end is also served by a War College education that prepares them to evaluate strategic decisions at the highest levels.

Finally, Military Ethics builds upon the officer's understanding of the moral and philosophical foundations guiding his professional practice. In contrast to the previous two categories, the objective of this instruction emphasizes theory--i.e., principles and thought processes that can be applied to any ethical issue--rather than specific applications of that theory to law or strategy (although these may be used as case studies or examples). The importance accorded such theoretical underpinnings is evidenced at NWC by the appointment of an Ethics chairholder, and by the annual conduct of a Professional Ethics Conference that recently completed its fifteenth iteration, The Moral Responsibilities of the United States Armed Forces in Iraq (Naval War College 2003). Likewise for over a decade, NWC has offered an elective, Foundations of Moral Obligation (Brennan 1992), exploring these issues in detail. Military authors examining such topics have even contributed to theoretical frameworks for ethical leadership, for example, Lieutenant Colonel Rubye Braye's discussion of Servant-Leadership in military contexts (Braye 2002). These three categories constitute the character development curriculum at one representative U.S. War College--a comprehensive, interrelated approach to refining critical thinking and ethical reasoning competencies, and directing them toward all aspects of the decision to use force in service of national policy. While the level of detail required by those whom the taxpayer entrusts with these decisions as their profession will obviously be greater, the above discussion suggests several parallels to the responsibilities held by all citizens in common; the next section examines these linkages in more depth.

The Role of the Population in the Use of Armed Force

It is ultimately the nation that is at war--not just its military, nor just its government. The ability of a democracy, like the United States, to wage war is part of an important debate in the international relations literature. Just as Clausewitz stresses the need to maintain public support, one argument advanced there posits that democracies wage war more effectively due to the public's role in democratic government. First, they are part of the political decision-making process, increasing the range of options on the table as well as the need to substantiate whichever decision is ultimately made. Therefore, so this argument goes, democracies by their pluralistic nature make better decisions than other regimes (Russett, 1990; Snyder, 1991; Van Evera, 1990/91)--but for this argument to hold, the democracy must have an educated public, one not merely literate, but conversant with security issues and how they relate to its political principles. A second argument, more familiar to students of strategy, suggests that democracies are better at fighting wars because they need to maintain public support--which in turn strengthens the war effort (Friedberg, 1992). In Clausewitzian terms, this holds that democracies are more aware of their reliance on the people and, therefore, make greater effort to develop this leg of the trinity.

Recently, Michael Desch has argued persuasively against these theories, asserting that democracies perform neither better nor worse than non-democracies at war (Desch, 2002). Nevertheless, what matters for the United States--or any democracy--is that failure to maintain public support undermines the war effort; this strongly suggests that the public should be educated in many of the topics currently reserved for national security professionals. Simply put, public support is necessary for a sustained strategy. Citizens must understand the policy the government wants to pursue, in order to influence the decision making process and (if necessary) develop the depth of support required for waging any war--particularly one that promises to be prolonged, such as the current War on Terror. Additionally, the public must understand the strategy the military is pursuing. This helps citizens make sense of the information they receive, and provide feedback via the political process. It also helps them understand the importance of the role that their families--especially loved ones serving their country--are playing in framing and implementing America's policy aims.

Enlisting Citizen-Soldiers in Civic Education

For some, this may beg the question of how one goes about educating the public without crossing the line into government propaganda--but such instruction does not inherently require a monolithic program orchestrated by the Federal Government. Officers themselves, having received the education described above, can assist in the process--either at the request of their communities (or educational institutions within those communities) or on their own initiative as private citizens. One example of this is the Current Affairs Panel, an outreach program involving students from the Army War College (AWC), which visits colleges and universities to help educate students on national security and public policy issues. This panel recently visited the Introduction to International Relations course at Gettysburg College, and a brief description of one highlight from this visit illustrates what can be accomplished by this type of outreach--in terms of teaching not merely the national security issues themselves, but their relationship to ethics and American political principles as well.

Introduction to International Relations is attended primarily by underclassmen. During the panel's class visit, a student asked the three AWC officers how they felt about embedded reporters. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Terry Ferrell answered, replying that he not only favored embedded reporters[1], but that he believed there should be more embedded reporters because that program provided more varied coverage of the military's activities to the American people (T. Ferrell, personal communication: class visit, 4 November 2003). This opinion, in which the other two officers concurred, is significant on several levels. First and foremost, it ran counter to the Gettysburg students' expectations, serving to enlighten and educate on that basis alone. On a deeper level, LTC Ferrell's response reflected a fundamental principle of vibrant democracy: free flow of information--in this case, communication between the military and the civilian society it serves. What's more, as embedding proved successful during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the practice continues receiving support that furthers civic education in other ways--for example, local newspaper reporters are accompanying units of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard as they deploy to Iraq.[2] Embedding of journalists provides an informal vehicle for educating journalists themselves, which can only enhance their communication of national security issues to the public.

