Professional military officers form the constitutionally appointed shield of the republic. In peace and in virtually every wartime circumstance short of general mobilization, these officers lead an all-volunteer force. In general war, they become a prime source of know ledge and experience for an activated reserve. The very nature of the profession of arms evokes powerful, disconsonant images in the public mind. Citizens look to military officers as the defenders of au· they hold most dear; but counterpoised against that noble raison d'etre is the chilling image of world-ending destructive power, vested in these latter-day deputies of Zeus.
Despite the long line of eloquent men and women who have served, professional officers have somehow acquired a reputation for being inarticulate and even anti-intellectual. Now that our sons and daughters are being led in combat largely by long-service regulars, the profession of arms is coming under greater scrutiny. In response to this, officers must speak out and tell our countrymen who we are, what our beliefs are, and why we have answered this calling.
Most officers never talk about their personal codes of conduct, ethics, and beliefs; it is as if discussion might weaken and cheapen those principles. Beliefs don't have to be ripped from you in a primal scream to have validity, but by self-imposed silence we cede to others an opportunity to define our values. This can be a dangerous liberty. We run the risk of relinquishing the moral high ground to individuals who may not understand the nature of our profession.
Beliefs are unique to each officer, but we all share a moral code and ethical vision. Our profession surpasses others because we demand two things of all our members: always to do the "inexpedient good'' (in German philosopher Immanuel Kant's term) and to show reflexive selflessness at all times.
Samuel Huntington, writing in his seminal work The Soldier and the State, argues that the regular military officer meets the test of the three key elements that mark the professional: expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. Huntington does not include reserve officers or enlisted personnel under this definition, because the former do not practice their calling full time and the latter do not "manage" the application of violence—but either apply it directly or serve in specialized, support roles.
The officer directs a human organization "whose primary function is the application of violence." His expertise is translatable; it is not intuitive. It is passed on by formalized schooling, professional training, and other support systems.
The corporate identity of the officer derives from his oath and from his responsibilities to his client—the state. Thus, the outlook of the professional officer is often a consequence of the tension between idealism and pessimistic pragmatism. We are imperfect, thus our societies are imperfect. Fault, weakness, and evil are inherent to man, as is the ability to organize against these flaws. First in families, then in tribal groupings, now in the modern nation state, man has sought protection against hostile elements through organization. Over time, just as all other human activities have evolved toward specialization, so have the organizations that defend societies. As they mature, societies become able to fund organizations devoted solely to their defense, served by officers whose primary worth lies in their ability to organize against chaos.
Officers accept that there are varying degrees of evil and that the application of violence in the service of the state is not only morally defensible but morally necessary. It takes courage and intellect to discriminate between degrees of evil, to the point where moral beliefs require moral action. Edmund Burke wrote, "All that is necessary for evil to flourish in the world is that good men do nothing." The small evil of a defensive or preventive war is often better than the larger evil of unchecked aggression.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function " accurately describes the degree of sophistication required of the professional officer. Extremists who oppose war or egregiously clamor for it have the luxury of ignoring this dialectic. The officer cannot. While recognizing the value of peace, he must constantly prepare for war.
The officer plies his trade poised on a dialectic tightrope between the opposing poles of peace and war. The rope is made of intellect and selfless willingness to act in violence when necessary. Below, the pit of amorality looms. A fall is caused by losing sight of the responsibility for ethical behavior. As in no other calling, the warrior cannot be separated from his actions. The warrior is the act. The ethical behavior of the officer is on display before the entire world; no misstep or miscalculation will go unnoticed, and an error may carry with it an enormous cost in life, including the officer's own.
Equilibrium is maintained by doing the right thing, the ethical thing. There is in all of us a moral compass, a visceral understanding of what is right and wrong. This is character. We fortify and nurture it in many ways while training cadets, midshipmen, and junior officers.
The often harsh dictates of honor systems as applied during officer apprenticeships all serve to hone, particularize, and make useful and comprehensible the sense of universal honor and ethics. Officers must function in the real, imperfect world—which seldom appears in clear black and white, but is often gray and uncertain. Under these circumstances, the best decisions are usually based on fundamental principles. Ethical behavior in any profession stems from fundamentals, and the greater the gap between what we know to be right and what we actually say and do, the greater the potential for violating ethical norms. But innate morality must be buttressed by education and practical experience, in making the tough choices.
In The Best and the Brightest, a study of the generation of statesmen and military leaders who brought us into Vietnam, author David Halberstam quotes Chester Bowles, a key Kennedy adviser, from his diary shortly after the abortive 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco:
''The question which concerns me most about this new administration is whether it lacks a genuine sense of conviction about what is right and what is wrong…
"Anyone in public life who has strong convictions about the rights and wrongs of public morality, both domestic and international, has a great advantage in times of strain, since his instincts on what to do are clear and immediate. Lacking such a frame work of moral conviction or sense of what is right and what is wrong, he is forced to lean almost entirely upon his mental processes; he adds up the pluses and minuses of any question and comes up with a conclusion. Under normal conditions, when he is not tired or frustrated, this pragmatic approach should successfully bring him out on the right side of the question.
''What worries me are the conclusions that such an individual may reach when he is tired, angry, frustrated, or emotionally affected. The Cuban fiasco demonstrates how far astray a man as brilliant and well intentioned as Kennedy can go who lacks a basic moral reference point.''
Few passages written by a public official are more evocative of the dangers of decoupling decision-making from the inexpedient good: the fundamental, innate sense of right and wrong. Even genius cannot answer for amorality. Another concept of Kant's is useful here—his "categorical imperative" proposes that we evaluate what we do as if ''the principle of your act would become a general law of nature." It is a daunting concept. It is possible to dodge moral responsibilities; it is not possible to avert the consequences of dodging these responsibilities.
