Douglas MacArthur

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Col. John W. Ripley, to whom this blog is dedicated, was the personification of the values expressed in this article.

Written by Lieutenant Colonel David G. Bolgiano, USAF, Retired

Alexandre Havard writes in Virtuous Leadership on the importance and relevance of the cardinal virtues – prudence, fortitude (or courage), temperance (or self-control) and justice – to both leaders and organizations. Any person or group that lacks in one or more of these core character traits is doomed to failure. As William Penn, the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, said:

Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too … Let men be good and the government cannot be bad … But if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.

Likewise, our military depends on good people to lead and man it. Historically, it has consistently embraced the cardinal virtues to better ensure a spirit of selfless sacrifice and service amongst its members. Herodotus’s commentary on the duties of the ancient Persians, “to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth,” recognizes that there are absolute truths and an internal moral compass that warriors should follow.

These beliefs have formed the cornerstone of our military’s ethos. It is now under subtle attack by those that decry such beliefs as antiquated or even unconstitutional. Such efforts must be soundly repulsed, as military leaders’ moral compasses must be immune to quaint notions of modernity that recognize no fundamental truths.


“… self-absorbed, licentious behaviors such as one routinely observes in Hollywood and professional sports leagues.”

For years, living by the cardinal virtues has inoculated the military from self-absorbed, licentious behaviors such as one routinely observes in Hollywood and professional sports leagues. America’s modern military culture has fairly consistently remained above the fray of partisan politics and the gutter of licentiousness. Unfortunately, there are those trying to change that very culture by marginalizing the voices of virtue within our force.

If the Armed Forces of the United States is to remain a dominant player in geopolitics as well as a guardian of our populace, it must not proceed under the false belief that aspiring to live virtuously is somehow an antiquated and irrelevant modality for a postmodern world. The first obstacle often thrown out by those objecting to infusing virtue’s lessons into policy is that doing so somehow violates the Constitution of the United States’ First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which proscribes a formal church-state relationship. Such an objection is a canard that is predicated on ignorance of history and the law. Historically, discussions of the cardinal virtues can be found not only in all of the world’s major religions, but also in classical literature and philosophy. Legally, those that rail against any open religious activity in the military, such as the presence of a Chaplains’ Corps, seem to ignore the Free Exercise Clause of that very same Constitutional Amendment. Sadly, these voices have found traction of late within the Executive Branch.

                                                           The Cardinal Virtues

Prudence or Competency
As Francis Bacon noted, one rarely finds a wise head on a young body. Hence, this virtue, like all the others, must be taught and learned. Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium, meaning “right reason applied to practice.” In the military, this is reflected in a commander who has mastered fundamental tasks so well that in the fog of war these are enabling, rather than distracting. At a purely tactical level, it is that Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) team member so intimate with his weapon systems that he can focus on potential threats, not on whether his weapon’s selector switch is on safe or fire.

When a leader consistently makes wrong decisions – or makes rash decisions, right or wrong – then that individual is imprudent. Due to the complexity of the modern battlefield, it is easy to err in this fashion. Accordingly, competent leaders seek the counsel of others and quickly learn to delegate responsibility and authority to trusted subordinates. They also encourage freethinking amongst their staff. Those assigned to a dysfunctional staff, where the commander browbeats those who disagree, will instantly recognize this lack of virtue in their boss. “Don’t be the nail that sticks above the surface” is the unspoken advice in such commands. Sadly, courageous subordinates are often crushed; while sycophants, or those who simply remain silent, get promoted.

Prudence or competency is the result of practice. But, it also may require personal humility. Disregarding the advice or warnings of others whose judgment does not coincide with one’s own may be a sign of imprudence. It is possible that the commander is right and his staff wrong; but the opposite may be true, especially if the commander is consistently disagreeing with those whose demonstrated judgment is sound. Absent a moral barometer, either derived from natural law or the Ten Commandments, there is no measure of right reason. Accordingly, bad commanders will simply bully others to get their way. That is why assaults upon the military’s seemingly archaic moral code are so intrinsically dangerous. For he who believes in everything believes nothing and, consequently, lacks a compass by which to steer a true and straight course.

