Empty Words, Empty Gestures, Empty Actions

There is a scene near the beginning of the film The Departed (2006) in which the character played by Martin Sheen, a police captain, asks Leonardo DiCaprio, a potential recruit for undercover work, a pointed question.  The question is this:  “Do you want to be cop, or do you just want to appear to be a cop?  It’s a legitimate question.  Some guys just want to appear to be cops.” 

This certainly was a legitimate question.  The same question could be directed at a great number of individuals today who presume to hold positions of leadership and authority.  There are many who believe that appearances are substitutes for reality.  They think that pretending to command is a substitute for actually commanding; and that pretending to solve problems is an adequate substitute for actually solving them.  It is not a matter of knowledge:  it is a matter of will, a matter of wanting the benefits of authority without any of its attendant responsibilities.  For the symbols of power are not substitutes for real power.    

There is this debilitating feature of what passes for “leadership” today, in which the person in authority cares more about protecting himself from blame than he does about fixing what needs to be fixed.  To some extent this has always been a dilemma; but now it seems to be the primary impulse of anyone who calls himself a leader.  Ass-covering is now the rule, not the exception.  Two recent examples of this come to mind.  The first example is the sight of generals in the armed forces failing to raise even a whisper of protest at the social engineering programs imposed on the military by Congress.  I am referring specifically to the mandates to train men and women together in basic training, and to include women–even, apparently, pregnant women–in all aspects of combat operations. 

I believe this policy is completely and utterly wrong:  men and women cannot, and should not, be trained together.  There are inevitable fraternization problems and morale problems, before we even begin to consider the inherent differences between men and women. This is something that should be obvious to anyone who has had even a passing acquaintance with the armed forces.  And I know that there are many generals and officers of all ranks who see things this way.  Yet when the time comes to speak honestly to Congress, to stand up for what is right and what has been tested by time, no one says a word in opposition.  No one wants to be called bad names; no one is willing to see his career come to a halt.  And so they go with the flow, they pass the buck, and sacrifice readiness and the morale of the military for the sake of their own pensions.   

Consider also the recent revealing exchange on March 18, 2021 between Senator Rand Paul and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the media-anointed Covid mastermind who has reveled in the limelight at every opportunity since March 2020.  Commenting on Dr. Fauci’s statements during the hearing, a recent article by two doctors and a medical researcher had this to say: 

We know that there is no study, no evidence of significant reinfection after being vaccinated or having had prior ‘natural’ infection from Covid-19.  None. “Reinfections appear to be very rare. Out of tens of millions of Covid-19 cases reported worldwide, there have been only fewer than five with properly documented reinfections. That’s a rate of 1.25 per 10 million infections based on crude analysis.” Also, no evidence of reinfection in the US from variants, yet Dr. Fauci still could not articulate why one must wear masks after recovering from Covid-19 or having been vaccinated, but he is calling for masks as protection. 

But of course, Dr. Fauci is a government employee, and is receiving a salary which, according to reports, is around $417,000 per year. His income is not threatened. His livelihood is not in danger. It takes no courage for him to recommend that people wear masks for another five years: and the human cost be damned. Similarly illogical positions have characterized policies on lockdowns, school closures, and mask mandates in general.  Despite overwhelming evidence that lockdowns either do nothing, or that their harm greatly outweighs their utility, governments continue to impose them; school closures persist, even though no good reason exists for keeping them closed; and mask mandates have taken on an arbitrariness that can no longer be concealed. 

Meanwhile, state and federal officials signal their virtue by parading around—even outdoors—in masks, as if such displays were substitutes for reopening schools and repairing the tremendous damage that has been done to the economy by pointless lockdowns and restrictions.  But this is where we are in America in 2021:  comforting pantomimes and pirouetting around a problem are now seen as substitutes for meaningful action.  No one is willing to step forward and say “enough” in the face of pointless nonsense, for fear of being called a bad name, or for fear of losing his job.  And so the public suffers as a consequence.  The situation cannot persist.  At some point, a terrible price will be paid for this cowardly withdrawal from the responsibilities of leadership.  Our military, too, will eventually pay a terrible price for its failure to assign priority to time-tested principles of combat readiness over politically-correct, delusional social engineering experiments.    

Cowards shine in peace, but are nowhere to be found in a real crisis.  The Roman historian Frontinus (Strategemata IV.1.8) tells this anecdote about Theagenes, an Athenian commander.  As he was leading his men to the city of Megara, his men began to ask him about where they would be assigned in the ranks once the order of battle had been drawn up.  But the Greek commander had his own way of discovering which of his men were brave, and which ones were not.  He had cavalry forces dress up as the enemy; he then ordered them to stage a mock surprise attack on his infantry.  As this happened, he had the line of battle drawn up.  Each man took his place in the ranks where he wished.  The cowardly men moved to the back of the formation where they might keep a low profile, and the bravest men quickly moved to the front.  This was how he discovered who he could rely on.  During the campaign, he kept this same order of battle.

Frontinus also tells us (IV.1.5) that in 134 B.C., Scipio Africanus once noticed a highly-decorated shield possessed by one of his soldiers.  It was obviously something on which the soldier had spent a great deal of time.  Scipio told him, “It doesn’t surprise me that you put all this effort into it.  Because it looks like you have more trust in your shield than you have in your sword.”  By this he meant that the man cared more about appearances than in actually fighting. 

