Protesters and military police during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Arlington, Virginia, October 1967
Wikimedia Commons

The armed forces of the United States are in the throes of what is popularly termed an identity crisis. Alongside daily press reports of antiwar protests, draft resistance and opposition to military spending are accounts of such problems within the uniformed services as discipline, race relations and drug abuse. The concern of the military is apparent in recent institutional reforms, most notably in the Navy, designed to make service more attractive and to remove some of the irritants that no longer appear to serve a useful purpose. Not so well-known, however, is the search to adapt traditional concepts and practices of military professionalism to changing requirements and radically new demands.

Protected as it was by vast oceans until the Soviets acquired a nuclear capability, the United States traditionally sought security in a form of national defense based on a tiny, physically isolated active army and a relatively larger but still small navy which could be expanded in time of emergency. Civilian authorities conducted politics and diplomacy without military participation; the military conducted war to victory without civilian intrusion. In keeping with the American liberal ethic, it was considered dangerous to democratic institutions for the soldier to engage in political activity or the affairs of state. But when diplomacy failed, war was sanctioned as a crusade, and it was considered inefficient and even immoral for the civilian non-professional to meddle in the conduct of military campaigns when American lives were at stake.

Traditional U.S. military professionalism, nurtured in the isolation of frontier posts following the Civil War, reflected this doctrine of mutual exclusion. Its aim was simple: to apply military power to destroy an enemy armed force with the fewest possible casualties to itself. Inherent in the soldier's outlook was the conviction that he would be committed to combat only for causes which justified the ravages of war. The soldier considered himself divorced from politics and politically neutral, with loyalty not to abstract principles but to elected political authority, in the person of the President as Commander in Chief.

Vital to combat operations and therefore a necessary part of traditional military professionalism is a set of values which to some extent are contrary to those held by liberal civilian society. Military organization is hierarchical, not egalitarian, and it is oriented to the group rather than the individual; it stresses discipline and obedience, not freedom of expression; it depends on confidence and trust, not caveat emptor. It requires immediate decision and prompt action, not thorough analysis and extensive debate; it relies on training, simplification and predictable behavior, not education, sophistication and empiricism. It offers austerity, not material comforts. Unfortunately, the responsibility of the military professional for the security of the nation and the lives of his men can result in a gravity and moral tone in his pronouncements which most civilians resent.

II

World War II vindicated the traditional concept of national defense but it also established the conditions that led to its downfall. The extent to which mutual exclusion was operative during the War can be illustrated by matching Secretary of State Cordell Hull's comment a few days before Pearl Harbor on the U.S.-Japanese situation—"I have washed my hands of it, and it is now in the hands of ... the Army and the Navy"—with General Marshall's remark during the War on a British proposal to modify military strategy—"I would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes."

The unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and the occupation of Japan appeared initially to permit a return to small peacetime active forces. Although the early phases of the cold war gave ample evidence of a fundamental change in the position of the United States in postwar international politics, only hesitant and inconsequential steps were taken to change the outmoded concept of national defense. American armed forces were woefully unprepared when the Korean War began. (The proposed defense budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1950, was about $13 billion.) Early in the war, following the landing at Inchon, the military objective was traditional: destruction of the North Korean armed forces.

It was not until after truce negotiations began in 1951 that a fundamental change occurred in the precepts of mutual military and political exclusion. During these negotiations, armed combat lost its wartime autonomy. The objective of military operations ceased to be solely the destruction of the enemy forces in order to remove their capacity to resist; instead, the employment of force was closely controlled to convey a diplomatic message. In keeping with a basic but long-ignored principle of Clausewitz, combat operations were subordinated to political purposes.

In addition to undermining traditional military supremacy in wartime, the shock of the Korean conflict also demonstrated graphically what the Soviet explosion of an atomic device in 1949 had forecast: the concept of national defense which relied on lengthy mobilization to flesh out skeletal active- duty military forces was outdated. There evolved a new concept of national security policy and strategy, requiring in both peace and war the orchestration with the military of other instruments of statecraft—political, economic, sociological and psychological. But the development of new precepts and relationships was unsystematic and irregular. Adjustments to the profound changes proved exceedingly difficult, particularly for the military.

