Military Command as Moral Prudence: Examples from History and Literature

In a previous Strategy Bridge article, Reed Bonadonna drew on Thomas Aquinas and recent work by Gregory Reichberg to argue military command was a form of moral prudence. In this article Bonadonna offers some examples from history and literature of morally prudent and imprudent military command.

Thomas Aquinas devotes a small section of his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, to the question of whether military command is a form of moral prudence, concluding it is. Military command may resemble art, and it requires fortitude, but the exercise of command calls for prudence, which is unique among the Aristotelian virtues as cataloged by Aquinas in that it is both moral and intellectual. For the soldier, moral prudence involves a balancing act of ends and means, a golden mean of victory and its cost.

The conception of military command, indeed of all situations in war that call for the exercise of judgment, as a form of moral prudence has the potential to enrich the moral dimensions of the military profession. This must begin with education. In this article, I will discuss some examples from military history and literature that might be used as bases for discussion of moral prudence. Neither history, literature, nor personal experience offer formulas or answers to questions concerning moral prudence and its relationship to military command and leadership, but they can raise questions and promote productive discussion of these vital and interesting topics.

Some of the most famous prudential officers in history were Caesar and Charlemagne (military commanders who also built and maintained diverse empires), Washington, Wellington, and George C. Marshall. Being human, they were all also imperfect. In some cases their prudence may have deserted them, but their careers were marked by a sustained moral-military prudence with respect to their roles as officers, commanders, and as national leaders. Perhaps the key aspect of moral prudence that comes through in these examples is a careful weighing of the costs of war against the attainment of worthwhile (or less worthy) aims.

Historical Examples: Caesar to Marshall

"Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar" by Lionel Royer (Wikimedia)

Caesar’s ambition may have outrun his prudence in the end, but he was also a victim of the endemic political violence of late-Republican Rome. Before his death, in his conquest of Gaul, he had husbanded a relatively small force, remote from its base in Rome, winning battles while limiting bloodshed, weighing force and clemency, sustaining support from Rome and winning over the Gauls so their country became a bulwark of the Roman Empire for over four centuries. He may be said to have demonstrated moral prudence both as a commander and an administrator. He avoided the search for personal glory that overtook some Roman commanders, would not commit untrained troops, or outrun his supplies. He once delivered an Aristotelian-style lecture on military ethics to the centurions of a legion.[1] He gave positions of responsibility to local chieftains, treating them as allies rather than subjects. In both military and civic roles, he may be said to have adopted existing Roman practices and raised them to the highest level to that point, laying the groundwork for the western empire.

Charlemagne did not ensure the survival of his empire after his lifetime, although in this he too was perhaps defeated by his times. While he lived, the Frankish Empire was a rare example and source of stability in a period of rickety, warring fiefdoms. Charlemagne may have best exhibited prudence in providing balanced economic, logistical, and recruitment systems that were both sufficient and sustainable, and in his overall military goal of European unification, not just raiding or conquest, which were typical of the period in which he lived. Charlemagne’s organized approach to economics and to warfare depended on an educational system he helped to develop that created literate and learned servants of empire.[2] In this area, and in others, Charlemagne set the example, demonstrating his own love of books and learning, having books read to him at meals and encouraging the translation of books by clerics.[3] Even when an old campaigner, Charlemagne did not lose feelings of sadness over losses in war, which he nevertheless kept in balance through self-discipline. In The Song of Roland, Charlemagne is depicted as swooning when he learns of the deaths of Roland and the rest of the rear guard at Roncesvalles, but on the following morning he rises early to marshal his pan-European force against the Moorish enemy.

