Not My Job: Contracting vs. Professionalism in the United States Army



William C. Latham, Jr.


Department of Logistics and Resource Operations

United States Army Command and General Staff College

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 66027

6 January 2008


“When you put on a uniform, there are certain inhibitions that you accept.”

--Dwight D. Eisenhower[1]


In America’s first battle, poorly trained militia repelled a British infantry raid at Concord, Massachusetts, then sniped at their exhausted opponents all the way back to Boston.   But the colonists’ early success proved fleeting.  In the following year, superior British mobility, manpower and firepower forced Washington’s troops off of Long Island, out of New York, and across New Jersey. Despite our romantic image of courageous minutemen defeating the world’s greatest professional army, 18th century warfare still required the knowledge and application of modern science, in the form of engineering and artillery.  Following independence, the Continental Army all but evaporated, while American leaders debated the risks of creating a standing army.   In 1802, Thomas Jefferson finally established a military academy at West Point, New York to produce professional officers knowledgeable in the science of modern war.  Arguably, this milestone marks the birth of professionalism in the United States Army. 

1. Professionalism

The idea of military professionalism stems from a broader social concept of professionalism as “an occupational group with some special skill.”[2] This concept has evolved dramatically in the past century, from T. H. Marshall’s “functional” view that professions enjoy greater social status (legitimacy) because they provide necessary social services, to a more recent “monopolistic” view that professions derive their elevated status specifically because they retain (and limit access to) greater income, education and power.[3] More recently, Anthony Abbott has identified the importance of competition within professions for control of abstract knowledge within particular jurisdictions.[4]  James Burk has further expanded Abbott’s concept by defining three characteristics—expertise, jurisdiction, and legitimacy—that distinguish professions from other occupational groups, such as bureaucrats or tradesmen.[5]

The intellectual concept of professionalism dates back at least a century, but examination of military service as a profession is relatively new, dating from the work of Morris Janowitz and Samuel Huntington in the 1950s.[6]  If one accepts the rationale of Burk’s three criteria, the inclusion of the military among as a profession seems fairly straightforward, and Huntington’s seminal The Soldier and the State wastes little time arguing the point.  Instead, Huntington details a variety of characteristics that distinguish military officers both from civilian society and from other professions, and defines their specific expertise as the “management of violence.” [7] As James Burk has noted, however, Huntington’s concept of military professionalism emphasized the military’s autonomous relationship with civilian authority, while ignoring the social and political influence upon the conduct of military operations.[8] Several published critiques of the ongoing war in Iraq, most notably Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco, suggest the strength of this influence.

Political influence is particularly important in the development of the military’s role, or jurisdiction, within American society.  In their brief history of the United States Army’s professional development, historians Leonard Wong and Douglas Johnson observe that the jurisdiction of the armed services, unlike that of other professions, is often determined by civilian authorities outside the profession itself (Wong and Johnson 93).  During the Cold War, that jurisdiction focused on war fighting.  The demise of the Soviet Union, however, prompted new competition between the armed services for various roles and for the resources to perform them (Snyder, Wong).  Meanwhile, the post-Cold War era also created new requirements for military force, most notably peace keeping and peace enforcement.  As Johnson and Wong illustrate, these roles actually correspond closely to the traditional missions performed by the United States Army prior to World War II.  Nevertheless, this shift from war fighting to other missions, along with new requirements for the Army to operate within a joint and interagency environment, sparked considerable debate and self-examination. 


2. Privatization

While soldiers began to question their role as peacekeepers, the Army’s established jurisdiction over land warfare faced a new threat: privatization.  In the wake of the Cold War, every branch of the military faced dramatic personnel cuts as part of a perceived “peace dividend.”  The Army, however, bore the brunt of these cuts, as its primary mission of defeating a Soviet invasion in central Europe disappeared.  Beginning almost immediately after the Gulf War, the first Bush Administration began cutting the Army from 18 divisions to 12 divisions.  When the Clinton Administration took office in 1993, it directed a further reduction to 10 divisions.[9]  Instead of a “new world order,” however, the first decade of the post-Cold War era produced a chaotic dissolution of fragile nation states into ethnic, tribal, religious and criminal conflict.[10]  Compared with the Cold War’s final decade, Army deployments during this period increased by 300%, even as troop strength shrank by 34%.[11] 

