Document created: 21 January 01
Air University Review, September-October 1983

The Air Force Officer Corps in the 1980’s

receding professionalism

Lieutenant Colonel Donald R. Baucom

The support people are not interested in providing support to operations. . . . They can’t identify with the airplanes on the base. . . . Most people outside operations see the airplanes as just getting in the way They are a nuisance.1

Today’s peacetime Air Force is a large, incredibly complex organization with an officer corps of nearly 102,000. These officers are divided among 217 occupational specialties that are themselves based on 60 different academic disciplines.

Given this diversity, it is not surprising that three recent studies present evidence indicating a weakness in the unity and sense of purpose of the officer corps. Captain Frank Wood reported in 1980 that younger officers think service in the support areas is more rewarding and has greater prestige than service in the operational portion of the Air Force.2 More recent reports on officer professionalism by Major C. Anne Bonen and Captain James H. Slagle indicate that substantially more than half of the officers in today’s Air Force identify more closely with their career fields than with the officer corps.3

What is the significance of this situation? I believe it signals a possible recession of professionalism in the present Air Force officer corps. I develop this thesis by first arguing that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State still constitutes a valid perspective from which to view current professional developments.4 Huntington’s views, combined with Philip Abrams’s article on recession of military professionalism in England, lead me to believe that officer professionalism may be in a recession in today’s Air Force.5

The Continuing Relevance of
Huntington’s Soldier and the State

When evaluating events, one must always have some standard, some perspective by which to judge. Professor Huntington’s classic study on military professionalism offers an excellent perspective from which to evaluate this current situation despite recent criticism by Major Bonen. She questions the continuing validity of Huntington’s study on two grounds: it is not based on data collection and is Army-oriented.6 Her position seems untenable to me.

Granted, one cannot survey the dead, but what then are we to do with history? Are we to deny the value and relevance of past human experience simply because historical studies cannot be based on opinion polls? Attitudes and values are expressed in the writings of the past and can be developed in historical studies. No thoughtful person can review the documentation of The Soldier and the State and fail to be impressed by the material Huntington reviewed while preparing his study. Surely, there is some degree of validity in a study supported by such massive scholarship, even if the study was completed in 1957.

What about Bonen’s criticism that the study is Army-oriented? Does this matter? The U.S. Air Force did not exist until 1947, and the Army was its predecessor. The fathers of the Air Force— Arnold, Spaatz, Eaker, Vandenberg, Twining, White, LeMay, et al.—were products of the interwar Army, and all but Eaker and LeMay were West Point graduates. Furthermore, many of the top leaders of the post-Vietnam Air Force—Generals George Brown, Bryce Poe, Lew and James R. Allen, Charles A. Gabriel, and Bennie Davis, to name but a few—are also West Point graduates. The single most widely known and often-used statement of our professional creed is the West Point motto: Duty, Honor, Country. Does one improve his understanding of professionalism by denying his heritage, his past? The roots of Air Force professionalism pass through the Army from the plain at West Point!

Given the significance of our professional heritage and the sound scholarship of The Soldier and the State, I think it safe to say that Huntington’s book offers quite an important perspective from which to view developments in today’s Air Force officer corps. Let us now look briefly at what Huntington wrote in 1957, for there is more to his thesis on military professionalism than the oft-repeated words: corporateness, expertise, and responsibility.

The Soldier and the State is probably the single most important book from the standpoint of legitimizing the military’s claim to professional status. Its major thesis is that "the modern officer corps is a professional body and the modern military officer a professional man." To prove his thesis, Huntington developed his famous model of professionalism and showed how it applied to the military. The military is a profession because it exhibits the same characteristics—expertise, corporateness, and responsibility—that the principal civil professions exhibit.7

While Huntington does define each of the characteristics of professions early in his book, we gain a fuller understanding of the meaning of expertise and corporateness when he sets about describing the process through which the American officer corps became professionalized, a process that occurred in the nineteenth century. There were two major facets in this process: establishing the "conduct of war" as the focus of military expertise and the development of a corporate identity in the officer corps. These two facets are intimately related.

