“GUEST OP-ED FROM MY DEAR FRIEND COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON (RET.), MILITARY RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOUNDATION (MRFF) ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER, AND FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL’S CHIEF OF STAFF” – MIKEY WEINSTEIN
The Real Foundations of Moral Obligation
I admire and respect Marines. If anyone has any disbelief in this regard, grab a copy of Frozen Chosen: The 1st Marine Division and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir by Thomas Cleaver, and read the prologue which I wrote.
So, I really detest having to attack them—but, in this case, since I am going after their head chaplain, Rear Admiral Brent W. Scott, chaplain of the Marine Corps and, by indirection, their commandant (nothing happens without his knowledge), General Robert B. Neller, I am not too troubled. As a one-time buck private in the Army, I relish showing up the “tin hats”, as Truman labeled them, for what they sometimes are.
“Spiritual Fitness Training” is these two men’s latest initiative to bring Marines around to thinking about their beings. Now, first, I have met very few Marines who needed such grounding—their fellow Marines being all they considered necessary to so ground them—and second, why go to the USMC’s chaplain for such training? Because what we are looking for here is the same thing that warriors have been looking for throughout human history—particularly well-discovered and articulated since the ancient Greeks began the process of pondering and writing on the subject. And the subject is not “spiritual”, it is “mental”.
“Spiritual” is a particularly chaplainesque term. It puts one immediately into a straightjacket of religious cast. Like most such jackets, it is enormously constraining, both intellectually and statutorily (our Constitution, which we swear to support and defend if we are warriors for the state, prohibits our connecting our oath with any religion). No one should go there. Instead, the great philosophers throughout history should be the guides—people such as Epictetus, Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Kant, and their more recent counterparts from Sartre and Camus to Neibhur and Merton. Men such as Mohammad and Christ may be consulted but not as leaders of religions but as delivers of wise counsel.
Before anyone explodes in righteous indignation, let me walk briefly through a most effective way of doing this. Most effective. In fact, the best I have ever experienced.
It happened at the US Naval War College. It involved two men dedicated to its happening, medal of honor winner Admiral James Stockdale and his co-professor, Joseph Gerard Brennan. It was a course entitled “The Foundations of Moral Obligation.”
Using the philosophical great minds—as well as writers of literature such as the German Thomas Mann and the Englishman William Shakespeare—these two men wove a tapestry of ethical behaviors in the minds of all of us plebeians sitting at their feet.
We heard the poetry of Virgil, the stoicism of Epictetus, the rhetoric of Demosthenes, the history of Thucydides, the drama of Aristophanes, the sturm und drang of Goethe (the saints forbid, we even heard a little of Karl Marx!).
I have never in my life of 71 years to this point sat in the midst of a more intellectually vibrant, demanding, and riveting educational experience. You might call it “a seminar in how to think”; or to the point, “a seminar in how to think if you are a warrior.” Admiral Stockdale demonstrated, of course, how to think if you are a prisoner in a North Vietnamese prison for over seven years.
One day, after a particularly riveting session in which Professor Brennan (what a treasure he was!) read from Thomas Mann—first in German and then in English for us non-Deutsch speakers—I imagined the counterpart for such a course, in its own primitive and ethereal style, that many native-American tribes must have conjured for such purposes. I flashed back immediately to the Cherokee Tribe, some of whose members came from my home state of South Carolina, whom I have always thought far more intelligent than any other Americans I have ever met and to whose dramas my grandmother used to take me in my early youth. What they lacked vis a vis the Europeans was better guns and more ruthlessness—and sadly that was a critical lack, an existential one. It often is, even for warriors well-educated in their craft.
Later I thought of how powerful it would be to mix and mingle some of this tribal and instinctual warrior education with these great philosophers (perhaps that is a part of what the Marines should be doing?).
And this explosively successful and powerfully felt educational experience occurred at the Naval War College in the late 1970s and early 1980s—not on Mars or Venus. Last time I checked, the term “naval” means that that institution belongs to the USMC as well as the US Navy.
Also, before any military leader offers the pure condescension that Marines could never handle such intellectual rigor, let me introduce them to some of my Marine buddies.
And by the way, included alongside a course in ethics for warriors should be an education in the ethics of how to treat warriors. That latter course will be for the ninety-nine per cent of all Americans who have let the one per cent be their warriors for the past 15 years.