Ideals, Military

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Ideals, Military. No single authoritative document sets forth America's military ideals. However, we may note three groupings that appear to be valid subsets of military ideals, recognizing that discussion cannot always accommodate compartmentalization along such analytic lines: ethical ideals, establishing standards of professional conduct; ideals in operational matters, that is, in the conduct of war itself; and ideals of military leadership.

Ethical Ideals.

The early provenance of American military ideals lies in the history of war itself, predating by centuries the emergence of military professionalism among American officers in the nineteenth century. The British code of military honor as it existed in the later eighteenth century, distinctly aristocratic in tone, served as a model for George Washington's Revolutionary forces, though it was substantially revised to fit social and political conditions in America. Itself an evolved adaptation of the code of chivalry from feudal times, the British “code” was in fact an amorphous array of principles, values, and traditions that collectively served to encompass the British officer's concept of honor. Morris Janowitz has abstracted the four basic elements of the code: (1) officers fought for traditional military glory; (2) officers were gentlemen; (3) officers owed personal loyalty to their commander; and (4) officers were members of a cohesive, self‐regulating brotherhood.

So far as military glory is concerned, modern vestiges of chivalric forms—medals and ribbons for heroism, unit patches on uniforms, unit mottoes and histories, and the celebration of individual and unit heroics in service lore—bespeak a continuing preoccupation with courage under fire and the justified pride and reputation that attends such courage. As to the tradition of officer‐as‐gentleman, Washington's embrace of that view, in combination with the fact that he became and remains the ideal of the American officer‐gentleman to this day, has been a major factor in the persistence of the notion that officers are, first of all, gentlemen. This formulation survives today in Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: “Any officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court‐martial may direct.” Edwin Cady isolated three persisting traits of the American gentleman that pertain to the realm of ideals: character, courtesy, and cultivation. Character in turn includes the entire range of patrician virtues, a central one being the habit of truthfulness. Out of such a mix emerged the principle that comes close to defining the ethical nucleus of the officer's code of honor: “A gentleman's word is his bond.”

The British concept of personalized loyalty to one's commander underwent radical transformation in the American military, owing to constitutional strictures. Loyalty to one's immediate superiors in the military chain of command remains a strongly felt ideal—indeed, loyalty and obedience are the supreme military virtues—but it is always understood, both legally and professionally, that the loyalty owed is to the office, not to particular incumbent individuals. Under the American constitutional system, the loyalty, allegiance, and obedience owed by officers to the military chain of command, including the commander in chief, are subordinated to their allegiance to the Constitution and to the laws that flow therefrom. The primacy of the Constitution in establishing the officer's loyalties derives from the officer's oath of office, the current version having been set down by Congress in 1884. For orders issued by officers in the chain of command to be legally enforceable, including those issued by the commander in chief, they must be lawful. This requirement is spelled out in the officer's commission and is given legal force by Articles 90 and 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The fact that within the chain of command, even at the topmost rung, loyalty extended to the office instead of the occupant was a prominent factor in the gradual emergence before the turn of the century of the ideal that officers were “above politics.” The ideal of remaining above politics grew finally to embrace the notion that regulars should refrain from affiliating with particular political parties and even refrain from voting. The rationale was that the professional military must loyally serve the nation, regardless of whom political vicissitudes bring to the presidency or Congress, and that political involvement could be seen as compromising the impartiality of professional military advice. Since the 1960s, the strength of this ideal has waned, with the services now actively promoting voting by members through absentee ballots. However, the ideal of the apolitical officer who serves loyally and impartially, regardless of the party in power, remains. A corollary to the officer's allegiance to the Constitution, and closely related to his aim to remain aloof from politics, is the ideal of civilian control of the military. The professional military accepts the ideal of civilian control absolutely without question.