Prior to the Civil War, the good officer was one considered competent in some "technical skill such as civil engineering, ship design, cartography, or hydrography." Officers were not trained in a military skill that they shared with other officers. As a result, the officer corps tended to be divided into subgroups that were "likely to be more closely tied with a segment of civilian society than with other segments of the corps."8

In the years following the Civil War, line officers in the Army and Navy increasingly emphasized that the conduct of war should be the center of the military’s professional interest. The articulation of this viewpoint was a major step toward the development of the military’s conception of itself as a "learned profession in the same sense as law and medicine" but without a counterpart in the civilian world.9

Thus, the professionalization of the American officer corps occurred when Army and Navy officers recognized that the focus of their professional expertise is the art and science of war. This focus served as a central theme, uniting specialists and line officers into a single corporate group, the professional officer corps.

Receding Professionalism

I have read many discussions of Huntington’s work by military officers and have discussed it with many other officers. All of these officers focus their attention on Huntington’s static model of professionalism: corporate ness, expertise, and responsibility. Either they have not read all of Huntington or choose to ignore the more dynamic portion of his thesis, the process by which the American officer corps achieved professional status. Recognizing that there was a chain of events leading to the achievement of professional status is important, for it permits one to understand that having achieved professional status does not guarantee that an organization will continue to maintain that exalted status.

When viewed from the perspective of the Huntington professionalization process, the situation described earlier in this article becomes a cause for concern. Today’s Air Force officer corps seems to be regressing to the preprofessional status that prevailed in the American officer corps during the first half of the nineteenth century. A majority of Air Force officers already identify primarily with others in their own career fields. Furthermore, the quotation at the beginning of this article, plus other signs of misunderstanding evident in the Wood paper, indicate that confusion exists about the focus of officer expertise.

This view of the status of professionalism in the Air Force is reinforced by Philip Abrams’s 1965 article on the recession of professionalism in the British Army. According to Abrams, the recession of professionalism is marked by these characteristics:

the loss over time of its monopoly of the knowledge relevant to the performance of a particular service; growing confusion as to the nature of the service the group is expected to perform or the social devaluation of all the services it can perform; growing dissensus among group members as to the normative implications of membership; an internal and external denial of competence leading to a degeneration of authority-relations within and a loss of access to decision-making affecting the group throughout.10

On looking at the current defense milieu in the United States, one finds an impressive array of specifics that fall into the categories of characteristics outlined earlier.

One indication that the military no longer has a monopoly on relevant professional knowledge can be seen in the area of strategy making. Since World War II, "social scientists, economists, natural scientists, and mathematicians" have increasingly dominated national security matters. Strategy making has become the work

of civilian experts with military men largely excluded from the process.11

The existence of the "Reform" group is further evidence that the military is no longer the exclusive possessor of professional military expertise. The "Reformers," including congressmen, civilian analysts, and retired officers, are currently challenging Department of Defense judgments on everything from the types of weapons to buy to how to employ weapons on the battlefield.12

With regard to confusion about the service the military is to provide, two things come readily to mind. One centers on the basic function of military forces. Many officers agree with Bernard Brodie’s view of the use of military force in the nuclear age. In 1946 Brodie wrote:

Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.13

Other officers believe that Brodie was wrong and the military still exists to fight the nation’s wars, such as the two wars the United States has fought since 1946.

A second element of confusion regarding the military’s purpose is government policies that authorize use of the military for nonmilitary purposes. Two examples of such nonmilitary functions are combating drug traffic and training civilians who cannot meet minimum military standards (Project 100,000).

Evidence of a dissensus with regard to "nornative implications of membership" in the profession emerges from the Bonen, Slagle, and Wood articles. Some support officers seem to view support activities as ends in themselves. No more than 48 percent of the officers between lieutenant and colonel can agree on what it means to be a military professional. And fewer than 50 percent of the officers in the Air Force identify primarily with the officer corps.

Finally, although I know of few internal criticisms of military competence, there have been numerous charges of military incompetence from outside the military. The words of Steven Canby are typical:

The study of war has all but atrophied in the U.S. The best minds in the U.S. military have become managerial and technical experts; but they have not studied their own professional discipline.14

In my view, the Air Force officer corps is regressing to a preprofessional status because of a blurring of the focus of officer expertise and a related decline in the officer’s sense of corporateness. There, are two basic ways of responding to this situation.

