Does the Military Still Fit in Contemporary Culture?

Some Classic Insights on a Modern Problem.



presented to

Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics

Washington, DC

25 January 2001


Robert G Kennedy, PhD

Professor of Management

University of St Thomas

Mail #MCN 6001

St Paul, MN 55105

VOX: 651 962 5140                       FAX: 651 962 5093





We’re in the process of weeding out the white male as the norm. We’re about changing the culture.

attributed to Barbara S Pope

Assistant Secretary of the Navy

for Manpower and Reserve Affairs





I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are. The Marines are extremists. Wherever you have extremists, you’ve got some risks of total disconnection with society. And that’s a little dangerous. . . . They are conservative, the military. And I think it’s perfectly appropriate for them to be conservative because their value system, which may be somewhat unrealistic, is also one that has served certainly the Army very well.

Sara E Lister

Assistant Secretary of the Army

for Manpower and Reserve Affairs

26 October 1997




Today the armed forces are no longer representative of the people they serve. More and more, enlisted men and women] as well as officers are beginning to feel that they are special, better than the society they serve. This is not healthy in an armed force serving a democracy.

attributed to Admiral Stanley Arthur




I share deeply the concern that we are living through a period when the gap between the American people and their military is getting wider.

attributed to General John Shalikashvili




There is widespread agreement that over the past few decades American society has become more fragmented, more individualistic, and less disciplined, with institutions such as church, family, and school wielding less influence. Whatever the implications of these changes, they put society at odds with the classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual.

Thomas E Ricks

“The Widening Gap between the Military and Society”

Atlantic Monthly (July 1997)





e have always known that the attitudes and the values of the military community are different from the attitudes and values of the civilian community within which the military exists. These differences have always led to tensions, which have been manifested in many ways, from the shocking dislocation experienced by new recruits in basic training to occasional resistance by senior officers to civilian authority. While such tensions are not new, in recent years they have received a fair amount of attention from journalists and scholars, as well as civilian and military leadership. To judge from a modest survey of essays and speeches generated over the past decade, the tensions have generated a considerable amount of anxiety.

The writers who have analyzed this state of affairs have generally done so by employing the methods and tools of such disciplines as political science, sociology, and psychology. There is no doubt that the issue is complex and that these disciplines have a valuable contribution to make to our understanding of it. Nevertheless, a case can be made for saying that at its very root and core the issue is one of values, which is to say that it is an issue of ethics or morality. In my judgment, what has been conspicuously missing from the discussion in recent years is a moral perspective. The purpose of this paper is to explore one way in which philosophy might contribute to an understanding of the issue and offer some suggestions for addressing it.


Communities, Cultures, and Philosophy


Philosophy is an ancient discipline in the Western tradition, whose roots lie among the Egyptians and the Greeks and are more than 2,500 years old. Needless to say, given the history of the discipline, there is no such thing as a unified philosophical perspective or a commonly accepted methodology. Still, the work of Plato and Aristotle remains a touchstone for the analysis of societies and cultures, and it will be the foundation for the analysis offered in this paper.

In recent centuries, philosophers and social scientists have tended not to think of culture as fundamentally a moral matter, but this was precisely Plato’s view. In his best-know dialogue, the Republic, he offered a typology of cultures that, while long overlooked, is a useful tool for understanding and managing the situation in which we find ourselves.[1]

Before we turn to this typology, though, we need to be clear about a couple of key terms. We speak quite readily about communities and cultures but there is probably little real agreement about just what a community is and just what a culture is. Though Plato never offered us a formal definition of community (he preferred to speak of the city or the state), we might offer one for him that would be consistent with his treatment of communities. A community, then, is a group of people who understand themselves to share some common characteristics and to be able to collaborate in the pursuit of certain sharable goods.

Following the analysis of Aristotle, Plato’s student, we may also say that some communities are complete, which means that they are concerned with every aspect of human well-being, while other communities are incomplete, which means that they focus only on limited aspects of human well-being. A society is a complete community, while a chess club, a business organization, a university, or an army, are incomplete communities. The university, for example, focuses on education and the pursuit of truth; an army or a navy focuses on the defense of a society against its enemies. Each of these communities may have a profound formative influence on its members, but there are many aspects of human life that they deliberately do not address. It is not the business of the university to take up arms, nor is it the business of the military to teach poetry or to engage in basic research.

On the other hand, a complete community (a society) does concern itself with all of these matters. Furthermore, incomplete communities of every sort are elements of and dependent upon complete communities. They do not exist in a vacuum.

Plato is less clear about what he means by culture. His discussion in the Republic presumes that we know what culture is, and so we have to work backwards from his comments to tease out a more formal definition. Generally speaking, he seems to understand culture to be the character of a community. Just as individual persons have a distinct character, so also do societies. Just as personal character manifests itself in values and behaviors, so also does the culture of a community manifest itself in the behaviors that the community encourages and the values it fosters. More precisely, the character of an individual consists in the virtues (or vices) possessed by that person, and these in turn are shaped by the individual’s convictions about what are the goals to be pursued in a good human life.

At the foundation, then, of human character is an understanding of what truly and genuinely makes a human life good. A correct understanding of this will provide the basic orientation of human actions and lead to an understanding of what virtues need to be developed and why. By analogy, at the foundation of the culture of a community is also a common understanding of what goods are worthy of human pursuit and what behaviors are consistent with achieving these goods. On Plato’s view, a healthy culture is one in which the individual members of the community are reliably formed to understand the good, the true, and the beautiful, and strongly helped to develop the virtues they will need to pursue these successfully. Not surprisingly, Plato thought that educational institutions and practices were of primary importance in preserving the health of a culture.

