The military is a profession. That does not mean that everyone in the military is a professional. There are many hard working service members grinding daily that do not meet that relatively high mark, but many others that do. So when does a soldier become a professional? In boot camp? On his first combat tour? Or in a classroom? This post will address this line of transition and suggest that a clear line of demarcation does exist. Soldiers become professionals when they can make the right decision even when it contradicts the manual.
The cross-over from being a member of the military to a professional occurs when an individual soldier attains enough knowledge and expertise to demonstrate an ability to act and make decisions autonomously. They can be trusted by the nation to act as its humble servant.
For a soldier, and particularly a combat leader, responsibilities can be far more demanding than any day job. Military leaders carry an enormous responsibility, not unlike other professions, to uphold and enforce a series of mutually agreed upon rules. This responsibility extends not only to our nation, but also to our subordinates. Unlike medical professionals — with the creed primum non nocere (First, do no harm), in the military we do harm to others.
Our primary existence is to deliver violence as an extension of our political will, this may occur directly or indirectly. Just war theory attempts to neatly package the moral gray area of killing in the name of politics. However, many of our actions beyond killing are highly unethical particularly when one ventures into military deception, PSYOPs, and certain targeting methodologies. However, as Prof. Shanks-Kaurin shared on Monday, philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that actions in the name of duty are inherently moral. As professionals, we are expected to weather the ethical storm and capture these lessons to teach the next generation of professionals. My nation has granted me latitude in decision-making due to my status as a professional. I am empowered by my oath, and due to my expertise in the ability to make a rapid decisions in order to apply violence for our national goals. This sometimes means that I will knowingly break the rules, and we cannot let regulations become sacred cows preventing the fulfillment of our duty.
The Center for the Army Professional Ethic, defined a profession as “…a trusted, self-policing, and relatively autonomous vocation whose members develop and apply expert knowledge as human expertise to render an essential service to society in a particular field.”[i] In the post- 9/11 conflict, varying levels of autonomy were granted to our most junior of leaders to make decisions with the potential of significant international significance. For me the true test of the Army profession is when soldiers are confronted with a situation where they must break a rule, or what objectively may seem an ethical violation in order to complete the mission or save lives.
On a sunny day in mid-October 2008, I heard a large distant explosion and ran towards the small TOC on our combat outpost.
“Delta base, this is Delta 27, lead vehicle destroyed by IED, MEDEVAC to follow’
There were four litter urgent surgical patients, three of which would later die before the MEDEVAC landed due to injuries sustained in the blast.
A military professional may train for years or decades before they are required to make the most critical of professional actions — decision making in combat. Sometimes that means an ethical wrong for the right action as a leader. The decision to kill a person whether enemy, suspected enemy, or potential civilian must be weighed in depth and often very quickly. There are many inputs on the current battlefield which compete for our limited capacity to interpret information. The actions are simple, a short command on a radio or a limited trigger squeeze of 5.5lbs ending with the death or dismemberment of a human being. Killing is only one of many tools utilized in the profession. Professionals do not enjoy killing the enemy, this activity of the battlefield is a means to fulfilling the professional obligation. This action alone does not win wars, our ability to make decisions and implement solutions to enemy problem sets allow for victory.
At some point, leaders are faced with a decision that may require a risk to their future career versus the life of one off their comrades or soldiers. In my view, the right decision always saves your men or women over the life of an enemy or third party. As a professional, I am willing to accept that burden. An effect of an all-volunteer force career is that decision making can be impeded by the perceived value of one’s career. This can cause risk averse leaders to propagate throughout the ranks who choose to play it safe even in the most mundane of decisions less they be held responsible. There are leaders out there who value their career and future existence over the completion of the mission. Win or lose, the paychecks and opportunities will continue to roll in. This trend within the profession can only be countered by dedicated professionals who are rewarded for completing the mission and pushing the limits of our organization.
‘ Delta base, this is Palehorse 14 we have four MAM with potential weapons approximately 200m from blast site, unable to confirm PID, need authorization for engagement’
Many thoughts flew through my head as I had to weigh multiple scenarios with an attempt to not make an emotional decision. Can I even make this decision on my own? Do I know where the friendlies are? The on scene commander (a fellow LT) was involved in the casualty evacuation. The company commander was 30 miles away and involved in another operation. Was there hostile intent? Is this a hostile act? What did the INTSUM say about this village? Where was the HVT sighted? How do I send a five line?
