The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 9 of 12

(Continued from Part 8)

9. Leadership from virtue

Witt does not try to make the transcendent manifest (in the sense of more apparent) so much as he tries to effect the transcendent in the world. Dedicated as he is to effecting the transcendent rather than drawing attention to it, Witt’s actions do not appear to the rest of the men around him to be at all distinguishable from duties performed simply for being what is expected in accord with the military culture. Witt exhibits the expected bravery with his willingness to participate in front-line fighting. In that fighting, he watches out for the other soldiers just as they watch out for him, and he does not balk at orders. Unlike some of the other soldiers, Witt exhibits the respect towards prisoners which the military ethic expects.

It would be of no concern to the military that Witt acts as he does for reasons which, as the movie reveals, are themselves not products of the training and ethic – the culture – which undergirds the military. Instead, the military is predominantly interested in what Witt does only in terms of whether or not he contributes to the ends which the military seeks to attain in some particular context.

Insofar as the military ethic is developed in anticipation of times wherein the military will be called upon to extend itself beyond its rituals in service to (and as reminders of) its hierarchical structure – insofar as the military ethic is constructed to anticipate times when the military will have to effect acts within that vast part of the world which is not itself subject to or in service to the military, its ways and purposes – the military ethic ultimately requires something other than a structure which demands simplistic deference to orders that are hierarchically imposed.

Particularly in the most dire situations, it is always to be expected that there will be a need for acts which are other than what can be ordered or demanded, inasmuch as contexts very often unfold with situations that cannot always be anticipated. Accordingly, in order to enhance the likelihood that success will be attained, the military ethic properly entails some degree of flexibility in order to accommodate the expectation of a need for the sort of judgment which can be made most effectually only from within and during the sort of unanticipated situation which does not afford opportunity for action to be put in abeyance until some higher ranking person can be adequately informed about what is going on before the decision can be made for what action is to be ordered and then undertaken.

This is to say that the military ethic certainly need not be a simple matter of following orders. Some versions of the ethic itself are designed to at least encourage the development of the capability for effectual judgment. This capability is the basis for that indefinite – and, therefore, ultimately indefinable and incompletely describable – yet indispensable characteristic known as leadership, which itself is something other than the right (or a privilege granted) to impose demands through the issuance of orders.

It has been said that a person leads by example, but such a notion in no way captures the sense of what is meant by leadership. Once the battle commences, Pvt. Witt’s courage, loyalty, and honor are exemplary, but it would be inaccurate to say that his actions amount to leadership. It would be just as inaccurate to think of Witt’s actions as being at all intended to lead others. Of course, this is largely the result of Witt being devoted to effecting the transcendent himself rather than being devoted to making the transcendent more blatantly apparent to others. And this is probably because a devotion to making the transcendent more immediately apparent would end up depending upon his being devoted to getting others to see things as he sees them, which, in turn, means being devoted to getting others to think about things as he does, and that then means being devoted to getting others to somewhat extensively adopt his own way of speaking about the effecting of the transcendent: By which point Witt would feel himself far removed from the devotion to effecting the transcendent – which is always done only for the sake of effecting the transcendent and never because it is expected or so that one comes to be noticed as worthy of praise.

This is not to in any way suggest that leadership is incompatible with devotion to effecting the transcendent. Indeed, leadership can follow from that devotion even if the desire to have others follow might itself be incompatible with the devotion to effect the transcendent. What this is meant to indicate is that leadership is something other than exemplary acts, and it is also intended to suggest that leadership depends upon relational qualities between persons which are other than what is imposed hierarchically.

Leadership depends upon trust and respect. As individuals become aware of the qualities or talents of those with whom they keep company, they respond to those characteristics with trust; they learn which other individuals are to be trusted to act in particular ways. Trust, in turn, can give rise to respect, a personally held high regard for some qualities of an other person. Whereas deference can be demanded, trust and respect develop organically, so to speak, between persons. The leadership quality becomes apparent in that person who is able to judge effectually between individuals in accord with their individual capabilities and who – because he, too, is trusted – is well-positioned to motivate others.

Successful attainment of military goals very often depends upon the production and maintenance of a morale for which the issuance of commands would never be sufficient. That morale which is so very important to the military is to some extent similar to the spirit which Buber discusses. It depends on there being some recognition of others as distinct selves rather than as de-personalized, effectively de-individualized, and in essence replaceable things to be utilized in service to some grand purpose.

