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Army Professionalism, the Military Ethic, and Officership in the 21st Century

Authored by Major John A. Nagl, Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff, Dr. Don M. Snider. | December 1999

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On January 25, 1999, a tall, ramrod-straight young combat-arms officer serving in Bosnia with the 1st Armored Division told the about-to-graduate cadets at West Point, ?I tell my men every day there is nothing there worth one of them dying for.? It was a startling admission to the cadets who were in the midst of a series of classes on the professional military ethic; the lieutenant?s admission was utterly contradictory to what they had been studying.

Their studies had led them to believe that minimizing casualties was an inherent part of every combat mission but not a mission in and of itself, particularly one which might impede or even preclude success in the unit?s mission 1?in this case, peace operations within the American sector of Bosnia. Queried by a cadet in the audience as to why he communicated this to his men, the lieutenant responded, ?Because minimizing, really prohibiting, casualties is the top-priority mission I have been given by my battalion commander.?

Some time later in the presentation the battalion commander gave his perspective. ?It?s simple,? he said. ?When I received my written mission from Division, absolutely minimizing casualties was the mission prioritized as first, so I in turn passed it on in my written operations order to my company commanders. This is the mission we have, this is the environment in which we work.?2

Some months later an article in Army magazine by an Army major made the same point. Arriving for duty in Bosnia, his brigade commander gave the major the following guidance, ?If mission and force protection are in conflict, then we don?t do the mission.?3

To us, these two examples from the many communicated each week within the media and among the e-mail of the Army officer corps demonstrate that the Army?s norms of professional behavior are being corroded by political guidance on force protection. Doubtless the ethics of other services are being corroded by the same guidance?witness Air Force pilots flying combat missions from fifteen thousand feet in Kosovo and Bosnia to avoid the risk of pilot loss from ground fire and missiles. Yet one does not hear senior military leaders defending the military ethic, informing the profession and the American public it serves of its utter necessity for military effectiveness. Neither does one read in military journals significant dialogues on the personal conflicts this is causing for individual officers.

Placed in the larger context and stated simply, changes in the international system since the end of the Cold War, the new nature of conflict (which we will refer to simply as military operations other than war, MOOTW) and secular changes within American society are strongly influencing the American military ethic in directions unknown. This is an issue of military professionalism, rightly understood; and as such in an era of already declining Army professionalism is of vital concern to both professionals and the society they serve.

Thus this manuscript will proceed to place this issue into the context of military professionalism, a topic little studied in the military now and even less understood outside the profession. Subsequently, we will use that framework to analyze two issues within the profession now impeding healthy adaptations?the officer corps? intellectual muddle over the purpose of the Army and their ethical muddle over the role of self-sacrifice in the profession?s ethos. We believe these two unresolved contradictions have contributed in very significant ways to the Army?s inability thus far to deal effectively with vexing issues such as force protection.

Lastly, we will present a ?principled approach? for a renewed self-concept and motivation of the Army officer corps, a self-concept that, if it existed now, would lend a very different perspective to such issues as force protection.


We trust this monograph demonstrates that we are deeply concerned by the cracks in the edifice of professionalism in the United States Army. We remain confident that a refocus on the framework of professionalism as presented here will help to correct what we see as serious corrosion, even violation, of the professional military ethic. And we are encouraged by the recent creation of a Center for the Professional Military Ethic (CPME) at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. Hence we offer through that Center this monograph as a starting point for the officer corps? review, reflection and dialogue on their, and the Army?s, purpose and ethic. We believe such to be essential to help the Army refocus on its key role as the willing and effective servant of the American people.


1. For the traditional understanding, see Michael Walzer, ?Two Kinds of Military Responsibility,? in Lloyd Matthews and Dale Brown, eds., The Parameters of Military Ethics, Washington: Pergaman Brassy?s, 1989, pp. 67-72.

2. Comments in quotations are either exact quotes or from memory paraphrases of the lecture dialogue attended by all three of the authors of this monograph.

3. Major Mark L. Kimmey, ?After the Deployment: The Impact of Peacekeeping on Readiness,? ARMY, July 1999, p. 11.