Document created: 29 December 03
Air University Review, May-June 1973

Loyalty, Honor, and 
the Modern Military

Captain Michael O. Wheeler

Like many other abstractions, loyalty is an often confusing, much abused concept. It has been employed by different people in different ages to mean a host of different things. For instance, author Hannah Arendt has written in her highly acclaimed work The Origins of Totalitarianism that “Himmler’s ingenious watchword for his ss-men [was] ‘My honor is my loyalty.’ ”1 Himmler’s use of “loyalty” was intended to convey a certain idea to his listeners. Unfortunately, one finds much the same distorted idea in contemporary American societythe notion of the dedicated military professional as one who gives his unthinking consent to all orders issued to him, whose very honor is a function of his unquestioning obedience.

Upon examination, it becomes apparent that this view of the military man is troubling to professional military officers as well as to civilian critics of the stereotyped “military mind.” To quote Colonel Malham M. Wakin of the United States Air Force Academy faculty: “We are concerned, all of us, about a picture of a profession that leaves us feeling that a man must give up his rationality, his very creativeness, the source of his dignity as a man, in order to play his role as a soldier.”2 What should especially concern the contemporary American in this view of the man of loyalty is, I would suggest, a twofold sort of thing. First, when soldiers have in fact wrapped themselves up in their jobs and obeyed orders unthinkingly, they have aided in perpetrating some of the gravest crimes in human history. An example that comes to mind is that of the German officer insuring the timely arrival of trainloads of Jews bound for concentration camps.3 Surely this and any similar instance of aiding in the commission of a clearly immoral act would be vigorously condemned by the American military tradition, the tradition of a Robert E. Lee, a ‘Hap’ Arnold, or a George Marshall. But second, even given the evils which unquestioning obedience has helped produce, there is still a certain reluctance on the part of any thoughtful man to condemn a soldier categorically for sincerely following orders and remaining loyal to his superiors. In the military environment, a set of related virtues—such as loyalty, obedience, and discipline—is necessary for the successful employment of military forces in the pursuit of politico-military goals. If wars are to be with us for the foreseeable future, as most students of human behavior reluctantly agree is the case, then how are we to strike a balance between the necessary virtue of loyalty in the military, on the one hand, and on the other democratic social goal of having every citizen become a morally sensitive human being? That is the question to which my article is addressed.

Giving and Obeying Orders

To get into this question, let us first examine the sorts of situations in which a soldier gives or obeys an order. In combat situations, orders are frequently given where life or death depends on instant obedience. For example, the infantry platoon leader upon seeing a suspicious movement out of the comer of his eye yells, “Hit the dirt!” Or the flight leader, spotting a missile rising through the clouds to meet his flight of aircraft, shouts “Break left!” or “Break right!” These are instances where unthinking, instant obedience is necessary to preserve lives.

I would suggest that these sorts of instances are often taken as the paradigm when one sets out to defend the thesis of unthinking obedience to orders, despite the fact that the instances cited are themselves the exception and not the rule where the activities of the modern military are concerned. Most orders are given in peacetime, not in combat. And even in combat environments, there is usually some reasonable delay between the giving and the carrying out of an order. This interval allows time for reflection upon the order, and reflection may produce a concern for the rationale of the order. Why was the order given? What purpose does the order seek to obtain?

Those operating under the suggested paradigm tend to question whether such reflection ever has any place at all in the military. Is it not true, they might point out, that the military runs on discipline, and is not discipline acquired by strict compliance with orders? The mistake in their reasoning is that they tend to reduce all instances of ‘discipline’ to the model of the life-and-death combat situation, either consciously or unconsciously. If they are conscious of what they are doing, they may employ the Aristotelian argument that the soldier acquires the habit of instant obedience in combat by practicing instant obedience in peacetime. But even with this seemingly sound argument before him, one might still raise a question as to which is the proper goal of the military, blind obedience or reflective obedience. That is the question to which I shall now turn.

