Professional or Bureaucrat: A Meditation on The Military at the turn of the Millennium


Major (ret) The Rev. Arthur E. Gans, CD, MTh




“What is more important than that the work of a soldier should be well done.”



One of the major problems I see in modern military structures is the tendency on the part of many senior members to change from being warriors into being bureaucrats. I suppose this is somewhat natural as one leaves the levels of direct command of troops and “progresses” to higher and higher staff positions. But I have noticed that there are some individuals who manage to escape this “progression,” who for some reason, perhaps known only to themselves, remain warriors despite the temptation. It is to these individuals that this meditation is dedicated.



For over three hundred years members of the military have worked to establish the military as a profession. One can look back at the army of Frederick the Great of Prussia and see the beginning of this process. And down through the years, as military actions became more complex, various countries began to recognize that it was necessary to train people rigorously to achieve success on the battlefield. Slowly staff colleges developed, and some soldiers spent greater amounts of time studying the techniques, the science of success on the battlefield. Specialties developed within the profession. Some were logisticians, some operational experts, some administrators. Over time, armies developed a “teeth to tail ratio” which defined how much of the army was combat troops, in direct contact with the enemy, and how much was support, with the specific duty of making it possible for the combat troops to succeed in the battle.


Until World War Two, most militaries remained relatively small during periods between active war. But World War Two and its aftermath, the Cold War changed all that. Many countries, for the first time in their histories, found it necessary to maintain large and very expensive standing armies, on a scale never before seen in history. And with the advent of the large, permanent standing military force, came the development of the military bureaucrat, an individual who, though originally trained as a soldier, sailor or airman, now became an expert in the ways of the civilian governmental world. In some countries, and I speak particularly of Canada and the United States, countries which I know best, this new type of soldier adopted the colouration of his civilian counterparts in the civil service. Some even seem to make their careers in this way. What became important were not the needs of the soldiers, sailors or airmen who would be asked to go in harm’s way, what was important were the needs of the government at the moment. In other words, they became bureaucrats in uniform, recognizing that their futures depended more on satisfying their political masters than it did on taking care of the men and women who they had been given the privilege of commanding.


Then suddenly, about the end of the eighties, the Cold War began to wind down. The civilian population began to ask why it was necessary to maintain large standing armies. It asked when it was going to get a “Peace Dividend.” And some governments, knowing that their retention of power depended upon election, started cutting military budgets. The military bureaucrats, now faced with fewer dollars began to cut the numbers of personnel and the amount of new equipment being purchased. At the same time cuts were being made, some essential work in strategic assessment was also curtailed, so that the politicians making decisions were not being forced to face what their cuts might be doing to the military capabilities of the nation.  It was remarkable, however,  how slowly the cuts came to the large headquarters. And despite the cuts in the personnel available to do the jobs required by defense policy statements, the missions seldom seemed to be curtailed. To do that would be to admit that the government cuts had actually placed real limits on the abilities of the forces to respond. And besides, military needs were not nearly as popular with the people as health, welfare, and education. If the government had money available, that is where it should go, not to the military.


And all this time, the military bureaucrats kept working away, never saying no, always responding, “Yes, minister.” Sometimes this was described as a “can do” attitude, something highly prized in the military.  At the same time, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who were fulfilling the tasks and doing the work in peacekeeping missions, in aid to the civil powers, and in all the other jobs that needed to be done, were working with less and less adequate equipment and on repeated tours in more and more dangerous missions. From the classic peacekeeping missions of the 70's and 80's where the parties had largely agreed to stop fighting and simply needed some help in maintaining boundaries and separation, the new non-Cold War world started demanding peace-making types of missions where opponents would be separated, by force, if necessary. United Nations operations were often stymied by disagreements between the “big five” whose ultimate decisions would determine both the size and composition of UN forces even while they did not themselves participate in the missions.  And when commanders on the spot said that the force was inadequate, these same powers would determine what happened, even if that determination led to genocide.


