The Moral Inequality of Professional Officers[1]



1.                     One offshoot of our liberal, egalitarian, individualist culture is a pervasive meritocracy that awards prestige and social status to occupations deemed “professions”.  For more than a century, and more insistently since Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State, our military has campaigned to have its officers be considered, by themselves and others, members of a profession.[2] Curiously, our military has been buying and selling professionalization as a nostrum for defective prestige, all the while proudly touting the polls confirming that, as has long been true, military officers are the most widely respected large group in the nation, many clicks ahead of any civilian profession except Supreme Court Justice. If the campaign for professionalizing officership has been accelerated in hopes of decelerating the plummeting officer reenlistment rates, the project is a cheap, unpromising fix. Officers covet civilian paychecks, not their prestige.


Whatever its effects on re-enlistment rates, the idea of officership as a profession is preferable to the heritage of officership as the aristocratic occupation,[3] but the intelligibility of the whole conception is threatened on two fronts. First, most military officers are not, and cannot be, professional warriors because they are not warriors. Second, at its core the military ethos is at war with the spirit of civilian professions, so spotlighting officers as professionals highlights and aggravates conflicts in our military’s ethos.


2.                     If the warrior’s “profession of arms” is to be a craft akin to medicine, ministry, law, pedagogy or accountancy, then his military abilities and successes must be matters of specialized knowledge and skills, not strength, agility, endurance or the like. The lowliest private may act professionally in the broad adverbial sense, but the only candidates for the occupational cachet of professional warrior are military officers.


Yet, armed forces doctors, dentists, chaplains, lawyers, accountants, and teachers are officers who usually know little military science, and employ even less, and normally none at all. Some get commissioned as officers because of their civilian professional skills and never receive or use any substantial military knowledge. Others get their professional training post-commissioning and never use their pre-commissioning smattering of military knowledge. Either way, their operational profession is not that of arms, but of a craft that cuts across the military/civilian divide. Many more officers have combat support services jobs whose civilian equivalents are not (yet) considered professions. So, for most officers, whether their specialty is elsewhere deemed a profession or not, their work in the military is military, martial only in serving a military organization. Generally their efforts may be absolutely essential for the warriors to succeed, but if that were enough to make them warriors, then hospital chaplains, lawyers, and accountants would deserve to be deemed doctors, members of the medical profession.[4]


Officership is nothing like a distinctive craft. It is a managerial rank (whose duties needn’t be managerial) in a military organization. Divested of military trappings, the role may be mirrored in civilian organizations. Our military may, and increasingly does, employ civilians for these positions. Civilian employees may contribute as much to the success of the military’s missions, but they are not “members of the Armed Forces”. They aren’t (in various senses) uniformed.[5]


3.                     There’s little incongruity in binding all officers by the same legal regulations, a Uniform Code of Military Justice. Professional codes are extralegal norms; they touch more personal matters best not enforced by civil or martial laws, matters of character, and ideals, and occupationally specific standards of excellence, merit and honor. Military doctors, lawyers, and the like are generally bound by the professional code of their civilian counterparts. They are as officers additionally bound by an organizational code that applies by organization membership, not craft expertise.


The organization’s essential aims are those of individual warriors. Its code is a derivative from theirs, particularly the code of the commanders. That code has real relevance and application for all officers only insofar as it touches matters common and distinctive to all. The primary, essential, and oftentimes only commonality among officers is their serving a military organization, being servants of the State. Serving is not itself a profession or craft. The code of a servant is not a professional code. Obedience, dutifulness, and subordination are not skills or areas of expertise.


3.                     Whether for organizations or individuals, a warrior code is a far cry from a modern code of professional ethics, for the “profession of arms” is a far cry from civilian professions. The distinctive, defining aims of other professions, like educating people or restoring their health, are inherently valuable ends. Codes of professional ethics are legitimated largely by their derivation from these intrinsically laudable goals. Further, the acceptable means to those goals are normally benign. Attaining a legitimate professional goal may sometimes require inflicting some suffering, but the harms are mostly minor, incidental, and never inherent in the goal.