It is interesting first to note that some of the most effective military leaders in modern history have been sympathetic to the combat needs of the soldier and have nevertheless stressed training the military in intelligent rather than blind obedience. General George C. Marshall provides an excellent instance. I shall frequently be citing him in this article, but let us first turn to Dr. Forrest C. Pogue, Marshall’s respected official biographer, to find Marshall’s views on the matter. In the Tenth Harmon Memorial Lecture in Military History at the United States Air Force Academy in 1968, Dr. Pogue said of Marshall:

While he would not coddle soldiers, he would not attempt to kill their spirit. “Theirs not to reason why—theirs but to do or die” did not fit a citizen army, he said. He believed in a discipline based on respect rather than fear; ‘on the effect of good example given by officers; on the intelligent comprehension by all ranks of why an order has to be and why it must be carried out; on a sense of duty, on esprit de corps.4

In the first volume of his biography of Marshall, Pogue writes that “it had always been Marshall’s style to lead by commanding assent rather than mere formal obedience.”5 One can note that this style of leadership is certainly not unique to Marshall. Intelligent commanders have recognized the effectiveness of such leadership for centuries. But what makes Marshall important for our purpose is that he is close to the temper of our times. The problems that Marshall faced—in raising and equipping an army in a time of austerity, in maintaining the morale of the military in a society that was largely antimilitary, in developing discipline in men from all walks of life, in coordinating national military aims with the aims of allies—are not far different from the problems faced by the American military today.6 Perhaps, then, Marshall’s approach to these kinds of matters has lessons for the present.

Three recurring aspects of Marshall’s military experience are especially valuable here. First, Marshall valued loyalty. Second, he was recognized by friend and foe alike as a man of imposing moral integrity. And third, in the major war of this century, Marshall passed the ultimate military test of the commander: he brought his nation victory, These three things are important, and I shall spend much of the remainder of this article arguing that, given the proper view of loyalty, there need be no incompatibility between loyalty, honor (in the sense of preserving one’s moral integrity), and military success, even in today’s world.

A Perspective on Loyalty

Whenever we speak of loyalty, we are speaking of a two-object context: a context in which one gives loyalty and another receives loyalty. Now, given this rather simple conceptual picture, what we might focus our attention on is neither the giving nor the receiving of loyalty but instead is the inspiring of loyalty. That is say, put yourself in a commander’s position and ask, “What inspires men to be loyal to we? Once the semantical issues are sifted through, there will remain, I would suggest, a single theme which forms the answer to that question. The theme is “trust.” If a commander can inspire trust, he will at the same time inspire loyalty. Without trust, he may be able momentarily to compel compliance with his orders, but this compliance will not be the same as loyalty. Loyalty is not compelled; it is inspired. Where loyalty exists, obedience to orders is characterized by a certain kind of superior-subordinate relationship. Colonel Truman Smith, one of Marshall’s subordinates at the Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia, before World War II, put this in words: “He would tell you what be wanted and then you would do it. There was something about him that made you do it, and of course you wanted to do it the way he wantedwhich is the trait of a commanding officer.”7

Now why, one might ask, did men respond to Marshall in this way? What was it about Marshall that inspired trust? This is a complex question, but of all Marshall’s character traits, there is one that shines through and perhaps suggests the main part of the answer to that question. Marshall’s acquaintances, in commenting on the man, invariably come around to a discussion of his personal integrity. For example, General Omar N. Bradley, in his foreword to the first volume of Pogue’s biography of Marshall, immediately stresses the integrity of the man.8 Pogue himself in writing of Marshall says, “Born in an era which spoke often of responsibility, duty, character, integrity, he was marked by these so-called ‘Victorian’ virtues.”9 Dean Acheson, who served with Marshall in the postwar period, speaks of “the immensity of his integrity, the loftiness and beauty of his character.”10 And Sir Winston Churchill, in a tribute paid Marshall shortly before his death, said: “During my long and close association with successive American Administrators, there are few men whose qualities of mind and character have impressed me so deeply as those of General Marshall.”11

Integrity, I would suggest, was the crucial factor in inspiring men to trust George C. Marshall. Marshall was a competent man, but competence did not account for the trust be received. Many other competent men of his era were unable to inspire the same sense of trust. Marshall was a powerful man, a man in a position of authority, but the authority alone did not explain the sense in which he was trusted, for he had inspired trust long before he attained the heights of power. It was, quite simply, the moral integrity of the man, an unmistakable hallmark, that inspired the trust and—in turn—the loyalty which characterized Marshall’s public service.

