The Responsible Warrior

by John E. Mack, M.D.

MANY NATIONAL leaders understand that it is not difficult to rally the populace and stifle criticism while a war is going on. A leader has only to emphasize a threat to national security and the need to “support the troops.” Even doubt and searching analysis may be called unpatriotic while the conflict rages.

This works, however, only as long as the war seems to be “going well.” Much of the criticism now directed at the conduct of the war in Iraq is not new, but the sober voices that predicted the present crisis of leadership were drowned out during the flush of apparent success.

I believe there are principles of strong leadership that transcend partisanship. But I fear that if we fail to comprehend what these are, mass violence in this or future conflicts will become increasingly out of control and the world will descend further into the abyss.

T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Winston Churchill drew the current boundaries of modern day Jordan and Iraq. Lawrence was an unusual wartime leader, one who took full, even exaggerated, personal responsibility for every aspect of the conflict in which he participated, the revolt of the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

“My personal duty was command,” Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his epic account of the Arab Revolt, “and the commander, like the master architect, was responsible for all.”

There were, of course, men above him like General Edmund Allenby and the British prime minister, David Lloyd George. But the revolt was Lawrence’s “show”; he was responsible not only for its strategy, organization, and coordination, but, by his own determination, for the lives and well-being of virtually every participant.

Behind this extreme and somewhat precocious sense of responsibility — Lawrence had just turned 28 when he began the organization of the tribes in Arabia and Jordan — was a loathing of what he called “murder war,” and he struggled desperately to limit the loss of life. Only as a last resort, he wrote, “we should be compelled to the desperate course of blood and the maxims of ‘murder war’ . . . To man rationale, wars of nationality were as much a cheat as religious wars.”

People hold differing views about the nature of effective military leadership. But surely it means more than getting people to go along, for that can be accomplished by manipulation through fear and emotional entrancement. Physical courage, a willingness to take personal responsibility, even if this means risking oneself what is being asked of others, and an insistence upon knowing what is really happening and speaking truthfully about it, even when the information is disturbing, are surely essential ingredients of strong leadership.

Other indispensable qualities include an ability to form constructive working relationships with others, including allies, superiors, and those under the leader’s command, and a capacity to convey lucidly and coherently the purpose of the mission. When these qualities are present, strategies can be developed that make it possible for the war’s aims to be achieved with minimal loss of life on both sides. When they are absent the conflict may become unnecessarily destructive, and the structure of command can break down.

In the time of another conflict central to the future of the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence seemed to embody these essential qualities of successful leadership. He risked his own life repeatedly, sometimes to settle tribal disputes that could have undermined the campaign. He was able to articulate clearly the aims of the revolt, although he suffered bitterly that he was unable to be truthful about the degree to which the great powers would permit the Arabs to retain the freedom they had won in the field. Above all, he was able to command the respect of the men with whom he fought. Arab tribesmen who had been with Lawrence during the revolt made clear to me that he understood their culture, psychology, and particular needs. They were proud to follow him. In the present situation in Iraq these essential elements of effective leadership seem to be largely missing. Most striking is the almost reflexive tendency of senior American officials to find others to blame for whatever goes wrong.

It is a mistake to think of the loss of control and heinous behavior of low ranking military personnel at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere as exceptions. Such behavior is the direct and virtually inevitable result of the breakdown of command, beginning with top officials.

In this terrible moment we are seeing the results of a war prosecuted by a leadership that appears to be singularly lacking in the capacity for doubt, self-questioning, or the acknowledgement of mistakes. We have been plunged into a moral chaos that can only end when saner minds, “man rationale” in T.E. Lawrence’s words, can once more assume authority in this nation.

  • John E. Mack is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence.

© 2004 John E. Mack, M.D.
Originally published in The Boston Globe | Op-Ed
June 1, 2004