by Michael G. Sabbeth
In Polymnia, the Seventh Book of the History of Herodotus, Demaratus, a betrayed Spartan, warned Persian King Xerxes against attacking the Spartans. “Valour is an ally whom we have gained by dint of wisdom and strict laws,” he said. Xerxes, scoffing, said the Spartans were weak because they are free men under no direct authority. Demaratus admonished Xerxes, “They are the bravest of all. For though they be free men, they are not in all respects free. Law is the master whom they own; and this master they fear more than thy subjects fear thee... It forbids them to flee in battle...and requires them to conquer or die.”
Xerxes ignored Demaratus and was defeated in the naval Battle of Salamis. The Spartans fought for a noble purpose, not personal glory or wealth.
Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS, commander of the German Schutzstaffel(SS), the Nazi concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen death squads, expressed an elastic view of noble purpose in his speech to SS officers in Posen, Poland on October 6, 1943: “Most of you know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side.....and at the same time— apart from exceptions caused by human weakness — to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard..... a page of glory in our history... We had the moral right, we had the duty to our people, to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us.”
Like beauty, noble purpose is in the eyes of the beholder. Himmler illustrates the infinite capacity of the human mind to behold the vilest evil as noble. The lethality of modern weaponry dictates that the survival of the human species and much else will be a consequence of the proper determination of the nobility of purpose our professionals in arms are commanded to implement.
Leaders determine what is noble, but they, even if democratically elected, offer no guarantee of wisdom and virtue. Ascribing something as noble is an easy rhetorical stunt, but, in George Gershwin’s words, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Noble purposes do exist. A realist’s perspective on noble purpose should incorporate criteria to measure its nobility, its consequences and the likelihood it will be pursued. The inherent ethics of the purpose, the existence of power to implement it, the moral clarity possessed by leaders assessing it and the existence of moral will to implement the purpose must be assessed. Those who choose a life of service within the profession of arms are duty bound to understand the morality of their assigned purposes and to make moral judgments among conflicting noble purposes.
In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
In Once an Eagle, a seminal novel on military honor, Anton Myrer expressed a noble purpose: “but what excited him (Sam Damon) most of all were the stories of Cincinnatus and Dumouriez and Prescot, of farmers and citizens who took arms to confound tyranny and crush it, who stepped into the mortal breach to save their native lands...”
Of the six purposes cited in the Preamble of the United States Constitution that justify its creation, one imposes a noble purpose on the nation’s profession of arms: provide for the common defense. The Preamble is derived from the classic Greek tragedian concept that the natural state of man is conflict rather than peace
due to its predatory and opportunistic nature. Thus, society has a duty to protect its citizens through deterrence and battle. In Western culture, the mission of the profession of arms is to serve the rule of law and individual freedom.
Augustine of Hippo, generally considered the greatest Christian theologian, asserted: “Peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin.” The premise of the ‘just war’ was that the evil of war could be justified only if war could prevent greater evils.
"Evil is never done so thoroughly or so well as when it is done with a good conscience." Blaise Pascal
Moral clarity, the intersection of the rational and the ethical, allows nobility of purpose to be judged on its own ethical integrity. A fighter pilot in Gulf War I was instructed to shoot Iraqis fleeing Kuwait. Deductive reasoning compels that the mission to get Iraqis out of Kuwait had been accomplished and the rationale for shooting them no longer existed. The pilot requested a change of orders. The granting of modified orders negating the instruction to shoot acknowledged a noble purpose premised upon sanctity of life, among other virtues.
Either a purpose is noble or it is not, based on reasonably objective criteria discerned by scalpel-like questioning: does the purpose advance ethical principles such as Autonomy, Justice, Sanctity of Life and individual liberty and personal freedom? Himmler’s didn’t. Neither did Mohamed Atta’s, the Egyptian hijacker who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower on September 11, 2001.
The absence of moral clarity leads to moral confusion and false moral equivalencies, risking an Orwellian linguistic dishonesty where the narrative of the enemy defines the noble purpose. Moral clarity must distinguish between reasoning and rationalizing; between rational and sophistic rhetoric.
The nobility of a nation’s purpose is a function of its power to actualize that purpose. As power drains, what is noble becomes malleable. John Keegan, the great military historian, observed that a nation without a military is in a sense no longer a nation. Author Mark Steyn noted that “in a more general sense, nations that abandon their militaries tend also to abandon their national interests: Increasingly, instead of policies, they have attitudes.”
When nations lack the power to address serious issues, they become consumed with trivial ones, where, for example, concerns for windmills trump concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons. The nation becomes a bystander in its own fate.
Executing a noble purpose requires power. Nations promised fortunes in aid in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Sumatra, Indonesia. As food and goods piled up on docks, to be stolen or to rot, the United States military saved lives because it had the power—helicopters and pilots—to reach stranded and wounded people. If you’d wanted to donate to a useful charity to save lives, you’d have given your money to the United States Navy.