The work of the warrior is warfare, armed combat. A combat officer’s area of expertise is “the management of violence”. The warrior’s goal is victory in violence. Victory never itself legitimates the violence. Only the cause for violence can do that. The warrior’s skill and success are neutral among causes. Her “professionalism” is measured by her efficiency in battle, her contribution to victory, not by the validity of the cause. The ends of this “profession” are morally neutral; its means are deliberate inflictions of the greatest evils on other persons. In the exercise of distinctively military skills, killing or otherwise disabling people and destroying their goods are not inessential, incidental or peripheral events. Absent some extrinsic legitimation, they are massive, howling wrongs.


National defense is the preeminent, least controversial warrant for warfare. It is an essential and often the paramount function of a nation’s military, but it is not the military’s defining function, even for a nation that employs it for no other purpose. A military cannot defend without some capacity to aggress, and both abilities are equally available for service. (Some defensive tools, like walls and moats, may lack offensive capability, but they aren’t warriors, weapons or violent means of defense.) A nation’s military is a governmental agency serving the nation’s interests. Its distinctive role is to further those interests by violence, or threat of it. More precisely, de facto and de jure, the military’s essential function is to further, by violence, what the government deems to be the nation’s interests. The military’s real function isn’t reduced by deploying it only for legitimate defensive purposes, any more than the true function of a gun shrinks by firing it only at paper targets. In noting this, I depart not a whit from proponents of military professionalization like Huntington. My departures come with the import of this for aspirations of professionalism.[6]


The absence of a legitimizing internal aim of the warrior’s work is no idle piece of abstract Platonizing of a social role. Its import is concrete.  Elsewhere, professional skill put to an ignoble purpose (as when a physician masterminds undetected murders) is a perversion of the profession, a misuse of those skills. Warriors are not well-likened to lawyers who properly serve their clients whatever the worthiness of the client’s cause, for lawyers function within an adversarial structure designed (imperfectly) to favor the party with justice on its side, whereas the rules of jus in bello do not, in intent or effect, advantage those who abide by the rules of jus ad bellum. A warrior’s dutiful service in wrongful aggression is rarely deemed dishonorable, let alone “unprofessional”. To the contrary, an officer can expect condemnation from fellow “professionals” and the nation for refusing to serve when he/she sincerely judges a war wrongful. Of course (it is near tautological), such refusal may be deemed permissible, even obligatory, by those who deem the wrong sufficiently blatant and heinous. That possibility is academic. Governments aren’t wont to wage wars they expect to be generally condemned by officers and citizenry.


As things are, our military operates on a scale sustaining a general consensus among officers and civilians, that, however lame its rationale, a military action inflicting a few dozen or even a few thousand deaths of innocent persons – plus a large multiple more of casualties – is not wrongful enough to warrant refusal of service. It takes Vietnam-sized horrors to sustain much protest outside the officer corps, let alone inside. Few officers with a clear-eyed condemnation of our invasion of Grenada or Panama or Iraq II would regard participation as dishonorable, unprofessional, to be avoided by resignation if need be. My sense is that most officers who condemn such invasions regard participation much like their peers who reject the condemnation. They may regret that they and others are obliged to participate and they may regret that they are obliged to so regard participation, but they nevertheless regard such participation as obligatory. Curiously, only officers of our enemies (Nazi Germany is the paradigm) get condemned for their participation.


Other professionals serve their clients without being their servants, denied an independent voice and decision-making power. They retain – and are expected to exercise – substantial power and authority to refuse to comply with a client’s wishes and directives they deem improper. Obedience is a virtue of Boy Scouts, butlers, bellhops and bus boys, not responsible professionals.


The servitude of military service allows scant autonomy. The constraints have several interlocking sources.


