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Civic Education and Use of Force


Author(s) and academic affiliation

James Ellsworth, U.S. Naval War College, RI

Stacy Haldi, U.S. Naval War College, RI


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Ellsworth, Ph.D., is Professor of Online Education, and Haldi, Ph.D., is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy, in the College of Distance Education.


Abstract: 55-85 words


It is imperative that citizens in a democracy be educated on topics related to the use of force, particularly critical thinking and ethical decision making, in order to fulfill their role in the democratic process. We believe that the way we in the United States educate our military, particularly senior officers, provides a model for civilian education on national security issues. Moreover, we believe that the officers we educate at the War College level are an underutilized resource for character development education in the communities in which they live and serve.


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Although Americans have historically shunned a large standing military, they consistently list their armed forces among the most respected of their government institutions—even when confidence in those institutions as a whole is down (The Harris Poll #4, 2003). One reason for this may be the emphasis placed on character development throughout a military career; it thus seems reasonable that when public attention turns to character development education, military practices in this area might be of interest.


Few public decisions are as momentous as the decision to employ armed force in pursuit of national policy objectives, and for a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” it is essential that all the people—those who will risk their lives in such enterprise and those who will participate in the democratic processes leading to it—possess the critical thinking, ethical decision making, and lifelong learning competencies to faithfully discharge their roles. While this need may at one level be obvious, a compelling explanation of the political dynamic underlying it is provided by one of the great military scholars of all time, the 19th century German strategist, Carl von Clausewitz. In his classic treatise, On War, Clausewitz describes the conduct of war as being governed by a “trinity” of distinct and somewhat balancing forces: the passions of the people, the creativity of the military, and the rational calculus of the government with regard to the policy aims for which war is being pursued (Clausewitz, 1818, 89). Clearly, when this dynamic is understood within the context of a democracy, it is especially dangerous for each of these forces to think only of its own domain—for ultimately, the people are the government; should they not possess the education and skills to evaluate the policy arguments they hear (in effect, exercising their governmental role) the Clausewitzian “passion” (which may run either for or against war) has the potential to infect and disable the rational consideration of national interests.


At the nexus of government with the military “leg” of the trinity, the role of balance in a democracy is equally clear—and has long been understood within the American system. A military that did not possess sound ethics, civic virtue, and strong character as its bedrock would be a danger to the very society it was supposed to protect. Consequently, these subjects have been staples of American military education almost since the U.S. Military Academy at West Point opened in 1802 (Bogle 2002). While efforts early in a servicemember’s career aim to lay a strong foundation of personal character, education at the War College level—where the authors teach—builds on this foundation to reinforce ethical and responsible stewardship of the lives and resources entrusted to the leader’s care, and to ensure that the decision to employ military force, when made, conforms to the highest moral standards.


Just as maintaining the Clausewitzian balance clearly demands a special educational investment in the military, it also pays a special dividend when this investment is made: a democracy’s soldiers are members of their communities no different than their neighbors. This is especially significant if the community itself should desire to enhance character development education in its schools, as officers who have studied these matters throughout their careers are available as resources when implementing such programs.


Character Development in Senior Officer Education

Before considering the implications of this, it is useful to examine the character-building objectives at America’s War Colleges, with examples drawn specifically from the Naval War College and the Army War College—the two such institutions with which the authors have been directly involved. These objectives fall broadly into three categories: International Law, Strategic Decision Making, and Military Ethics—each of which is just as relevant for citizens forming educated opinions on a specific proposed use of force.


The body of International Law governing military action is divided into the jus in bello (law governing conduct once armed conflict is under way) and the jus ad bellum (law governing when armed conflict may be initiated). The former is probably most familiar, incorporating among other treaties the Geneva Conventions, and has long been taught formally as part of the curriculum (Joint Military Operations Department 2003, 69-79). The latter, represented by the “Just War Theory,” has equally ancient origins (Walzer 2000, xx, 21) but has seemingly been in hiatus; this is often attributed to the premise that, in the nuclear-armed context of the Cold War, the concept of a “just war” was meaningless (Ibid., 282-283). Significantly, the post-Cold-War renewal of interest in the jus ad bellum is sometimes attributed not to the needs of lawyers and statesmen, but precisely to the need being highlighted here—for informed public discourse surrounding the decision to go to war (Ibid., xvi).


