Morals Under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society. – Review

Morals Under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society. – Review – book review

John A. Nagl

By James H. Toner. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. 215 pages. $29.95.

I have the great good fortune of teaching at an institution where some of the world’s best thinkers about morality and military ethics reside. Some are featured in the footnotes of James H. Toner’s Morals Under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society and exemplify Toner’s thesis: “There is a bridge between moral philosophy and the profession of arms …. The true values at the core–at the heart–of the profession of arms are the hinge virtues–the classical virtues, the cardinal virtues–of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.”

Fortunately, many of us who serve in the military do have fellow professionals around and in front of us who live lives regulated by the cardinal virtues. Sadly, few are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interact daily with men like those on the faculty at West Point who not only live lives of exemplary moral character but feel no qualms in openly discussing the moral basis of their lives. Those who have not been given the opportunity to discuss these matters on a regular basis have been given a rare and important opportunity to begin such discussion with the publication of Toner’s book.

After an introduction on “The Necessary Immorality of the Military Profession” that will have most readers ready to do physical violence to Dr. Toner (my copy has marginal notes such as “NO! NO! NO!” and “We let this guy teach ethics??!!??”), the book dramatically begins anew. It is organized around discussions of the four cardinal virtues previously listed–wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Toner acknowledges his debt to Plato, to Saint Thomas Aquinas, and to Solomon for the derivation of his virtues; one of his more interesting arguments is that those who believe in moral virtue but not in established religion are drawing upon the moral capital of the ages. Toner’s thesis that these virtues are universally true–as opposed to the moral relativism prevalent today which argues that each individual can select his or her own values, as from a cafeteria, and that no set of values is superior to any other–will not be received well in every quarter.

However, few in the profession of arms would argue that possession of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance is anything but essential to those who would lead soldiers. There are those who would debate Toner’s argument that these characteristics are in shorter supply in our society than they used to be, but Toner’s case is persuasive. His conclusion is daunting in its call to action for all who wear the uniform: “To the extent that the ladies and gentlemen of the profession of arms model these virtues for the rest of us, they can and should serve as moral exemplars. Their creed, their profession, learned well and lived nobly, can and should be a source of moral inspiration for a society too often beset by moral bewilderment.”

Morals Under the Gun is not a perfect book–far from it. Sometimes repetitive and sometimes sanctimonious, it has all the failings of most sermons. It also could be accused of exacerbating the growing tension between American civilian and military leadership by promoting the idea that the military is somehow morally superior to the rest of American society.

But it has the advantages of most sermons as well, and in good measure. Although imperfect, Morals Under the Gun is an important book, a book that should become part of the core curriculum at all service academies, staff colleges, and war colleges as part of a comprehensive instructional and developmental program in military ethics. The final chapter should be reprinted in whole in publications of all four of the military services–and then, perhaps, it will be echoed by businesses and governmental institutions as well. Its recommendations for “improving the character and consciences of those joining the military” are worth recounting:

* Build a culture of high ethical expectation.

* Recognize and reward drill instructors for ethical excellence.

* Recognize and reward those who teach, lead, and inspire officer candidates.

* Drop the “core values” of each of the services and develop a serious, substantial, phased program of instruction in the cardinal virtues.

* Develop a list of books and films that every service member is expected to read or view.

* Rediscover the leadership principles and traits of leaders.

* Employ the heritage of the institution to promote examples of moral worth.

* Adopt the Air Force’s approach to teaching morality and ethics.

Widespread use of Toner’s Morals Under the Gun will vastly increase the likelihood that when our current generation of moral exemplars moves on to its just reward, there will be others ready and able to take their places. Soldiering–and service–are ultimately based in the heart and the soul. If society teaches our youth to value nothing but material rewards and immediate gratification, where will our guardians come from?

Do your part. Buy this book. Pass it around. Make your junior officers read it. Keep the flame alive.

Major John A. Nagl, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the US Military Academy and coauthor of Army Professionalism, the Military Ethic, and Officership in the 21st Century.

COPYRIGHT 2000 U.S. Army War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group