Use mercy well. Cruelty too.
That’s the advice Renaissance Florentine statesman-philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli would tender as the Pentagon sets out to purge “extremism”—shorthand for members of violent subversive groups—from the ranks. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin set the anti-extremism campaign in motion in response to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The principle underlying the campaign is impeccable. The U.S. military should be—and must be—an apolitical institution that defends the U.S. Constitution. All uniformed personnel swear an oath to that effect, and that oath has no expiration date. The services should rid themselves of all groups that advocate the violent overthrow of the American system of government.
If mishandled, though, the anti-extremism campaign could be a cataclysm, wrecking a culture that is healthy on the whole at a time when strong, united, resolute U.S. armed forces are at a premium. A deflated military would court disaster in strategic competition against the likes of China and Russia—to say nothing of open combat. Seldom do forces divided against themselves fare well on the battlefield.
Machiavelli holds forth on how to found and renovate institutions in The Prince, his best-known work, and in his Discourses on Roman and Italian history. Both are well worth any military chieftain’s time. Machiavelli is known—and commonly caricatured—for his bareknuckles views on how to survive and thrive in a world ruled by vice, deceit, and lust for power. As a rule, though, his ideas are subtler, more interesting, and more actionable than the caricature. He depicts purifying a city or institution ridden with corruption as one of the foremost acts of statecraft, alongside founding a society anew or managing turbulence in the institution’s surroundings. Such a purge, he says, demands measures that are at once harsh and discriminate. Otherwise animosity toward the leadership could fester—making the effort self-defeating.
Two passages from Machiavelli bear on the anti-extremist campaign. First, he considers whether a prince should enact policies that make him feared or loved by his subjects. Choose! The Florentine observes wryly—you can almost see his Mona Lisa smile as he says it—that a sage ruler would prefer to have it both ways. Forced to choose, however, it is safer to be feared than loved. Love is not under the leader’s control. People can grant their affections, withhold them, or grant them and then withdraw them for any reason—or for no reason at all. Fear is another matter. Whether the ruler provokes dread is under his control, and practitioners of statecraft should confine their efforts to domains they can control.
The crucial thing for Machiavelli is to inspire a measure of fear among potential opponents without sowing hatred. “The prince,” he maintains, should “make himself feared in such a mode that if he does not acquire love, he escapes hatred, because being feared and not being hated can go together very well.” To avoid stoking hatred and the conspiracies to which it gives rise, he should forego seizing “the property of his citizens and his subjects.” Moreover, he should refuse to levy extreme punishments unless “there is suitable justification and manifest cause for it.” The prince should explain his purposes and methods in terms likely to command agreement within the citizenry. The bottom line for him: leaders should “contrive to avoid hatred” by pursuing temperate policies.
But there are limits to the temperate approach. Machiavelli warns leaders not to be guilty of an excess of mercy. He contrasts Scipio Africanus—the conqueror of Carthage and one of the greatest Roman captains of all time—for granting his army too much license in Spain. The army rebelled against him because of his leniency, whereas Hannibal, the commander of the Carthaginian host eventually vanquished by Scipio, made himself terrible in the eyes of his soldiers and never faced a similar challenge. Hannibal was venerated precisely because of his strictness. In military institutions as in cities, it is better to be feared than loved. Mercy is desirable—but only consistent with good order in the ranks. Using mercy well means setting limits on it.
Second, and more directly to the point, Machiavelli makes much of the concept of cruelty “well used.” The idea he puts forth is that, if compelled to take ruthless measures to consolidate his rule or reform the city, the prince should administer them sharply, sparingly, and—preferably—all at once. Such measures are an evil, if a necessary one, and wise princes resort to misdeeds as infrequently as possible. Harsh moves, he contends, “can be called well used (if it is permissible to speak well of evil) that are done at a stroke, out of the necessity to secure oneself, and then are not persisted in but are turned to as much utility for the subjects as one can. Those cruelties are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow with time than are eliminated.”
Applied to the Pentagon’s anti-extremism campaign, Machiavellian insights suggest that senior leaders should keep the venture short and sharp while confining its scope to as narrow and well-defined a range of targets as possible. If they unduly widen the definition of extremism to cover legitimate political activity, or unduly string out the effort, tumults such as those foretold by Machiavelli could befall the armed services. A demoralized or disunited force seldom excels as a fighting force.
Lastly, then, the campaign must be evenhanded—and be seen as such. You would hardly know it from news reporting, but January 6 was not the only instance of violent extremism to roil the country in recent months. The past year was soaked in political violence, including attacks on the White House perimeter and a protracted siege of the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon. Unrest was mercifully brief here in Rhode Island, but police did deploy to protect our majestic statehouse in early June after receiving word that arsonists were plotting to burn it down.
In other words, the breach of the U.S. Capitol was reprehensible; it was hardly an isolated event.
It is doubtful in the extreme that active-duty military people were involved in last summer’s upheavals. My guess would be that the same holds for veterans as well. All the same, top military officials should make a point of investigating all types of violent extremism in the services—not just groups responsible for the attack on the Capitol. And they should state that explicitly and publicly. Evenhandedness would approximate the Machiavellian ideal of turning the campaign to as much utility as possible for the services. This would be cruelly well used.
And that’s pretty good for troubled times.