We might say, then, that culture for Plato is the set of behaviors, rituals, customs, and symbols that shape the character of members of a society and manifest its deepest convictions about the proper goals of human life. By extension, the culture of an incomplete community may be said to be the set of behaviors, rituals, customs, and symbols that shape the character of members of that association and manifest its deepest convictions about the proper goals to be achieved through the collaboration of its members.

We may also say, once again following Plato, that cultures are inherently unstable, that they are subject to the moral equivalent of the law of entropy. Excellence in culture, like excellence in anything else, is the product of deliberate effort, and is difficult to achieve and difficult to sustain. Indeed, it is Plato’s gloomy conviction (drawn no doubt from his own painful experiences in politics) that even the most excellent cultures will inevitably degenerate into vulgarity, and perhaps even tyranny. His genius in this regard consists in the development of what we can call a typology of degeneration, which classifies the steps in the disintegration of a culture and explains how and why this occurs. Over more than two millennia this typology rings true and illuminates the American experience. (However, since we have many more years of human history to reflect upon than did Plato, we might have reason to be less pessimistic about the future than he was. We have seen that cultures can rise as well as fall.)

The particular usefulness of Plato’s typology for analyzing the relationship between the culture of the society at large and a sub-culture (of which military culture is only one of many) is that it gives us some criteria according to which we can evaluate both cultures. Rather than criticizing one culture because of its deviation from a supposed norm represented by the other, we can hold both up to an independent standard of sorts. We may find that both measure up, despite their differences, or that both are defective to some degree.

This paper will summarize Plato’s typology, apply it to the modern American experience, and draw some conclusions about the situation of the military. I will argue that there is reason to believe that the gap between military and civilian cultures is not a result of the failure of the armed forces to keep up with the progress of the larger culture, but a consequence of its resistance to participate in the deterioration of that culture.


Plato’s Typology


Plato’s discussion of cultural types can be found in the eighth book of the Republic, with an extended discussion of the implications of tyrannical culture continuing into the ninth book. His starting point is the insight that culture reflects the character of the members of the community. In other words, he would not subscribe to the modern (or perhaps post-modern) notion that individual personalities and characters are socially constructed, i.e., inevitably shaped by disembodied cultural forces. Instead, he would say that persons shape culture.[2] As a result, his description of the fate of cultures closely parallels his description of the path followed by a good man becoming a bad man.

It is also important to keep in mind that Plato is well aware that at any given time a community is composed of good men and women as well as bad men and women. A sound and healthy culture is not necessarily one from which any person with defects of character is expelled. Instead, it is one whose dominant and representative vision of the good for human persons is a true one. By contrast, a defective culture adopts a false conception of the good and this false conception weakens the community—the analogy with illness in an individual is apt—and exposes it to further deterioration.

Thus the culture of a community is manifested by what the members of the community generally believe about the nature of the good for human persons and how to achieve it. More precisely, it is manifested in the convictions held and promoted by the cultural leaders, or rulers, of the community, and given assent by ordinary citizens. From time to time, these rulers of culture may be political leaders (as, perhaps, in Victorian England), or religious leaders (as in Iran), or perhaps others.[3] In our own society, these rulers of culture are, in fact, neither politicians nor priests. They are educators, journalists, and entertainers of all sorts. Despite their claims to the contrary, they do not merely reflect popular conceptions of the good; they shape these conceptions in powerful ways—but more about this later.

One final comment before looking more closely at Plato’s types. The terms that he uses to name the five cultures he identifies—aristocratic, timocratic, oligarchic, democratic, and tyrannical—are terms that we commonly associate with forms of government.[4] Nevertheless, his concern is not with the structure of governments as such, but with the cultural character that animates that structure. Different cultures might naturally prefer and more frequently adopt certain governmental structures, but the association is not necessary. An oligarchic government, for instance, might rule over a democratic culture, and in principle an aristocratic culture might adopt a democratic form of government.[5] The point to keep in mind is that Plato’s types have nothing to do with structure and everything to do with a shared vision of the good.


The Aristocratic, or Virtue-seeking, Culture


For both Plato and Aristotle, the discipline of Ethics was understood to be the systematic inquiry into what is genuinely good for human persons, into what the nature of a truly good human life might be, and into what sorts of character traits and behaviors would be required to live that life. Both men were convinced that careful, reasoned inquiry could discover the truth about these questions and that the truth, once known, was the only authentic ordering principle for human life.

When the cultural rulers of a community have a clear and accurate shared vision of what constitutes the good for human persons and are able to communicate this vision in a compelling way to the members of the community, Plato is prepared to say that the character of this community is truly virtue-seeking. The community is then, to be more literal, aristocratic, or ruled by the best, and this in two senses. It is ruled by the people best suited to be rulers (because they understand most clearly what the good is) and it is ruled by the best in the sense that the community is ordered and directed to those goods that truly constitute human fulfillment. For both Plato and Aristotle, human excellence is measured by and embodied in virtue, and so the best society is one in which individuals are most strongly and surely helped to develop virtue.

Reason dominates a community like this; not in the sense of a sterile, passionless, inhuman logic, but in the sense of an intellect fully alive to the completeness of human personality and so strongly focused on the truth that even the most powerful emotions and desires are kept under proper control. These emotions and desires are not expelled or suppressed from human life, nor should they be. Instead, they are fully integrated into the life of the person and the life of the community under the direction of reason. They are fine and proper servants of genuine human welfare, but they can never be permitted to be masters.

Moral truth—this truth about the good for human persons—is both difficult to discover and difficult to hold. A great deal of intellectual strength is required to resist the pressures of confusion, passion, and desire. On Plato’s account, a culture begins to deteriorate (or to deteriorate further) when the rulers of that culture, for whatever reason, begin to disagree among themselves about the good. This disagreement opens the way for the transition to the next stage.


