26th Ira C. Eaker Distinguished Lecture on National Defense Policy
The Development of the Professional Officer in the Twenty First Century
Keynote Speaker: Eliot A. Cohen
3 May 2004
It may surprise you to learn that in some ways, a good teacher is a bit like a good soldier. The great psychologist William James once said, in remarks to a group of teachers, The mind of your own enemy, the pupil, is working away from you as keenly and eagerly as is the mind of the commander on the other side from the scientific general. Just what the respective enemies want and think, and what they know and do not know, are as hard things for the teachers as for the general to find out. Talks to Teachers, Ch. 1, p. 719
. Well, having studied a bit about war, and having been a teacher now for a quarter of a century, I thought I should prepare for this lecture by thinking about what you may be thinking. Here, I suspect at least some of you are saying to yourselves, is a lecture about the development of the professional officer in the 21st century. Well, why would we have a professor talk to us about that, rather than a general? And in any event, what's the big deal? I hear every day about what it is to be a professional – was it all that different twenty years ago, and will it really be all that different twenty years from now?
Let me begin by suggesting some preliminary answers to those questions, as a way of introducing the topic. It is, of course, entirely proper that you hear about professionalism from the faculty and cadre here: in fact, that is how you will learn most of the really important things in your military career – from the explicit, or more often, the implicit guidance of your superiors, your peers, even your subordinates. That is particularly true in your development as military professionals. You will admire some behaviors and deplore others; you will seek to imitate exemplary leaders and avoid the ones who fail to meet the standards you will develop.
But it is useful, even so, every now and then to have someone hold up a kind of mirror, as it were, in which the military professional, of whatever age, sees him or herself. That is what peculiar people like myself – civilians who spend their lives in close association with the military, who study and work with it, and yet remain by choice outside it – can do. We can, I hope, help you see yourselves more clearly.
As to the second objection, let me say at the outset that the use of the word professional as in that was a professional piece of work” misleads as much as it informs. Because, you see, professionalism does in fact change over time.
That is not a commonly held point of view. My old mentor, Samuel Huntington in his just famous book, The Soldier and the State, argued that professionalism is something universal and timeless, that it means the same thing in Zurich and St. Petersburg, in the nineteenth as in the twentieth century. I disagree. Of course, some of the bedrock of professionalism is just that, bedrock: a dishonest officer, or a cowardly officer, is a failure from the professional as well as the personal point of view. But the layers above the bedrock count for something as well, and here we do see change. Let's take a minor example: sixty years ago, if a male officer occasionally got drunk after hours and made crude remarks about women, African Americans, and Jews, well, those were regrettable human weaknesses but unless they interfered with his duty, it was no big deal. If, on the other hand, he divorced his wife, or was married to someone who had no interest in playing the designated role of military spouse, in some corners of the military at least, that was problematic. Today, its just the reverse: one or two bouts with alcohol, or foul attitudes to women or minorities can terminate a military career; today, on the other hand, what one's wife (or, for that matter, one's husband) chooses to do is their business. If you get divorced, that's a private matter: for that matter, in theory, at least, if you are a discreet homosexual, that's not a problem either.
These changes in attitude towards professionalism are not trivial, but there are others, which bear on the conduct of war. If a general had the attitudes towards casualties, for example, be it American or foreign civilian, that the generals of World War II had, he would be regarded as professionally derelict, indeed, unsuited to command. That is why I am always a bit leery of the worship of Civil War generals like Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee. If the General Meyers or Abizaids of today had their attitudes to losses, they would be regarded as incompetent butchers, who had no business being in command. Curtis LeMay was a great air leader for World War II; I am not at all certain that he would have been a great air leader for operations in Iraq.
There is another point too. Professionalism per se is, in fact, a product of a particular civilization, and is as much an achievement of that civilization as free speech and free enterprise. Professionalism evolved slowly and painfully in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries; it continues to evolve today. It consists of three cardinal elements:
The first of these is political subordination and neutrality. If one were to reach for an instant example of unprofessional behavior, launching a coup d'état would probably come close to the top of the list.