With respect to officers as members of an exclusive brotherhood, the connection between brotherhood and honor becomes clearer when we consider that soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen—enlisted members as well as officers—successfully confront the rigors of war only as members of teams, not as individuals. It is to the team that one looks for survival. It is only through the team that the mission is accomplished. To show cowardice and let down one's comrades is thus the ultimate martial sin, the worst form of dishonor.

The American officer's “code of honor,” as abstracted and construed by Janowitz but never codified, is not to be confused with the widely noted cadet honor codes of the U.S. service academies, for example, the honor code of the U.S. Air Force Academy: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” Such cadet codes neither pretend nor intend to be a complete description of honorable behavior on the part of military professionals. For cadets who graduate and are commissioned in the corps of officers, their academy honor codes, while remaining a strong force in their professional lives, must accommodate to the professional military ethic itself (i.e., the grand corpus of ethical prescriptions having claim to compliance by service members), which subsumes the codes and extends them so as to confront the ever‐growing ethical complexities of today's professional careers in the military.

None of the individual armed services has thus far elected to codify and officially promulgate a professional ethic in the sense of a comprehensive prescription for ethical behavior along the lines of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct or the American Medical Association's Principles of Medical Ethics. A major task of winnowing confronts any officer who would seriously attempt to distill that core of ethical principles having the strongest claim upon his or her professional conscience. We can record here only the most salient elements: the West Point motto, adjuring all service members to accept as their highest values Duty, Honor, Country; the tradition implicit in that motto of always accomplishing the assigned mission, regardless of obstacles; the preeminence of the Constitution in the officer's hierarchy of allegiances; loyalty and obedience as the supreme military virtues, with the precondition that orders be lawful; the imperative that officers be and act as gentlemen, the essential trait of which is strong character; the precept that an officer's word is his or her bond; patriotism, valor, fidelity, and professional competence, as enjoined by the officer's commission; the injunction to remain above politics in all professional activity; the principle of civilian control of the military; the principle that one's acts in war itself are subject to constraints laid down in law and that one remains no less an ethical agent in the most desperate straits of battle; the principle that law and ethical obligation follow the service member even after capture by the enemy; and the principle that officers must avoid conflicts between their private interests and official duties, and that this obligation remains after retirement or separation.

Operational Ideals.

Such ideals are not to be confused with actual tactical, theater, or strategic principles, or with the principles of war themselves, all of which are subsumed under that universal body of disciplinary knowledge and theory associated with the art and science of war. Rather, there are overarching operational ideals that are peculiarly American, a product of the United States's unique economic, political, social, and geostrategic identity at the dawn of the twenty‐first century. These include the following:

(1) U.S. forces are imbued with the spirit of the offensive, characterized by an indomitable will to win and an aggressive determination to carry the battle to the enemy. Their aim is to inflict on the enemy an early and decisive defeat.

(2) Concern for minimizing casualties to U.S. forces has come to be a principal if not overriding factor in a commander's war‐fighting deliberations, though there is no consensus on the best means to minimize friendly casualties (casualties among one's own forces) and still accomplish the mission.

(3) Doctrinally, U.S. forces cling to the ideal of maneuver warfare, which entails the rapid, decentralized movement of forces relative to the enemy, with the aim of outpacing the reactive capabilities of his command and control structures and achieving a prohibitive positional advantage. In theory, maneuver warfare is less costly in terms of lives, equipment, and munitions expended because it is indirect, targeting the enemy's will rather than his force. In modern practice, the maneuver ideal has been qualified by a tendency to append industrial‐style variations—the habitual use of massive preparatory and concurrent supporting fires as adjuncts to, and in some cases substitutes for, purposeful and rapid movement.

(4) U.S. forces preferably wage war as part of a multinational force, one having the widest possible national representation. The object is not simply to gain additional power but to enhance legitimacy.

