Military reform, now and then: extreme professionalism

Last week I recapped the arguments associated with professionalization and civilianization of the Army during the ACW, noting that the professionals won this contest by 1865, at which time all non-Academy officers had been pushed into marginal or subordinate commands.

In bureaucratic terms, this was a total victory for Grant, Sherman, Halleck and others; and although the U.S. Volunteer system made a brief comeback in the Spanish-American War, the USA retained a standing Army officered by Academy graduates. Generally, the post-ACW system has prevailed in wartime.

One wonders, could the winners of this high command struggle have imagined a condition of "too much professionalism?" What would "too much professionalism" look like?

If professionalism were taken to an absurd extreme, (1) There would be a disproportionate emphasis on all sorts of mandatory schooling and credentialism; (2) "Careerism" would have replaced patriotism; (3) The very "class consciousness" Congress warned against in the ACW would be visible and measurable.

Let's put some flesh on the bones of these notions. (1) Schooling, particularly missed schooling, failed schooling, and a lack of credentials would be severely sanctioned. (In a healthy system, one pays for failures caused by one's ignorance as one makes mistakes; one does not pay in advance for potential mistakes that might occur in the future due to academic shortfalls.) (2) The needs of the career would be institutionalized to the detriment of the national cause. Officers would be routinely taken out of combat assignments, for instance, on a development schedule designed to broaden them by exposing them to a variety of assignment types. (In a healthy system, war and combat are the highest calling of a soldier.) (3) The officer class would view itself as the best trained and most broadly experienced and might conclude that more is better: there would be a striking imbalance in the ratio of officers to men. (In a healthy system, an efficient balance between officers and enlisted ranks is sought.)

The military reform movement of the present day largely deals with these issues, which are legacy issues that developed from the professionals' lopsided Civil War victory over amateurism in 1865.

Yesterday, we saw David Hackworth interested in democratization, not in the Civil War sense of electing company grade officers and NCOs, but in the Civil War sense of broadening the mix of men exposed to hostile fire and then choosing leadership from that mix.

Have a look today at reform criticism from inside the Army itself. Major Donald E. Vandergriff argues that the Army's personnel system is the enemy. You'll notice the symptoms he addresses are those of professionalism taken to its farthest extreme, developed above. Vandergriff has at least one Civil War solution to the key problems of careerism and unit efficiency: the officers must stay with their units. They must go in and come out of combat together.

(There are more Vandergriff articles here and here and they are well worth your time.)

Vandergriff's proposed fixes aside, the internal logic of "professionalism" could be a runaway train not manageable by scaling back this or that program or practice. It may be immune, also, to a change of people at the top. The people who fought for and against professionalism during the Civil War did so with an "all or nothing" intensity; they probably could not have foreseen that the logic of their case might be taken to such extreme and absolute limits in the Army of our time.

We'll continue this thread throughout the week.