The Vocation of Arms

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily report official policy or reflect the views of US Air Force or Department of Defense.

One of the most searing unresolved issues in the conduct of the cold war is not the advantage of missiles over manned bombers, not which is the ‘best” TFX, not the use of nuclear vs. conventional weapons. It is the more serious question of people, without whom all weapon systems are as ineffective as a challenge to a fistfight by an armless man. It is the problem of how to keep servicemen in the service. Solutions have, of course, been offered, criticisms have been leveled, alarms have been sounded. Clarence B. Randall, Chairman of the President’s Pay Advisory Group, has endorsed a fourteen percent pay increase for the military, and he favors a retirement system that would replace the present twenty-year plan. Both pro­posals, the Administration hopes, will keep people in the service of their country longer.

Daniel Bell, in a recent article in The Columbia University Forum, has called the uniformed services “the military dispossessed.” Because, he says, “of its outmoded curriculum, its recruitment and promotion patterns, the vested interests of the different services, and the concentration at the top levels of officers trained in older notions of strategy, [it] is ill-equipped to grasp modern conceptions of politics, or to use tools—com­puter simulation, linear programing, gaming theory—of strategic planning.”

Morris Janowitz, in his definitive study, The Profes­sional Soldier, indicates that twenty to twenty-five per­cent of the graduates of the military and naval acade­mies (it’s fifty percent among ROTC graduates) are resigning their commissions after four or five years of service. He predicts an even higher attrition among Air Force Academy graduates, because they possess skills that are more directly transferable to civilian occupations. Speaking of the ever-narrowing gap be­tween the military and the civilian, in which the mili­tary is becoming more civilianized and the civilian militarized, Janowitz clearly sees, nevertheless, the essential role of the armed forces: “. . . the military establishment has a special environment because it alone has the organizational responsibility for preparing and managing war and combat.”

David Boroff, in his recent series of articles on the three service academies (Harper’s, December 1962, and January and February 1963) is fearful of the very word mission. The mission, we assert, simply and posi­tively establishes the threefold need of soldier-scholar-­athlete for duty-honor-country. Boroff wants civilian solutions for service problems. In his article about Annapolis, for example, he makes the civilian mistake of lumping prestige and pay together, as if the two were inseparable in the American way of life: “Military service must be dramatically upgraded both in terms of prestige and pay. It should have serious importance of the kind that service in the State Department or in a high government agency currently enjoys.”

The armed services themselves are not without guilt, particularly in their recruiting advertisements, when they too often beckon with material lures, too often stress pay and promotion, retirement at a young age, education and travel, in order to attract and keep young men in service for lifetime careers. The services should not, therefore, be puzzled if these same young men leave military careers for more of the same benefits in civilian life.

The US government itself, however unwittingly, en­courages the quick departure of the young and the bright from the services, by offering and paying out of its own pocket sometimes even greater financial re­wards—by simply tearing Uncle Sam from its recruiting posters and replacing him with a defense contractor or a civil servant. The same government which trains and educates the young people it wants to keep for life­time service often lures them into civilian jobs with higher pay—and still continues to pay the bill.

The story is bruited about almost daily in military circles how, for example, a master sergeant has not re-enlisted but has taken a high-paying job with quicker promotion prospects, in an electronic firm—a defense subcontractor; or how a colonel has resigned his com­mission (just a few years before retirement), to be­come a vice president of an aircraft corporation—a defense contractor; or how a young Academy or ROTC graduate has left the service to become a civil servant at a five-figure salary.

These people who do resign argue that they are, after all, still working for the government, either directly or indirectly; it is still the same old Uncle Sam who is paying their wages. No one challenges this argument. The challenge—and there is one—is, bitterly and realis­tically, in quite another place. It cannot be seen on posters, or found in the offers of promotion and pay and retirement, in or out of the service. The challenge is to, and in, the minds and hearts of all Americans. The serious soul-searching of many men as they de­cide whether to stay in or leave the service is often testimony to their understanding of the importance of the problem. But all too frequently the reasons they give for leaving, and indeed for staying in, are almost irrelevant to the central issues. They confuse the real reasons with their given reasons.

There is the easy confusion about “work”; it is a job, just another way of making a living. If it is for them, a job, then we ask: Is it something for which they strive to be paid more and more for doing less and less so that they might have more time in which to do nothing? Is it what they do during their waking hours? What if it is disliked, boring, yields no sense of fulfill­ment or satisfaction? And suppose this happens every day, in or out of the military

One of the most vital human needs is fulfillment in work. Aristotle knowingly observed that all men by nature desire to know—we are curious beings; but all men by nature also desire to accomplish—we are pur­posive beings.

