In addition to sea-service officers of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, these Naval War College students saying good-bye on graduation day include a healthy representation of Army, Air Force and allied officers. In future campaigns envisioned by “Forward ... From the Sea,” joint and combined operations will be the norm, instead of the old-style amphibious work by the Navy-Marine team.
These are troubling times for the armed forces. The Cold War that we knew so well is gone, and with it many of the certainties that formed the basis of our professional lives. The world that is emerging may be safer for the United States for a time, but it also is disorderly and unstable, and remains dangerous to the men and women who have taken up the profession of arms. No coherent national strategy has emerged to deal with the post-Cold War era, and no consensus exists on what is worth fighting and perhaps dying for.
At the same time, despite widespread support for the military overall, the personal behavior and political judgment of some Navy officers in particular have shaken public confidence. “Tailhook” has passed into American folklore with a notoriety that once attended Bonnie and Clyde, yet the aftereffects linger. Reports of sexual improprieties continue to surface, and some statements of flag and general officers have revealed too little understanding of their proper role in the American political process.
Confusion and mistrust form a poor foundation for the future, especially one in which resources for public purposes, including defense, will decline sharply. The election of a conservative Congress will not forestall this. Even the military hawks elected in 1994 are primarily budget hawks who expect the military to bear at least its share of the cuts—and whose appeal to the military will likely dry up when the money does. We have only begun to grasp what the impending reductions may mean for a greatly reduced future force structure. As traumatic as this will be, it is not the most important change affecting the environment in which the military professionals of the future will find themselves.
What are some implications of the changes we are undergoing—for the military profession generally and for the professional naval officer in particular? What will it mean to be a professional officer 10, 20, or 30 years from now? Not everything will change, but the environment of the military profession is evolving into something new, and the professional officer will need to adapt.
The ways some current controversies are resolved will have a great impact on the future. As a rule, the armed forces are sensitive to criticism, especially from the inside. The Navy in particular is a ganglion of exposed nerve endings in the aftermath of the 1991 Tailhook convention and its subsequent attempts to pacify an outraged Congress and public. It is difficult to discuss any important matter without generating a disproportionate defensive reaction from someone in a high position. But if some challenges to the status quo prove to be in error, such error often is widely shared in the fleet.
Let us begin with a basic assumption: that the purpose of military forces is to fight and win our nation’s wars—as quickly as possible and as violently as necessary. Such an objective is the only justification for the public expense and personal risks involved. All other considerations are subordinate to this purpose and the peacetime preparation to accomplish it. The military should not be viewed as a social welfare agency, a human rights organization, a giant petri dish for social experimentation, an engine driving the economy, or a conduit for defense contractors to reach the public purse. This perspective also affects the primacy of communities within any military service: the “tail” is necessary, but it exists only to support the “tooth.”
The primacy of the warfighting mission does not mean that other considerations are unimportant. Being a warfighter conveys no exemption from strict accountability for personal conduct on and off the battlefield. In this regard, the term “warrior,” as used today to describe professional military personnel, connotes an undisciplined gang of armed rabble, prone to indiscriminate violence, with neither accountability nor concern for the broader context of what they do. The foot soldiers of Genghis Khan were warriors; U.S. military officers and enlisted personnel are warfighters—by all accounts the best in the world. There is an important difference between the two, and it goes to the heart of both our professional identity and the way we view the relationship between the military and the society we defend.
The Future Environment
Predictions always are inexact. Because we do not expect radical discontinuities, we base our predictions upon what we want to see, what we can control, or a simple extrapolation of current trends into the future. The following trends already are evident, and we may assume that they will continue.
Domestically, the United States is becoming more heterogeneous by nearly every social indicator. We have become a more diverse society racially, religiously, economically, linguistically, and culturally. Gender equality is high on the political agenda. Previously “invisible” groups such as homosexuals and the disabled wield increasing political influence. These trends will intensify, putting added pressures upon a military institutions traditionally based on the suppression of differences, rather than their celebration.
Our “multicultural” future will have powerful centrifugal forces, which must be balanced by centripetal forces supporting national unity. Superficial sociological, economic, or biological similarities will no longer be enough to unite us, and our common bonds must reflect something deeper. These include a shared identity as Americans, a feeling of connectedness with one another, and a sense of national purpose—expressed in a language that all Americans can understand. If this is what “patriotism” means, we could do with a lot more of it.
At the same time, the distinctions between “civilian” and “military” activities will fade. On-base living will decrease; more military functions will be contracted out; the media and Congress will be more inquisitive. Civilians will have less and less sympathy for patterns of behavior that they do not understand, and will attempt to “civilianize” the military. Such an attempt could adversely affect the military’s ability to do its job, and changes could be forced on it that will reduce military effectiveness.
