Patrick Tower

Major Patrick R. Tower observes that some people are concemed that the American military may be harboring reservations about respecting the principle of civilian authority in the civil-military relationship. While he rejects the idea that anyone in uniform wants to abolish our long-standing Constitutional tradition, the discussion itself suggests a potentially dangerous shift toward politicization of the military. He then argues that the services must adamantly remain apolitical and that there is an objective normative standard by which we can diagnose the health of civil-military affairs. He finds the foundation for his argument in the work of Bronislaw Malinowsld, a cultural anthropologist who analyzed cultures in terms of institutional structures. Applying Malinowsld's methodology, Tower claims, provides an objective basis for the need to preserve an apolitical military institution and a clear indication that a failure to maintain a politically neutral status for men and women in uniform would endanger the long-term survival of the society. .




North Americans have some right to feel just a bit superior to much of the rest of the world when it comes to civil-military affairs. The long term stability of our governments is testament enough that human beings on this land mass fully comprehend the special nature of the relationship between civilian authority and the military establishment. The vast majority of us know (or sense) that we must not fool around with that relationship as we have defined it. Others elsewhere seem to be learning or relearning this lesson¾ and they’re doing it the hard way.

Nevertheless, we bother with this issue for one very simple reason: there is a sense that the civil-military relationship in the US is going through some "clear air turbulence" at the moment, and we are not sure where it may end. There have been rumors of late that military professionals in the US are unhappy with certain civil authorities. I will not recount the rumors here, but it is enough to point out that some persons view the mere possibility of this disagreement as a source of alarm. To their way of thinking, the military has no choice but to follow the civil authority, and any sign that orders are questioned is positive proof that civil-military affairs are undergoing a potentially catastrophic transformation.

I agree wholeheartedly that we should be concerned about the recent clear-air turbulence in civil-military affairs, but not because some wild-eyed, Seven Days in May scenario is playing itself out on the horizon. Who would deny that even the hint of such a scenario’s coming to pass would do irreparable damage to a constitutional form of government? But such scenario is far less plausible now than it has been at other times in our history. At present the Armed Forces are downsizing and reorganizing in a massive way, and they are doing so promptly, efficiently, and rationally. Where is the McClellan or where is the MacArthur to personally challenge a sitting President? MacArthur and McClellan went so far as to challenge a sitting President during wartime¾ a far more serious situation than posing such a challenge in peacetime. Our clear air turbulence can’t hold a candle to those situations.

Yet, we should be concerned because the clear air turbulence is a sign that the Armed Forces of the United States are becoming increasingly politicized, and it is my belief that politicization is the first step on a path that could lead to very serious consequences for a constitutional democracy. Whether our politics are of the left or of the right, we should be deeply disturbed (if not alarmed) when we hear the military used as a political football or defined as an organization with political decision-making responsibilities. The military must be a purely apolitical organization¾ so pure, in fact, that we must not allow its members to view themselves as a political body or lobbying organization.

During the Sixties, flower children would encourage defections from the ranks by approaching persons in uniform and asking the question, "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" Today, we are told by persons of the conservative persuasion that profoundly evil consequences will occur if persons of the liberal persuasion step foot anywhere near military installations. Their grossly unfortunate message is that persons in uniform have declared war on liberalism¾ or so they would love to have us believe. Although these conservative Cassandras are light years apart in political orientation from the flower children, they all commit the same mortal sin when they seek to invite the members of the Armed Forces into the political process or they represent the services as being engaged in some partisan campaign. The Armed Forces of the United States or any other country should be no more involved in deciding the political wisdom of fighting a war than they should be involved in deciding the worthiness of a politician for office. This is not to say that military leaders should be unaware of the broader social context within which the Armed Forces operate, that they should not be allowed to advise civilian leadership about these matters, or that they cannot have privately-held political views. But we must never formally or informally allow members of the Armed Forces to believe that, as members of the Armed Forces, it is their entitlement or obligation to define, correct, or direct the political process. Whether we ask them to desert, represent them as defiantly opposed to liberalism, or claim that they are the guarantors of traditional American values, we are sending the same, very wrong message.