The Army’s requirement to do more with less coincided with two other important trends.  The first of these was the growing popularity of outsourcing in private industry, as American corporations struggled to compete with more efficient overseas competition.[12]  The second trend stemmed from the Clinton Administration’s effort to “re-invent government,” which cut federal manpower to its lowest level in five decades and eased the process of privatizing government functions.[13]  Federal outsourcing gained even more momentum under the second Bush Administration, due largely to the war on terror and Hurricane Katrina, but also due to conservative mistrust of federal civil servants.[14]  Federal spending on contracts nearly doubled between 2000 and 2006, from 219 billion to more than 415 billion dollars.[15]

The confluence of these trends has produced an Army that relies heavily on contractors to accomplish nearly every function, from recruiting and training soldiers to planning, supporting, and, depending on one’s definition, conducting combat operations.  The dramatic expansion on contracting encroaches on the military’s professional jurisdiction over land warfare, erodes its professional expertise,  and undermines the legitimacy of the professional Army within our democracy.  In short, our national strategic reliance on contracting poses a direct threat to the Army as a profession.

3. Jurisdiction

In the past 17 years, the United States Army has seen its professional jurisdiction shift and shrink.  The new, smaller American Army remains the world’s pre-eminent land power, but soldiers no longer focus on defeating a modern, mechanized opponent on the central European plain.[16]  Instead, the Army is working to develop a “broader portfolio of capabilities to address the full spectrum of challenges we face.” These challenges, outlined in the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, include homeland defense, irregular operations, sustainment of the long war (formerly known as the global war on terror), and the continuing ability to win conventional campaigns.[17]  These new requirements are more difficult, in part because they are new, and in part because the mid-career officers and sergeants who bear the brunt of planning and leading these operations must adapt their conventional war fighting skills to a host of new tasks. Many of these tasks rely more on sociological skills, such as cultural awareness, than on the application of lethal firepower.  As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a recent audience, we need to develop more “soft power.”[18] (footnote Gates at KSU).

As the Army updates its core competencies, it faces new jurisdictional competition from other professional organizations. Some of these, such as joint and coalition military forces, have traditionally shared the Army’s battle space, albeit with mixed results.  Other agencies of the United States government, such as the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, have contributed in small but ever-expanding ways to US military operations over the past century.  In the past two decades, the United States has repeatedly deployed military forces and equipment in support of humanitarian missions overseas. Non-governmental humanitarian agencies, such as Doctors without Borders and the International Red Cross, also operate in these regions, often providing health care services similar to those provided by American military medical personnel.  In fact, the ability to cooperate and coordinate with these agencies has become a military competency within itself; joint and interagency operations are taught throughout the Army’s professional military education system.

4. Expertise

While the Army continues to compete with external agencies for jurisdiction, it has already outsourced many of its traditional roles and functions.  Private corporations, for example, now write doctrine, including the Army’s contracting doctrine, and provide much of the Army’s training and education.  Deborah Avant argues convincingly that this development has eroded the Army’s institutional control, both over its professional identity and over its internal control system.[19]  In addition, private American firms such as MPRI have replaced uniformed military trainers in teaching foreign military forces to conduct military operations.[20]  This practice transfers American military professional expertise offshore, often with the acquiescence of the American government, but outside the control of the military profession, representing another infringement on its jurisdiction.[21]

The Army has also outsourced many of its traditional battlefield tasks.  Contractors, for example, now outnumber American troops in Iraq: the Los Angeles Times recently reported 182,000 contractors in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.[22] This reliance on contractors implies a direct challenge to the Army’s professional role. In theory, the Army carefully distinguishes between essential military tasks that are “governmental in nature” and those tasks that are not, but Peter Singer, an expert on the private military industry, argues that this distinction has all but faded from sight.[23]  Contractors in Iraq have replaced soldiers in a broad variety of military functions.  They include planners, translators, intelligence analysts, interrogators, construction workers, air traffic controllers, police and military trainers, and personal security teams.[24]  Meanwhile, private contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) now provides the Army with many aspects of logistical and life support in Iraq, from fuel and ammunition management to field sanitation.[25]  As KBR Vice President Paul Cerjan noted, “We support the military [in Iraq and Kuwait] with an equivalent of over 30 battalions’ worth of support. That’s a lot.”[26]

The reliance on contractors is a self-imposed risk.   Thanks partly to cuts in force structure and partly to the increasing complexity of modern military equipment, the Pentagon implemented a new strategy to ensure the readiness of newly acquired weapons systems.[27]  This strategy, known as “performance based logistics,” requires manufacturers to provide not only the new systems, but also the necessary test sets, spare parts and civilian personnel to ensure the equipment’s availability.[28] 