That leadership upon which the military is ultimately dependent entails some extent of responsiveness to the persons – the selves as their individual selves – in order for there to be a spirit between them in which they share, live, and operate together and as selves. This feature itself should be sufficient to indicate how the leadership quality can follow from a devotion to effecting the transcendent, but it is also conceivable that a more intentionally instrumentalist ethic could be implemented wherein personnel would be trained based upon something akin to the above discussed considerations into the nature of morale along with considerations into how effectual judgment will – at least at times – depend upon the same capabilities that contribute to morale.

While the capability to recognize and respond to others as the selves who they are is necessary to the quality of leadership, this capability – particularly during war – can be a very limited sort of concern about the selves of those others. In The Thin Red Line, Capt. Staros seems to exhibit the quality of leadership when – after incurring heavy casualties and getting bogged down during the battle – he objects to and refuses to carry out Col. Tall’s order to have Charlie Company undertake a frontal assault which Staros insists would be pointlessly and needlessly suicidal – with the emphasis on suicidal.

Within earshot of men under his command, Staros makes it very clear that, having lived with these men for as long as he has and knowing them as the men – the selves – who they are, he will not be complicit in ordering that they assuredly die. So that his apparent leadership will not be confused for fearfulness (even cowardice), Staros expresses an apparent willingness to continue to engage the enemy – just not with a poorly thought-out frontal attack. Without expressing this willingness to continue the fight, Staros’ refusal to follow Tall’s order would itself have very likely been deleterious to his troops’ morale; it would have taken on the pallor of a destructive fear. But, because of the seeming fearlessness with which Staros put himself at clear risk for the sake of his own men’s very persons, his men perceived in Staros the leadership quality which ended up invigorating the company – even, as it turns out, if that re-invigoration might have occurred owing to the respite from fighting which followed Staros’ refusal to enact Tall’s order rather than from an instance of genuine – as distinguished from merely perceived – leadership.

In the movie, it is made clear that Staros has become tortured by the prospect of ever having to send his men to their deaths. This torture no doubt arises out of Staros’ recognition of his men as individual selves. However, he reacts to that dread by withdrawing into himself and becoming obsessed not with the deaths of selves manifesting individuality but, instead, with death itself so that he ends up losing sight of his men as the individual selves who they are. Because he now only sees the horror he faces as undifferentiated deaths rather than as individuated deaths, Staros is on the verge of refusing to put any lives at risk. Given the situation as it has unfolded, so far as he is able to discern, refusing to put any lives at risk is now likely the only means by which he can be of service to his men. The problem for Staros – actually the error he makes – lies in his thinking that the individuality of selves is ever (pre)served in taking greater control over their lives. Having effectively lost sight of his men as individuals, Staros can no longer recognize that (at least some of) those individuals might have good reasons for being willing to put their own lives at risk for the sake of others.

As a consequence of having lost sight of his men as individuals, Staros’ ability to exhibit the necessary leadership quality quickly disintegrates. This begins to become apparent to his men when Col. Tall reaches their position, and Staros remains hunched with fear despite the fact that the fighting has largely abated by that time.

The judgment required for leadership depends first (and whenever circumstances allow) on an assignment of duties which takes account of individuals’ characteristic abilities. This sort of judgment in terms of individuals is more concerned with mission success than it is with assuring the well-being of any individuals, but even that type of judgment can impart to the members of an operational unit the sense that there is some regard for their individual selves. The sense that the person in charge is inclined whenever possible to make judgments in terms of individuals’ abilities (rather than just use individuals as indistinguishable, interchangeable, and – if need be – ultimately discardable tools) engenders in members of the unit a recognition of the leadership quality in the person authorized to issue orders. In response, unit members will to some extent personalize their own relationship to the person in charge; a trust ensues, and the individuals are invigorated to act for the sake of the leader regarded as the representative of the unit and its members. As a consequence, a person who exhibits the leadership quality is well-positioned to motivate others to pursue and achieve goals beyond which they might have otherwise thought themselves capable. On the other hand, a commander who is incapable of the type of judgment that is necessary to effect a sense of leadership puts at risk the morale that (once it comes to be) must be maintained in order for extended engagements to succeed.

Continued in Part 10

This entry was posted in Ethics, Film, Morality, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 9 of 12

  1. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 8 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: The Thin Red Line: Grace in the midst of war?, Part 10 of 12 | The Kindly Ones

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