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Objectivism: A Soldier’s Philosophy

Objectivism: A Soldier’s Philosophy

5 Mins
June 18, 2019

As a soldier in the U.S. Army, it is clear to me that the guiding philosophy for a soldier should mirror that of Objectivism outlined by Ayn Rand.

Knowing what I am – a soldier – and knowing where I am and what my mission is, allows for me to determine the truth of any situation and act accordingly and with integrity. In the essay “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” which Rand anthologized in The Romantic Manifesto, she put it this way,  

In order to live, man must act; in order to act, he must make choices; in order to make choices, he must define a code of values; in order to define a code of values, he must know what he is and where he is – i.e., he must know his own nature (including his means of knowledge) and the nature of the universe in which he acts – i.e., he needs metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, which means: philosophy.

Lack of a Guiding Philosophy

In my opinion, we lack a guiding philosophy in the military. It is true that we ostensibly have a values-based system, but we do not understand the values; moreover, many prescribed values contradict one another.

For example, consider the Army Values acronym: LDRSHIP. We preach

  • Duty: Fulfill your obligations
  • Selfless Service: Put the welfare of the Nation, the Army and your subordinates before your own (since Selfless Service is larger than just one person)
  • Integrity: Do what is right, legally and morally
  • Personal Courage: Face fear, danger, or adversity and stand up for and act upon the things that you know are honorable.

Here one can clearly observe the contradiction: soldiers ought to both (i) fulfill our obligations to a larger group, one to which we should subordinate our individuality, and (ii)  maintain individuation so as to be able to discern honorability in action. We merely possess floating abstractions, as nothing currently exists to connect Army Values to reality.

Because of this contradiction-laden guidance, most soldiers do not take on any philosophic enterprise. Prior to reading Atlas Shrugged at a friend’s suggestion, I too was lacking a coherent philosophy upon which to ground my thoughts and actions. However, Ayn Rand’s novel awakened my interest in Objectivism; it was the impetus I needed – a fascinating novel to introduce me to a rational philosophy.

I have noticed most members of the military are in a similar place. Many have either never heard of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, or, if they have, they erroneously link the philosophy to the Tea Party movement or even white supremacy. Why anyone in the military would adduce such descriptions to Rand and her philosophy is likely due to the lack of thoughtfulness represented by a lack of rational philosophical inquiry. To reiterate, my objective in this discussion is not only to discuss my own personal philosophical trajectory, but to explicate and share with my fellow soldiers why we need Objectivism as our guiding philosophy.

The Solution Is Objectivism

In the military, we often subjugate our thinking to those of higher rank. On many occasions, I have observed those junior in rank carry out unethical orders without question. Some take whatever is given to them at face value and assume their superior must have a good reason. Others will carry out unethical orders simply because they have shut off their minds to reality. It’s like putting metaphorical earmuffs on your children when you or someone else is using inappropriate language. I am often left wondering . . . would they still carry out unethical orders if they possessed a philosophy connected to reality?

In Philosophy: Who Needs It, a lecture delivered to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Ayn Rand asked:

Who do men fear most? The brilliant loner, the beginner, the young man of potential, genius and eminently ruthless integrity, whose only weapons are talent and truth. Today, originality, integrity, independence, have become a road to martyrdom, which only the most dedicated will choose, knowing that the alternative is much worse. A society that sets up these conditions is in deep trouble.

The fictional characters Howard Roark from The Fountainhead and John Galt from Atlas Shrugged are Rand's idealized men – egoists with ruthless integrity. Roark and Galt are independent, and each lives for himself alone, no one else. Although Roark and Galt are merely characters in a novel, we can and should look to this ideal.

As a soldier, I ought to attempt to emulate the character of Howard Roark, and to encourage my fellow soldiers to do the same. To become properly Roarkian we too must become rational egoists who possess ruthless integrity or ruthless “individual” integrity (I am adding the word “individual” for emphasis). Possessing ruthless individual integrity means to never shut off your mind, nor subjugate your thinking to others regardless of rank, position, or authority. It means removing your earmuffs, remaining steadfast to your individuality and standing tall while those lacking integrity kneel at the pulpit.