The Army’s recently fielded Stryker system illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of this approach. Each Stryker brigade relies heavily, though not totally, on a team of 45 contractors to maintain a fleet of approximately 320 vehicles.[29]  Although the wear on tear on Strykers in Iraq exceeded anticipated peacetime rates by 800%, contractors consistently exceeded goals for Stryker readiness.[30]  The Army’s 2005 decision to convert each brigade’s 45 contractor slots to 71 soldiers raised concerns regarding the availability of competent military mechanics and the brigades’ ability to sustain themselves during high intensity combat.[31]

Contractors also fix many of the Army’s other weapons systems, including combat helicopters, air defense systems, and rocket launchers.  The Army’s chemical reconnaissance vehicle, the Fox, has relied on contract maintenance since being fielded in 1990, and the Army recently awarded a 333 million dollar contract to continue privatized maintenance for the next five years.[32] Not only are soldiers not repairing this system, they are not learning to fix this system.  As one division commander noted, “I can’t change a tire on the Fox until a contractor shows up.”[33] The Army is not alone in its heavy reliance on contract maintenance.  The Air Force and the Navy, who rely even more on technically complex systems, also depend on contractor support.  A senior Air Force officer, Steven Zamparelli, has argued that “there is, or will be, no organic military capability in many functions critical to weapons systems performance.”[34]  Thus, the military profession is abdicating the ability to perform a basic battlefield function, repair of its own equipment. 

While the Army loses its traditional capabilities task by task, it finds itself competing for manpower with its own contractors.  The more functions the military outsources, the greater the demand for those skills in the private sector, where companies aggressively recruit both active and retired military personnel, who have already been screened and trained at government expense.   MPRI, for example, employs more than 3,000 people[35] and maintains a database of 10,000 potential employees, nearly all with significant military experience.[36]  Opportunities for members of Special Forces are particularly lucrative, with private security firms such as DynCorp and Blackwater offering to hire them for three times their active duty pay.[37]  Recruitment of Special Operations soldiers provides security firms with a double benefit. They are older, more experienced, and receive far more training than other soldiers, and their “elite” status enhances the credibility of the private firms that hire them.[38]

Meanwhile, the remainder of the all-volunteer force struggles to retain its most valuable talent pool, the combat-experienced junior officers and sergeants who will become the Army’s future senior leaders.  Repeat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan have persuaded many of these professionals to leave the service. As one young West Point graduate observed, “They say at the end of six years, half of their careers … (have been spent) in Iraq.  They’re behind creating a life at home.”[39] In a 2006 report, the Congressional Research Service projected officer shortages of more than 3,000 per year unless the Army commissioned more lieutenants or significantly increased retention of its current officer corps.[40]

In response to attrition in both its conventional and special operations ranks, the Army now offers Critical Skills Retention Bonuses, targeting those with key skills. Incentives include branch and assignment choices, military and civilian training, and cash bonuses ranging from $20,000 to $150,000.[41]  Whether increased pay and benefits will replace the military profession’s call to duty or outweigh the cost of dangerous and indefinite service in Iraq and Afghanistan remains to be seen.  In the meantime, the Army’s multi-billion dollar reliance on the private sector essentially underwrites its own competition for human resources.

5. Legitimacy

Regardless of its shifting jurisdiction and the erosion of its expertise, the Army’s legitimacy as a professional institution ultimately depends on the trust of the American people. That trust, in turn, relies on the Army’s competence and its loyalty to the Constitution, in the form of subordination to civilian leadership.[42]  Fortunately for the Army, its loyalty has rarely been doubted.  In fact, the controversies surrounding Leonard Wood, Douglas MacArthur, and the retired officers critical of the Iraq War stand out largely because they are so rare, and because they contrast the apolitical professionalism of Generals Eisenhower, Marshall and Powell.

