A New American Military Ethic

August 6, 2014

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At a major conference at the Atlantic Council recently, General Martin E. Dempsey, U.S. Army, the serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was questioned about the idea of a general officer being elected President. The Chairman’s response went beyond the specific question, raising an important but often misunderstood point about the military profession:

You know what I’ve said about generals and flag officers? If you want to get out of the military and run for office, I’m all for it. But don’t get out of the military–and this is a bit controversial, I got it. Don’t get out of the military and become a political figure by throwing your support behind a particular candidate. Do you think they’re asking Marty Dempsey, or are they asking General Dempsey? I am a general for life, and I should remain true to our professional ethos, which is to be apolitical for life unless I run. May the best man or woman win, but use the title to advocate a particular position, no.

It may be true that an apolitical military and an ethos that prohibits the use of military rank or title for personal gain or partisan political purpose is best for our republic. But this is not yet an accepted element of the military’s professional ethos. On face value, it runs against the grain of American culture, and certainly runs against the common practice of the last few elections, in which both parties vie for the endorsements of anyone who once held senior rank in the U.S. military. Some find the participation of retired generals in partisan advocacy merely “unseemly.” Others believe that retired officers have earned a right to participate in the media and electoral politics in whatever manner they wish after their careers.

The Chairman raised this issue some months ago with the editorial staff of War on the Rocks, saying that his tenure in office has made him ask himself a few questions, such as:

…what it means to be a professional? How is it different from simply a job? What is it that we owe ourselves internally? How do we hold ourselves to a higher standard? How do we identify that standard? What are the key leader attributes that define us? And how do we deliver them?

The Chairman’s questions are not rhetorical. He is laying out the basic elements of a clearly understood American Military Ethic. This is something that the U.S. Officer Corps currently lacks. The U.S. military has commissioning oaths, oaths of office, and various standards of conduct. It has reams of articles on ethics and the ethos of the officer corps, but lacks a defined and enforceable code of ethics. In addition to social responsibility and barriers to entry (certification, license or commissioning) a professional code of ethics is one of the characteristics of a profession. What is the military’s professional ethic, and where is it found? Who determines the expectations and domain of expertise assigned to military officers. Whose role is to establish and enforce this ethic? Professions are supposed to be self-disciplining.

The ethical challenges facing the military have been strained by more than 12 years of war. The challenge goes well beyond a few notorious cases of senior officer misconduct. I think we have a larger and more conceptual challenge of defining our profession within our national security system and in relation to our citizenry. During the past decade, a few officers published articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. Some of these expressly designed to generate support for particular policy outcomes or to influence the decision. As the candid but ethically grounded former Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted, “Anonymous military officers’ bitter condemnations of civil authorities are now far too common features of public discourse.”Some talked down to the American people for their indifference to the wars they sent soldiers and Marines off to fight while “they were at the mall.” Other officers formed veterans’ organizations (after they retired or left active duty, in the case of Guardsmen) through which they raised funds and promoted policies related to America’s surge in Iraq. Still others (largely retired officers) do not hesitate to opine about pending operations like Syria. Which actions are legitimate, which are merely questionable, and which crossed a line?

The importance of post-war civil-military relations was the topic of an essay I wrote in Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, entitled “Dereliction of Duty Redux.” I was particularly interested in the interaction of Pentagon leaders and the Joint Chiefs in that essay. I was concerned about the distinction between civilian control and effective civil-military discourse to support the supreme judgment of going to war. As noted by Professor Mac Owens, “dissent is not disobedience,” but it can be seen as such to unschooled policy makers or an uninformed population. This is why a military ethos must define that issue, not just for our own profession but for the ultimate clients and “customers” — the American people our Armed Forces serve.

The interplay of politics and military matters cannot be left solely to military professionals, and thus the development of a formal professional ethic may not be an exclusively military task. Failure to shape the culture, codes, and character of the profession before war occurs is guaranteed to result in increased friction, poor decision making climates, and decreased strategic performance. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff probably bears primary responsibility for shaping the professional culture of the Armed Services and its ethos, along with his service chiefs. Civil-military relations is a critical component of security policy, and any country that fails to consider the intense and interactive discourse that drives policymaking runs considerable risks, as the late Sam Huntington suggested long ago in The Soldier and the State.

