Is American Military Professionalism Declining?

By Thomas E. Ricks

I want to focus today on how to preserve the warrior culture, and on the threats to it. Specifically, I want to focus on what I consider to be an internal threat to the warrior culture. By that, I mean the decline of American military professionalism, to borrow a phrase I first heard from Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina.

The argument I want to make is that, partly as a result of the attacks on military culture in recent years, the officer corps has become less professional in its outlook and behavior. In reaction to those attacks we have seen a creeping politicization of the officer corps. This rightward movement is, I believe, an inappropriate response. A much more powerful and appropriate response would be to return to the longstanding U.S. military tradition of nonpartisanship.

Let me tell you up front here that I have no military experience. I speak as a largely admiring outsider who spends a lot of time around the U.S. military. I hope you will listen to me, but I hope you will also listen to the views of people with far more experience than I, such as Admiral Stan Arthur, who argues that there is an increasingly large and worrisome gap between the military and American society.

What do I see changing in American military professionalism?

First, I see a sense of separation between this military and this society. This is not a thought original with me. I think Admiral Arthur put it best in his essay, published by the Army War College, in which he worried that the U.S. military thinks it has become better than the society that it protects. In the same vein, I see a tendency in some military commentary these days to dwell on the weaknesses of American society without seeing the strengths of our society. This is bit ironic, because today, for the first time in 25 years, we have an economy that is the envy of the world. There was a small story deep in the foreign pages of The Wall Street Journal this week that said the United States has replaced Japan as the most competitive nation in the world economy. We now enjoy the lowest peacetime unemployment rate since Eisenhower was President—and it is occurring even as we enact a free trade agreement that some predicted would suck jobs out of this country. Over the last 25 years, since the oil shock of 1973, this society has made a dynamic transition from having an industrial-based economy to having an information based economy. The rest of the world is struggling to keep up with that change.

I think that many in the U.S. military fail to appreciate the immensity of that transformation. I sometimes wonder if we actually have moved to a maneuver warfare society, yet still have an attrition-oriented military. The writer Ralph Peters commented recently that we have a military that all too often talks Sherman but acts McClellan. I agree. Who do you think knows more about maneuver warfare, the information warriors at Microsoft, or the Army officers who talk expeditionary, but want to upgrade a 70-ton tank? Anybody who has read my book knows that I am an admirer of Marine Corps culture. It is healthy culture, one that works. It is flexible and adaptive. It is more intellectually supple than the other services. Even so, every other Marine captain I meet seems to believe that American society is troubled, even collapsing. Yes, this society does face major problems. We need especially to do a better job of educating our youth intellectually and morally. But, I do not think, as some have argued in the Marine Corps Gazette in recent years, that the next war that the U.S. military fights will be on American soil.

The second trend I see is the politicization of the officer corps. Until recently, this was purely anecdotal—the cracks we've all heard, when we are in official or semi-official settings, about President Clinton. But lately statistical evidence has emerged to support this anecdotal evidence. Duke University Professor Ole R. Holsti last summer released data that confirm that not only has the American military grown more conservative over the last 20 years, but also more partisan.

It turns out that every four years since 1976, Professor Holsti, who is a specialist in foreign policy and public opinion, had polled 4,000 Americans listed in Who's Who on their views on foreign policy and politics. He also had polled people attending the National War College and senior officers at the Pentagon. But, not being a specialist in military affairs, he never had separated out his data on the views of military officers. When he did, the results were startling. In 1976 one-third of senior military officers interviewed said that they were Republicans. In 1996, that share had doubled to two-thirds. The ratio of conservatives to liberals in the military went from about 4 to 1 in 1976, which is about where I would expect a culturally conservative, hierarchical institution like the U.S. military to be, to 23 to 1 in 1996. This came even as you have more women and minorities in the senior officer corps—which indicates to me that a big chunk of the white male officer corps is marching toward Rush Limbaugh territory. For the purposes of comparison, this rightward swing came as there was a much smaller shift toward conservatism in civilians polled by Professor Holsti. They were 25% Republican in 1976 and 34% in 1996.

But the most worrisome trend that Professor Holsti detected was a sharp decline in nonpartisanship. This used to be the single largest category in the U.S. officer corps: independent, nonpolitical, or no identification. In 1976, more than half of officers polled said that they were independent or nonpartisan. Now, only a quarter say they are.

