The Great Culture War
Military tradition, virtue and post-modern morality

Peter S. Bowen
Sangreal Group

When military historians of the future study the Culture War of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, they will date the opening shot as August 1st, 1981, when MTV broadcast its first music video. Since that time, post-modern moral and social concepts have become increasingly influential in American society.

It is widely acknowledged that the great strength of the American military does not lie in high-tech weapons, but in the Marines, Sailors, soldiers and airmen who serve their nation everyday across the globe. If the people of the armed forces are the greatest strength, then the foundation for that strength is the military tradition that provides military personnel with a way to understand themselves and their duty to their unit, their service and their nation. Military tradition shapes military culture, it creates our warriors, continuously develops them, and inspires them to superior performance in combat.

But today the very core of American military strength—our military tradition—is under attack. The threat comes from elements of post-modern moral and social philosophies1 that are becoming increasingly influential in American society, infiltrating military culture and undermining military tradition. Post-modern social and moral concepts not only threaten the foundation of American military strength, but are creating a growing disconnect between American society and the American military.

While powerful, the American military tradition does not possess the depth or breadth necessary to counter post-modern attacks or prevent the continuing alienation of the military from American society. In order to prevail in the conflict with post-modern moral and social thought, the American military should articulate military tradition in terms of the philosophical tradition of the virtues. Completely consistent with military tradition, the virtue tradition can provide the military with the philosophical framework necessary to defeat post-modern attacks and bridge the disconnect between American society and the military. In addition, the virtue tradition can provide a powerful foundation for the continued development, strengthening and extending of military tradition, building even greater strength into the American military.

We will begin with a description of some of the fundamental elements of American military tradition. Next, we will consider some of the characteristics of and ways that post-modern moral and social concepts are undermining that military tradition. After discussing some of the destructive effects of post-modern concepts, I will argue that the virtue tradition provides the best framework for articulating military tradition, giving it greater strength and providing it with an effective defense against post-modern attacks.

American Military Tradition

Each of the services has its own set of interrelated stories, customs, ceremonies and practices which it hands down from generation to generation. This set of stories, customs and practices is the service tradition and provides that service and the individual service members with a means of understanding itself and its place in American society. That service tradition also provides a means for the service to continually describe and develop the relationships between service members, and between service members, units and the service itself. These service traditions share at least four interrelated and fundamental concepts: mission-purpose, community-identity, leadership, and narrative history2.

Mission-Purpose: The concept of mission/purpose dominates everything in the military. The purpose of the armed forces as a whole is to support and defend the Constitution. Each service and every unit within each of the services is assigned a mission which contributes to the larger mission of the armed forces. All individual Marines, Sailors, soldiers and airmen have two interrelated purposes: first, as individuals personally sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution; second, as members of their unit working to achieve a unit mission that contributes to the defense of the Constitution.

The mission is an objective criterion by which the services, units and service members can be evaluated. Success is objectively defined by mission accomplishment. Failure is objectively defined by mission failure. In the same way, mission-purpose is an objective criterion for evaluating programs, doctrines and even elements of service tradition. Those things that contribute to mission achievement are good and to be supported. Those things that hinder mission achievement are bad and to be eliminated. It is a standard that is the basis for the military's meritocracy. While it does not always work in practice, the intent of the American military tradition is to identify and promote those who are successful.

Leadership: Good leadership enables mission accomplishment. Three aspects of good leadership are common through the military services.

Seniors are responsible for the mental, physical, emotional and character development of subordinates. This development builds a sense of community within the unit, reinforces trust throughout the chain of command and prepares subordinates for leadership roles in the future. Good leadership is not the result of applying formulas to find answers to particular leadership problems. Good leadership is not about effectively managing people. Good leadership is inspiring people to superior performance through personal example and the display of characteristics like integrity, courage, justice, wisdom and duty. It is an intuitive knowledge of human nature developed through study and experience that enables each leader to develop each subordinate as much as possible by treating that subordinate as an individual with strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, there is leadership as self-development. This is the most important aspect, for those in command must demonstrate outstanding character—must lead by example—if they are to receive the absolute trust and confidence of subordinates. Subordinates must develop themselves to be worthy of the trust that leaders place in them. Good leadership is not character development for its own sake, but for the good of the individual, of the unit, of the service and of the nation.

Community-Identity: A major weakness of medieval knights was their tendency to enter battle as individual fighters with little if any team-like coordination. In contrast, the American military is thoroughly dependent on community effort—teamwork—to accomplish missions. Individual service members develop/improve themselves as they dedicate themselves to their unit/team and their teammates. The unit/team in turn accomplishes its mission by developing the character and professional skills of the unit personnel. Both individuals and the team find fulfillment as they work toward mission accomplishment. Individual and unit/team successes are seamlessly integrated.

While mission-purpose is the most powerful element binding the unit/team together, a sense of common identity makes that unit/team function together even more effectively. The Marine Corps emphasizes identity most strongly at the service level, stressing the brotherhood of the Corps. In the Navy, people identify with surface, submarine and aviation communities, and the particular ships they have served upon. Soldiers find identity in the training they have received (i.e. Rangers or Airborne) and in the particular units they are serving with. In an interesting contrast, the Army and Marine Corps develop identity effectively but in opposite ways: the Army emphasizes unit identity by wearing unit patches on uniforms while the Marine Corps emphasizes service identity by keeping uniforms free of unit identification.

Narrative-History: It is important to remember that these concepts of mission, leadership and community were given birth in, developed and refined through more than 200 years of American history. It is impossible to understand the military services today and their service members unless one considers them in the context of that history. This history is a narrative history—a story—woven from the traditions, customs, ceremonies and daily practices of Marines, Sailors, soldiers and airmen around the world. It is a story that tells those who serve their nation who they are and what their duties and responsibilities are to those they serve with, those in whose footsteps they tread, and those whose future they will shape.