Some within the profession do not realize the importance of working constructively and forthrightly (and not necessarily without tension or debate) in private counsel. Instead, some officers believe that bureaucratic tactics, including end runs around the Executive branch to Congress or the press are justified by the consequences of poor decisions. Owens, in the Naval War College Review, cites numerous cases where “foot dragging,” “slow rolling,” and leaks to the press were designed to undercut policy during the Clinton presidency and during Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. If Woodward’s book on the Obama administration during the Afghanistan surge debate presents accurate information, then undue pressure by serving military leaders was not just a problem in the Clinton and Bush eras.

This is a slippery slope. When the judgment and advice of military professionals appears to be colored by its self-interest, it can cause the exclusion of crucial military perspectives in near-term and long-term decision making. It also clouds the perception and weight that civilians give to the professional advice they receive, and factors into who is allowed in the room to give counsel. Society is ill served by public agencies that cannot subordinate their preferences to the greater national interest. When the Officer Corps loses sight of this important ethical dimension, it is time for a serious reconsideration of what it means to be a professional, and what fundamental ethos guides our role and service to society. It may also be time to review how the professional military education system supports this understanding.

One means to this end is codifying the professional military ethic and incorporating it into the military educational system. The American Military Professional Ethic I am proposing be developed would codify the laws, regulations and values of the American Profession of Arms, and reflects the traditions and core beliefs of our professional relationship with the American people and with the democracy we serve. It defines our social responsibility and expertise, and the appropriate conduct of our members bound together in common service to the Nation.

Several individuals and schools have been working on this for some time. For example, the work of Marybeth Petersen Ulrich in The Future of the Army Profession is a wonderful start. See also Matt Moten’s monograph — The Army’s Officers’ Professional Ethic, Past, Present and Future. This new code should define the profession and its role, and address the fundamentals of a profession dedicated to this Republic’s values and institutions. It should distinguish between the professional military and our citizen soldiers in the National Guard, as well as the rights, privileges and obligations of retired senior officers. It should identify the acceptable parameters for officers supporting candidates in political campaigns, as well as guidelines for writing in professional journals, news outlets, and social media. The code should also clearly define the expectations for obedience and dissent so that we recognize the difference between a retired officer expressing his opinion and a “revolt.” Once it is defined, we need to educate our military and citizenry on the fundamentals of this ethic; our senior officers will need to model this ethic; and the Congress and the profession will need to enforce it.

Generating and gaining a consensus on this codified ethos will be serious work, and will require both civilian and military participation. Thus, I had originally proposed in my Orbis essay a national commission or task force on the American Military Ethic to define and complete this ethical codification, with bipartisan and joint representation. The commission would also sponsor a comprehensive set of case histories that would address critical issues in civil-military relations.   Some of these would focus on policy and strategy development to illustrate the desired ‘‘running conversation’’ between policymakers and military professionals. The new professional military ethic will help define society’s expectations for its uniformed military and the case histories will highlight the benefits of extensive and — if necessary — intense interaction in what Eliot A. Cohen called the “unequal dialogue” in Supreme Command.This tense discourse and political-military interaction is critical to policymaking and war planning.

Other cases would support critical ethical boundaries on dissent and on the utilization (if not exploitation) of modern military by military professionals. These cases would be offered to the country’s civilian and military institutions of higher learning, as they need to be incorporated into the educational programs that prepare both civilian and military leaders for future crises.

For his part, General Dempsey, both in his current post and during his brief tenure as Chief of Staff of the Army, has made a dedicated effort to discuss shortfalls in character, competence, and comportment with guidelines for proper civil-military interface. He has also issued a brief White Paper on the Profession of Arms with the express purpose of ensuring a renewed commitment to the profession during his term as the senior military officer in the land. Developing and promulgating a Joint ethic would be another big step forward. Now that Secretary Hagel has established an advisory office on ethics and conduct, the so-called Military Ethics Czar, perhaps that office should lead this effort.

The bottom line is that a formal articulation of an ethical code for Military Officership would be consistent with the goals that the Secretary and the Chairman have announced. Without such a code, our ability to teach, model and enforce the highest standards of professionalism will remain unattainable.

Thirteen years of war have put strains on the Profession of Arms, and the Officer Corps has responded magnificently under adverse circumstances. But we must constantly renew our efforts to preserve the highest standards and pass the torch to the next generation about to take its place.


F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. These comments are solely his own and do not reflect the policies or positions of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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19 thoughts on “A New American Military Ethic

  1. Mr. Hoffman,
    Great article, I only have one question for you that relates to how the public would view a code of ethics.