Civilian participation in what traditionally had been the province of the military establishment grew swiftly. With the Soviet acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, the deterrence of a devastating holocaust became a matter of the highest national priority. But the soldier's experience was grounded in conventional combat operations, not in deterrence and nuclear war; and inter-service rivalry over competing strategies and weapons systems—paradoxically compounded by service unification—had to be resolved by civilian leadership. The result was that the military professional no longer was considered to possess an exclusive expertise; it was accepted that the civilian analyst had a role to play. Centralized budgeting, programming and financial management also called for skills in short supply in the uniformed services. A large civilian bureaucracy evolved, first to control and then increasingly to manage in detail the enlarged and highly complicated defense establishment.

Nor was civilian activity limited to the development of strategic concepts and to peacetime military planning and programming. In order to minimize the possibility that limited war or even military confrontation might escalate into disastrous general war, responsible political authority understandably exercised close control over crisis management. In the Korean War, the Army was subject to specific restrictions although the Navy and Air Force were allowed to conduct operations with minimum interference other than the establishment of a geographical limitation. But in the Cuban missile crisis, the President and Secretary of Defense exercised stringent controls over naval blockade operations; and during the Vietnam war, the air campaign has been subject to detailed civilian direction.

III

Increasing civilian involvement in military affairs proceeded more rapidly than military adjustment to it. Rejection of professional military advice in peacetime for nonmilitary reasons has always been acceptable to the soldier; what was and continues to be frustrating, and even professionally embarrassing, is to be overruled by civilians for military reasons or to have civilians interfere in the conduct of military operations. But civilian intrusion into areas that had been considered exclusively military did not constitute the most perplexing problem. The concept of national security policy and strategy called for fundamental alterations in the traditional military professionalism which had guided policies and procedures in the U.S. armed forces for nearly a century.

The conduct of limited war in the nuclear era requires what Morris Janowitz has termed a "constabulary force," one continuously prepared to act, committed to the minimum use of force, and satisfied with a favorable political outcome rather than military victory in the traditional sense.[i] But even more difficult, it also necessitates the highly complex integration of military operations with political, economic, sociological and psychological measures.

Many military professionals regarded the Korean experience as an aberration and failed to comprehend its politico-military lessons. For example, nearly a year after the armistice was signed, the Army Chief of Staff, General Matthew B. Ridgway, stated in a speech: "The day when wars had limited effects is past.... War ... will be total in character. ... If we must fight, we must win. There can be no other goal. There must be no other outcome." It was not until the Kennedy Administration emphasized the concepts of flexible response and counterinsurgency that restrictions on the use of force and the need to combine other considerations with military operations became widely accepted in principle within the military institution.

In the search for national security policy, the military professional no longer could remain isolated and restrict his peacetime activities to preparation for war. No longer could he abstain from participation in diplomacy and the formulation of policy; nor could he limit himself to military considerations. In June 1961, President Kennedy found it necessary to state in a memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he regarded them as "more than military men" and expected "their help in fitting military requirements into the overall context of any situation...."

Bureaucratic imperatives demanded that the military develop within its ranks new technical, analytical and managerial skills of a high order. But continued military preoccupation with the combat function precluded an adequate response to this requirement. Although a relatively large number of uniformed officers have received graduate education, as Army Chief of Staff General Westmoreland stated in a recent address on problems within the Army: specialization "has only been an extracurricular effort."

The military services had made only preliminary progress toward adjusting to a fusionist national security policy when the conflict in Vietnam became a test case of the new strategy. Difficulties in conducting counterinsurgency and the intense reaction against the whole involvement in Vietnam have significantly complicated the problems of modernizing military professionalism. It is true that in some ways public attitudes are typical of the antimilitary outlook that has followed other wars. But two factors can be considered unique and particularly troublesome.

First, there are fundamental doubts about how effective the military is or can be in attaining political objectives. The Vietnam war is perceived to be inconclusive; according to recent public reports, it appears even to many involved in operations there that the insurgency could persist in much the same form over an extended period. And the nature of the conflict makes it exceptionally difficult to justify to American society the loss of lives in clear-cut moral terms. Beyond this, however, there is for the first time widespread and serious questioning of the morality of the use of armed force, particularly as it affects both friendly and enemy noncombatants. Military force is seen by many as a blunt, insensitive and even immoral instrument. In their minds, not only does this invalidate the rational use of the military in attaining political objectives, but it also impugns the very legitimacy of military service itself.