(5) War is waged with forces jointly organized and directed. The joint (i.e., multiservice) ideal has been imposed by Congress and the Department of Defense, and is not yet fully assimilated by the services, though it is embodied in their doctrine. The army, lacking organic means to move its forces to the theater of war and lacking heavy air support, is perforce the most joint‐minded of the services; the navy, with its own organic air arm and having the Marines as a land force, finds itself least prompted toward the joint ideal.

(6) U.S. forces seek always to capitalize upon modern technology. A technological edge offers the advantages both of replacing humans with machines on the battle‐field in many cases, thus reducing casualties, and of increasing the capabilities of logistics, transport, communications, intelligence, and fires beyond any level the enemy can match. Advanced computer technology is particularly exploited.

(7) War is waged in ways that minimize collateral damage to areas and structures that are not military targets and that minimize casualties among the enemy civilian population, even though such humanitarian concerns may reduce mission effectiveness.

(8) U.S. forces undertake a spectrum of ancillary missions, such as peacekeeping and disaster relief, unparalleled in modern arms.

(9) Troops in the battle area are maintained and provisioned in the most unsparing manner possible consistent with the rigors of war. Such comparative plenitude of creature comforts is made possible by the vaunted responsiveness of the American military's logistical system.

Ideals of Military Leadership.

The peculiar genius of the American people, among whom liberty and equality remain touchstone values, has predisposed those in uniform to respond better to certain broad leadership approaches than to others. Though such values as liberty and equality obviously cannot receive full or even substantial expression in military service, they do instill expectations in the minds of service members that military leaders ignore at their peril. These expectations have generated two transcendent leadership ideals within the American military tradition. First, regardless of the particular leadership style selected, leaders must always respect the innate human dignity of each of those being led. Second, leaders must recognize the status of American service members as thinking individuals rather than mindless automatons, giving them opportunity wherever feasible to exercise initiative, shoulder responsibility, and employ their native ingenuity in accomplishing assigned tasks.

These ideals, at least in rudimentary form, have always been present in the army, going back to the days of the Revolutionary War. For the navy, faced with the unique disciplinary demands of harsh duty on the high seas, such ideals did not begin to emerge until after the abolition of flogging in 1850. In the services today, an enlightened philosophy of leadership based upon scientifically derived principles of human motivation has come to take hold. Among the five services, the air force, which did not gain full independence until 1947, is least afflicted by vestiges of rigidly authoritarian leadership, a fact largely attributable to the high educational standards of the enlisted component and the [intimate working relationship officer air crews and enlisted aircraft maintenance personnel], which tend to dilute the formalities of rank and station.

The entire spectrum of American military ideals—from the U.S. Coast Guard motto Semper paratus (Always prepared) to the Marine Corps motto Semper fidelis (Always faithful), reflects the earnest idealism that continues to animate the professional conduct of the men and women who don military uniform to defend America. Such idealism in the military is both fitting and necessary. For, of all professionals, it is the soldier, sailor, Marine, and airman alone who must be prepared to face the ultimate trial and rigor of killing—and being killed—in service to their country.
[See also Commemoration and Public Ritual; Disciplinary Views of War: Military History; Doctrine, Military; Leadership, Concepts of Military.]


Edwin Cady , The Gentleman in America; 1949.
Samuel P. Huntington , The Soldier and the State, 1957.
Malcom E. Wolfe, et al. , Naval Leadership, 1949; 2nd ed., 1959.
Morris Janowitz , The Professional Soldier, 1960.
Charles Royster , A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783, 1979.
James E. Valle , Rock and Shoals: Order and Discipline in the Old Navy, 1800–1861, 1980.
Peter L. Stromberg, Malham Wakin, and Daniel Callahan, eds., The Teaching of Ethics in the Military, 1982.
Department of Defense , The Armed Forces Officer, 1988.
Anthony E. Hartle , Moral Issues in Military Decisionmaking, 1989.
Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 ( U.S. Marine Corps ), Warfighting, 1989.
Field Manual 100‐5 ( U.S. Army ), Operations, 1993.

Lloyd J. Matthews