Balancing the Search for Truth with Obedience – Where the Profession of Arms (Often) Fails

Images courtesy of the Royal Society (L) and Zazzle (R). Images courtesy of the Royal Society (L) and Zazzle (R).

Friday’s Last Word – Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

In war, as in the Profession of Arms, two major concepts often collide – the search for truth – and obedience.  George Orwell wrote about this indirectly in 1946,

“The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

On one hand, the battlefield can be conceived of as one gigantic “problem” that takes curiosity, patience, and persistent study.  Clausewitz wrote in On War, “Bonaparte rightly said that …many of the decisions faced by the commander-in-chief resemble mathematical problems worthy of the gifts of Newton or Euler.”  On the other hand, a military (armies in particular) can be thought of as a single organic body.  If it does not function as one, or with “unity of effort,” then it’s effectiveness is significantly degraded.  In short, from my perspective, the U.S. military tends to lean towards the second at the expense of the first. 

So we’re more Semper Fidelis” (“always faithful”) than “Nullius in Verba” (take nobody’s word for it”).  “Semper fi,” of course, is the Marines famous motto.  And, even better, that image is often represented by the Marines “devil dog” image; Plato imagined “obedient dogs” as the perfect guardians of society in Republic.  “Nullius in verba” is the Royal Society’s motto – one of the most famous organizations for supporting the search for truth in the world (which incidentally, included both Newton and Euler).  *Note: another good option might be Harvard’s simple motto: “Vertias” (“truth”).

In my mind, this search for “truth” can be considered the same as the search for knowledge.  Useful for definitional purposes, David Brooks of the New York Times has just written to distinguish “knowledge” from “information,”

“Information is what you need to make money short term. Knowledge is the deeper understanding of how things work. It’s obtained only by long and inefficient study. It’s gained by those who set aside the profit motive and instead possess an intrinsic desire just to know.”

Whether or not one agrees with my assessment of any imbalance (and it is really just my personal observation), most would support the contention that the object for the Profession of Arms ought to be to find the appropriate balance between “Nullius in verba” and “Semper Fi.”  If members of the Profession of Arms do not approach tactical and strategic problems with both – they will very likely lose.  Never-ending questioning may lead to “paralysis by analysis,” but blind obedience will stumble to failure.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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