The temptation to think shallowly or not to think at all about one’s profession is almost overwhelming. The press of daily tasks crowds the waking hours, and it seems enough to do one’s best from day to day without plunging into the murky depths of vocational philosophy. Yet, think the military professional must.
Morris Janowitz, in his study of military professionalism, sounded the need when he wrote:
First, there is the complex task of adapting the military establishment to continuous technological change. Second, there is the necessity of redefining strategy, doctrine, and professional self-conceptions. [Emphasis added.]
In the long history of military technological change, the nuclear power plant may well provide the first opportunity for achieving both speed and freedom of movement in acquiring true mobility. Up to the present time, both conditions of mobility have never been fulfilled simultaneously. Now nuclear power offers speed and an independence, unknown since the days of sailing ships, from the umbilical cord which ties modern navies, armies, and air armadas to their sources of logistical support. But if the constant flux of technology offers a problem in adaptation, so, too, the relationship of the military professional to his environment in society needs periodic appraisal.
One of the less fortunate consequences of budgetary stringencies and personnel shortages is that chores seem to outnumber challenges. So much of the military professional’s time must be devoted to ensuring smooth functioning of the merely routine that he can scarcely afford the opportunity to let his thoughts wing outward occasionally. The military man is thus faced with a dual problem: How can he cope with the advances in his trade and still find time for a deeper consideration of his own professionalism? Yet, he must be concerned with what the 27 public thinks of him and what he thinks of himself.
The latter problem is for the military professional to ponder alone. Janowitz goes on to warn that this soul- searching will be a solitary one, for “outdated and obscure conceptions of the military establishment persist because civilian society, including the alert political public, prefers to remain uninformed.” The military professional must thus construct for himself a professional ethic.
The obligations he assumes with the oath of office are clear enough; the legal and moral principles which delimit all of his professional life and much of his personal life as well are easily learned, although much less easily practiced. But what ought he to think of himself? By what standards should this self-image be judged?
A professional ethic is not necessarily a code of conduct found full-blown in a convenient list of maxims, for a self-image is constructed slowly as the individual gathers experience and maturity. Recognition of this image may grow slowly or appear as a flash of insight, but at least five stages in the development of a professional ethic can be distinguished—none, however, discrete and all much overlapped.
The motives for entering on a career of military service are broad and varied, but they rarely include hopes of acquiring great wealth. The Armed Forces Officer, published by the Department of Defense, declares that the “majority have no prospect [of wealth]. Indeed, if love of money were the mainspring of all American action, the officer corps long since would have disintegrated.”
That a truly professional officer subordinates himself to the greater good of service to his country is nothing new or startling, but it appears that each newly enrolled professional aspirant must learn this for himself. When he has taught himself to manage on an adequate but not generous income, to shed the self-centered cocoon compounded of over- indulgent parents and a coddling public school system, and has developed that breadth of vision and depth of insight which gives substance to selfless service, he can then proceed to develop also as a professional man and not merely as a tradesman or skilled technician. At that point, his vision clears sufficiently to permit some appraisal of himself as the professional that both the military service and society insist he must be.
How can the young officer distinguish between vocationalism and professionalism?
The cut and color of one’s uniform is an aspect, strangely enough, of vocationalism. The individual may be pleased to think of himself as a “professional” army, navy, or air force officer, just as others like to think of themselves as “professional” electricians, public accountants, or carpenters. All of these are, of course, highly skilled technicians. The intelligence to grasp the principles underlying the various fields of human endeavor, the ability to perform well, and the sheer fortitude to endure the necessary training and apprenticeship should not be disparaged. But mere technical facility does not make a professional.
In this nuclear age of tremendous technological “leaps,” technical prowess, unfortunately, is much sought after, whether it be that inherent in the calling of the scientist or the manager. The voracious demands of a burgeoning technology place a high premium on intense specialization. Yet, the specialist, as opposed to the generalist, often finds himself in trouble when thrust beyond his test tubes or ledgers. Private industry has long realized that managerial talent can be developed and can function with considerable success independently of technical facility, that the ability to manage a corporate enterprise is by and large unrelated to the ability to operate a lathe down in the machine shop. In like fashion, the military professional can function in many areas of managerial and military leadership without being required to plumb the mysteries of the yeoman’s mimeograph machine.
