Duty and Perseverance

Dunsinane reminds us that today’s definitions of “duty” and “perseverance” do not equate to success in modern-day conflicts

Last year, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made national headlines with the release of his tell-all memoir Duty. In it, Gates mentions why he returned to service even when he greatly enjoyed his then-position as president of Texas A&M: “We have kids dying in two wars. If the president thinks I can help, I have no choice but to say yes.” Thus began Gates’ journey as a war-time secretary of defense, doing whatever he could to help his country fulfill its mission while troops fought abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about duty and its natural bedfellow, perseverance.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about duty and its natural bedfellow, perseverance. I was fortunate enough to see the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s important production of Dunsinane, where these two traits are major themes that drive the play’s narrative. Siward, the leading character, is the commander of English forces who becomes the de facto viceroy of Scotland after victory. He firmly believed in the well-intentioned casus belli of his country and his plans to bring about a peaceful Scotland. Other than the all-too-familiar notion that England did not remotely understand the Scottish land it had overtaken, Siward’s failure to pacify the theater was due to his antiquated notions of “duty” and “perseverance.” That is, he followed his orders, performed his soldierly duties, and persevered with no hope for a happy ending—because that is what a good soldier does.

“Battle of Dunsinane” by John Martin, currently held by the National Galleries of Scotland.

Per usual, the words of Clausewitz in On War provide guidance here:

In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance. With that assurance an architect watches the progress of his work and sees his plans gradually take shape! A doctor, though much more exposed to chance and to inexplicable results, knows his medicines and the effects they produce. By contrast, a general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence of hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. In short, he is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging. Long experience of war creates a knack of rapidly assessing these phenomena; courage and strength of character are as impervious to them as a rock to the rippling waves. If a man were to yield to these pressures, he would never complete an operations.Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counterweight, provided that no compelling reasons intervene to the contrary. (bolded for emphasis)

Clausewitz may as well have been speaking about Siward. If any two traits of a good soldier were his undoing, they were “duty” and “perseverance.”

Regarding duty, Siward trudged forward by trying to unite the varying groups of the Scottish landscape for a single cause: peace in Scotland. As expected, those groups’ objectives differed than the ones for the English—in this case, it was about who would rightfully rule Scottish lands. To get varying groups to agree on a single political objective is nearly impossible in today’s world of rapid communications, let alone in the era of “horseback diplomacy” depicted in the play. Yet, Siward rightly felt a duty to his country and men. It did not sit well with him to take his young soldiers north, away from their families and homes, to not finish the job he was commanded to do. Indeed, he persevered, despite much evidence to the contrary that he would leave Scotland victorious and with his objectives achieved.

Clausewitz may as well have been speaking about Siward. If any two traits of a good soldier were his undoing, they were “duty” and “perseverance.”

Worse, some semblance of success was within his reach on two occasions. First, he could have tempered Gruach’s machinations via the singing of her lady-servants who used their songs to counsel the Scottish resistance as to its next steps. Siward failed to do this, mostly because he fell for Gruach’s seductive deception. Further, he did not remotely understand the local language, allowing the women to undermine his project right in front of him. When Siward tried to learn their verbiage, the ladies laughed, perhaps because his attempt was amusing, but more likely because it was futile.

The other occasion, more climactic, was when Siward had the chance to kill the future king of Scotland—a mere baby boy. It would certainly not have ended the insurgency, but it may have curbed the intense vigor of it. To finish what he started, Siward should have killed the innocent child, but it was here that Siward’s duty-bound mission ended. Although he tried, he returned the boy to his mother, thus ensuring that Scotland and England would remain in perpetual cycles of violence for the foreseeable future. However, while Siward’s duty should have let him kill the child, he could not persevere any longer since his previous sense of duty brought him to a place where his values would not allow him to finish the job.

The vital connection between duty and perseverance during times of war was the driving force behind Dunsinane and continues to be a driving force in the American way of war. For one, the United States, as a global leader, feels a duty to keep the world safe so the liberal international order can persist. America perseveres despite setbacks now seen from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to the South China Sea. These traits are not inherently bad, but they may require more modern definitions. Indeed, without a rewrite, they may lead to a failure of US strategy, defense, and military policy.

The vital connection between duty and perseverance during times of war was the driving force behind Dunsinane and continues to be a driving force in the American way of war.

In fact, these new definitions would greatly improve the way we fight our wars. “Getting the job done right” should be the end-state of duty instead of just “getting the job done period.” Younger officers should be further empowered to tell their superiors why a certain action may not be in the best interest of the mission, and by extension, the nation (if that is, in fact, what is true in that given situation). Emphasis should be placed on what does and what will work, not the merely stated objective if it is doomed to failure. As for a new way to think about perseverance, it is best characterized in my mind, undoubtedly controversially, as an “appeal to failure.” First, an appeal to failure does not mean try and fail. It means our national security institutions, and the general electorate, should understand that before finding what works, leaders should not be afraid of trying new things that may end up not working. In fact, learning what does not work is almost always what leads to finding out what does (see Thomas Edison).

Second, officers should be empowered to do what they think will work, using their education as the backbone for their decision-making. If evidence arises that demonstrates the current path is not sustainable, stop and try again. This is an ethos Silicon Valley knows well. If the stated path forward eventually leads to a dead end, it is imperative to stop, step back, regroup, and find a new path. Of course, this mindset is not well supported in today’s military—careers are lost because it is not supported. But officers and leaders should be allowed to try and try again, as long as what they are trying is well-reasoned and within the scope of achieving the objectives that will lead to victory.

(Let me be clear: I am not calling for insubordination, but I am calling for greater flexibility so those in charge of getting the job done can accurately assess the situation and do what is necessary to achieve victory, not just a stated objective. All of this, of course, within reason.)

Henceforth, “duty” should be seen as “getting the job doneright” and “perseverance” should be “pushing forward as long as it works. And, if not, go back and try again.”

Sadly, the United States (and other countries)—represented in some way by Siward—have not learned this lesson. They are stuck with medieval notions of duty and perseverance. For success in the future of warfare, these notions must be updated. Duty and perseverance are necessary traits for all kinds of leaders—civilian and military alike—but older notions will only lead to further peril. Henceforth, “duty” should be seen as “getting the job done right” and “perseverance” should be “pushing forward as long as it works...and, if not, go back and try again.” These are categorically better than today’s notions of “just do the job” (duty) and “pushing forward regardless” (perseverance).

Let Siward’s folly not be our own. Dunsinane rings the alarm, and we must heed its call.

Alex Ward is the Assistant Director at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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