Selfless Service

A Response

The Pendulum
Jul 21, 2015 · 4 min read

The following post was penned by Rob Callahan, a Medical Service Corps officer in the United States Army. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

COL Chip Bircher recently discussed the importance of Selfless Service in the military.[i] In the hopes of furthering the professional and ethical dialogue surrounding Selfless Service, he proposed refining the definition of this virtue to further emphasize “placing the needs of the Nation and the Army ahead of one’s personal goals.” I would like to add my voice to the discussion the Colonel started, but I must respectfully disagree with his recommendation. Selfless Service is definitely an important motivator for military service, but I personally feel service to the nation and service to the military should not be confused. You serve the Nation, you serve in a branch of the military. Equating the needs of the military branches and the Nation ignores the possibility of these needs being at odds. I believe the outspokenness of some millennial service members stems from a desire to protest when it appears that the wants and needs of the military are running counter to those of the nation.

The differences in opinion between junior and senior airmen over the fate of the A-10 showcased this exact phenomenon. The Air Force has been lobbying Congress to retire the A-10 Warthog for a number of years. Some commissioned officers and enlisted airmen disagreed with their service’s position and contacted members of Congress in order to voice their opposition.[ii] A Major General in the Air Force characterized the actions of those dissenting airmen as treason, and I believe his comments were motivated by an understanding of the nature of the military services which assumes that each service’s self-identified wants and needs are indistinguishable from the needs of the Nation.[iii]

Unfortunately, the doctrine surrounding each service’s core values offers no guidance for a situation where the institutional priorities of a military service run counter to what is best for the Nation. In fact, ADRP 6–22’s explanation of selfless service states that “the needs of the Army and the Nation should come first.” It may be cynical, but I think it would be worthwhile to emphasize to leaders that the sine qua non of selfless service is service to the country. This change would require explaining that placing the needs of your military service or your subordinates first can, but may not always be, an aspect of selfless service. The recent restructuring of Army ROTC’s Cadet Command is a case study in placing the needs of the Nation above the wants of a military service.

As Cheryl Miller pointed out, the Army during and after Vietnam understandably chose the easy wrong of focusing on supportive Southern schools and communities to the exclusion of antagonistic schools and communities in the North.[iv] The majority of Americans live in urban areas, and some of America’s finest colleges and universities were among those whose ROTC programs were shut down. Therefore, the Army had limited the opportunities for both a majority of Americans and a majority of those who tended to aspire to leadership in America to interact with military personnel and military recruits.[v] This was the case until 2013, when the Army closed 13 ROTC programs, 12 of which were in the South and Midwest, and began to expand, open, and reopen programs in previously neglected institutions and major urban areas, such as Los Angeles and New York City.[vi]

Sequestration could have prompted the Army to slip back into its old ways.[vii] Thankfully, recent remarks by the Training and Doctrine Command Commander show that the Army is still focused on what is best for the Nation, rather than focusing on what the Army may think is best.[viii] This decision rejects a service-centric careerism which blindly assumes the Nation is best served by each service’s institutional priorities. Instead, the Army’s decision properly channels a nation-centric public service which is an essential motivator for joining and continuing to serve in the military.

A cursory review of the services’ doctrine offers good, bad, and ambivalent news. The Navy’s Core Values Charter identifies public service as a privilege and calls for honesty and frankness in communications up, down, and outside of the chain of command. The Air Force’s Core Values do the exact opposite by instructing airmen to place “Service before Self” by maintaining “faith in the system.” As previously noted, the Army is somewhere in the middle. As much as it pains me to say it, I think the Army and Air Force could really take a page out of the Navy’s book. In the age of an All-Volunteer Force and after 14 years of continuous hostilities, every current and potential service member should understand that personal sacrifices both large and small are a necessary part of military service. The services owe them an understanding of the motivations behind those sacrifices which recognizes that service members are public, not indentured, servants.

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