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The Army Officers' Professional Ethic--Past, Present, and Future

Authored by Colonel Matthew Moten. | January 2010

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General George W. Casey, Jr., Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, once observed: "If you walked around the Army and asked people what the professional military ethic is, you would get a lot of different answers."1 That is because Army's professional military ethic is not codified, although its spirit is resident in a number of documents. Other American professions have clearly promulgated statements of ethics. Within the Army, there are several extant statements of ethical responsibility—for Soldiers, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), and civilians—but not for officers.

This monograph briefly surveys the history of the Army's professional ethic, focusing primarily on the Army officer corps. It assesses today's strategic, professional, and ethical environment. Then it argues that a clear statement of the Army officers' professional ethic is especially necessary in a time when the Army is stretched and stressed as an institution. The Army officer corps has both a need and an opportunity to better define itself as a profession, forthrightly to articulate its professional ethic, and clearly to codify what it means to be a military professional. Finally, this monograph articulates such an ethic.

For more than 2 centuries, the U.S. Army has developed a mature professionalism, but one that waxed and waned over time. The historical record shows that wartime crises tended to produce, or perhaps to expose, the profession's shortcomings, which peacetime reformers then sought to correct. The Army's professional ethic embraced national service, obedience to civilian authority, mastery of a complex body of doctrinal and technical expertise, positive leadership, and ethical behavior. But at the beginning of the 21st century, it was less healthy in terms of its junior professionals' acceptance of a lifelong call to service. Time would show that it was doctrinally unprepared for the trials that lay ahead.

Eight years of repetitive deployments have left the Army, in the words of General Casey, "stressed and stretched."2 Some observers think the Army is near the breaking point. Several factors contribute to that stress. One concern is the type of warfare that the Army is being asked to conduct, counterinsurgency, which is one of the most ethically complex forms of war. Further, during these years of war, some policy decisions have tended to blur moral, ethical, and legal lines that Sol­diers have long been trained to observe and uphold. Officers, above all, must fight to maintain and safe­guard the laws of war as a professional responsibility. Third, since the post-Cold War drawdown, the armed forces have chosen to rely more and more heavily on commercial contractors, sometimes for inherently governmental functions. Today, the Army is "selling" large tracts of its professional jurisdiction. Finally, professionally improper dissent on the part of retired generals and the widespread perception that they speak for their former colleagues still on active duty threaten the public trust in the military's apolitical and nonpartisan ethic of service as well as the principle of civilian control.

This brief history shows that the Army tends to reform at the end of wars that have highlighted its shortcomings of one kind or another. Now, we are faced with a different situation. Our Army is stressed and stretched, and ethical strains have begun to show. However, we are not at the end of a conflict, but in the midst of what will likely be a long war with no clearly demarcated end. The stresses on the force and their likely continuation in a long period of conflict present both an opportunity and a requirement to define the Army's ethical standards clearly and forthrightly. The Army must reform itself even as it fights.

The essence of the professional ethic needs no radical change. Yet the ethic has never been clearly and succinctly codified. There is some concern that a written code would push the profession toward a legalistic sense of itself. If the code were a list of punishable infractions written in legalese, then that concern would be valid. If the Army is to have a written code, it must focus on the moral and ethical, not the legal, requirements of the profession. It should be inspirational, an exhortation to better behavior, rather than a list of offenses. The Army should set for itself a goal of issuing a succinct statement of professional ethics focusing on the roles of commissioned officers— Soldier, servant of the nation, leader of character, and member of a time-honored profession. This monograph promulgates such a statement in a one-page document, written to be read aloud and to inspire officers toward ethical and honorable service.

Before the Army accepts such a statement of its professional ethic, much debate is in order. Should we use hard phrases such as "total accountability" and "unlimited liability?" What are officers' core re­sponsibilities as leaders, and how far do they extend? How concisely should we explicate our adherence to the principle of civilian control? Should we espouse nonpartisanship as part of our ethic? The debate re­quired to answer such questions will provide impetus for an Army-wide discussion about the profession, its ethical values, and the role that it should play as a servant of American society in the future.


  1. General George W. Casey made this comment at a briefing on the Army Center of Excellence for the Professional Military Ethic, West Point, New York, October 31, 2007. The author was present. Another definitional problem is that of delineating the terms "ethic" and "ethics." I will use the term "ethic" to mean a body of principles of right or good conduct. I will use the term "ethics" to describe the study of moral behavior. Other dictionary definitions of the two terms can make them almost interchangeable.
  2. General George Casey, Jr., "Statement on the Army's Strategic Imperatives," before the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, 1st Sess., 110th Cong., September 26, 2007.