To do this, we must first answer one simple question: What is important in my life? The answer to this question guides everything else. And it is clear to me, as I have learned through engaging with Ayn Rand, that the answer is happiness. That is, happiness in my life, not primarily the life of others.

You can never be forced to value something that you do not actually value. This point should not be overlooked by anyone in the military.

If I focus on myself as an individual (e.g., think of putting your oxygen mask on first), then any choice I am presented with will lead to a decision I want to make, not a decision others make for me. By choosing, I will then want to value my family, my friends, and my fellow soldiers; and I will want to choose to value how and why I make decisions.

I will not be forced nor guilted into valuing others – this would only lead to despising the individuals whom I am forced to value. In the military, rank supersedes competence. We must respect the rank or position; however, if an individual holds a position of authority and demands we respect him or her – or worse yet – forces us to say we respect and admire him or her, what that individual fails to realize is that we will never truly value him or her.

The upper ranks must respect their subordinates as individuals too. To do this, they must realize that individuals require knowledge of what they are doing, why they are following you, and what they are expected to do. But most importantly, respect must be earned, not demanded. Individuals must be able to think for themselves and make decisions as an individual. They cannot be forced to subjugate their decision making to a group.

You can never be forced to value something that you do not actually value. This point should not be overlooked by anyone in the military.

If you sacrifice yourself, then are you truly loyal to your fellow soldier? No. Your duty is to be rational. To be rational is to use your mind, to think through decision points, and to act with a purposeful and selfish – not selfless – intent so that you are able to stay alive to protect your fellow soldier. You can’t protect someone when you’re dead.

As Rand said, “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” By blindly preaching self-sacrifice or selfless service, we could potentially fall victim to the superhero bias, where we save someone to appear virtuous, rather than doing what is right as an individual. If we continue down this road, then we will continue to dilute the minds of those serving in the military. We will continue to think it is virtuous to sacrifice our life for others. As Eliezer Yudkowsky stated in Rationality: From AI to Zombies, “Someone who risks their life because they want to be virtuous has revealed far less virtue than someone who risks their life because they want to save others.”

To live by and maintain a life of ruthless egoism, integrity, and truth, we must live by the cardinal values of reason, purpose, and self-esteem.

Objectivism is my guiding philosophy and should be the guiding philosophy for every soldier. Think of Objectivism as Ayn Rand's cardinal values: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. To live by these cardinal values, I must live by specific virtues (the actions needed to gain or keep a value). The virtues are rationality, independence, honesty, integrity, justice, productiveness, and pride. By following these values and virtues, I can truly possess what Rand called a moral code:

A moral code is a set of abstract principles; to practice it, an individual must translate it into the appropriate concretes – he must choose particular goals and values which he is set to pursue. This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly.

To live by and maintain a life of ruthless egoism, integrity, and truth, we must live by the cardinal values of reason, purpose, and self-esteem.

Rand said it this way in Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged:

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason – Purpose – Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge – Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve – Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living.

A soldier in the U.S. Army must act rationally if he is to be understood. As Rand discussed, he must understand that, “Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men.” This is why men and women in the U.S. military are so unique. We are independent and rational. We serve voluntarily, for egoistic purposes. We are not a conscripted military, nor are we to be used for the purpose of a dictator. Thus, we can and must think for ourselves.

I use logic as my primary tactic in the military. I have found that, if I can logically explain something to someone, then reason typically prevails. What has been important in my use of logic is that I use it similarly to Ayn Rand and tie it directly to Objectivism. I tie every argument to the basic axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness. If I can show someone the objective reality of a situation, then I can bring that person into reality.


Maj. Jamie Schwandt

Major Jamie Schwandt, U.S. Army Reserve, is a logistics officer and has served as an operations officer, planner and commander. Schwandt is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Red Team Member; and he holds a doctorate from Kansas State University. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army.

Maj. Jamie Schwandt
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Maj. Jamie Schwandt