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Militia vel malitia: how can the military contribute to a just society?

ST. ANSELM IS SUPPOSED TO HAVE REMARKED, "militia vel malitia," a wonderful quip that loses in translation: "the militia or rather the malicious." While this remark is certainly right about the military in many times and places, it is worth pointing out that were it true always and everywhere, the project of building a just society, which is likely to entail some degree of military protection, would face a serious stumbling block. This problem is all the more urgent if we hope that a just society would be grounded in the culture of life.

The professions are quite central to culture, shaping the lives of millions and largely defining the contours and feel of public space. Along with medicine, law, and the ministry, the military is one of the traditional professions, and one that employs millions of Americans. Despite its illiberal, hierarchical, meritocratic tendencies, it has a cultural gravitas and prestige that has been able to withstand various scandals. And in the current climate (involving two ongoing wars, increased security measures, and so forth), the military is only likely to increase in cultural importance. Yet how could the military contribute to a just society? Negatively, it can fend off extinction (a "negative" but not negligible contribution, it should be noted), but can it make any positive contribution? Or we might ask: If the military is necessarily endowed with both the force and the right to kill, how could it be a part of a culture of life? Many occupations will have no place in such a culture: executioner, torturer, mercenary, gladiator, and so on. Should we add soldier to this list?

The primary mission of the military is, or at least can and should be, to protect--to provide, as our Constitution has it, for the common defense. The principles of just war endorsed, at least nominally, by most professional militaries today, and certainly by the U.S. military, place a premium on the protection of innocent life even in the midst of hostilities. Although the U.S. military has certainly committed its share of atrocities, recent wars have been marked by serious attempts to live, and fight, by these principles. In the war in Iraq, our military has shown an unprecedented, although still very imperfect, commitment to the jus in bello (justice in war) principles of discrimination and proportionality. While other features of the military, notably its commitment to excellence and tradition, are also salient (and I will touch on some of them), it is this commitment to life even while holding the power of deadly force--a commitment that is not just official but often real--on which I wish to focus in this paper. It is at the core of what the military can contribute to a just society and a culture of life. After contending that it can do this, I will argue that the military could do it much better if it reconceptualized some aspects of its ethic and ethos. I close with some suggestions concerning how it might do so.

I. Examples

Toward the end of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams considers a business leader who says in a meeting of his competitors, "Of course, we could have them killed, but we should lay that [option] aside right from the beginning." Lay it aside? It should never, Williams says, have come into his train of thought as an option in the first place. (1) Williams's remark is right on target--at least in business and most other human contexts. But war does put this option into our hands, and can even seem to force us to use it. Here are two real examples, which are particularly acute as they involve children.

First: In the recent war in Iraq, in the middle of a firefight with Fedayeen troops (paramilitary), a U.S. Marine sergeant on a rooftop spotted a boy about twelve years old running out into the street, where he gathered rocket-propelled grenade launchers from fallen men and carried them back to active fighters. In other words, he was rearming the enemy. The sergeant yelled at the boy, trying to warn him away. He considered firing a warning shot, but with so much small arms fire going off everywhere, another shot would get no one's attention. The boy was in his sights.

Second: Just prior to the ground phase of the first Gulf War, a special operations team was inserted into Iraq to conduct surveillance on an important road. Their orders were to construct a concealed position and remain hidden for forty-eight hours. Their rules of engagement were vague, but they had silenced weapons and it was implied that they were to use them if necessary to prevent their mission being compromised. During the first afternoon, a boy and girl were playing at soccer, and an errant kick brought them right up to the concealed position. The girl, about seven, noticed something, lifted up some of the concealment, and looked right into the eyes of one of the soldiers. Both children ran screaming back toward their village, where an alarm would be raised. Two soldiers leaped up and aimed their weapons, but hesitated, and looked at their team leader, Chief Warrant Officer Baldwanz. The ground phase of the Gulf War had not begun, and it was not yet known that it would take only one hundred hours to complete. The compromise of the team's mission, and perhaps compromise of the broader war plan, was imminent. The chief had to make a snap decision.

The two cases are not identical. Most significantly, in the first case, the boy is a combatant. But in both cases, serious consequences threatened to attend upon not shooting. In one obvious sense the mission, the reason for fighting in the first place, is in danger of being compromised. In both cases, soldiers' lives, including the life of the decision-maker, may be lost by not shooting. Only a deep commitment to justice and to the protection of innocent life could keep fingers from triggers when shooting would seem to be the safest choice--a sense that we are in war pursuing (or should be pursuing) not merely victory but justice, that we are fighting not only for our side but for the weak, the innocent, the oppressed. But notice that, although the need for such a commitment is brought out dramatically in war, it is no less necessary to any person or community with aspirations to embrace a culture of life.

