Reconsidering the Armed Forces Officer of 1950: Democracy, Dialogue, the Humanities, and the Military Profession

By Bonadonna, Reed R. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Reconsidering the Armed Forces Officer of 1950: Democracy, Dialogue, the Humanities, and the Military Profession


Bonadonna, Reed R., Joint Force Quarterly


The 1950 edition of The Armed Forces Officer is the best book by the prolific military writer S.L.A. Marshall, and it is probably the best book on military leadership ever written by an American. (1) In this article, I briefly describe how the timing and circumstances of the composition of The Armed Forces Officer helped Marshall to write his masterpiece, and then go on to illuminate the book's innate, enduring, and timely strengths. This book represents a significant and perhaps still-unmatched achievement in uniting the form and content of the values and outlook required of an officer serving in the armed forces of a democracy. The Armed Forces Officer emphasizes both the accessibility and complexity of military leadership. In The Armed Forces Officer, the profession of arms itself becomes an interdisciplinary subset of the humanities, connected to both a canon of writing on military leadership and officer education, and most importantly to the larger culture, past and present. Marshall's approach to the paradoxes of the citizen-soldier and the commissioned elite in the service of a democracy is dialogic and inclusive. The book merits widespread reading and reconsideration at a time when the American military profession is beset by great challenges and confronted with formidable adversaries.

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Marshall and the Army of a Democracy

How did it come about that this book, apparently written at speed in 30 days after Marshall (at least by his own later account) had assumed responsibility for a languishing Department of Defense (DOD) project, come to be his tour de force?2 One important element might be that Marshall was an anonymous author in the earlier Government Printing Office editions of the book. Writing without his own name dampened Marshall's strong inclination for self-promotion, allowing his undoubted abilities, which included a prolific, although not infallible, memory to dominate. (3) The Marshall of The Armed Forces Officer was just nearing 50. His lively mind was full of his readings and of the scenes and voices of his recent war experience, and he was not yet as curmudgeonly or reactionary as he sometimes seems in some later writings. (4) The tone of this book is decidedly democratic and egalitarian.

Perhaps partly due to the instructive experience of World War II, The Armed Forces Officer is very non-Prussian, rejecting militarism, dogmatism, and other forms of professional insularity in favor of one more suited to America's Army. The book eschews the German model that sometimes seems to be the dominant historical example of military professionalism. On the one hand, Marshall rejects the narrow, technocratic approach to professionalism that had over-taken the German officer corps and General Staff in the later 19th century, in effect reaching back to an older, more humanist, and ethical model (represented by Gerhard von Scharnhorst and the other Prussian reformers of the Napoleonic period). Moreover, he takes into account American culture and conditions. Marshall may also have been aided by the fact that he was writing before the field of "leadership studies" and military professionalism had come to be dominated by sociologists, psychologists, and others in academe, so that there was still room for eclecticism, even eccentricity. As opposed to the prevailing social science model of the officer as a "manager of violence," Marshall's officer is much more a leader, an in-person figure and not a faceless member of a bureaucracy. (5) The book reflects the era of the common man in which it was written. With liberal 20th-century ideas of education in the air, such as those of John Dewey, Marshall writes of the Armed Forces as a school in liberal democracy whose subjects include citizenship, virtue, self-knowledge, and even creativity and self-invention.

It is no coincidence that The Armed Forces Officer was written just a few years after World War II. …

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