In many societies and cultures, to the present day, the notion of a politically neutral officer corps is an absurd idea: above a certain level, for example, you had to be a member of the Communist (or Nazi, or Ba'ath) party to be a senior officer. In eighteenth century Britain, serving officers sat in parliament; in post-1991 Russia, they sat in the Duma. Lets not assume, by the way, that we have nailed this one down. The issue of what political subordination requires is still a lively topic. Is it acceptable, for example, for a four star to take off the uniform one day, and either endorse a presidential candidate or denounce the administration the next? Should base commanders allow private cars driven on base to carry bumper stickers praising or denouncing a presidential candidate? Should officers vote or, as George Marshall did, refrain on principle?
The second element of professionalism is mastery not just of techniques or systems, but of command, management and leadership. Let me emphasize these elements, because Air Forces have the unusual challenge of having officers who are operators, as well as commanders, managers and leaders. Many of you, particularly the pilots, will start as exceptionally skilled operators; all of you, as officers, have to master those other arts as well. And they are different. Command is the technique of giving authoritative direction; management is the discipline of coordinating human behavior; leadership is the art of getting people to do the things they would not otherwise do. Again, this is hardly universal. In many countries, officers have responsibilities that in our system NCO's take on; in other countries, officers may command and manage, but rarely lead; in yet other systems they very rarely command. You will be expected to do all three, and, furthermore, to become better and better in each area, capable of handling more and more complex challenges, as you rise through the ranks.
The third element of professionalism is responsibility. The difference between a security contractor in Iraq and a platoon leader is that the former has legal obligations chiefly to his client and to some extent, the Iraqi or American legal systems; the latter has not only legal obligations but moral ones as well, and to many different groups – his or her commander, subordinates, the American government, and American society.
Military professionals frequently find themselves in positions where their obligations and responsibilities clash with one another. That old military order of priorities – my mission, my men (now we would say, ‘my people'), myself – remains the base, but it is not a complete guide, although it is, again, the bedrock. Yet here too, norms have shifted over time. Today in Great Britain, for example, officers think of themselves as being responsible not only to British legal and moral authorities but a broader European legal system and ethical code. This is an important change for them, and it makes their approach to counterinsurgency, for example, quite different from ours.
To sum up, these three pillars of professionalism – political subordination and neutrality; mastery not only of technique but of command, management, and leadership; and an ethos of responsibility remain intact, but they are fixed, immovable, and utterly unchangeable. So how are they changing? Let's take them in order, beginning with subordination. You remain subordinate, first and foremost, to civilian political leadership, so long as it operates within the bounds of the Constitution and the core moral values that make us civilized women and men. But that subordination will change in the 21st century.
It will, to begin with, be even more intrusive than in the past. That is partly because technology allows it – just think of the impact of readily available secure video teleconferencing – but also because modern strategy demands it. Your superiors live with the 24/7 news cycle; and its not just the CNN news cycle, but the al-Jazeera and BBC news cycles too.
One air power thinker, COL John Warden, has said that in the modern age, every bomb is a political bomb: he's right. What's more, not only do the politicians know it, but the generals know it too. And the result is that military operations will come under increasing scrutiny from the high command, as well as their civilian superiors. And yet, we Americans pride ourselves on our initiative, our creativity, our flexibility, and our willingness to delegate. Moreover, in many ways modern military technology sends power down the chain of command – just think of the deadly effective power a FAC or even a UAV operator may now have at their command. The upshot will be increasing tension and perplexity in the way officers handle the problem of subordination. And this will be complicated by the pervasiveness not only of joint but combined operations. The world was always more complicated than the old wiring diagrams showed: but today, in any event, clean, elegant hierarchies are a thing of the past, and most organizations will be messy matrices and networks, and you will have to learn to operate within them.
What about the second challenge, that of command, management, and leadership? Let me just focus on the last bit leadership, because it is the most difficult. The past two generations of military officers had enormous challenges to overcome in coping with two huge changes in the post World War II military establishment: the end of the draft and with it the development of a long service volunteer military; and the integration of large numbers of women into the services. We have pretty clearly succeeded in the first, and largely, but by no means completely in the second. You will continue to wrestle with these issues throughout your careers, but frankly, I think the problems will be less than those of your predecessors.