Of course, one might respond to this by saying that these conclusions are formulated within in an essentially subjective, unavoidably relative social framework. From the perspective of North American social systems, it is desirable to have apolitical military establishments, but south of the border or in another hemisphere it may be advantageous to have a fully politicized military establishment. Who is to say?

This is the crux of the matter: Is there evidence for an objective, universal, apolitical basis for the relationship between the profession of arms and the culture or nation-state that it serves? More to the point, can we say that there is an objective normative standard by which we may justifiably diagnose the health of civil-military affairs and on that basis make a robust, wholly justifiable recommendation for remediation? Is there a way for us to know when the values and purposes of the profession of arms are off course? Is there a way for us to know when the values and purpose of civil authorities are off course?

I shall spend the rest of this paper arguing that there is such an objective, apolitical, and verifiable foundation for civil-military affairs; that we can find an objective normative standard for assessing the ‘mil-civ’ relationship; and we can discover the values that must be shared by the civilian and military establishments. Interestingly enough, the argument does not begin with some grand moral theory; it instead begins with cultural anthropology.


Malinowski’s Insight

Specifically, I propose that we look for this foundation in Bronislaw Malinowski’s A Scientific Theory of Culture. Written in 1942, Malinowski’s book is not the latest word in cultural anthropology, but it is important for several reasons: it has the status of a classic in its field, it is accessible to laity, and it resonates remarkably well with late 20th century research in Ethics.

As Professor Fotion suggested earlier today,1 we need to understand the profession of arms as an "institution" if we are to make progress in understanding civil-military affairs. What is extremely important about Malinowski is that he gives us something like a scientific analysis of institutions and their cultural role; and it is in this analysis, I believe, that we may discover the objective, nonpolitical basis for the relationship between the profession of arms and the larger culture it serves. Malinowski claims that an institution "is always the organization of people for a given purpose, accepted by themselves, and recognized by the community."2 The concept of an institution "implies an agreement on a set of traditional values for which human beings come together;" moreover, an institution is a "unit of human organization" possessing "a very definite scheme or structure" and whose "main factors are universal in that they are applicable to all organized groups."3

Without recounting its finer points, we may summarize Malinowski’s view as follows:

1. Every institution exists to conduct certain activities that directly satisfy some need of the community. In fact, institutions exists originally (if not solely) for the purpose of satisfying needs such as "metabolism," "safety," "health," "growth," and "reproduction."4

2. But every institution in Malinowski’s sense has the same basic components, regardless of the need the institution is intended to satisfy. That is, the institution has what he calls


    1. "personnel," which amount to the institution "organized on definite principles of authority, division of functions, and distribution of privileges and duties;"
    2. "norms or rules," that is, "the technical acquired skills, habits, legal norms, and ethical commands which are accepted by the members or imposed upon them;"
    3. "material apparatus," which is nothing other than the tools or "artifacts" used by the personnel to do their work and accomplish their well-defined ends.5

  1. There is also another¾ perhaps most important¾ component of every institution, something Malinowski calls the "charter." This so-called charter is "the idea of the institution as entertained by its members and defined by the community." The charter is a "traditional mandate" or "system of values," and he says that it "always corresponds to a desire, a set of motives, a common purpose." The charter, in other words, provides the raison d’être for the personnel, the norms and rules, and the material apparatus.6
  2. Given that there are many needs, there are many institutions, and these institutions, Malinowski claims, are all linked together in what he calls a "chained series." He is quite emphatic in his view that this chained series is a relationship of interdependence:

  1. Moreover, Malinowski leaves no doubt what will happen if the culture neglects the institution or its components:


  1. The values of any given institution and its culture should coincide completely ab initio because the set of values employed by the institution are derived entirely from the parent culture. If there is a dissonance between the two sets, then either the culture has changed and the institution hasn’t caught up, the institution has changed in defiance of the charter, or both. We are inclined to say that the prerogative for change belongs entirely to the culture, but Malinowski is not prepared to accept random unlimited change. That is why he discusses the implications of failure.
  2. It is clear that the profession of arms is an institution in Malinowski’s sense (as he himself recognizes). This means that the profession is a social organization dedicated to the satisfaction of a culturally recognized need, that it performs certain specific activities in this regard, and that it consists in personnel organized in certain ways, obeying certain norms, and using a certain material apparatus. All of these things the profession does because of its publicly recognized charter, which is an articulation of a set of values. Moreover, the military profession exists in a relationship of interdependence with other cultural institutions, and there is no doubt what will happen if the institution doesn’t do its job: the culture’s safety may be jeopardized. This latter point is not merely a matter of opinion: needs being what they are, they dictate the parameters of satisfaction.