The military cannot remain strong if it is backed by a weak economy. The American economy is hardly weak; today it could be more robust, however, and serious inequities remain in the distribution of wealth. Current trends that push more Americans toward the high and low ends of the income distribution—with fewer left in the middle—do not bode well for the future. Exhortations on the value of hard work now tend to ring hollow to the “working poor,” and no one has a clear idea of how to solve this problem. Since the most basic element of national security is a contented domestic population, this is a cause for concern.
Internationally, the bipolar power distribution has given way to a multipolar or even unipolar system, with the United States the preeminent military power. Just as Pax Americana did not long survive the end of World War II, this condition will not last forever. For the foreseeable future, however, there is no military threat to the continental United States, with the unlikely but quite serious exception of a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack launched from a “minor” power (including Russia or China) or carried out by foreign terrorists—or by disaffected U.S. citizens.
The conflict environment will become increasingly complex. Military force always has been a blunt instrument for effecting political change. This is particularly true in conflicts far from home, which too often are badly understood by political leaders, the public at large, and the military. Primal struggles whose origins go back decades or even centuries will break out, fueled by nationalistic or racial passions most Americans can comprehend only dimly. They will be marked by moral ambiguity, uncertainty about the national interests of the United States, and indecision about what we should do. In such situations, we may expect to see periodic outbreaks of the isolationist virus in our political system—often among people who should know better.
The present situation in the former Yugoslavia is instructive. The conflict went on far too long before we realized that genocide in Central Europe coincides with neither our strategic interests nor our values. Lacking a clear-cut, airtight rationale for intervention, we dithered away our opportunity to influence the situation; now, we have taken action, but it may be too late. Such struggles are the true harbingers of the future—not the clear-cut and decisive Gulf War, where the enemy was defined clearly and U.S. interests were self-evident. Although observers may disagree over the wisdom of U.S. intervention in such situations, the emerging pattern of future conflict is clear.
There are three aspects of military professionalism: the officer and the profession, the profession and civilian leaders, and the interaction between the profession and society. Certain characteristics stand out in each:
► The Officer and the Military Profession. The discussion about retaining the “Generation X” junior officer boils down to this: “What is the motivation for military service?” Military sociologist Charles Moskos has pointed out that “occupational” inducements of a material nature are not enough. “Institutional” inducements such as patriotism, love of service, pride in a job well done, and sense of duty also are necessary and ultimately may be more important. This will be as true in the future as it has been in the past. “Duty, Honor, Country” is not a quaint, antiquated notion found only in history books, but the basis of future military success. “For all ages and for all time,” General Douglas MacArthur said in his farewell address, “it is an expression of the ethics of the American soldier.” Similarly, the Navy and Marine Corps core values of honor, commitment, and courage provide a solid foundation for a successful career in any profession.
A sense of camaraderie among officers of various ranks and levels of responsibility is also part of the pay. It will motivate the Generation Y and Z officers of the future as it motivates Generation X officers today and has motivated generations of officers before them. Situations may change; people do not. This camaraderie will be tested, as new individuals other than heterosexual males are brought into the core of the profession as warfighters. A sense of shared values and experiences will be crucial, as such potentially destabilizing changes continue.
Leaders and followers must keep faith with one another. In that connection, officers of all grades felt betrayed in the wake of Tailhook ‘91. Some senior officers (and not just flag officers) who had attended the convention sought protective cover afterward by making videotapes or conducting “stand downs” on gender sensitivity, for the moral uplift of those who were not there. They should have been figuratively leaping onto their swords (and in an earlier generation would have done so for the honor of their profession). Ironically, the highest-profile Tailhook-related resignation was that of a civilian, the Secretary of the Navy. Officers left to fend for themselves still are sorting out what is left of their careers, and officers not directly involved are watching what is happening and drawing the appropriate conclusions. Those who think that this is no longer an issue are fooling themselves.
- The Military Profession and Civilian Leaders. The most interesting issue in civil-military relations will not be whether military leaders at all levels pose a threat to civilian supremacy. They will not, and will follow faithfully the lawful orders of civilian authorities—whether or not they agree with the policies or have personal respect for the leaders. This does not mean that they will do so gladly, or that their feelings always will remain private. As World War II, Korean War, and now Vietnam War veterans advance in age—and considering that there has been no conscription since 1973—fewer civilian leaders will have had the personal experience of military service. Future military professionals will have to deal with civilian leaders who fail to understand them well, and who may not appreciate them. It does not necessarily follow that such leaders will, be antagonistic, however. Former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, for example, is a civilian without military service who developed expertise on military matters and acquired a good sense for how the military operates.