Prudence or competency is the internal focus of one’s intellectual abilities: the application of right reason to a given problem. Justice is more outwardly focused. It is that trait which seeks to give everyone his or her rightful due. This requires much more than simply abiding by the rules set forth in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) or General Orders. While maintaining discipline in the Armed Forces is very important to the orderly conduct of military operations, and most people desire and expect malefactors to be brought to justice, the virtue of justice is much greater than the sum of what is set forth in those rules and procedures. Good commanders utilize justice as a positive motivator on the path toward a humble and magnanimous career for themselves and their subordinates.

Field Marshal William Slim 1950

Field Marshal William Slim, commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations in World War II.

Members of a successful military command are more concerned with respecting the rights of others and giving them proper credit where credit is due. It was said of Field Marshal William Slim, Commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations in World War II, that he never said “I,” rarely said “We,” and always said “You.” Sam Damon, the protagonist in Anton Myer’s brilliant novel Once an Eagle, further exemplifies such a person. Damon is a professional warrior who puts duty, honor, and the men he commands above self-interest. He justly earns his promotions. The book’s antagonist, Courtney Massengale, is an unjust, self-absorbed bully who advances by political scheming and trampling upon subordinates and contemporaries. Once an Eagle should be mandatory reading for all officers and non-commissioned officers.

Justice also requires an acknowledgement of and obeisance to the natural law or divinely-inspired law. Absent such a framework, we are left with simply the subordinate laws and whims of man. We would be well served to remember that Adolf Hitler did nothing illegal under the laws of the Third Reich. The reason that Hitler’s acts were so unspeakable is that they contravened Divine or natural law. A just leader respects both the natural rights of others (to be secure in life and limb, their obligations to family and associates, fundamental property rights, and to practice one’s religion and hold sacred beliefs) and the legal rights of others (command authorities, the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice), personal contract rights, and other rights and entitlements found under the law). Should legal rights ever come into conflict with natural rights, however, the latter take precedence. Hence, a warrior has both a right and an obligation to disobey clearly unlawful, unethical or unconstitutional orders. Without an underlying concept of right or wrong – what is justice – how would a service member ever be able to discern this?

Finding Our Knight

Col. John Ripley opposed the inclusion of females into units routinely expected to be engaged in close quarters combat (CQB) missions. He chose rather to protect “femininity, motherhood and what we have come to appreciated in Western Cultures as the graceful conduct of women.”

One may assume that anyone donning the uniform of the Armed Forces has physical courage. However, what is being discussed here is an overarching moral courage. A person could be physically courageous enough to charge a machine gun nest, but still be a moral coward in other important leadership capacities. Moral courage, or fortitude, is that rock-steady virtue that seeks to elevate others above self. Competency and justice are the virtues by which we decide what ought to be done. Courage provides us the will and strength to do so, even in the face of obstacles. For day-to-day life, it is the constant practice of seeking and speaking the truth in the face of adversity or peer pressure to do otherwise. It is what gives that subordinate staff officer the strength to raise a hand during a command briefing and disagree with a politically expedient, but morally wrong or unjust, course of action.

traditional marriage campaign

Courage is what members of  “TFP Student Action” exemplify whenever they hit the streets to defend Traditional marriage. This photo was taken during a caravan in Illinois.

Courage may require one to speak out against voguish but evil spirits of the times, impure conduct or trends, and the common tendency to seek the path of least resistance. It also requires one to speak the truth even if doing so may be personally painful: “For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” (Hebrews 10:26)

The New Testament also speaks to those who “are willingly ignorant.” The meaning is the same. It is one thing to be unaware of the truth; it is altogether different when people know what is true, yet ignore it out of cowardice or political expediency. By a casual reading of today’s headlines, it appears to all but the naïve or complicit that many of our senior military leaders have failed to stand up for what they must, in their hearts, know to be right and just. This is likely for want of courage.

