Addressing the Army’s Values-to-Virtues Gap

Friday, May 16, 2014

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Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno is leading a renaissance on the study of the Army profession. Col. Don M. Snider begins the discussion here with a thought-provoking piece on the fundamental tenets of what it means to be an Army professional. The Association of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Army’s professional association, is proud to partner with the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center and the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic on this first of a series of occasional articles on the Army profession.

—Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA Ret.

President and Chief Executive Officer, AUSA

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(Photo credit: U.S. Army/Spc. Tia Sokimson)


By Col. Don M. Snider, U.S. Army retired

The U.S. Army recently, for the first time in its history, defined itself as a modern military profession: “a unique vocation of experts certified in the design, generation, support and ethical application of landpower, serving under civilian authority and entrusted to defend the Constitution and the rights and interests of the American People” (Army Doctrine Reference Publication [ADRP] 1 The Army Profession). Though founded and structured as a government bureaucracy even before the American Revolution, since its professionalization in the late 1800s, Army leaders have sought to conform the institution’s character and behavior to that of a military profession. No less is required to execute the Army’s moral purpose and mission—the defense of our republic. Furthermore, only within a profession characterized by military expertise, honorable service, esprit de corps, stewardship and trust (ADRP 1) can volunteer soldiers and civilians serve and develop as Army professionals, not simply as jobholders.

One of the characteristics of all professions, including the military, is that they regulate themselves and their individual members to ensure effective and ethical application of their expertise on behalf of those they serve. The means of this internal control is the profession’s ethic. A professional ethic provides the moral guidance necessary to build effective military teams that can respond to the nation’s needs, sustaining the trust—internal and external—essential to the Army profession’s existence. Thus, our professional ethic is composed of the moral obligations that we follow to govern ourselves and our Army as those uniquely entrusted with the application of lethal force on behalf of the nation.

The Army’s professional ethic, however, is not serving its intended purpose. We are observing a values-to-virtues gap: Army Values are not being sufficiently manifested in militarily virtuous behavior by Army professionals. What other way is there to explain repeated instances of moral failure by uniformed leaders of the profession; the lack of respect among Army professionals evidenced in rampant sexual assault and harassment within the ranks; the institution’s loss of trust by middle-level professionals; and the loss of respect by many in the public, including members of Congress?

So, how do we strengthen the Army’s approach to character development? The first step should be a thorough review of its content. Just what are the moral obligations of the profession and its individual professionals? Unfortunately, the Army has no single, concise statement of these obligations. Rather, it has many of them among its applicable statutes, oaths, creeds and codes. As noted last year when the new doctrine was published, there is a framework within which these many sets of ethical standards can be placed to produce some coherence among them. Nevertheless, the problem remains: There is no easily accessible, concise statement of the Army ethic that can serve as the motivational—indeed, inspirational—source of ethical behavior either for the profession or its individual members.

Some will respond, “But we have the seven Army Values.” True, but by all appearances, their influence on behavior is too weak to provide the strength of character needed in the Army’s leaders today. It is one thing to articulate what one values, but it is entirely another thing to transform those values into virtuous behavior by individuals and the institution. The record of recent moral failures is simply too great to continue to believe that the Army Values alone can motivate and inspire sufficiently after the initial stages of intense socialization to military culture. Since the Army has not researched this proposition, it remains a hypothesis only. My belief, though, is that it will not be falsified if researched.

Returning to the moral obligations that inhere within our ethic, we must understand that they are also inherent in the three identities of all Army professionals as described in ADRP 1: military expert, honorable servant and steward of the profession. We all can see ourselves in one or more of these identities every day. These obligations are best expressed as obvious moral truths, or ethical principles, that guide actions to be taken within the discretionary judgments that, under Mission Command, each Army professional must make daily. In this manner, the principles of the Army’s ethic are applicable to each Army professional at all times, regardless of which identity we may see ourselves in at the time. I suggest the following articulation of these critical principles:

* Loyalty. Our loyalty is to the moral purpose and mission of the Army profession—to defend the nation founded under the Constitution. Such loyalty extends upward through the chain of command to the Commander in Chief and downward in responsibility to all subordinates. We maintain an ethical environment wherein our principles are supported by our policies, programs and examples. We take care of our soldiers, civilians and families.

*  Honorable service. We are motivated by our calling to the noble service of our profession. Such service is marked by the virtues manifested when living the Army Values, virtues that enable us to prevail in combat. Our honorable, sacrificial service is more than a job. We will have no legacy except for the honorable nature of our years of service.

*  Leadership. Army professionals always lead by example. We maintain the personal attributes of physical, intellectual and spiritual fitness that are requisite to our profession and that serve as examples to be emulated.

*  Merit. As professionals, we police the Army and ourselves. Each professional receives all, and only, that which is merited by competence, character and commitment. We recognize the respect that is inherently merited by all human beings, whether in garrison or on the battlefield.

*  Stewardship. Competence in all fields of the Army’s expertise is a moral imperative. To avoid disastrous failure by the Army, we maintain the Army’s expert knowledge and our own continuous study and learning. Motivated by pursuit of the profession’s effectiveness within the best use of resources, we provide hard training, modern equipment and weaponry, and accountable leaders for all formations.

*  Duty. To pursue our duty, personal interests are subordinated to the requirements of the mission. We are prepared, if necessary, to lay down our lives and the lives of those we lead. When assigned a mission or task, its successful execution is our first priority, while accepting full accountability for our actions and orders.

Subordination. Under the Constitution, our profession is subordinate to civilian authority. We therefore do not involve ourselves or our subordinates in domestic politics or policy beyond the exercise of the basic rights of citizenship. We render candid and forthright professional judgments and advice when appropriate and eschew the role of the public advocate.

*  *  *


(Credit: U.S. Army/Spc. Tia Sokimson)

To be sure, agreeing on such principles will not quickly close the values-to-virtues gap and end the unethical behavior plaguing the Army profession, but they are the start point if the Army is to remain a military profession and not morph back into its alternative character of government bureaucracy. Following bureaucratic norms, better legal compliance with abstract values should not be the goal. Rather, professional identities and clear statements of the moral obligations that inhere within them (for example, “We lead by example always”) offer a better starting point for character development than a list of values in the abstract. Ultimately, virtuous behavior that is self-motivated and policed by both the individual and the institution is the goal. That will require revamping character development programs within the profession to educate, assess and evaluate the strength of character of Army leaders at each stage in their development.

Those reforms, however, can only start once we have debated and settled on the set of moral obligations we must fulfill every day to be a military profession in the first place.