“It may be argued that this report poses a choice between mission accomplishment and professional ethics. Thrust of this report is that there is really no choice. Measures can and must be found to ensure that a climate of professionalism exists in the Army. The attainment of such a climate is the essential prerequisite for genuine effectiveness.” — MG Eckhardt, The Study on Military Professionalism
Profession Versus Culture
There has been much scholarship of late as to whether or not the military in general, and the Army specifically, could or even should be deemed a “profession.” The current round of discussion stems from a tweet which asked the pointed question again. But as we debate yes or no, the entire argument seems moot. The Army, at the least — which will be the focus of this essay — has cast itself as one, with programs, symposiums, and newsletters produced by the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas espousing the merits of the “Army Profession.” The idea of the military in general as a “profession of arms” has been supported by generations of leaders, and the military as a whole meets all defining criteria of what a profession is (alongside the legal, medical, and academic fields).
The deeper question that should be asked is not whether the Army as an institution is a profession but, rather, what is the gap between that profession and the culture inside of it?
For those of us serving in the Army, it seems there should be little debate as to whether or not the modern, all-volunteer force is a “profession.” It is a unique member of the professional community, to say the least. The deeper question that should be asked is not whether the Army as an institution is a profession but, rather, what is the gap between that profession and the culture inside of it? What affects the delta between them and how do you close it? Also, how does that delta affect the resiliency of the profession?
All professions have unique cultures inside of them. Members must assimilate into this culture in order to be accepted and recognized as part of the team. The Army is no different in this regard; soldiers must “drink the Kool-Aid” and adhere to the rules and regulations of the organization, both formal and informal. However, the Army culture is different in how divergent it is from the rest of American society. Members are expected to maintain strict adherence to discipline, formalized rank structure, drill and ceremony, social functions, and a whole host of other unique aspects of Army culture that would be considered foreign to most civilians who have never served.
The Gap Between Profession and Culture
There is a direct link between the strength of the culture inside of a profession and the viability or perception of the profession itself. If the culture is not massaged and propped up by its members, it can atrophy quickly. Cultural norms which traditionally would be adhered to and would strengthen the profession may take a back seat to accomplishing the mission. Although quantifying that delta is difficult, historically the gap has widened during times of conflict. It becomes the shift between a “garrison” and “wartime” mentality. We have seen this before in the Army — namely during the long war in Vietnam — and one could argue during the past thirteen years of current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. While disillusionment and apathy may not have reached Vietnam levels, there has been a noticeable shift in the Army’s culture. As the Army has focused more on maintaining a high operational tempo, especially during the past decade, the profession side has become dormant or ignored.
Using Vietnam as a case study we find a solid example of how the gap may widen, but also of how an organization or profession can close it. The long US involvement in Vietnam exacerbated an already deteriorating Army culture and professional ideal. At the time the Army was evolving to fight the Soviets on a nuclear battlefield, focused on the plains of Europe. It was made up of a professional, regular standing Army but kept at wartime levels through conscription.
Beginning with an advisory role with the South Vietnamese and eventually flourishing into a combat force of half a million men the US involvement stretched, and finally broke, the Army culture. Even though it won every conventional engagement it had with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong by the end of the war the Army was in disarray. Deficiencies in training, lack of discipline, pervasive apathy, ignorance of lessons learned, and a dismal record of leadership at all levels slowly killed the culture of the Army, decaying it from the inside. This decay threatened the profession in the eyes of many, and was dangerously close to being irreparably damaged.
“Because the United States Army saw fit to remain ignorant of the theory and oblivious to the practice of guerrilla warfare, its reward was an internal chaos of AWOLs, fraggings, drug problems, combat refusals, and resignation of its best and brightest. Morale and dedication and ethical behavior disintegrated within the officer corps of the army and deteriorated throughout the structure. Disillusionment became epidemic. Its ultimate reward was discord of unparalleled ferocity and defeat ‘with honor.’”
As the Vietnam war waged the problems within the Army became so apparent that the Chief of Staff, GEN William Westmoreland, commissioned a study to look at the issues and recommend ideas to fix them. Led by two Lieutenant Colonels, the Army War College study entitled Study on Military Professionalism hit Army senior leadership like a shock wave. Focused on mid-level officers, captains, majors and lieutenant colonels, the study found a lack of faith and trust in the Army culture, and a huge disconnect between senior leaders and the rest of the Army. It also recommended harsh changes to the Army that would help right the ship and return the culture, and in turn the profession, to a respectable level both internally and externally.
Minding the Gap
The above example gives a glimpse at the pitfalls in a profession when the ties that bind it unravel. It is not just an Army problem, though, and could affect any professional community that allows its culture or unique environment to decay. As time, events, and experience overcome an organization it may weaken if there is not a concerted effort to strengthen its binding sinews. We have seen examples of this during the past decade of operations to a degree. Higher profile legal, ethical, and moral failing on the part of soldiers and leaders, a neglect of certain aspects of military camaraderie and esprit de corps (dining in/outs, professional development events, etc), and a noticeable “burn out” from continuous operations and multiple deployments. These are all symptoms of a profession and culture that are out of balance.
The greater question then becomes about resiliency. Not so much whether the Army is a profession, but how resilient is it when the culture gets overtaken by events and operations? Has the Army learned from its experiences in Vietnam about the profession-culture gap? After 13 years of continuous operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the mission seemed to become more important than the profession, how do we return the equilibrium? Further study into this gap, and not an existential look at the Army, is sorely needed.
This post was provided by Mark Herbert, a Unites States Army strategic planner, currently assigned to the Army Capabilities Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Eustis, VA. He holds a BA in Military History from University of Missouri, Saint Louis and a MS in Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University. His fields of study center on German military history and the evolutionary aspects of primate violence and war. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Army, the DoD, or the US Government.
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