July 2, 2022

Threats to the Profession of Arms

After ten years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stresses and strains of protracted conflict are not hard to find. The toll on equipment is obvious while the impact of four and five combat tours on individual soldiers is less apparent, yet well acknowledged. This essay suggests that consideration of the wear and tear of a decade of armed conflict on the overall health of the military profession is also appropriate.

West Point professor Don Snider is largely responsible for reintroducing the rhetoric of professions to the armed forces with his book, The Future of the Army Profession, now in its second edition.  In that book he asked a key question: “Is the Army a profession or it is merely an obedient bureaucracy?” His question is obviously equally applicable to all branches of the armed services.  He resolved that the Army has both professional and bureaucratic tendencies. A hallmark of professionalism includes faithful service to the client above all other priorities, a characteristic that distinguishes professions from bureaucracies. It is not hard to see why a professional mindset among military officers is a positive development. A profession that deeply understands its role in a democracy manned by professionals firmly dedicated to a professional ethic of faithful service serves as a protection against abuses that can emerge from a powerful standing military.

The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University has tracked the level of confidence that Americans have in major sectors of society for over ten years in its National Leadership Index. The 2010 report once again reflects that despite a perceived crisis of declining confidence in many institutions, the United States military remains the most respected sector of our society. Clearly the sacrifices of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are appreciated. So what could possibly threaten so positive a view of such a well-grounded profession?

Interested long-term observers of the military might note a number of trends that, if continued, carry negative implications on both the military and society. Stewards of the profession, both in an out of uniform, would do well to keep an eye on such things in order to ensure that what is now merely a concern does not develop into a situation that threatens the ability of the profession to well serve the people. For the purposes of this contribution I submit two troubling trends for consideration: Increasing political partisanship within the officer corps, and the creation of a warrior caste that sees itself as inherently morally superior to the society it serves.

Increasing political partisanship of the officer corps. We have come a long way from the days when military officers refused to vote because they considered it too partisan of an activity. Today candidates seek the public support of retired military officers and some are only too happy to endorse them.  Jason Dempsey’s recent book Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations notes that officers are more likely to identify strongly as members of the Republican party. He boldly suggests, “This implies that being apolitical is not at all a part of army culture, at least as defined by the officer corps” (p. 124). Enlisted soldiers tend to be much less partisan while Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to identify as Democrats. During six years as a faculty member at the U.S. Army War College I saw outward manifestations that clearly indicated a shift in the culture. Bumper stickers that professed support for political candidates appeared on automobiles owned by military officers, and signs sprung up in the yards of family quarters on post that were eventually removed, but after days on display instead of minutes. Fox News played in the cafeteria and officers were vocal about their political preferences. In a recent and particularly shameful case an Army doctor, Lt. Col. Terry Lakin, refused to deploy to Afghanistan until President Obama produced a birth certificate. He rightly faced a court martial and was sentenced to dismissal and six months in prison. How long will it be until partisanship further negatively impacts the mission or undermines civil-military relations?

The military as a warrior caste, viewed internally as separate and superior to the populace. The United States military tends to view itself increasingly as a body apart from the populace it serves. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen spoke to the importance of maintaining a close connection with the public at the U.S. Army War College on February 10, 2023 stating, “We can’t drift away from the American people. We just can’t keep talking to ourselves. We have to tell them who we are and what we are doing. They want to know us better. How we make that connection is key.” The truth is that in many ways the military is different—it is fit, disciplined, focused clearly on mission accomplishment, and prepared to go to dangerous places to do difficult things. It is only right that their skills and dedication are appreciated. The military is not, however, inherently morally superior to the American society writ large. Being a soldier does not make one better than someone else, it simply makes the soldier want to be better. Every fault and perversion that exists in society is reflected in the ranks to varying degrees.  In that sense the military is more a microcosm of society than a bastion of morality.

Warrior castes and subcultures have rarely boded well for the societies in which they reside. In his 2005 book The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich noted the rise of “militaristic tendencies antithetical to the well-being of the armed services and incompatible with traditional conceptions of military professionalism” and added that, “soldiers made militarism possible and soldiers have ended up paying much of the price” (p. 35). The Army’s Warrior Ethos project is well intentioned and beneficial in many ways, as is the intensive socialization process that turns civilians into soldiers. We would do well to consider some of the long-term implications of such attitudes.

When combined with increasing political partisanship we begin to see small cracks in the profession that if not attended to could erode the public’s well-earned faith and confidence. At its extreme it could threaten the republic. Let’s avoid hyperbole here. I am not suggesting that the American people have anything to fear from their military—yet. There is every reason to believe that public confidence in the military is well placed. In some ways it is that very faith and confidence that could serve as a narcotic that prevents a serious examination from within the profession of the full impact of a decade of conflict. It might be tempting to bask in the good will of an adoring, yet inattentive public. It will not serve the military well, however, if constructive criticism and oversight are muted out of a misplaced sense of patriotism. After Vietnam, the U.S. military underwent a period of introspection, healing, and professional renewal. That could once again be the critical task for the next generation of military professionals.

Dr. George E. Reed served for 27 years as an Army officer, including six years as the Director of Command and Leadership Studies at the United States Army War College.

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