Document created: 15 October 2003
Air University Review, November-December 1974
What is the value of man? Does a person have intrinsic worth independent from another’s concept of that worth? Should a military commander even concern himself with such questions? Whether a commander thinks he should or not, he consciously or unconsciously answers such questions all the time. The question of man, whether asked from an economic, tactical, or humanitarian point of view, is of vital importance to the military commander. Any student of military strategy is aware of the importance of men within that strategy, but that is quite different from an understanding of the intrinsic worth of man. The military economist knows all too well the economic restraints that dictate the number of men within his force, but that says nothing about the real value of man; it considers only the costs of obtaining his services. To a tactician, a group of well-trained military men executing a battle plan with split-second precision is like an art form, but that does not address the question of their worth. In today’s society the military commander is forced to think as a humanitarian as well as a tactician and economist. As a humanitarian he must broaden his approach.
At first thought, the commander might be turned off by the suggestion of thinking of himself as a humanitarian. However, any man who deals with life and death, as the professional soldier does, should give considerable thought to man from a humanitarian perspective and eventually even develop his own theology of man. Let us explore some of the implications of a commander answering the very basic question as to the “value of man” from a theological point of view rather than the more usual political, economic, or tactical perspective.
A commander once wrote on the effectiveness report of a chaplain that his sermons did not adhere to the theology of the command. Such a statement implied that there was an established theology for that command; this was not the case, nor should it have been. But it did point out that as an individual this commander had very definite ideas concerning his faith and that as a “whole man” he related them to his official duties as well as his personal life.
Historically, many of our greatest generals have considered man from a theological perspective as well as the more obvious perspectives of their profession. Edwin S. Davis, in a research study entitled Faith of Our Generals, concluded that the faith of such famous generals as Washington, Jackson, Lee, Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, and Eisenhower was “clearly a motivating force.”1 It would be an error to infer that the faith of those seven generals accounted for their greatness or that it was the primary perspective from which they viewed their military duty, but Davis claims that their faith was a factor in the specific decisions and orders given relative to their command responsibilities.
Today’s commander must still consider man as the basic instrument of war. In these days of technical revolution it is easy to lose one’s perspective amidst the sophisticated machinery of warfare to the neglect of the basic ingredient, namely, man. It would be one of the great tragedies of omission to become so engrossed in the amassing of a great arsenal, capable of man’s destruction, that we should forget it was for man’s protection that such an awesome arsenal was developed. Indeed, if we are not engaged in the furtherance of man’s protection and dedicated to preserving his individual dignity and identity, then in amassing such a destructive force we are perpetrating the greatest tragedy of mankind. To avert such a tragedy, one of the basic questions for every military commander should become a theological one.
Even though it is recognized that man has been unable to achieve an adequate level of acceptance or understanding from among his fellows, yet from within Christian theology war is seen as a tragedy. And man continues to live as though he were a star playing out that old Western movie theme, “This world’s not big enough for both of us.” Although man A knows that man B is equipped with a weapon and fully intends to use it if challenged, he nevertheless continues to press his will upon him. While that may seem too simplistic to explain the complex economic and political issues that cause conflict between nations, it illustrates the truth that man is not only the basic instrument of war but also the basic cause.
When Christ confronted a group of people about to stone one of their members to death, he removed the point at issue from a group action to an individual action and thereby precluded any stones being thrown that day. From that encounter, the men holding the stones did not really come to any better understanding of their brother, but they did come to a better understanding of themselves. Because of that, hostilities were avoided.
What are the implications of that story for the military commander? It exemplifies the situation in which the commander finds himself. He is often torn between his sworn obligation to be a stone-thrower—an instrument of the state—and the Christian concept that man’s life is of a higher order and worth than the laws of society. That is to say, the whole is not of equal value to the sum of its parts. Sociologically, the individual and society are correlative, but the state assumes the greater value for itself. However, theologically, the individual is pre-eminent over the state. It is, after all, individual personality that will transcend the time-encompassed state. From a theological perspective, it is the freedom of individual personality that has the higher value. In a world of political realities, the state continues to predominate over individuals so that their personalities are suppressed or even lost. While this trend should be stopped within the state, it should be recognized also that individualism has never been a hallmark of military life, either. Should a military commander, then, try to adjust somewhat the traditional concept of his absolute authority over the individuals of his command, recognizing the need to preserve the freedom of each individual’s personality? To make the point as clear as possible, and for purposes of contrast, it is Communism that would ultimately socialize man so that individualism is destroyed and personality completely suppressed.
Perhaps that leads us to ask the hard question (given the functions of the state): Can any state be Christian? Is it possible for a state to follow an ethic that was conceived for individuals?
Looking back to the Jewish beginnings of Christianity, is it correct to assume that the Ten Commandments were given to a “community,” to the group of people that Moses led, or were they offered to the individuals who made up that community? Perhaps it was the latter and we have been guilty of expecting our state and even its military instrumentalities to be other than they should. A state cannot function from an individual’s ethic, nor may an individual be released from his personal responsibility by the state. This intensifies the need for a military commander to develop a clear theology of man. It also becomes clear that it would be in error to assume that the state should or indeed could delineate an ethic or theology for him.