The individual service member finds self-development and fulfillment through dedication to the unit and service (community). Bound together by identity and narrative history, its members developed through superior leadership, the unit improves itself by focusing on and achieving its mission-purpose. Each of the services brings these four interrelated concepts together in different ways with different ceremonies, leadership approaches, practices and customs, and calls them the service tradition. That tradition contributes directly to the combat effectiveness of the service. And if we consider these service traditions and the services as one in the American armed forces, we can see that the great strength of the American military in general is founded in American service members and the American military tradition which sustains them.

Post-modern Moral and Social Thought

In contrast to military tradition, contemporary American culture is increasingly influenced by post-modern moral and social thinking. In the military tradition, all people are understood to have the same purpose, though they may pursue that purpose different ways. Duty to others, to unit, to service and to nation are fundamental aspects of the military tradition. In the post-modern thinking however, individuals are understood to be radically free—free to choose any meaning in life, free to define themselves as they wish, and free of obligation to others. Military tradition provides equal opportunity, but distinguishes people based on the merit of their performance. Post-modern thinking encourages a radical egalitarianism where equal opportunity and equal results are provided, and merit is dismissed3.

Military tradition recognizes the legitimacy of external authority that is based on experience, precedent, principle and/or wisdom. Authority is important because it provides unity of effort and because it provides the experience, wisdom and insight that enables individuals and communities to achieve their mission-purpose. And in the military tradition it is possible to evaluate the performance of individuals and communities in terms of an objective standard: is the individual and/or community achieving their mission-purpose? Post-modernism however, rejects external authority as oppressive: if an individual is going to be radically free, then the only authority that they can recognize as legitimate is their own internal authority. Accepting the legitimacy of any authority external to the individual compromises the individual's freedom. As the post-modernist rejects external authority, so they reject the authority of precedent, experience, principle and wisdom. If all legitimate authority is internal and external authority is rejected, then the only legitimate standards are internal, personal and subjective. External, objective standards are rejected with external authority.

Military tradition can determine the merit of individuals and communities by using objective standards to evaluate their performance. By rejecting external standards altogether, post-modern thinking can not recognize or measure merit. If there is no measure of merit, then rewards can not be distributed based on performance—they must be distributed evenly in spite of performance.

Finally, in post-modern thought, if people are radically free to define themselves and their purpose in life, then they should be as free as possible to live that self-definition and pursue their subjective purpose. With the exception of "hurting others", any limits on people living their definition or pursuing their purpose are considered wrong.

Post-modern thinking has become especially fashionable among academics and cultural elitists4. Through their influence, post-modern approaches dominate many college campuses and academic disciplines, and post-modern messages fill the media, advertising, music and visual art. Though post-modernism preaches tolerance and provides a veneer of unity and community, it actually breaks down communities, fosters ethnic and racial tensions, creates general distrust and cynicism, and undermines moral concepts like honesty, courage and duty5. Individuals and groups increasingly assert their preferences against society by declaring their preferences to be rights. Post-modern concepts are very attractive—especially to the young—because they permit almost any behavior (in the name of defining oneself) while requiring little if any correlative responsibility. Post-modern thought has penetrated American thought very quickly and very powerfully, best evidenced in the tremendous effect MTV has had on so many aspects of our culture. For those under the age of 35, MTV is a cultural icon, broadcasting music videos, news and advertising ridden with concepts of moral subjectivism and moral relativism. In the past, rules and standards were considered good guides to the development of personal excellence. Today, the consistent theme is that rules and standards are nothing more than arbitrary, oppressive limits to freedom. Rules are to be broken simply because they are rules—because they restrict individual freedom.

An increasing number of people in our society consider morality to be nothing more than a collection of personal preferences. Moral debate typically degenerates into the aggravated assertion of one set of preferences against another. Moral and social standards continue to fall as people are no longer able to articulate an objective, rational defense of those standards against the attacks of moral subjectivism and moral relativism. Things unthinkable just a few years ago—college students denying the fundamental evil of the Holocaust, acceptance of homosexual marriages, and the widespread acceptance of cheating by students—are now commonplace.

The Post-modern Assault

Even though the great strength of the American military is found in American service members and the military tradition which sustains them, the American military tradition is under increasingly severe attack by post-modern elements in American society. This post-modern attack constitutes one of the largest threats the American military has faced. The attack is especially dangerous because the military is unaccustomed to the nature of the assault, the means by which the assault is being conducted, or the environment in which the attack is being made. As a result, the threat has been underestimated, the nature of the problem/battle has been misunderstood, and the military has not yet developed an effective defense to counter the attack.

The conflict between post-modern thought and military tradition was inevitable and can not be settled by accepting a compromise position. Military tradition and military success are firmly founded in the idea that there are objective standards and morals. Concepts that undermine the idea that there are objective standards and morals—i.e. concepts from post-modern thought—threaten the military itself. By its nature, post-modern thought is tolerant of other viewpoints—but only so long as those viewpoints are also subjective. In other words, post-modern thought is intolerant of those viewpoints that argue for objective standards or morals6. The premises of military tradition and post-modern thought are not only incommensurable, but directly threaten each other. The American military is a highly visible, highly respected public institution. As post-modern thought gained influence in contemporary culture, it was inevitable that it would comment upon and conflict with the military and military tradition and culture.

The post-modern attack is so dangerous because it threatens the very soul of the American military. Historically, opponents of the American military have threatened the military's equipment, military personnel, and/or the military's ability to wage war. But post-modern concepts target military tradition itself—and that makes post-modern concepts more dangerous than conventional threats. Why? Because it is possible to replace the equipment lost in battle with conventional opponents. It is even possible to replace personnel losses by training new warriors. But in order to train new warriors, the military must do two things: it must give recruits the professional skills to succeed in their specialty and it must instill in them the military tradition they will need to become an integral part of the American military. That military tradition is critical: it is the identity—the soul—of the American military handed down from generation to generation. If lost, it can not be regained. If post-modern thinking usurps American military tradition, then the American military as we know it will be lost.

