Dr. Don Snider, a former professor of mine at West Point, gave a riveting lecture to the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia on 2 April 2011. To be honest, I got a little carried away with the notes I took – I’m not sure if I’ve ever transcribed so much. But this was great stuff, so great, in fact, that I might just assign it next semester for my course. The 55 minute lecture makes for a great once-around-the-world on the subject (followed by 20 minutes of Q & A).
(at ~23 minutes)
Professions deal in expert knowledge. Systematized, scientific body of knowledge theoretical and practical, it takes years to learn, it takes longer to practice. The surgeon is an example. But this is not just for expert surgeons. A platoon leader on patrol in Iraq, with X number of people in their patrol, an immense amount of information. And, a convoy leader, an immense amount of information in her head. Expertise about weapons, logistics, troop leading procedures, medical procedures…
If it’s expert knowledge it takes lifelong learning – practice by humans. What is the practice of the military professional? Surgeons cut. What do military professionals do? The practice of the military professional – let me give it to you in one sentence – the repetitive exercise of discretionary judgment. That’s it. The repetitive exercise of discretionary judgment. How many times will a lieutenant on patrol, a convoy leader, a helicopter pilot, how many times will they see a new situation, reason about it inferentially from the knowledge in their head, surveying a lot of technology all around them, and arrive at a decision? A judgment. Nobody looked over their shoulder, nobody told them what to decide, there was no computer that spit out the answer to them. The military professional practices their art humanly, and it is the repetitive exercise of judgment, because most of the cases it is not a clear-cut, what should we do, even if it’s a two star general sitting in the Pentagon moving $30 million from this program to this program. Got all sort of print outs on cost-benefit analysis and all sorts of staff people telling them ‘well, you need to do this or this or this.’ And ultimately it’s a judgment. That’s what military professionals do…
And now the hard part folks. What’s the moral content of those judgments? Can you think of a judgment that a military professional will make that is not highly laced with moral content? If we define moral as meaning influencing the life of another human being. Someone who you are leading, the enemy, a non-combatant on the battlefield, or a family back home. Or the citizenry you’re defending. One of the great British writers in this field said there’s one thing a bad person cannot be, and that’s a good soldier. The morality and the ethics of the military profession is crucial, folks, because of the nature of their professional work. Independent judgments of high moral content. And we need people in the military with the highest possible moral character so that more often than not those decisions come out as morally acceptable decisions.
What’s the measure of a profession? There’s only one; there’s effectiveness. Of course you want your military to be efficient, but military professions are not concerned primarily or first with efficiency. I wanted the cancer out – I didn’t care what it cost. I would have paid every penny in every account I had to get it out, I wanted it gone. And I wanted assurance it was going to be gone.
The sinner wants absolution. The fearful want security. The sick want a cure. The accused wants justice before a bar. The purpose of a profession is effectiveness, not efficiency…
(at ~32 minutes)
Professions create their own expert knowledge. We have no history, in America, of a bureaucracy or a government occupation creating expert knowledge. If America is going to have the expert knowledge of fighting wars, you’re going to have to have a military that behaves like a profession.
Baghdad 2003, a brilliant campaign…decapitated the capital, occupied the capital. The same kind of expert knowledge displayed in that armor offensive that was displayed in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, when we kicked Iraq out of Kuwait. The same kind – brilliant.
And what happened for the next year and a half? An insurgency developed, and our soldiers on the ground and their uniformed leaders on the ground could not even recognize the insurgency let alone fight it. Why? One of the most embarrassing periods in the United States Army’s history, what happened? The United States Army had lost the expert knowledge of counterinsurgency. It had atrophied. We had no doctrine. We hadn’t been teaching it at our schools. There was not hardly an officer serving in Iraq at that time in the whole corps that had marched that had ever studied seriously counterinsurgency. Folks this an egregious case of the strategic leaders of the profession, failing the profession. What do you pay strategic leaders for? To look out five to ten years and say, ‘what expert knowledge must we have then, ‘ develop the knowledge, and then develop the humans to practice it. The good side of this story is that within the next year and a half, the doctrine was developed, the captains and major were introduced to the doctrine, the new units into theater began to understand it, and within two years we were effectively starting anyway to fight a counterinsurgency.
(at ~40 minutes)
What is the moral foundation of the soldier? See there’s two parts to the moral narrative that we have to create for the soldier. Why are we asking you as a nation to do what you’re doing – and, how may you do it? The why, under the old Just War tradition, just ad bellum, why are we going to war, why is this a just war? And then how are you to proceed? What may you do and what may you not do? What you may not do is offend the sensitivities of us, we are the client, we are the American people – we will tell you how you may fight this war…you cross the American people, your client, and you will get the back of the hand and they will move you mentally from the professional side of that chart to the government occupation side and now treat you just like the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior.
Professions exist on the trust of the client.
(at ~48 minutes)
Now in this era of post-heroic warfare, which is what we were discussing at Oxford last week, the cosmopolitan view of civil societies is becoming much more prevalent. And here’s the change: there’s much less tolerance for state violence, greater concern for human rights, the international human right regime is probably the most significant movement, the international courts of justice being part of it, the multilateralization of adjudication of conflict, greater scrutiny of law of war violations, and in many cases here, as George Lucas at the Naval Academy has argued in recently written so clearly, it is now the case that the behavior of individual soldiers is equated in the public’s mind with the justness of the war. This is the phenomenon of the ‘strategic corporal.’ It only takes a few people to do Abu Ghraib. And the justness of the war is now questioned because of the unjust behavior of the individual.
To cite: Don Snider. “Future Trends in American Civil-Military Relations.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. Philadelphia, PA. 2 April 2011. MP3.