Implications for the Profession of Arms

If for the sake of discussion we view the preceding assertions as axioms, what follows? Arguably, we reach some of the same conclusions reached by others today, but we also gain an appreciation for the complexity of the institution-culture relationship and we are led to its objective, apolitical foundation.

Right off the bat we may say, first, that when viewed from their general cultural context, all institutions are essentially equal and interdependent. Obviously, there is a tendency for them to compete for the same scarce resources¾ whether it be resources needed to supply the institution’s so-called "material apparatus" or the "personnel" needed to carry out the institution’s central tasks. But that competition must be tempered by a candid and sober appreciation for the implications of squandering resources or seeking more than one’s fair share. Every dollar an institution wastes is a dollar that could have been spent by another institution; every wasted dollar is a wasted need-satisfaction opportunity. If the commissariat wastes resources while developing a new food storage system, then policemen may be denied much-needed body armor or patrol cars. All members of the culture thereby suffer¾ including the members of the commissariat. Ignorance of or indifference to this reciprocity and interdependence is almost certainly a sign that inter-institutional competition has gone too far in a culture, the culture is becoming too large, or educational requirements are not being satisfied.

It is important to note that the reciprocity among institutions¾ their organic interdependence¾ is not merely a matter of fiat or convention. Given that needs occur independently of strict human control; and given that the parameters of need satisfaction are not something we establish; then the reciprocity among institutions must also be a phenomenon beyond strict human control. If we cannot say in advance how an event will finally ripple out through the larger culture, then we cannot specify a priori the impact upon other institutions when the commissariat wastes resources. There may be no impact whatsoever or the impact may be catastrophic: but the members of the institutions involved cannot dictate the precise impact¾ they can only react to and hope to ameliorate it.

The implication for the profession of arms should be obvious. From a cultural standpoint we must give up the idea that the profession exists apart from or is somehow ontologically prior to all other institutions. To think otherwise is to be more than parochial or arrogant; indeed, to think otherwise is to be foolish and dangerous¾ both for the culture one purports to serve and for the profession of arms. If one’s institution gobbles up all available resources without regard for the imperative to satisfy other culturally-critical needs, one will soon find oneself in a culture like that recently found in Liberia or Central Europe. Obviously, cultural safety is an extremely important need to satisfy, but it is not the only need, nor is its satisfaction alone sufficient for cultural survival.

Close on the heels of this first implication of Malinowski’s axioms is the second, viz. every institution is of necessity subordinate to the culture it serves. It is also the case, however, that all institutions are subordinate to that institution Malinowski terms "social control."9 Again, this is not a matter of mere convention or local opinion, but is an organic fact of the very nature of cultures and their constituent institutions. Obviously, the culture is at least logically, if not ontologically, prior to its institutions, and the social control function must have operational priority. It is the culture that specifies the purpose of each institution, and it is the institution of social control that ensures that affairs among and within the other institutions are properly regulated and controlled. No institution has the cultural authority to write its own charter; all charters are derived from and return to the broader cultural purpose.

This does not mean that the members of an institution cannot attempt to modify their charter¾ either by petition to the social controllers or by fiat. But every time such a thing is attempted, the members of the institution risk undermining its reason for being and/or its capacity to satisfy the original need for which it was created. Suppose per impossible that those in the health care institution decided that they should also assume responsibility for satisfying the need presently satisfied by the commissariat (arguing perhaps that good health begins with good nutrition). Is it likely that the same personnel could carry out both functions? Will the material apparatus of the health care institution be appropriate to the commissariat? Will the rules and norms of one institution be adequate to govern the other, and if separate sets of rules and norms are required, will they be compatible? Can we be sure that the health care institution can absorb the charter of commissariat without jeopardizing the satisfaction of either or both of their assigned needs? Perhaps there is some future technological watershed that will make it possible to unify these institutions, but we may suppose that the reason why they are currently separate is that the answers to the preceding questions are currently negative.