Post-modern moral and social thought threatens military tradition in two ways: policy and process. While the core of military tradition remains the same, as social, political and technological changes occur in the world, the way military tradition is expressed through policy may change. Many of the policies that exist in the military today can change without causing a conflict with military tradition. But some policies are so closely integrated with military tradition that changing the policy causes a fundamental conflict with military tradition. Fraternization is an example. Permitting familiarity between seniors and subordinates seriously undermines the credibility and effectiveness of a command, eroding the ability of a unit to accomplish its mission. If post-modern advocates can force the change of enough tradition-critical policies, they can effectively destroy military tradition.

The more dangerous and insidious threat posed by post-modern thought is in the process. Post-modern moral and social thought is not so much about implementing a particular set of policies as it is about implementing a subjective mode of thinking. The military tradition is an objective tradition founded firmly in objective standards, an objective approach to reality, and an objective decision-making process. If post-modern advocates can make a subjective decision process the primary means of changing military policy, they will destroy the objective foundation of military tradition. For the military, the key to maintaining military tradition is to ensure that military issues are handled within an objective framework with policy change occurring only as the result of the application of objective criteria.

The post-modern attack is a new type of warfare for the military—a kind of philosophical warfare. The military is at a severe disadvantage in philosophical warfare for two reasons. First, the military does not have many officers who have studied philosophy—even fewer who are moral philosophers. Second, the American military, as a public institution, has always assumed the role of executing American policy, avoiding participation in social and moral issues as much as possible. The military is neither experienced in nor adept at philosophical warfare—unlike post-modern academics who have made careers out of philosophical warfare.

The battle with post-modern morality is being fought on a familiar but poor battlefield for the military—on the field of public opinion. The American military is subordinate to the civilian government of the United States. Public opinion has a tremendous and direct effect on the actions of that government. In the end, the American public will decide who wins the battle between military tradition and post-modern moral and social concepts. If the military can convince the American public to choose based on objective standards and criteria, then military tradition can be preserved. If post-modern advocates can persuade the American public to choose based on subjective criteria, then military tradition is in serious jeopardy. Post-modern advocates have a significant advantage on the battlefield of public opinion because they are so influential in journalism and the media.

In this conflict, the military's advantage is its experience in and knowledge of military affairs and the military's best tactic is the use of objective reasons and standards in its arguments. For post-modern advocates, the key to winning public opinion is persuading people to believe that moral and social reality is fundamentally subjective. In other words, post-modern advocates want the public to see the conflict between military tradition and post-modern concepts as a conflict between two subjective viewpoints that can not be solved by reference to some higher objective standard7.

Post-modern advocates hope to achieve this by pointing out the characteristics of moral, social and political debate in modern society. These debates tend to become heated, vitriolic and—because the conflicting arguments are founded in incommensurable premises—appear to be irreconcilable. Frustrated, many people reject the idea that these arguments can be decided objectively and believe that the answer to these debates ultimately depends on "personal beliefs"—or subjective preferences. The moral, social and political reality appears to be that there is no fundamental objectivity, but only a collection of competing, incommensurable, subjective preferences.

By characterizing military tradition as just another set of preferences, post-modern advocates significantly reduce the force and authority of objective reasons and standards used by the military. If military tradition is just another subjective viewpoint, then the "objective" reasons and standards used by the military are not really objective at all—they are just subjective preferences masquerading as objective reasons. This would mean that a choice between policy based on military tradition and policy based on post-modern concepts would no longer be a rational decision based on objective criteria, but a choice made based on subjective preference. The next step for post-modern advocates would be to gain as much influence as possible over the subjective preferences of the American public. But this is easy to do, for post-modern advocates are already very influential in academia, the media and advertising where many of the intellectual, moral and social trends in America are established and promoted. Post-modern advocates are almost always successful if they can portray their viewpoint as enlightened, free and progressive and military tradition as ignorant, oppressive and passé.

By emphasizing radical individualism—especially the individual's freedom to define themselves as they wish—and by appealing to the concept of individual rights, post-modern advocates level the playing field between individuals and institutions. The preferences or desires of the individual are at least equal in importance to those of an institution—and perhaps even more important. How can this be? The argument goes something like this: Individuals are free to define themselves; individuals have rights against society/institutions; an institution should not be allowed to limit an individual seeking to fulfill their own definition.

The Conflict and Military Issues

By reviewing some recent military issues, we can identify some of these dynamics at work and identify a few more. It is important to remember that in most cases the means in the policy is implemented—objectively or subjectively—is more important than the actual policy.

Before the Tailhook incident in 1991, women were not allowed to serve aboard warships or in combat units. The Tailhook incident itself involved the criminal sexual assault of several women by military officers. The incident raised legitimate questions about sexual harassment in general and the culture of naval aviation. But the incident was also quickly exploited by some to raise an issue they considered vital, but which was unrelated to the Tailhook incident. That issue was whether women should be allowed to serve aboard warships and in combat units.

Note that the issue examined here is not the policy itself, but the process by which it was selected. I am not claiming that people who support women serving in combat units or on warships are necessarily advocates of post-modernism or moral subjectivism.

Though the Tailhook incident had nothing to do with women serving aboard warships or in combat units, those who believed that such service was important quickly seized on the incident as an opportunity to pursue that issue. It was not new objective data or argument which provided the opportunity for women's advocates to press the combat service issue, but a public relations crisis. The fact that both Tailhook and the combat service issue happened to involve women was enough to take advantage of that crisis. Shortly after the Tailhook incident, the military changed its policy concerning women serving in combat roles and aboard warships.

Since that policy change, a certain politically correct atmosphere has settled on the military. There is no doubt that military personnel have a duty to carry out policies in place whether they agree or disagree with them. There is also general agreement that open and honest debate of a difficult issue is the best way to develop the truth about that issue. If we consider military personnel, tactics, strategy, education or most other military issues, we can see that there is wide open debate on those subjects. But the issue of women in combat roles is very different. Active duty personnel are very reluctant to discuss or write about the subject in any way challenging current policy. And there seems to be an atmosphere that trumpets any data supporting women serving aboard warships and in combat units, while ignoring data that challenges that new policy.

