#90 The Professional Ethic vol. 1

A few weeks back in an earlier post, I attached a video from General Martin Dempsey, the commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, where he mentioned that 2011 was going to be "The Year of the Professional Military Ethic". He had determined that it might be time for the Army to revisit it's ethic - what it stands for, and how it operates; to ask what is it that makes us a profession in the first place? After almost a decade of war, the requirement to rapidly adjust the manner and method by which it has been prosecuted, and in the face of public scrutiny as to it's purpose, he has determined that the Army needs to take a look at itself and ask if we are living up to those requirements that grant us our special place in society. What does it mean to be the 'profession of arms'?

So, as usual, I went looking for source material and I came across a 1989 article by Mark S. Frankel from the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled, "Professional Codes: Why? How? And With What Impact" which I think provides a great starting point for this post, and the overall discussion. There is almost no part of the article that didn't resonate with me. Although it is not specifically addressed toward the military, Mr. Frankel has provided a very appropriate framework for the discussion of any profession and this could certainly be used by the Army as we look at ourselves in the early part of the 21st century.

You can find the link here:


The first paragraph of the introduction says a lot about the changing conditions that we live in:

"Not too long ago, discussions of professional ethics were confined mainly within the professions themselves. This is no longer the case, however. In recent years, a blend of economic, social, legal, and political events has had a profound effect not only on the behavior and performance of professionals, but also on the public's expectations of them. The days of unquestioned trust and admiration on the part of clients or the general public are past."

This is an important consideration. In earlier periods, people had a rather blind faith in their institutions. There was an unspoken and comforting trust that the government was always looking out for the best interests of the citizenry. That the corporation would take care of you after you had given it 20 years of hard work and dedication. That if Walter Cronkite said the world was safe that night, then you could take it to the bank. There was comfort that the we were the 'good guys' and that America always worked altruistically to care for its' people. There was a faith that doctors were diligently working to stop the spread of disease, that the law always possessed some higher ideal of justice, and that our faith organizations were always centered on providing the moral framework by which we lead our lives.

Sadly, none of us are that naive anymore. We know that governments are no better than the people who inhabit them, that both doctors and lawyers keep a steady eye on their bottom line, and that faith organizations often have political agendas well beyond (and sometimes outside of) their moral and spiritual teachings.

The Army is no different. The Army as an institution is inhabited by people whose character and values are no better or no worse than the society that produces them. Due to the proliferation of technology and the availability of information, the institution is no longer allowed to be self-policing and immune from public scrutiny. The moral underpinnings of who we are as an Army, and how we define ourselves both inside the organization and with an eye toward our relationship with the nation have been tested by the requirements of the conflicts we are involved in. General Dempsey is correct, it is time to re-look our professional military ethic.

Consider the following paragraph from a paper entitled "The Professional Military Ethic in an Era of Persistent Conflict" written by Don Snyder, Paul Oh, and Kevin Toner in October 2009 and published by the Strategic Studies Institute:

"...Release in May 2007 of a Military Health Advisory Team (MHAT-IV) survey of fewer than 2,000 soldiers and Marines who had served in units with “the highest level of combat exposure” in Iraq found that: “approximately 10 percent of soldiers and Marines report mistreating noncombatants or damaging property when it was not necessary. Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines agreed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Well over a third of all soldiers and Marines reported that torture should be allowed to save the life of a fellow soldier or Marine. And less than half of soldiers or Marines would report a team member for unethical behavior. Although Army doctrine (FM 3-24) specifies an embedded ethic that “preserving noncombatant lives and dignity is central to mission accomplishment” in counterinsurgency, the survey reported that between one-third and one-half of soldiers and Marines who answered the survey dismissed the importance or truth of non-combatants’ dignity and respect."

While that paragraph is attributed in the monologue to an unpublished paper by Maj Celestino Perez, the statistics outlined in it should give us all pause for thought.

The SSI monologue can be found here and is well worth reading:


What is it that makes us a profession and not a gang? What moral, social, behavioral, and structural constructs define us? What mechanisms do we have for policing ourselves and are they effective? What indicators do we have that our ethic is commonly understood by all our members? What method do we use to ensure their understanding? These are all incredibly important and complex questions but I do think that by using the two sources above we can begin to at least frame the discussion.

Since I generally concentrate my writing on the more personal aspects of leadership at the micro level, all of the above may seem to be an extremely long introduction to these ideas:

1. Servitude: We must make a distinction between the institution that serves the nation and the leader who serves the subordinate. They are not interchangeable. While the words we use may be similar, they have vastly different connotations. The dynamics of the interaction between the Army and the nation is structural while the interaction between a leader and the led is much more personal. I am not equipped or knowledgeable enough to understand the mechanics of how the institution works but I can speak to the servitude of leaders toward their subordinates. There must be a renewed sense in our officer and non-commissioned officer corps that a significant portion of a leader's responsibility is to serve their subordinates, not the other way around. This emphasis on servant leadership cannot only be that the individual leader is a servant of the organization or the nation, but that they fulfill that ideal by serving their subordinates.