Washington and Wellington both displayed a distaste for the excesses of war in their own ways, and both retired to civil careers, Washington as President and Wellington as Prime Minister, that reflected the Platonic and prudential benefits of the harsh schools in which they were trained, not expecting too much, but holding fast on principle. Washington as a military commander demonstrated prudence in the offensive. After a series of disastrous defensive battles in New York, he realized his army could not yet stand up to British firepower and bayonets, so he sought offensive engagements, as at Princeton and Trenton, in which he could create advantages of surprise and numbers. Despite an innately authoritarian and aggressive personality and approach to command, he showed balance, learning to listen to advice and resisting the temptation to over-reach after victories, training and husbanding his army until it was the equal of the British.[4]

Wellington was proverbial for the concern he showed for his men, both in matters of supply and on the battlefield, developing tactics, like the use of skirmishers and the two-rank firing line, that limited exposure to fire and casualties. He showed enormous forbearance in dealing with often untrustworthy allies, as on the Peninsula. Willing to overlook failures in others, his own personal and professional honor were scrupulous. He once said of an act of dubious diplomacy that he would rather sacrifice every frontier in India than his country’s reputation for good faith.[5]

"Wellington at Waterloo" by Robert Alexander Hillingford (Wikimedia)

George C. Marshall followed a similar course, and he stands out in the minds of many as an exemplar of military prudence. As a young staff officer, Marshall saw the devastation in Europe during World War I, and he never after forgot or allowed others to forget the human cost and far-reaching consequences of military operations. By the time of his tenure as U.S. Army Chief of Staff (1939-1945), General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold observed of Marshall that he demonstrated “more mature judgment (and), could see further into the future” than the others in attendance.[6] As early as 1943, Marshall was considering the problems of post-war European recovery, his ideas later taking shape in what became known as the Marshall Plan. Marshall was as imbued as any military officer with the desire for victory, but he learned to balance this with a respect for the processes of government and a sense of what the world would look like once victory was attained.[7] There were times, as in the extension of the enlistments of pre-war draftees, when clever shortcuts were available to attain the desired result. Marshall rarely if ever stooped to these, because he saw the long-term consequences that such methods often entailed: the surrender of trust and the unfairness towards those already carrying the heaviest burdens.

Military prudence is not limited to senior commanders or officers of high rank. The junior officer’s need for prudence may be even more pronounced, since her closeness to the action and to those doing the fighting can make shortcuts and expediency seem very reasonable. The leader of a patrol who takes fire from a village may be tempted to employ a disproportionate amount of fire in response. The adviser or counterpart to a commander of indigenous forces may be drawn to tolerate illegal and immoral methods that appear to be the local norm, methods that may even be effective, at least in the short-term.

Challenges of this kind may have a clear right answer, but others will have a more open-ended, equivocal quality calling for frequent reconsideration and refinement, for prudent judgment. An officer engaged in operations in which the possible costs in lives seem out of proportion to real gains may ask how much risk or effort they require. An illustration might be found in the episode titled “The Last Patrol” of the fact-based Band of Brothers book and series. In “The Last Patrol,” an officer, the superlative Dick Winters, is ordered to repeat a patrol that on the previous night ended with a soldier killed for the dubious reward of two German enlisted prisoners. To run the same patrol that late in the war strikes him as hazardous beyond reason. He tells his soldiers to stay behind the wire but report the patrol as completed. His deception goes undetected, and it may be that only his enormous prestige, a standing based on his superb combat leadership, prevents the subterfuge from emerging or being used against him. Faced with the threat of exposure or blackmail, he might have been faced with a whole series of moral dilemmas that had no good answers. Prudence is a necessity but not a guarantee against uncertain or bad outcomes.

History: Learning Prudence by Negative Example

Unfortunately, history also offers a rich source of examples of imprudent command, but the study of these failures can be as rich and rewarding as the study of success. Sometimes officers who were skilled tacticians and adept leaders at that level lacked the prudence to weigh gains and losses. All unjust wars have arguably been imprudent, in that they failed to weigh costs and consequences, and even some some just wars have been fought by commanders who failed in moral prudence. Robert E. Lee was clearly imprudent at Gettysburg, at least on the final day when he ordered Pickett’s charge, and he might also be accused of moral imprudence for leading his men in the unjust cause of the Confederacy. Erwin Rommel skillfully but recklessly pursued aggressive war in the mismatched service of what should have been a defensive strategy in North Africa, since, at least in the judgment of historian Douglas Porch, German interests in the region called for “stalemate, not victory.”[8] The charge of imprudence for leading others in an unjust war could even more forcefully be made against him than against Lee. The charge of imprudence may also be made against Mark Clark in his command of U.S. forces in Italy. Although intelligent and a brilliant organizer and planner, Clark’s repetitious and unimaginative tactics in the face of heavy casualties, his unwillingness to listen to subordinates, and his tendency to shift blame when things went badly are all signs of imprudence, of a cognitive failure linked to ethical shortcomings.[9]

