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Modern Soldiers From Ancient Texts

Another oddity of his move to the Pentagon is that it comes essentially after he and his allies in personnel policy have won much of the argument, especially on unit stabilization. After decades of transferring people every couple of years, the Army earlier this year reversed course and is trying to keep soldiers attached to the same unit for much of their careers.

Shay cautiously applauds the Army's recent shift, saying it goes in the right direction. But, Shay said he is not sure how far the service has moved or how permanent the changes will be.

"The point of fighting in a just cause is to win," says Jonathan Shay, just hired as an adviser to the Army's personnel chief. "The highest form of military skill is to win without killing." (Photo Rick Friedman )2004)

In Profile

Jonathan Shay

Title: Chair of ethics, leadership and personnel policy in the U.S. Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Harvard University; graduate work in sociology, Columbia; medical degree, University of Pennsylvania; doctorate in neuropathology, University of Pennsylvania.

Age: 62.

Career highlights: Staff psychiatrist, Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, Boston, 1987-present; assistant professor of pathology, Harvard Medical School, 1976-1977; neurosurgical assistant, Massachusetts General Hospital, 1972-1977.

Family: Married to a professional violinist; four children; three grandchildren.

Pastimes: Yoga, walks 2 1/2 miles a day.

Favorite books: Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus" and Martha C. Nussbaum's "The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy."

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"Changing the culture of a large institution is a very protracted process," Shay cautioned.

He said he sees some worrisome signs in the U.S. military in Iraq. The abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, he said, directly resulted from the failure of leadership at the small unit level.

"What you need is a crusty, old sergeant who says at the right moment, 'We're soldiers; we don't do that [expletive],' " Shay said.

An Army report released in March found widespread problems with unit cohesion in Iraq. Its authors recommended that the Army do a better job of getting mental health resources to the troops.

Shay appears to disagree with that view.

"Honestly, I don't think the most important thing to do is to provide mental health professionals," he said. Rather, he returned to his three core issues: "The most important thing to do is to provide cohesion, leadership and training."

Overall, he said he is less worried about the mental health of regular, active-duty soldiers serving in Iraq than he is about the part-time troops in the National Guard and Reserves, and even more the thousands of private security personnel working on contract there.

Unlike service personnel, he noted, contractors have no formal network of support to help them when they return home, even if they are hired as bodyguards or placed in other combat-type roles.

"The amount of potential dynamite we are sowing in our own society by sending people into that situation, that way -- it just terrifies me," Shay said.

What do his friends and neighbors back in the liberal suburbs of Boston think of him helping the top brass make the Army more militarily effective?

"They know that I'm not just trying to turn people into more effective killers," Shay said. "The point of fighting in a just cause is to win, not to kill. The highest form of military skill is to win without killing."

What is more, he said, it also has to do with the morality of our own society. "If we're sending people to fight in our name," Shay said, "we damn well better be sure to win swiftly, and not kill any more of the enemy than is necessary."

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