Air University Review, July-August 1978

Nonsense, Common Sense, and the Professional NCO

Senior Master Sergeant George H. Day
Tennessee Air National Guard

From its inception, the Air Force has been characterized by change, sometimes gradual, at other times fairly rapid, but seldom has change been as rapid as that which has occurred since the 1960s. In less than two decades, we have seen a series of changes that have touched almost every element of our society, including the military. Society has undergone change, the Air Force has undergone change, and with these has come a change in the noncommissioned officer.

The term "enlisted man" has become as archaic as the army that spawned it. It is not merely redundant, the mental image it generates no longer applies to the modern Air Force. "Enlisted man" conjures up a colorless conservative of indeterminate years, with about an eighth grade education. He was always broke because he had been on a five-day binge or had lost his last dollar in the almost nightly poker game at the NCO barracks. His greatest talent was scrounging around the base, filling his personal coffers which served as the basic supply system of his air force. He scarcely had a life of his own; his was a life of service. In return, he received a pittance benevolently bestowed on him, once a month, by a patronizing employer.

Does this portrait sound like nonsense? Dr. Samuel P. Huntington, a noted authority on the military, wrote in his book The Soldier and the State (1957):

The enlisted men subordinate to the officer corps area part of the organizational bureaucracy but not of the professional bureaucracy. The enlisted personnel have neither the intellectual skills nor the professional responsibility of the officer. They are specialists in the application of violence not the management of violence. Their vocation is a trade not a profession. This fundamental difference between the officer corps and the enlisted corps is reflected in the sharp line which is universally drawn between the two in all the military forces of the world.

This arguable evaluation of the enlisted airman and the noncommissioned officer is printed in Concepts of Air Force Leadership, published by the Air University.1 It is used as a reference to train officer candidates in the Air Force ROTC program. The statement can also be found in the Squadron Officer School Correspondence Course. Worse yet, considerable research suggests that no enlisted airman or noncommissioned officer has ever challenged it.

This article holds that tremendous social, economic, and technical changes in the Air Force and our society have rendered Dr. Huntington's narrow and slanted definition of professionalism useless for the purpose of understanding Air Force leadership. Common sense tells us that the national belief in education, with its phenomenal growth during the past two decades, must have had an impact on the people serving in the Air Force. Have the men and women who serve as NCOs accepted this contemporary challenge of society, and are they educating themselves to levels comparable to those of the officers Professor Huntington calls professionals?

I feel that challenging this outdated concept of the enlisted person will improve interpersonal relationships between officers and NCOs and improve leadership in the Air Force.

Dr. Huntington states that the military is a profession because it possesses characteristics of expertise, responsibility, and corporateness, which are generally accepted as necessary for distinguishing a profession from an occupation or a trade. He adopts the concept of "management of violence" from Harold Lasswell and distinguishes it from mere application of violence, suck as firing weapons, which gives one only technical competence or tradesman status.2 Dr. Huntington's definition of professionalism is, ".... perhaps the best known, most widely accepted, and certainly the most methodically developed conceptualization," based on the classical definition of the term.3

Lieutenant Colonel Zeb B. Bradford, Jr., USA, and Major James R. Murphy, USAF, in "A New Look at the Military Profession," have refuted Huntington's whole concept of professionalism. They state:

The officer corps must accept most of the responsibility for these faulty conceptions that dominate the thinking about its basic character, for it has failed to question its own assumptions or to state its own case. The military has been too willing to leave theorizing about the profession of arms to civilian intellectuals who, although often talented, have failed to grasp its essentials simply because their viewpoint from outside the military prevents sufficient insight.4

A summary of their position includes the fact that the problem with Huntington's definition is that "management of violence" is insufficient to describe what is actually required of the American military establishment. In this country, the military serves the nation by expanding its options when dealing with the power of nations. These options may or may not include the "management of violence." Therefore, the military profession cannot be defined in terms of functional expertise because it is not a constant; it is a contingent and relative element.5 Another important point is that the most violent means of destruction available to this nation is not controlled by the military but by a civilian, the President of the United States.6

It becomes obvious that Professor Huntington's definition is insufficient to describe professionalism in the Army. It is doubtful that it ever came close to describing professionalism in the United States Air Force. More than in any other branch of service, it is the Air Force officer who applies violence, not the enlisted man. The Air Force is rapidly reaching the point where 98 percent of its personnel support the other two percent who serve in the combat roles. A single aircraft today can carry the explosive power equal to the entire amount used in World War II.