On the other hand, Americans have always been skeptical of the professional military, dating back to the occupation of colonial Boston by British regulars.  George Washington, having commanded with distinction during the French and Indian War, later endured the chronic doubts of the Congress that appointed him to command the Continental Army.  During the Jacksonian era, anti-elitist Democrats distrusted all forms of exclusive professionalism and thus sought to close the Military Academy at West Point.[43] Before Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln doubted the competence of several professionally-trained senior commanders, whose strategic blunders helped prolong America’s bloodiest war. In the last century, American military competence has contributed significantly to the nation’s status as the world’s only superpower.  Recent opinion polls indicate that American public confidence in the military, which spiked after the terrorist attacks in 2001, remains high despite fluctuating approval of the Iraq War.[44]  

The Army’s rush to privatization, however, threatens to undermine that confidence.  A recent, scathing report, commissioned by the Secretary of the Army, determined that the Army’s expanding reliance on contractors has overwhelmed its ability to supervise those contracts, and described a series of “key failures” that have “significantly contributed to the waste, fraud and abuse in-theater by Army personnel.”[45]   The so-called Gansler Commission documented a 600% increase in workload for the Army’s shrinking and undertrained contract management force, an embarrassingly high number of Army personnel under criminal investigation for fraud, and an Army-wide disregard for the importance of contract management.[46]

The report briefly attracted media attention, but many of its findings are old news.  Since the fall of Baghdad, Americans have received a steady stream of reports on waste, fraud and abuse in military contracts.  KBR attracted most of the negative coverage during the first two years of the war in Iraq, partly because of the size and cost of its support, and partly because Vice President Cheney once served as chief executive officer of its parent company, Halliburton.  In 2006, media reports examined the various problems in reconstruction contracts, and contractors’ inability to rebuild Iraqi health clinics seemed emblematic of American failure. [47]Attention has recently shifted to the alleged misconduct of various private military firms, particularly Blackwater.  In fact, Blackwater works for the State Department in Iraq, but this distinction may well be lost amidst the flurry of other contracting problems. Instead, the shooting incident in Baghdad that killed 17 Iraqis, and the ongoing failure to prosecute anyone, merely reinforces perceptions at home and abroad that American contractors in Iraq are out of control.[48] This pattern of events, from allegations of fraud to allegations of murder, casts a dark shadow on the Army’s reputation as an ethical organization.  Doubts about the Army’s ethics raise doubts about the Army’s legitimacy. 

6. Conclusion

In the climactic chapter of the novel, Catch-22, American planes bomb their own airfield. As the aptly named Milo Minderbinder explains, “We’re running this mission for the Germans.”  The scene exemplifies the end state of corporate culture gone mad—Minderbinder has negotiated a logical and completely amoral deal with the enemy.[49] 

Like Heller’s fictional bombing raid, the Army’s current dilemma is self-inflicted. Fortunately, senior leaders seems to be taking the Gansler Commission’s findings seriously.  Five weeks after its publication, Army officials informed Congress of plans to add 1400 new contract administrators.[50] Meanwhile, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command has recently increased efforts to educate officers at every level about regulations, restrictions and procedures governing military contracting.

Unfortunately, there appears no doubt regarding the Army’s continued reliance on contracting.  It is worth noting that the Gansler Commission, after identifying multiple problems with the status quo, recommended more administrators rather than less contracts, arguing that contract administration should become one of the Army’s “core competencies.”[51] As cartoonist Walt Kelly once joked, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”[52]



[1] Dwight Eisenhower, quoted in The Military Quotation Book, edited by James Charlton (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 65.

[2] Andrew Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 7.

[3] James Burk, “Expertise, Jurisdiction, and Legitimacy of the Military Profession,” in The Future of the Army Profession, 2nd Edition, edited by Lloyd J. Matthews, (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 42.

[4] Don  M. Snyder, “The US Army as a Profession,” in The Future of the Army Profession, 2nd Edition, edited by Lloyd J. Matthews, (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 13.

[5] Burk, 48-52.

[6] Snyder. 16.

[7] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), 11.

[8] Burk, 46.

[9] Jamie McIntyre, “Retired Marine Corps General Says Today’s Military Is Too Small.”, 10 August 2000.  Available at http://archives/  [accessed 2 January 2008].

[10] Peter W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[11] Defense Report, AUSA Institute of Land Warfare, “The US Army at the Dawn of the 21st Century: Overcommitted and Under-resourced,” January 2001, available at [accessed 4 January 2008].

[12] Singer, 68.

[13] Scott Shane, and Ron Nixon, “In Washington, Contractors Take on Biggest Role Ever,” New York Times, 4 February 2007.

[14] Paul Krugman, “The Green-Zoning of America,” New York Times, 5 February 2007.

[15] Summary: Fiscal Year 2006 Federal Contracts from Department of State, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security, Website, available at

 [accessed 20 December 2007].

[16] Michael O’Hanlon, “The Need to Increase the Size of the Deployable Army,” Parameters, Autumn 2004, 14-15.