The Timocratic, or Status-seeking, Culture[6]


When the rulers of a virtue-seeking culture no longer clearly see what is genuinely good, or can no longer agree on this, there is no reason for them to continue to rule. Their claim to leadership depends upon their superior understanding of what the members of the community ought to pursue to achieve happiness, and if they no longer have this understanding, they are no longer best suited to lead. In a healthy community characterized by excellence and virtue, the failure of some leaders to understand and exemplify genuine virtue should lead to their replacement by leaders who are more virtuous, and the persons who formerly led should voluntarily step aside (which in itself would be an exercise of virtue).

Of course, sooner or later in a community facing a crisis of leadership there will be people who wish to have the honor associated with being a leader even though they do not possess the virtues required. A community has made a transition to a status-seeking culture when the leaders of the culture are such people, people who no longer seek the truth, but prize status above all things.

A test may be employed to reveal the nature of a culture. The key question to ask is what do members of the community believe to be the ultimate practical motive for ordering their lives. If the answer is that they wish to be the best sort of persons, the culture is probably virtue-seeking. On the other hand, if the answer is that they wish to achieve a position of leadership and status in the community, the culture is certainly status-seeking.

Now we must be clear about something here. A virtue-seeking culture prizes the truth and will not compromise it. Honor has its place in such a culture, but the members of that culture would hold, with Cicero, that it is better to be worthy of honor (that is, actually to be virtuous) and not receive it than to receive honors without deserving them (that is, not to be virtuous, but only to be thought so). A status-seeking culture would find this to be irrational. To receive honors is the highest good. It would be tragic not to receive the honors one’s virtue deserves, but not really objectionable to be held in honor without virtue. Virtue, after all, is only desired as a tool for acquiring honor. The academic ruthlessly promoting his work, the actor tirelessly lobbying for an award, or the officer fawning on his superiors for the sake of a medal are all illustrative of this disordered character. We have a status-seeking culture when members of a community commonly approve of such behavior and, indeed, think it irrational for someone not to seek status wherever possible. At its height, status in the community—not ability or hard work—determines income, as it often did in ancient and medieval societies.

There are some other implications or signs of such a culture. One sign is an excessive desire for recognition and a corresponding, finely-tuned sensitivity to insults and oversights. This is troubling enough in an individual, but can be disastrous in a nation. We have had some examples in recent centuries of nations who have turned to war in order to acquire the status they felt they deserved and were being denied by their enemies.[7]

Another sign is the equation of status with ability. That is to say, the ready conclusion that a person of “high birth” is necessarily a person of competence. Gilbert and Sullivan’s H M S Pinafore is a classic satire on just such a culture, where, at the end of the play, the captain of the ship and the crewman change roles when it is discovered that they were switched at birth.

Yet another sign is the tendency of the culture to divide the world into winners and losers, to make life a zero-sum game. This often manifests itself in a resistance to reasonable compromise and the determination to preserve “face” or dignity even at great (and unnecessary) cost.

To be clear, a status-seeking culture is also interested in other goods, but it tends to subordinate those other goods to the desire for status as the chief good. A good marriage, for example, is not one animated by love and deepening friendship; it is one that elevates a person’s status in the community. A good job is not one is satisfying and worthwhile; it is one that is well-regarded and that opens doors to further recognition.

On Plato’s account, the status-seeking culture begins to give way to its successor when members of the cultural elite begin to question the value of honors in the face of financial and other difficulties. Status, of course, cannot provide the deep satisfaction to human persons that genuine virtue can provide (that is, the sort grasped by a virtue-seeking culture), and so sooner or later status ceases to please. At the very least, the cultural rulers of one generation fail to convince the next generation of the preeminent value of status, and the younger generation eagerly seeks an alternative.


The Oligarchic, or Wealth-seeking, Culture[8]


Status is expensive without being productive. History is full of examples of people who clung to their honor and dignity as they descended into poverty. Plato believed that once the emptiness of status without merit became apparent to them, the leaders of a culture would naturally turn to wealth (in whatever form) as the chief good. Not only does wealth provide material security but it also provides comfort and power.

Once again, it may be worthwhile to remark that wealth, like standing in a community, is a real good, but it is not the best good. In fact, it is preeminently an instrumental good, which means that it is a good that we value not for itself (no one but a coin collector values money just for itself) but for its ability to bring us other things. The wealth-seeking character tends to turn this logic upside-down, and comes to value the instrument more than the goal.

A wealth-seeking culture tends to see talent as wasted if it is not used to acquire money and property, and conversely to see the acquisition of wealth as a sign of wisdom and intelligence.[9] Persons in such a community who devote their energies and abilities to activities that pay poorly (teaching and military service both come to mind) tend to be regarded as impractical and even irrational. Income determines status in the community, and status no longer provides an income. The community comes to celebrate people who have acquired a fortune, sometimes willingly overlooking the fruitless, unethical, or even criminal behavior that has led to success.[10] And correspondingly, to lose one’s fortune may also be to lose one’s friends.

In Plato’s mind, the worst feature of the wealth-seeking culture is that it readily tolerates the existence of citizen-paupers, or in other words that such a culture permits, and even encourages, citizens to squander their wealth without forfeiting their rights as citizens. When wealth is acknowledged as the highest good of a community, those few who are most determined to be wealthy will set themselves up in competition with the majority.[11] No strenuous and principled objections will be raised as these few concentrate the wealth of the community in their hands, and the community will come to be divided into two groups, the wealthy and the poor. Furthermore, the rulers of a wealth-seeking culture have no incentive to insure that the young develop the habit of spending their money wisely (that is, in pursuit of what is really good) because the habit of spending foolishly enriches these very leaders. Nor is such a culture especially concerned about the poor, because poverty is thought to be the result of bad habits, laziness and personal failure.