If we examine how the policy was implemented, several things are apparent. According to military tradition, the policy change should have been examined in an objective framework by applying an objective criterion: does this policy change contribute to or impede mission accomplishment? There are three reasonable answers in the case of women serving aboard warships and in combat units: the new policy contributes to mission accomplishment (policy accepted); the new policy impedes mission accomplishment unacceptably (policy rejected); the new policy impedes mission accomplishment, but allowing women to serve aboard warships and in combat units is worth the price (policy accepted). The military should make this decision subject to review by the American public expressing its will through the federal government. All of these steps fall within an objective process consistent with military tradition.

But this was not what happened. Instead, the issue was successfully placed in a subjective framework where the "right of a woman to serve her nation in a combat role" (if she so chose) was contrasted with an oppressive, male-dominated, military policy that was considered passé. Mission accomplishment was never seriously considered as a criterion. Given the subjective framework of the issue and the public relations crisis created by Tailhook, military leaders simply accepted the new policy, subjectively, without applying the objective criteria.

If the policy had been implemented based on objective criteria, there would be no need to stifle objective debate on all aspects of the issue. Indeed, if selected properly (objectively), policy selection would have already included objective debate on all aspects of the issue. But because the policy was selected subjectively, open objective debate on the issue is necessarily stifled. Selected subjectively, the policy becomes its own self-legitimating premise (because it does not/can not depend on objective justification). When a policy has such status, debate on the issue can only be recognized if it begins with acceptance of the policy. When a policy is selected subjectively, debate concerning the justification of such a policy no longer makes sense.

Military tradition is not so easily dismissed, however. Invariably, someone will ask publicly why the policy was accepted without application of objective criteria. Within military culture, where the objectivity of military tradition is very powerful, such questions are very embarrassing because they imply that military leaders did not act in accordance with military tradition. When a policy, like women serving in combat roles, is implemented subjectively—according to the subjective decision of military leaders—opposition to the policy is implicitly disloyal.

The battle between the post-modern/subjective approach and the military tradition/objective approach is apparent also in the issue of homosexual service and the Kelly Flinn incident.

When the present administration took office, a movement was started to change the policy preventing open homosexuals from serving in the military. Advocates of the policy change argued that homosexuals have a right to serve in the military if they wish. The military argued that allowing open homosexuals to serve in the military would destroy unit cohesion—undermining the military's ability to achieve its mission. The pro-homosexual argument is a classic post-modern assertion of individual freedom against an oppressive institution. The military argument is a classic argument from military tradition that applies the objective criteria of mission-purpose. Homosexual advocates attempted to frame the issue in a subjective manner: the proposed policy is tolerant, freedom-enhancing and progressive vs. the military policy as intolerant, oppressive and passé. The military attempted to frame the issue in an objective manner: the policy change would impede mission achievement.

The military largely prevailed on this issue—but barely. While open homosexuals are not allowed to serve, the military is still very vulnerable on this issue. The first reason is that the debate on the issue is still largely conducted in a subjectivist/relativist framework. Second, the military has not made an objective, compelling argument to the American public describing the nature of unit cohesion, why it is so important, and how it fits into the larger military tradition. If homosexuality becomes more acceptable in America and if the military fails to better articulate military tradition to the public, we can expect that this policy too will change—and that open homosexuals will be allowed to serve.

The dynamics of the Kelly Flinn incident provides another example. As long as the incident was framed as an affair between consenting adults, Ms. Flinn received significant support. Military policy on adultery was widely considered naïve and old-fashioned—even a conservative senator expressed indignation and said that the military "ought to get with it." But when the incident was placed in a different framework—that Flinn was a nuclear bomber pilot who had lied to her seniors—support for Flinn evaporated.

By focusing on Flinn's adultery, Flinn's supporters placed her actions in a subjective framework. In the subjective battle between Flinn's preference for a married man and the military's outmoded policy against adultery, Flinn appeared to be the victim. But the Air Force was able to defeat this subjective strategy by articulating a clear and compelling objective argument based in military tradition. On the field of public opinion the Air Force argument was compelling: from the Cold War, people remembered the importance of military tradition—of trustworthiness—in the control of nuclear weapons.

What can we learn?

First, we must understand the nature and strategy of post-modern attacks on the military. By placing issues in a subjective context where reality is a clash of competing preferences, post-modern advocates gain a significant advantage. Individuals attempting to define and fulfill themselves assert their preferences (in the language/form of rights) against the military. These individuals have two advantages in this conflict with the military; Americans are naturally sympathetic to individuals seeking "freedom" against institutions; and these individuals will benefit from the support of post-modern trend-setters in academia and the media who have significant influence over the preferences of the public.

Second, post-modern attacks are essentially anti-rational and anti-objective. The post-modern attack begins with the assertion of a subjective preference. Objective argument are valid only insofar as they support the preference asserted. Arguments against the post-modern preference are dismissed not because they are irrational, invalid or subjective, but simply because they disagree with the preference asserted.

Third, there is at least the appearance that policy changes have occurred not because new arguments or data were made available, or because an objective criterion had been applied to the new policy in order to evaluate the policy's validity. Rather, the appearance is that new policies are selected subjectively in response to a public relations crisis. Policies adapted for objective, rational reasons are more likely to be embraced by subordinates than policies that—at least by appearance to subordinates—are implemented as a result of subjective pressure.

Fourth, the military is extremely vulnerable to post-modern attacks. The American public acting through its representative government is the ultimate arbitrator of military policy. The military can be successful in repelling post-modern attacks when it can articulate military tradition in objective terms easily understood by the American public. The problem is that the American military has not clearly articulated its military tradition in a manner that enables it to prepare effective defenses against post-modern attacks. The defensive arguments that have been presented by the military have generally been ad hoc, fragmented, inconsistent and considered passé. All of these reduce the credibility and force of military arguments and reinforce the post-modern goal of persuading people to accept the nature of reality as fundamentally subjective.