In the military profession, however, the successful generalist of necessity must begin as a technician of sorts, for some degree of specialized facility is demanded in order to function in the military environment. The captain or admiral may spend his most productive years far from the cry of sea gulls, but he must learn shiphandling early if he is to progress through the lower echelons of his calling. The colonel or general may have commanded his last retreat parade as a major, but a certain amount of specialized expertise is required before he can aspire to a higher rank which, in turn, demands a broader professionalism.
Professionalism, then, cannot be circumscribed with a clever list of injunctions or maxims, observance of which is calculated to ensure excellence. Walter Millis, an otherwise penetrating observer of the politico-military scene, unwittingly did the subjects of his studies a disservice when he listed the “supreme virtues” of the military professional as “honor, initiative, physical courage, the ability to obey orders, to take care of one’s men, and to get up the ammunition and the rations.” All these, of course, are desirable attributes, but none reach the depths of that almost emotional attitude which is termed “professionalism.”
The rise of the military manager who employs the tools of cost studies, economic analyses, programing, and the other vocational tools of civilian management as distinguished from the heroic military leader who commands and supplies his men in combat has blurred the dividing line between the two. In the last decade, the integration of the military effort into the warp and woof of civilian society and the marked growth of the military segment of the economy further demand a wider vision than is possible from the standpoint of mere technical expertness. Fred J. Cook in his book, Juggernaut: The Welfare State, remarked that:
Military assets are three times as great as the combined assets of United States Steel, American Telephone and Telegraph, Metropolitan Life Insurance, General Motors, and Standard Oil of New Jersey. The paid personnel of Defense is triple the number of employees of these great corporations. . . .
While branch-of-service competence provides the vocational base upon which a military career is built, professionalism insists that a broader, more inclusive concept of his work be adopted by the professional.
What, then, is meant precisely by “professionalism.” A satisfactory working definition might be: The rendering of a specialized service to the whole of society.
Professionalism, whether in the military, medicine, education, law, or any other field, is not acquired overnight. The period of preparation is long and arduous, and frequently expensive as well; entry is limited to those who have the requisite aptitudes, desires, and talents; and mastery is achieved only by absorbing a recognizable amount of knowledge. Once the young officer has acquired sufficient experience to look beyond the demands of his immediate duties and see the contribution he and his fellow officers are making to the whole of society; once he is able to see himself, not as one in a small gathering set apart by the color of the uniform, but as part of a larger effort embodied in the military profession; once he has learned to speak a common professional language, then he is ready to identify himself with a professional group rather than a type of trade union.
Thus, having acquired a larger sense of vision and purpose, the military professional can regard his immediate work more objectively and, hopefully, can discern the challenge in what at first appeared to be merely a chore.
A great deal of effort has been expended through the centuries to discover the laws of war and distinguish between their principles and the methods of applying them.
The literature dealing with the “science” of war is already quite large and readily available; hence, the “scientific” aspects of conflict need no further belaboring here. The professional literature detailing the changing elements of tactics and logistics which comprise the “art” or applicatory phase of war is equally voluminous.
The objective of these studies appears to be the discovery of a teachable group of general principles which apply to the conduct of war regardless of changes in tactics and logistics. This effort also seems to imply, as in most other professions, that thorough mastery of this “science” is necessary and even more desirable than brilliant but erratic variations on the basic themes. The emphasis on the “school solution” to problems propounded at service schools gives substance to the impression that the military profession, particularly, prefers the well-grounded individual given more to a mastery of principles than to flashes of genius.
Dependability and competence are the most desirable attributes of the military professional. Anyone can appreciate the anguish a commander suffers when forced to hold the reins on a savagely brilliant innovator, and the relief he experiences when able to rely on subordinates who will perform honestly and competently according to the “rules.” The innovator, especially the successful one, always has his day, even in the military profession, although the stakes are higher. Success or failure in combat carries with it the crushing responsibilities for human pain and suffering coupled with even larger implications of disaster on the national scene. A business failure, on the other hand, entails pain connected primarily with the wallet. A serious study of the problems presented to higher level service school students indicates that new and unusual solutions to military problems are offered more for their novelty while the bulk of such exercises is designed to illustrate how success can be achieved through the knowledge and application of known and accepted principles.
The caution with which sharp changes in the science of war, as distinguished from its application, are accepted tends to develop within the professional a conservative, but realistic, view of himself and his profession.
The military professional has traditionally been accused of looking with suspicion on those aspects of civilian politics and diplomacy which affect his work. In reality, he is not suspicious of civilian society at all; he is only puzzled, occasionally, at the lack of realism with which civilian affairs are often conducted.