One may simply define the problem away by saying that traditional professionalism is outmoded and herald the beginning of a new era, the era of the situational or pragmatic professional. But let us not deceive ourselves into believing that nothing is lost in the process. There are certain characteristics essential to organizations that would claim the title of profession. Among these are the concepts of service and sacrifice. You simply cannot compromise where these characteristics are concerned, for when you do they cease to exist. As Richard Gabriel puts it in his book To Serve with Honor:

With regard to sacrifice, it is the basis of professionalism. The military is sworn to serve the state and the society. This inevitably means that at some point the members of the profession will have to pursue the interests of their client instead of their own.15

A second approach is to recognize that something vital is being lost and take action to remedy the situation. Since the situation is too complex to be dealt with in so small a space, I would only offer a few tentative suggestions at this point.

First, one must recognize that not everyone who wears officer insignia can be or even should be a "professional." Whereas our rank structure is a pyramid sitting on its base, the professional structure should be thought of as an inverted pyramid. Everyone in the grade of lieutenant colonel or above should show clear signs of commitment to the officer corps and understand that the basic mission of the Air Force is to " fly and fight," to use an old Air Force cliché. Thus, of the nearly 102,000 officers in the Air Force, we would expect about 20,000 to " hard-core" professionals.

Implied in the idea that professionalism should increase with time in service is the idea that socialization is a process that goes through-out one’s career. But saying that socialization is a career-long process does not exempt the Air Force from working to improve its socialization activities. More effort needs to be expended in formal educational activities so that officers better understand the professional prescriptions and proscriptions of officership. The lack of consensus among officers as to the meaning of professionalism, as revealed in the Bonen article, is a clear indication of a failure in socialization within the Air Force officer corps.

An important part of the expanded socialization activities would be an emphasis on those aspects of officership that trancend occupational skill groups. These would include the following:

While there may be other elements of unity in the officer corps, these are among the more obvious. Strong emphasis on these unifying threads could begin to rebuild our sense of corporateness and restore focus to our professional expertise. In this way, the Air Force might at least stop and possibly reverse the recession of professionalism that is presently under way in the Air Force officer corps.

Maxwell AFB, Alabama


  1. Air Force Administrative Officer, quoted in Frank R. Wood, " Air Force Junior Officers: Changing Prestige and Civilianization ," Armed Forces and Society, Spring 1980, p. 485.
  2. Ibid., pp. 483-506.
  3. Major C. Anne Bones, "Professionalism from Lieutenant to Colonel," Air University Review, January-February 1982, pp.102-06; Captain James H. Slagle, "The Junior Officer of the 1980’s: The Situational Professional," Air University Review, November-December 1981, pp. 90-96.
  4. Samuel P. Huntington, The Solider and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (New York, 1957)
  5. Phillip Abrams, "The Late Profession of Arms: Ambiguous Goals and Deteriorating Means in Britain," Archives européennes de sociologie, VI (1965), pp. 238-61.
  6. Bonen, p. 102.
  7. Huntington, pp. 7-18.
  8. Ibid,. pp. 193, 195.
  9. Ibid., pp. 200-03, 226-37, 255-56.
  10. Abrams, p. 240
  11. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of Untied States Military Strategy and Policy, in The Wars of the Untied States, edited by Louis Morton ( New York, 1973), pp. 405-06; and Richard Pipes, " Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War," Air Force, September 1977, p. 58.
  12. For a discussion of the "Reformers," their concerns and activities, see Lieutenant Colonel Walter Kross, " Military Reform: Past and Present," Air University Review, July-August 1981, pp. 101-08. For a recent exchange between an officer and a "Reformer," See William S. Lind and Walter Kross, "More on Maneuver to Win," Military Review, June 1982, pp. 75-77.
  13. "Implications for Military Policy," in Bernard Brodie, editor, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order ( New York, 1946), p. 76.
  14. Steven Canby, "General Purpose Forces," International Security Review, Fall 1980, p. 319. For similar views, see Jeffrey Record, "Is Our Military Incompetent?" Newsweek, December 22, 1980, p. 9 and Edward N. Luttwak, "The Decline of American Military Leadership," Parameters, December 1980, pp. 82-88.
  15. Richard Gabriel, To Serve with Honor: A Treatise on Military Ethics and the Way of the Soldier (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982), p. 159. See also pp. 58, 63, 77, 160.


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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