The conflict between military tradition and post-modern concepts has been very damaging to the military. Every time policy changes because the military has failed to adequately defend or articulate its military tradition, that tradition loses its force and becomes less compelling and more difficult to define. Policy changes themselves are not bad—we need to change bad policies. But when policy changes occur for subjective reasons or because the military has not adequately defended military tradition the effects are devastating. People in society and, more importantly, people in the military lose more and more respect for that tradition which is the backbone for American military strength.

There is more. Military tradition is a way of life. As military tradition is undermined and loses its focus and force, the lives of military personnel and their families are undermined. Military personnel naturally look to senior leadership to defend the tradition that is at the core of their lives. Often these leaders can articulate the importance of military tradition in terms of their own experience, but not in terms accessible or compelling to the American public. The inability to defend military tradition severely undermines the faith of subordinates in senior leadership—further eroding military tradition. In a recent edition of Wings of Gold magazine, two of three active duty admirals writing columns admitted that loss of faith by subordinates in senior leadership is a serious problem8.

The Military-Society Disconnect

Post-modern attacks on military tradition also undermine the relationship between the military and American society at large. In his recent book, Making the Corps, Thomas Ricks notes that the military and American society are becoming increasingly disconnected. This disconnect has moral, cultural and class dimensions. Ricks argues that the military—especially the Marine Corps—increasingly views itself as the guardian of traditional values and views society as morally corrupt. As we move further away from the age of universal military service, fewer members of the upper class and academia have military experience9.

The disconnection is potentially dangerous: if American society does not understand the military tradition that is the soul of the American military, they may lose the American military as an institution ready to defend American interests around the world. And while no one is arguing for what could be called the Latin American model (the military seizing control of the government to restore proper values), there is little to be gained from a military that holds the society it defends in moral contempt.

As society increasingly embraces post-modern moral and social concepts, we should not be surprised that there is a growing disconnect with a military that maintains an objective tradition. And we should not be surprised by the disconnect between the military and the upper class and academia: these are the strongholds of post-modern advocates.

Ricks argues that the solution to this disconnect is the development of better communication between the military and the upper class and academia. By encouraging more upper class people and academics to serve in the military, the upper class, academics and the military will obtain a better understanding of each other and reduce tensions between the groups10.

But Ricks' solution begs the question of irreconcilable differences between military tradition and post-modern concepts in contemporary society. Better communication can not reconcile post-modern moral and social thought and military tradition. We have discussed the nature of military tradition, the characteristics of the post-modern moral and social viewpoint, and the nature and characteristics of the conflict between military tradition and post-modern viewpoint. But there are some larger, unanswered questions. Is military tradition morally and socially superior to the post-modern concepts gaining influence in contemporary society? Even if military tradition is socially and morally superior, given that the military is subordinate to the society which it defends, should the military accept the societal viewpoint even though it knows that the societal viewpoint is wrong? If the military knows that military tradition is morally correct, should the military act to instill the key concepts of that tradition into society?

Many of those considering these questions make the mistake of confusing the social and moral values of elements of American society with the social and moral values of American society as a whole. While post-modern concepts of moral subjectivism and moral nihilism are very visible and becoming more influential in American society, they do not define American society or American tradition in general. The conflict between military tradition and American society is false. The true conflict is between military tradition and elements of post-modern moral and social philosophy, none of which are integral to American culture, society or tradition. The military is subordinate to American society, but not to post-modern moral and social thought. There is nothing wrong then, with military tradition being in conflict with post-modern thought per se.

Nevertheless, American society is the battlefield for this conflict and the defense of military tradition must take place in the context of American society. Unlike post-modern moral and social thought, it is not the intent of military tradition to reform American society. But the military can defend military tradition in and set a positive moral example for American society.

Defending Military Tradition
Given the importance of military tradition to the military and the nation, and given the nature, dynamics and increasing effectiveness of post-modern attacks on military tradition, what can be done to ensure the integrity of military tradition?

In order to defend military tradition, we must fully understand that tradition. What constitutes military tradition? How is military tradition manifest in the history, customs, ceremonies and policies of the military? How is military tradition developed, refined and changed? What roles does military tradition play in the lives of our Marines, Sailors, airmen and soldiers?

We must be able to articulate military tradition in a clear, easily understandable and compelling manner. This full description of military tradition will provide military personnel and their families with a clear understanding of who they are, what their role is, and what their duties are to themselves, to others and to their nation. If clear and compelling, this description of military tradition will provide the American public with an in-depth and sympathetic understanding of the institution that defends their freedom.

A defense of military tradition must account for the nature and dynamics of post-modern attacks on military tradition. The defense must provide an objective foundation for military tradition, safeguarding it from the post-modern concept that moral reality is fundamentally subjective or relative.

From that objective foundation, the defense must provide objective criteria that the military, military personnel and the American public can use to evaluate the validity and/or performance of military personnel, units and policies.

Finally, the defense/description of military tradition must be integrated, flexible, dynamic, complex and must develop people. By integrated, I mean that the description of military tradition must provide a seamless account of military tradition and how it relates to other military issues. The description must be flexible enough to handle abstract questions and practical application simultaneously. The description must be dynamic enough to account for drastic changes in technology and situations without compromising the core military tradition itself. By complex I mean that the description must be easy enough to understand that junior enlisted can immediately integrate it into their lives, yet deep enough that even senior officers will find continuous intellectual challenge. And last, the description must be one that challenges Marines, Sailors, airmen and soldiers to continuous professional, moral and intellectual development.

Moral Philosophy of the Virtues

The best way for the military to prevail in the conflict between military tradition and post-modern moral and social thought is to articulate military tradition within the philosophical tradition of the virtues. Fully consistent with military tradition, the virtue tradition can enable the military to fully understand, develop and extend military tradition. It can provide a clear, understandable and compelling description of American military tradition to military personnel and the public. Because the virtue tradition is objective, it can effectively counter post-modern attacks and provide objective, rational criteria for the evaluation of performance and policies. Consistent with natural law, the virtue tradition can provide a bridge across religions and culture, binding military personnel into tighter communities, reducing ethnic, racial and gender tensions. Finally, the incredible depth of the virtue tradition can provide Marines, Sailors, airmen and soldiers with the opportunity to develop themselves to their full potential, seeking personal and professional excellence.

