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The Army's Professional Military Ethic in an Era of Persistent Conflict

Authored by Dr. Don M. Snider, Major Paul Oh, Major Kevin Toner. | October 2009

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The purpose of the Army’s Ethic is stated clearly in Field Manual (FM) 1, The Army. It is “to maintain [the Army’s] effectiveness.” The implication is as clear as it is true—without such an ethic, the Army cannot be effective at what it does. As is well-documented in the literature of professions, their ethics provide the primary means of social direction and control over their members as they perform their expert duties, often under chaotic conditions. For the Army profession, its evolving expert knowledge in the moral-ethical domain is what enables the profession to develop individual professionals—Soldiers and their leaders—to fight battles and campaigns “effectively and rightly,” as expected by the client the profession serves. Without such good, right, and just application of its expertise, the Army will lose its lifeblood—the trust of the American people.

But how do the leaders within the Army profession think about their Ethic? With what language, models, and pedagogy is it discussed and taught in Army schoolhouses and units? And how is the ethic understood to relate to Army culture, both to the culture’s functional and dysfunctional aspects? When professionals dissect their ethic, for example, are they analyzing the ethic of the profession or that of the individual professional; is the ethic they are discussing defined in legal or moral terms, etc.? Lastly, how, and how well, do the individual professionals within the Army—officers, noncommissioned officers, and civilians alike—internalize the Ethic in their daily lives such that the Army’s leadership is seen consistently on duty and off duty, 24 hours a day, to “walk the talk?”

This essay, then, is a first attempt to look into this largely unresearched field. Such research cannot proceed without a modicum of theorizing and setting forth of models for the Ethic, some common understandings from which to hypothesize and then test such propositions. Current Army doctrine, however, does not provide even a construct for examining the Ethic, nor does it analyze how the Ethic changes with society’s cultural shifts, evolving wars, or other external shocks.

This essay offers a proposal for the missing constructs and language with which we can more precisely think about and examine the Army’s Professional Military Ethic, starting with its macro context which is the profession’s culture. We examine three major longterm influences on that culture and its core ethos, thus describing how they evolve over time. We contend that in the present era of persistent conflict, we are witnessing dynamic changes within these three influences. In order to analyze these changes, we introduce a more detailed framework which divides the Ethic into its legal and moral components, then divide each of these into their institutional and individual manifestations.

Turning from description to analysis, we also examine to what extent, if any, recent doctrinal adaptations by the Army (FM 3-0, 3-24, and 6-22, etc.) indicate true evolution in the essential nature of the profession’s Ethic. Then, we present what we believe to be the most significant ethical challenge facing the Army profession—the moral development of Army leaders, moving them from “values to virtues” in order that they, as Army professionals, can consistently achieve the high quality of moral character necessary to apply effectively and, in a trustworthy manner, their renowned military-technical competencies.

Surely, as FM 1 reminds us, unless the profession’s Ethic is manifested integrally in the personal lives and official actions of its leaders, and through them its Soldiers, the Army is simply not a profession at all, and its effectiveness even as a bureaucracy will be greatly impaired.