Mtn. Home Air Force Base

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho — Airman 1st Class John Sriharong, 366th Equipment Maintenance technician, prays during a men’s prayer group at Liberty Chapel.

Self-Control or Temperance
Epistemologically, self-control or temperance demands control of one’s animal desire for pleasure. We wring our hands and wonder why so many of our warriors commit acts of sexual assault; and, how come so many flag officers commit other diverse acts of moral turpitude. Often, these acts are a failure to moderate desires in the face of temptation. Self-control is that virtue which attempts to overcome the human condition best stated as “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” But, if we have institutionally disavowed the notion that there are fundamental rights and wrongs, is it any wonder we are in this quandary?

However, self-control is much more than just tempering base sexual desires. In the realm of virtuous leaders, self-control might mean that choleric personalities restrain their tempers; impatient persons exercise listening skills; tardiness is replaced by timeliness; or phlegmatic persons make an effort to be more outgoing. “Everything that grows begins small. It is by constant and progressive feeding that it gradually grows big.” This notion applies to seeding and growing virtue in organizations and individual lives. Taking such seemingly small steps can gradually build a command imbued with a sense of unit humility. It can truly help transform an organization from a dour, miserable workplace to a magnanimous command where people are excited and proud to serve.

Magnanimity is an underutilized and not frequently understood word. It is the loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity. It is the essence of chivalry. A magnanimous person is the opposite of a pusillanimous or small-minded person. Every military leader should strive to foster an environment where magnanimity flourishes. Absent a deep understanding and practice of the cardinal virtues, however, such a goal is futile because the leader lacks the inherent capacity to foster unit humility and magnanimity.

Words of Caution
The dangers for the military not acknowledging and living pursuant to the cardinal virtues should be obvious. But, when one considers how to boil a frog, the pitfalls may not be as obvious as they once recently might have been. Just consider the myriad “hot button” issues, critical to the continued integrity and strength of our military, which have now all but been placed “off limits” by senior leaders who seem more concerned with keeping their stars than speaking or hearing the truth. For example, any rational discussion concerning these topics – (1) the possibility that core tenets of Sharia law are incompatible with a Constitutional Republican form of governance that respects religious freedoms; (2) forced affirmation of vice in the form of acceptance of homosexual conduct within our forces; and (3) the inclusion of females into units routinely expected to be engaged in close quarters combat (CQB) missions – has been effectively quashed in today’s military. This is true, despite the fact that a majority of those serving have principled questions about each of these topics.

But anyone that now questions the wisdom of such policies is, at best, quickly marginalized. Truth, or at least rational attempts to discern the truth, has been labeled as “Hate Speech.” In some instances, as in the case of Army Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Dooley who was crushed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for daring to raise the aforementioned Sharia issue, otherwise stellar careers are ruined for not toeing the party line. We should do well to heed the words of Isaiah: “Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.”

Douglas MacArthur lands Leyte Gulf

General Douglas MacArthur, accompanied by President Sergio Osmena of the Philippines (L), land at Palo Beach, Leyte, on October 20, 1944.

While it is imperative – as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur tested during the Korean War – that the military remain subordinate to its civilian masters in matters of policy and strategy, it must nevertheless vigorously resist attempts to dilute its core values by means of crass political bullying. Moreover, if there are rational and moral concerns about any policy or course of action, voices expressing such concerns should be encouraged, rather than quelled or shunned. Sadly and dangerously, this does not appear to be happening in today’s military.

Trends to muzzle the virtuous voices in the military must be reversed if our Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Army and Coast Guard are to remain morally fit and strong. The silence of the admirals and generals has been deafening in this regard. Six years into this Administration’s grand experiment to radically transform America has caused serious erosion in our military’s capability and discipline; yet, we hear crickets instead of voices of truth and moral incorruptibility from our flag officers. Consequently, we now have a military that appears more concerned with providing benefits to random sexual partners or forcing the square peg of “gender” equality into the round hole of readiness.