4.1                   The first is the sheer valorization of dutifulness and obedience. Traditionally, unquestioning compliance is nowhere more demanded and honored, rigorist religious orders excepted.


The traditional assumption is that to avoid the calamities attending military failure, a military must be a monolithic organization maintaining close coordination in the most disruptive conditions, so it cannot be effective without a rigid, hierarchical, authoritarianism. Unity and conformity must be rigorously imposed. Cooperation and compliance must be automatic and unhesitant despite powerful, natural competing impulses. Habits of dutifulness, subordination and obedience – a steady propensity to be motivated by the mere fact of being commanded – must be inculcated. Occasions and latitude for dissent are limited. Fateful decisions cannot commonly be submitted to negotiation, bargaining, compromise or any protracted discussion.


Sustaining such a culture of uniformity and instant submission to authority breeds a tightly blinkered trust in commanders, a steady propensity to presume that, despite appearances to the contrary, they know what they are doing. All this is reinforced by formal and informal norms of the military. Those norms have the ring of stark realism and cold reason.


The case for the hyper-authoritarianism of the military is not easily dismissed, but is easily overstated. Granted, preparation for the crises of combat is critical. Still, only a fraction of our armed forces personnel are ever in combat (only roughly 15% of our troops in Vietnam were combat), and only a sliver of their careers is spent in moments of crisis. Emergency room medical personnel confront crises more routinely than most military personnel, and manage effectively without military authoritarianism. Granted, the crises medical personnel confront rarely imperil themselves, but, increasingly, military personnel involved in combat operations, like aircraft carrier crews, are not themselves imperiled.


Anyway, however much justified, the military ethos of subordination is foreign to the culture of civilian professions in a liberal, democratic society. While obedience isn’t categorically condemned as a vice in most professional codes, neither is it found on any list of lead virtues. Generally, civilian professional expertise can be well exercised by independent individuals and small groups. Also, the larger organizations a profession does need (like university hospitals) needn’t be rigidly hierarchical or authoritarian. Law firms, medical groups, universities, religions, and states may tolerate and thrive on dissension and internal disharmony. If armies and navies can’t or don’t, so much the worse for their managers’ status as professionals.


4.2                   Autonomy in the military is further discouraged and conformity secured by the strict limitation of dissent to official, intra-organizational channels. The civilian control of the military, an axiom of American political theory, is taken to entail the political neutrality of the military. No other professionals are debarred from intrusion into their society’s political process. Doubtless, the political process is imperiled by some kinds of participation by military leaders beyond that of technical advisors. Indiscriminately discouraging other kinds may serve no good purpose. (Good or bad, the fading military tradition of abstaining from voting is unthinkable in civilian professions.)


What seems too little considered is that the price of the purity and completeness of our officers’ de jure political neutrality is their being de facto pawns of the political party led by their Commander-in-Chief. Academy teaching stresses that, unlike an enlistee who swears to obey the chief executive, midshipmen, cadets and officers vow to uphold and defend the Constitution. So, it’s alleged, their allegiance is to the Constitution, not to a chief executive’s orders that may conflict with it. But does this legalism make any practical difference when the government will not recognize any such conflict?[7]


It may be unavoidable that our military leaders can be mere instruments of a political ideologue or religious zealot elected with suspect legitimacy. It is certainly risky. Those risks might be reduced with altered arrangements. One small step meriting serious consideration is some legal recognition of the salient asymmetry in risks, costs and probity between a military leader's launching aggression without civilian warrant and his refusing complicity in violence when the call for it lacks any semblance of community consensus.


Among the great dangers of the hoary doctrine of the moral equality of soldiers is its discouraging consideration of arrangements that might lessen the likelihood of wrongful violence.