Curricular attention to Strategic Decision Making addresses critical thinking and lifelong learning competencies within the context of stewardship of society’s “blood and treasure” (the lives and resources entrusted to the nation’s defense). Most obviously, officers must possess those competencies to intelligently implement the government’s decisions—that is, to craft military strategies likely to secure those ends. Yet the officer likewise has a duty to provide feedback to the government, which may be either for or against initiation (or continuation) of military action. For example, at the end of Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, advised the President to cut short the operation when Iraqi resistance dissolved in frantic withdrawal along the so-called “Highway of Death” (Gordon & Trainor 1995, 423). It must also be remembered that a democracy’s military is composed of citizen-soldiers—and, as George Washington himself noted, “When we took up the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” In addition to the above roles, of course, servicemembers retain the responsibility all Americans share, to provide feedback to the government through the political process—and this end is also served by a War College education that equips them with the competencies to evaluate strategic decisions at the highest levels.


Finally, the study of Military Ethics is used to build upon the officer’s understanding of the moral and philosophical foundations guiding his professional practice. In contrast to the previous two categories, the objective of this instruction emphasizes theory—i.e., principles and thought processes that can be applied to any ethical issue the officer may encounter—rather than specific applications of that theory to law or strategy (although such applications may be used as case studies or examples). The importance accorded these theoretical underpinnings is evidenced at the Naval War College by the appointment of an Ethics chairholder, and by the annual conduct of a Professional Ethics Conference that has recently completed its fifteenth iteration, The Moral Responsibilities of the United States Armed Forces in Iraq (Naval War College 2003). Likewise for over a decade, the Naval War College has offered an elective course, Foundations of Moral Obligation (Brennan 1992), exploring these issues in detail. Military authors examining such topics have even made significant contributions to theoretical frameworks for ethical leadership, for example, Lieutenant Colonel Rubye Braye’s discussion of Servant-Leadership in military contexts (Braye 2002).


These three categories constitute the formal character development curriculum at one representative U.S. War College—a comprehensive, interrelated approach to refining the officer’s critical thinking and ethical reasoning competencies, and directing them toward all aspects of the decision to use force in service of national policy. While the level of detail required by those whom the taxpayer has entrusted with these decisions as their profession will obviously be greater, the above discussion suggests several parallels to the responsibilities held by all citizens in common; the next section examines these linkages in more depth.


The Role of the Population in the Use of Armed Force

In the twenty-first century, as in the last, it is ultimately the nation that is at war—not just its military, nor just its government. The ability of a democracy, like the United States, to wage war is part of an important debate in the international relations literature. Just as Clausewitz stresses the need to maintain public support, one argument advanced there posits that democracies wage war more effectively due to the role that the public plays in democratic government. First, they are part of the political decision-making process, increasing the range of options on the table as well as the need to substantiate whichever decision is ultimately made. Therefore, so this argument goes, democracies by their pluralistic nature make better decisions than other forms of government (Russett, 1990; Snyder, 1991; Van Evera, 1990/91)—but for this argument to hold, the democracy must have an educated public, one not merely literate, but conversant with security issues and how they relate to its political principles. A second argument, more familiar to students of strategy, suggests that democracies are better at fighting wars because they need to maintain public support—which in turn strengthens the war effort (Friedberg, 1992). In Clausewitzian terms, this holds that democracies are more aware of their reliance on the people and, therefore, make greater effort to develop this leg of the trinity.


Recently, Michael Desch has argued persuasively against these theories, asserting that democracies perform neither better nor worse than non-democracies at war (Desch, 2002). Nevertheless, what matters for the United States—or any democracy—is that failure to maintain public support undermines the war effort; this strongly suggests that the public should be educated in many of the topics currently reserved for national security professionals.


Simply put, public support is necessary for a sustained strategy. Citizens must first understand the policy the government wants to pursue, in order to take effective part in the decision making process and develop the depth of support required for waging any war—especially one that promises to be prolonged, such as the current War on Terror. Additionally, the public must understand the strategy being pursued by the military. This helps citizens make sense of the information they receive, and provide feedback via the political process; just as critical, it helps them understand the importance of the role that their families—especially loved ones serving their country—are playing in framing and implementing America’s policy aims.


Enlisting Citizen-Soldiers in Civic Education

For some, this may beg the question of how one goes about educating the public without crossing the line into government propaganda—but such instruction does not inherently require a monolithic, top-down program orchestrated by the Federal Government. Officers themselves, having received the education described above, can assist in the process—either at the request of their communities (or educational institutions within those communities) or on their own initiative as private citizens.


One example of this is the Current Affairs Panel, an outreach program involving students and a moderator from the U.S. Army War College (AWC), which visits colleges and universities to help educate students on national security and public policy issues. This panel visited Stacy Haldi’s “Introduction to International Relations” course at Gettysburg College (Fall 2003) and a brief description of one of the highlights of the visit shows just what can be accomplished by this type of outreach—in terms of teaching not merely the national security issues themselves, but their relationship to ethics and American political principles as well.


