Roger Herbert: Theoretically

November 9, 2017

It would be so nice to sum up Roger Herbert's path in a few simple words, but that is not going to happen. He graduated with his Ph.D. from the Department of Politics in 2016. But he was a Captain in the U.S. Navy as a SEAL before that, and a NOLS instructor, and a football and swim coach, and afterwards, the Director of an outdoor school for teens in the mountains of North Carolina (The Outdoor Academy). All the ands!

And next, he will be the General Robert T. Herres Distinguished Military Professor in Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. A good place for him since he has been speaking on character development, leadership, and ethical decision making for much of his professional life, and (and another and) in his dissertation intrinsically bound international relations and political theory.

Body/Mind: The Cartesian and the Aristotelian

As we talk, Herbert compares and contrasts the two philosophers. On one hand he can peek at life as a Cartesian, and see a difference between mind and body—one, the other, or both, can be built up like a muscle. And then he's Aristotelian, there is no difference between mind and body, there is only one, and one is all there is. He was an athlete in college and came at academics in the reverse from most intellectuals, the physical and then the intellectual.

He states "One of my early influences and what got me interested in academics and intellectual pursuits was my Latin professor at Davidson, Professor Davies. He was exactly what you think a Latin professor would look like—Princeton guy, big coke-bottle glasses, bowtie."

“Our class was having a conversation about a verb tense, which is what you do in Latin class. The professor says ‘of course you know which is the correct verb tense here because you know how this (Virgil’s Aeneid) ends.’ We all looked at him puzzled—none of us knew how it ended because none of us had ever read the Aeneid. Dr. Davies, who assumed that this was at least the second reading for most of us, was disgusted. ‘I just don't understand your generation. You spend all this time in the gym trying make your bodies strong, and yet you do nothing to make your minds strong.’ The way he framed this struck me—that you can build a strong mind. It really had an influence on me.”

In the Navy Herbert used this metaphor with his junior officers as they joined his reading programs – the brain isn’t a muscle, but it acts that way; it’s something you can build and make stronger.

Herbert continues to integrate his mind and body, but considers himself a failure at yoga, only able to touch his kneecaps ;). His integration process is less formalized, but walking through the woods sets it in motion. He is a NOLS instructor, and his most recent job at the Outdoor Academy, a school for teens in the mountains of North Carolina helps unify the mental and the physical.

In Theory

Most people who study international relations as a major don’t match it with political theory as a minor. The prevailing wisdom is to pick comparative politics or methodology. But Herbert says IR and PT come together in lots of productive ways, especially with some of the scholarly movements in the late 1990s and early 2000s; he says the constructivists, for example, put together those two sub-disciplines very well. He indicates his decision to meld the two areas was less strategic and just his areas of interest. His Master’s degrees and his professional life dealt with the IR side of political science, but his interests have always tapped into PT starting from when he went to Naval Postgraduate School in the early 1990s.

“When I was looking at Ph.D. programs that I would be interested in, and programs that would be interested in me as a political scientist, I don’t think the Department of Politics at UVA would have been inspired to bring me on board as a political theorist; I just didn’t have the PT cred.“ But matching theory with IR is a wise choice for a political scientist. Herbert got into it in this way:

At the Naval Postgraduate School “my most influential professor walked into the classroom and threw John Rawls’ Theory of Justice on my desk. ‘Read this and talk to me about it next week.’ I did read it in a week, and, although I must admit very limited comprehension, it opened up the door to political theory for me. It was also the first time I’d been treated as an intellectual and I really liked the way that felt.”

I Have Never Spoken to a President

Herbert's dissertation, Cry Havoc: Rhetorical Mobilization and Foreign Policy Decision Making During War-threatening Crises, seems to give advice to presidents, but he states he has not spoken to one personally. The closest he came, was at the beginning of the Iraq War. He worked at the Pentagon and every morning he delivered maps to various places, including the Oval Office.

