Know Yourself before the Enemy: Military Professionalism's Civil Foundation

By Bryan, Ian | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Know Yourself before the Enemy: Military Professionalism's Civil Foundation


Bryan, Ian, Joint Force Quarterly


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General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and principal military advisor to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, received a collection of articles on civil-military relations from a long-time friend and professor to help him prepare for the job. In the 20 years between attending the Army War College and becoming Chairman, he had received no formal education to prepare for managing the civil-military relationship, neither at the CAPSTONE course for general officers nor at the Harvard Kennedy School program for senior executives. General Myers shared this anecdote at a January conference on military professionalism organized by the Institute for National Security Ethics and Leadership at the National Defense University, held at the request of Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chairman. That conference focused on the profession's connections with civil society.

With grave international and budgetary challenges facing our military, however, some officers might not agree that the profession should focus now on civil-military relations. Yet civil-military relations, starting with its constitutional underpinnings, is at once the most fundamental component of American military professionalism and the one most overlooked. And it is the arena where our military leaders seem to fail most often, or at least most spectacularly.

This is not a topic just for generals. Officers of every rank routinely make decisions that affect the military's complex relationship with society. Moreover, an officer is far behind if he only begins developing civil-military sensibilities after donning a star. Military leaders need to earn trust and respect while gaining influence with civilian policy elites--politicians, political appointees, lawyers, bureaucrats, and the like--who have been immersed in the domestic political milieu throughout their careers.

Education across the Department of Defense inadequately prepares officers for this arena, giving little attention to the civil-military relationship and its constitutional underpinnings. Even among the select field grade officers whom I taught at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies with an in-residence military Intermediate Developmental Education under their belts, few have studied or even read the Constitution that they swore to defend since high school or college, even though most are hungry to engage on the topic. We have failed to tend the foundation of American military professionalism.

Neglect of civil-military expertise among officers manifests in views incompatible with our oath, hindering representative government and undermining the societal trust prerequisite to provisioning a strong military. I have heard a well-known retired general officer imply, off the record, that the law is what the President and his administration say it is, notwithstanding the Constitution's contrary assertion. Officers have argued to me in private and in class, and one recently in print, that their personal sense of right and wrong trumps judgments made via our political process and the chain of command.

The profession has permitted a blind spot to form at the center of the officer's duty. This neglect of civil-military competence makes it more difficult for officers to serve effectively, leaving them less perceptive of the Nation's needs and wants. Civil society is of course where resources are provided and where military leaders must look to decipher parameters for sustainable action and to divine unclear objectives.

It will not be enough to bolt civil-military literacy onto an already constructed idea of officer professionalism framed around technical competence. Relations with civil society must undergird the American officer's professional identity. For if civil-military relations are unhealthy, then technical competence is unsustainable or may even work against the Nation's values and interests, particularly as military measures increasingly impinge on the homeland. …

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