Where there will be the greatest challenges for you, I suspect, will be in the increasing internationalization of military power, and, to some extent, its civilianization as well. It has been quite a while since we have really fought a war alone; in many ways, it looks like, and is, a bad idea. And its almost as hard to learn how to lead foreigners as it is for them to figure out how to deal with us. The problem of civilianization is even more pronounced. The great trend from the seventeenth century onward was to militarize all military functions – in the old days, after all, artillerists were civilian specialists, and of course civilians handled the logistics as well. Today the trend has reversed itself, and we have in Iraq Kellogg Brown & Root feeding and housing the troops, and the hired guns of Blackwater USA doing battle – bravely and competently – with the bad guys. You may lose some of your ability to command, it will be harder to manage, so you had better learn how to lead.
Third, to whom will you be responsible? Here the future is hazier. The old responsibilities will not go away, but there are some trends that are visible. Your responsibility to civil society will become more direct: they will see you, yes you, lieutenant on television, and you will be communicating directly with people at home in that way. You will have responsibilities to foreign civilians that go well beyond the kinds of issues we have long faced at overseas bases. You may even end up developing responsibilities to international institutions, and this is the most troubling and ambiguous development out there. What will make it all the more problematic is the answer to a fourth question, which is.
Whom will you fight? In the old paradigm, professionals fought professionals, or at least, conscripts led by professionals. You would have to be a hermit, and a particularly rigorous kind of hermit, not to know that regular militaries are only one part of today's strategic environment. Our immediate enemy at this very moment is something very different: call them what you will, insurgents, terrorists, guerrillas, bandits. They recognize none of our rules: they will shoot from the between the legs of their children, and delight in slaughtering ours; they fight in the name not of state interest but apocalyptic hatreds and utopian dreams. They have inflicted great loss already, and stand poised to inflict much more.
In that case all three of the challenges become even greater. The politics of a counterinsurgency war is much more intense and divisive than that of a normal war; the leadership challenges of controlling violence, sustaining morale, and devising appropriate tactics and concepts of operations greater than in conventional conflict; and responsibility becomes both more focused – you have less room for error – and more diffused – you now have to think about your obligations to a civilian population that is wavering in its allegiances. And by no means think that this is the Army's and Marine Corps' fight. They are your brothers and sisters in arms, but more importantly, you too will be on the front lines in this war. You will be dropping bombs, hauling people and things, shaping information, providing intelligence, building and defending bases in a broader war.
Having laid out some of the challenges for military professionalism in the 21st century, let me address one last question: how should you prepare to be a professional in the twenty first century?
Your first technique is one that would have been familiar to an Iroquois warrior five centuries ago: you listen to the war stories and study the tribal elders. Most of what we learn and acquire is oral culture, folklore, if you will. The trick is to be self conscious about doing it. The Roman emperor, and soldier philosopher Marcus Aurelius, wrote a wonderful short book called The Meditations, and this ruler of all the civilized world, commander of Rome's legions begins his first chapter by thinking about all the different people he learned from, and what he took from them. They were friends, relatives, mentors, comrades in arms. Make a habit of doing the same thing, perhaps even writing it down, as you go on in your military careers. Take note of the negative examples but concentrate on the positive ones: the folks who you think got it right, and ask yourself how they did so.
The second way to be a modern professional is, to use a pilot's term, is by keeping situational awareness of the world in which you live. However you choose to do it, stay on top of the trends that are shaping our politics, our society, our world. You may read the Economist, or scan eight or nine different news websites every morning, or subscribe to three newspapers a day, but whatever it is, be systematic. And make a point of having at least one of those news sources be a foreign one, and another being one that you really, really dislike and disagree with. You will be better off for thinking about why they are wrong and you are right; who knows, you may even decide that perhaps the other fellow has a point.
The third preparation is, oddly enough, by reading thoughtfully in history. It is clear now that it would have been worth their while for our political leaders to have read up on the Iraqi revolt of the early 1920's to better understand the country we have liberated and occupied. Not because history repeats itself – it doesn't – but in order to understand context and culture. Read the classics, because some issues are timeless. Thucydides' Pelopponesian War was never a better read than it is today, because at its heart is the question, how can a democracy be an empire? What does it have to do internationally, and at what cost to its values at home? Read widely and actively, because part of what a serious study of history does is to expand the imagination and train one's judgment: cultivate your imaginative understanding of what it was like to be a civilian or military leader in some difficult predicament, and try to capture the sense of wonder and bafflement at how human affairs turn out. That way you will still be surprised by our world, but not as shocked as we often are.
