On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community

  • Published

On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community by Pauline Shanks Kaurin. Naval Institute Press, 2020, 274 pp.

As the United States military looks to a future of great power competition and joint all-domain warfare, many discussions have naturally been generated on what makes a modern-day military professional. Numerous recent books and articles have grappled with the topic on everything from the future of war and emerging technologies, to what it means to be a military professional, and the implications of being one. In On Obedience, Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin focuses on the latter and seeks to provide a philosophical treatment to the idea of obedience in the professional military and broader civilian and political communities. The author is a professor of professional military ethics at the US Naval War College whose work specializes in military ethics and the just war theory. Grounding the book in the study of philosophy and building upon the foundational studies of civil-military relations, Shanks Kaurin brings the reader into her discussion much as if she is conducting one of her classes on the topic.

In the introductory chapter, Dr. Shanks Kaurin starts by discussing the expectations of military obedience and the ramifications of disobedience on the individual and the unit. She then posits that what is much less clear is exactly what counts as obedience and disobedience and when one ought or ought not be obedient. She defines the task of the book as taking up a philosophical exploration of the idea of obedience in both military and political communities of practice.

Over the next nine chapters, the author engages a thought-provoking “classroom” type manner with each session building on the next. She uses the lens of Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Aquinas, and others to view works such as Huntington, Walzer, and Hurtle while referencing everything from Henry V to A Few Good Men as examples. Each chapter presents new material, offers debate, and then reinforces the discussion with real-world, philosophical, or even pop culture examples. The “class” initially covers the foundational philosophical views of topics such as obedience, loyalty, morality, and discipline and then takes up discussion of how the various theories challenge each other and apply to things like judgement, leadership, and mission command. Whether “students” show up to class looking to confirm or challenge the views of The Soldier and the State, grapple with the meaning of social contract theory, or argue for or against Jack Nicholson’s ordering of the code red, they will leave challenged but fulfilled.

The most valuable parts of the book are the case studies in the final pages and the handful of discussion guide questions for each chapter. The book could be used extensively in PME or professional reading groups, but also serves quite well to provide the military professional with a pathway for self-reflection. In a busy world of balancing the mission and personal life, this book is professional development that will have readers taking the time to highlight, take notes, and insert themselves into the case studies and examples.

The one critique that Dr. Shanks Kaurin herself anticipates is that the early chapters are quite often heavy on the abstract notions of philosophical theory. While this may be undesired or cumbersome for some, many readers have encountered such topics before and are more versed than they may remember. Discussing these theories and arguments is a requirement and provides the foundation for the discussions and connections throughout the rest of the book. The author goes out of her way to keep the material engaging to a general audience, and some patience from the reader leads to a work that inspires discussion and self-reflection.

In an evolving military, developing new ways of war in the face of new threats, On Obedience provides military professionals (and the broader civilian community) with a guidebook to assessing their past, present, and future behavior. The author does not shy away from inserting her opinions into the discussion, but the book is not laden with lecturing and absolutes. Readers will find themselves questioning what counts as obedience or disobedience; what defines things like loyalty, honor, and morals; and what the implications and obligations of these topics are. Serious engagement with these questions will leave military professionals in a better position to define these ideas for themselves, discuss them with those they lead, and better serve their institutions and their country.

Maj Jason Baker, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government, Department of Defense, or US Air Force.


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."