The military man must be realistic. Idealism and chivalry had their places when wars were fought by relatively small forces, on small battlefields, for small causes. The incredible inaccuracy of smoothbore cannon and the eyeball-to-eyeball range of the flintlock musket provided the leisure to observe the social niceties of war prior to the 19th century. But the spatial vastness and terrible urgency of modern war, regardless of the medium in which fought, and the tremendous speed at which destruction can be visited upon an opponent have forced a depersonalization of combat. The surrender of the sword to the victorious commander, and an occasional polite refusal, added a nice fillip to battle and permitted a romanticized view of war two centuries ago; but the immense potentialities for annihilation currently available have substituted a grim realism.
This closeness to combat forces a peculiarly conservative point of view on the military professional. He must, of necessity, regard war as the inevitable arbiter of human affairs, while at the same time heartily detesting the need for it. His outlook, then, is pessimistic, for he regards society more as it is seen by the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes rather than by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau died before the accumulated evil in human nature burst forth in the massacre of the French nobility during the Revolution. He was thus able to declare, “Man is naturally good and only by institutions is he made bad.” Hobbes, on the other hand, born in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, lived through one of the more turbulent periods in English history, and took a most practical view of human nature. Hobbes thought man to be selfish and egoistic, fully capable of willfully violating the established rules of human conduct when such transgressions could be committed with impunity. The military man is forced to look at human society through the eyes of Hobbes, and the state of international affairs since 1914 seems to support this philosophy.
Since man is fallible, the threat of human conflict, though highly undesirable, is unavoidable. The military professional thus suspects treaties and alliances and would prefer to demonstrate his abhorrence of war in the form of preparedness. Yet, civilian society perennially clings to treaties as guarantors of world peace despite the accumulated weight of historical evidence past, contemporary, and modern which amply illustrates the weakness of the negotiated reed.
In the early years of the nuclear warhead, the prospects of atomic war appeared so horrible to contemplate and so costly that some other way of settling human and international differences seemed mandatory. But limited wars still proved feasible in Indochina, Korea (which even bogged down in World War I- style positional warfare), Laos, Vietnam, and other areas, while the advance of technology made possible weapons of tactical size for use in such “small” wars. All this served to reinforce the suspicion that the conservative and realistic military professional had for paper treaties and also to confirm his reliance on preparedness.
Must the military man then be perpetually out of step with his civilian brethren? Not always. In June 1897, the young Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, spoke on this aspect of the military ethic in an address at the Naval War College:
. . . those who wish to see this country at peace . . . will be wise if they place reliance upon a first-class fleet of first-class battleships, rather than upon any arbitration treaty the wit of man can devise. . . . Diplomacy is utterly useless.
Such advocacy of preparedness, unfortunately, is rarely heard. Far too often, treaties and alliances regard man not as he is but perhaps as he ought to be.
While conservatism may keep the professional military ethic distinctly apart from civilian viewpoints, the realism of the military man also results in an occasional reversal of roles. Walter Millis, in his portion of Arms and the State, observed the trend of attitudes at the end of World War II:
Even the old and seemingly clear-cut division between the civilian and the military was itself fading into insubstantiality. ... In 1945 the stage was filled with civilians more militaristic than the military, and with military men —like Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, and a host of others—with a breadth of view on national and world problems which often made them seem more “civilistic” than the civilians.
The view of history held by the military man may be colored by this abhorrence of war drilled into him by training and experience, but the coloration is neither rosy nor self- seeking. The disciples of the young French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, are hopelessly in error. In 1835, de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that since “an officer has no property but his pay, and no distinction but that of military honors,” the military professional desires war “because war makes vacancies.”
This should not, however, be interpreted to infer that the military man is necessarily better equipped to guide the course of the nation. Ample experience abroad exists, pointing in precisely the opposite direction. He does have a point of view tempered by a realistic and conservative perspective calculated to avoid war if it is at all possible, but he does not shrink from war if it becomes inevitable. The officer who can link together a somewhat cynical opinion of the variety of human motives in the international arena with a determined aversion to conflict which seems unavoidable in the world, is well along towards that final level of professional awareness: the political nature of military professionalism.