You should do all these things so that you are prepared to grow as professionals. Think of the great airman after whom this lecture is named, General Ira C. Eaker. As a young man he set world records for endurance flying (150 hours aloft), and he conducted the first transcontinental instrumented flight. In World War II he was a great organizer, the man who built the 8th Air Force, and made the case for daylight strategic bombing; he was a soldier diplomat as well, who succeeded brilliantly as the commander of Allied Air Forces in the Mediterrenean. He did all of these, by the way, before he was fifty. And he was a public figure, the author of several books, who was able make the case for this new form of warfare, and what it could accomplish. You could do a lot worse than to think of him as an example of the multi-faceted professional in an age of political turmoil and technological revolution
. The service that you will enter as military professionals is very different from the one many of us would have anticipated even five years ago. It is a more dangerous, more volatile, in many ways a darker world; the cheerful certainties back then seemed to be for peace, economic growth, and unlimited opportunities in all directions. Today, the cloud that rolled over our country, indeed all of the civilized world, on September 11th 2001 has blocked the sunny optimism that characterized the years when today's seniors were thinking about coming here.
But that simply means that our country's need for you as officers is all that much greater. Much rests on your patriotism, your competence, and yes, your professionalism. You will be tested, perhaps no less than the generation of the 1960's or World War II; yours is not simply a job, nor yet an adventure as the old advertising slogan had it, but a calling, and your fellow citizens will expect much of you. And it is up to you to prepare to deliver.
Well, that concludes my formal remarks. We've got, I think, about 15 minutes for questions about anything you'd like to talk about.
DR. COHEN: Well, I think probably the first thing is to understand that it is -- actually is to get rid of the term "military operations other than war." It seems to me that actually did tremendous damage to us in the run-up to the current conflict, that we defined war as what we now term major combat operations and everything that followed is Phase 4 or stability operations. The struggle is continuing. It's entered a different phase. Somewhat different opponents have joined in. So the first thing is simply to be willing to think systematically about it and to try to adapt ourselves to that. Now, that's -- I mean being an academic, I'm sure I'm bound to say the first challenge is an intellectual one; but I think that's really true. The first challenge is to change some of the things that we teach in staff colleges and war colleges, but I think there are going to be a lot of other institutional changes and organization changes which really only professionals can work out. For example, it's not clear to me that our current system of sending people overseas for a year is really the right way to do this. I think there's a lot of concern out there. This is not an Air Force issue. It's largely an Army issue; that we cannot do, or it would be very, very difficult to do more than another rotation or two of the kind that we've just been through in Iraq. That's partly because we've decided we're going to rotate entire divisions in and out, or at least brigades. That may not have been the right decision. That's not the way the British do it. I think that once you get the intellectual part of it right, what you're going to end up doing is just having to make lots of small, and sometimes not so small, organizational institutional changes; but you can't do that unless you fully confront this is part of our business. I'll just say one other thing. The first job I ever had working with the Army was, in which I served and which I'm still probably attached to more than any other service, was at the Army War College in 1978; and I remember being very struck when I looked at their curriculum, which is part of my job as a graduate student research assistant. There was a grand total, as I recall, of about 65 pages of reading on Vietnam in the curriculum. This was three years after the fall of Saigon. Of that 65 pages, more than half was about Rolling Thunder. And one of the things that we went through right after Vietnam was kind of a self-imposed amnesia about that conflict. We just didn't want to think about it; and that just strikes me as very, very dangerous. And perhaps that's the biggest intellectual challenge, is being willing to force yourself to think about the things that you'd really rather not think about.
QUESTION: Sir, my question was: We talked about leadership and, as officers, that's our job. And you talked about that these -- you came up with three different ways how we could grow, but all these things seem to take initiative on the part of a person. As a leader, maybe coming up with a structure, maybe in terms of training, how should wetransform the development system for officers and enlisted to include all these recommendations?
