February 27, 2024
For any organization to operate in a coherent, unified manner, there must be a shared philosophy of purpose and intent amongst the members. The U.S. Army, like any organization, must clearly profess its values, morals and ethics, and it does. But Garri Hendell is back to ask if all of the Army acts in accordance with its professed values. He believes there is work to be done, and he has suggestions as to how the Army can take a hard look to root out behaviors, programs and operations that are counter to the Army Ethic.

Philosophy is the context in which we discuss ethics, and ethics is the context in which we discuss morals and values.

Exposing the Army’s governing philosophy

The moral construct that is the Army rests on a shared, declared set of values which, in turn, are a reflection of American values. Philosophy is the context in which we discuss ethics, and ethics is the context in which we discuss morals and values. The question of which philosophy governs an enterprise is important. It is a particularly important question in the military, where practitioners must reconcile inherently distasteful and difficult acts with a larger purpose. Law gets us most of the way towards reconciling the horrors of war with honorable service. But the 10,000-foot view—the animating philosophy behind the rules—is important to understand and articulate. Just as a clear purpose informs how soldiers go about completing an assigned task, so does a sound philosophy underlie any decent statement of principles or set of rules.

Understanding the philosophical question, although abstract (like the question of morale), is important. Coherence matters: to achieve unity of effort across the organization we must be prepared to explain not only what we are doing but why we do things. We must do so in a way everyone can understand. Just like nations, organizations have a “social contract” that binds its members together in a common purpose. A coherent animating Army philosophy may be particularly important in the present day because of the Army’s influence both inside and outside of the country. The military’s overall effectiveness overseas is a proxy for America’s effectiveness on the global stage. At home, our non-partisan Army—more so than the other services, both due to its size and to the distribution of its various components—acts as ballast for the ship of state in times of perceived or actual domestic instability.

What’s the antithesis of the Army’s philosophical approach?

Perhaps the first step towards exposing the Army’s animating philosophy is to understand what it is not. Anyone can quickly prepare a shortlist of ideas that are inconsistent with service. Racism is not (or, at least, is no longer) consistent with service values. The Pentagon has explicitly declared that military service is incompatible with “extremism” and “domestic terrorism”. It links these to “discrimination, hatred, and harassment” but, even more importantly, to a hostility to American Constitutional government (activities such as “violence, actions that undermine good order and discipline, and the inequitable treatment of service members”).

But racism and revolt are not philosophies. They are examples of beliefs or activities incompatible with public service, especially service under arms. Let’s consider a philosophical school of thought that can be considered incompatible with Army service.

Nihilism (“nothing matters, so do what you want”) may be a contender, but it is a weak one. Nihilism poses a low threat to the Army as a competing philosophical system, as an organization run along nihilist lines would quickly sink into disarray. The Army is, after all, an organization committed to principles and discipline as well as to the rules which give expression to them. As such, let us consider a much more seductive threat: Machiavellianism—also known as political realism or, simply, the notion that the ends justify the means.

Indifference to morality is something worth fighting against. The notion that the rules (and the principles) which govern the service’s operation don’t matter and can be bent or broken, if necessary, to accomplish any sufficiently desirable ends is destructive. In post-World War II France, the fight against Machiavellianism was the fight for moral social change fought by Albert Camus against Jean Paul Satre and other apologists for Soviet totalitarian brutality. In America, this was Martin Luther King’s vision of an America that had to live up to its own values versus that of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party that merely sought retribution. It was General Ulysses Grant’s gracious acceptance of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox versus William T. Sherman burning Atlanta to the ground.

The pernicious notion that nothing matters except “the Cause” is, in fact, the subtext that is inherent in last century’s Deconstructionism as well as Satre’s own distasteful brand of cheerleading for the USSR, that is words do not matter, and truth and morality do not matter, and all is permitted in the service of some greater endeavor. This is the antithesis of an Army where words do matter, truth and morality properly underpin all of the organization’s actions, and the organization acts lawfully and deliberately to achieve its mission despite the horrors and destruction inherent in war.

It pays to clarify that the Machiavellian model outlined above does not include the helpful notion that purpose informs and is, in a sense, greater than any given task. This is exemplified by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor’s award for officers who acted “on their own initiative” and our own notion of purpose-driven task accomplishment in mission command. The Machiavellian enemy proposed above also does not include a particular species of non-commissioned officer excellence, where rules are bent to get the job done. It is also not meant to encompass the Army imperative to determine which of the 27 things that should happen have to be skipped or pencil-whipped in order to enable the one or two things that ­must happen.

Evil done by people with good intentions is still evil.

What is the problem of Machiavellianism in the Army? The view held by some well-meaning Americans in the ranks who truly and honestly believe that principles do not matter, that the reasons why we do something do not matter, and that our most basic norms and principles can be sacrificed “when necessary” to achieve a result is inherently problematic. On order to preserve the integrity of the endeavor and of the enterprise, mission accomplishment must be achieved within the constraints of principled action. Evil done by people with good intentions is still evil. The Machiavellian view—no matter how well-meaning or honestly held—is necessarily corrosive. Namely, even if treating prisoners of war humanely was not an essential force multiplier (in so far as it incentivizes surrender and prisoner abuse has the opposite effect) and torture magically became effective, it would still be wrong.

So, what is the Army’s Philosophy?