Every man, every military man, needs to feel satis­faction in some accomplished task. The life in which this need is never or seldom realized is robbed of some­thing essentially human. The serviceman’s legendary gripe, or the anxious, bewildered cry of loss from our “beats” and angry young men (our stay-at-home lost generation), is more like an agonized wail at not having found themselves in any activity. They have not made, or care not to make, the necessary distinction between a job and a profession, or between a profession and a vocation. For each, in ascending order, gives a greater sense of involvement, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

If a job is something to get paid for doing from eight to five, if it is something to leave behind on the way home, then it becomes something distinct and separate from our total lives. If it is a profession, then it sur­renders to a larger part of our lives; there is a greater involvement, a more total commitment. We see this heartening sense of accomplishment in many doctors, some lawyers, and a few great teachers.

When a man’s work is his vocation, however, then we see a total engagement of his life and personality, a complete outlet for self-expression, a conclusive reali­zation of his potential. Such a vocation clearly marks and distinguishes the best of what a good man has in him. Moreover, any work may be a vocation for any man, if the degree of his involvement and the quality of his skill and dedication are of the highest order. John W. Gardner, President of the Carnegie Corpora­tion of New York, has acutely perceived this important distinction: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

The Gardner comment, unfortunately, all too often holds true in America. We are annoyed by the repaired automobile, washing machine, stove, or refrigerator that still does not work because the mechanic was not really a mechanic; the children’s shoes that break down after thirty days because the cobbler was not really a cobbler; the house that cracks along the walls and ceilings because the builder was not really a builder. Can a nation last when things are not made to last? Not unless everyone from the philosopher to the plumber, from the general to the private, can look upon his work as a vocation. Otherwise, each falls far short of what his own life and talents can offer society. Society falls short to the degree that each man, successively, fails in living the life of a total human being.

Moreover, a philosopher, or a plumber, or a soldier must be able to live with himself before he can live with others; he must be true to his own talents, inter­ests, and capabilities before he can genuinely con­tribute to life around him. That sailor or airman who remains in a job merely because of financial security, while his abilities lie elsewhere in civilian life, is un­true to himself and to his country. Although there may be family and economic pressures that make it practi­cally impossible for him to pursue his “vocation,” these considerations do not alter the fundamental principle. While it is flagrantly obvious that human nature is not perfect, it is still true that if men fail to seek its ideal conditions, then there is little hope left for growth and progress.

The military life can be a perfect vocation, although the short-termer may look at it merely as a job and the career officer and airman may regard it primarily as a profession. No one questions the necessity of military service in wartime, and all question the man who fails to answer his country’s call. But what of military service in time of peace? The serviceman is then viewed, even by veterans, with distrust. He is taunted as an eco­nomic leech, draining off the lifeblood of the nation—$56 billion for fiscal year 1964, about half of the na­tional budget! Sensational best-selling novels, like Fail-Safe and Seven Days in May, portray him (to his in­credulous astonishment) as one blindly willing to de­stroy almost half of the entire world or even as an exponent of treason. He is even accused, by Fred J. Cook in the book The Warfare State, of being part of a sinister military-industrial combine hopeful of taking over the country. Incredibly, he bears these libels in bristling but mute indignation. The prestige and re­spect that the man in uniform enjoyed in wartime is just as clearly lost to him in periods of peace. He is suspect. He is tolerated.

These ironies encase a hard paradox in our civiliza­tion: The man who preserves life, like the medical doctor, enjoys the highest prestige (we are “scared to death” to die and we will pay almost any price to live); yet the soldier or sailor or airman, in a hot or cold or lukewarm war, who is prepared to die, if need be, in the defense of his country, who is sworn to preserve the very conditions that make life possible for others, enjoys no such prestige.

The man who voluntarily puts on the blue or green uniform of the service implicitly, if not explicitly, com­mits himself to the principal view that there are some values in life worth more than life itself. There is some­thing worth the risk of life. That something is the way life is lived. All servicemen discover themselves the allies of Socrates, who lived and died with the unshake­able conviction that a decent man cherishes far more whether he does right or wrong (his way of life) than whether he lives or dies.

Is it maudlin in our time for a young American to say to himself, as others have before him: “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country” or to say: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be pur­chased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!”? Is it soft to mean it when you say: “Better dead than red!”? Thankfully, there are still thousands of Americans in uniform, who despite temp­tations to life in mufti; who in spite of the criticisms of pedagogues about their training and education, of economists about their high spending, of technologists about push-button missiles that will replace them; who, when the order is given to proceed to Vietnam or Cuba, hold to a simple unspoken belief: Death, if necessary, so that others may live.

Certainly the prestige accorded a doctor is deserved because the doctor’s essential function is aimed at an important value: the preservation of life. But the essen­tial function of the armed forces of a free nation is aimed at an even higher value: the preservation of the very conditions that make life possible. We propose that the military profession has the right to the respect given to other professions. And from the point of view of its essential function, it is perhaps an even more “noble” profession than most others.