    While a code would be written with an internal focus of guiding behavior of members of the military, do you believe that it would help change the existing narrative and re-shape the current public perception that the military is only looking out for its self-interest? To rephrase that question, do you think would it be a source of legitimacy or credibility to a member of the military who is trying to serve as an educator to the public by helping to justify why a Marine or soldier is talking to the press in the first place?


  2. I would ask that the debate go one step further. Being a General for life should also be applied to future positions in the defense industry. Too many corporations use General Officers as a tool to solicit DOD business. This taints the civil/military/defense industry relationship as well.

  3. Anything further codified as you suggest would come off far to much like a little red book, cause more backlash than good and chase the best and brightest from becoming military officers. How are you going to write a law against “slow rolling”, make it distinguishable from bureaucratic reality, and make it free from corruption? Retired officers should be able to say whatever they want…the reverse would muzzle essential intelligent discourse. There must be black and white on certain aspects of what you bring up (public ‘apoliticalness’ of the officer corp) but gray areas are also necessary (there may be a necessity for a whistleblower…yes, even an officer)

  4. A great article and start to framing and dealing with the problems. I would take the discussion a step further and recommend that we should look to redefine how the defense department interacts with the decision for entering into conflict. The perception of self-interest as it applies to the military results from leaders and members weighing in on whether or not we should go to war or remain involved in conflicts. Those decisions, outside of self-defense as recognized through established international law, are inherently political decisions. If the military is truly apolitical, their role should be relegated to potential strategy, tactics and estimated effects with no position on the decision to enter into conflict. Obviously, a conflict outside of the military’s capabilities would require an honest statement of such as it effects entering into the conflict, but political decisions should be left to our political leaders outside of the defense department. This clear separation of current defense leaders from the political realm should lead to reduced conflict with where retired leaders weigh in on the political issues. While many retired officers agree with GEN Dempsey and should act according to their own values on the matter once they have retired, I also believe that we lose a great advocate should leaders like him be unwilling to enter the political arena on our behalf. We undoubtedly need leaders like the current CJCS to cross into the political realm after retirement when politicians decide to run rough-shod over apolitical military advice, such as manning required to perform an operation, rather than needlessly endangering our Servicemembers. There are times when the sage advice of past defense leaders is essential to moderate the aspirations of current leaders who may over reach at the expense of their Servicemembers.

    I know that the majority of us in the U.S. would be unlikely to accept a doctor’s major surgery recommendation or a mechanics recommendation for an expensive overhaul without a second opinion because the possibility of self-interest exists. Likewise, our goal should be to ensure apolitical actions while currently serving so as to avoid this negative perception.

  5. The essay leads me to a question?

    Is the military a profession, or has the personnel system as instituted since the end of WWII rendered the military merely a career?

    While there were situation where uniformed officers took on public policy debates in the open that were in conflict with the executive or Congress, they tended to be the exception rather. Perhaps, a reason why there was less involvement in public policy debates post service, was that service in those days was basically for life (40 year career or age 62), which left little post service life for those pursuits. After all, American military history prior to WWI is rife with instances of officer either being promoted or denied promotion to flag rank based upon political affiliation.

    Do shorter careers, where almost all officers have to find work post-retirement set up the conditions that the CJCS is lamenting?

    Likewise, are we witnessing increased participation just because the internet makes it easier to publish to a wide audience?

  6. Eisenhower was a very good President and I believe that Powell would also make an excellent President. While military service doesn’t assure a good politician, carter was a joke, it puts a solid perspective on when to commit troops. No military service should throw up questions, look at the present clown, but then FDR was a great president.
    Job doesn’t always help nor should it restrict.

  7. Being a General does not make one qualified to hold office. Having said that, I’d be happy with someone who obeyed the rule of law and understands the limitations placed on government by the Constitution.

  8. I respectfully, but completely, disagree. While in uniform, military members sacrifice their full constitutional rights to be subject to the UCMJ, especially those under the First Amendment. To make the assertion that we’ve forever “waived” the right to criticize the president or the overall course of the nation is ludicrous.

    General Dempsey’s opinion is binary: run for public office or forever ‘shut up’. There are other options than these, especially to join a responsible public discourse around national security. Time will tell if he stands by these words himself.

