The Corrosive Risks of Lawless Leadership

by Geoffrey Corn

[Geoffrey S. Corn is Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law Houston in Houston Texas. Prior to joining the South Texas College of Law Houston faculty in 2005, Professor Corn served in the U.S. Army for 21 years as an officer, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He served a subsequent year as the Army’s senior civilian law of war expert advisor. ]

Leadership is the sine qua non of great military forces. And the reason why is clear: because what military leaders demand from subordinates is a complete willingness to go into harm’s way, put life on the line to achieve the collective mission, and to employ deadly force on command.

There is no easy answer to the question of what attributes that define great leaders. Even if there were a list of objective criteria, the intangible qualities – qualities subordinates and enemies alike recognize – probably defy definition. There is, however, one indispensable attribute: trust. The bond of trust between leader and subordinate – a bond based on commitment to the core values that define the nation for which the military fights – is essential to genuine combat effectiveness.

For the American soldier, integrity is the glue that cements the essential bond of trust between leader and subordinate. Integrity is a core value of the U.S. Army, and demands that soldiers and leaders, “Do what’s right, legally and morally . . . a quality you develop by adhering to moral principles.” Respect for law and a genuine commitment to moral interests advanced by the law are therefore central to truly effective leadership and the development of combat effective units.

Respect for law is therefore central to the maintenance of good order and discipline in the military unit, and in that sense is a genuine, “force multiplier” for the unit commander. But true good order and discipline requires more than blind obedience to superior orders. It requires trust – trust that the leaders issuing those orders adhere to the same core value of integrity as the subordinate tasked to obey them. Indeed, it is a myth that military leaders develop units willing to endure the challenges, dangers, and deprivations of war through despotic or dictatorial leadership detached from commitment to law and morality. Indeed, any leader who thinks obedience is ensured by leveraging fear for the consequences of disobedience does not understand the time-tested link between quality leadership and combat effectiveness. Ultimately, the fear of what the subordinate is asked to do will almost always outmatch the fear of sanction for refusing to do it; subordinates confront those fears and the risks of combat that produce them not because they are afraid of their leaders, but because they trust them.

In the U.S. military, commitment to values plays a critical role in building the mutual trust and respect essential to good order and discipline and genuine combat effectiveness. Doctrinal publications that address leadership are replete with this message, emphasizing that men and women who volunteer to serve the armed forces of our great democracy expect their leaders to embrace the values that define our nation. This reflects a recognition that true motivation flows from building genuine trust between the leader and the led; trust that flows from mutual respect. This is what lays the foundation for developing a commitment to a common cause; a passionate desire to make the maximum individual contribution to the collective effort. Indeed, as an officer candidate, the first piece of, “required knowledge” I and my fellow candidates had to commit to memory and recall on demand emphasized this central truism of military leadership. It was General Schoffield’s Definition of Discipline, which warns that, “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army.”

Prior to the U.S. presidential election, numerous highly respected experts expressed significant concerns about Donald Trump’s commitment to rule of law in relation to military and national security policy development and execution. These concerns have not abated since his victory, and while the signs are still cryptic, many observers fear he, and those he has appointed to senior positions within his administration, will seek to revert back to the type of law avoidance that in many ways defined U.S. national security policy in the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

This would be a tragic error, and some commentators, including me, have already warned of the adverse strategic consequences of such backsliding. But these potential adverse consequences are not the only reason to be opposed to the dismissal of international legal obligations related to the conduct of hostilities and treatment of detainees. Another, and perhaps even more profound reason, is the corrosive effect on our armed forces such an approach will produce.