But more than a job, and more than a profession, military life can be a completely satisfactory vocation. Military service in the United States today ranges over a number of specialized activities. An ensign may be an expert in nuclear physics, or a sailor a deep-sea diver; a captain may be a jet pilot, or a soldier a Paramedic; a lieutenant commander may program com­puters, or a chief petty officer command a tug; a major may be a neurosurgeon, lawyer, political-science pro­fessor, or rabbi—or an airman a cryptanalyst. And the Astronauts, their wearing of civilian clothes notwith­standing, are Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn, Lieu­tenant Commander Scott Carpenter, Major Virgil I. Grissom, Commander Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Major L. Gordon Cooper, and Commander Walter Schirra—all officers in the uniformed services of their country.

Thus a serviceman’s specialty may by itself take on the distinction of a vocation. But if, for example, the Air Force pilot has found his vocation in flying, what difference does it make if he should resign and fly for a civilian airline? The difference, to us, is crucially important. Military life adds significance to the voca­tion of the captain-pilot which the airline pilot need never ponder. The military vocation, whether of pilot, deep-sea diver, or cryptanalyst, requires a further dedi­cation, an extra sense of responsibility. Unlike the civilian doctor, lawyer, or teacher, who practices his essential function all the time, the military man some­times seems so far removed from his that it is difficult for him to keep his primary purpose in mind. Regard­less of these hazards, however, this full commitment to a higher cause by a serviceman guarantees the preser­vation of a way of life which permits any man to seek his own work anywhere. It is a vocation that allows others the right to pursue their own vocations.

Despite the call to higher values in a military career, there are admittedly many personal restrictions which seem to prevent the free expression of a total person­ality in the service—an indispensable requirement be­fore work can become a vocation. Zealous critics will say that anyone who has ever served “knows” that military men take orders; that the “military mind” is stagnant, conservative, and unoriginal; that many as­signments force a man into a job he hates, to work for a superior he dislikes, and in a climate he abhors. And they ask—How can these conditions make a vocation of work?

We say that in the large these are glib critiques that do not square with the facts of present-day military life. We do not deny the existence of rigidity in the military. We suggest rather that where it occurs it is of the same brand that afflicts any large organized seg­ment of our society.

But if there is a “military mind” in the service today, it belongs not to the American counterpart of Colonel Blimp, but to what Morris Janowitz, with keen insight, calls “the intellectual officer” or “the military intellectual.­” Janowitz describes the intellectual officer as the soldier (his inclusive term for all servicemen) “who brings an intellectual dimension to his job. His intel­lectual quality is held in check by the needs of the profession. He sees himself primarily as a soldier, and his intellectuality is part of his belief that he is a whole man.”

The military intellectual,” on the other hand, “is a markedly different type. Although he is a professional soldier, his attachments and identifications are primarily with intellectuals and intellectual activities. He would have no trouble shifting from military to uni­versity life, for his orientations are essentially scholarly. He is generally denied, or unequipped, for the highest command posts, as would be the case with intellectuals in civilian society. His position is essentially advisory, but, in the military setting, the advisory post is institu­tionalized and accepted,” Janowitz writes.

These uniformed intellectuals with or without Ph.D.s are in the ranks, but there is a great need in the mili­tary life not only for these thinkers, but also for thinkers from all disciplines—military, scientific, and humanis­tic. The political, scientific, economic, social, and cul­tural implications of policy-level, military decisions made today must be studied and evaluated by the most knowledgeable minds in the nation, minds that must also belong to men in uniform. And this creative and analytical thinking must be joined to the most respon­sible kind of self-discipline in the taking and giving of orders. In the military man the two must work inex­tricably together, for discipline and creative thinking are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are mutually dependent.

If the military wishes to ensure for itself the dignity and prestige which it rightly deserves because of its very purpose for being, then it must assume certain responsibilities. It must squarely face the issue of voca­tions as any thinking human being must in any type of work. It must be convinced that the values at stake are worth a total commitment. If it wishes to merit the respect of others, it must first respect itself; and internal respect for the military way of life begins when all servicemen view it not as a job, not as a profession, but as a vocation.

This same attitude must then extend and pervade the thinking of all Americans—of the parents of young men considering the service as a career, of the busi­nessmen alarmed at the military use of tax dollars, of professional men unaware that there are others as dedi­cated as they, and finally, of the lobby groups who pressure some congressmen into favoring the repre­sented nonuniformed government services over the nonrepresented uniformed services of that same gov­ernment.

If the American way of life is really more important than life itself, then the military life is, indeed, a noble calling. The vocation of arms deserves the total dedi­cation of thoughtful men and the respect of free men everywhere.

Major Briand, Associate Professor of English at the Air Force Academy, is a combat veteran of World War II, a native of Cambridge, Mass., and author of a recent biog­raphy of Amelia Earhart, Daughter of the Sky (Duell, Sloan, & Pearce, New York, 1960). He holds a B.A. from the University of New Hampshire, an M.A. in English from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver.

Captain Wakin, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Academy, is a native of Oneonta, N. Y., and is a rated senior navigator who has served with air-rescue units. He holds a B.A. from Notre Dame, an M.A. from the State University of New York, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California.