Evidence from the field suggests that these numbers are accurate. When I was in California in December, for example, a Marine told me that his commander routinely played the commentaries of Rush Limbaugh over the loudspeakers, so, the commander explained, everyone can enjoy it while they work. Whether or not you like Rush Limbaugh, to play that sort of commentary for your unit during duty hours strikes me as unprofessional.

What all this indicates, I think, is a major change, largely unreviewed, in the nature of the U.S. military professional. In The Soldier and the State , the classic text on the U.S. civil-military relations, Professor Samuel Huntington said that nonpartisanship is a pillar of U.S. military tradition. It appears to me that over the last 20 years, that pillar has begun to crumble. Yes, there are historical reasons for this to occur—it is explainable. The Vietnam War destroyed the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party associated with Henry "Scoop" Jackson. After that war, many people who were pro-defense no longer felt there was a home for them in the Democratic Party. At the same time, white southerners as a class moved toward open identification with the Republican Party. But explainable is not the same thing as excusable.

Why should this trend be worrisome? For many reasons, most of them obvious, about the relationship between our military and our democracy. But one important reason may not be so obvious: It can hurt military effectiveness. Historically, politicization of the officer corps has led to military ineffectiveness. When people are promoted for their political views, rather than their combat leadership or management skills, military effectiveness suffers. Take it far enough and you get a banana republic military, one that by definition is better at politics than at fighting.

Combine these two overarching trends—a separation from society and a politicization—and you move toward having what Harvard political scientist Michael Desch has called a "semi-autonomous military." It is, I think, a military that is not always responsive to civilian control, one that in some ways is beginning to act as its own interest group. I worry sometimes that the traditional rivalries among the services are now being extended to other Washington players, so that the way the Army, Navy, and Air Force used to jostle each other is now being applied to their interactions with the White House and the Congress. This can lead to trouble. When you start acting like an interest group, when you start playing in politics, you're going up against the heavy hitters in their game, not yours. I think we got a whiff of this with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's demands to the Navy last year over shipbuilding contracts for his home state. One of his aides sent a note to the Navy with the title, "How To Make an Unhappy Man Happy." It read like a multibillion-dollar ransom note: Nice Navy you got there, terrible if something were to happen to it. This is the same Trent Lott, who in the middle of the Kelly Flinn mess, told the Air Force to "get real."

What is happening here? This is, I think, the U.S. military being treated like an interest group by people who say, "Okay, you want to play politics, let's play politics." I think we got another whiff of this from 1992 to 1995 on Bosnia policy, with a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and a U.S. military in Europe determined not to go into Bosnia and doing their best to undercut explicit national policy on Bosnia. This begins with General Colin Powell running an op-ed piece in the middle of the 1992 presidential campaign opposing candidate Bill Clinton's view on Bosnia, which was the single largest foreign policy issue in that campaign. We subsequently saw a variety of actions by the U.S. military in Europe as it split with the Clinton administration's policy that the Bosnians were the victims of Serb aggression. I wonder if that opposition interfered with the Army's planning for Bosnia. I remember standing in December 1995 on the Bosnia end of that blown-up bridge over the Sava River that leads from Croatia down into Tuzla and talking to an engineer from the 1st Armored Division. I said, "Didn't you guys realize you'd have to do this?" He said, "Sir, until five weeks ago, we never thought we were coming here." This was a guy who, it seems to me, had been misled by his superiors about the likelihood of a U.S. intervention in Bosnia.

I'm not saying that there should not be military dissent. In fact, I think the great tradition of loyal dissent in the military needs to be revived. It is clearly the obligation of the military professional to give his or her best opinion, most especially when the superiors are perceived to be moving in the wrong direction. But I think thought needs to be given to the proper mode of dissent. As Eliot Cohen has observed, think of how difficult it would have been for President Roosevelt back in World War II, when he overruled the advice of his senior military leaders and decided to invade North Africa. Think of how much more difficult his job would have been if he had to consider what that dispute would look like two days later when it was pasted all over the front pages of The Washington Post , The New York Times , and The Wall Street Journal . There is a lot to be said for arguing the policy until the point of decision, and then moving out smartly and executing that decision with all your might.

I want to leave you with two broad questions and a few thoughts about remedies.