[17] Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, 6 February 2006, available at [accessed 4 January 2008].

[18] Robert Gates, Remarks as delivered, Landon Lecture, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, 26 November 2007, available at [accessed 6 January 2008].

[19] Deborah Avant, “Losing Control of the Profession through Outsourcing?” in The Future of the Army Profession, 2nd Edition, edited by Lloyd J. Matthews, (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 274.

[20] Avant, 274.

[21] Ibid., 283.

[22]T. Christian Miller, “Private Contractors Outnumber US Troops in Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, 4 July 2007.

[23] Peter W. Singer, Can’t Win with ‘Em, Can’t Go to War Without ‘Em; Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency, Policy Paper No. 4, (Washington: Foreign Policy at Brookings, September 2007), 16.

[24] Deborah C. Kidwell, Global War on Terrorism Occasional Paper 12, Public War, Private Fight? The United States and Private Military Companies (Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2005) 2-3.

[25] Email Correspondence between Marcela Gaviria, PBS Frontline producer, and Melissa Norcross, KBR Public Relations Representative,  “Updates To This Story, Editor’s Note, 2/2/07.” This correspondence and the resulting PBS Frontline documentary, “Private Warriors” are available at [accessed 4 January 2007].

[26] Paul Cerjan, PBS Frontline documentary, “Private Warriors” (first aired on 21 June 2005).

[27] Steven J. Zamparelli, “Competitive Sourcing and Privatization: Contractors on the Battlefield: What Have We Signed Up For?” Air Force Journal of Logistics, Fall 1999, 11.

[28] Defense Acquisition Guidebook, Chapter 5.3 [online], Defense Acquisition University website (last modified 20 December 2004).  Available at  [accessed 4 January 2008].

[29] Government Accounting Office Draft Report, Defense Logistics: Changes to Stryker Vehicle Maintenance Support Should Identify Strategies for Addressing Implementation Challenges, 5 September 2006, GAO-06-928R, 3.

[30] Ibid., 4-5.

[31] Ibid., 8.

[32]News Release, “Battelle Wins $333 Million Logistics Contract to Support US Efforts in CRBN Defense,” 21 December 2007. Available at,+12:00+PM [accessed 4 January 2008].

[33] Russell Honore, Remarks at the US Army PEO/PM Conference, Huntsville, Alabama, March 1998. Available at [accessed 4 January 2008].

[34] Zamparelli, 16.

[35] “Company Profile,” MPRI website, available at [accessed 4 January 2008].

[36] Avant, 281.

[37] Pauline Jelinek, “Elite US forces leaving for higher-paying jobs; Defense officials are looking to improve the retention rate,” San Antonio Express-News (METRO Edition), 21 July 2004.

[38] Christopher Spearin, “Special Operations Forces a Strategic Resource: Public and Private Divides,” Parameters, Winter 2006-07, 63-4.

[39] Tom Bowman, “Army to Offer Bonuses to Keep Captains,” NPR Morning Edition, 10 May 2007, available at [accessed 5 January 2008].

[40] Charles A. Henning, “Army Officer Shortages: Background and Issues for Congress,” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, July 5, 2005), available at [accessed 5 January 2008].

[41] Jim Tice, “Captains Could Soon Get $20K Retention Bonus,” Army Times, 23 April 2007.

[42] Snyder, 16-17.

[43] Stephen E. Ambrose, Duty Honor Country: A History of West Point (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1966) 112-3.

[44] “Jodie T. Allen, Nilanthi Samaranayake, and James Albrittain, Jr., “Iraq and Vietnam: A Crucial Difference in Opinion,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 22 March 2007,  available at [accessed 5 January 2008].

[45],Jaques S. Gansler, et al., “Urgent Reform Required: Army Expeditionary Contracting,” Report of the Commission on Army Acquisition and Program Management in Expeditionary Operations, 31 October 2007, available at [accessed 5 January 2008.

[46] Ibid., 1, 22.

[47] Ellen Knickmeyer, “US Plan to Build Iraq Clinics Falters: Contractor Will Try To Finish 20 of 142 Sites,” Washington Post, 3 April 2006.

[48] Singer, Can’t Win With ‘Em,Can’t Go To War Without ‘Em, iii.

[49] Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961).

[50] Richard Lardner, “Army To Hire More Contracting Staff,” Associated Press, 6 December 2007.

[51] Gansler, 9.

[52] Walt Kelly, quoted in The Military Quotation Book, edited by James Charlton (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 155.