Then some countries began using other provisions of the Charter and worked outside the UN framework. NATO decided, not unanimously, to use air power to force Milosovic’s hand in Kosovo. Now please don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but the highest respect for the pilots that flew the missions in that campaign. But the restrictions that were placed upon them made a realistic possibility of accomplishment of the mission impossible. Aerial warfare from high altitude, even with so-called smart weapons, cannot effectively force well-trained ground troops out of their positions. And the reports of effectiveness of aerial attack have been shown to have been highly exaggerated.[i]  The Serbian ground troops, despite NATO air missions, did a good job of forcing a large portion of the Albania Kosovars to leave, and it was only when the aerial campaign was expanded into Serbian Yugoslavia proper with an  increase in civilian casualties, that Milosovic pulled back his troops in generally good order, and NATO could declare that the mission was accomplished. Milosovicwas not removed however, by the actions of the Allies, but rather by the revolution of his own people who finally tired of him and of the corruption which surrounded him.


General, Sir John Hackett, one of the greatest modern philosophers of war, says in his book The Profession of Arms that the job of a soldier is to place his body between those of the citizens of his country and those who are attempting to destroy them. This is a good, and classic definition of the work of the military. It is one that is unfortunately all too often forgotten, if it was ever known,  by many of those who make the decisions as to the use of military power, whether they are politicians or senior civilian bureaucrats or military professionals.  The fact is that those who serve in the combat arms, whether in the Army, Navy or Air Force know this. They have consciously chosen to be soldiers, sailors and airmen and they understand that there is a risk in that choice. What they do want from their leadership, both political and military, is a clear understanding that they will not be wasted., that the missions they are given have some realistic possibility of accomplishment, and that their families will be appropriately cared for if they are injured or killed in their country’s service. They also have the right to expect that they, themselves, will be properly cared for if something happens to them while they are doing their duty, whatever and where-ever that may be.


In my thirty-seven years of regular and reserve service in two country’s militaries, I have known a lot of soldiers, sailors and airmen. I have met very few who were not willing to do the duty that they were asked to do. But I should also say that the further away from the working soldier that one got, the easier it was to forget the basic principles which all members of the profession began with, “accomplish the mission” and “take care of the people.” The higher the headquarters, the easier, it seems to me, to become entangled. Headquarters, of course, are needed, but perhaps there should be someone appointed to perform the duties of Caesar’s slave during a triumph: to whisper in senior ears “Sic transit gloria mundi” [thus passes the glory of the world]. For when the headquarters forgets to care for the people, as well as accomplishing the mission, we get the PR spin doctors trying to justify actions instead of simply reporting what happened. Why should any officer need to have “talking points” written by a PR specialist if honesty and integrity, called for by his or her commission, are the hallmarks of their lives. Much, if not all, of the really bad publicity in the past few years would have been avoided completely by someone saying: “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. And I will do all in my power to see that it does not happen again.” You don’t need a PR man to do that. You need the kind of integrity that admits error and works to prevent the same error from happening again. Soldiers, in my experience, are a pretty forgiving lot. They will accept an honest mistake, provided it is not repeated and repeated. What they do not forgive well is being lied to, or sensing that someone does not really give a damn about their lives.


Of course, such a change would probably require a major reinforcement of the principles of military ethics, which are different from those normally required within the civilian bureaucracy. It would also require some changes in the attitudes concerning the duty of resignation. And it would require a substantial change in the way people are evaluated on the performance of their duties. Let us look at each of these in turn.


Although the issues of military ethics are very old, it is only when major issues arise in a military, issues that test the institution as a whole, such as the Somalia case in Canada, or the My Lai case in the U.S., that military ethics again comes to the fore. Essentially, the values of military ethics are outlined in the commission scrolls: integrity, honesty, obedience, loyalty, courage, and trustworthiness. All of these issues are important. They are character traits which are essential in a professional military person of whatever rank, but they are particularly important in those to whom the responsibility of command is given. Of the traits listed, I believe that the most important are courage and integrity. Integrity is the sum of the whole person. In a very real sense it is summed up in the words of Shakespeare in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day that thou canst not then be false to any man.”[ii] Integrity above all means not lying to one’s self. And it also means that you are, in the words of the old saw a person who exemplifies: “What you see is what you get.” To do this requires courage, and here I am not speaking of the courage of the battlefield, but rather, the kind of courage that allows you to admit mistakes, the courage Tillich describes in his book, The Courage to Be.