Consider a couple facing a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother. Or a health worker or judge who must choose between commitment to life and a career-enhancing decision in favor of denial of treatment or execution. Or a university deciding whether to risk its prestige by refusing to confer some honor upon a political leader who ordered the commission of war crimes but is nevertheless widely acclaimed. (2) This commitment to life lies at the core of the virtue of justice--a firm disposition to give each her due must involve a respect for innocent life--and thus is quite central to a just society. If the military can instill this in its soldiers in whatever station they hold, and if it can model this aspect of the virtue to the broader culture, then it can indeed make a vital contribution to a just society. And this is so precisely due to the background against which displays of this commitment would unfold: violence, death, and a sometimes (nearly) overwhelming pressure to kill indiscriminately.

II. A Culture of Excellence

Let me first place the effort to promote a culture of life in the context of a related cultural struggle. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that in ancient Athens we see a struggle between two cultures: a culture of excellence represented by Plato and Aristotle, and a culture of efficiency represented by the Sophists and their students. (3) A similar struggle is taking place in American society. Most observers will agree that the culture of efficiency--the cult of managerial expertise that gets the job done efficiently without concern for what end it serves--has everywhere the upper hand in our market-driven society. One contribution that the military can make to the broader culture is to serve as a counterweight to this managerial culture. As Orestes Brownson wrote just after the Civil War, the military supplies "an element needed in all society, to sustain in it the chivalric and heroic spirit, perpetually endangered by the mercantile and political spirit, which has in it always something low and sordid." (4)

One effect of the 9/11 attacks that ultimately brought the military back into the very center of American life has been to place those very unefficient things--ritual, symbol, and ceremony--also back into the center of American life. It is fitting that the two should be there together, for the military is the bearer of one of the richest of American subcultures, in terms of tradition and symbolism. The ugliness and violence of war can be somewhat offset by an atmosphere MacArthur characterized in terms of "the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll." (5)

The structural similarities between militaries and churches (perhaps especially the Catholic Church) are well known, but we might note also how the career of a military service member is marked by ceremonies that are shadows of Christian rites: enlistment or commission (baptism), reenlistment and promotion (confirmation), counseling, discipline and reinstatement (reconciliation), the military wedding, retirement (last rites), the military funeral (Rite of Christian Burial). The military can teach us much about dealing with death. I think we will all remember for a long time the film footage of the services for the fallen soldiers and marines in Iraq. The playing of "Taps" at a funeral is eschatologically symbolic: "Taps" is the last bugle call the soldier hears at night, before sleeping, and thus the last bugle call heard before the Reveille heralding the dawn (think too of the Missing Man Formations, aerial salutes performed at some military funerals, in which one airplane leaves the formation to fly heavenward). Simply teaching this lesson through ceremony, the lesson that some things are of value even though they are not of use, would provide significant assistance to a culture of life, for such a culture must hold that human life is of value even when it is not of use to society. But the way the military deals with life and death--the way it deals out death, or refuses to do so--is of particular concern to us. The way the military does this is, and must be, often governed by concerns for efficiency. But moral concerns are supposed to play a crucial role in these life and death decisions even when they cause an action to be inefficient. I now return to our two cases.

The first case was that of the boy providing weapons to enemy troops actively fighting American forces. The sergeant shot the boy. I would have liked the story much better if he had decided to accept the additional risk to his unit represented by the boy's rearming efforts, but he had a duty to his troops and their families too. I do not know if what he did was right. But this marine's reaction to the horrible thing he felt forced to do seems exactly right: he turned to the side and vomited.

The second case was of the chief warrant officer deciding whether to protect his immediate mission and his men by shooting the children who had unwittingly discovered their concealed location. The chief ordered his men to stand down. They abandoned their position and sought to take up another. Hunted by Iraqi troops, their mission fatally compromised, they detonated their classified equipment, and continued to hide. Finally, and fortunately, they were able to escape with the help of air support. Interviewed later about his decision, the chief said simply that, given his background as a father and a Christian, shooting children "just didn't make sense."

