The Animal House Theory of Military Leadership

On the one hand, I agree with Julian Sanchez:

People who join the military, of course, surrender a great deal autonomy to their superior officers and, ultimately, their commander in chief. It should be obvious why this is necessary for them to serve effectively, but it should be seen as part of a bargain that comes with a profound obligation not to abuse the enormous trust the enlisted must place in the political leadership by sending them into battle, or keeping them in the field, except when victory is achievable and the cause is vital. You can’t just brush away concerns about whether our leaders are taking their end of the deal sufficiently seriously, or exercising that trust with sound judgement, by suggesting that the troops deserve whatever they get because, hey, they signed up. This is the Animal House theory of military leadership: “You fucked up! You trusted us!”

On the other hand, I agree with Herbert Spencer:

Some years ago I gave my expression to my own feeling – anti-patriotic feeling, it will doubtless be called – in a somewhat startling way. It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be “our interests,” we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenæum Club a well-known military man – then a captain but now a general – drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying – “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”

I foresee the exclamation which will be called forth. Such a principle, it will be said, would make an army impossible and a government powerless. It would never do to have each soldier use his judgment about the purpose for which a battle is waged. Military organization would be paralyzed and our country would be a prey to the first invader.

Not so fast, is the reply. For one war an army would remain just as available as now – a war of national defence. In such a war every soldier would be conscious of the justice of his cause. He would not be engaged in dealing death among men about whose doings, good or ill, he knew nothing, but among men who were manifest transgressors against himself and his compatriots. Only aggressive war would be negatived, not defensive war.

Both the political leadership as well as the military volunteers are (to varying degrees) morally responsible. The deaths that result from the war are both the result of a political decision to engage in war and an individual volunteer's decision to fight in one. Without both parties playing their roles, the deaths would not have occurred.

Electoral politics is the black hole of moral responsibility. Just as in a frat house eventually devolves into a finger-pointing circle-jerk regarding whose turn it is to wash the dishes, politically-induced wars of aggression eventually devolve into the military volunteers blaming the politicians, the politicians blaming the electorate, and the electorate blaming the military volunteers, and all the various other combinations in between. Around and around we go, but it's never anyone's fault, the dirty dishes remain stacked in the sink, and the bodies continue to pile up.

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