Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green
Illustration by Oscar Bolton Green

In his landmark 19th-century treatise “On War,” Carl von Clausewitz asked “whether history has ever known a great general who was not ambitious; whether, indeed, such a figure is conceivable.”

Clausewitz knew that ambition had gotten a bum rap: “Other emotions,” he explained, “may be more common and more venerated -- patriotism, idealism, vengeance, enthusiasm of every kind --but they are no substitute for a thirst for fame and honor.”

Clausewitz said those other qualities could never produce the comprehensive investment required of a commander-in-chief: “They cannot give him, as can ambition, a personal, almost proprietary interest in every aspect of fighting, so that he turns each opportunity to best advantage.” He argued that only ambition “for honor and renown,” at all levels of command, could foster the “inventiveness, energy, and competitive enthusiasm, which vitalizes an army and makes it victorious.”

Today, enshrined together with duty, integrity, loyalty, personal courage, respect and selfless service as one of the seven U.S. Army values, honor is defined as the capacity for “living up to” the other six. Yet it has been decoupled from the now suspect desire for fame.

Ambition, meanwhile, has become a dirty word. Promotion and retirement ceremonies celebrate honorable military careers, but there is only vitriol for perceived careerists and a collective unease at the proposition that the success of military enterprise might in fact hinge as much on the presence of sufficiently ambitious individuals as on an army’s enthusiastic embrace of a self-abnegating ethos of sacrifice.

‘Fame and Honor’

Ambition and martial distinction have long been linked in the Western imagination. What Clausewitz called “fame and honor” the ancient Greeks named “kleos,” and they regarded a hunger for it as the warrior’s chief motivation. The promise of spoils certainly helped -- an enemy’s armor, perhaps, or a captured concubine -- and the desire to avenge one’s comrades galvanized soldiers in the midst of a fight. But in the end what was the point of risking one’s life if not for the possibility of doing something worthy of poetic remembrance? Plutarch depicts Alexander the Great brooding before Achilles’ tomb, envious of his predecessor’s good fortune in having Homer “the great herald” to immortalize his exploits in epic song.

Like courage, ambition has a kind of moral neutrality; nevertheless, it is more readily associated with a lack of scruples. Remember Lady Macbeth’s complaint that her husband is “not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it.” Shakespeare understood that a plot cannot do without ambition. His contemporary, the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon, proposed that, like drama, history itself could not advance in the absence of the ambitious. It is ambition, Bacon wrote, that drives men “forward,” but once their progress is checked the ambitious become “secretly discontent ... and are best pleased when things go backward.”

Plutarch, whose work influenced Shakespeare and Bacon, illuminated ambition’s inherent volatility and ambiguity. According to Plutarch, ambition is an unavoidable hazard of public life whose consequences are uniformly “misshapen and unnatural.” The ambitious chase “glory,” which is but a poor copy of virtue. Plutarch proposed that ambition at once explains the past and enables the future because those possessed of it are always chafing against the present. They collide with all the force of planets in intercepting orbits, their energy proving at once an organizing principle and an entropic force, capable, as in the case of Alexander, of moving men and materiel from Macedonia all the way to the banks of the Ganges, where the forward march of conquest degenerated into the desultory retreat of thwarted desire.

An Undemocratic Force

Plutarch’s Stoic mistrust of ambition was echoed by many of his most devoted 18th century readers, including John Adams, who regarded this incendiary passion with the deepest suspicion because he believed that “emulation next to self-preservation will forever be the great spring of human actions.” For Adams, ambition -- the catalyst that drives an individual to outdo everyone else -- was a fundamentally undemocratic force. Only “the balance of a well-ordered government,” he insisted, could prevent “emulation from degenerating into dangerous ambition,” the defender of liberty from turning tyrant.

Adams and many of his contemporaries were influenced by Montesquieu’s claim that ambition was “pernicious in a republic.” In “The Federalist,” Alexander Hamilton, so often accused of egregious ambition himself, concluded simply, “men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.” Other contributors to the constitutional debates, however, made an attempt to distinguish what the pamphleteer John Stevens Jr. called the “insatiate lust of domination and despotic sway” from “that laudable desire of excelling in whatever we undertake, which is the source of every excellence of which our nature is capable.” Adams, too, contrasted “honorable” and “dishonorable” ambition. Perhaps he brooded on the difference because he knew so well the force of his own ambition, yet he also believed that a civilian could never present the threat to republican stability that an ambitious soldier could: Julius Caesar, Napoleon, the proverbial man on horseback.

