On the Platonic Form of Garrison Obedience

Last week I spent some time ruminating on the differences between the nature of obedience in Garrison and Deployed/Combat situations and then this appeared to this week via Twitter to much spirited discussion. 31 Things…..

Initially I did not think of this piece in relation to those ruminations, but as usual was pushed into it by a sharp thinker. This piece, who highlights 31 unspoken norms in the military, seemed much like other pieces on ‘social capital’ that one might see in relation to business, academia or being a student. That there are unspoken norms that are part of full membership in an institution or community is not news and this piece seems to fit into that vein. As a ‘military brat’ (my father was USAF senior NCO) I recognized many of these norms and now as an adult who studies military ethics, some of them seem odd and outdated but I didn’t think much of it.  (After all, so are the academic robes I wear twice a year!)

However, if we think about this list in terms of the discussion last week, this list seems to express what I might call the Platonic (perfect or complete) Form of the Garrison view of obedience. What the heck does that mean?   It means that in Garrison contexts, the emphasis seems to be on obedience 1) as a virtue valued in and of itself and 2) as a mode of being, as existential, rather than instrumental. (In my book Achilles is an existential warrior, Hector acts as a warrior.)  The list seems very clear that these suggestions are about impressing upon senior commanders that one is fully committed to the community and their interpretation of what counts as membership.   On first blush, it seems that like other social capital pieces, this list is about helping people understand the subtle aspects of the military profession and community.

As a military ethics professor and scholar who writes on the profession, I completely disagree. Most of this list has nothing to do with the military profession as such, but has more to do with enforcing social (not moral) norms of a community. So whats wrong with that? Surely these suggestions are about showing that one is a full and committed member of the team and following them would increase unit cohesion, teamwork and espirit de corps thus improving mission effectiveness.

But my issue is that teamwork is about what you DO not about what you ARE. Teamwork is about how you do your job, how you carry out your responsibilities; whether you have a particular optional form of swag on your uniform, a spouse who shows up at events or angelic progeny is more about who you ARE. Bear with me here. I don’t need to wear high heels to do philosophy. But I do and that marks me out as a certain kind of philosopher and my public identification (or in this case lack thereof) with certain norms about academic philosophy.

Most of these things on the list seem more about who you ARE, not what you DO and as such this list is not about being a member of the team, it is about being a member of the community, or more pejoratively the clique. A clique with a certain identity based upon social norms that are policed by the senior members (as they were policed when they entered the community) and have to do with being in, reliably in and willing to please and obey superiors – that is they demonstrate that one is willing to BE obedient.

I am skeptical that any (maybe one or two) of these elements have anything to do with the central mission and profession of the military as we commonly define it; I do think that these elements are critical to maintaining control in a bureaucracy. (See M. Foucalt Discipline and Punish for more). Which is why this list represents the Platonic Form of Garrison Obedience, which I am arguing is about being obedient as a habit, largely without critical thought. On the contrary, Deployment or Combat obedience seems to be much more about what you DO and what effects it has. Obedience is useful in that context to the degree that it does help mission effectiveness and allow a unit to operate as a team; but this is not as end in itself, it is valued to the degree that it helps achieve the mission. To the degree that it fails to do this, it will be jettisoned or modified – often without sanction and perhaps to praise.

Obedience in this context is about what you DO, not about what you ARE. A familiar trope in literature and film is the soldier who is hopeless and disastrous in the Garrison context, but who performs well in Combat precisely for the same reasons that she was unsuited in the the other context. Combat is about action, about performance, not about identity. [And now I have to go rewrite several chapters in my book, which you should read!!!!]

And this where you will tell me I am wrong…..


One thought on “On the Platonic Form of Garrison Obedience

  1. polarbear1605

    Pauline, You hit the nail on the head. The good LTC’s 31 items are the last things he/she should be thinking about. Seems more like a lesson plan on turning you nose brown. If a subordinate achieves all 31 points…what happens when the same subordinate fails in combat…will these 31 points help prevent causalities in combat? I don’t think so. We seem to have grown a military “socialization” system that awards the politically correct and not the need for timely decisions in combat. Look at Lt Lorance’s case…new to the unit in combat…and now in Leavenworth. Polarbear1605 LtCol USMC Ret.



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