DR. COHEN: I think it is an individual issue. I think the most important thing that you're going to do is first develop yourself as an officer and then almost immediately begin developing your subordinates. Some of the finest officers I know, and I've been very fortunate to know a lot, almost the first thing that they do when they get to a new command, they set up a reading group or a discussion group. And this can be for the NCOs. It can be for officers. It can be for junior enlisted, but they think part of their job is developing their subordinates. There will be all kind of gray bureaucrats who will do that, and they may or may not screw it up. Really concentrate on what it is that you can do to make a difference. First, to what kind of officer you are, but then to the people that you are responsible for.
QUESTION: When you talk about a professional Army fighting an unprofessional enemy, i.e., terrorists, terrorist organizations, do the rules of what's acceptable in combat or the rules of -- what is acceptable in terms of applying power change? Can the gloves come off to a certain extent?
DR. COHEN: Even in wars between professional militaries, the gloves are off in the sense that you're killing lots of people; but the great challenge for professional military is not to lose its soul when fighting that kind of war. If you haven't seen it, you should see The Battle of Algiers. How many of you have seen The Battle of Algiers? At this time in our history, you should see Battle of Algiers. The Battle of Algiers is easier to take because it's about the French, and they are not the good guys. And it's about the Algerian revolt against France. The thing that's fascinating about it, it was made by a left-wing director, Gillo Pontecorvo. It was made with the help of the Algerian rebels after the war was over but is actually quite sympathetic in its portrayal of some of the French soldiers. It's the story of the Battle of Algiers, which I think is 1958, when the French 10th paratroop division occupied the city in which there are bombs going off. And the movie, although it looks like a documentary, it's not. It's very vivid about what terrorism is all about. Bombs going off in cafes, people being machine-gunned in the streets; and it describes quite well what the French paratroopers did when they took over, to include the use of torture, the systematic use of torture, which was a feature of that war. It's a tremendously disturbing film to watch, because it does show you what happens when you begin to lose your soul. And look, if we just look at the newspapers, right, we see some of that. Some of our soldiers behaved disgracefully. And you know what? Whatever good they did in terms of squeezing some information out of some of those Iraqis might have been, it is utterly, totally, thoroughly overwhelmed by the debacle of having those pictures on Al Jazeera and Al-Arabia and on the front page of Al-Haram and everywhere else in the Arab world. I'm not saying this is easy. This, I think, is tremendously hard. This is tremendously hard, but you have to make sure that you keep your soul and you keep your honor. And part of being a professional officer is having a sense of honor, as well as operating within the law narrowly defined. That's one of the reasons why I said I think your generation of officers faces extraordinary challenges.
QUESTION: Having read your book, Supreme Command, talking about civilian and political inputs into military decision-making, could you quickly comment on how you feel political inputs have affected the Iraqi situation?
DR. COHEN: How much time do we have? First, it's hard to say because despite having Bob Woodward, we don't have anything like a full story. I think there are some things that we do know. We know that the president has been extraordinarily decisive and firm. He does not seem to have engendered the kind of debate among his subordinates the people that I talk about in that book did. One of the things that struck me about the four heroes of the book -- Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion -- is they, although they were very strong-willed people, they fostered a tremendous amount of internal debate and then made a decision. Secretary Rumsfeld, I think, is a more complicated figure than he is made out to be. He is in some ways obviously quite assertive. On the other hand, you know, you're very hard -- he hasn't fired many generals; and Abraham Lincoln, that very gentle, melancholic man who is willing to let George McClellan keep him waiting because McClellan just didn't want to talk to him, Lincoln was just firing generals left and right until he thought he had the right guy to do the job. These folks haven't been doing that. That's not a very satisfactory answer, but I think it's going to be a complicated story. And it will be a story that may take decades really 3 to fully unravel. I've got views about how well we're doing and where we've made mistakes, but that's really severable. I did write an after word for the paperback edition, which talks a bit about Rumsfeld; but after doing a lot of interviewing, I felt I could only take it up through the major combat operation piece of it and then it just became too murky. Looks like no more questions. Okay, thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Dr. Cohen, on behalf of the Air Force Academy Cadet Wing, we would like to thank you for sharing your insights tonight with us on professionalism and military officership in the 21st century. As a token of our appreciation, we'd like to present you with The Bird.