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Valuing Amateur Virtues in a Professional Army: Elizabeth Samet

November 23, 2011

Nov. 22 (Bloomberg) -- When I first saw “Army of Shadows,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about the French Resistance, at its belated U.S. release in 2006, it was a revelation: the quietest example I knew of cinema’s noisiest genre and a vision of war that would become a part of my teaching at West Point.

Later, watching Melville’s film in the company of cadets, I began to see more. My students are preparing to become professional soldiers; “Army of Shadows” is a tale of amateurs. It depicts a network of civilian fighters poorly equipped, largely untrained, unable fully to trust even their closest comrades. One member of the cell is a veteran of the French Foreign Legion, two others served together on a bomber crew, but the leader, the film’s protagonist, Philippe Gerbier, worked as a civil engineer before the war. And the chief of the organization is a cloistered philosopher -- a man whose value lies in the fact that he “knows nothing about weapons.”

The cadets, many of whom spend long weeks at airborne school during the summer, are typically amazed by Gerbier’s sang-froid as he parachutes into occupied France without any training whatsoever: “Be careful when you hit the ground,” a Royal Air Force major helpfully advises. Such improvisation tends to unsettle my students, who have committed themselves to a culture of rigorous preparation. “I am an expert,” the U.S. Army’s Soldier’s Creed proclaims, “and I am a professional.” Indeed, it is almost impossible to go through a day at West Point without hearing the words “professional” and “professionalism,” the phrase “profession of arms,” or a reference to “professional development.”

Professional Burdens

Amateurs don’t carry many of the burdens that professionals acquire. For Gerbier and his cell, there are no surprises because everything is a surprise. They have no choice but to imagine and adapt to the impossible, even as they embody the soldierly virtues of knowing “how to command and how to take orders.” There is a natural tension between professional discipline and making it up as you go along. In “Army of Shadows,” improvisation is all the amateur has.

One challenge my students face is to attain the discipline, expertise and ethical standards possible only in a highly professionalized force while preserving the spontaneity and creativity that exigent circumstances so often demand and inspire. The longer one spends within a professional system, the more uncomfortable one can grow with the fluidity, surprise and risk that are the amateur’s daily diet.

The Army’s imagination of itself as a profession is by no means a new phenomenon. It gathered considerable momentum after World War II, with the institution of a sizable peacetime standing army. The 1957 publication of Samuel Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State : The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations” occasioned a new degree of self-awareness among soldiers. Huntington insisted that the “modern officer corps is a professional body and the modern military officer is a professional.” He defined a profession as an entity that adheres to a codified set of institutional values; preserves the trust of those it serves; and employs practitioners with expert knowledge and skills, a sense of specialized vocation, and a commitment to a career of education and self-development.

Sergeant York

The nation has had at least a small regular army of career soldiers for much of its history, but popular culture (especially as purveyed by Hollywood) has perpetuated the rival, often more compelling mythology of the citizen-soldier: Gary Cooper as Sergeant York, the reluctant yet resourceful infantryman who draws on his experience hunting turkeys to outfox the Germans on the Western Front; and, more recently, Tom Hanks as Captain John Miller, the high-school English teacher turned Ranger in “Saving Private Ryan.” In these scenarios, instinct and practical know-how tend to trump years of professional training; old-fashioned common sense is more highly prized than the ingenuity of the tactician or the sagacity of the grand strategist.

The complexity of modern warfare demands expertise from its practitioners, and one reason for today’s emphasis on professionalism is the lingering association of “citizen” with “amateur.” Yet the most robust expressions of the citizen-soldier mythology assert that it is precisely the temporary warrior’s stubborn connection to a civilian self that at once enriches practice and enlightens service. Perhaps that’s why the term “all-volunteer force” became so important to the restructuring of the military after Vietnam: Volunteering is the act of a free citizen. Yet what does it mean to call career soldiers volunteers? Presumably, they volunteer in the same way that doctors or lawyers do; they elect their profession rather than having it chosen for them.

One hears frequent references to professionals in contemporary American culture, but here again the rhetoric is tricky. There are consummate professionals and quiet professionals; in baseball there are professional hitters. Then there’s the professional gunfighter, that legendary figure of the frontier also popularized by Hollywood. All of these uses of the word suggest an aura of businesslike cool and efficiency; they imply expert skill but not necessarily an animating ethos.

