More Than Warriors

Colonel Reed Bonadonna, USMC (Ret.)

I hope that by now, most have read fellow VFAI member Phil Klay’s excellent piece “What We’re Fighting For” in February 10th’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times. Klay’s reflection on the heroism and humanity of U.S. medical personnel treating friend and foe alike in Iraq is a reminder that members of the armed forces are more than warriors or “managers of violence.” This is something that even military people can forget.

What distinguishes the soldier from the civilian may be the employment of lawful and organized violence, but what distinguishes that soldier from the thug or marauder is the restraint of force. This is more than the minimum observance of legal restraints. Soldiers have willingly adhered to codes of honor and conduct — in the United States, they are built into our founding principles. Klay notes, “We have made these kinds of moral demands of our soldiers. It starts with the oath they swear to support and defend the Constitution, an oath made not to a flag, or to a piece of ground, or to an ethnically distinct people, but to a set of principles established in our founding documents.” These principles not only guide the soldier during war, they inform the peace created after she returns home.

Klay’s reflections may also remind us that even a good soldier can be made to drift from these principals, dangerously skirting the line between warrior and marauder, if he is employed as one. The danger of narrow nationalism (whether in America or anywhere else) is that it consigns those outside these myopic ideas of tribe to a less-than-human status. This demotion is especially dangerous if engaged in by military people, or if it is imposed on them in effect by a civilian authority that uses military force in unscrupulous ways, or that sets an example of callousness and contempt.

As military members, it was our professional obligation to uphold our Constitutional Oath and the military code of the restraint of force. As citizens and veterans, it is up to us to make sure that the armed forces of today are held to a high standard of conduct, that they are never called on, encouraged or permitted to act in a manner than dishonors the uniform, or cause those who wear it or have worn it to feel shame instead of pride. These men and women must be able to rely on the notion that above all, their principles, their oath, and their honor are what makes the difference.

As Klay says, “without that, there’s nothing worth fighting for.”

Reed Bonadonna is a former Marine Corps infantry officer and field historian. His book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence, will be published by the Naval Institute Press in May.