No objectively honest person should be surprised that an overwhelming majority of female candidates simply can’t make it through physically demanding courses such as the Army’s Ranger School, Marine Infantry Officers Course, Basic Underwater Demolition School (SEAL-BUDS) and Special Forces Qualification Course. By not accepting the fact that “war is hard” and close-quarters combat is necessarily a realm for masculine males, the military scrambles to change the standards to ensure “sex” equality occurs despite costs to our readiness.

USMC Training

“There is a reason there are no female athletes in the National Football League.”

When it comes to matters of national defense, specious beliefs in the physical equality of the sexes should not trump the harsh reality of the battlefield. There is a reason there are no female athletes in the National Football League (or any other professional sports league): men are better suited to such physical conflict. All the politically correct thought and indoctrination in the world can’t change this fact of nature and God’s design. If we allow courts or policy makers not anchored by virtues to challenge this immutable truth, we will end up not only with boring sports contests but also a less effective combat force. But, first, we must acknowledge there are immutable facts and truths. Voices of reason and truth, like that expressed by Marine Captain Katie Petronio, are few and far between in this discussion. They appear entirely absent amongst our flag ranks.

Repeating lies loudly and often enough does not make them true. Senior leaders must not simply parrot the opinions of their political masters. Sometimes, the cardinal virtues demand they speak the truth. But, perhaps paralyzed by the fear of losing their stars or not getting a “top block” on that section of their fitness report that demonstrates the proper degree of political correctness, most will remain silent.

Occupy Wall Street

“…a Marine Corp Private stands head and shoulders above ‘Occupy Wall Street’ types”

Subordinates watch and learn from their leaders. If those leaders go into defilade instead of standing up for what is virtuous, what lessons will be passed down to the next generation? This is not a matter of arguing the value of one combat system over another or the next evolution or revolution of warfare. This is about retaining core virtuous principles that spawn courage, truth and selflessness.

USMC Silent drill squad

“… a corps of moral, disciplined, steely-eyed killers”

Citizens expect such high standards from their Armed Forces: it is why a Marine Corp Private stands head and shoulders above “Occupy Wall Street” types or the likes of Bradley (Chelsea?) Manning. Service members must forfeit many of their erstwhile civilian idiosyncrasies – faddish haircuts, sleeping late, using illegal drugs, and being couch potatoes – in order to become part of a greater whole. First and foremost, our Armed Forces should be a corps of moral, disciplined, steely-eyed killers – exemplified by distinguished commanders such as Arleigh Burke, Chesty Puller and Jim Mattis – that can close with and destroy our Republic’s enemies on the seas and fields of battle. Hence, we must never forget to ride well, shoot straight and speak the truth: even if doing so ruffles some political feathers. Our warriors deserve nothing less.

About the Author:
Lt. Col. David G. Bolgiano is a retired paratrooper who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan on multiple occasions. He is the author of Combat Self-Defense: Saving America’s Warriors from Risk-Averse Commanders and their Lawyers and co-author of Fighting Today’s Wars: How America’s Leaders Have Failed Our Warriors.

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Written by Norman Fulkerson
Friday, November 25 2005
Col. Tim Maxwell in Afghanistan

American soldiers face the prospect of serious injury and death with unflinching courage. Their existence within a nation dominated by a self centered “me culture” is yet another paradox which can be found “only in America.”

When Todd Beamer boarded Flight 93 on September 11, he never dreamed that terrorists intended to fly that very plane into the Capitol or the White House. Such an act would have been an even greater psychological blow to an already devastated nation. He could have sat quietly in his seat and done nothing, but instead courageously chose to lead fellow passengers against hardened terrorists with the words, “lets roll.” His actions have earned him the title of hero and are considered by some to be the first strike against terrorism.