Each of these cases can teach us something. The first shows in fact a literally visceral horror at death. The second shows a commitment to innocent life strong enough to die for it. The motto of the Army Special Forces is de oppresso liber (to free the oppressed), and here they lived up to it. That chief is an example just because of what he refused to do despite all the pressure to do it, and it is a good sign that the military is now using the videotaped interview and reenactment as a training film. That sort of example of a commitment to innocent life, which can emerge with such a sharp contrast to its background only in war, is precisely what our managerial culture needs. It is a sharp break with unquestioning devotion to mere efficiency, in service instead of what is truly excellent, truly just. It is a real-life example of the ideal of selfless service and sacrifice that the military advocates--and an especially striking one, since the sacrifice the chief and his men offered was not for each other, not for victory or glory, but simply for what is right and just, for the innocent placed in their path. Shooting children, as the chief said "just didn't make sense." It does make sense if you fight only for victory, or just to get the job done or to survive; it does not make sense if you are fighting to liberate the oppressed, to defend the weak, to achieve a just peace. The chief's is an example of doing what we said we were trying to do in waging the Gulf War. This is what the military can do for a culture of life: by adhering to just-war principles regardless of the outcome of any cost-benefit analysis, it can teach the value of innocent life. It can show that the preservation of the weak and defenseless is worth not only fighting for, but dying for. It can--and sometimes, it does. (6)

III. What the Culture of Life Must Offer the Military

What I want to suggest next is that if the military is to contribute to a just society in such ways, those concerned with promoting a culture of life have to help the military to help their cause. A large part of this help can come from rethinking how military ethics is taught, and in this final section I will sketch how this might look.

The chief said that it did not make sense as a Christian and father to shoot children. I wish he had added, "as a soldier." For one possible reaction to the chief's story would be to conclude that he abandoned the military point of view to take a moral stance. If that were the case, the conclusion would be that sometimes a good man cannot be a good soldier, and in this instance it would not be the military that is contributing to a culture of life, but rather, a few good men in the military.

But this is not how we should think of this sort of case. To promote a just society, we need to cultivate a better understanding of justice itself. Military ethics is often taught in what seems to be the standard American framework for ethics: a melange of consequentialism, intuitionism, and deontology. The good soldier is often portrayed as pursuing the best consequences in ways conditioned by "core values" such as integrity, loyalty, duty, respect, discipline, and courage, and limited by the laws of war. What a hindrance moral principles must seem in such a framework! All they can do is get in the way of the mission. What precipitates from this mixture is a kind of proportionalism in which the mission and each of the rules and values are accorded a certain weight and placed on a scale, and the tip of the scale determines the decision. Reliance upon core values seems often to lead to this kind of proportionalist decision making, and proportionalism never affords the innocent the absolute sort of protection required by a culture of life. Exclusive reliance upon core values often seems to be a way of talking a good ethical game while ensuring that we can do whatever seems most efficient when the costs or benefits are high enough.

The military is better than this sort of ethic. More than any other profession prominent in contemporary culture, the military is an Aristotelian undertaking, dedicated to excellence. The military has many problems, to be sure. Much of the service is far from selfless: there is careerism and profit-seeking, and a pragmatic mindset often prevails. And the cavalier attitude toward the lethality of military action that is often evident in peacetime training can become exaggerated in combat. While I have pointed out how the background of combat can in effect illuminate a commitment to life, I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that combat has beneficial moral effects on most of its participants. It may be, as Augustine said, that in the same fire gold gleams and straw smokes, but it turns out that most of us are mostly straw. (7) J. Glenn Gray's The Warriors offers an account, mostly anecdotal but still compelling, of the moral development of soldiers in combat: the picture he paints has a number of bright spots, but is overall a gloomy one. (8) The difficult task of ethical training and education is to multiply the bright spots by converting straw to gold, by helping people to internalize principles and develop character. Adopting what I called the standard American framework for teaching ethics is not a promising approach to doing this.

For all its faults, military service is a good example of what MacIntyre calls a practice (that is, a culturally significant form of activity structured by virtues, traditions, and historically developed standards of excellence). (9) It should teach its ethic, not just in terms of core values, but in terms of the natural law and the cardinal virtues. According to such a broadly Aristotelian view, just-war principles are not constraints imposed upon the soldier's pursuit of his goals, but minimal specifications of what is consistent with being a good soldier in the army of a just state, instead of a mercenary. Courage is not just something we value, but a virtue, a character trait essential to military and indeed human excellence. And other core values--integrity, duty, loyalty, respect--these are parts of the virtue of justice. Self-discipline and judgment are stressed in professional development. Why not call them by their proper names of temperance and prudence?

A basic idea that should be stressed is that the goal of military operations has moral content: the goal of a just war is a just peace (that is the generic specification of the "right intention" required by jus ad bellum principles, i.e., the principles of justice according to which one may resort to war. This goal is not such as could be achieved by killing the innocent (however efficiently). Sparing the children is not something that we should do even though it might interfere with mission accomplishment; it is something we must do because killing them is already, in and of itself, mission failure. Theorists committed to the culture of life can help the military to see this by reconceptualizing the way military ethics is taught--this alone will not, of course, convert any straw, but can at least help distinguish between real and fool's gold (i.e., better teaching alone will not change people's character, but it can help them better discern which principles they ought to embrace and what kind of character they should strive for).