4.3                   The expression of military dissent is further channeled by the dogma (endorsed even by obstreperous fans of H. R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty (Harper, 1997)) that, after exhausting official channels, an officer’s only options are compliance or resignation. That dictum may be echoed in other professions, but without the clipped martial tone of absolute finality ─ or the same risk of hypocrisy. Expectably, as elsewhere, military commands are not uncommonly conscientiously ignored or subverted, as with the widely winked at hoarding of hard-to-get essential parts and equipment. Expectably, such practices are not preached at the academies. On the other hand, cadets and midshipmen may be asked (and left) to ponder the propriety of extralegal options like the German generals’ attempted assassination of Hitler.


The sole option of resignation on grounds of conscience is supposed to be reputable. Actually, the toll down that road is stiff. The choice is licensed but mostly condemned (loudly or quietly) and rarely admired by one’s peers or the press. The catch-22 comes with the details of concrete cases. There the purity of moral judgment is inextricably entwined with political judgment. Thus, the callings of conscience can be silenced by labeling them “political”.


4.4                   The disrepute of resignation, refusal, civil disobedience, and any noisy or disruptive dissent in the military has deep roots in the loyalties inherent in the military ethos. Our post-WW I military ethos has stressed loyalty over unthinking obedience, but military loyalties are another limit on the autonomy and independence of the military conscience.


4.41                 The egalitarian conception of the Brotherhood of Man calls us to render the same basal care and regard for everyone regardless of such accidents of circumstance as race, ethnicity, national origin – and national affiliation. That presents little conflict for civilian professionals, for (a) their clients can be anyone, and (b) their work generally does not threaten others.


Military personnel must wrestle with reconciling the ideal of egalitarian universalism with their defining commitment to their own nation and citizenry. They declare themselves willing – indeed, honor bound ─ to obliterate people of other nations when so ordered and to die in the process if need be. There is no more profound form of favoritism than the oath of military allegiance.


The natural prejudice of a patriot’s perspective is the presumption of the righteousness of furthering one’s nation’s interests. That partiality may acknowledge that, looked at impartially, that presumption may be epistemicly groundless, and in any particular case it may be quite wrong. Still, patriots insist that patriotism is a virtue, most especially in a military leader, and that patriotic loyalty demands trust in and support of one’s nation’s pursuits despite evidence and argument to the contrary. Vaguely stated, some such favoritism and partiality may be readily universalized and impartially approved. There remain delicate questions and hard cases challenging traditional military understandings of the reasonable limits on partiality, favoritism, patriotism and the demands of loyalty.


This whole worry that touches military matters wide and deep has few counterparts in other occupations. Civilian professionals commonly have special obligations to their clients, but those obligations are consequences of the professional-client relation, not a cause or precondition of it. The client could be and commonly is a stranger with no prior relation to the professional. The professional’s commitments are creatures of the relation, and generally do not survive its termination.


In contrast, while mercenary troops have only a contractual allegiance comparable to other professional-client relationships, such arm’s-length, commercial allegiances must be exceptional in the military. A state cannot rely entirely on a military with only monetary motivations for fear that the mercenaries might simply seize the nation’s wealth. The government must be the commander of its military, not a mere client. An egalitarian democracy cannot reliably command its military personnel unless their allegiance is secure before their entering the service. Their allegiance must be rooted in patriotism and loyalty to the nation. Such motivations are not creatures of any contract.


Other professionals needn’t relate to their clients with any counterpart of patriotism. Admirable it may be for physicians to have some heartfelt concerns for their patients, and teachers toward their students, but we haven’t the same need or expectation of deep and lasting attachments as we do for an officer’s love of her country. With civilian professionals, the temptations of betrayal aren’t so frequent or formidable. The likelihood of enticement by our enemies is remote. Significant emotional attachment comforts a client, but generally a decent wage, or if need be a hefty one, is incentive enough to secure steady professional performance.[8]


4.42                 Love of country commonly overpowers love of mankind. Both affections pale before the famed bonding of comrades in arms. No other occupation induces coworker ties of such depth and intensity. That bonding is said to motivate more heroic sacrifice than all else. It may more frequently motivate less noble conduct. There is a profound disgrace and shame in departing from a communal ethos obsessively insistent on obedience, loyalty, team spirit, and conformity with conventions and commands. Perhaps this above all else, by various routes in various guises, stifles dissent and ensures uniformity of thought and conformity of conduct within the military.