Clearly, a Seven Days in May-style attempt to seize power would be an act of madness from a cultural standpoint. Any institution seeking to subordinate the social control institution to itself would succeed only in destroying itself outright or setting in motion culture-altering forces over which it cannot exercise complete control, and to change the culture is to change the source for all institutional reasons for being.

The implication for the profession of arms should be obvious. The military is the only institution with the material apparatus needed to seize the social control institution. Headlines screaming, "Farmers Mass For Attack on Capital" do not carry the same gravity as headlines announcing, "Military Dictates Terms to Government." To allow the military to have this power despite the possibility of abuse is an obvious trust that cannot be violated. The issue is so sensitive that even a sense of humor about it cannot be permitted in the ranks. Any hint that the military feels itself entitled to transform its own charter or to invert its relationship with the social controllers is to risk upsetting the delicate intra-cultural balance of institutions.

A third consequence of Malinowski’s axioms is that all institutions must be made transparent and accountable to all other institutions¾ even if this is accomplished by subordinating all institutions to the social control institution. To withhold information or to veil one’s activities in secrecy is to invite the very sort of inter-institutional competition that leads to need-satisfaction frustration or failure. It is also to invite suspicion that one’s institution may be doing more than its charter allows; in fact, it is to invite the extreme suspicion that one may be engaged in the subversion or appropriation of other institutional prerogatives.

Total operational openness or complete R&D transparency are impossible for the Armed Forces, but this implication of Malinowski’s axioms means that the members of the services must be anxious and eager to make their activities as transparent as reasonably feasible to the rest of the culture. It is bad enough to squander resources or to make bad operational decisions without geometrically expanding the error through a cloak of spurious secrecy. Given its profound consequences, every act of classification must be governed by a last-resort criterion.

A fourth implication is that an institution is obliged to ensure that its leaders comprehend and are genuinely sensitive to the nature of their institution and its relationship of organic interdependence to the rest of the culture. Most institutions seem to encounter no difficulty in recognizing that their members must possess the technical knowledge (embodied in norms and rules) to manipulate the material apparatus in performance of those activities that result in need satisfaction. But if Malinowski is right, then every institution also must ensure that its leaders (if not all of its members) must have the broader sort of education needed to comprehend the cultural implications of their institution. What is required is the sort of generalized education upon which Huntington insists, but I think it goes a bit further. What is required is more than a mere appreciation of culture¾ the generalized education must actually instill an active respect and commitment to the culture and its institutions. It must be sufficiently powerful to prevent leaders from becoming institution-centered technocrats.

We thus come to the final implication: Institutions must assume primary responsibility for regulating themselves, and they must do this from the broader perspective of cultural integrity. Given that the institution is the organization specifically formed to take care of a specific cultural need, it stands to reason that the members of the institution are those most likely to grasp the intricacies of the technical requirements they must follow. Yet, there are circumstances under which all members of the culture will know when defense has been neglected or the commissariat has not done its job; in those cases there is a tendency for the social control institution to step in and make corrections. Given that the social controllers are not as technically competent as the members of the institution-perceived-to-be-in-trouble, it is therefore to everyone’s advantage if the members of the troubled institution take matters into their own hands before the problem has progressed too far. Every institution must aggressively police itself to ensure that the right personnel follow the right rules and are qualified to use the material apparatus in the right activities. Those who are inept or who refuse to follow the rules and norms must be identified, reformed, and/or dismissed. Technical incompetence cannot be tolerated, but neither can we tolerate social-cultural incompetence.

If there are military installations in this country where personnel are openly contemptuous of civilian leadership, then the persons responsible¾ including all commanders with cognizance¾ should be identified, prosecuted, punished, and purged. They have surrendered their claim to membership in this institution.


The Other Side of the Coin

The story, however, has not been told fully; for, while it may be true that the military and other cultural institutions are subordinate to the social control institution, the latter is by no means autonomous or above the implications just discussed. So far we have discussed the implicit, organic, even necessary limitations upon institutions like the profession of arms. But are there similar limitations on the social control institution? Are there cultural imperatives to which the governors and watch dogs must answer? If Malinowski is right, then those responsible for the social control function are almost as limited by the implications just drawn as any other institution¾ perhaps more so.