The Army Values serve as the organization’s short-form constitution. The oath of enlistment and oath of office for officers are also held up as examples of what the Army stands for. Our friends in the Chaplain Corps provide a similar and coherent set of moral and ethical rules which suffuse the service of many soldiers (perhaps Matthew 22:37-40 sums up the chaplaincy’s guidance nicely: love the guy who is ultimately in charge and obey the golden rule). Even those that forgo religion mostly adhere to these same moral and ethical rules, accepting that such rules—instead of being a Supreme Being’s universal dictates—are inherently necessary even in an uncaring and indifferent universe for moral earthly co-existence (the “truth of man”).

How should we articulate the philosophical approach that is the intellectual thread which underlies the Army’s rules? The Army certainly does have one. Whatever we end up calling the Army’s philosophical approach, we see that it is a principled approach that requires adherence to a defined sense of ethics. Perhaps naming it is a job for more academically minded experts. For our purposes, we can observe that, whatever we call the Army’s philosophy, it is both faith-friendly and validates the necessity of a moral action in an otherwise cruel universe.

What to do?

As a preliminary matter we must recognize that, even when in public service, an individual is entitled to their personal beliefs. This is the case even when the individual’s personal beliefs are at odds with their organization’s ethic, so long as they keep their personal beliefs private and adopt the values of the organization in their dealings with others. Much has been written elsewhere on the centrality of universally-defined and enforced rules to the Army’s effectiveness and mission. This fight against the extreme form of “the ends justify the means” Machiavellianism must be, on the other hand, a matter of education and persuasion.

We take great pains to educate the force on the principles behind the Army insistence on racial equality, against sexual exploitation and abuse, and on fidelity to our Constitutional form of government. Perhaps we should spend some time and resources educating folks on the evils of an overdeveloped sense of realpolitik? Calling out and reinforcing the philosophical connective tissue that underlies the oaths, the Army Values, the Law of Land Warfare and Uniform Code of Military Justice, Equal Opportunity and sexual harassment prevention (SHARP) programs will surely provide some value. At the very least, it will align individuals within the Army so that everyone is pulling in the same direction, intellectually. Again, coherence matters.

At some level, reinforcing a sound philosophical approach occurs all the time. The Army has formal ethics instruction. The best non-commissioned officers have always led by example. Similarly, the officer corps has been challenged from the beginning to mold the enthusiasm and commitment of the enlisted force—and of the nation—into a tool for principled action, both by example and through explicit exhortations. Good Army leaders at all levels show that their concern for the welfare of soldiers as well as their commitment to mission accomplishment is not skin-deep or driven by career advancement. To the contrary, it reflects their deeply held belief in the ethics of the profession.

Tasking TRADOC to re-engage in further developing an Army Ethic that is “accessible, commonly understood, and universally applicable” would assist in the explicit promotion of the Army’s preferred philosophical underpinnings. This would be a step beyond the Chaplain corps’ focus on moral leadership, instead promoting the philosophical good that underpins moral action. Perhaps the effort would be assisted both by articulating the Army’s own philosophical outlook as well as by calling out unwelcome, rival philosophies.

There is work to do. The Army does not uniformly act in accordance with what are its evident philosophical underpinnings. The object of this exercise would not be self-congratulatory. On the contrary, it would necessarily be a critical one: to provide a framework by which to evaluate organizational action. If, as a result, we find that particular current action or behavior is at odds with the Army’s intrinsic philosophical approach (now made explicit), that would be a useful indicator to re-evaluate the offending program or operation. Just as the Army Ethic calls upon soldiers to “reject and report illegal or immoral orders or actions,” organizational effectiveness requires the Army to be both more self-aware of its own philosophy as well as victorious in the philosophical domain.

Garri Benjamin Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He has three completed overseas deployments to the CENTCOM area of operations, three overseas training missions to Europe, leadership and staff positions at the platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, and joint force headquarters level, as well as having served both in uniform and as a civilian branch chief at the National Guard Bureau. Among other things, he is a graduate of the Army’s Red Team course.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: Image by Freepik


  1. Whatever happened to the Army writing style standard of being easily understandable in one rapid reading? I had to read this multiple times and I’m still not sure what point the author is trying to make.

    To be fair, he did make one point that jumped out at me. Coherence does indeed matter. Unfortunately, he failed to meet his own standard with this piece. Shame on whomever approved this for publication. They should have done a better job of mentoring this young Major. Good ideas are only good if people understand what you’re trying to say.

    1. Dan – this type of hair trigger response is what prevents most from publishing their thoughts. Your comment offers nothing of substance and I recommend you delete it and possibly offer the author an apology.

    2. Dan – It’s a fair point. All I’ll say is you should have seen it before the very strong editorial team got their hands on it. This was a difficult thing to articulate. BLUF: Machiavellian thought is incompatible with the Army values. I’ll endeavor to do better on the next one!

  2. It’s a tough nut to crack. To wage war requires Soldiers to fall in on the military’s philosophical ‘party line.’ It usually manifests itself in the form of the collective is greater than the individual. The act of war itself could require those same Soldiers to yield their morals for the purpose of furthering the philosophy. This is where ethical quandaries are born!

    Great article

  3. Duty, honor, country. Everyone has a duty to God and a duty to love others for the sake of God. The constitution is meaningless without recognizing God’s rights including those we recognize as given to humans that no government has a right to take away without a just process. All duties flow from the undeniable and irrefutable existence of God. Honor and country are performing right action in a timely manner in your duties as they pertain to your office or position in defending the country and its people. If necessary, that means laying down your life for another or taking life in your official capacity acting on legal orders to serve the self-defense of the state.

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