Secondly, there is, particularly on the part of American youth, a hostility toward large bureaucracy, a general feeling of dissatisfaction with what are considered obsolete bureaucratic structures, insensitive administrators and encumbering procedures. This is coupled with a belief—or perhaps an understanding—that outdated policies and practices are sustained through apathy and inertia. Bureaucracies are seen to be capable of only marginal adjustments, not necessary innovation. While these dissatisfactions and misgivings are by no means focused only on the armed services, they are reinforced by other antimilitary attitudes and nonconformist values to produce a unique challenge to the American military establishment, the largest bureaucracy in the United States. Even within the armed services, the desire for increased influence over bureaucratic decisions by those most directly affected undoubtedly will lead to more widespread discontent and resistance to authority.

An additional complicating factor is a new uncertainty about the U.S. role abroad. The emphasis on domestic problems is coupled with public rejection of a defense policy which has appeared to be tantamount to unilateral containment of communism. Nevertheless, to revert to pre-World War II isolation does not seem possible for a superpower in a world in which international politics has become both more dangerous and more complex. Thus there appears to be little justification for the complacent attitude expressed by some, both within and outside the military, that the armed services after Vietnam can either return to traditional concepts of professionalism or adjust in a leisurely and untroubled fashion to requirements which have evolved during and since the Korean War. Indeed, the military profession faces what is probably the most difficult challenge in its history in pursuing two key and sometimes conflicting objectives: providing for the military security of the United States, and accommodating present values of American society.

IV

The military services face complex problems in their primary task of providing trained forces to support national security policy and strategy. Costs of both weapons and manpower are rising rapidly. With shrinking military budgets and reductions in general purpose forces, there is an inclination to maintain on active duty more combat-type units than can be supported adequately or manned at or near full strength, in order to facilitate mobilization. In addition to creating serious morale problems, to be discussed later, this approach to force structuring prevents adequate training and produces units at a low state of readiness. This might appear acceptable, since any active commitment of U.S. forces seems unlikely under present conditions. However, circumstances of U.S. military involvements since World War II have proved unpredictable, even in the short run; they are likely to be less predictable in the future. Moreover, the Nixon Doctrine asserts full support of previous commitments and states that external assistance to an insurgency, as well as overt conventional attack, may lead to the involvement of U.S. general purpose forces. If future international developments require our military participation, highly trained and ready units will be needed, particularly in view of the variety of possible contingencies and the limited size of our forces.

Military professionals also must develop a greater understanding of the implications of the necessary limitations on the use of force in the nuclear era. They should provide an institutional capability to understand political objectives and to suggest appropriate applications of military means to achieve them. Military leaders must comprehend more fully the relationship of means and ends, and appreciate the moral principles that play a vital role in the success, as well as the acceptability, of military operations. Deterrence of war and the attainment of political objectives must be recognized as "victory," at even the lowest tactical level.

The military involvement of the United States in Vietnam may be a special case, with mistakes never to be repeated; but a careful and dispassionate examination of military strategy and tactics in light of political objectives is in order. This is essential not only because of the intensity of public criticism of the conduct of military operations and the resultant misgivings within the military establishment itself, but also because such a critique should prove highly instructive in helping to bring about the effective integration of military power with other instruments of statecraft in national security strategy.

Clearly, the complexity of the military establishment and the demands of national security require the military to develop a high level of capability in areas which until recently were not considered principal military responsibilities. The institutional assumption that an effective tactical commander possesses the capability or initiative to cope successfully with other, more tangential assignments must be rejected. Reëxamination and overhaul of the extensive education and training programs of the services are not enough; also essential is a reassessment of career patterns to permit the development of applicable skills and to ensure a reasonable prospect of advancement for those who contribute effectively in assignments other than troop command.

