#Reviewing Soldiers and Civilization

“…the military profession, considered most comprehensively, might be viewed an as interdisciplinary branch of the humanities. In any profession, but perhaps most especially in the profession of arms, a soul as well as skills is required.”[1]

What do the ideas of narrative as doctrine, Stoicism, defeat, chivalry, and fighting for pay tell us about the development of military professionalism in the West? In his new volume, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence, Reed Robert Bonadonna addresses the role these and other developments in military history played in the development of military professionalism. His book is a fascinating and deep journey through military and intellectual history, which seeks to bring a historical and literary focus to a topic that tends to be dominated by social scientists such as Samuel Huntington or by ethicists rooted in the military practice such as Anthony Hartle.[2] This volume appears unique in its focus and brings an important voice to the debate over the sources and nature of military professionalism in the West.

“In order to meet its challenges, the military profession must engage in a thoughtful and focused reconsideration of its own past.”[3] The thesis of the book centers on the need for a more interdisciplinary approach to military professionalism, marrying the idea of professional competence to the idea of wisdom as a way forward. Bonadonna defines military professionalism in terms of the following concepts:

  1. Knowledge,

  2. Cognition,

  3. Beliefs,

  4. Compensations,

  5. Communication,

  6. Leadership, and

  7. Trust and Character.

This list includes some overlap with classical ideas of the professions, but also includes topics not typically treated in much depth such as communication, cognition, and beliefs.

Building upon these elements, the book focuses on several key themes. First, what is the military profession and who counted/counts as a member of this profession? Second, what is the role of compensation/money in the profession of arms? Third, what is the understanding of citizenship and politics involved in military professionalism?

Starting with the Greeks and Romans and then moving through the medieval and early modern periods to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, this volume examines these themes in relation to the elements of the profession of arms to interrogate the role intellectual and military history play in forming an understanding of military professionalism.[4] The first half of the book focuses more on intellectual history, the second on military history, making extensive use of primary sources and in-depth historical research to reflect upon the development and the future of the profession.

While there are many issues of interest, a few bear closely upon contemporary debates and concerns for the profession of arms. Given recent public focus on the military/civilian culture gap and the role of retired and current military leaders in political life, the discussions of the role of politics and understanding of citizenship in military professionalism are of particular interest. The treatment of Roman understanding of the dual role of citizen and military professional, for example, is instructive for thinking about questions of possible disobedience and Eliot Cohen’s “unequal dialogue” between civilians receiving and military professionals giving advice and guidance.[5]

...treatment of Roman understanding of the dual role of citizen and military professional is instructive for thinking about questions of possible disobedience...

In addition, the changes in how the profession looks at faith, as well as the beliefs and knowledge required to be a professional are intriguing. We might not normally think of faith as essential to the profession of arms, but the discussion of chivalry and the role of religious faith (broadly conceived) raise important issues for thinking about the profession’s commitment to its core values now and how those might change in the future. As the early modern period brought secularization, and with it new beliefs about the content and sources of the knowledge and expertise that defined the military profession, the religious faith that had provided some of the foundation of chivalry eroded, even as many of its concepts—such as honor, loyalty, and the protection of the innocent—endured. The soldier, in this context, is not simply to be viewed as a war fighter alone, but a complete and nuanced human being.[6]

The role of Stoicism for the Romans and its revival in the modern period are also worth noting for how it shaped understanding of the beliefs, dispositions, and mental habits the military professional ought to have; this discussion mirrors the discussions of Stoicism by scholars such as Nancy Sherman in addressing the issue of moral injury.[7] While Stoicism is not the only resource for preventing and treating moral injury, Bondonna notes the recurrence of Stoicism several times throughout the history of the military profession, attesting to its enduring appeal.

The role of Stoicism for the Romans and its revival in the modern period are also worth noting...

The role and development of bureaucracy in the profession of arms (particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries), and the standardization and centralization of control it solidified has clear implications for current discussions about innovation and the pressures of careerism and conformity amongst military professionals. While a certain level of conformity and predictability is necessary for the military to function and for its members to be seen as professionals, Bonadonna’s discussion of the U.S. Civil war and the ways in which the best exemplars of the military profession seemed unprepared to imaginatively anticipate or respond to the changes in strategy and warfare necessary to be successful in that conflict is instructive.[8] It may be the ability to adapt and innovate is an essential virtue for military professions, although not one that usually makes the list of core values.

The shift in the 20th century from combat leader to educator also seems important to consider as we think about the degree to which conventional combat will continue to remain at the core of the military identity.[9] While the book only gives a brief nod to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism activities, this point seems an obvious one for future discussion. The volume does leave the reader wondering what is next or hoping for more detail on what future directions in the profession of arms might be like. To fill this gap (which seems outside the scope of the project in the book), we might go back to Bonadonna’s early discussion of the Greek idea of combat as a test of character and its relation to the idea of defeat as ways to think about the diversity of tasks and roles the military is asked to take up, and what impact this has on ideas of military professionalism.

There are other clues and hints that would be helpful in imaging the future of the profession, including the discussion of the ways the Iliad is narrative functioning as doctrine, reflecting the contemporary interest in narrative and storytelling. Bondonna also points to the development in the medieval and early modern periods of individual judgment and discretion, and later the development of the role of the non-commissioned officer in the profession. Many of these ideas are related to other work Bonadonna has done on the role of prudence as a moral and intellectual virtue, and this connection is a fruitful one for military professionals to reflect upon and discuss.[10]

...the role of prudence as a moral and intellectual virtue, and their connection as a fruitful one for military professionals...

While this review highlights but a few of the most relevant lines of discussion and themes in Bonadonna’s substantial volume, it should be clear this is a must read for all military professionals. Its engaging style and scope make it an excellent source for individual study, book groups, and small group discussions to facilitate personal and professional development. Bonadonna argues current officer training lacks rigor and depth—and we might say the same of the training and military education of senior non-commissioned officer and military members more generally—so further and more critical engagement with the ideas here would be one step in addressing those concerns.[11]

Pauline Shanks Kaurin is a Featured Contributor on The Bridge. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from Temple University, Philadelphia and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, philosophy of law and applied ethics. She is Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA and teaches courses in military ethics, warfare, business ethics, social and political philosophy and history of philosophy.

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Header image: Statue of Epictetus.


[1] Reed Robert Bonadonna, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 274.

[2] See Samuel P. Huntington, Solder and State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957) and Anthony Hartle, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1989).

[3] Bonnadonna, 2.

[4] Intellectual history here refers to the historical treatment of the history of ideas.

[5] Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Anchor, 2003).

[6] Bonnadonna, 76.

[7] See Nancy Sherman, After War: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[8] Bonnadonna, 190-191.

[9] Bonnadonna, 220.

[10] See Reed Bonnadonna, “Military Command as Moral Prudence,” The Strategy Bridgehttps://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/9/22/military-command-as-moral-prudence?rq=bonadonna.

[11] Bonnadonna, 273.