Another fairly obvious manifestation of wealth-seeking culture is an overriding concern with revenues and expenses. Persons of wealth-seeking character accumulate riches but resist spending them. They tend to hoard to the point of denying themselves necessities even when they can well afford to live better. When faced with the question of whether to pursue some project or another, communities dominated by this culture tend not to ask whether the project is the right thing to do, but cost considerations tend to determine the outcome.[12]

As a consequence, Plato thought that oligarchic societies were inclined, we would say today, to be isolationist and not to go to war unless severely pressed, and this for several reasons. First, the leaders would be reluctant to be distracted from their money-making activities. Second, they would be apprehensive about arming large numbers of poor members of the society (who could then turn against the wealthy); and finally, they would not care to spend their money for military adventures. The leaders of such a community, as a result of their own thriftiness, would be vulnerable to losing their wealth by force.


The Democratic, or Pleasure-seeking, Culture[13]


We are likely to think, as Americans, that anything democratic must be good, but this was not Plato’s view. The Athens of his time was a democracy of sorts, in which a large numbers of citizens shared in the responsibilities of government, but it did not by any means favor universal suffrage.[14] Nor was Plato confident that a democratic government was commendable, for it does not lend itself to placing the best people in office.

Similarly, the leaders of a democratic culture fall far short of identifying and commending the best human goods, and instead champion pleasure as the chief good. All other goods—honor, status, wealth, friendship—are only to be valued as instruments for generating and experiencing pleasure. To be sure, some pleasures are merely physical and some are intellectual or emotional. The democratic culture does not discriminate; all pleasures are valuable, and none in principle is a bad pleasure.

This leads pleasure-seeking cultures also to be characterized by their embrace of two fundamental values, equality and liberty. Since pleasure is the ultimate good, and different people are pleased by different things, there can be no criteria according to which pleasures can be ranked or evaluated. What one person finds repellant gives another person pleasure. Music, art, and literature, for example, cannot be judged objectively in a pleasure-seeking culture, since the ultimate measure of quality is not whether an artistic production conforms to aesthetic standards, but whether it produces pleasure for some people. One person’s disdain for, say, a piece of contemporary music tells us something about that person, but nothing about the music itself.[15]

By the same token, there is little tolerance in the pleasure-seeking culture for judgments about people. There are no good people or bad people—except those who violate the principles of equality and freedom by being intolerant or judgmental. At most there are people who are competent in some capacity and people who are not. Personal character no longer matters (since it can no longer be objectively evaluated) and a sturdy wall is constructed between one’s performance in a job or an office and one’s private pursuit of pleasure.

Furthermore, a good society in this view is one in which the liberty of the individual to seek pleasure—however and wherever he thinks it might be found—is maximized. This means that the government of such a society must insure, as an overriding value, that the freedom of individuals to pursue their preferred pleasures is not impeded. Thus, laws should never prevent someone’s pursuit of a pleasure on the grounds that such a pleasure is bad, but should only restrain pursuits that harm or impede someone else. And the same principle will be progressively applied to private organizations, whose policies and practices may serve to restrain their members’ pursuit of pleasures and fulfillment.[16]

Now there can be no question that equality and liberty are indeed goods that ought to be cherished and protected in a society, but something is subtly different here. In a pleasure-seeking culture, equality is not just equality of dignity among persons or equality of persons before the law. It is a conviction that all goals and behaviors are fundamentally equal, and even at times that everyone is an equally good judge of important matters. The pleasure-seeking culture, in other words, is committed to a false egalitarianism that tends to regard legitimate measures of quality (virtue, competence, talent, discipline) as elitist and bad. Furthermore, the liberty promoted by such a culture is not a freedom for becoming the best person possible or a freedom for developing one’s talents and potential, but rather a freedom from constraints to pursuing one’s chosen pleasures.[17]

Something else follows from all this in a pleasure-seeking culture. The members of this culture, especially the cultural leaders, become hyper-sensitive to criticisms and violations of the principles of equality and liberty. While in other cultures people might think that the individual who did not value honor or wealth was silly or impractical, they did not view him as dangerous. After all, there is in these cultures a certain level of agreement. The members of the community agree that there is a chief good (though a minority may well disagree about what that chief good is), that there are subordinate goods to be protected, and there is general agreement about bad goals and bad behaviors. They also agree that, in principle, some people are better than others, which is to say those people who pursue and achieve the chief good. The minority who disagree about the nature of the chief good are only threatening to the culture if large numbers of people can be persuaded to adopt the view that, say, honor and status are not so important after all. This is not easily accomplished, and so the dissenters tend to be regarded as peculiar but harmless.

By contrast, individuals or organizations who contest the principles of equality and liberty as they are indiscriminately applied in the pleasure-seeking culture, or who embody contrary ideas and lifestyles, strike at the very heart of that culture. People who believe that there are moral truths independent of personal opinion or that some pleasures are objectively bad are not merely foolish in a pleasure-seeking culture. They are dangerous. They must be converted or their ideas and practices must be neutralized.[18] Thus they are commonly portrayed as elitist or worse, as bigots and enemies of freedom and human dignity.


The Tyrannical, or Addictive, Culture[19]


Because of its emphasis on the principle of equality, the pleasure-seeking culture inadvertently encourages the development of factions. Since the community cannot find common agreement about fundamental goods there remains little or no basis for unity. Members coalesce into interest groups identified by their commitment to various goods or pleasures. Some will continue to seek virtue, or celebrity, or wealth, while others will identify themselves principally by their sexuality, their race, their age, their region, or some other descriptor.[20] Inevitably, conflicts will arise—a pleasure-seeking culture is committed to maximizing freedom—and eventually they will become serious.

