#93 More Questions Than Answers

"The task of building an ethical environment where leaders and all personnel are instructed, encouraged, and rewarded for ethical behavior is a matter of first importance. All decisions, practices, goals, and values of the entire institutional structure which make ethical behavior difficult should be examined, beginning with the following:

First, blatant or subtle forms of ethical relativism which blur the issue of what is right or wrong or which bury it as a subject of little or no importance.

Second, the exaggerated loyalty syndrome, where people are afraid to tell the truth and are discouraged from it.

Third, the obsession with image, where people are not even interested in the truth.
And last, the drive for success, in which ethical sensitivity is bought off or sold because of the personal need to achieve."

Chaplain (Major General) Kermit D. Johnson Parameters Magazine 1974

I found this quote yesterday and it struck me how relevant it is to many of the discussions we are having right now throughout the Army. After nearly a decade of war, the time to take a hard look at the profession, what it stands for, and what behavioral requirements and demands it makes upon its’ members is incredibly important. I found the quote interesting because it also followed another long period of persistent conflict and raised many of the same issues that surround our Army today. 37 years have passed between the Army of the Vietnam Era and where we are today, and yet we are still asking the same questions now as he did back then.

Maybe though the real issue here is not that 37 years have passed, but rather that this particular discussion is one that should never have stopped in the first place. Any discussion of the ethic of a profession should not ever really have a defined starting or ending point. It should always be an ongoing dialogue. What the 37 intervening years says to me is that at some point, we felt as if we had ‘figured it out’ and now could take a break. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any profession’s relevancy lies clearly with how it defines itself, and what it stands for in the eyes of those for whom it provides a service. To suggest that those definitions and services happen in a finite point in time is simply untrue. The definitions and services happen in a dynamic and ever-changing world. Therefore, the ethic must be always be challenged and reviewed in light of that world. Of course, we need to ensure that we always maintain the ability to take the long view on present realities as well. While paying attention to the trees, we can never lose sight of the forest. Otherwise we run the risk of changing with every whim and popular thought of the moment. There are some things that must not change in any profession. As much as we need to continually review our thoughts and ideas and see if they remain true in present circumstances, we also need to ensure that the basic tenants of the profession remain. The larger question that deserves consideration is what those tenants are.

You cannot have a profession without having an ethic. The ethic defines the required behaviors and actions that any member must absorb and then display. Chaplain Johnson’s thoughts provide all of us a great start point for our current study of what the Army ethic is at this young point in the 21st century.

His idea of relativism struck a strong chord with me. Are there enduring values – immutable, non-negotiable rights and wrongs that define what it means to be a Soldier? If so, what are they? Are there actions that are always right or always wrong regardless of context? What happens when taking the ‘moral high ground’ means that you invite more attacks on your own Soldiers? What happens when your opponent is willing to use your moral/ethical boundaries to their own tactical advantage? How do you reconcile your leader decision to act in a manner consistent with the profession when it results in death or injury to your own Soldiers? More importantly, how do we imbue the importance of these immutable values into every Soldier in such a manner that they ultimately understand and accept that outcomes such as these are possible? Will these understandings stand up to the emotions of a grieving parent or spouse? Can these understandings survive a congressional inquiry? An After Action Review? At the local level, can we prepare leaders to be able to recognize that their Soldiers view of what happened, what should have happened, and why certain ethical decisions were made will have many varied interpretations and those interpretations could have an effect on future behaviors and actions of the platoon’s Soldiers? What about the many nights that will follow decisions such as these where someone lies in bed and wonders? Stares at the ceiling in the dark and wonders, “Did I do the right thing?” What about the emotions of our Soldiers? Can we imbue in them the ability to never lose the forest despite all the trees? For example, there was an attack on US Forces recently that resulted in a high casualty count. Already I have seen people writing about retribution. What do we need to do to ensure that the honest emotional response of wanting payback does not turn into actions that ultimately demean the ethic of being an American Soldier?

Chaplain Johnson’s second thought that there must be an institutional mechanism for ‘truth-telling’ is also important and falls directly in line with the thoughts expressed by LTG Caslen regarding candor. When loyalty or fealty to the boss becomes more important than the truth because of political or career implications, we as a profession will suffer. We must encourage – no, we must demand - ‘truth-telling’. I am certain that this is one of those immutable norms and expectations of the profession that we cannot survive without. But if, as LTG Caslen suggested, candor needs to be emphasized throughout the force, what conditions will it take for that to occur? How do we ensure that Soldiers always have the right (and obligation) to ask their questions, and speak their truth? For example, I got an email request last week to provide some data to our leaders overseas. A young Soldier had told one of the senior leaders that his unit had not received any replacement Soldiers for the entire deployment. The leader wanted to know why. It is certain, that the Soldier was mistaken – that I know for sure. What’s important though is that the exchange happened and that hopefully, the leader will help inform the Soldier on what the truth really is. The Soldier’s truth (his understanding) is not wrong – it is misinformed. However, without the mechanism for him to ask his question, the leader never knows what the Soldier is thinking. We must be able to tell the boss when our two understandings of the environment don’t add up. If all we do is nod our heads and agree then we do injustice to the communication process. As historians study this period in the Army, one thing they may discover is that once we all became convinced of our greatness, we did not have a mechanism in place to check our preconceptions against our realities.

Finally, careerism is most certainly the disease that leads to everything mentioned above. We must examine what it means to be a professional. Being a professional Soldier must once again take on the aura of an avocation. Something done not for money or security, but rather of true devotion. That is not to say that Soldiers should be paupers, but rather that we need to emphasize that ours is a lifestyle and a calling.

There are more questions now than there are answers. For some this lack of an absolutely clear direction will lead to blind faith in those around them. For others it will drive them to look deeply into their own hearts and attempt to find their own definition of the profession. Chaplain Johnson’s thoughts of a long time ago have come full circle. This time, lets ensure that we never think we’ve got it all figured out. The discussions of the profession of arms, what it means to serve, and the warrior’s vocation demand constant reflection. The blog serves part of that need for me. I hope it does for you as well.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.