Suppose for a moment that the social controllers are exempted from paying heed to the fundamental equality and interdependence of the other cultural institutions, such that they need no longer worry about how they go about allocating scarce resources¾ but that is clearly absurd. To put all funds into a military buildup is almost certainly to threaten health care, education, or the commissariat, and vice versa. Moreover, social controllers cannot arbitrarily decide to support certain institutions and to ignore others without long-term consequences for the culture at large. It is no less irresponsible to favor health care to the detriment of defense as it is to do the reverse. These implications, moreover, are true regardless of the political orientation of the controllers or their intentions. The election or reelection of civilian authorities is not the only thing at stake. What is at stake is the quality of cultural life and, in extremis, the survival of the culture itself.

Likewise, social controllers must be sensitive to the true meaning of their superordinate relationship to other institutions. To say that all other institutions are subordinate to the social control institution is not to say that civil authority may fiddle indefinitely with internal affairs of an institution without paying a cultural price. Suppose, for example, that the social controllers decided to control directly the personnel component of the health care institution. Such an action should only be undertaken as a last resort to prevent the collapse of the health care institution. Controllers must be certain that unless the intervention occurs, the need for health care cannot be satisfied. Otherwise, the risk is simply too great that the controllers themselves will cause the degradation or destruction of that institution.

The same risk occurs when controllers too closely manipulate the rules and norms of an institution (as purportedly happened to the military in Southeast Asia) or when the very charter of the institution is redefined (as some claim is happening to the military now). To redefine the charter is also to redefine the norms and rules, the personnel required, and the material apparatus to be acquired. The tools, people, and technical expertise needed to conduct a war may not be the tools, people, and technical skills one needs for law enforcement, disaster relief, or peace-keeping operations.

If an institution is satisfying the need it was created to satisfy, then to modify its charter one must be convinced of one of two things: (a) the original need has gone away or (b) the institution is capable of satisfying needs in addition to the need it was originally designed to satisfy. Is it possible, for example, for the Armed Forces to be a peace-keeping force, a law enforcement force, a disaster relief force, a grand social experiment, and a warfighting force? If Malinowski is right, then the answer is measured by cultural performance or survival.

Likewise, the social control institution must be transparent and accountable to the rest of the culture; its leaders must comprehend and be sensitive to the cultural role of institutions (including their own); and it must be self-regulating. That the social control institution needs to be transparent to the rest of the culture should be obvious. Cultural leaders who refuse public scrutiny of their activities do not long govern in a democracy; respect for the leaders of an institution is derived from trust in that institution.

Like the members of all other institutions, social controllers must have the general education necessary to engender in them a sensitivity for the cultural role of all institutions¾ not just their own. Social controllers¾ whether elected or selected¾ are capable of profound damage to the cultural fabric. They can indulge a subordinate institution or choke off its resources; they can rewrite or even cancel charters; and they can dictate the rules and norms an institution must follow, the personnel an institution must include, and the material apparatus it may use to carry out its assigned activities. If they do these things in ignorance of or as a result of indifference to the nature of institutions and their interdependent relationships, then the damage done can be catastrophic indeed. If it is true that leaders of the subordinate institutions have to be more than mere institution-centered technocrats, then it is even more true of those who belong to the social-control institution.

Similarly, the social controllers must be self-regulating because they, more than any other institution, must be careful to avoid inviting other institutions in to set things straight. To invite other institutions in is to flirt with cultural catastrophe; it therefore must not happen. Moreover, for reasons already indicated, the profession of arms and other institutions must refuse such an invitation even if it is extended. Of course, this is but one of two central paradoxes of the democratic system. On the one hand, the social controllers are elected on the basis of partisan politics, but as governors they must temper their partisan views if all of the constitutive institutions of the culture are to survive. On the other hand, the members of the subordinate institutions must refrain from co-opting the social control institution¾ even if they are convinced that the leaders of the latter are fools leading the culture to possible rack and ruin, they must (for reasons I hope are obvious by now) refrain from those actions that would make the dreaded outcome a certainty, viz., seizing power or otherwise co-opting the social control institution. The only option available¾ indeed, conceivable¾ for the disgruntled military professional is to leave the profession of arms and campaign for office in accordance with the established norms and rules of the social control institution.