Sooner or later a particularly able figure will emerge who can champion the interests of his group and lead it to dominance. His real concern, however, is not with the triumph of his fellows, but with his own supremacy. In Plato’s account, this charismatic leader turns on his own people, undermines them or fully subordinates them to his will, and finally stands alone in command of the entire community. At first he may be charming, say all the right things in the right way, give all the proper assurances, and appear to be concerned only for the welfare of the whole community. In fact, however, his only real concern is to make the community and its resources a tool for his own satisfaction. In accomplishing this he may be brutal and coarse, or he may be polished and sophisticated. He may be ruthless, or he may buy loyalty and compliance with gifts and public works. He is quite likely to consolidate his power by contriving external enemies and so providing an excuse for his exercise of unlimited power.[21]

Fortunately, tyrannies are inherently unstable and they seldom outlive the tyrant. Nevertheless, as the past two centuries have demonstrated, they can cause incalculable harm while they survive.



The Culture of America


The United States has always had a democratic form of government but this does not mean that it has been a democratic culture. There is good reason to believe that when the nation was founded, the leaders of the community hoped to establish and sustain a virtue-seeking culture. They were concerned about the character of individuals and about the way in which culture and government could shape men and women for the better. At first at least, they were strongly concerned to avoid the honor-seeking and status-conscious culture exemplified by the Europe of that time, and such a culture probably never took root here. This is not to say that status-seeking individuals never became prominent in public life, but rather that they never succeeded in persuading large numbers of fellow citizens to join them in this pursuit.

Soon enough, however, the fragile virtue-seeking culture—to the extent that it actually existed, it never really took deep root—was probably replaced by a wealth-seeking culture. In my judgment, this culture dominated for most of America’s history, probably from the time of the Revolution until at least the Depression of the 1930s.[22] Reflecting on this history, we can see that such a culture does not suppress the pursuit of goods other than wealth so much as it celebrates wealth above these other goods. Cultures are never pure forms, enrolling every one of their members in the single-minded pursuit of what they identify as the chief good. We have always had writers and thinkers, for example, who put forward the idea that wealth was an empty goal but they have generally received lip service from the majority rather than assent. Until recent decades, Americans have been exceedingly proud of their commercial accomplishments and have made a nobility of the wealthy.

Over the course of the twentieth century, this changed. The power of the wealthy was blunted severely (which would never happen in a wealth-seeking culture). Once a proud ambition, the American Dream is now a target of derision. While many Americans still yearn for wealth and work hard to achieve it, they also feel that they must apologize for that yearning or justify the wealth they have acquired by sponsoring charitable and cultural projects of all sorts.[23] The possession of wealth itself is simply not regarded as the good it once was thought to be.

America has become a pleasure-seeking culture. Our new nobility are neither the well-born nor the wealthy, but entertainers of one sort or another, whom we credit with the wisdom that we once thought belonged to the executive or the aristocrat. Our cultural leaders are journalists, academics, and career politicians, all of whose personal virtues are of little concern to us.[24] And while many Americans would still not characterize themselves as pleasure-seekers, they do subscribe to the principles of equality and liberty, as the pleasure-seeking culture understands them. A recent study by a political scientist at the University of Michigan has concluded that Americans have become considerably less judgmental and have lost confidence in traditional authorities, i.e., leaders in religion, business, and politics. At the same time, they have become more tolerant of previously discouraged forms of pleasure-seeking and increasingly impatient with those who pass moral judgments on the activities of others.[25] Needless to say, this is a difficult time for any groups who are inclined to question the prevailing culture.

At their worst, pleasure-seeking cultures have no foundation for discouraging any pursuit whatsoever that someone finds pleasing unless it violates the freedom of others. It recognizes no behavior as corrosive of the human spirit, except perhaps judging that someone’s pleasures are bad pleasures. Consider that we have condoned in public figures within the last decade behaviors that no other generation of Americans would ever have tolerated. We have not yet reached the worst that a pleasure-seeking culture can be, and we may very well never reach that point, but the trajectory is not good.



The Armed Forces and Contemporary American Culture


Does the military still fit in contemporary culture? Even though I posed the problem this way as the title of the paper, it is a curious and misleading question. It suggests that the military might indeed have fallen behind the progress made by popular culture and if so, that it should find a way to catch up. It also suggests that there might actually be no place for a military in modern life. Both views, I think, could find considerable support in some circles.


Where does the real problem lie?


Nevertheless, both views are flawed and they should not be allowed to frame the issue. We start at the wrong place if we begin with the unexamined assumption that the tension between military and popular cultures today is the result of a dysfunction in the military. I have argued here that there is good reason to think that the changes that have taken place in American popular culture over the past few decades do not constitute progress, but in fact a kind of deterioration. If the military has escaped the worst effects of that deterioration it is madness to suggest that it must now embrace them. It is also foolish to think that the reasons that societies throughout history have armed some of their members have suddenly disappeared. The need for nations in general, and our nation in particular, to defend themselves is still very real.

So what questions should we be asking? First, if we can agree that there is a tension between military and popular cultures, we need to be clear about the cause of this tension. Second, we need to inquire into what can be done about resolving or diminishing the tension, and especially what the military can do about it.