No ambition depicted in Plutarch’s “Lives” is more extreme than that of Caesar, who sheds tears over his own inadequacy while reading of Alexander’s accomplishments at the same age. If it is true, however, that Caesar looked with envy at Alexander’s achievements, ultimately his success led him beyond the formula of comparing himself to others and into something Plutarch describes as “a sort of emulous struggle with himself, as if it had been with another, how he might outdo his past actions by his future.” It is this solipsistic circuit that destroys Rome.

‘Malign and Venomous’

In today’s military culture, ambition, no longer regarded even as a vexing catalyst but rather as a distraction from corporate success, has been forced underground -- precisely, Bacon reminds us, where it is most “malign and venomous.” Personal ambition is fundamentally at odds with perhaps the thorniest Army value: selfless service. Doctrine exhorts soldiers: “Put the welfare of the nation, the Army, and your subordinates before your own.” If the only alternative is selfishness, I’m all for a selfless service, but I think this is a false dichotomy.

The Army notionally encourages the project of self-development, but a thorough indoctrination in the value of selflessness makes ordinary acts of self-cultivation -- especially intellectual pursuits without manifest, near-term military application -- look like self-aggrandizement. To have certain career targets -- battalion command, for example -- is acceptable, but activities that reveal a desire for achievement as well as service, which suggest a more particular investment in the self with a strategic eye to the distant future, garner suspicion in certain quarters. How dare you think of tomorrow when there is so much to be done today?

Yet the totality, the all-or-nothing gambit, of selflessness -- the denial of self as opposed to self-development -- lacks the momentum necessary to propel the soldier forward over the long haul. It might produce the ephemeral zeal of the kamikaze or the suicide bomber, but it cannot promote the sense of personal responsibility, accountability or “proprietary interest” that Clausewitz celebrated and that today’s Army leaders deem elemental to a professional force.

The case of the present era’s most visible soldier, David Petraeus, illustrates the contemporary unease with ambition. Supporters attribute to Petraeus the very inventiveness, energy, competitiveness and capacity for investment Clausewitz attributes to a “thirst for fame and honor.” But as Petraeus’s biographer Paula Broadwell notes, “Critics fault him for ambition and self-promotion.” The news media, which have long speculated about Petraeus’s political ambition, continue to dissect the retired general’s motivations.

An Unselfish Quest

It is easy to accuse others of ambition, less easy perhaps to link that ambition to particular ends. What do the ambitious really want? Awards, medals, badges, advancement, victories: These are the certifications of a soldier’s desire for recognition. Nevertheless, military ambition -- like that of the scientist, activist or political leader -- might also motivate an unselfish quest in which personal accomplishment furthers a more capacious goal: to minimize suffering, maximize the potential of others, mobilize or transform an institution.

We derive the word ambition from the Latin “ambitio,” denoting lawful campaigning for public office, literally “going round” to garner support. The modern sense of striving for recognition, popularity or fame was also alive to the Romans, yet they never pretended they could do without it. For Bacon, a sort of open and free market of ambition was essential to the public weal: “He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men hath a great task, but that is ever good for the public. But he that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers is the decay of an whole age.”

Montesquieu proposed that a “love of equality in a democracy limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow-citizens.” An ambition to serve prompts many to a military career, yet over the course of that career, superior service may periodically require pursuits that focus exclusively on the self: personal experiences, conducted outside the context of conventional military operational, training and educational environments, that deepen competence, broaden perspective, or unsettle preconceptions and biases. The Army prizes uniformity, which it sometimes confuses with equity, and shared experience, which if unleavened encourages a debilitating groupthink rather than a productive esprit de corps.

Yet given sufficient avenues for exercise, personal ambition might still be harnessed for good. A commander without ambition, Bacon reminds us, is about as useful as a cavalryman stripped of his spurs. Don’t expect to win a war, he admonished, with a general like that.

(Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of “Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Elizabeth Samet at eliz.samet@gmail.com.

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