In recent years, uncritical acceptance of civilian control by the military professional has been displayed almost like a badge as evidence of his withdrawal from politics. Civilian supremacy has always carried the implication that the military are to stay out of politics. The intellectual trick here is to adopt this portion of the professional ethic without denying the pervasive influence which military power has always exerted in national affairs. The philosophical manual of the Department of Defense, The Armed Forces Officer, offers precisely this caution against denying the military heritage of the nation:
To every officer who has thought earnestly about the business, it is at once apparent that civilization, as men have known it since the time of the Greek City States, has rested as a pyramid upon a base of organized military power. ... For any military man to deny, on any ground whatever, the role which his profession has played in the establishment of everything which is well-ordered in our society, shows only a faulty understanding of history.
Unfortunately, politics is so inextricably bound up with civilian control that popular conception demands withdrawal from politics as a concomitant of this control. The two, however, are sufficiently dissimilar to warrant treatment as separate aspects of military life.
It is mostly civilians who bring up the question of civilian authority over the armed forces of the United States. Acceptance of this control has never been deemed a problem by the military professional. Janowitz was constrained to observe that,
Civilian control of military affairs remains intact and fundamentally acceptable to the military; any imbalance in military contributions to politico-military affairs—domestic or international—is therefore often the result of default by civilian political leadership.
The curious fact is that no one has ever drawn a clear distinction between the two spheres in which military men and civilian leaders of the defense establishment should operate. Walter Millis was even more explicit:
About 25,000 individuals go to work in the Pentagon every morning; there is probably not one, in uniform or out of it, who is not conscious of the overriding civilian authority; and there are very few if any, who know just where the line between civilian and military considerations should or does lie.
What proves most disturbing, however, is the tacit insistence that acceptance of civilian control necessarily compels acceptance of political caponization. In this nuclear age, such an injunction can be followed only under the most limited circumstances.
Traditionally, of course, the military professional had no politics. Mr. Millis’ coauthors of Arms and the State, Harvey C. Mansfield and Harold Stein, observed that career officers “were brought up to think of themselves as apolitical and seldom voted or qualified themselves to vote, even in the relatively few states with practicable absentee voting laws. ...” The nuclear warhead has worked such attitude changes toward both tactics and political participation that the injunction to be “above politics” can no longer be accepted uncritically.
At least four levels of political participation can now be identified in military life.
The first level can be generalized as national and tends to embroil only the civilian politicians and the upper levels of management in the Department of Defense. The Constitution of the United States prescribes a division of responsibility for the management and direction of the defense effort which has invited deep political involvement of the armed forces.
Section 8 of Article I, declares, “The Congress shall have Power To provide for the common Defence. . . . To declare War, raise and support armies and to provide and maintain a Navy.” Although not prescribed in the Constitution, the House of Representatives customarily originates all appropriations bills. But if Article I permits Congress to maintain a defense establishment, Article II gives employment and direction of this establishment to the executive branch of the government. Section 2 of Article II prescribes that, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; ...” When Congress appropriates money and the executive refuses to spend it, the individual plays no part—and at this level perhaps that is just as well.
The second level of political involvement is departmental, and here, too, the Armed Forces cannot escape enmeshment in the political web. Since each of the Services is vitally concerned with budgets, weapons systems, missions, force levels, pay, personnel policies, and the like, and since all such matters are argued in the political arena, the military professional simply cannot hold himself aloof and survive. And even if he wanted to protect his detachment from politics, his membership on joint committees, assignment to joint agencies, and work on joint projects thrusts him back into the political spotlight. Millis pointed out this involuntary but necessary participation in civilian political matters when he wrote:
The basic problem confronting the nation in 1945 was not that of restoring a civilian control over the military establishment; it was the problem of integration—of how military factors, military forces, and military plans were to be integrated with the civil diplomacy and civil domestic policy, of how their respective exponents were to learn to talk a common language to common ends.
So long as the military remains imbedded in the weft of the civilian political bureaucracy, no amount of highflown idealism will extricate them.
The next lower level might be termed group participation in politics—and here all the injunctions against political dabbling suddenly come into full force. The banding together for the purpose of political activity is absolutely forbidden, and no true professional will doubt the wisdom of this prohibition. The United States has never seen, and has no prospect of ever seeing, the formation of a military political party. The armed forces, on occasion, have furnished political candidates, true enough. We can point to Major General Leonard Wood, the military surgeon who aspired to the Presidency; Douglas MacArthur, the near-myth who marched about the periphery of Presidential politics for several decades; and to Dwight Eisenhower, the professional soldier who made the Presidential grade. All of these, however, were candidates for political office from the military and not exclusively for the military. From Washington through Grant to Eisenhower, the military figures who sought elective office chose to do political battle as politicians and not as military professionals. Nor should anyone lose sight of the fact that none of these men ever attempted to reinforce their political aspirations with bayonets.