In rejecting Huntington's whole concept of professionalism, one realizes that his concept of enlisted men is also insufficient to describe the airman and NCO of the modern Air Force. This is particularly true when one discovers that the intellectual giants Huntington refers to had only slightly higher educational levels than today's Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduates. Educational levels of Air Force officers and airmen as of 31 October 1957 were as follows:7

  Officer Airmen
less than grammar school
 0.0 2.0
grammar school graduate 0.0 4.5
less than high school  0.6 22.6
high school graduate 12.4 56.9
college (less than two years) 14.8 9.6
college (two years or
more, no degree)
25.0 3.7
college degree/equivalent 35.9 .5
law degree 1.4  0.0
master's degree 4.7 0.2
doctorate degree 0.4 0.0
medical/dental degree 4.8

 These figures show that 52.8 percent of Air Force officers did not have a college degree, and 29.1 percent of the enlisted force did not have a high school diploma. Both the officers and the enlisted men had a long way to go in 1957 to meet the Air Force goal of a college degree for every officer and a high school diploma for every enlisted man when Professor Huntington published his much-discussed definition of professionalism.

Thus, a new definition of professionalism would seem to be in order. Such a definition comes to us from Lloyd E. Blaunch, editor of Education for the Professions. He writes:

The professions are not always sharply distinguished from other vocations or occupations. In general, however, they may be described as occupations which provide highly specialized intellectual services. These occupations, at their best, possess three principles: (1) a body of erudite knowledge, a set of attitudes, and a technique which are applied to the service of mankind through an educated group; (2) a standard of success measured by accomplishment in serving the needs of the people rather than by personal gain; and (3) a system of control over the practice of the calling and the education of its practitioners through associations and codes of ethics.8

Both the professional officer and the professional noncommissioned officer meet these criteria.

One result of the tremendous social and technical changes in the Air Force has been the creation of a body of professional knowledge for the enlisted airman and the noncommissioned officer. The enlisted Professional Military Education (PME) program serves this purpose. The entire program serves this purpose. The entire program consists of five levels of instruction, comparable to that which has been provided the commissioned officer since March 1946.9

Enlisted PME Officer PME
NCO Orientation Course Squadron Officer School
USAF Supervisor Course
Leadership School
Air Command and Staff
  ; College
Noncommissioned Officer

Senior Noncommissioned
   Officer Academy

Air War College

Blaunch defines professional education as "that form of education which prepares students for professional callings or employments."10 It is quite different from the specialty knowledge, which the NCO obtains at USAF technical schools, or a liberal arts education, which is general and has no specific vocation in view.

The Air University Catalog, 1975-76, states:

The major objective of the Air University professional military schools is to provide Air Force Officers and Senior Noncommissioned Officers a progressive program of education …by broadening their perspective and preparing them to assume responsibilities at higher levels of command and staff duties.

The Senior Academy was formed to prep are the superintendent level NCO for the expanded responsibilities he is required to perform. Today's Senior NCO performs many management duties formerly carried out by Commissioned Officers. At the same time his responsibilities have increased, the hardware and systems he uses have become more complex, and the resources needed to complete the job have diminished.11

Economic forces acting on the military budget have resulted in expanded responsibilities for the NCO. A recent speaker to Class 77-E, Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, stated that the Air Force was in the process of replacing 1000 officer positions with 750 noncommissioned officer positions. One example of this was reported in a base newspaper: "CMSgt. Clarence L. Fairley, the new director of leadership and management education at LMDC, has some big shoes to fill. He recently assumed the obligations and responsibilities assigned to a job formerly reserved for an officer in the grade 0-6-"12

Standards in the present-day Air Force are the highest in its history. What civilian occupation or trade has the range of standards that are prescribed in AFR 30-1? While Air Force Chief of Staff, General David C. Jones, in a brief introduction to this directive, stated:

When you joined the USAF, you began... a new way of life... a demanding profession.... This regulation describes our standards,… These standards apply to all Air Force people and I expect everyone to live and work by them; They are our day-to-day code of personal and professional conduct.13

Our mission is "to prepare for, and, if necessary, participate in armed conflict to preserve the security and freedom of the American people." That requires "disciplined, dedicated and educated people who live and work by the highest personal and professional standards."14 The NCO wears a symbol of his success, measured by accomplishments, on the sleeve of his uniform. Beyond the elimination of the unfit (AFRs 39-10 and 39-12), current quotas established by law provide for only one percent of the entire enlisted population ever to reach the top of the profession. Only two percent will make it to the second highest level, senior master sergeant.

Turning to the impact of education on the quality of the enlisted force, we find that, "The two yardsticks most frequently used to assess quality are the level of education achieved (high school graduate status) and the results of standardized tests which measure mental capacity and aptitude."15 Today, 90 percent of nonprior service recruits are high school graduates. This compares with 70.9 percent in 1957. "Whether measured by mental ability or high school graduate status, the quality of the all volunteer force is higher than for the nation at large."16

Figure 1. Educational levels of recruits in all U.S. services, July-December 1975

The graph shown above (Figure 1) is a comparison of USAF recruits and those of the other services.17

Not only does the Air Force receive recruits who are a "cut above," but these individuals also become motivated to further their education while in the service. A recent USAF Fact Sheet, "Educational Level of the Enlisted Force—End of March 77," states that only 3.9 percent of enlisted personnel with less than one year of service have attended college, while 1.8 percent have earned a B.S. degree or higher. The percentages for the total enlisted force are 14.2 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively.18 However, once an individual becomes a member of the

senior career force, he begins to reap the advantages of numerous in-service educational programs. The data, which were compiled from AUN-ACM (AR) 7403 reports for the USAF Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, January 1977 through December 1977, show the results of these educational programs.19 (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Educational levels of students in the Senior Non-commissioned Officer Academy, January-December 1977