Professor Haldi’s course is attended primarily by underclassmen. During the panel’s class visit, a student asked the three AWC officers how they felt about embedded reporters. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Terry Ferrell elected to answer, replying that he not only favored embedded reporters[1], but that he believed there should be more embedded reporters because that program provided more varied coverage of the military’s activities to the American people. This opinion, in which the other two officers concurred, is significant on several levels. First and foremost, it ran counter to the expectations of the students in the room, serving to enlighten and educate on that basis alone. On a deeper level, LTC Ferrell’s response reflected a fundamental American political principle necessary for a vibrant democracy: free flow of information—in this case, communication between the military and the civilian society it serves. What’s more, as embedding proved successful during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the practice continues receiving support that furthers civic education in other ways—for example, local newspaper reporters are accompanying units of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard as they deploy to Iraq.[2] Embedding of journalists provides an informal vehicle for educating journalists themselves, which can only enhance their communication of national security issues to the public.


Other methods of “grassroots civic education” rely on officers’ participation, as private citizens, in their own communities—and the officers closest to their communities are the National Guard and Reserves, who live and work in them as civilian neighbors, often for their entire lives. Today, the military education requirements of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act are combining with Web-enabled distance learning to bring these geographically dispersed officers “together” for advanced study—and because they naturally provide a human bridge between the people and the military, the investment made by educating them is an indirect investment in the education of the entire community.



Clausewitz’s trinity of the people, government, and military (passion, reason, creativity) remains so powerful, not just because of the three legs of the triangle, but also because of the connections between those legs. Too often, however, we forget that the connection between the military and the population goes beyond providing military manpower; if the people are to understand national security issues, participate in the policy debate around those issues, and support the military should that debate lead to the use of armed force, an effective civic education effort represents a powerful tool.


The relevance of early character development education in military contexts (e.g., Junior ROTC in high schools) is perhaps more easily appreciated, as these programs are already present in the community, and as their personal character-building objectives are also taught by other youth organizations like Scouting and 4-H. Yet while these are unquestionably essential, it is in many ways the objectives for more senior officer education that offer a closer fit with the academic curriculum. Most particularly, it is this senior education that begins to lift the officer out of the tactical details of her particular job, and to familiarize her with the processes of strategic thought—that is, of formulating military strategy as an integral component of an overall (“grand”) strategy aimed at accomplishing the nation’s policy aims. Said another way, it builds the competencies—both skills and knowledge—necessary to make informed judgments about how and if military force should be employed in pursuit of those aims.


Clearly, this educational objective is (or should be) hardly unique to the military. In fact, it could hardly be more important—in the wake of the first National Security Strategy to explicitly assert preventative war as a legitimate policy tool—to ensure that such competencies are well-developed in every citizen, every voter, so they can judge such claims. Should America’s communities agree that character development education should be strengthened, the citizen-soldiers among them stand ready—a resource they can call upon to prepare their youth to safeguard democracy at home, through the political process that may some day ask the soldier to protect it abroad through the use of armed force.


Footnotes should be endnotes visible in normal layout.

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[1] LTC Ferrell hosted an embedded reporter when he served as Commander of 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment during Operation Iraqi Freedom.


[2] The Wilkes Barre Times Leader is embedding with the 1/109th Field Artillery; the Scranton Times Tribune is embedding with 2nd Battalion, 103rd Armor Regiment; the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is embedding with Company A of the 28th Signal Brigade.


REFERENCES: See use of italics instead of word underline and UPPERCASE .



Braye, Rubye Howard. “Servant-Leadership: Leading in Today’s Military.” In Larry C. Spears, Michele Lawrence, and Ken Blanchard, Eds. Focus on Leadership: Servant-Leadership for the 21st Century, 294-303. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2001.

Brennan, Joseph Gerard. Foundations of Moral Obligation: The Stockdale Course. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1992.

Clausewitz, Carl. On War [1818]. Translated and indexed by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Desch, Michael C. , “Democracy and Victory: Why Regime Type Hardly Matters,” International Security, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2002)

Friedberg, Aaron, “Why Didn’t the United States Become a Garrison State?” International Security, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Spring 1992)

Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, The Generals' War:  The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf. Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

The Harris Poll #4, 22 January 2003,

Joint Military Operations Department. Joint Military Operations Syllabus. Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2003.

Naval War College. The 15th Annual Professional Ethics Conference: The Moral Responsibilities of the United States Armed Forces in Iraq. Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2003.

Russett, Bruce M., Controlling the Sword: The Democratic Governance of National Security (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Van Evera, Stephen, “Primed for Peace: Europe after the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Winter 1990/91).

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd Ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.


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