There really can be no doubt that there are multiple causes of the tension, but I believe the principal cause of the tension may now be the emergence and dominance of the pleasure-seeking culture. The military fits poorly in such a culture because its convictions about goods to be pursued and virtues to be celebrated now stand in sharp contrast with the new values being promoted by the culture. However much the military may have changed in the past fifty years, popular culture has changed far more radically, and for the worse.[26]

As I said at the beginning of the paper, the military always exists within a larger culture, and appropriately so. American soldiers, sailors, and marines have always been citizens first, and warriors second.[27] Some tensions existed between the military and civilians throughout the long period when we were a wealth-seeking culture. The tensions were manageable, however, because many of the goods pursued and virtues celebrated in both cultures were similar. A business organization might pursue wealth and a military unit victory, but both cherish discipline, loyalty, courage, honesty, excellence, and so forth. With obvious exceptions, both encourage teamwork, self-sacrifice, and perseverance as rules for success. And both cultures can achieve considerable agreement on values and behaviors that are bad and ought to be discouraged. It is no accident that many people with military experience do well later in business, which is to say in a wealth-seeking culture.

On the other hand, a pleasure-seeking culture can offer no similar points of intersection with a military culture, or for that matter with many other distinct sub-groups of the society. Religious communities, many business organizations, and non-profit associations, to mention a few, experience the same sorts of tensions with the contemporary popular culture that the military does; and they experience corresponding pressures to conform. The military is not alone in this. As discussed above, a pleasure-seeking culture can neither commend a set of values and virtues nor condemn vices. It simply lacks the objective criteria that make such judgments possible for its chief good is itself thoroughly subjective, and all measurements must begin there. As a consequence, the leaders of a pleasure-seeking culture must see as opponents any group within the society that persists in naming some behaviors as good and others bad, some traits as virtuous and others vicious.

The cultural problem facing the military, then, is not how to catch up to a progressive society, but how to maintain the sound elements of its culture and tradition, its integrity, in the face of the deterioration of the national culture.


Can the Military Cope with Contemporary Culture?


Before framing a response to this question, a couple of observations are in order. First, to identify and criticize American culture as pleasure-seeking is not to overlook the fact that a great many Americans do not organize their lives around the indiscriminate pursuit of pleasure. A great many Americans, in uniform and out of uniform, value what truly should be valued and work hard to develop real virtue. Their lives are also challenged by the emergence of a culture whose leaders champion pleasure-seeking as the chief good.

Second, if what I have suggested about the culture of contemporary America is true, it would be naïve to think that a change in presidential administrations will result in a major change the tensions between military and popular cultures. The pressures the military has experienced in the past will undoubtedly continue, though perhaps in somewhat different forms and from different quarters. These pressures will not go away, because they are cultural in origin and a change in political leadership will not affect the cultural trends in any significant way. The military may find friendlier faces among civilian leaders for a time, but there is no reason to believe that the leaders of the culture will be any less determined in their opposition. And as cultural leaders, they have many tools at their disposal.

Having said this, though, I think the military can do a number of things to cope more effectively with the unprecedented situation in which it finds itself. I have seven suggestions in all.[28]

1.            Clearly define your mission. Obviously, considerable disagreement and indecision exists within the branches of the armed forces about the proper purpose and mission of each. Each exists in some way to defend the nation but consensus must be reached on what this means and whether there are other parallel missions. Do peacekeeping mission defend the nation? Does drug interdiction defend the nation? What weapon systems and capacities need to be developed? Is one of the missions of the armed forces to train technicians for American business? You know the questions better than I, but the questions need answers if we are to come to some understanding of the position that the armed forces properly occupy in our society. And if we understand the mission we can understand, even in a pleasure-seeking culture, why the armed forces take on some of the cultural characteristics that they do. We can also understand why some of the characteristics that the armed forces have adopted over time are expendable and ought to be changed.[29]


2.            Educate your members and the public. Once clarity about mission has been largely achieved, the armed forces must move to insure that all its members understand this mission clearly and understand why they should be committed to it. At the same time, the general public must be helped to develop the same understanding. It has been frequently, and correctly, observed that the all volunteer force and the downsizing of the military has meant that fewer Americans have direct contact with the military.[30] Diminished contact means less sympathy and greater willingness to believe criticisms of military culture and behaviors. Civilians believe the bad things (note the common opinions about the School of the Americas) because their personal experience gives them no reason to believe otherwise.

The military must come to grips with the fact that the cultural leaders are not on their side. The news media and the entertainment industry, through whom most Americans learn what they know about the armed forces, are not generally disposed to present the military in a favorable light. Indeed, they can be positively embarrassed to do so. Some other vehicles need to be found, and these vehicles need to communicate to the public what soldiers, sailors, and marines are really like (not too different from civilians, in most ways), what their mission is, and what their capabilities are. Unless and until this is done, civilians will be conditioned by the dominant culture to be averse to casualties, to misunderstand the proper uses of military force, and to distrust men and women in uniform.


3.            Form alliances. The military is not the only institution in our society to be a special irritant to the pleasure-seeking culture. Others include communities of faith, many non-profit organizations, some businesses, and even a few schools and colleges. Obviously, the armed forces cannot engage in political activity but, for example, it can continue to be a place where faith commitments are taken seriously (as opposed to other professional arenas where such commitments tend to be seen as indicators of diminished competence). They can also continue support for R.O.T.C. programs at high school and college levels, and through these programs help to create a more positive image among students. The object of the alliances would be to overcome to some extent the fragmentation brought about by the change in popular culture. Many institutions find themselves isolated and under pressure to conform to principles and practices that are inimical to their commitments. They can and should find ways to offer one another moral support.


4.            Be competent and professional. This probably goes without saying, but the point needs to be made nonetheless. A technically incompetent military leaves itself open to aggressive criticism, but competence is only part of the story. Mercenaries and pirates can be competent, but never professional. A professional military is not only competent, but it also sees what it does in the larger context of establishing and protecting peace for the community. A pleasure-seeking culture is inclined, at best, to see the military as highly trained but uncivilized, and potentially uncontrollable. The military must demonstrate that it can do what needs to be done but that it is rational, fully committed to the common good, and firmly in control of itself.