In the absence of power, a nation may, at best, mask its impotence by couching its noble purpose in narcissistic moral preening. The most assertive action almost any nation can now take to confront savagery around the world is to get a UN resolution expressing concern.
Moral will is the distillate of several qualities, including ethical character, the capacity to analyze facts and, through logic and reason, evaluate foreseeable consequences of actions and inactions. Character, however, is the most salient attribute of moral will. The essence of moral leadership is the ability to inspire loyalty and confidence through force of personal example; the difference between the officer yelling "Follow me!" as opposed to "Charge!"
Moral will in its most honorable incarnation is duty but duty does not define its boundaries. The most motivating force in war is not country or flag but protecting your buddy. ‘Leave no soldier behind’ is the quintessential expression of moral will.
Moral will is the willingness to risk all for a noble purpose. U. S. Army Ranger Sergeant Leroy Petry, the second living soldier since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor, saved the lives of at least two men in his unit by lunging for a grenade before it could kill them, amputating his hand. "It's not courage," he said. "It was love. I looked at the two men next to me that day and they were no different than my own children or my wife. I did what anyone would have done." Anyone would have done? If only!
Moral will directs behavior. It demands that the exigencies of the present not be cravenly ignored. It demands a credible deterrence against those that desire to undermine you. Rather than having perverse mesmerizing awe for the aggressive self certainty of those inflicting harm, the exercise of moral will effects an unalloyed commitment to defeat them. The nation that lacks moral will acquiesces in barbarism.
Lack of moral will degrades into moral confusion, undermines confidence in noble purposes and can lead to appeasement, the appearance of weakness and possibly the preemptive compromising of those values the arms professionals have sworn to uphold. Moral will enables a nation to have the right enemies and the right friends. You can be liked by all or you can be a great noble power. You can’t be both.
CONFLICTING NOBLE PURPOSES
Noble purposes often conflict. A soldier’s work is inherently conflicted among obligations to the object of the conflict, the welfare of the men and the broader ethical context of the mission. If these conflictual choices are not recognized and their resolutions deliberated, there is nothing for the professional in arms to profess.
Conflicting noble purposes are evident in innumerable choices and decisions such as those pertaining to the release of prisoners from Guantanamo, the use of drone attacks, the concern for collateral damage as a factor to limit or reject lethal action and the rules of engagement.
We nobly aspire to be a nation of laws, not men, yet when decisions are made on the basis of bureaucratic legalisms, risks increase that released prisoners will return to kill Americans. The noble purpose of avoiding or reducing what is euphemistically called collateral damage is undermined when those targets are spared and, thus, allowed to kill more innocents. When the rules of engagement give greater value to the lives of enemy fighters than one’s own, its nobility of purpose begins to dissipate like smoke at a campfire.
The inherent conflicts among noble purposes are ineluctable and elude the consistent application of the same solutions. In harmony with the Greek tragedian sense, leaders must be adaptable and, with grit and nobility of character, struggle to find new solutions. However, consistent principles should guide leaders to find resolutions on a case by case basis. Classist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson advocates pragmatism and prudence but acknowledges that for them to have moral value, pragmatism and prudence must be wrapped in an ethos that defends the nation and its core values of individual liberty and personal freedom.
But what is strength without a double share Of wisdom?
A discussion of noble purposes and the profession of arms should raise the kinds of questions informed engaged citizens must ask if they are to gauge and hold accountable the moral integrity of their society and the arms profession that defends it. Noble purposes should be premised on a commitment to truth, for the greatest evil is done by those who believe lies. Noble purposes should advance the principles of individual liberty and freedom. They should be identified unambiguously and vigorously defended without apology or equivocation.
Noble principles are not self-executing and ethics are not self-actualizing. Thus, leaders of moral character must be cultivated, nurtured and rewarded. Paraphrasing Thomas Sowell, ignorance draped in confidence is a dangerous quality and a leader’s ignorance conveyed through brilliant rhetoric will lead to national disaster.
If the leadership chain fails to interpret and advance noble purposes and allows them to morph into philosophies contoured by momentary convenience and expedience, then noble intent becomes polluted like a toxic chemical seeping into an aquifer, subverting the mission of the profession of arms.
The kinds of questions a society and its arms professionals ask—political, military, cultural, financial—illuminate their level of courage and honor. Noble purposes are more likely identified and achieved when leaders are not, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, “intoxicated with admiration at their own wisdom and ability.”
Those who have dedicated their lives to the profession of arms can best realize nobility of purpose through ruthless introspection of their wisdom, character and moral will. Spelunking into the labyrinthine caverns of their souls to confront the tyrants within may be the noblest purpose of all.