Prudence, War and Civil-Military Relations
Dubik, James M., Army
Prudence gets a bum rap in contemporary society. Too bad, because the classic virtue of prudence denotes one of the most essential and most difficult aspects of the military profession. Prudence has to do with exercising sound judgment, being able to assess the facts of a specific situation and choose the best course of action to follow. A prudent choice avoids both the extreme of being brash - taking too much risk - and of being overly cautious - avoiding any risk. Properly understood, prudence lies at the very heart of our profession.
Some may find any application of prudence in the military profession oxymoronic. After all, on the battlefield, the imprudent is a daily routine. We award Presidential Unit Citations and individual medals for valor for doing what many would consider brash. On the anniversary of D-Day, for example, we still honor paratroopers for jumping behind enemy lines, knowing that at best they would be surrounded as they fought to seize and retain objectives assigned to them. We still visit Pointe du Hoc, France, where Rangers climbed cliffs in the face of withering fire, and we still walk the beaches in silent tribute to those who waded ashore to directly assault the heavily fortified enemy. Add to these examples those of any other war or any other service, and one could easily conclude that a discussion of prudence in our profession is out of place.
Prudence does, however, have a place at the military table; our vocabulary confirms it. "Prudent risks" are acceptable, and we seek leaders who can identify and take them, for they are necessary to win wars. "Gambles" are not, for they represent excessive risk that puts both lives and mission accomplishment in unnecessary danger; leaders do not gamble with lives or missions. Chapter 13, "Planning Overlord," of GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe covers the multiple, extended conversations and arguments among Eisenhower and his senior leaders focused on the risks inherent in invasion - command and control, lines of operations, tactical innovations, air and naval operations, logistical preparation, timing of decisions and so on - and the degree to which they might be mitigated.
Eisenhower's account demonstrates a historical verity: Prudence is - or should be - an essential aspect of a war leader's conscience. One can see it most clearly by comparing commanders. In the Civil War, GEN George B. McClellan was often an overly cautious leader, missing opportunities that the battlefield presented to him; GEN Ulysses S. Grant is more widely seen as an aggressive, risk-taking commander, although some say overly aggressive at times. In World War II, British Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery was usually more cautious (except perhaps in the Arnhem campaign), whereas GEN George S. Patton is recognized as an aggressive risk taker, again, sometimes overly so, according to some. In the Korean War, GEN Douglas MacArthur's Inchon operation is usually understood as an example of bold but acceptable risk; his drive to the YaIu River, on the other hand, many see as imprudent.
Identifying the proper place between the extremes of brash gamble and overly cautious inaction depends upon the specifics of each case. Sometimes the prudent action will lean more toward the brash; other times, more toward the cautious. A prudent judgment is more art than science. Hence, a broad understanding of history, an analytic mind that can discern the relevant facts of a particular case, a synthetic mind that can see coherence amid the fog of ambiguity, the ability to listen to the experiences and judgments of others and allow a decision to emerge from an extended discourse - all are essential war leadership traits.
War leadership extends beyond the military profession. Identifying the prudent course in war also requires an extended civil-military discourse, at least at the operational and strategic levels. Major campaigns are not solely military decisions, for they require significant commitment of national, and sometimes multinational, resources. …