The Sublimity of Duty

The dichotomy drawn between Damon and Massengale is necessary, but insufficient. It reminds me of another incomplete dichotomy: John Boyd’s “to be or to do.”

Major General (Retired) Robert Scales recently reflected upon Anton Myrer’s novel, Once An Eagle. As did, Colonel (Retired) Robert Killebrew. In sum, both Scales and Killebrew suggest that Myrer’s work highlights an ill-formed dichotomy of what it really means to be a professional in today’s United States military. I tend to agree. Perhaps it reads well as a idealistic cadet when Once An Eagle is thrust in your hands. However, upon reflection I have found but only a rare few exemplar Massengales in our military.

Elsewhere, John Boyd famously attempted to delineate a similar dichotomy in his “to be or to do” roll call:

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?

Much like Myrer, Robert Coram’s biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, attempts to draw a similar yet simple dichotomy. You can be someone, like Massengale, or you can do something, like Damon. Of course, when distilled to such ends who wouldn’t want to be Damon? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of the principled mechanism of doing something? Often, this final point is misunderstood, especially when it is completely separated from an essential humility. For without that essential humility this misconception could be tantamount to a call for martyrdom.

Yet another similar, yet distinct, dichotomy exists in B.H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy:

History bears witness to the vital part that ‘prophets’ have played in human progress — which is evidence of the ultimate practical value of expressing unreservedly the truth as one see it. Yet it also becomes clear that the acceptance and spreading of their vision has always depended on another class of men — ‘leaders’ who had to be philosophical strategists, striking a compromise between truth and men’s receptivity to it. Their effect has often depended as much on their own limitations in perceiving the truth as on their practical wisdom in proclaiming it. The prophets must be stoned; that is their lot, and the test of their self-fulfillment. But a leader who is stoned may merely prove that he has failed in his function through a deficiency of wisdom, or through confusing his function with that of a prophet. Time alone can tell whether the effect of such a sacrifice redeems the apparent failure as a leader that does honour to him as a man. At the least, he avoids the more common fault of leaders — that of sacrificing the truth to expediency without ultimate advantage to the cause. For whoever habitually suppresses the truth in the interests of tact will produce a deformity from the womb of his thought.

Strangely enough, here Liddell-Hart’s analogy might suggest that Massengale is the leader, while Damon is the prophet. Think about that function here as you consider a few historical anecdotes:

The point here is that Liddell-Hart had the right sense of things when he, ironically, insinuated that much would become known about a man through history. So while I caution the reader not to take Myrer or Boyd too literally, the reader must also consider how their history of duty will be written.

So we’ve stepped well beyond the over-simplified dichotomy, but we also must understand a few more crucial things. First, history will judge our actions, often with a very strict and perhaps cruel perspective. So choose your actions carefully, just as Massengale and Damon both did. Second, as General John Vessey mentions in his introduction to Once An Eagle when he quotes Robert E. Lee, our professional duty is sublime. No one cannot deny you that, no matter how they second guess your success or your choices between being a good soldier and a good human. After all, in deference to first point above, it will all eventually come to light. Finally, and most importantly Tiger, its not about you. While Myrer gets a lot right in Once An Eagle, he really stumbles on this the most critical aspect of the American citizen-soldier ethos: the truly professional military member has no expectation of glory, no honest hope for higher privation, and certainly no cause for the expectation that everyone stroke their ego — no matter how correct you think you are, humility is essential. Everyday is a gift. Pardon the cliche, but that is why they call it service.


Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You can never do more than your duty; you should never wish to do less.
General Robert E. Lee

Richard (Rich) F. Ganske is an officer in the U.S. Air Force, B-2 pilot, and weapons officer. Rich has participated in several deployments including the Continuous Bomber Presence in the Western Pacific, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Odyssey Dawn.  He was formerly the chief air targeting officer for U.S. Central Command charged with integrating lethal and non-lethal capabilities into plans for Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Horn of Africa. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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