One of the memorials at the crash site of flight 93

Heroes seem to be a rare commodity in what could be called the “me culture” of modern day America. Everything seems to be centered on self. Issues like homosexual marriage, abortion and stem cell research are debated on the basis of individual rights and the idea of a higher law or the common good are cast aside.

Yet from the day Todd Beamer fought the terrorists aboard flight 93 until now, American soldiers have continued to roll. They risk their lives fighting for a higher cause, alongside others who are concerned solely about themselves. The existence of such heroes in the midst of the modern day “me culture” is yet another paradox which can be found Only in America.

Such a thesis would appear questionable since we hardly ever hear about such men. Pat Tillman, the former professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals, changed all that. Neither the glow of stardom nor the comforts of a million-dollar bank account were obstacles in his quest to serve a higher ideal. His death in Afghanistan in April of 2004 captured the imagination of a nation and the enthusiasm for such a man continues, even with the emphasis that his death was the result of friendly fire.

The reason for this is simple, heroism is contagious. Regardless of where and when it takes place, those who witness it are mesmerized. Those who hear about it are compelled to follow. No one forgets. The heroic early Christians, killed by the Romans, were ignorant of this fact and did not realize the blood they shed was the seed of new faith. Likewise the heroism of our American soldiers should inspire the nation which produced such brave men.

Equally important is the fact that heroism is timeless. When a person does something truly heroic he becomes mythical or larger than life. Once a person earns such a status it remains forever as a testimony to that individual’s accomplishment. To forget MacArthur’s promise to the Filipino people “I shall return” therefore is as hard as overlooking Churchill’s capacity of rallying a nation with the counsel to “never give up.” Such men looked towards a higher ideal, faced the odds and will forever be remembered for doing so.

Catching Bullets Rather Than Footballs

This was the very reason that Jeremy Staat, a former defensive lineman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, decided to join the military. He was a personal friend of Pat Tillman at Arizona State University and like the rest of the nation he grieved his death. His mother, Janet Staat, of Bakersfield California, was not surprised by her son’s decision.

Jeremy Staat being sworn in

“At first it takes your breath away,” she said. “I watched him make a decision to go from being an elite [in the NFL] to possibly not having a blanket to sleep with.”

He had everything money could buy” she continued, “but was not happy.” He played a sport he loved and was paid dearly to do so, yet like Tillman, he yearned for more.

With his graduation from the Marine Corp in March satellite trucks from major news networks descended upon the Staat home. They all wanted an interview with the man whose life was a carbon copy of Pat Tillman. “It didn’t seem right that we pay entertainers millions to catch a football,” the fresh new Marine was quoted as saying, “when we pay our Marines pennies to catch a bullet.”

Duty, Honor, Country

The desire to serve a higher cause is by no means a monopoly enjoyed by football players. Months after Tillman’s death, Patrick Daley of Chicago chose the same path. The son of Mayor Richard Daley had spent a year at West Point as an impressionable 18 year-old before finishing college at the University of Illinois. He later earned a masters degree in business from the University of Chicago and could easily expect the lucrative career that his education and family name would bring.

In November of 2004, he surprised those who knew him with the decision to enlist in the Army and later reported to the airborne infantry. Although he spent only a year at West Point he always remembered their uplifting motto “Duty, Honor and Country.” He admitted that back then he was too young to really understand what it meant. Now he knows and at the time of his enlistment faced the prospect of a trip to Iraq with an almost childlike candor. “Think of it” he said, “It’s amazing. I get to serve my country.”

It could be argued that the examples given represent naïve individuals ignorant of what is involved in the service of one’s country. The idea of sacrifice and personal risk would appear a romantic dream of young men who are unaware of the reality of armed conflict.

“I Was Just Doing My Job”

No one would know of such a reality better than Capt. Brian Chontosh of Rochester, N. York. In March of 2003, he found himself in a life threatening situation when the platoon he was leading came under attack from a “coordinated ambush of mortars, rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire.”