The West’s Gunslinger

Engaging as he does in what the philosopher Simone Weil called “the business of killing and dying,” the gunslinger of the Old West offers a most provocative case. This figure, like today’s military contractor, is a mercenary, not a professional in Huntington’s -- or the contemporary Army’s -- sense of the word. The Western film acquires its tragic dimension whenever the professional killer grows weary of outlawry and begins to long for the social system beyond which he has lived for so long and within which he can no longer find respite: Shane, for example, or the reluctantly resurrected gunfighter of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

Especially in the case of a profession that deals in violence, the co-existence of skill and guiding moral principle is essential. Moderation in the use of force, Weil suggested, requires superhuman virtue, for excess often proves “an irresistible temptation.” Doctors have enough trouble decoding the apparently straightforward injunction “above all, do no harm.” How much more complicated, then, is a profession, like the military, that demands the infliction of harm in certain circumstances? One of my West Point colleagues, Robert Underwood, proposed that the Army’s “professional ethic could resolve itself to a similar principle: ‘above all, do no unnecessary harm,’ or ‘above all, do only necessary harm.’ Of course, the conceptual weight of ‘necessary’ in each is considerable.”

As they watch the amateurs in “Army of Shadows” reckon with violence -- with their willingness to apply it as well as their capacity to endure it -- the aspiring professionals in my class reflect on what it means to exercise force. Unbound by doctrine or a clear code of conduct, or by the kind of professional expectations that pervade the military culture to which my students belong, Melville’s characters freely confess their lack of preparation for, and ambivalence about, the violent nature of their missions. They even meditate on their own occasional cowardice. Cadets don’t have that luxury.

A First Time

Early in the film, a new recruit who wants to prove himself is asked to assist in the assassination of a traitor who has betrayed members of the organization to the Germans. When he demurs, insisting to his more experienced comrades that it is his “first time,” Gerbier responds, “It’s our first time, too. Isn’t that obvious?” An intern fresh from medical school isn’t asked to perform unsupervised surgeries; a first-year law associate doesn’t argue before the Supreme Court. Yet a lieutenant in charge of a platoon in a remote Afghan valley has, of necessity, become a full-fledged, largely independent professional practitioner of war.

Huntington suggested that one of the factors differentiating a profession from a trade is the breadth of a professional’s learning and an awareness of the broader societal contexts and traditions of which the profession forms a part: “Professional education consists of two phases: the first imparting a broad, liberal cultural background, and the second imparting the specialized skills and knowledge of the profession.” Yet connecting practice to context is especially difficult in the case of the soldier, whose theater of practice -- the battlefield -- is so radically removed from the life beyond.

This dynamic is further complicated by the possibility that undergoing what is still regarded as the ne plus ultra of military experience -- combat -- at the beginning of one’s career might substantially distort what follows. The strain of romance that persists even in contemporary doctrinal literature centers on the nobility of the warrior ethos: A soldier is the guardian of freedom. Yet the more senior one becomes, the farther away one ordinarily moves from the battlefield.

One Searing Episode

The army is approaching the end of a comprehensive yearlong study of the profession of arms. Initiating the campaign, Army leaders emphasized the need to examine the impact of a decade of war on the force, to understand the ways in which the profession has evolved under stress, and to adapt to future challenges. Professions evolve over time in response to a variety of factors: to the discovery of new knowledge, perhaps, or to changes in culture, law or social policy. But professional reformation or melioration is usually an organic, incremental process. Few professionals, perhaps, are as dramatically transformed by practice as the military professional can be by warfare.

All wars seem long to those who fight them. Yet even a 15-month deployment, if one is lucky enough to survive it, will stand as one searing episode in a much longer narrative. It is difficult, especially in wartime, for young officers to recognize the value of those many other attributes and capacities that longer careers of service require. The warrior’s timeline is short, sometimes cruelly abbreviated. There are occasions when being a guardian of freedom involves pushing a pen rather than pulling a trigger, studying a trend rather than scouting an enemy position. There’s little romance in such work, and sometimes it requires the citizen’s long view as much as the warrior’s immediate grasp. But that’s the life of a professional.

(Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of “Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

--Editors: Francis Wilkinson,Brenda Batten

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To contact the writer of this article: Elizabeth Samet at eliz.samet@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net


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