Good leaders take meaningful action to solve problems.  The great Roman commander Caius Marius instituted a number of meaningful reforms in the army.  He saw that his units were becoming weighed down with baggage and pack animals, and this slowness was hindering his operational mobility.  So he strictly limited the army’s baggage, and ordered his men to carry their personal provisions on poles arranged as pack frames.  This co-called “Marian mule” (muli Mariani) was a pole with forked ends, across which a piece of wood was attached.  The soldier’s provisions were then formed into a bundle (sarcina) and attached to the crosspole.  This one reform greatly eased the daily burden of the average Roman “grunt.” 

The failure to solve problems inevitably means they will aggregate to dangerous dimensions.  According to the historian Will Durant, we see this in the perilous situation that confronted Greece around the time of the death of Plato in 347 B.C.  Greed and selfishness rose to perilous heights.  A fanatic chasing after money and riches (called by the Greeks pleonexia) became a feature of public life.  The rich upper classes (the neoplutoi) occupied their time with frivolities and extravagance; and some of these oligarchs took oaths never to share their riches with the public.  Durant quotes Isocrates as saying in 366 B.C.:  “The rich have become so unsocial that those who own property had rather throw their possessions into the sea than lend aid to the needy, while those who are in poorer circumstances would less gladly find a treasure than seize the possessions of the rich.” 

Greece was severely weakened by this economic strife and political paralysis.  Nothing could be accomplished; squabbling and bickering became the key features of public life; and the energies of the public were divided between the struggle for survival and diversionary entertainments.  The end result was that Athens was unable to coordinate a coherent defense when its militaristic neighbor to the north, Macedonia, came knocking at its door.  Philip of Macedon conquered Greece in 338 B.C., and brought an end to Athenian freedom. 

The cost of inaction may be delayed, but it must always be paid.  Those who wish for pretty words, for dog and pony shows, and for form over substance, will learn their mistake in time.  There is no way to escape the consequences of moral corruption.  On this subject I very much like a terse sentence from Cato the Elder, who says in his On Agriculture [XXXIX]:

Cogitato, si nihil fiet, nihilo minus sumptum futurum.

And this means, “Keep in mind:  even if nothing is going on, costs continue nevertheless.”  He was giving this advice as part of a suggestion to remain active and alert, and never idle; on a farm, there is always something to be done. What statement could be more true, more deserving of our attention?  We are going to pay a high price for our fixation on theater, useless pantomimes, half-solutions, and amateurism.  We have not been in a major conflict in generations; this idle time should be used to strengthen the republic.  Instead, this precious time is being squandered in the allurements of greed, selfishness, and moral decay.  We are ruled by the type of empty character described by T.S. Eliot in his poem The Hollow Men:

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar   
   

This sense of paralyzed force, this feeling of hollowness: it describes the state of our leadership today. It may be that only a serious shock will force a correction.  The teller of unpleasant truths may speak to his heart’s content, but his message may not find receptive ears until a crisis is at hand.  In this regard, I am reminded of the sobering anecdote that begins Samuel Griffith’s translation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  The king of Wu meets the general Sun Tzu and asks him to demonstrate his control of troops.  Sun Tzu agrees.  He orders the ranks to be drawn up from the king’s concubines, and places the king’s favorites as “commanders.”  He tells the assembled group of “soldiers” how to face front, face rear, face right, and face left.  Sun Tzu asks them if they understand, and they all say, “yes.”  When the general gives the first command, the women burst out laughing. 

Sun Tzu said, “If regulations are not clear and orders not thoroughly explained, it is the commander’s fault.”  He then repeated the instructions.  When he gave orders again, the women again burst into laughter.  This time the general was not pleased.  “When instructions have been made clear, and are still not carried out, it is a crime on the part of the officers.”  He then ordered a few of the king’s concubines to be beheaded. 

The king of Wu, watching this drama unfold from the reviewing stand, was shocked to see two of his favorite women about to be executed.  In a panic, he sent an aide to Sun Tzu, saying, “I already know you can employ troops.  Please do not execute these concubines.”  But the general was undeterred.  He replied to the king, “When the commander is in the field and at the head of an army, he need not accept all of the sovereign’s orders.”  He then executed the two uncooperative concubine “officers.” 

Once this was done, the terrified concubines then performed every drill perfectly, instantly, and on command.  Sun Tzu then told the king that the troops were in good order, and were ready for inspection.  The king, still shocked at seeing a true man of will in action, replied slowly, “The general may go to his hostel and rest.  I do not wish to come to inspect them.”  Sun Tzu regarded the king for a moment and said:  “The king likes only empty words.  He is not capable of putting them into practice.”

This was a man who truly was a general, not a man who wanted to appear to be a general. 

Read more in On Moral Ends:

3 thoughts on “Empty Words, Empty Gestures, Empty Actions

  1. I’ve been following you, to some extent, for a few years. What are your thoughts on the how the leader can deal with the constant pressures of command/responsibility. Are there some whose constitution make them better suited to handle this (eg compartmentalism)?

    Liked by 1 person

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