5.                     The inference to draw from all this is not, or not directly, that our officers should desist from their professional pretensions. It's rather that our military (and not only they) must recognize the costs of this ambition in its irreconcilability with the principle of the moral equality of soldiers. That principle is indefensible[9] – if warriors are like civilian professionals: viz., autonomous moral agents answerable ultimately to impartial, impersonal universalistic ethical principles. The whole idea of military moral equality makes no moral sense – soldiers can't ride free from moral accountability by their commitment to their arrogant, wayward nation – not unless the autonomy of warriors is appropriately attenuated by their peculiar profound responsibilities for and loyalties to their community and their comrades.


For liberals like Kant and J.S. Mill, attenuation of individual autonomy is, axiomatically, morally unthinkable, even in the service of the committed well-wishing of friendship. That liberal attitude seems morally bureaucratic applied to erotic love, whose substance is hollow and whose pleasures are thin without any surrendering of one's self to another. If such surrender is no cause for shame, then space might be found for a soldier to honorably dedicate herself to an unworthy nation.



[1] This talk is excerpted from a longer essay, “Moral Teaching in a Military Context: Walking the Walk vs. Talking the Truth” to appear in R. Wertheimer & G. Lucas, eds, Moral Thought and Military Action, SUNY Press, 2005. I repeat here my thanks to various friends at the service academies for their helpful comments, particularly James Cook, Dan Zupan, and Richard Schoonhoven. They bear full responsibility for any errors or inflammatory opinions herein.

[2] A handy current guide to the many aspects of this phenomenon is the anthology, The Future of the Army Profession (McGraw-Hill, 2002), assembled by D. M. Snider, G.L. Watkins, and L.J. Matthews.

[3] Remnants of that heritage may hang on more tenaciously in the Navy, but it persists throughout the services, nurtured by the investment of paternalistic responsibilities for subordinates and for the nation the military protects.

[4] There is a twist to this. Our current laws of warfare call you a combatant – viz., a legitimate military target -- whatever your craft or contribution to a war, just by your membership in a warring military organization.. Whether this derivative definition of combatant has much moral coherence has often been challenged. (Adding to the incoherence are the exceptions from combatant status made for military personnel in medicine and ministry.) Coherent or not, our social code makes mere membership in a nation’s armed forces be a distinct moral status in war, and thus in peace. By our regarding it that way we make it be that way in some respects. Our images of an officer’s occupation as akin to a civilian professional play against a screen of custom, law, and emotional response that makes civilians presumptively morally innocent and binds military personnel together as presumptively guilty of armed violence. What’s missing in this conception of combatanthood is some connection to a conception of profession tethered to expertise. We should not say that military doctors kill the enemy by repairing combat wounded to return to the fray, but if we do, we should still recognize their differences from combat commanders up and down the chain of command whose fingers never touch a trigger. A front line doctor or chaplain might hope his ministrations help in the killing of the enemy, but that distal goal gives little guidance in the exercise of his distinctive skills. (If I but had a faith that moveth mountains I might think otherwise of chaplains who lead the troops in prayers for victory.)

[5]Our military routinely refers to all uniformed personnel as “warriors” and directs all and only them to conceive themselves accordingly. So, when exercising their distinctive skills, military surgeons dress as function demands, like their civilian equivalents, and then don the same uniform as warriors when on official display. But deserving to be thought a warrior takes more than parading in dress whites, or putting on a flight suit and plopping onto a carrier. Displays of equality, fraternity and solidarity are often, if not pure sham, more symbolic than substantive. Rarely do (or should) any but the warriors reach the highest ranks and powers within the military.