In the US, for example, it is forbidden for a military officer to lobby a member of Congress¾ let alone become a de facto social controller while still on active duty. There is simply too much at stake to permit officers to behave otherwise. The two institutions must be kept clearly distinct as the military’s subordination to the social control function is vouchsafed.


Malinowski’s Permanent Legacy

That we can tease out such plausible implications from Malinowski’s axioms is sufficient proof that his system rests on terra firma. But there are two other reasons why Malinowski’s perspective is important. On the one hand, it directly complements and smoothly meshes with rigorous attempts to analyze the ethical dimension of the profession of arms. On the other hand (and as promised), it gives us an objective, apolitical foundation for the need to preserve the political neutrality of the profession of arms.

I shall not spend much time laying out the deeper connections between Malinowski’s perspective and the ethical dimension of the profession of arms. However, it is interesting to note that his "charter" sounds very much like a complex contract, action directive, or prescription. It dovetails nicely with the notion that the profession rests on a "commission,"10 which is an explicit, legally sealed charter that demands a certain service of the profession and spells out the circumference of its circle of action. All institutions are chartered, we may say, but few (if any others) are bound by a charter as rigorous as a commission. Malinowski’s system, in other words, acknowledges the implicit ethical dimension of human affairs, and it construes that dimension to be woven into the cultural fabric.

Of more pressing concern is the objective, apolitical basis for the profession’s political neutrality and its relationship to the institution of social control. Partisanship may be the preferred means of selecting civil authorities, but partisanship must not be the preferred mans of allocating resources to the subordinate institutions. The members of a subordinate institution will naturally incline toward those social controllers who favor their institution. For example, if liberal s tend to favor education, then educators will incline toward liberal s as social controllers (even if the educators themselves are conservatives).

Under these circumstances it should come as no surprise to us if we discover that education groups indorse and actively campaign for liberal candidates, and almost certainly we would accept such activity as a matter of course. It is equally certain that Malinowski would object. If it is in the interest of educators to campaign for liberals, then it is even more in the interest of educators to campaign for liberals with an irrational bias toward education¾ a bias that would stop at nothing in stripping down or defeating the purposes of other institutions to benefit education. As has been suggested, however, when such bias is given its head, everyone in the culture suffers as a result¾ even the instigators (or their descendants).

This is true for all subordinate institutions, but it is especially true for the military. True, the unique material apparatus with which the military does its job makes it appear to be more dangerous than the other institutions, but this is not the primary reason why the military must remain apolitical. Rather, given the emotionally-charged nature of the need it satisfies, and given the economic resources it consumes, the profession of arms has profound psychological and economic leverage that may be brought to bear at election time. It is therefore more likely that the profession of arms will succeed in electing those with an irrational bias for the military. Thus, without raising a weapon¾ let alone firing a shot¾ a fully politicized military establishment is more likely to win a short-term victory at the polls and also therefore more likely to retard cultural progress or kill the culture altogether.

Partisanship may well produce a situation in which one institution begins to compete avariciously with other institutions for scarce resources. Clearly, it pays the military profession to have conservatives in power, given that liberals are not inclined to sponsor a military buildup. Even professionals who are inclined toward liberalism will find some secret comfort with the ascension of a conservative social control leadership. Yet, partisanship also increasingly diminishes an institutional leader’s ability to see his/her institution in its true social context, and this creeping myopia undercuts that leader’s capacity to make culturally sound (and, therefore, institution-affirming) decisions. In the long run, ironically, enough, it is better for the institution if its leaders are not its wildest boosters.

In short, partisanship compels the leaders of an institution to adopt a deviant set of values and/or to prioritize those values in ways inconsistent with the original value set of the culture; and if the leaders of the institution have their way, this could compel a permanent re-ordering of that original value set. Given that the original value set is an essential component of a successful survival strategy (or successful mechanism for human flourishing), redefining or realligning the value set may have catastrophic consequences.

