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Character Amidst the Ruins: Virtue Across the Civilian – Military Divide
It is no accident that my consideration of challenges to just war in the current situation end with the issue of discrimination and the virtue of courage. For it is perhaps here more than anywhere else that what has been called North American society’s penchant for “immaculate war,”50 an inclination that may have been tempered but not eradicated over the last decade, comes to the fore and so raises the issue of how a professional military relates to the wider civilian moral culture.
The issue is that of how a professional military, committed both to internal goods and excellences called virtues and to the principle of subordination to civilian control, relates to the wider civilian culture, which may neither share nor appreciate those internal goods and excellences.51 That the wider civilian moral culture may differ in significant ways from the moral vision of the professional military ethic is suggested by three stressors Moten identified – political and judicial decisions, increasing use of contractors, and the moral tensions evident in such incidents as the “revolt of the generals.”
I have no desire to rehash or reignite debates over the existence, extent, and effect of the “military – civilian divide.” Rather by way of conclusion I wish only to gesture toward the challenge that the professional military ethic, understood as an ethic of character or virtue, and by inference the just war discipline similarly construed, faces off the battlefield and outside the ranks. Specifically I want to suggest that the successful promulgation of a professional military ethic, with its attendant virtues, requires attention from both sides of the civilian – military threshold.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral condition of the modern West suggests that we are morally fragmented. We live amidst the ruins of the character / virtue ethic of an earlier age, now populated by deontologists and utilitarians. In such a moral setting, professions face constant pressure to become occupations (instrumental roles with no internal commitment or inherent excellences) and professionals are subject to expectations that they will be mere experts in the efficient manipulation of means for any requested end. In this regard, the threat to the professionalism of the profession of arms is not the use of contractors, which may actually preserve a (shrinking) space for professionals as such, but the risk that the military itself will be conceived of merely as contracted experts, a possibility enhanced by the all-volunteer nature of the armed forces. We already see this happening just to the extent that much, if not most, of the pressure to disregard the criterion of discrimination comes from the civilian side of this divide. The specialist who exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib faced the most push back when he returned home; the decisions regarding the use of torture were made by politicians in the face of resistance by JAG officers, the greatest resistance to US casualties comes from the general public, not the military, and so forth.
In this situation, because the military is, in the language of Hartle, partially and not fully differentiated from civilian society, it will not suffice for the moral leadership of the military to foster the professional military ethic within the ranks. Rather the challenge of strengthening the professional military ethic as well as the just war discipline exceeds the military to encompass civil society as well. A professional military ethic, no less than the just war discipline, requires that the moral leadership of civil society, encompassing both individuals and institutions, nurture the same excellences that are rightly lifted up in the professional military ethic as central to who North Americans claim to be. For while civilians may not need to know how to field-strip an M-4 or be trained to move toward the enemy in a firefight, if we (civilians) are who we say we are, then virtues like respect, honor, selfless service, integrity, and courage should mark our lives in our homes, our neighborhoods and communities, in our vocations and the wider world.
This is important because, to play on Hackett’s words, one thing a bad people cannot do is make and support good soldiers. Granted a professional military may be quite good at forming morally fragmented civilians into professional soldiers, but if and as long as civilian society does not inhabit those same virtues, as long as the professional military remains partially morally differentiated, the excellences internal to the profession of arms are vulnerable, at risk of being subordinated to ends at odds with those excellences, thereby reducing the profession of arms to a mere occupation.52
Therefore, for the professional military ethic to flourish, and along with it the virtue based vision of just war, parallel to the push for a professional military ethic, civilian moral leadership needs to be about the promotion of the civic virtues of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service and so forth. Then we can confidently assert the converse of Hackett’s insight: a good people make and support good soldiers.
The Rev. Dr. Daniel M. Bell, Jr., is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. He is an ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Stetson University in Florida, he earned the Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Duke University, where he worked with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. He has authored several books, including Liberation Theology After the End of History (Routledge, 2001) Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009), and Economies of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker, forthcoming).
Dr. Bell is a popular speaker at colleges and universities, campus ministries, and churches on topics such as war and peace, the moral life, stewardship, and mission of the church today. He has presented papers before distinguished organizations such as the Latin American Studies Association International Congress, the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Christian Ethics, and the Irish School of Ecumenics. His work has appeared in various journals including Christianity Today, The Christian Century, Modern Theology, Journal for Peace and Justice Studies, Communio, Cross-Currents, and Studies in Christians Ethics. At Southern Seminary, Dr. Bell's principal teaching responsibilities are in the area of theology and ethics. He also serves as the Director of Methodist Studies.
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