[6] Upon our finally achieving world military dominance, it was a neat piece of Orwellian newspeak to rename the U.S. Department of War the “Department of Defense”. That did not signal any basic shift or restriction of functions. The Department still functions, as it had all along, to use force to conquer, subdue or otherwise enforce the cooperation of other peoples (Indians, Mexicans, Philippines, Central Americans, Vietnamese, Afghanistanis, Iraqis and the rest) to serve politically influential American interests, annexing their territory when convenient or, when not, effectively controlling them without colonizing. Clear compliance with principles of justice has been occasional, and often almost coincidental.

Renaming doesn’t revise the reality. And as the recent shipment of Japanese soldiers to Iraq demonstrates, legislating restriction of the military’s activities to defense has little long term effect. Talk of “defensive” military action has virtually unlimited rhetorical elasticity, readily expanded from repelling a territorial incursion to protecting any of a people’s interests, legitimate or not, and on to proactively promoting any such interest – till we get a government proclaiming that defense of our nation necessitates invasion of a distant, militarily crippled nation that is not attacking us, nor equipped to, nor preparing to (since any attempt would be a national-suicide bombing) – nor really seeming to. (Some good Americans have wondered why our government’s claim that national defense compelled us to invade Iraq should receive any more respect than a Japanese claim that attacking Pearl Harbor was necessary to defend against the threat of disrupted access to oil.) As with other words, a revised definition of “defense” may inspire or require revision of terms defining it or defined by it. When our political and media propagandists first allege that preventive war is justified as a necessary defensive strategy against terrorists, and then designate as “terrorist” all who combat our invasion and occupation of their homeland, our propagandists nicely preempt the use of “offensive” or "aggressive" to describe and condemn the military acts we indulge in. (David Rodin's War and Self-Defense (Oxford, 2002) debunks the commonly assumed conjunction in its title.)

[7]Was it really a live option for a general or admiral to refuse to direct his troops to participate in the invasion of Iraq (Grenada, Panama, whatever) on the grounds of the illegality of the chief executive’s order? The premises of such refusals cannot but be controversial, but they needn’t be unreasonable or mistaken. Yet, however reasonable the claim in theory, does it matter when in fact no Supreme Court would dare question an executive directive to use American troops against another people – unless perhaps the directive blatantly contravened some contemporaneous Congressional limitation of military action? Short of that, while a subsequent Court might reverse itself to protect some citizens, no Supreme Court would stand alone against a current Presidential military adventure. Consider: Could Air Force Major Hal Knight have successfully defended disobeying his direct written orders to execute the secret bombing of Cambodia on the grounds that the orders were not a Constitutionally authorized exercise of executive power? More to the point: Would it have been reasonable for Knight to stake his career on the hope that he would prevail in the Courts? Perhaps he could have harbored some hope that after (long after) the war a Court might vindicate him, but is an unfounded hope of eventual cold comfort enough to sustain a sense of dishonor in getting along by going along?

[8] This all has numerous aspects and ramifications. Consider for example that patients and third parties needn’t fret if surgeons depersonalize and emotionally detach themselves from the hides they hack at (while and only while they hack), for such objectification may facilitate the surgeon’s functioning with maximum proficiency, which benefits all. What should be a warrior’s attitudes toward those he aims to kill and those he actually does? Rarely does he have reason for ill will toward any of the enemy other than its leaders. If honest ill will is unsustainable, should he soldier on by depersonalizing and objectifying his targets, emotionally distancing himself from them? Such distantiation does not help his victims, but does he have any morally viable emotional options?

[9] See the arguments of Rodin, Ibid., Jeff McMahon 'The Ethics of Killing in War', Ethics 114 (July, 2004)),  Richard Schoonhoven, " Invincible Ignorance, Moral Equality, and Professional Obligation"  in R. Wertheimer & G. Lucas, eds. Moral Theory and Miitary Action, (SUNY Press, 2005).