Whereas in the Ten Commandments individuals are forbidden to kill, and murder is considered a sin, the same individuals acting as instruments of the state may find it their duty to kill. Thus the great paradox of the Christian military commander is that, while as an individual he is under the mandate of the commandments of God, he is also an instrument of the state, a professional warrior, a man of war. He cannot expect his responsibility under one to eliminate his responsibility under the other. A real danger might be that we so deceive ourselves as to forget where the truth lies.
The role of the military profession is to fight. Only when an adversary perceives that it is not in his best interest to challenge is there peace as a result of military force. When a commander goes into combat and commits his men to fight, they “throw their stones” not as individuals but as the military arm of the state. To relate this to the Biblical example referred to earlier, the men in that group were enforcing a law of the community by stoning one of their members to death; they were functioning as an arm of the society rather than as individuals. It was only when Christ took the matter out of the group or “state” context and placed each person on his own responsibility that the stones were dropped to the ground. Although a reader of history could make a strong case to show that thousands of lives have been taken in the name of Christianity, nevertheless individual responsibility within Christianity is a restraint to violence.
The paradox which the Christian commander encounters is that, although as an individual he condemns war, he still considers it the right thing to do as an instrument of the state. Although the absence of war is preferred by the Christian commander, he is painfully aware that the world in which he serves is not free from evil, his own or his neighbors’. This awareness of the human condition is an insight derived from his theology of man. His theology also gives him an overriding concept as to the worth of man even in his sinful nature, and this awareness of man’s individual worth becomes a powerful restraint. Perhaps it is the most important restraint for a world that could so easily destroy itself. For, today, when men gather to throw “stones” at another member of the world order, even though he may have transgressed the laws under which we have agreed to live, we could destroy mankind. And again we have a paradox in that we might also destroy mankind by not going to war when man’s personal freedom is challenged. Even though one equates war with death, there is a condition of life that is worse than death: indifference to the quality of life. In the United States we have lived so long in an environment of freedom that it is hard to conceive of life any other way. But another way of life could be ours, and there are forces in the world that would like to banish individuality from existence.
A theological understanding of man’s worth would not permit a policy of isolation or of indifference to other men and their struggle for freedom. We find that each generation within our country has sacrificed and suffered to preserve our legacy of freedom. In Davis’s Faith of Our Generals, he noted that from Washington to Eisenhower (which covers every period of our nation’s history up to Vietnam) our highest commanders have been men who acknowledged and exemplified the importance of their faith. Although America is called a Christian nation, it is only more Christian than pagan to the degree that the individuals who incorporate it develop a personal theology and permit it to influence them in their decision-making.
But if we must fight, and if we contend that one who follows the Christian ethic prefers not to engage in conflict, how can we reconcile the fact that the American fighting man does so well in combat? Does he return to some base drive that is a part of his nature? Perhaps there is real truth in that, yet the many military decorations that are given by this country for combat distinction are not tied to the number of men a soldier has killed but rather to the courage, valor, and, if you will, nobility that rise within man which enable him to make the necessary sacrifices to accomplish tasks that appear beyond his capacity. Could it not be that a Christian theology which emphasizes the worth of man actually makes such heroism possible? Is it not yet another paradox that, while war is seen by a Christian commander as an outgrowth of man’s (sinful) human condition, he decorates the men of his command because war raises within them acts of nobility?
Every commander needs a theology that will help him understand man’s condition, to understand the worth of the men he leads and the worth of those he may be called upon to oppose. Since men hold nuclear weapons in their hands rather than stones, such an understanding could become our best and perhaps our only acceptable deterrent.
Finally, within the military structure itself considerable effort has gone into humanizing the force. Today military commanders are giving each member of their command more control over his life style. An enlightened understanding of individual worth and dignity has led the services to deal more courageously than any other group with the social issues that plague our nation.
So, “Right on,” commander, as you sort through the many complex problems that confront you, not the least of which must be to answer the question for yourself, “What is the value of man?” Within your answer you will find new elements for an improved organizational management style, but, most important, you will find the moral incentives to help other people win their personal freedom, while defending your own. The military commander who has developed a sound theology of man will never fail to secure for himself or his brother a life that permits all men to be free. You might call that détente raised to the highest power.
Air Command and Staff College
1. Davis, Edwin S. Faith of Our Generals: An Inquiry into the Significance of Religion in the Lives of Seven Great American Generals. Maxwell AFB, Alabama, Air University, Unpublished Air Command and Staff College research study, 1971.
Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) John G. Truitt, Jr. (M.Div., Union Theological Seminary) is the installation chaplain at Iraklion, Crete. He is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and held pastorates in North Carolina, New Jersey, and Virginia prior to entering the Air Force in 1961. He has since served as chaplain in TAC, USAFE, ATC, AFLC, MAC, and PACAF. Chaplain Truitt received special recognition as a humanitarian from the President of South Vietnam while serving there. He is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College.
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.