Ethics@work: 'Soldier' or 'armed combat professional'?

A larger issue faces the armed forces of all advanced countries: creeping professionalization.

A middle-aged officer recently told me that in the wake of disengagement, he's no longer interested in doing reserve duty. It's not because he opposes disengagement; rather, since then there has been a logistical rather than a military operation, and he doesn't see the justification for a mandatory reserve system. He fully acknowledges that the country still needs an effective army, "just like we need a power system, but we don't do reserve duty in the electric company." This officer's concerns are part of a larger issue which faces the armed forces of all advanced countries: creeping professionalization. We have to consider the prospect that the twenty-first century augurs the demise of the soldier and the rise of the "armed conflict professional." The gradual blurring of the distinction between the military and non-military worlds can hardly be denied. One aspect is the one just mentioned: the missions undertaken. The discussion in the US regarding greater Army involvement in rescue and reconstruction following Hurricane Rita - operations of a purely civilian character -- dwarfed local questions about the extent of army participation in the Gaza disengagement, which arguably had a significant military dimension. ANOTHER SYMPTOM is the gradual introduction of a management philosophy. I can still remember my surprise, many years ago, at seeing cadets on a desert base return from an exhausting and muddy late-night training drill, accompanied by a man in civilian clothes carrying a clipboard! I was told that the man was a consultant from a civilian company advising the IDF on how to improve its training program. The IDF has its own code of ethics, "Spirit of the IDF," which is similar to comparable corporate codes; the ethics code of the Canadian armed forces is featured and analyzed, along with those of major companies in one of the most popular books on the subject. Another symptom is the increasingly dominant careerism. A published study of the US Defense Manpower Data Center reveals that career benefits are by far the dominant consideration of inductees into the US armed forces; a lecture I heard recently from a leading IDF officer confirms that the same trend is at work in Israel. The increasing presence of women in the armed forces is a sign of this trend, and simultaneously drives it forward. The professional world tends to eschew arbitrary distinctions between men and women, and as the armed forces emulate the civilian sector, all-male fighting forces suddenly seem less of a compelling necessity. Meanwhile, the women who enlist often bring a more professional and less "military" (perhaps "less macho"?) approach. In the meantime, the private sector becomes more like the military, as secrecy becomes an increasingly important business weapon and loyalty is more assiduously cultivated. Industrial espionage is today almost certainly a bigger field than the military or political variety. TO SOME extent I believe this process is irreversible, but I'm also convinced that it is self-limiting. The idea of replacing every soldier with an "armed conflict professional" is in attempt to sanitize the now-distasteful image of the macho soldier killing enemy soldiers out of blind loyalty to country. The problem is that despite our enlightened attitudes, wars still take place, and people still get killed in them. So the process of professionalization replaces the image of the loyal soldier, currently in disfavor, with an even more repellent one: the highly trained "armed conflict professional" killing his esteemed colleagues in the opposing army out of principled adherence to professional principles, including, presumably, as the Code of Ethics of the International Association of Armed Conflict Professionals. The regimented, disciplined and ultimately faceless soldier would be replaced by a matter-of-fact mercenary. As long as war is about killing people, the complete professionalization of the military is neither practical nor desirable. Ultimately, the fighting man or woman must be motivated by loyalty to country, and not to a professional code of conduct. In any case, it is clear that the problem is far less severe in Israel than in other places. The IDF is a citizen army consisting largely of conscripts, unlike most Western armies; they are involved in a serious local conflict, not in foreign adventures or police operations; and they have very little involvement in non-military operations. Still, sooner or later we will have to come to terms with this question and decide: Exactly how "professional" do we want the IDF to be? The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.