The Professional Obligations of Military Officership
Having graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point on 1 June 2002, receiving my diploma from President George W. Bush moments after he gave his “doctrine of preemption” speech, the image at left (which I came across this past week) evoked a response from me. Not, however, negative, as one might expect. I just sort of looked at it and thought about what it “spoke” to me as a professional military officer. Of course, I thought about the friends and classmates that have died in Iraq (and Afghanistan), and how many of them had passed earlier than they deserved. I think the cartoonist is trying to, perhaps, comment on the fears each cadet feels when the time for college is done and the war effort calls. It is a fairly shocking image to one with personal connections to West Point (I can only imagine that my Mom wouldn’t have appreciated seeing it in 2002).Despite the cartoon’s intent, I actually take pride in this image. After a lot of general personal reflection on my place in the world, I can state with certainty that I am intensely proud of my professional obligation as a military officer to the American republic. And, a principal component of that obligation, as I see it, is that I am to always be prepared to sell my life dearly in defense of the American public, or whatever other interest they see fit for me to pursue.

My favorite professor at West Point was a retired Colonel, Dr. Don Snider. He has written a great deal on officership and its vital function as a profession in the United States. Much of what Snider wrote was based on the foundations that Samuel P. Huntington laid in his book (1957?) The Soldier and the State. Huntington wrote that “The modern officer corps is a professional body, and the modern military officer, a professional man.” Huntington goes on to define professionalism in three ways: expertise (distinct body of knowledge, obedient arm of the state), responsibility (to society), corporateness (professional autonomy and separate authority).

Dr. Snider followed up Huntington’s work with a number of publications, including “Army Professionalism, the Military Ethic, and Officership in the 21st Century” in 1999. It is from this monograph that I quote liberally:

“The concept of service is central to a principled understanding of officership. It holds that the profession serves the American people by providing a socially useful and necessary function: defending Americans and their interests by being schooled in war and hence able to apply effectively protective violence at their request. As noted in this monograph, this meeting of a societal need creates the moral dimension of the Army’s professionalism as well as the noble character of the individual officer’s service to his fellow citizens. Embodied explicitly in the commission and implicitly in the unwritten contract with society, this moral obligation requires of the officer unlimited liability, including life, as well as the moral commitment always to put service before self…To the officer, self is always to be abnegated to the higher calling through the disciplined application of moral or physical courage. A self-abnegating officer has no legacy save the character and quality of his or her service…

Secondly, just as the officer’s commitment to service is grounded morally in his or her obligation to society, under our form of government it is also grounded in law, both in the Constitution and in subsequent statutes. But just because the commitment has two overlapping foundations does not mean that both are to be valued equally by the officer…within an increasingly legalistic society, the officer’s reaction to crisis must always to place fulfillment of moral obligation over that of the legal obligation, even at personal or professional expense. His or her role must be to do the right thing, to pursue the right outcome on behalf of those served, American society

Third, and last, is the issue of truth. Not only must commissioned officers always revere the truth, they must also never be in fear of it….Since the truth, as well as the absence of fear about it, cements the bond of trust between officer and society, it is always to be pursued and displayed with exceptional vigor…That means as a matter of highest principal that the officer speaks ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ at all times because he or she is perpetually under moral oath, upon accepting the commission.”

This is my understanding/interpretation of the obligation that military officership expects of me. I understand that it is a very high standard, maybe even an ideal type or an aspiration. But it is, in fact, how I see what I am to be and the standard to meet for my behavior on society’s behalf. And, one will likely note Snider’s comment that addresses the Grim Reaper cartoon: “this moral obligation requires of the officer unlimited liability, including life.” That concept is tough for most people to really comprehend, I think, and reflective of why less than 1% of Americans serve in the Armed Forces in the voluntary era. Snider comments on this divide:

“…application of the principles yields attitudes and behavior often at odds with those within the society the officer has chosen to serve. Does this then mean that the officer is in any manner better than those in American society? We do not believe so. It means only that the officer is different, and has unreservedly chosen to be so.”

I couldn’t agree more. Officership is my choice, of my own free will. Nobody has forced it upon me, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to leave the military (even taking one road out). This personal choice gives me comfort and pride in the decision, which is why, in the end, the Grim Reaper cartoon doesn’t bother me in the least. Because even if, as the cartoon suggests, I had shaken hands with Hades ~ I would have done so with an immense pride and satisfaction in the life I had led, in no small part due to the service I’d rendered onto the people of the United States.

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