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Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics

Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics by Nathan K. Finney and Tyrell O. Mayfield. Naval Institute Press, 2018, 264 pp. 

Every member of the US military has gone through some form of professional military education. While junior enlisted members are encouraged to learn followership and the basic tenants of military service, noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers alike are consistently confronted with the basics of leadership and the mechanics of management. With such weighty topics naturally follows introspection and the most classic of military questions inevitably arises. Is the profession of arms a classic profession in the manner of a medicine or law? Does the authorized use of force place military leaders in a special category? If so, what sort of ethical code should members be held to? These questions are at the core of Nathan K. Finney and Tyrell O. Mayfield’s Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics

Structured as an anthology with each chapter authored by a different doctrine, policy, or ethics expert, the heart of the text is devoted to developing a critical analysis of the concept of profession and with a certain degree of rigor, testing different aspects of military life that either fit or do not fit into that context. While there is always a risk of disjointedness with nonsequential chapters, the careful editing keeps the book tightly tailored and on message. The chorus of voices hailing from military leaders, academia, legal and medical professionals, and the authors themselves, both previously-published military officers, is the book’s greatest strength. The authors called upon experts, and as such the book reads like a primer in professional education that does not come off nearly as dry and seemingly without context as many government-sanctioned course materials often do. 

The beauty of strong voices creating a library of essays in one place are the variety of matters that can be addressed and the interesting juxtapositions that they create by being placed between the same covers. One structural technique that the books smartly executes is devoting a separate chapter to the Army, Air Force and Navy, acknowledging the great divergences in their culture as well as their differing development struggles and thus highlighting their varying approaches to ethics and professionalism. Chapter 7, titled “The Rise, Fall, and Early Reawakening of US Naval Professionalism” and authored by William M. Beasley Jr., paints a picture of a Navy that struggled to engage with an overarching doctrine due to a lasting hyperfocus on technical skills. Transitioning from vocational to professional was one of the starkest and most fundamental challenges faced by the Navy as it attempted to modernize after the Second World War and resulted in the officer corps looking to history to draw upon the rich tradition of officership at sea to determine their professional values. 

While the Navy looked back in time for their ethical center, the USAF, one of the first organizations of its kind in the world, had no choice but to define itself professionally as it went along. The book’s 12th chapter titled “Born of Insubordination: Culture, Professionalism and Identity in the Air Arm,” authored by Brian Laslie, takes up this torch. In part because of its origins as the underdog service formed solely by rebellious fighter pilots and its mantra of accepting every dimension of “Air, Space and Cyberspace,” which were at the time largely undeveloped domains, the Air Force has something of a constant identity problem. While uncharted territory is home to the Air Force, the constant state of flux and additions of game-changing technology as well as new career-field communities that call into question the traditional image of the operator leaves both those who fall into the traditional Air Force image and those who present something new in the proverbial lurch. Stove-piping as the book calls it, is rampant, and ultimately professionalism in the Air Force takes on the shape of individual development within one’s own highly specialized career field. Looking to the future involves Air Force leaders developing a more universal definition of officership that can serve as a uniting ethos. 

The professionalism spectrums and problems faced by each service are real and at times unflattering, but Redefining the Modern Military doesn’t shy away from presenting meaningful analysis and proposed solutions. While the different service branches occupy hefty real estate in the book, chapters devoted to military education and the story of aid workers are also topics containing fresh takes on military values, especially in discussing how the military creates relationships with the “outside” world. 

For students of military doctrine, especially young officers, Redefining the Modern Military could serve as a first stop in the search for a personal understanding of ethics or a relatable top-off after emerging from a professional education course. While the questions it takes on are not new, the variety of takes, topics, and inputs from lifelong students of professionalism, all of them professionals under any definition—the young authors included—are worthy of a few hours on an otherwise lesser-spent afternoon. 

Ashley Marty 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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