Understanding that resignation can be a military duty is basic to our understanding of military law. Emphasis is placed in all our military law upon “obedience to a lawful order.” Suffice it to say, it is my belief that a true professional has a duty to resign over issues that he or she believes reflect upon their professional integrity. In my own case, I resigned my commission in the U.S. Army over the issue of the bombing of the two major medical centres in Viet Nam during the latter phases of the Viet Nam War. I believed then and do now, that this decision, made in the White House, was a war crime and my duty as a military officer was to take what action I could to bring this to the attention of those responsible. This I did, at some cost to myself, but, I believe, preserving my own professional integrity. I might add that I have heard many arguments that one should not protest what one cannot change, that one should stay around so that one may have the possibility of changing things when achieving a high rank. I believe this is the very kind of compromise with ethical injustice that has gotten us to the present point. Resignation has the possibility of stating forcefully that something is the matter, and perhaps forcing those who made the decision to reconsider. At the very least, it preserves one’s own integrity.


Finally, in regard to the question of performance evaluation, it is my belief that both courage and integrity are given too small a place in the present system of personnel management. When one admits making a mistake, that is both an act of courage and an act of integrity. Even if the mistake is a serious one, with serious consequences, the fact of its admission should be considered in a positive manner. Passing the buck, or implying that other’s bear the responsibility for one’s actions should, in my opinion, be an automatic cause for suspicion. Our military law is quite clear, we are required to obey lawful orders. But since Nürnberg, another factor has been added to that, specifically our responsibilities to our own informed consciences. An order to kill prisoners is on its face, an illegal order, and anyone obeying such an order is guilty of a war crime. But many situations will not be so clear cut, though the principle remains the same. In the final analysis, it is my own conscience that defines whether or not I will obey an order. If I am willing to pay the cost, which may be quite severe, nothing can force me to obey an order that goes against my conscience.  Now, it is obvious that every PER will not contain examples of an individual admitting a mistake. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that far greater weight should be placed on the admission of honest mistakes and/or errors than is presently the case. Were such to be done, I believe that there would be a concomitant and major improvement in the ethical stance of the forces in a very short time.


As can be seen from the preceding three paragraphs, my approach to military decision-making is much different from what I believe to be the traditional bureaucratic model.  Bureaucracy lives generally by the principle, “Don’t make waves.” Waves have a tendency to make trouble for the government. Military leadership, on the other hand, has an entirely different, and I believe essential approach. I have mentioned it before: accomplish the mission and take care of the people. I think it is a lot easier to follow these twin approaches when one is in face to face contact with the people one commands. The greater the distance from the troops at the coal face, the more difficult it is to avoid slipping into a bureaucratic mould, particularly when your primary job has become the “management of resources” rather than the direct command of troops. But a professional officer should always have the words of his or her commission scroll in the forefront of their decision-making pattern. That should provide at least some antidote to the poison of bureaucratic thought. Another factor would be to be much clearer in establishing the goals and objectives of our forces as a whole so that rational use can be made of the resources made  available by the government.  And finally,  if our respective militaries take serious action to modify their personnel policies so that courage and integrity in daily conduct are rewarded and legitimate mistakes become learning experiences instead of career disasters, I believe it will not be long before the spin doctors have disappeared and the kind of careerism which is the greatest danger to our soldiers, sailors and airmen has disappeared.


[i] Interview by Peter Mansbridge of Lewis MacKenzie on Newsworld. One might add that the Strategic Bombing Surveys of World War II said nearly the same thing. Despite massive bombing of German manufacturing targets, the Germans, in 1944 were producing more war materiel than in 1939.

[ii] Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 78-80