He was a Commander at the time and despite the lofty-sounding title, he claims that a Commander in the Pentagon is little more than a glorified coffee maker; it was not even particularly glorified. As a Commander he was Executive Assistant to one of the generals in the J3, the Directorate of Operations. In his words, he was the dude who carried the briefcase and the papers. The position did, however, allow him to sit in on high-level meetings and importantly, to hear how top officials viewed the challenge of communicating the administration’s policy preference (regime change in Iraq) to domestic and foreign audiences.

In his dissertation he asks: When leaders choose war, for whatever reason, how do they marshal domestic support for that? Modern war requires mobilization, sometimes of entire societies. “When you think about it, the material incentives for any of us to go to war are pretty small. IR has many theories about why states are pushed into situations which are tragically conflictual. But states don't fight wars, people fight wars.“

He asks how does that mobilization happen? And answers that it happens through rhetoric. He also argues rhetoric is a variable which can be measured. He turns to social movement theory to hypothesize about when a rhetorical mobilization campaign will resonate with the public—and when it won't.

Pop Culture, Propaganda, Tech, Social Media

His dissertation covers two case studies: Iraq 2003, a brilliant use of rhetoric by the Bush machine, and Roosevelt in 1940, a president unable to marshal public support for a war that really needed to be fought. Whether the Iraq war needed to be fought, Herbert doesn't address, but “it's a war which brought on all sorts of unintended consequences; it was a war which took the military by surprise.“

To some extent, Roosevelt was the first modern president when it comes to the use of mass media. Though reluctant to use it for propaganda, he ventured into it to garner support for the war. Polling, another new technology for presidents, had just come into use. He used Princeton professor Hadley Cantrill to plug-into what America was thinking on a daily basis.

Herbert indicates it was nothing like what we have now— we have a different media landscape including social media, reality TV, and all the other low-friction ways the internet brings us together and pushes us apart. “An administration or a campaign can leverage the current media landscape in ways we've never seen before. Maybe (media) is more important now than ever before in how leaders can marshal support.“

Disembodied Operators

We spoke about other issues outside of his expertise, but still with an ethical bearing. Drone warfare—is the body or the mind responsible? He says drone technology has been erroneously conflated in ethical discourse with other technologies which make decisions autonomously. The human drone operator, while not in physical danger, is very much there – “it is a very personal form of warfare. From an ethical perspective, we should be careful about what we are talking about. Whether you are back in CONUS (the continental US) fighting a drone, or on the ground ten meters from your enemy, you always have rules of engagement, which are essentially algorithms for ethical decision making.”

He says the next big question will be about autonomous decision makers, “where we're turning over the decision-making keys to the castle to artificial intelligence.“ He says wisely, “I don't have enough background to comment on that.“

To my other tech related questions he offered, “Compared with other warfighting specialties, SEALs are pretty low-tech.“ But he did routinely employ a decision-making algorithm, a framework for moral reasoning that he evolved throughout his naval career.

The notion of a just war, an ancient idea reinterpreted and reinvigorated in Michael Walzer's book Just and Unjust Wars had a profound influence on the post-Vietnam military. “We had lost touch with the language of the just war tradition in WWII and the Vietnam War. The military was very encouraged by the resurgence of this (tradition)—What does it mean to be a just warrior, what does it mean to have a just cause for war?“

He continues “It fascinates me, I've evolved my own framework for moral reasoning in combat that allowed me to make decisions both quickly and in long term. It's something I've developed with the help of Kant and Aristotle and Mill and Jesus and Mohammad and various other ethical traditions.“

It became a part of how he led his subordinates. While he was still on active duty, it was a work-in-progress, but he shared his evolving framework with his troops. “Every American soldier, before they go into combat, is familiarized with detailed rules of engagement to guide their conduct on the battlefield. But rules of engagement only take you so far, especially on the very complex battlefields on which SEALs typically fight.

“Of note, I'm currently running this school in Western North Carolina. I've introduced a leadership and ethics seminar, which every student goes through. I have found that the same framework of moral reasoning that benefitted me during my naval career has also been valuable for teenagers who also routinely face difficult choices with moral content and very real consequences.”