  9. Bill, I am with you on this. Recognizing the tiny minority of the US population with any military experience, to tell retirees they can’t opine about DoD decisions or other government decisions which will impact or make use of the military, is to leave the public truly in the dark as to why our government chose a particular path or policy. In addition, we do have one codified military ethic. It is called the Law of Armed Conflict, and anyone who has taken LOAC training more than 25 times knows it is a necessary minimum standard of wartime ethical behavior. LOAC is only one aspect of our ethical duties, but I agree with Bob that if we attempted to codify all of it, we would actually make it smaller, less encompassing than it is today. Mr Hoffman states, “Professions are supposed to be self-disciplining.” I know of no other profession that better meets this requirement than the US military. The UCMJ thoroughly addresses formal disciplining. Administrative actions from Letters of Counseling to Articles 15 fill the middle ground. And countless informal reminders, training sessions, and friendly jibes create the informal ethical boundaries and peer-disciplining worthy of a true profession. The US public trusts the US Military more than any other arm of government for good reason…we are ethical professionals, more than any other.

  10. Patrick Van Horne: the military rates #1 in public confidence in poll after poll and has done so for more than 30 years, so I think you’re off track in stating “…the existing narrative and re-shape the current public perception that the military is only looking out for its self-interest.” There is certainly room for improvement, but there is no such “existing narrative”.

  11. What happens when a military charged with defending a State and a cultural becomes so dismissive of both? When the values of the military and the State are so widely divergent that they no longer see the other as a fully intetrated part? What responsibilities does that military have to the state that spawned it and to the citizens that make up that state?

  12. Believe that Dempsey’s view is just that…his view. Yours truly along with 500+ other Admirals and Generals went public in support of Mitt Romney. We served and continue to serve as American citizens first and foremost. Remaining silent regarding candidates while serving is well understood; exerting our constitutional right upon retirement, doing what each views as best for our Country via the political process, is none of Dempsey’s or anyone else’s business.

  13. An interesting article.

    While I agree with GEN Dempsey’s comments to some extent and also find it distasteful when mediocre Officers wrap themselves in the mantel of ‘veteran’ to gain public office, I question the motive behind this piece.
    It seems that there’s a hint of paranoia about the Military and the level of civilian control over our Armed Forces. I assure you that we won’t have a Thai style military coup in the US (regardless of how incompetent our elected officials can be), so why is there concern expressed here?

    Maybe I’m paranoid or just clueless. The military professionals are doing fine and still serve as a role model for the country. Instead I recommend a Code of Ethics for the partisan fools that are running this country.

  14. Back in the day, the military ethic was a set of shared values imparted by counsel and example from one generation of leaders to the next. It was written about but never written down, in the sense of scripture, and a student of our military history could sense its continuity over the past two centuries. This was not lost on our citizens: As a young officer in the 70s I was surprised to stumble across an opinion survey which showed that even during the worst of the Vietnam era, our profession was seen as more trustworthy than many others, including doctors and (even)lawyers.
    As long as retired officers, regardless of rank, adhere to the law, it remains their decision how and when to participate in our democracy. However, I am saddened when senior officers permit themselves to be used by the media or have an axe to grind: Their experience and expertise are a unique contribution to public understanding, but their opinions are not necessarily so. In the extreme form, they degrade the reputation of the officer corps and credibility of those who are now bearing the load which they formerly carried. More than ever, we need facts not theories, and when a retired flag officer speaks it should be to address the issues.

  15. Disagree with this completely. This is a further attempt at thought control, limiting freedom of speech, ensuring slavish conformance to the government, and propagandizing. Congress is going to police our ethics? We are individual Americans, not cogs in a govenment Machine. Let us fight the damn wars and leave our minds, thoughts alone and personal lives alone.

  16. I’m just gonna sorta leave these right here.



    This isn’t a new idea. Indeed these papers/articles capitalize on lots of work that preceded them – including a proposed Army Ethic from 1984, and COL Moten’s document. Of course, COL Moten was gently asked to retire – presumably for a zipper violation. So it goes, so it goes.

  17. “…apolitical…?” Gen Dempsey cannot say he is apolitical. He detested President Bush, and that is why he got his present job. He has supported the purging of flag officers not towing the Obama mark. Hence, he is very political.

  18. For the American military, duty to the Constitution trumps all others, including obedience to the CinC/President. In fact, it’s rarely talked about today, but our duty as Citizens comes before our duty as military members.