V

Along with providing a flexible military force relevant to political realities, the armed forces must maintain an organization which is sensitive and responsive to change. This is not to suggest that the discipline essential to combat operations should be sacrificed, but rather to recognize that the gap between the values held by a large percentage of American youth and those required for effective military service is probably larger today than ever before. Traditional antimilitary attitudes and the reaction to the Vietnam conflict are compounded by a general desire for greater informality and personal freedom and by an abhorrence of obedience to what is regarded as arbitrary authority. Also, the lack of privacy and a relatively Spartan life-style do not appeal to many who are accustomed to material comforts in an affluent society.

Traditional values are not outdated; those vital to success in battle still must be inculcated in servicemen who may be required to engage in or support combat, both to ensure operational success and to prevent unnecessary loss of life. And in addition, while the rights of the soldier as an American citizen must be protected, there also must be appropriate sanctions against those who fail to meet required standards of discipline and conduct, especially in combat. (Many believe the latest version of the Military Justice Act has created serious impediments to prompt and effective punishment which exacerbate disciplinary problems.) But at the same time, a rigorous review of traditional procedures is in order. While certain rituals that appear irrational may be necessary to produce an essential level of discipline, reluctance to crack the thick crust of custom should not inhibit appropriate change.

Most destructive to morale in the armed services, however, is a lack of purposeful activity relevant to a legitimate military mission. Careful force planning and programming at the highest echelons are necessary to lay the groundwork for rewarding peacetime service. For extensive administrative and logistical activities are required to support military units and installations, and excessive economizing or arbitrary reductions in the civilian work force and in supporting military manpower require that men be detailed from tactical units to perform support functions. Such diversions of personnel—and what is even more damaging, programmed shortages of manpower, equipment and spare parts in tactical units—not only preclude training and reduce readiness but also create the highly publicized environment of make-work and frustration which discourages enlistments and makes it difficult to retain quality personnel.

A related but more complicated problem is retaining talented professionals while maintaining essential values in today's military establishment. Military installations previously provided both separation from civilian society and amenities that would not have been available for equivalent civilian income. However, larger forces and broader responsibilities have increased military contacts with civilians, diluting some of the values that could be maintained relatively easily within an isolated military community. An increasing number of military assignments are not related directly to the combat function, removing the sustaining motivation of the military mystique. Genteel poverty and the Spartan life become less attractive, and the sense of commitment that engenders a willingness to work long hours is likely to become eroded when soldiers associate closely with civilians who are financially more successful in less demanding occupations.

Furthermore, military participation in the policy process involves a degree of political activity inconsistent with the non-partisan tenets of traditional professionalism. This not only causes strains within the military establishment, but it also leads to charges of excessive military influence in national security policy formulation. Many hold the military responsible for unpopular national security decisions. There is even evidence of recent concern that intensified criticism might alienate the military sufficiently for it to take action opposing constituted authority. This appears farfetched; the concept of civilian control, based on the soldier's unconditional commitment to elected political leadership, remains firmly grounded in the U.S. military ethos. But to prevent mutual suspicion and recrimination, it is important that American society draw a distinction between legitimate participation in policy deliberations on the one hand and responsibility for policy decisions on the other, and recognize and support the military establishment as an instrument of the state.

At the same time, a difficult question can arise for an individual member of the armed forces when he disagrees with a policy decision taken by political authority. While institutions as such cannot take moral stands, individuals cannot ignore them. Since the demands of both military service and morality are based on absolutes, service to the state must be philosophically compatible with the soldier's moral predispositions. Once this is accepted, moral choices rarely arise as a practical problem; when they do, they are likely to concern specific means of carrying out policy. But the nature and intensity of public criticism of military operations in Vietnam, highlighted by the My Lai tragedy, raise fundamental questions that the military services, and indeed American society, must face squarely and objectively in analyzing the use of the military instrument to obtain political objectives. Such an inquiry must include moral considerations, but it must avoid distortion of the Geneva Conventions to support unwarranted charges of war crimes.

VI

Solutions to the dilemmas facing the military profession fall somewhere between two unacceptable extremes: returning to traditional professionalism, involving withdrawal from society; or discarding traditional values and severely impairing cohesiveness and discipline. Obviously, the two should be reconciled, but the prescription of preserving essential military values while maintaining a close relationship with civilian society is inordinately difficult.