And Annapolis

And will he continue the effort when teaching at Annapolis? He responds that "Every Youngster* at the Naval Academy will go through his ethics course."

At the Naval Academy, you are a Plebe (freshman), a Youngster (sophomore), a Junior, and then a Firsty (senior).

The staff that designs and delivers the course, Introduction to Moral Reasoning, includes a handful of philosophers and political theorists, “amazing scholars who put together the curriculum.“ Joining these scholars are 25-30 naval officers who have significant field experience. “On Monday, for example, a professor may lecture on Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. The students will then break into sections led by one of the naval officers who will lead a discussion on the material covered in lecture and, importantly, put these esoteric ideas in perspective in the context of their military careers: lessons from the battlefield.“

The position has been around for about 20 years, but Herbert will not just show up and introduce his syllabus; As a professor he will be one of the people doing the lectures, and also someone who has been in battle. He speaks the language of both. He says “Every single combatant is a moral agent. Especially on today's battlefield and especially for those on the ground like SEALs, Marines, and Infantry folks who deal directly and at close quarters with other moral agents, individual choices can have lasting consequences…for good or harm. It is the nature of modern warfare that individual soldiers must exercise a great deal of autonomy, which is why we have to prepare them well to make those difficult choices.”

But while rules of engagement and detailed planning play an important role in this preparation, planning has its limits. Of plans he says “planning is priceless, but plans are useless.“ Once you get out on the battlefield, he says you better be ready to adapt, and this is especially important for the lower-level leaders—be tactically smart, but ethically on target. On the battlefield today, ethical behavior has strategic implications, and unethical behavior has huge strategic implications. “By promoting ethical decision making and the use of a framework for moral reasoning, we increase the likelihood that our soldiers will not only achieve desired results on the battlefield, but also come home as whole human beings—with as little damage as war can cause.“

Surprise at UVA

For just getting into the program, he owes Mark Schwartz a huge debt of gratitude. When looking at schools, Herbert encountered reluctance from some programs when they heard a 50-year old say, “I want to go be a tenure-track professor somewhere,“ the implication being: we don't want you to sue us, but we're trying to welcome the next generation of scholars...and you look like our generation of scholars. Schwartz, Director of Graduate Studies at the time, saw this unconventional Ph.D. candidate and saw good things.

During his studies here he says “I studied under extraordinary scholars like Jen Rubenstein, Jeff Legro, Lawrie Balfour, Dale Copeland, Michael Smith, Lynn Sanders, Todd Sechser, Jim Ceaser, and John Owen.” Looking back, Herbert recognizes that not only was it a good decision for him to retire from the Navy to pursue his doctorate, but very important that he studied at UVA. “I am so pleased with where I ended up.”

Jim Childress from Religious Studies also contributed importantly to Herbert's experience at UVA and he continues a conversation with him today. “I consider Jim a mentor, in the same way I consider John Owen, the Chair of my Dissertation Committee, a mentor. I was trying to find my voice straddling IR and PT. I went to Jim who was offering a Just War course. My intent was to walk away from that course with a dissertation topic.“ He smiles and continued, “It didn't come out quite the way I'd hoped. My dissertation is an IR dissertation. It certainly has normative implications, but I don’t feel like I'd hit that sweet spot as an IR/PT scholar. He continues, “I still think the ethical dimension of conflict is a fertile ground to find this connection—after all, some of the best scholars in the Just War tradition are political theorists, and the normative aspects of war and peace certainly have a place in international relations scholarship.”

His gratitude towards his teachers is overwhelming, but no doubt the Department of Politics should also be thanking Roger for picking the University of Virginia.

Selected additional information


Ethics 2016: Capt. Roger Herbert: Courage - Can we teach it? Can we learn it?

NPR Website

Navy SEALs Seek to Build Up Their Ranks

Herbert in his role as Director of The Outdoor Academy in the mountains of North Carolina

Herbert in his role as Director of The Outdoor Academy in the mountains of North Carolina

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