Let me mention, in closing, two other areas where perhaps representatives of the culture of life could help the military to help us. First, Robert Kraynak has suggested the reinstatement of some sort of penitential rite to be performed after the spilling of blood: "Purification or expiation is needed to resolve the tensions of respecting and loving life while recognizing the necessity of taking life that must lie at the heart of every decent human being and certainly of every Christian soldier." (10) Doing this could help eliminate any sort of cavalier attitudes regarding even the just and necessary taking of enemy lives. Is there reason to think that the military would be receptive to such rituals? I believe there is. We discussed one example showing this earlier: the marine sergeant's visceral reaction to his shooting of the boy. (11)

Second, and related, a renewed emphasis on tradition and ceremony--things to which the military is already committed--could help to keep soldiers focused on the nobility of their purpose and its moral content: the common defense of the people and the promotion of a free and just world. It is hard to keep this focus in the morass of petty details and drills that characterize much of military service, even in wartime--the sort of things well-chronicled by Evelyn Waugh in a number of his novels. But that purpose, that patriotism, that commitment is there in many contemporary military professionals. Kraynak expresses the presence of these virtues in American soldiers in this way: "The instinct for chivalry actually motivates more American soldiers than one might think, for the feeling of pride that American soldiers experience in fighting a war to right the wrongs of an unjust aggressor is essentially chivalric." (12) It exists alongside pettiness and careerism to be sure; it is not much spoken of (soldiers, like Catholics, are often embarrassed to speak of their faith); but it is there, and it is the motive that led many to volunteer for combat duty in the recent war and carried countless more through it. It is there but it needs to be brought out, discussed, and further enhanced. Here is where a reconceptualized, better thought-out military ethic, more in line with the military's real commitments, can give soldiers the vocabulary to discuss moral issues, and can allow them to see morality--including a commitment to the protection of innocent life--as part of the professional excellence to which they are already committed. Here, too, the ritual and ceremonial aspects of military culture can play a role--they are symbolic reaffirmations of commitment to moral and constitutional purposes, and commitment to innocent life, which allow even the inarticulate to be eloquent.

The military is certainly committed to efficiency in many respects, and quite rightly so. But many of its traditions and real commitments are more in keeping with the culture of excellence, to use MacIntyre's terms again, than with the culture of efficiency. The reforms I have sketched here--reforms I believe to be largely matters of reconceptualization and reemphasis of these traditions and commitments rather than radical sea changes--would help highlight and reaffirm this. They would help the military to help us to contribute to a culture of life.

But how would these reforms be enacted? They would require a cadre of hundreds of officers committed to the cause of "inefficient" justice, to a culture of life. These officers would need to have access to vast numbers of soldiers and wield considerable influence over them. They would need to be educated in military law and custom and, to some degree, moral philosophy. They would need to be able to preach the message to the troops, and perhaps even lead them in ritual practices. Are the ideas I have proposed here even remotely practical? Where would we get such a cadre? Perhaps, to begin with, we could look to the commissioned officers who are military chaplains, and beyond the officer corps to the professors from whom future officers take ethics courses. Any effort to make progress toward this goal is worthy.


(1.) Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 185.

(2.) Here I have in mind Elizabeth Anscombe's protest in her pamphlet, "Mr. Truman's Degree." See G. E. M. Anscombe, Ethics, Religion, and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981).

(3.) See Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), chap. 3.

(4.) Orestes Brownson, The American Republic, ed. Peter Augustine Lawler (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 244.

(5.) General Douglas MacArthur's Farewell Address to the Corps of Cadets at West Point, May 12, 1962.

(6.) Accounts of the horror soldiers experience in killing are common, and stories of special operations forces being discovered by civilians and having to make life-and-death decisions are not as rare as one might think. In discussing the case of Chief Baldwanz's team with military officers, I have more than once been met with responses along the lines of "That happened to a friend of mine." Marcus Luttrell's Sole Survivor (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007) offers one compelling account of such a case in Afghanistan.

(7.) St. Augustine, The City of God, abridged by Vernon Bourke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958), 46 (1:8).

(8.) J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970).

(9.) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2nd ed., 1984), see especially chap. 14. For a detailed view of military service as a practice, see my "Military Service as a Practice: Integrating the Sword and Shield Approaches to Military Ethics," Journal of Military Ethics 5, 2006, 183-200.

(10.) Robert Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 266.

(11.) James Turner Johnson has also recognized the need for some intentional process of reconciliation and a return to a peaceful posture; see his Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), especially chap. 6. And for a fascinating treatment of grief and anger and their proper management in war, see Nancy Sherman, Stoic Warriors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(12.) Kraynak, Christian Faith, 265.
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Author:Toner, Christopher
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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