5.            Assert a proper professional autonomy. Critics of the armed forces have sometimes suggested that a gap between military and civilian cultures may result in increased resistance by the military to civilian control. The implication, of course, is that without absolute civilian control the military may be dangerous to the community. Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that senior officers should not attempt to influence decisions by political leaders about how and where the armed forces will be employed. They view such interventions as a sign that the military has become more restive.

Certainly senior officers may walk a fine line at times between offering advice and resisting an order. The commitment to obey lawful orders is critically important and must be preserved, but it is hardly in any danger. However, continued criticism may discourage officers from asserting the autonomy proper to their professional training and experience, as has happened in the past.[31] The armed forces are not mere employees of civilian executives, but professionals, and citizens. As such, officers must be prepared at times to exercise their professional judgment and to resist an inappropriate intrusion by civilians into their proper activities.


6.            Be moderate in spending. The most obvious target of criticism of the military is defense expenditures. Once clarity has been achieved about mission, a sustained effort must be made to gain the trust of the public by explaining why a certain level of expenditure is necessary and appropriate. Inter- and intra-service rivalries, management inefficiencies, and unnecessarily ambitious projects undermine this trust and need to be eliminated.


7.            Preserve your discipline and your courage. Aristotle tells us that the virtue of courage is fundamentally a willingness to endure hardship for the sake of a good cause. Sometimes the hardship is physical, sometimes it is the danger of death, but sometimes it is frustration and the temptation to despair. There is a reason we speak about discouragement when the enemy is at the gate and there is little hope of success. For the foreseeable future, the armed forces are likely to be in conflict with America’s cultural leaders and the conflict may be ugly. But like anyone else who seeks excellence, the military must discipline itself, keep faith with its values, and courageously endure for the good of the community.



America’s cultural struggles will not end soon, and may indeed get worse before things improve. The armed forces are one of the more prominent institutions that stand athwart the ambitions of the new culture to extend its influence ever more widely. As such, they cannot be ignored. The effort to reform the culture will be difficult and uncomfortable, and it will be less a political effort than a moral one. Whether or not they wish to do so, the armed forces will have a role to play in this effort. They will be well advised to be deliberate rather than passive players.





[1] I am indebted to my friend, Dr Gary Atkinson, a true philosopher, for calling to my attention and explaining the useful implications of Plato’s theory for understanding contemporary cultural conflicts.

[2] Plato was a subtle and insightful student of human life. He was certainly not so naïve as to think that persons are not also shaped by their cultures. Far from it. He gives attention in the earlier books of the Republic to a description of the sort of culture that ought to prevail in the best sort of community precisely because of the power of culture to form individuals. Nevertheless, Plato believed that it is ultimately more true to say that culture is caused by individual character than that individual character is a product of culture.

[3] In Plato’s ideal community, the political rulers (the Guardians) were also to be the cultural rulers, or at least they were charged with taking care that the culture of the community remained one focused on the true good for human persons. As a consequence, they were responsible for supervising education, literature, and entertainment, among other things.

[4] A good argument could be made for translating the key terms differently, since these terms now have standard meanings in common usage that are quite different from Plato’s meanings. However, these terms are preserved in most English translations of the Republic, and so to minimize confusion for those who might wish to return to the source, I will introduce them in their standard form.

[5] Plato’s student, Aristotle, also wrote a book on government, the Politics. Taken together, the two books are the foundational documents of political science. Curiously, however, where Plato neglected the form of government in favor of examining the culture, Aristotle neglects the culture in favor of cataloguing and investigating the forms. One might wonder how political science—to say nothing of history—might have developed had subsequent philosophers paid less attention to Aristotle’s forms and more attention to Plato’s cultures.

[6] Plato called this the timocratic or timarchic culture from the Greek word for honor, timos. By this Plato did not principally mean integrity, which is a virtuous character, but status, in the sense of position.

[7] In recent centuries, we might think of the examples of France under Napoleon, Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler, and Imperial Japan. We might also watch for evidence of this in China, Russia, and India in the future.

[8] Plato called this culture oligarchic, from the Greek word oligos (few), because wealth and power in such a culture tends to become concentrated in the hands of a few. To put it another way, in such a culture those few who have wealth, also tend to have power, and those few who have power, also tend to acquire wealth.

[9] Contrast this with the view of Plato and Aristotle, who thought that truly intelligent people would not spend their time on acquiring wealth, and that in the ideal community commerce would be left to the lower classes or to foreigners.

[10] Tom Wolfe’s novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, is a biting satirical look at wealth-seeking characters.

[11] Remember that the type of culture is determined not by the views of the majority, but by the convictions of the cultural leaders, to which the majority assent intellectually if not always in practice. Thus, in a wealth-seeking culture the majority of people will agree that the greatest good is to be wealthy, but only a few will actually organize their lives and energies around the idea.

[12] Perhaps President George Bush had such people in mind in 1991 when he reassured the American people that, despite the casualties our military personnel might suffer in Kuwait, the economic cost of the war would largely be borne by other nations. To be fair, he argued for the intervention on other grounds as well, but an argument like this is especially calculated to appeal to wealth-seeking characters.

[13] Plato called this culture democratic, from the Greek demos (common person), not because it requires a form of government in which a large number of citizens share power, but because the goods sought by this culture are determined by the opinions of common, uneducated persons. When Plato speaks of a democratic culture, he is using a term that in his mind is the functional equivalent of the English vulgar.