The best contemporary articulation of the virtue tradition can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre's groundbreaking work, After Virtue. In addition to his discussion of the virtue tradition, MacIntyre provides an equally important account of the rise of post-modern moral thought and the concept that moral reality is fundamentally subjective or relativistic. The virtue tradition binds together concepts of individual and community excellence and narrative in a compelling way that tells us how to pursue and live the good life.

According to the virtue tradition, all people have a purpose in life—to seek the good—and all people are social by nature and find fulfillment through participation in communities.

The virtue tradition understands the human condition as consisting of three parts: 1) man-as-he-is (natural man); 2) man-as-he-could-be (idealized man); and 3) those qualities of character which enable people to make the transition from natural man to idealized man.11 The objective purpose for all people is to seek the good—to become the idealized person. Just as mission is the objective criterion for evaluating performance in the military, purpose provides us with an objective criterion for performance in life. Those things that contribute to mission/purpose are good and to be encouraged. Those things that impeded mission/purpose are bad and to be avoided. The virtues are those qualities of character the practice of which contribute to achieving the good, while those that hinder are vices. Because all people have an objective purpose, the virtues can be used as objective standards of behavior. Finally, a person can only be properly understood as they key player in the story or narrative of his or her own life. In other words, the actions, behavior and motivations of a person can only be fully understood in the context of that person's past and their progression towards the future.12

While the concept of the good is the same for all people, people with different talents may pursue that same good through different means; some through the arts, others through business, and still others through service to their nation.

That people are social by nature and find fulfillment in the context of communities is evident several ways. Virtues like honesty, duty, justice and commitment all assume relationships with others and can only be properly developed in the context of a community. All people within a proper community are linked by their common pursuit of a common purpose in life—the good. And just as a soldier finds personal development and fulfillment through commitment to the good of the unit, people find development and fulfillment through commitment to the good of their communities.

The virtue tradition emphasizes the person, not moral dilemmas, and asks what is the nature of the good life, not in this situation, what is the right thing to do? It emphasizes character development through a combination of intellectual understanding and the constant development and habituation of the virtues through community activities. The virtue tradition does not give people a formula to apply to difficult moral situations in order to derive the "right" answer. Instead, the virtue tradition trusts that in a difficult situation, a person will display those virtues they have habituated and act well.

The virtue tradition is completely consistent with military tradition. Both the virtue and military tradition emphasize mission or purpose. In both traditions, mission/purpose is the objective criterion by which all other things are evaluated. Both traditions emphasize community and a view of man as a social being. And just as the virtuous person find meaning and fulfillment through participation in community, so the service member finds meaning and personal fulfillment through participation in the unit. Both the military and virtue traditions emphasize the importance of the narrative story in properly understanding individuals/service members and communities/units. Finally, both traditions provide individuals/service members with an integrated, seamless approach to life.

The virtue tradition can provide military tradition with a much better philosophical foundation than other moral philosophies. As discussed earlier, post-modern philosophies such as moral subjectivism, moral relativism or moral nihilism are in conflict with military tradition. But what about modern (Enlightenment) moral philosophies like Kant's categorical imperative and Mill's utilitarianism?

These modern philosophies reject the concept of an external purpose but still attempt to provide an objective basis for morality. These philosophies do not concentrate on people or on developing an integrated, seamless way of life, but on moral problems. Given a moral problem, these moral traditions offer a formula by which the proper action, independent of the agent, can be determined. Moral behavior consists in performing that action. Military tradition seeks fulfillment of the individual through full commitment of that individual to the community and community fulfillment through the community's dedication to the development of individuals in the community. But modern philosophies emphasize the autonomy of the individual and fulfillment of individual needs. In contrast with military tradition, modern philosophies understand communities to be little more than collections of individuals pursuing their own purposes. Because attention is on moral problems and not the moral way of life, modern philosophies believe that character and professional purpose can be examined separately. Modern moral philosophies are clearly inconsistent with military tradition and not suitable as the philosophical foundation for military tradition.

Virtue Tradition and the Military

To a greater or lesser degree, the virtue tradition already exists in the traditions of each of the services. Indeed, it can be argued that military tradition is really the philosophy of the virtues expressed in a military context.13 By clearly articulating military tradition in terms of the virtues, the military can significantly strengthen military tradition. The philosophy of the virtues can provide military tradition with a larger philosophical framework in which military tradition can be understood, explored, developed and extended.

Articulating military tradition in terms of the virtues will provide the military with a standardized and integrated approach to military tradition that will reduce confusion and make military tradition more relevant in the lives of military personnel. An example can be found in the leadership, ethics and professional development programs taught today. Many programs integrate the three elements very awkwardly, if at all. Professional skills (MOS credibility) are required to gain promotion, leadership is a set of theories used to get people to get the job done, and ethics is either a set of theories one can apply to case studies to determine the correct answer, or an opportunity for values clarification. By clearly articulating military tradition in terms of the virtues, we can better integrate and reinforce these programs. One develops virtues overcoming the challenges one faces pursuing professional excellence. Those virtues lead to better behavior and develop respect in peers, subordinates and seniors necessary for leadership and followership. The respect given and received for professional and personal excellence in turn deepens the sense of community, reinforcing the ethical bonds uniting the community and the virtues in unit members. And that commitment to unit/community inspires individual service members to even greater personal, professional and leadership development.

This is a far more powerful and effective way to ensure that military personnel are ethical than current ethics courses and sexual harassment stand-downs. But even when considering ethics separately, the virtue tradition is a more powerful approach. A virtue ethics program would instill the virtues much in the same way military tradition attempts to develop leaders.