Caught in a kill zone, with tanks blocking the road ahead, he did the unthinkable and ordered his driver to advance directly towards a .50 caliber machine gun. He then exited his vehicle and began to clear the trench with his rifle and pistol. Running out of ammunition, he grabbed discarded weapons from stunned Iraqis and continued his virtual one-man-assault. Spotting an abandoned enemy RPG launcher close by, he used it to inflict yet more damage. When the sand settled, he had cleared 200 yards of trench and killed 20 enemy soldiers in the process.

After receiving the Navy Cross –the second highest military honor—he downplayed his exploits; “I was just doing my job.” Although he came away virtually unscathed that day, others are not so fortunate.

“300 Holes In His Body, Courage In His Heart”

In July 2004, a Humvee in Sgt. Paul Brondhaver’s convoy broke down in a city north of Baghdad. He ordered a box formation around the vehicle while mechanics went to work. Moments later a rocket propelled grenade struck nearby sending him 12 feet in the air and killing his friend Pfc. Samuel Bowen who was standing next to him.

Sgt. Paul Brondhaven (right)

What happened next defies belief. Although suffering over 300 wounds, inflicted by hot pieces of shrapnel, he refused help and ordered medics to look after those more “seriously wounded.” Weakened by the loss of blood yet full of determination, he crawled to a nearby Humvee where he radioed for a helicopter to evacuate the wounded and dead. Leaning out the window he then fired upon enemy soldiers and ordered a machine gunner to lay down more suppressive fire.

Sgt. Brondhaver survived that harrowing day yet admitted “My heart is still there with my men. I need to get back to Iraq” he said, “and finish what I started.”

“Wounded Warriors”

Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell, a 20-year veteran in the Marine Corps also knows what war is like. While stationed in central Iraq in October 2004, he laid down for what he hoped would be a ten minute nap. His brief respite from battle was rudely interrupted when a mortar round exploded nearby and knocked him unconscious. He would later wake up in Bethesda Naval Hospital with tunnel vision, broken bones and severe brain damage. As an officer who for years had led men in battle with a compass, he would now have to re-learn what one is.

Learning to read again with children’s books was difficult but thanks to military discipline and the help of a speech pathologist he improved rapidly. The effort however was so grueling that he ended some sessions drenched in perspiration.

One of his biggest struggles was overcoming depression caused not from the rigors of war but the separation from fellow heroes still fighting in Iraq. Like Sgt. Brondhaver, he would like to return but his injuries will not allow it. He now devotes his time to helping fellow Marines through a pilot program called “Wounded Warriors.”

Some of Col. Maxwell’s wounded warriors

The most notable recipient of Col. Maxwell’s kindness is Sgt. James Sturla, a 26 year old tank commander, who was “de-gloved” during an attack in western Iraq. Although he had the skin and muscle ripped right off his hand he is now preparing for redeployment. Col. Maxwell’s wounded warriors are not the only injured soldiers wishing to return to combat.

David Rozelle of Fort Carson, Colorado lost his right leg in June 2003 when the humvee he was riding in detonated an anti tank mine. Rehabilitation was difficult but with the help of a prosthetic he was soon running a ten minute mile on a treadmill. In November of 2004 he completed the 26 mile New York City Marathon and is now back in Iraq. He recounts his moving story in his memoirs, Back in Action: An American Soldier’s Story of Courage, Faith, and Fortitude.

Re-enlistments Are Up

It has been five years since Todd Beamer’s “lets roll.” What began with flag waving and yellow ribbons however, some have reduced to body bag counts and prison abuse scandals.

In the midst of negative news however there is one striking piece of information which goes unreported. In the last six months, the Army has recorded a 15% increase in re-enlistments; an upward trend which began in 2001. More significant still is the fact that 69% of those killed in Iraq come from this branch of the Armed Forces.

Why do so many soldiers reenlist? It is because heroism is truly timeless, contagious and another Only in America paradox.


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