• Deborah MB

Exploring modern aspects 'On Obedience'

On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry, and Community is an exploration on the need for, or refusal of, obedience in contemporary times, from an academic stand. Dr Pauline Shanks Kaurin, of the U.S. Naval War College, analyses a series of cases, both real and cinematic, through the perspective of Western philosophy and social mores to understand the role of obedience, loyalty, and discipline among military and civil society (namely, the United States). Conclusion: obedience is as essential element of hierarchical society, but its implementation needs to be tempered with education and training in moral judgement.

This book, which claims an intent to address the issue of mistrust in the government, plus how this affects the tendency to disobedience among the ranks as well as citizenry, is very clearly a product from, and for, American military personnel. The cases the author explores are, with side mentions of social disobedience movements such as racial and gay equality rights, centred around military situations. Even the civilian cases are presented as parallel to, or against the background of, the armed services. Additionally, all the philosophies and theories engaged are Western, from Aristotle, to current American revisionists.

It is important to acknowledge these specific starting points at the onset of reading, the better to understand both the scope reached, and the place the volume has in global discourse. On Obedience belongs squarely within the academic American military discourse, and is a good reflection of what is happening in the midst of that scene. Finally, it offers sound advice on how to achieve critical (intellectually engaged) obedience: training individuals and groups in “reasonable challenge”, and educating them in the philosophical exercise of moral rational activity within the community.

Who would enjoy this

Academic books are very specific in format, content, and audience, for all of which On Obedience serves as excellent example. It will therefore suit the tastes of someone who enjoys dry analytical philosophy, discussing military and social values, and has a background knowledge in the subject.

Nevertheless, I would expect it would also be a very attractive read to anyone who has an interest in social and civil disobedience, particularly as they try to make sense of the conflicts inherent in the current political stage. As polarisation grows, it is important to understand one’s tendencies to support one’s group, one’s alliance.

This is particularly important, in my opinion, for teachers. With education being a key element for both personal success and civil cohesion, and much of education reflecting some of the military takes on training and discipline, I find this would be a challenging, but eye-opening read for those who need to ready next generations to engage in critical obedience, political activism, social negotiation.

Who should give this a pass

In all honesty, On Obedience would be a struggle to anyone who is not accustomed to, let alone enjoys, reading academic philosophy, more specifically military philosophy. This is not a book for the public at large. Although the concepts and aim are applicable to society in general, the format and detail would lose, probably frustrate, most hobby readers. I would redirect those curious about the content, but not the format, to other works so they can meet their interests without harming their dedication.

Conclusions and suggestions

Dr Pauline Shanks Kaurin is an experienced academic, with a track record in the subjects explored in On Obedience, all of which shows in the volume. This book is an excellent example of academic text: it keeps to the “introduction, building explanation with examples, conclusion” structure; it limits its scope to those subjects directly linked, just as it keeps a certain number of examples to mine repeatedly so they prove more relevant; it maintains a clear, crisp, impersonal tone; it identifies and defines its key term, knowing its subject matter backwards and forwards; and most importantly, it addresses its readership as intellectual equals, expecting them to have a certain level of background knowledge in the subject (or expecting them to search for the details they miss, otherwise).

The one let-down I have experienced with this work is its, maybe to be expected, insularity. While debating on such a human-wide subject as obedience, I was hoping to encounter an acknowledgment of other approaches, even if it was in a single chapter, or even an aside. Yes, this is an American military author writing for American military audiences. But, how much more of a service it would provide if Dr Shanks Kaurin also enabled her readers to understand different views. In an increasingly varied, connected, international society, realising the influences of traditions, value systems, and moral codes from peoples outside the Western culture is increasingly relevant. Sadly, there is no hint of awareness of any such need, in this text. A follow-up treatise, or responses from others in the military philosophy academia would be highly desirable.

To summarise, for those interested in writing relevant academic works:

- Know your audience. Remember they are your peers, treat them accordingly. They won’t be scared of research and depth.

- Maintain a clear main line. Streamline the better to explore each aspect. In order to do this, you must know your field in detail as much as in depth.

- Remember your limitations, recognise them, open up the field to others to explore where your work does not reach.

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