Friday, October 19, 2007

A Day Late -- Last Part

The main reason that I went to the FPRI (Foreign Policy Research Institute) conference was to attend the afternoon sessions that dealt with topics such as professional ethics, public dissent, and resigning on principle. I’m not sure if what follows advances the argument, but it is how I heard the views that were offered.

Now I have always been wary when someone tries to justify a course of action by pleading conformity to a set of rules that invariably were arrived at some time ago and whose developments have outstripped any efforts to keep the rules updated. It’s a bit like trying to beat a speeding ticket by pleading “I was only keeping up with the traffic flow.” (The rejoinder here, of course, is that in “keeping up with the traffic” the accused party becomes part of the problem in that his automobile contributes to the speeding “flow” and thus is unavailable to be part of the solution. Moreover, in light of the fact that any code of ethics for any profession is written and practiced by people, even if they are the brightest and the best, they could not have provided for every possibility.

So I was a little surprised when the first speaker said that the military is a profession in all respects “except that it has no codified professional ethic.” What it has is the ethic of the greater society from which the military draws – and who among this group it allows to join. This initial focus on character reflects, not a military code of morality, but an orderly, bureaucratic enquiry as to how well the prospective recruit cum professional has adhered to society’s ethical baseline. The primary difference between society’s ethic and the ethos or habit of mind the military expects its professionals to develop is that they will not lie to those with whom they serve or to those to whom they are accountable.

A second speaker took up the overall question of ethics from the perspective of publicly expressing dissent – after first making two tangential points.

First, the military actually is a series of four “professions” (defined as the totality of “expert knowledge” in a given field of endeavor) – land, maritime, aerospace, and, since the Goldwater-Nicols Act of 1986, “joint forces.” Those entering one of these professions are expected to absorb and eventually contribute to developing further the expert knowledge that defines each profession. Moreover, these four are further subdivided into sub-professions, one of which becomes the person’s “primary sub-profession”: e.g., under land forces the sub-professions are major conventional combat, stability operations, strategy, and homeland security.

Second, under ordinary circumstances, the military’s promotion system serves as a “certification” of how proficient each aspiring professional is. But when 98% of the people are approved for the next higher rank (as just happened in the Army on promotion from captain to major), simply because there are so many vacancies, the “certification” aspect is nullified and marginally qualified people are moved up the promotion ladder. And this is where the fundamental trust that is so vital for the maintenance of civil-military relations begins to unravel, for society expects those who control the instruments of state violence to fully competent and fully professional. This breakdown is not so much a failure of individuals as it is a failure to apply the regulatory aspects of the system. The integrity of the system is as important as the personal integrity of those serving, especially when the question of dissent comes up.

Once senior officers start to seriously consider when, how, and why they might dissent, two points are important. The policy that is the reason for dissent has to be vital and central or the dissent will be seen as idiosyncratic or trivial. The second consideration is what form of dissent would have material effect. Here three points need to be thought through. What form of dissent might actually affect the proposed policy as it is seen by the civilian superstructure that formulated the policy? What form of dissent would have the most effect on others in the military – especially among officers of lower rank? When should the dissent be made?

One general officer who did dissent on the Iraq war labored to get the war policy changed before the shooting started. He said that other three star (his rank) and even four star generals and admirals were “shocked an awed” by what the Bush White House and Pentagon appointees were doing. Finally, just before March 2003, he requested retirement, which was approved. After the invasion, he wrote one public article expressing his dissent, and then faded into the background. That was as much as he felt he could do, and even this was done solely because those who pay the heaviest price in war – the enlisted ranks and the junior officers – have no voice in decisions to go to war. In this general’s view, the only time a serving senior officer should voice public dissent is when, after testifying before Congress, he is asked specifically whether he agrees with the administration’s policy.

And this brings me to Congressman Ike Skelton, who spoke after lunch. He recalled in 2005 he was asked what officers should do when they are called before Congress to testify. “Tell the truth,” was the way he answered the question. At which point his interlocutor pointed to the fate of Former Chief of Staff of the Army General Eric Shinseki and asked “And who is there in Congress willing to protect us when we do?”

Skelton said he was stunned. And in the room last Monday, one could have heard, at that moment, a pin drop.

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