2. Moral (Ethical) Development: The basis for any application of the warrior's professional skills must be rooted in the ethical and moral framework of the nation. The nation is our client. We need to understand what the nation expects of us and how we respond to it at the personal level. Our Soldiers need to be constantly exposed in training and every day encounters to morally ambiguous situations and forced to make decisions. Much like we practice the same battle drills and maneuvers over and over until we have mastered them, we should make moral and ethical decision making an imperative at all levels. Ethical decision games should share equal (or maybe even higher) footing with tactical decision games. Beating the enemy is easy. Beating the enemy in a manner consistent with the nation's ethical expectations is infinitely more difficult. Because we draw the members of our profession from all walks and stations of society, we must have some mechanism to impress our behavioral requirements and their importance upon our members. The Soldier must understand why and how their behavior as a professional has an impact on how we conduct our business and why those things must remain consistent with the nation's expectations. We must also accept that simply putting on the uniform and reciting an oath does not make one a professional. Only when we absorb the moral and behavioral understandings of the institution do we begin to move from employee to professional. From mercenary to warrior. Ethical decision making, consistent with our charter with the nation is arguably more important than our ability to fight. Without a binding set of acceptable norms and behaviors, we are nothing more than a federally sanctioned gang. What are those norms and behaviors? Are they relevant? Do they reflect the nation's needs? Are they real, or simply entrenched ideas from past generations?

3. The Institution vs Reality: Part of the discussion of any professional ethic must address the self-preservation inclination of the institution itself versus the relevancy of that institution to the current situation. You cannot call yourself a profession if the service you provide has no customer who desires and accepts it. Not only the product, but also the method of delivery. We will certainly need to look at ourselves and ask if our particular set of skills actually do provide the nation what it expects, or are we simply selling a product that the consumer does not want? Have we been oversold to the nation and had promises made on our behalf that we cannot live up to? Principle to that, we must claim as a virtue the requirement for open dialogue, disagreement, and learning as it applies to adaptation and agility. We must create climates that encourage transparency and if the structure doesn't support that, then the structure must be changed. When the needs of the consumer (the nation or the Soldier) are being addressed appropriately by the service provider (the Army, or the leader) in a manner of clear understanding and expectation, then respect and trust are gained. When they are not, the standing of any profession is diminished. In short, we and the nation must see ourselves clearly.

4. Individual Value: We must value each and every member of the profession. Everything we do, say, demonstrate and teach must begin with the recognition that the profession has a responsibility to develop and care for its' members. And since each member is unique, each method of development and caring must be as well. We must require, support, and enhance mental, moral, spiritual and physical growth. We need to hang our hat on the development of just one 18 year old kid.

Servant Leadership at the personal level, based upon a commonly understood ethical and moral construct, coupled with a valued recognition for candor, respect and dialogue, all of which is focused on the development of a citizen soldier into a professional warrior. Although the discussion is much more complex than that, this might be a good place to start.

I titled this post "The Professional Ethic vol. 1" for a reason. As this year progresses, I'm pretty sure there will be a couple more volumes to this series.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. I look forward to hearing from you.


  1. Servant leaders are to be encouraged. A servant has a master and masters are to be obeyed. So at the heart of servant leaders, at every level, is obedience.

    I have added a comment to blog 84 offering a fresh perspective if you are interested.

  2. Ethics. Well I have to agree with you we need to take a look at how we operate. I agree that we should treat others with respect to include the enemy. But when does saving a soldier's life becomes less important than ethics. I would not want to be the one to tell an American soldier's family we could not bring JOE home because our ethics do not allow us to do what it takes to bring that soldier home.
    Our enemy has not mercy for us. I am not saying let’s be ventilates, but let us do everything within our power to bring our soldier's home.

  3. Jenny, great point....in reality it is not an either/or situation...it both at the same time....


  4. It is not often that I disagree with JD, but this time I must. You cannot maintain the ethical and moral standards expected of Soldiers AND guarantee the safe return of all Soldiers. There will in fact be times when it is either/or. When that times occurs, it will likely be the snap judgment of another Soldier who makes that choice. While none of us would want to have to inform a family that their Soldier had been killed, the worse truth would be that their Soldier had acted immorally.

    Having said that, the point of this post was the Army ethic (the behavioral norms of the organization)and what I think needs to be emphasized, and not necessarily ethical (individual moral behavior)choices that Soldiers will be forced to make. The point is that we need to provide Soldiers training in making ethical (individual moral) choices that ultimately support the ethic (the behavioral norms of the organization). Both of which ultimately define the American Soldier and our collective responsibility to the Nation.

  5. You will notice that 'obey' is rarely used in our lexicon. It is such a simple and accurate word. Obedience to your commander in chief in every aspect of your life. Accept that instruction deep in your soul and many of the problems we face on bases at home and deployed would melt away. Addictions, marital disputes, child neglect, debt etc. Rather than the year of the professional military ethic how about 'the year of obedience'?

  6. we probably need to talk specific examples...as Jenny says, "saving a Soldier's life never becomes less important than ethics"...I agree...there may be times that the choice is between 2 "wrongs"...so which "wrong" is worse than the other?

    this is often called "moral stacking"