The thesis which I have proposed is that loyalty is primarily a function of trust, and that trust is usually given if integrity is perceived in the object of one’s trust. To evaluate this thesis, let us consider it in two parts. The first part concerns loyalty, with ancient lineage in the Western tradition, In his classic treatise on leadership in the sixteenth century, Machiavelli advised the Prince that he need not be loved by his subordinates in order to lead them. He need only be feared, Machiavelli suggested.12 But Machiavelli’s analysis of leadership was defective, as Rousseau was to demonstrate two and a half centuries later. A man may obey you if he is afraid of you, but his obedience is a weak and fleeting thing. Remove the immediate grounds of his fear and you have removed his sole reason for obeying. But if that same man is loyal to you, his obedience will have been insured in a much more lasting way, for the attitude of loyalty is a stronger stimulus than the attitude of fear. Rousseau wrote: “The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”13

Now, a danger still lurks in this kind of loyalty, inasmuch as the demagogue can inspire blind, unthinking loyalty to himself and his programs simply through his personal charisma. The danger is precisely that this view of loyalty is compatible with Himmler’s dictate to his troops, that their honor was their loyalty. What I now shall turn to, however, is a different view of how loyalty can be inspired, in a manner such that the military goal of discipline can be achieved along with the social goal of having soldiers who are also reflective, morally sensitive men. This conception of loyalty is one of loyalty inspired by trust, where that trust resides in the moral integrity of the commander.

Trust and Personal Integrity

The Oxford English Dictionary defines trust as “confidence in or reliance on some quality or attribute of a person or thing.” The attribute that we shall focus on is moral integrity. Now, the minimum content of moral integrity is being a morally sensitive person, and to see what this means, we shall turn to the respected British social philosopher H. L. A. Hart. Professor Hart writes:

In moral relationships with others the individual sees questions of conduct from an impersonal point of view and applies general rules impartially to himself and to others; he is made aware of and takes account of the wants, expectations, and reactions of others; he exerts self-discipline and control in adapting his conduct to a system of reciprocal claims. These are universal virtues and indeed constitute the specifically moral attitude to conduct.14

Hart’s important points are three: an impartial point of view, an active concern for others, and a disciplined attempt to meet the claims made on one’s behavior. These are the marks of the morally sensitive man, and they constitute a large part of what we ordinarily mean when we speak of personal integrity. These qualities are found in great leaders in any age, and they are exemplified by George C. Marshall. He paid strict attention to the notion of impartial behavior, so as not to use his position to benefit himself or his friends unfairly. For example, Pogue writes:

Marshall applied the same rigid standards to himself that he set for others. During the war, he told his Secretary, General staff, that if he received any decorations, honorary degrees, or had a book written about him, he would transfer out of the Pentagon. Only at the President’s personal direction did he waive the first prohibition.15

Even when he agreed, at the President’s insistence, to accept personal decorations, he held them to a minimum, saying: “I thought for me to be receiving any decorations while our men were in the jungles of New Guinea or the islands of the Pacific especially or anywhere else there was heavy fighting . . . would not appear at all well.”16 This statement was made with an attitude of humility, indicating the strict command Marshall had over his own ambitions as well as his true concern for his soldiers.

This concern for his soldiers had characterized his entire career. While be was assigned to the Infantry School, for instance, he was responsible for training several groups of Air Corps National Guardsmen and reservists. In one group were two black officers. Given the prejudices of the times and the location of the training base (Fort Benning, Georgia), it was not surprising when some of the students circulated a petition demanding that the blacks withdraw from the school. When Marshall learned of the petition, he exercised his moral leadership and defeated the petition. One of the two blacks involved was to write Marshall many years later: “Your quiet and courageous firmness, in this case, has served to hold my belief in the eventual solution of problems which have beset my people in their ofttimes pathetic attempts to be Americans.”17

Marshall could fire subordinates, but he never became hardened to the needs and concerns of his men. He had, one must conclude, a notable moral attitude toward his military duty, and this attitude merely reflected his integrity as a man. He directed one of the most difficult wars in history, without surrendering that integrity to the needs of the moment. He was, in the highest sense, the truly moral military leader.