Military professionals also will have to deal with civilians who demand more in the way of “civilian” behavior off duty.
Another repercussion of the Tailhook incident was a Congress emboldened to press for changes in the role of women in the military that previously had been unacceptable to the uniformed leadership. After Tailhook, Navy leaders in particular felt it necessary to trim their sails to the prevailing political and social winds, and told Congress and the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Military whatever they thought the civilians wanted to hear on any gender-related issue. This shows, among other things, that civilian leaders will get what they want if they want it badly enough.
- The Military Profession and Society. No discussion of this issue can ignore the central role of Tailhook in the evolution of civil-military relations. The 1991 Las Vegas convention of the Tailhook Association may not have been the most raucous in memory—just the most public. It was also a milestone event for the U.S. armed forces, the Navy in particular. Many attendees felt persecuted when called to account for their behavior or the actions of their subordinates. In their view, nothing happened that year that had not happened many times before; standards were changed retroactively; and they were, after all, “warriors”—and to judge by their records, some of the best. In fact, standards had changed, although many in the military had not noticed, and they will change even more in the future. A career of self-sacrificing service and even heroism in combat will no longer be enough. Society always has expected military officers to conform to “civilian” rules of social interaction off the battlefield, and there will be less insulation of the military from civilian society. An aggressive press and assertive Congress will ensure that transgressions are publicized and punished.
The great military sociologist Morris Janowitz showed that the armed forces grow out of civilian society and reflect it in important ways. The military cannot maintain its distance forever from societal trends, whether they are demographic or behavioral. Although some distance is necessary, as argued by Samuel P. Huntington, the degree of separation will decrease. Officers will operate in a military environment that is becoming, for better or worse, more “civilianized.” They also will be the leaders of an institution that is embedded in a political system. Sam C. Sarkesian proposes “enlightened advocacy” by the military as it attempts to effect policies of interest to it. The military may legitimately press its case within the administration and before Congress—and even in public fora—but then must salute smartly and obey once the decision is made. Of course, partisan politics must remain out of bounds in the future as in the past.
Sometimes, the armed forces lead civilian trends, instead of following them. This is especially true in the attempt to integrate individuals of diverse backgrounds into the mainstream of the military profession. This will pose exceptionally difficult challenges for future leaders. Although the overall military record is far from spotless concerning racial integration, for example, and racial incidents have occurred recently that are truly appalling, it is in most respects better than the record of civilian society. Similarly, now that the commitment has been made to gender equality in the military, we should expect to see rapid strides in that area. This is another area in which the “warrior” image is unhelpful, and much less appropriate than that of warfighter. Traditionalists will continue to complain about the “feminization” of the military, but the die is cast. The successful officer will determine how to make the new rules work and get on with business. To do otherwise will be a career-ending decision. More important, any failure to make the rules work will undercut the effectiveness of the military services.
Civilian society will insist on other changes in the military, and some of them will prove difficult to carry out. It is not a new thing for the military to be used as a social laboratory. It is a captive audience, its members are generally obedient, and the temptation to tinker is often overwhelming. Robert MacNamara’s ill-conceived “Project 100,000” attempt to integrate large numbers of low- testing draftees into the military was one such experiment, and there will be others. Given societal trends and a judiciary looking increasingly askance at the free-expression implications of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the most likely of these experiments will be the complete integration of declared homosexuals into the armed forces. The future officer may well operate in an environment without the present restrictions against both homosexual orientation and activity. Current prohibitions against sexual harassment and fraternization will remain, but many officers and enlisted personnel will be strongly opposed to this basic policy shift.
Most proponents of this change have no idea of the horrendous difficulties it will cause in recruitment, retention, and barracks and shipboard life—and in fact, they may not care. It would be easier to be more sanguine about the prospects for a successful outcome if someone who is knowledgeable and sympathetic to the military mission and to the legitimate interests of all concerned were thinking about how to make it work. Trying to take the moral high ground in implementation, however, will not work—given that the most vehement opponents of the change also base their objections precisely on what they believe to be moral. And by the standards of traditional military morality, they are correct. The policy that eventually emerges will be a variant of “you do not have to agree with the policy, but you do have to behave in certain ways.” As with most things in the military, liking it will be optional. With proper leadership the military will survive, but the transition will be very difficult for everyone.
The trend toward decreasing the distance between the military and civilian society will be visible in other ways, as well. High among them will be significantly increased integration of the reserve components into ongoing operations when the practical difficulties of using part-time personnel are sorted out. Reservists also will continue to provide an important psychological link between civilians and the full-time professional military, and will prove a cost-effective way to meet obligations. Gradually, they will assume a greater proportion of the total military force—and accordingly, will expect to be taken seriously by all concerned.