Within seconds, confidently on the radio ‘ Pale horse 14, this is Delta Base cleared to engage, make attack heading northwest away from blast site, report clear off target area, initials HD, over’
In a span of seconds, I made a decision that I was not authorized to make by telling an aircraft to attack potential unconfirmed enemy. While the risk decision for that engagement based on the current rules were well above my level, seconds mattered, and I was willing to accept the potential consequences. The short years of training and operational knowledge due to study, combat experience, and willingness to understand my area of operations allowed me to make a decision. My professional responsibility asked me to confidentially make a right decision that was professionally wrong. After 100 days in combat, I knew how quickly situations developed in the area of operations, the countless intelligence summaries digested, and fire missions executed all pointed towards a critical decision that needed to be made. In a way, the ethics I valued and internalized were those of decisive leaders that used all available assets to snatch their soldiers out of harm’s way.
Mistakes happen in combat, particularly at the tactical level, and while they can have negative strategic consequences often they develop opportunities for exploitation, which luckily this action allowed. The platoon in my company team successfully evacuated the casualties, and chased the trigger men to a fighting position where they later killed both militants. The four military aged males that the pair of OH-58 Kiowa Warriors engaged were part of the militant group ready to ambush the remaining platoon members. The aircraft would have likely engaged the group later in the battle, when they were expected to engage the dismounted forces reacting to the IED generating unknown further damage to the dismounts or aircraft.
Combat is an imperfect informational environment; intuition may save your life.
Early on in life, a coach told me to, “Make mistakes at full speed.” The idea is to execute all actions with tenacity and commitment, because a fleeting message of “mistake” to your brain, may be wrong and could offset the enemy’s decision making cycle. Combat is an imperfect informational environment; intuition may save your life. Scientists hypothesize that intuition or gut feelings are a series of synapses firing trying to alert your brain based on inputs that have not been fully processed to project an image or thought. Then again, scientists also hypothesize that “gut feelings” may be communications from bacteria in your stomach to your brain. What I do know is that combat Veterans, and particularly combat pilots, will tell you how something unknown told them to execute an action immediately right as a projectile flew past their previously occupied location. Some will call on a higher power or a gut feeling, but the end result is the same. All of the information that the super computer between the ears processes will try to generate an output while you are focused on the other stimuli of combat. We operate in a regulatory military environment within an increasingly litigious society. At least weekly in normal operations, one probably violates a handful of regulations knowingly or unknowingly. Breaking the rules for expediency or an activity outside the bounds of regulation is not a rationalization to defend personal actions, but is an expected part of the professional trust granted to military professionals.
I don’t believe in the phrase “It is better to beg forgiveness, than ask for permission.” Rather, fully admit that you broke the rules or violated an order without apology. Explain your reasoning and decision making process, be forthcoming in your violation when asked or investigated. I believe the professional burden means that you are willing to pay any price to complete the mission and bring your team home. Never pass blame to your subordinates in situations where your decisions were on the line. Combat is not a zero defect business, mistakes will happen by good Soldiers. A risk averse mindset will fail to capitalize on moments where subordinate unit initiative may win the war. The ability to bend or break rules is not a willful disregard of our ethical responsibilities, but rather an acknowledgement that there will be moments when events force an impossible situation. Integrity, honor, and selfless service are driving forces that help us make these hard ethical decisions on the battlefield. If the actions fulfill the outcome of your duty, then those actions are inherently moral. Let the historians’ debate the significance of your actions in battle on a given day. Professionals complete the mission, however imperfect, and continue to fight for another day.
*A couple of notes in response to comments: Breaking or side-stepping the rules is not meant as a casual violation of our daily rules and regulations. Expediency in combat based on perceived or actual threats is different than allowing the decision making cycle to carry out it’s process. The goal of a professional is not to be a renegade or an enabler of misconduct, our goal is to be the Goose in Top Gun not Maverick. Goose was willing to push the envelope when it completed the mission, i.e. going inverted against the MIG. Maverick was a brash, vain, and self-centered officer only focused on accomplisments that benefited him. Completing the organizational mission is different than a narcissistic mission destined for self-serving accomplishment.
Mike Denny is an ARNG aviation officer and company commander. Formerly, he served as a Field Artillery officer on active duty with time at all of the Army garden spots ending at Fort Polk following his second Afghan tour. As a civilian, he is an executive management professional and occasional contributor to Task and Purpose, The Bridge, and Red Team Journal. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.
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