This whole matter of political activity by former military officers is bound up with the question of loyalty. Indeed, loyalty is one of the outstanding and most cherished attributes of the military man, for from loyalty springs the other cardinal virtues of fidelity and patriotism. Without these, the nation would suffer from the periodic political upheavals which seem to shudder like a seismic belt throughout Latin America and around the nervous edge of the Communist world. Where so many would-be politicians in the ranks go astray is in their concept of the object of their loyalty.
The American military professional has never had to choose between loyalty to his own private conception of the best interests of the nation and loyalty to his military and civilian superiors. This is a situation of the deepest significance in sparing the United States the politico-military instability afflicting other areas of the world. The respect and acceptance accorded existing American political and cultural institutions by the general public makes preposterously remote the possibility of a situation arising in which such a choice might be necessary. If the political or personal convictions of an individual, or his idea of what works to the best national interest, makes loyalty impossible, the course of action demanded by the professional ethic is either resignation or retirement, after which he has the privilege accorded any private citizen to criticize to his heart’s content. While accepting the emoluments of his office, however, if persuasion fails to redress his grievances, the military man is limited to his individual as opposed to his collective vote, in registering disapproval of official actions. This is not to assume that wiser heads or better decisions are invariably found in Washington, but poor decisions and grievous injustices do have the refreshing characteristic of eventually being recognized and righted, although not always as rapidly as the individual might desire.
This state of affairs has the salutary effect of relieving the military man of the necessity of creating his own image of what works in the best interests of the nation he has sworn to defend. He can confidently expect that the instructions of both his military and civilian superiors will build that image and will work towards its realization.
The military professional, in assuming his status, therefore, must accept certain disabilities. His pay and conditions of employment are not open to negotiation; he enjoys none of the legal safeguards offered to other minority groupings in American society, and he may find his freedom to seek other employment severely restricted at times. From a professional point of view, possibly the most stringent of these restrictions is that requirement of loyalty which obligates him to argue only up to the point of decision and to support without qualification the decision once made. If the situation thus created proves intolerable, the individual has no other recourse than to remove himself from the service. The banding together in protest or political action groups is both forbidden and unacceptable, and not even the advent of the nuclear age gives the military man much leeway in which to debate whether or not he is justified in deliberate disobedience.
The fourth and lowest level of political involvement is the personal one. Although military men may at one time have eschewed the vote, the nuclear age has accompanied a new development in which constant exhortations emanate from the Pentagon to exercise the voting privilege. The individual, then, must necessarily involve himself in local and national political issues if his vote is to be cast intelligently—and this further implies a certain degree of political coloration. This type of action is now acceptable, provided, of course, the vote be cast individually and not as part of a political pressure group.
The injunction to avoid politics, therefore, can be followed by the military professional only in a limited sense. The necessities of group political survival and personal obligations as a citizen in this nuclear era both indicate the need for a certain degree of involvement in politics.
The complete military ethic, then, expects of its subscribers the selfless devotion to nation and duty that has always been demanded of the military professional. The old virtues of duty, honor, and country remain with undiminished force in the armed services, and the defense establishment could do no better than use its tremendous informational machinery to ensure that the rest of the nation subscribe to them as heartily. The technique is to find the challenge which is hidden in what appears to be merely drudging, menial chore.
During the early career years of the military professional, this is no easy task. Dealing with grand strategy or plotting the tactics of budgetary in-fighting present a readily identifiable challenge to those so engaged. The challenge is perceivable only with great difficulty at times in the more limited tasks of obeying orders, doing one’s daily routine, and taking care of one’s men. Yet a challenge, however small, can be found or even created in the most unpleasant, arduous tasks.
The achievement of a true appreciation and acceptance of the professional military ethic does not depend on the ability to construct an edifice of pious platitudes, but on the ability to root around in the chores to find the kernels of challenge. In this fashion, the first years of apprenticeship, sometimes exhilarating, but more often discouraging, are seen not as obstacles to career progress; they become instead an avenue of approach to a degree of professionalism which, in truth, permits that higher calling in the service of society whether in the nuclear or any other age.