[14] Population estimates for fourth-century B.C. Athens are necessarily sketchy, but a good guess would be somewhere around 200,000. About 10% were resident aliens, and the remainder of the population was half citizen and half slave. Only adult males, numbering about 20-25,000, were enfranchised (and at times only those possessing a certain amount of property, which further reduced the number participating even remotely in the governance of the city).

[15] This belief is reflected in many aspects of contemporary American life. Consider, for example, the controversy a couple of years ago at Time-Warner over the company’s production and distribution of recordings containing extended sexual vulgarities, and advocating abuse of women and attacks on police. The company, perhaps to protect a profitable line of business, argued that it was in no position to make judgments about the content of the recordings (much less to censor that content), but that such judgments must be left to the consumer. Several recordings were eventually discontinued when executives were personally and publicly embarrassed about the content by critics from several points on the political compass.

[16] Business and other organizations find that courts are less and less sympathetic to policies such as dress codes, and apply a narrow functional test of validity. Unless an organization can show that departure from the policy by employees diminishes performance according to certain measures, the policy may be prohibited. And there is evidence that some courts are prepared to set aside even performance tests in favor of protecting equality of opportunity for individuals to pursue their dreams. The celebrated case of a competitive golfer, whose physical disabilities prevented him from competing according to the rules of the game (he could not walk the course), may be an example. A court ruled that he should be permitted to ride a cart in competition, even though this was strictly prohibited by golfing regulations.

[17] This view of liberty is rather different from the lines from the anthem “America,” which read “confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” The anthem has in mind a virtue-seeking concept of liberty, while the pleasure-seeking concept might better be called license.

[18] One can hardly avoid thinking about the Boy Scouts in this regard. Even though the Supreme Court has ruled that their prohibition against gay scout leaders is not illegal, powerful cultural forces have been brought to bear to compel conversion to the popular view. If it appears as though the organization will remain adamant, critics seem quite willing to attempt to suppress its otherwise unobjectionable activities and to punish those who would extend it support.

[19] A tyrant in ancient Greece was more than an oppressive ruler who wielded sovereign power. He was also a ruler who governed the community for his own benefit, and not for the common good. The head of state in a pleasure-seeking culture may at least attempt to rule in such a way as to permit everyone to pursue his chosen pleasures. A tyrant, like the addict, is so consumed with satisfying his own wants that he contrives to subordinate the good of the community to his own good, often through violence.

[20] Shelby Steele and others have remarked that to be black one must subscribe to a particular analysis of the situation of African-Americans and to a preferred means of addressing the problems associated with that situation. Thus, President Clinton can be described as a “black president” while Gen Colin Powell, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Condoleeza Rice, and many others are disowned by black leaders.

[21] How many examples of such tyrants can we find in Western history? Certainly Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler are prominent exemplars, whose careers closely parallel the pattern described by Plato.

[22] Obviously this is a debatable claim, and the central thesis of this paper does not rest on its truth. Nevertheless, I think there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that for two centuries or more Americans have generally regarded wealth and property as the chief good of life. After the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and the subsequent bank failures, bankruptcies, massive layoffs, union struggles, and so forth, the wealthy businessman was never again regarded as highly as he had once been. By the late 1960s we began to see a broad disdain for and distrust of corporations and executives, a strong sign of a fundamental change in the culture.

[23] A landmark in the slow conversion from wealth-seeking to pleasure-seeking culture is the change in the way we regard the 1980s in contrast with the 1950s. The 1980s have come to be called the “Decade of Greed” because of the long economic expansion and the creation of a great deal of new wealth, where a similar period in the 1950s has been called a “golden age.” Furthermore, while the 1990s saw an even longer and larger economic expansion, and even more aggressive wealth-seeking, no one thinks to call it a decade of greed. This may be because the transition to a pleasure-seeking culture has been effectively made and most Americans no longer see wealth-seeking as a cultural threat.

[24] There are too many examples to mention of such cultural leaders who have been discovered, à la Margaret Mead, falsifying research and history to serve their purposes and whose deceptions have been defended by scholars and journalists and shrugged off by the culture.

[25] Similar findings are reported in Alan Wolfe, One Nation, After All (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998). Though Wolfe does not draw this conclusion, it seems clear from his findings that if we have become one nation, it is not because we agree on questions about ultimate goods (as might be true in another sort of culture) but because, like good pleasure-seekers, we no longer regard agreement as important.

[26] I am not so naïve as to think that the military does not have its own set of failings and dysfunctions. It certainly does, and some are quite serious and urgently need attention. But while these flaws may aggravate the tensions with popular culture, they are not in my judgment the root cause of those tensions.

[27] We should remember here that the culture of many modern armed forces is not an accident but an achievement. In some parts of the world today, and in most societies not so long ago, such practices as rape and pillage were common and accepted behaviors for soldiers. The best modern armies and navies are an anachronism not for their willingness to use deadly force but for their professionalism and restraint.

[28] This is the most shameless part of the paper because I make these suggestions as if I really know what I am talking about. Please accept them as mere suggestions, nothing more, and certainly not as proven formulas for success. I simply derive them from what we know of pleasure-seeking cultures and our theory of cultural change, and what is even worse, I do so as a civilian with no military experience. It might even be wise to stop reading at this point, but I did think it only fair that, after offering so many criticisms, I should offer some suggestions that others could criticize in turn.

[29] I submit that clarity about mission led the armed forces in the mid-twentieth century to abandon two of its long-held but expendable traits: racial segregation and suspicion of technology. By the same token, some of the defenses of the Tailhook incident were absurd and damaging—the mission of naval aviation does not justify lewd and abusive behavior, however “traditional” it might have become.

[30] The armed forces are not alone in this. Family farmers have a similar problem and experience a similar lack of sympathy for their difficulties.

[31] See, for example, H R McMaster, Dereliction of Duty. (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).