There will be failures; officers' mistakes are measured in the blood and treasure of our nation. Mistakes born of technical incompetence may be more understandable than mistakes in moral intent, but their effects are often indistinguishable on the battlefield. There is no officer on active service today who is unaware of the actions of Second Lieutenant William L. Calley at Son My Village (Hamlet My Lai 4), Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam, on 16 March 1968. His was a total failure of professional competence, personal responsibility, and fundamental humanity. William Calley failed his profession; the profession of arms did not fail him, nor did the profession fail the world, except in the sense that Calley was manifestly unfit to exercise the responsibilities of officership and should never have been placed in command of anything. Lacking in that innate sense of right and wrong, and under the heat and stress of a small skirmish, he lost his balance on the tightrope. Letting military expediency run amok, Lieutenant Calley dodged his responsibilities that day. But the dead of My Lai 4 were not able to dodge the consequences of his action; and ultimately, neither was Calley.
The professional officer fights an ethical war by ensuring that tactical and operational procedures are morally and militarily sound; by training efficiently and aggressively so that the forces he commands can effectively employ those procedures to defeat the enemy; and by providing a sound moral and ethical base for commanders at all levels to draw from.
If our profession were solely about peace, West Point would be a seminary. The concept of deterrence is a statesman's construct, not a military one. An A-6E Intruder on the Number One catapult at Alert 5 Status does not deter a potential enemy because its pilot and bombardier/ navigator may be well-read, intelligent men who prefer peace to war. Deterrence derives from the fact that these two officers can deliver their ordnance with devastating effect on any target selected by our nation.
The almost exclusively Western corollary is that this destruction must be accomplished within carefully defined restraints and only against justified targets, even if air crews must be placed in greater hazard. The air campaign conducted over Iraq is an excellent example of adding such risk by using flight profiles specifically designed to ensure that only military targets were struck.
As free men and women, we can express our beliefs at the ballot box. As officers we must carry out our half of the social contract-which we entered willingly—and fly the airplanes, drive the ships, and take Marines forward when directed by our statesmen. We function at two levels: as citizens and as soldiers. We never forfeit one for the other, and there are appropriate avenues for the expression of our beliefs as both.
One must be able to fight without becoming a moral casualty—one whose heart has become so hardened that the profession has become meaningless, or one who simply has been overcome by the violence and the overwhelming nature and variety of evil. Moral compromise is not an answer; it may seem to be reasonable, but it is damning and leads to a tumble—from the tightrope—to a My Lai 4.
But war fundamentally involves killing. You cannot make it any prettier than that. We must kill as efficiently as possible, whenever it is necessary. An officer who cannot come to grips with this fundamental tenet of our calling will be ground to pieces. He will either become a Calley or will be reduced to "paralysis by analysis'' of the decisions he has to make.
We live in an age of aversion: to risk, emotion, and involvement. By action and by belief, the officer must stand outside the tyranny of aversion and hold another position—that of true selflessness. It is discomfiting for us to speak of selflessness, but that is the common denominator of our profession.
Every officer is expected to demonstrate a reflexive selflessness in all behavior. When in command of anything—a rifle company, a submarine, an airplane—the officer accepts as his lot the staggering baggage of the problems, aspirations, and dreams of those he commands. By law, he is responsible for them, but law will not make them fight. It is largely by his selflessness that he will inspire young Marines to go forward—rejecting aversion and maneuvering forward to close with the enemy upon the fields of fire.
Selflessness is the foundation of leadership—the one indispensable ingredient. It is the common sharing of risks, the communal indignities of a harsh life, and the dream of a better future.
The increasing technological sophistication of modern ground warfare has tended to force the physical separation of mid- and high-level commanders from their formations. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander for Operation Overlord, was not able to lead the D-Day charge across Omaha Beach, because his highest responsibility was the execution of his mission, which required him to be in England at a command center, in the center of a vast radio-electronic web. For modern high commanders, sharing risk has become largely symbolic—far different from earlier centuries, when the only way leaders could influence the action was to hurl themselves into battle.
At the small unit level, though, the officer as selfless fighter is still the essence of leadership. This is true in peace as well as war. Consider, for example, a Marine rifle company training in the field at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. It is early evening, and a live-fire exercise has just been completed. Trucks arrive with hot chow from the rear, and the steaming vat cans are unloaded and aligned on the ground. As the company moves to go through the chow line, the company commander and his lieutenants relieve the cooks. The officers will serve as mess orderlies for their men. No officer will eat or take his ease until all trigger pullers are fed.
This is the mundane, reflexive, institutional selflessness that on other days and in harsher climes will make Marines go forward into danger. It is the practical application of the old axiom of the British Army: "My men first always, me last always.'' The now-fading photographs of the junior officers of the Kitchener armies in France, inspecting the feet of their soldiers after a forced march, provide a poignant reminder of the small things we do that cumulatively shape the larger things.
The United States has put an all-volunteer force into the field. The American people are rightfully curious about the officers, these deputies of an awesome power, who lead their sons and daughters in battle. As professional officers, we must not eschew any opportunity to speak clearly about the forces and beliefs that motivate us. If we do not, others will.
The profession of arms is an old and honorable one. Its transcendent values are fundamental and simple. First is ethical behavior and second is the reflexive selflessness that allows officers the privilege of leading a free people in battle. These values require that we practice our profession not only in the harsh arena of combat, but also in the arena of ideas.
Captain McKenzie is currently attending Marine Corps Command and Staff College. He is the winner of the Marine Corps Association 1989 Chase Prize Essay Contest. He has commanded Company I, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, and was the MOI at VMI.