If the draft is discontinued to promote a volunteer armed force, it will be easier to preserve traditional values but harder to adapt military professionalism to modern demands. The uniformed services will become more self-contained and their separation from society will be more likely. This could become particularly serious if the military feel alienated from society and if civilians regard the military establishment as a separate community. Intensive efforts must be made by both civilian and military officials to encourage contact and coöperation and to prevent such unfortunate developments as the elimination of ROTC from our major universities. A close association of the armed forces with civilian society is necessary to ensure that military resources will be employed in a manner consistent with American societal values.

In the antimilitary environment likely to persist for the foreseeable future, reliance on volunteers would probably eliminate, for all practical purposes, the soldier of middle-class background from the enlisted ranks. This will also be true, to a somewhat lesser extent, of those from the working or blue-collar class which has been a prime source of military manpower. As an alternative to personnel shortages, the services probably will be required to lower standards and to rely to a large extent on recruitment from the alienated underclasses. In addition to the resulting disciplinary and racial problems, the military would be faced with a massive task of basic education and social rehabilitation. The uniformed services currently are engaged in a New Standards Program (formerly Project 100,000) designed to absorb annually into their ranks a limited number of men who fail to meet mental criteria or who have minor, correctable physical defects. But to rely primarily on the disadvantaged underclasses for the skilled manpower needed in a modern armed force presents an entirely different problem. Substantial increases in pay and other improvements might produce enough qualified volunteers to alleviate the situation somewhat; but without high levels of unemployment, antipathy to military service probably will override its attractions for the large majority of middle and working-class youth.

To obtain sufficient numbers of adequately qualified personnel, it appears essential to continue the Selective Service Act and to maintain relatively high mental standards. But while reliance on the draft will ensure closer contact of the military establishment with society, it will also increase the difficulty of preserving the traditional values necessary to an effective military force. There may be an escape from this dilemma in the concept of a "zero draft," whereby the Selective Service statute would be maintained, to be used only if necessary; this assumes, however, that sufficient numbers of adequately qualified volunteers will be attracted to a military career. The near-term prospects for this solution do not seem very bright, since it will depend upon a reduction in the extreme antimilitary attitudes currently prevalent in American society, a substantial allocation of resources for pay increases and improved living conditions, and imaginative measures by the military establishment to make service a rewarding professional experience rather than the unattractive occupation it is now perceived to be.

Regardless of the status of the draft, the military services undoubtedly will be expected to play a more direct institutional role in helping to solve domestic social problems. It is important, however, that organized military activities extend beyond the military establishment itself only in unusual circumstances, such as emergency disaster relief, in order to avoid involvement of the armed services in local politics and to prevent an unacceptable diversion of military units from necessary training. It is reasonable to expect a soldier to return to civilian society at the end of his enlistment better prepared for useful employment; Project Transition, designed to provide off-duty civilian job training to military personnel near the end of their service, probably should be expanded. Further, the services should make every effort to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination and provide genuinely equal opportunity for all. Individuals can contribute to local civilian projects, and certain organized activities for the underprivileged can be conducted on military installations.

However, it would be wrong to use military units to engage in civic action projects in American cities, as is frequently suggested, for this would thrust the armed services into sensitive activities for which they are unqualified. Poor performance in these projects, or even controversy over selection of priorities, could lead to further resentment of the military establishment. Indeed, while the services must not become isolated from civilian society, every precaution should be taken to avoid placing military organizations in adversary relationships with civilian communities; for example, regular armed forces should be used only as an absolute last resort in controlling civil disturbances, particularly in minority ghettos.

VII

There is probably a good deal of truth in the adage that a democracy gets the military establishment it deserves. The attitudes of American society will set the tone and general limits within which the armed forces can adjust traditional concepts of professionalism to changing realities in international competition and coöperation, changing conceptions of the role of the United States in world affairs, and changing social values. But a continuing dialogue among civilians and military professionals is essential to elucidate the complex issues involved and increase understanding of them.

An effective military force is vital to U.S. foreign policy. Like the search for national security itself, a continuing effort is required to adapt military professionalism to modern demands. But to paraphrase Montaigne, both the journey and the arrivals at way stations matter. The military services must exercise initiative and imagination in developing institutional changes; in the final analysis, however, civilian leadership and resultant public support will determine the pace and difficulty of the journey.

[i] Morris Janowitz, "The New Military." New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964.

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