My first question has to do with the kind of puritanical swing I see going on in parts of the U.S. military these days. In the Marines especially, I frequently encounter an open religiosity, wearing one's religion on one's sleeve, that I think has unintended side effects. It can encourage hypocrisy, for example: A Marine officer told me recently that he thought his colonel was becoming more openly religious the closer the promotion board got. It's not just the Marines, though. An officer at the Air Force Academy told me that if you don't attend the Monday morning Bible meeting in his department, you were out of the loop for the week. Is it appropriate to begin a lunch meeting at the Pentagon with an open prayer to Jesus Christ? Is it appropriate on the Army's new Officer Efficiency Report to ask for the judgment on the morality of the officer in question? What happens if the person making that judgment believes that abortion is immoral, and the officer being rated recently had a perfectly legal abortion, perhaps to ensure that she could deploy to the Gulf to fly her attack helicopter? Could the great and colorful leaders of the past, the Chesty Pullers, the George Pattons, pass the sort of tests we see nowadays?

The other question may prove the most significant. This is one first posed by Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who now teaches at Boston University. What, he asked, will happen to a politicized and conservative U.S. military when it finds out that congressional conservatives are not necessarily pro-military? We got a hint of this with Senator Lott's comments about Lieutenant Flinn a year ago. I doubt it will be the Democrats who take the defense budget down $20 billion to $50 billion annually. They are too vulnerable in that area—they resemble the schoolboy nervously whistling past the school bully, saying to the Pentagon, "Look, we'll give you $250 billion dollars a year as long as you promise not to beat us up." A Republican in the White House will not have that problem. If a deficit hawk such as John Kasich lives in the White House in a few years, he might look at the Social Security problem and decide to solve it by trimming the defense budget—the domestic equivalent of Nixon going to China. What then happens to a politicized military? Would the toothpaste crawl back in the tube? Or would it become more alienated, more distrustful of the political system?

I think anyone who points to problems is obliged also try to offer solutions. What can be done?

First, I think we need to reflect on what it means to be a professional military officer nowadays. There are a lot of assumptions out there, not all of them correct. Today's junior officer seems to assume that to be an officer is to be a Republican. You see this in surveys out of the Naval Academy and out of West Point. Also, Lieutenant Flinn, a junior officer, seemed to assume that it is okay to disobey orders if you really, really dislike them. I think that the conservative "Lieutenant Limbaugh" and that the insubordinate Lieutenant Flinn are both wrong, and in the same way: Both have fallen away from military traditionalism.

As part of that reflection, we need to think about reviving the tradition of loyal dissent, to think about the proper channels for military dissent.

Second, we need to think about ways to narrow the gap between the American military and society. I would love to see the draft reinstated, but I don't think that is going to happen. There are other things that can be done short of that. Expand ROTC at elite institutions, such as the Ivy League. Expand Navy and Marine ROTC at historically black colleges. If the Navy says it can't find the engineers it needs, the Marines can go it alone—they need an awful lot of grunts who don't need to know anything about engineering. The Army has 10,000 black officers. Why? Because for decades it has had a very strong presence in historically black colleges. There were, the last time I looked, about 1,000 black officers in the Marine Corps. You need to go ask.

Related to this gap, you might also shorten the service requirement attached to attending Annapolis and other academies, so that you get more people cycling back out into society. There are a declining number of veterans in Congress. If you're not going to have people who understand the military in Congress, you're going to have trouble. For the same reason, send officers needing graduate work, whenever possible, to civilian institutions.

Use the reserves more creatively. From my perspective, the reserves been abused in recent years, almost cavalierly. In 1995 I hitched a ride to central Haiti to spend some time with a Special Forces A Team. The guy who drove me up was a reservist who was the manager of a Federal Express office in Atlanta, yet they assigned him to six months of driving a Humvee. Who do you think knew more about "just-in-time" logistics, the guy driving the Humvee, or the colonel in charge of logistics? Another example: Everybody these days loves to talk about information warfare, but is there a reserve unit of information warriors in Silicon Valley? The reserves could be a real bridge to American society.

Finally, on the enlisted side, Admiral Arthur has suggested that we need to think about prep schools for the enlisted, just as you have for the academies. Expensive, yes, but if you want to build a bridge to American society, it's a good thing to think about.

In conclusion, I think that the answer to attacks on the warrior culture is not to become politically conservative. That sort of reaction, I think, is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It compounds the problem by further warping military culture. I think the answer is to re-assert military traditionalism. Of course, saying that is the easy part. The hard part is how to do you it in the environment of the 1990s. How does military traditionalism fit into a gender-integrated military? Answering that question is difficult. I think you begin by enforcing standards, which aren't political. How you answer the question may be one of the most significant acts the younger people here perform in their military careers. Good luck with it.


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