An interesting comparison can be made of these results with those of the officers Professor Huntington cited as professionals (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Years of education achieved by Huntington's officers (1957), the enlisted force (1957), and Senior Non-commissioned Officer Academy graduates (1977)

The educational accomplishments of the SNCOA graduate become even more significant when one considers that he has been through basic military training, technical school, on-the-job training, skill knowledge tests, promotion fitness examinations, general military training, human relations training, and five levels of professional military education. Is it any wonder that it took him twenty years to catch up to Huntington's officers?

This article has explored the changing status of the enlisted airman and the noncommissioned officer. What effect does an outdated definition of professionalism have on the officer candidate or an officer studying his career development course? One of the operational points of leadership is to know your people. One can only conclude that it is carelessness, incapacity, and neglect that cause the Air Force to fail to recognize the efforts of so many of its enlisted people. Many of my colleagues have stated that they were appalled to learn that this kind of thinking was still around, let alone used to train future officers and commanders of the United States Air Force.

Almost a hundred years ago, the Army Officers Guide is reported to have stated, "Enlisted men am stupid, but extremely cunning and sly, and bear considerable watching." As late as 1957, Professor Huntington put it, "….The enlisted personnel have neither the intellectual skills nor the professional responsibility of the officer."20

In conclusion, it is the author's position that the NCO is a professional in every sense of the term. His profession is the same as that of the officer: service to his country. His relationship to the officer is marked by loyalty and mutual respect. Let's not forget that the word sergeant comes from the Latin word servire, meaning to serve. The complexity of the times requires even greater things of the NCO and the officers he supports; therefore, the meaning of the word "sergeant" is as important as ever.21

As NCOs we have a proud tradition, and a proud tradition is ours to make. But, in the words of one of our most professional airmen, General Curtis LeMay, "It is not necessarily what we have done in the past but what we are doing today and will be doing tomorrow that will count in the final summation."22

It is my recommendation that Air University review its course materials dealing with professionalism. Narrow concepts of the enlisted men and women, especially those dependent on the expertise of one individual outside the military, should be rejected as inadequate to describe the uniqueness of today's enlisted airman and professional NCO.

The Air Force should realize that the general belief that education offers opportunity has convinced the enlisted members of the Air Force to go to college. They now have excellent if not the best possible educational and professional qualifications for increased opportunity to serve their country.

Alcoa, Tennessee


1. Samuel P. Huntington, "Officership as a Profession," in Concepts of Air Force Leadership, Major Dewey Johnson, editor (Air University: Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 1970), p.92.

2. Lt. Col. Zeb B. Bradford, Jr., USA, and Major James R. Murphy, USAF, "A New Look at the Military Profession," in Concepts of Air Force Leadership (Air University: Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 1970), p.94.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p.93.

5. Ibid., p.95.

6. Sam C. Sarkesian, ''Political Soldiers: Perspectives on Professionalism in the Military," Midwest Journal of Political Science, May 1972, pp.219-58.

7. ''Educational Levels of Air Force Personnel,'' Air Force Personnel Newsletter, July 1958, p.13.

8. Encyclopedia Americana, 1975 edition, see especially "Professional Education" by Lloyd H. Blaunch, pp. 632A, 632B.

9. Department of the Air Force, Career Fact Book for the Air Force Officer, p.24.

10. Blaunch, Encyclopedia Americana.

11. Air University Catalog (Air University: Maxwell AFB, Alabama, September 1975), pp. 5, 47.

12. "Chief Fairley Takes Colonel's Post," The Dispatch, Maxwell AFB/Gunter AFS, Alabama, November 4, 1977, p.2.

13. "Standards: Words to Live By," Air Force Times, November 7, 1977, p.4.

14. Ibid.

15. "Two Years with the All-Volunteer Force," Commander's Digest,10 April 1975, p.2.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., p.3.

18. "Education Level of the Enlisted Force--End of March 77," USAF Fact Sheet, 19 May 1977.

19. AUN-ACM(AR) 7403, "Educational Statistics--AFNCOA," January 1977 through December 1977.

20. Huntington, p.92.

21. The Anatomy of the NCO (Knoxville, Tennessee: ANG Professional Military Education Center, 1971), p.17.

22. Ibid., p.18.


Senior Master Sergeant George H. Day (B.S., University of Tennessee) is Assistant Department Chief, Leadership and Management Department, Air National Guard Professional Military Education Center, Alcoa, Tennessee. He was assigned to the Weather Observer Course and as a squadron staff advisor to the 30th Weather Squadron, Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam. Sergeant Day is an Honor Graduate of the Air National Guard Noncommissioned Officer Academy and a graduate of the USAF Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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