The best way to develop leaders is to give them an intellectual understanding of leadership principles and dynamics, followed by lots of practical application over a long period of time. Good/bad leadership is evaluated by determining whether or not the leader displays objective leadership characteristics. Good leadership is the result of the leader developing and habituating good leadership characteristics over time. Given the intellectual understanding and the habituated leadership characteristics, we can be confident that even in a stressful situation, the good leader will lead well. And how will that leader know how to lead well? That leader will probably consider the situation from a number of different perspectives using a number of different approaches, and will make a decision based on that leader's practical wisdom developed through their career.

A virtue ethics program would concentrate on developing military personnel not by educating them in ethics courses, by considering endless case studies or by clarifying their values in seminars. Instead, a virtue ethics program would concentrate on the habituation and reinforcement of the virtues through unit activities that develop the professional and personal excellence of individuals and the unit. As discussed earlier, those activities develop and reinforce commitment between unit members and between individuals and the unit. Good ethics is the result of practical wisdom developed through experience and habituation of the virtues, not the result of applying a particular moral theory to a particular situation in order to determine the "right" action for that situation.

Such a virtue ethics program would be fully integrated with professional and leadership development. It would concentrate on developing an environment—a culture—where the virtues are constantly developed and reinforced. And it would save a lot of the effort expended attempting to find the "right" ethical theory.

A Virtue Defense for Military Tradition

The virtue tradition can also provide military tradition with an extremely powerful defense against post-modern attacks and help bridge the disconnect between American society and the military.

The best defense is a good offense, and at least one description of the virtue tradition includes a compelling refutation of moral relativism and subjectivism. In After Virtue, MacIntyre provides a compelling historical account of moral philosophy and its movement towards subjectivism and relativism. MacIntyre argues that the belief that moral reality is fundamentally relative and/or subjective is a fallacy that finds its origin in a series of philosophical mistakes that began in the Enlightenment.14 Enlightenment philosophers rejected concepts like purpose and community and attempted to find other objective justifications for behavior like honesty, courage and duty. The attempts ultimately failed, resulting in Nietzsche's conclusion that if there is no objective justification for morality, there can be no objective morality. Instead, Nietzsche argues, there are only subjective, individual preferences for behavior—values. MacIntyre argues that we are faced with a choice: we can either choose the objective virtue tradition or we are stuck with an irreconcilable moral nihilism.15 Moral subjectivism, relativism and nihilism are not wrong just because they lead to moral anarchy, but because they have their origin in a philosophical mistake that denied purpose and community.

By providing a philosophical framework for better understanding military tradition, the virtue tradition can also help military tradition develop a clear set of criteria for evaluating policy proposals and military programs of all kinds. Policy changes and programs that strengthen military tradition and better integrate things like professional, ethical and leadership development would be supported. Policies or programs that undermine military tradition would be modified or eliminated. The virtue tradition would strengthen military tradition by ensuring consistency and promoting more effective program integration.

Because we do not have a thorough understanding of military tradition, modern and post-modern concepts have infiltrated the military and undermined military tradition. An outstanding example of this are the core values programs. Military tradition teaches us that there are objective standards of behavior. Values is a post-modern concept that describes what an individual considers to be important—their subjective preferences. If the military believes in objective standards of behavior, why does it have core values programs? In truth, the core values function as core virtues: objective standards of behavior that all military personnel are expected to demonstrate.

Beside the poor use of terminology, institutional core values programs can not achieve what they propose. Because values are subjective, the values chosen for a core values program can not be selected by any objective process—they must be selected by consensus. Typically, key players each write a list of values and the core values are those agreed upon by everyone. Because the program values were not selected by an objective process, the program itself has no objective force. Implicit in the core values program concept is the idea that everyone agrees on the values and will supply their own reason for acting in accordance with the values.

Now consider those upon whom the core values program is supposed to have some beneficial effect. We can divide these people into two groups. In the first group are those who already have a reason for following the core values. For this first group, the core values program is merely a restatement of what they already believe—the program provides them with nothing new. Then there is the second group—those who do not already believe in or possess the core values. This is the group which the core values program is intended to help the most. What people in this second group need most is a good reason to believe in and follow the core values. But this is precisely what a core values program can not give them—for the core values were selected without objective reason and have no objective force. By their nature, core values programs can not succeed in changing people's values, they can only serve as a statement of organizational preferences. A better approach would be to implement a core virtues program that establishes objective standards of behavior with objective justification.

Another example is obvious in the current Navy recruiting campaign. Sailors have traditionally considered their service a calling involving a deep commitment to ship, shipmates and nation. In advertisements the Navy uses the pitch "Let the journey begin", discusses core values and talks about a journey of personal development. All of these concepts are clearly consistent with the virtue and military traditions. Then almost immediately we hear a conflicting pitch from the modern tradition: "We have jobs."16 Is naval service a calling or a job? The answer is critical because it goes straight to the issue of how Sailors define themselves, their expectations and their duties in Navy culture.

The virtue tradition can identify and eliminate these elements of modern and post-modern moral and social thought and bring greater consistency and strength to military tradition.

The Virtue Tradition and the Disconnect

The importance of the virtue tradition is demonstrated decisively when we consider the growing disconnect between the military and American society. Let us begin by considering two of the approaches currently used to handle the disconnect in basic training. In Making the Corps, Ricks describes a Marine Corps wary of what it perceives to be an increasingly corrupt American society. A major challenge for the Marine Corps is to cleanse recruits of the bad ideas they bring from American society and instill in them Marine Corps culture and tradition.17 In contrast, the Army is much more accommodating of the attitudes and ideas that recruits bring. Instead of being wary of American culture, the Army is much more accepting, choosing to work with what it gets from American society rather than trying to change it.18

If we consider the disconnect from the virtue tradition, we can see that both approaches have flaws. The Marine Corps risks alienating American society in general because it is unable to differentiate between American society and corrupt subjectivist and relativist elements in American society. The Army risks the integrity of military tradition because it is unable to differentiate between good attitudes and post-modern attitudes which will corrode and undermine military tradition. By articulating military tradition in a broader philosophical framework, the virtue tradition can eliminate growing disdain for "corrupt" American society by drawing a clear distinction between American society and corrupt subjectivist and relativistic elements in American society. At the same time, the virtue tradition can provide a criterion for permitting attitudes—in basic training—that reinforce military tradition while changing or eliminating attitudes that are contrary to military tradition.