Other methods of "grassroots civic education" rely on officers' participation, as private citizens, in their own communities--and the officers closest to their communities are the National Guard and Reserves, who live and work in them as civilian neighbors, often for their entire lives. Today, the military education requirements of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act are combining with Web-enabled distance learning to bring these geographically dispersed officers "together" for advanced study--and because they naturally provide a human bridge between the people and the military, the investment made by educating them is an indirect investment in the education of the entire community.


Clausewitz's trinity of the people, government, and military (passion, reason, creativity) remains so powerful, not just because of the three legs of the triangle, but also because of the connections between those legs. Too often, however, we forget that the connection between the military and the population goes beyond providing military manpower; if the people are to understand national security issues, participate in the policy debate around those issues, and support the military should that debate lead to the use of armed force, an effective civic education effort represents a powerful tool.

The relevance of early character development education in military contexts (e.g., Junior ROTC in high schools) is unquestionably essential. It is also somewhat familiar, as such personal character-building objectives are taught by other youth organizations like Scouting and 4-H. Yet it is in many ways the objectives for senior officer education that offer a closer fit with the typical civilian curriculum. It is this education that begins to acquaint the officer with the processes of strategic thought--that is, of formulating military strategy as an integral component of an overall ("grand") strategy aimed at accomplishing the nation's policy aims. Said another way, it builds the competencies necessary to make informed judgments about how and if the nation should employ military force in pursuit of those aims.

Clearly, this educational objective is not unique to the military. In fact, it could hardly be more important--in the wake of the first National Security Strategy to explicitly assert preventative war as a legitimate policy tool--to ensure that such competencies are well-developed in every citizen, every voter, so they can judge such claims. There is increasing acknowledgement that this requires the involvement of educators, both in K-12 schools (National Public Radio 2003) and in colleges and universities (Ehrlich 2003). America's communities are realizing that character development education must be strengthened ... and the citizen-soldiers among them stand ready to assist. The education they have received throughout their careers has made them a resource the community can call upon to prepare its youth to safeguard democracy at home--through the political process that may some day ask the soldier to protect it abroad through the use of armed force.


[1] LTC Ferrell hosted an embedded reporter when he served as Commander of 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

[2] The Wilkes Bane Times Leader is embedding with the 1/109th Field Artillery; the Scranton Times Tribune is embedding with 2nd Battalion, 103rd Armor Regiment; the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is embedding with Company A of the 28th Signal Brigade.


Braye, Rubye Howard. "Servant-Leadership: Leading in Today's Military." In Larry C. Spears, Michele Lawrence, and Ken Blanchard, Eds. Focus on Leadership: Servant-Leadership for the 21st Century, 294-303. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2001.

Brennan, Joseph Gerard. Foundations of Moral Obligation: The Stockdale Course. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1992.

Clausewitz, Carl. On War [1832]. Translated and indexed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Desch, Michael C., "Democracy and Victory: Why Regime Type Hardly Matters," International Security, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2002)

Ehrlich, Thomas. "Civics and the Spirit of Liberty," The Christian Science Monitor (13 May 2003).

Friedberg, Aaron, "Why Didn't the United States Become a Garrison State?" International Security, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Spring 1992)

Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, The Generals' War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995. The Harris Poll #4, 22 January 2003, index.asp?PID=351

Joint Military Operations Department. Joint Military Operations Syllabus. Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2003.

National Public Radio. "Citizen Student: Teaching Patriotism in Time of War," an NPR Special Report (7 February 2003),

Naval War College. The 15th Annual Professional Ethics Conference: The Moral Responsibilities of the United States Armed Forces in Iraq. Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2003.

Russett, Bruce M., Controlling the Sword: The Democratic Governance of National Security (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Van Evera, Stephen, "Primed for Peace: Europe after the Cold War," International Security, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Winter 1990/91).

Wakin, Malham M. "Professional Integrity," Airpower Journal, Vol. X, No. 2 (Summer 1996).

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd Ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

White, Jerry E. "Personal Ethics versus Professional Ethics," Airpower Journal, Vol. X, No. 2 (Summer 1996).

James Ellsworth, U.S. Naval War College

Stacy Haldi, U.S. Naval War College

Ellsworth, Ph.D., is Professor of Online Education, and Haldi, Ph.D., is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy, in the College of Distance Education.
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Author:Haldi, Stacy
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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