Clearly, it is to the profession’s and the culture’s advantage to be apolitical. But what makes any of this objective? A contractarian or a conventionalist would say that the mere fact of chartering an institution makes that charter objective¾ it is something to which we all have access and whose effects in the world are perceivable. If an institution violates its charter, it violates an objective contract or conventional agreement; and if it does the latter it will inevitably influence any culture that counts on such contracts being honored. Yet, this is an objectivity of our own making. There is nothing metaphysically or physically imperative about any of the relationships we create among the institutions we bring into existence.

To be sure, the conventionalist can deliver us to a limited form of objectivity: the sculpture of a tree is no less real than its biological inspiration. But even though we produce the sculpture¾ even though we transfer the image in the head to the clay or stone¾ the sculpture must obey the properties of the clay and stone, just as the clay and stone must give way to the activities of the sculptor. Malinowski would have us believe that a culture must similarly answer to man-made and natural imperatives, and it is the natural imperatives to which the man-made imperatives must effectively respond if the culture is to survive.

To see this, let us once again consider the institution Malinowski calls the commissariat. History teaches that the culture may adopt any one of several strategies to support the metabolism of its members. They may be pure nomads, like the Mongols. They can be hunter-gatherers, like Neolithic peoples in England. Or they may adopt a more agrarian system like that found in more recent times. Yet, even though the culture can select one of these strategies, the mere selection cannot and does not guarantee the success of that strategy. The geographic location of the culture has much to do with it, as do conditions such as the resourcefulness of the members of the culture. Obviously, if the members of the culture are rational, they will try to select the one best strategy, but the idea of "one best" is not something they stipulate or contract: it is a standard established for them by a brutally harsh world. It is equally obvious that the problem would be solved if the culture could somehow do away with metabolic needs¾ but those needs are every bit as objective and in the world as any other factor to which human beings must respond.

The performance standards for any given institution, therefore, are not something that we can totally stipulate. If there is no food to eat, but the leaders proclaim this year’s harvest a "glorious success," we would have good reason to believe that either the leaders are fools, they take us to be fools, or they are using the term ‘success’ in ways that we do not comprehend. One’s empty belly is the surest proof¾ the surest apolitical and truly objective proof¾ that the commissariat has failed.

There is a similar normative standard for any institution in Malinowski’s sense of the term. We know when the social controllers, the health care provides, and the educators truly fail, and what we know is not subjective, ad hoc, or capriciously determined. In fact, we know this so well that we can even pinpoint the component(s) responsible for the failure, e.g., poor personnel selection, bad training, inferior material apparatus, etc., and we can always spot a false normative standard when it is presented. For example, suppose that someone suggests "drill precision" as the final standard of military performance. It would take us very little time to show that history defeats such a claim. The standard of military performance is the capacity of the Armed Forces to provide for cultural safety. That need cannot be wished away nor can it be ignored: those cultures who fail to address this need will sooner or later fail to survive.

Malinowski reminds us that there are lawlike regularities at work in the social world, and we ignore them at our own peril. The normative standard is embedded in and clearly governs the course of human history. An institution can become political; and it can arrogate to itself the role of social control, even though its charter specifies another function entirely. But the risk is always the same: disaster for the parent culture and its constitutive institutions.

Obviously, there are occasions when such a catastrophe is desired, e.g., when one wishes to foment a revolution. But the point is that such a revolution will occur, and unless one is prepared to be its proximate cause, one must remain apolitical. A revolution doesn’t just remove persons with undesirable views from office; it inevitably undermines or nullifies the social control institution, and the revolution demands that a new institution be created. With the possible exception of the Russian Revolution, history teaches that one cannot replace the old institution with itself.

It therefore follows that if a military professional is content with his/her form of government, that person must remain apolitical. This is not a matter of social philosophy; it is, if we take Malinowski seriously, a law of cultural formation and operation. More to the point, if a military professional belongs to a culture that is largely successful in promoting the needs of its citizens and seems capable of long-term survival, that professional must be extremely cautious about questioning the culture’s values or adopting a partisan stance based on a purportedly preferred subset of those values. Given the social power of the profession of arms, a partisan profession may well get its way. As Malinowski reminds us, sometimes the very worst thing you can do to a human being is to give him what he wants.



1. At least it is my assumption that he did. This remark is based on my reading of a draft of Fotion’s "Serving the Society," which was prepared for this conference.