Loyalty and the Needs
of a Democracy

Thus, in George C. Marshall a reasonable blend of loyalty, honor, and military success was achieved. The question remaining is whether the perspective on loyalty that I have proposed is the proper perspective for today’s military.

In America today, the young officer or enlisted man who is beginning his military service comes from a society whose values do not support the rigidly conceived notion of discipline. That is to say, discipline is not valued for discipline’s sake. The young American is attuned to questions concerning morality and war. He expects to be given a reason when told to do something. He does not always accept established traditions without question. He is often suspicious of bureaucracy and its ways.18 He is in short, the type of person who leads respected military writers to say that “the gap between the values held by a large percentage of American youth and those required for effective military service is probably larger today than ever before.”19

There remains, however, at least one thing that such a young man (or woman) responds to, today as in the past. He recognizes a man of integrity and can be inspired to trust such a man. This trust can serve to close the gap between the values of the soldier and his commander, for trust creates a sympathetic attitude and a propensity to obey. If you trust someone, you give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to doing what he tells you to. Thus, the soldier of a democracy can remain a moral agent, ultimately responsible for his actions, and can at the same time obey the orders of a person he trusts, on the presumption that the orders are legally and morally correct. This is a presumption that all Americans would like to be able to make about the military commander, and it is one which they are justified in making if the commander is a man of integrity.

This picture of the military places a heavy responsibility (some would say burden) on all those in positions of command, commissioned and noncommissioned officers alike. But this is no more than ought to be expected of those in such positions in the military service of a democracy. The military life has long been considered a life of sacrifice, not a life of personal gain. It is essential that the emphasis remain on the former in developing a professional soldier. Given this perspective, and with the humility and wisdom characteristic of the soldier-scholar of Plato’s Republic, the modern American soldier can revise Himmler’s phrase and write his own epitaph: “My loyalty is my honor”—my loyalty resides in a man of integrity, to whom I give my trust.

United States Air Force Academy


1. Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Part III of The Origins of Totalitarian (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), p. 22.

2. Colonel Malham M. Wakin, “ The American Military—Theirs to Reason Why,” Air Force Magazine, 54 (March 1971), p. 54.

3. This example was suggested by a Denver Post article of 12 April 1972, entitled “Ex-Nazi Given Life in Prison,” which concerned the conviction of Friedrich Bosshammer, an SS officer on Eichmann’s staff, who had been responsible for transporting four trainloads of Italian Jews from Italy to Auschwitz in 1944.

4. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Global Commander, The Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History, Number Ten, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, 1968, p. 18.

5. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall, Vol. I: Education of a General (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. 249.

6. The many excellent studies dealing with contemporary problems of the military include Colonel Robert G. Gard, Jr., “The Military and American Society,” Foreign Affairs, 49 (July 1971), pp. 698-710; Haynes Johnson et al., The Washington Post’ National Report: Army in Anguish (New York: Pocket Books, 1972); Morris Janowitz, “ Volunteer Armed Forces and Military Purpose,” Foreign Affairs, 50 (April 1972), pp. 427-43; and Herman S. Wolk, “Antimilitarism in American,” Air University Review, 23 (May-June 1972), pp. 20-25.

7. Pogue, Vol. I, pp. 259-60.

8. Ibid., p. ix.

9. Ibid., p. xv.

10. Pogue, Harmon Memorial Lecture, p. 13.

11. Ibid., p. 20.

12. Machiavelli, The Prince (1513).

13. Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, Chapter 3 (1762).

14. H. L. A. Hart, Law, Liberty and Morality (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 71.

15. Pogue, Harmon Memorial Lecture, p. 16.

16. Ibid.

17. Pogue, Vol. I, p. 260.

18. The many studies available on American youth include Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (New York: 1956): Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (New York: 1968); Charles A. Reich, The Greening of American (New York: 1970).

19. Gard, p. 705.


Captain Michael O. Wheeler (USAFA; Ph.D., University of Arizona) is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the United States Air Force Academy. Before this assignment in January 1971, he had tours with Air Force Institute of Technology; the Directorate of Intelligence, Hq Tactical Air Command; and the Wing Intelligence Division, 355th TAC Fighter Wing, Takhli, Thailand. Captain Wheeler is a graduate of Squadron Officer School.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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