Implications for Recruitment and Training
In view of the changing domestic and international environment, what kind of officers do we want to develop, and how can we develop them? As in the past, officers of all services will have to be technically competent. They must know their specialties well and practice them efficiently, whether they drive ships or develop war plans. This criterion includes technological competence, but it goes beyond that. Officer recruiting in the Navy and Air Force, particularly, is heavily skewed toward technological sophistication, often to the exclusion of officer candidates whose main strength may lie in the social sciences but who are fully able to master whatever technologies are required.
As joint and combined operations (with other U.S. services and with allies, respectively) become the norm, technical competence must encompass cross-training in other warfare specialties—in one’s own service and in other services. For example. Navy doctrine flowing from its strategy of “Forward . . . From the Sea” emphasizes maritime operations against the shore in littoral waters. This requires Navy officers to be aware of both land and air operations that may be unrelated to Marine Corps activities if they wish to operate effectively with the non-naval services. Similarly, Air Force and Army officers must be aware of the strengths and limitations of a powerful naval force offshore.
In the future, officers will need to be socially and politically aware. Officers at all levels who lack in people skills are far more harmful to military efficiency than those who lack engineering backgrounds. Good leadership is not entirely innate, and certain techniques can be learned. Too often, however, technique triumphs over substance, as the current infatuation with “total quality leadership” (TQL) attests.
Similarly, officers will need to be able to deal with complexity. This is true for junior officers, as well as their seniors. In the smaller military of the future, officers at all grades will make life and death decisions in complex and ambiguous situations. Training in dealing with political-military issues, for example, cannot await their attendance at a war college or civilian graduate school. The work of military sociologist David R. Segal has discussed the implications of this evolving environment for the kinds of officers needed and the skills they must develop.
Finally, officers will need to be increasingly integrated into civilian society. This does not mean that they need to be “domesticated” somehow, or to be less effective in combat. That would be a serious mistake—but one likely to be supported by those in civilian life who do not understand or appreciate the proper warfighting role of the military. They will scrutinize conduct closely, especially off the battlefield. Civilians will insist that race, religion, gender, and, eventually, sexual orientation do not hinder opportunities for accession and career advancement in the armed forces. In their zeal to attain this end, military leaders should not establish unrealistic quotas that will result in severe disappointment in their not being met, a lowering of standards to meet them, or a combination of both.
Just as reasonable people will differ on the proper mix of technical and nontechnical people to recruit into the officer ranks, they will also differ on the best source for officer accessions. Having taught at the Naval Academy, I have great respect for that institution and its graduates. My impressions of the other service academies are just as positive. Nevertheless, we must not neglect the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at high-quality civilian colleges and universities. Officer accessions from these programs (and from officer candidate schools in which the officers’ college education costs the military nothing) provide an important linkage with civilian institutions and are a check against the military becoming too insular and reacting inappropriately against increasingly intrusive civilian oversight.
The future environment of the military professional will differ in important ways from that existing today. American society and the military that defends it will show more diversity along most social indicators, and military resources will be reduced greatly. Attempts will be made to “civilianize” the military, and some of these will be wrongheaded. The conflict environment will be increasingly ambiguous and moral choices will be less clear. Pressure to take no military action will increase—even in areas of clear relevance to American values and interests.
In important ways, however, the environment will not change. The United States will continue to confront challenges to its values and interests, for it cannot escape the responsibilities of being a great power—perhaps, for a time, the only great power. The projected shortfall between resources and requirements is not new; we always have had a “strategy-force mismatch.” Intangible considerations, rather than financial rewards, will still motivate officers and enlisted personnel in all grades. And very important—the American people will continue to show more sense than their leaders often do, and will support the military when the chips are down.
There is good reason to be hopeful about the future of the U.S. armed forces. Many trends identified are decidedly favorable, and with proper leadership the rest are manageable. From a warfighting perspective, the military is ably led and can carry out its assigned tasks effectively. Despite budgetary and other difficulties, it remains a serious fighting force, and is considered as such by potential opponents. Military people of all ranks are well motivated, and I cannot recall a time during my service in which they were more capable or more enthusiastic about their contribution to American society.
Military service will remain a necessary and honorable calling into the foreseeable future, and the officers of 1996 transported to 2026 would find the basics of their profession substantially unchanged.
Dr. Williams is Chairman of the Department of Political Science, Loyola University, Chicago, and Executive Director of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society (IUS) at Northwestern University. He is a captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Editor’s Note: Full references to cited authors are available from Proceedings upon request.