Learning from Literature

Since Aristotle, literature has been recognized as a means of providing moral instruction, an approach to literature and to ethics that has undergone a considerable revival in recent decades. Imaginative literature is also used to teach leadership and command, as illustrated by the many fiction titles in the reading lists regularly published by the military services. Literature contains vivid examples both of officers who exhibit and who seem to lack moral prudence. The latter may possess intellectual virtues but lack the melding of the intellectual and the moral that may add up to military prudence. Tolstoy’s Napoleon, General Cummings in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), and General Lemming in The Lionheads (1972) by Josiah Bunting are often capable and even brilliant, but undone and unmasked by their lack of military prudence, which ought to temper and add heart to the officer and warfighter. Cummings’ ambition and arrogance combine to ensure he is missing for the battle he hoped would make his reputation. Lemming is a capable tactician who refuses to oppose the Army hierarchy over what he knows to be the dubious use of riverine craft in the jungle, a misuse of equipment which costs lives. Lemming also believes his mock-ingenuous pretense of concern for his soldiers is a convincing leadership performance, but he is dismissed profanely at the end of the novel by a representative soldier.

The officer who surrenders prudence as a way to prepare for battle will not fight well. As the veteran Enobarbus says of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, “When valor preys on reason, It eats the sword it fights with” (III, 13, 240-1). In the film Twelve O’Clock High, doubts about the efficacy of strategic bombing contribute to low morale among the air crews of a heavy bombing group. The commander tries to address these, but he is never fully successful, limiting himself to arbitrary and artificial measurements of success. In the end, his greatest challenge may be to convince himself that the destruction and sacrifice are justified. He fails at this, and after the death of a loyal subordinate acting in his orders, he lapses into debility and speechlessness. He steels himself to dubious battle, suppressing his own doubts along with those of others, but his brittle valor finally comes apart.

From Twelve O'Clock High (Amazon)


Harry K. Brown wrote in his classic novel A Walk in the Sun, that “war, without virtue in itself, breeds virtue.” War can be a place where prudence is learned, but the instilling of prudence cannot be left to chance or deferred to the actual clash of arms. It must be part of military culture and education, of reading and discussion. The foregoing examples are meant to merely suggest how to go about this. Moral prudence is more than mere caution; it sees clearly the unavoidable hazards of war. Along with warfighting skills and the will to win, the self-regulation of moral prudence should be part of the equipment of everyone who aspires to command, or to advise the commander.

Reed Bonadonna is a former infantry officer and field historian in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has a doctorate in English from Boston University and was the Director of Ethics and Character Development at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. His book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence, was published by the Naval Institute Press in May, 2017. He is at work on another book with the working title, How to Think Like an Officer: A Guide for Officers and Others.

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Header Image: "Temptation of St. Thomas" by Diego Velázquez (Wikimedia)


[1] Kahn, Arthur D. The Education of Julius Caesar: A Biography, A Reconstruction (New York: Schocken, 1986) 228, 233.

[2] Heer, Friedrich, Charlemagne and His World (New York: MacMillan, 1975), 151, 154.

[3] Barbero, Alessandro, Charlemagne: Father of a Continent. Translated by Allan Cameron (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 123.

[4] Fischer, David Hackett, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 341.

[5] Glover, Michael, Wellington as Military Commander. 1968 (London: Penguin, 2001), 234.

[6] Cray, Ed, General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman (New York: Norton, 1990), 423.

[7] Ibid, 428.

[8] Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky and Konecky, 2004), p. 198.

[9] Ibid, p. 490.

[10] Harry Brown, A Walk in the Sun (New York, 1944), 34.