2. Bronislaw Malinowski, A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), p. 48.

3. Ibid., p. 39.

4. Ibid., p. 91.

5. Ibid., pp. 52, 151.

6. Ibid., pp. 52-3.

7. Ibid., pp. 110-11.

8. Ibid., p. 122.

9. Ibid., p. 128.

10. Moral judgments, claims, or conclusions come in two varieties: descriptions and prescriptions.

1. Descriptions = direct assertions of fact without any explicit reference to action-consequences; they come in two ‘flavors’: (i) non-evaluative, e.g., "The blue bird is on the wire" and (ii) evaluative, e.g., "It is unethical for a regent to award a building contract to his own company."

2. Prescriptions = assertions making action recommendations, which come in three flavors:

(a) Positive Demands, which the performance of some overt action or the production of some tangible object or service, e.g., "Get me that report by 1600 today" or "Do play us a little something on the piano." Positive demands have the force of a "must" or "strong should."

(b) Prohibitions, which demand the cessation or withholding of some action, practice, or production, e.g., "Stop whistling in the hallway" or "Don’t bomb the cathedral." Prohibitions have the force of a "must not" or "strong should not." As with positive demands, they impose a requirement that takes the agent well beyond the "if you wish" stage.

(c) Permissions, which grant the agent a sphere of liberty within which the agent may equally well elect to perform or refrain from performing some specified range of actions or practices, e.g., "You may kiss the bride" or "This is the USS New Jersey, you may fire upon us at your discretion." Permissions are viewed by some persons as falling between positive demands and prohibitions, but unlike those other prescriptions, permissions have a lesser imperative force and they allow the agent the freedom of choice. Moreover, we may say that some permissions have boundaries or parameters while others do not: the former are limited permissions, the latter are unlimited.

We may apply the idiom to the relationship between the profession and the nation-state it serves as follows.

1. The relationship between the profession and the nation-state is bi-directional, i.e., in this relationship the profession and the nation-state alternately function as vendor and buyer: each party seeks to sell prescriptions to the other.

2. And at the heart or central core of that phase in the relationship when the nation-state serves as the vendor there is a special, semi-fixed prescription. This core prescription requires the profession to provide the nation-state with something of extreme value, viz., defense of the nation-state’s governmental architecture. Thus, this special, semi-fixed prescription is a positive demand. However, it also allows the profession a liberty sphere within which to satisfy that positive demand. Thus, the special prescription is also a permission. But that permission¾ as we are constantly reminded¾ is not an unlimited one; for, the core prescription also imposes very specific restrictions on professional operations. Thus, it is likewise a prohibition.

3. That is, the special, semi-fixed core prescription from the nation-state to the profession is a compound prescription and deserves recognition as a distinct prescription type. It actually contains a positive demand that articulates the goal, mission, or purpose of the profession and a limited permission (i.e., a permission with a prohibition rider) that articulates what the profession may do in order to achieve its mission. Such a compound prescription we will call a commission, and its constituent prescriptions may be specifically characterized as follows:

(a.) Positive demand = "Defend the Constitution"

(b.) Permission = "Develop the resources, recruit and train the people, acquire and maintain the weapon systems, gather the information, and plan, coordinate, and execute the operations required to satisfy the positive demand."

(c.) Prohibition (which limits the permission) = "Refrain from violating law, governmental procedures, fiscal constraints, or good judgment in exercising the permission."

Beyond its compound nature or its status as the fourth prescription type, the commission is also interesting for several other reasons:

1. It is the sine qua non of the profession itself; the commission defines the purpose for the profession and contains the profession’s operational license; without the commission, the profession dissolves into a band of mercenaries.

2. It establishes the profession’s standard of performance, i.e., it contains the functional definition by which the profession, like any created or artificial object can be graded. The commission tells us what the profession must do and how it may do it¾ thus we can tell whether or not the profession serves its purpose and does it within the limits established by the nation-state.

3. It also establishes the standard by which the nation-state’s secondary prescriptions may also be evaluated. For example, the positive demand "Thou shalt include homosexuals" must be tested against the implicit requirements of the commission. The fundamental question is, Would the inclusion of homosexuals enhance, diminish, or have no effect upon the profession’s capacity to meet the obligation of the commission.