The legal regulation of armed conflict advances a range of important interests. The most commonly referenced is the mitigation of human suffering resulting from the effort to limit the destructive and harmful effects of war to only those that are justified by military necessity. However, there is another interest that is often overlooked, an interest directly linked to effective leadership and good order and discipline: providing the warrior with a rational and morally grounded framework that contributes to mitigating the moral hazard resulting from the brutal reality of war. This is no trivial or inconsequential benefit. Men and women who have been subordinate to command directives related to warfare understand, perhaps uniquely, the consequences of unleashing mortal combat power. Indeed, the very essence of military duty is the obligation to employ deadly combat power on order; to kill on demand.

The law of armed conflict serves to mitigate the potential moral corrosion that is often produced by mortal combat. This benefit of legal compliance is perhaps best articulated by Telford Taylor, World War II Army intelligence officer, and subsequently a principle prosecutor of high ranking Nazi war criminals in his book, Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy,:

Another, and to my mind, even more important basis of the laws of war is that they are necessary to diminish the corrosive effect of mortal combat on the participants . . .

Unless troops are trained and required to draw the distinction between military and non-military killings, and to retain such respect for the value of life that unnecessary death and destruction will continue to repel them, they may lose the sense for that distinction for the rest of their lives . . .

As Francis Lieber put the matter in his 1863 Army regulations: “Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings . . .

Law, or more importantly fidelity to the law, enables this effect, as well as the derivative benefit of building the bond of trust between superior and subordinate. Commanders and other leaders in a military unit are looked to by subordinates to make decisions that advance the objective of mission accomplishment. But there is also an expectation that they will do so consistently with institutional core values, which means subordinates expect that the tasks they are assigned, no matter how brutal or violent, are aligned with their legal obligations.

Responsible commanders understand this, and build units that are prepared to unleash combat power violently and decisively. But that willingness is built on a foundation of trust: that the orders they are executing are consistent with the core values of their military institution and with their nation. Accordingly, commanders must recognize that subordinates simply assume that when, where, and how they use that power must align with the law of armed conflict. As I discussed in an article written last year, international law has historically linked the qualification to engage in hostilities – the “privilege” of belligerency – with operating under responsible command. If all “responsible” meant in this equation were developing subordinates who obey orders, then units like the Japanese forces in Nanking or the German Einsatzgruppen would be icons of responsible commands. But we know they are not; that they are icons of leadership failure. Why? Because their obedience was disconnected from the imperatives of law and morality.

Any high level decision that compels, or even encourages disconnection from the legal underpinnings of truly responsible leadership risks corroding the bond of trust and confidence between leader and led. Even where a short term tactical or operational advantage is perceived from such policies, this must be outweighed by the long term negative consequences to good order and discipline, and to the moral integrity of the men and women who accept the burden of service. Leaders bear an obligation to protect from the hazards of war, not only physical, but also moral. As James McDonough expressed so prophetically in his seminal memoir of small unit leadership in Vietnam,

I had to do more than keep them alive. I had to preserve their human dignity. I was making them kill, forcing them to commit the most uncivilized of acts, but at the same time I had to keep them civilized. That was my duty as their leader . . . War gives the appearance of condoning almost everything, but men must live with their actions for a long time afterward. A leader has to help them understand that there are lines they must not cross. He is their link to normalcy, to order, to humanity. If the leader loses his own sense of propriety or shrinks from his duty, anything will be allowed . . . War is, at its very core, the absence of order; and the absence of order leads very easily to the absence of morality, unless the leader can preserve each of them in its place.

It is imperative that all military leaders, including our commander in chief, understand this vital relationship between law and leadership. This is why U.S. commitment to law must be manifested in every aspect of our military operations, and projected globally as a defining aspect of our global identity. Disconnecting leadership from the time-tested and credible legal foundation provided by the law of armed conflict risks corrosion of the essential bond of trust between leader and led. The decisions made by our president, and the tone those decision project, will reverberate through the force with intense magnitude. As a desktop leadership reminder that I inherited from a former commander emphasizes, “leader actions are exaggerated and repeated.” What needs to be exaggerated and repeated is commitment to law, and to the integrity and honor that such commitment manifests. And that must start with our President.

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