Describing military tradition in terms of the virtues will enable the military to close the disconnect between the military and American society. As it strengthens, develops and extends military tradition, the virtues will enable the military to set an outstanding professional and moral example for American society. Sharing a foundation in natural law with many religions and cultures, the virtue tradition will enable the military to bind people together into truly diverse but committed communities. By making military tradition easy to understand, the virtue tradition can help the military develop an outstanding relationship with the American public. In contrast to the moral anarchy brought on by moral subjectivism and nihilism, and the increased religious, ethnic and racial tensions brought on by radical individualism, the virtue tradition will enable the military to set an outstanding professional and moral example for the public. By providing a passive but outstanding example and by making military tradition more accessible, the military can gain the confidence of American society.


The great strength of our armed forces lies in the Marines, Sailors, airmen and soldiers who serve their nation everyday around the world. The foundation for that strength is the American military tradition which provides the people of our armed forces with a way of life that explains who they are and what their duties are to themselves, to their unit, to their service and to their nation.

But that military tradition is being subjected to a withering attack by elements of post-modern moral and social philosophies. So far the military has failed to adequately identify or counter the post-modern threat. As a result, American military tradition is being constantly eroded and the military is becoming increasingly disconnected from American society.

It is time for the American military to rediscover itself and the foundation of its strength. It is time for the military to recommit itself to the tradition that sustains it. By articulating military tradition within the philosophical framework of the virtues, the military can ensure the integrity of the military tradition in the face of post-modern assaults and bridge the disconnect that separates the military from American society. If the military does not counter the post-modern threat, the foundation of the American military and its combat strength may be lost. But if the military successfully implements the virtue tradition, it can not only defend military tradition, but continually develop and improve that tradition, enhancing the combat strength and public prestige of the American military.

1The post-modern moral and social perspectives referred to include (but are not necessarily limited to): emotivism, moral subjectivism, moral/cultural relativism and moral nihilism.
2Military tradition has always been a collection of customs, ceremonies, practices and traditional events and never categorically defined. In order to discuss military tradition, I must do so from a particular viewpoint and that viewpoint will affect the characteristics I choose to examine. If my thesis is correct, then the conflicting philosophies I describe may very well characterize military tradition in conflicting ways. The objection will be that the way I characterize military tradition will support my views precisely because the characteristics I have chosen flow from the viewpoint I wish to support. In order to avoid this, I have attempted to reach back behind particular customs, ceremonies, practices and events in order to apprehend the essence of the military approach to life.
3 Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert H. Bork (New York: Regan Books) 1997 pp. 17-163. Bork describes in detail two trends in contemporary American society towards radical individualism and radical egalitarianism.
4 By cultural elitists, I mean those people in American society that are not only considered by others to be trend-setters in American culture, but more importantly, consider themselves the trend-setters in American culture. In post-modern thinking that denies objective standards but honors subjective preference, trends, fashions and tastes are everything and those that set the trends, fashions and tastes are very powerful leaders. In this mode of thinking, one may respect Mother Theresa because she acted consistently with her personal preferences (not because she sacrificed, demonstrated compassion, or followed the teachings of Christ—an external authority), but one has real admiration for a person like Gianni Versace because Versace set fashion preferences for society!
5 Some assert that post-modern thinking promotes diversity, builds unity and community, and decreases ethnic and racial tensions—but this can not be true in the long term. Because the post-modern approach is fundamentally subjectivist, it can not appeal to an outside/external authority to reconcile the inevitable conflicts between the different preferences of individuals and/or groups. Without a rational means of reconciling different preferences, individuals and groups with conflicting preferences will have to use force to assert or defend their preferences. There is an apparent sense of unity and community among post-modernists because conflicting preferences have largely been subordinated to the first goal of defeating traditional, standard-based moral and social perspectives. If that goal is ever achieved, one can expect to see conflict between post-modern preferences to rise quickly—and very possibly violently—to the surface.
6 Post-modernism—subjectivist by nature—must argue for at least one objective truth: that subjectivism is correct. Overlooking this contradiction, if subjectivism is correct, then viewpoints arguing for the existence of objective standards are wrong. Post-modern thinkers can not tolerate viewpoints (like military tradition) that are not only objectively wrong (from the post-modern perspective), but which oppose fundamental post-modern concepts. It is interesting that post-modern thinkers often verbalize their own intolerance of objectivist viewpoints by describing those who advocate objective standards as "intolerant" or "extremists".
7 The conflict can not be solved by reference to a higher objective standard because—if the world is fundamentally morally and socially subjective—there are no higher objective standards. Any standard that one might try to use would not be objective or higher, but merely another subjective preference masquerading as an objective standard.
8 Wings of Gold, Summer '97, Vol. 22, No. 2, Association of Naval Aviation. Howgozit, RADM Denny McGinn, Director of Air Warfare and Situation Report, VADM John Mazach, COMNAVAIRLANT.
9 Making the Corps, Thomas E. Ricks (New York: Scribner) 1997, pp. 280-290
10 Ibid, pp. 296-297
11 After Virtue, 2nd ed., Alasdair MacIntyre (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press) 1984 pp. 52-58, pp. 81-82
12 Ibid, pp. 204-220
13 For an in-depth analysis of this issue, particularly the relationship between the virtue tradition and Marine Corps tradition, see Virtue in the Corps online at
14 Ibid, pp. 51-61
15 Ibid, pp. 113-120
16 Reference Navy television advertisements 10/97-01/98 and the Navy Recruiting world wide web page at:
17 12/12/97.
18 Ricks, pp. 210-220
19 Ricks, pp. 172-174