May 22, 2024
In 1988, the Department of Defense produced a revision of "The Armed Forces Officer." Originally published in 1950 and authored by Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, the book has undergone multiple revisions and constitutes a forgotten but truly valuable piece of military literature. Travis Eddleman and Meagan van Harte feel that it provides a simple but informative look at what it means to lead. They argue that "The Armed Forces Officer" provides sound tenets of leadership combined with a commonsense approach to working well with and leading others. That's why they recommend that this revision is worth pulling down off the Dusty Shelf and deserves a read by today's leaders.

The Army missed 25% of its recruitment goal during fiscal year 2022, and in the last two years its size has decreased by 7%.

The United States now faces multiple threats from state actors including Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran while simultaneously confronting a recruiting problem that could extend for generations. These recruitment challenges are also critical in the officer corps, suggesting that the accustomed U.S. military might decline in the years ahead. The Army missed 25% of its recruitment goal during fiscal year 2022, and in the last two years its size has decreased by 7%. While multiple reasons for this problem exist—physical and behavioral health, administrative enlistment challenges, lack of appropriate incentives—surveys show that many eligible to join believe the service is irrelevant and could not connect joining the Army with significant opportunities for themselves. The Armed Forces Officer revision of 1988 reminds us “when the pendulum swings from favoritism to near rejection of the military due to national experiences that stir dissent, protest or anti-military clamor-and it will-the only choice for the military officer corps is a visible rededication to the precepts of honor, integrity and trust.” (p. 3) The authors of the 1988 revision faced a similarly taxing climate in a post-Vietnam era plagued with a dwindling interest in the military among younger age groups and diminishing public support.

Current Army officers likely have significant familiarity with AR 600-100, Army Profession and Leadership Policy, and commanders, past and present, have no doubt delved into the pages of AR 600-20, Army Command Policy. While these regulations remain current and applicable policy, older publications on leadership and officer requirements, especially those from times of similar political turmoil, can still provide contemporary leaders with time honored principles to guide their decision making. Originally published in 1950 and authored by Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, the original Armed Forces Officer was inspired by and carried the signature of then Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall. At more than 250 pages, the original publication focused largely on military service as the world entered the nuclear age Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Additional revisions took place in 1960, 1975, 2007 and 2017, but the largely forgotten 1988 revision of  The Armed Forces Officer stands apart compared to all other versions in both structure and approach, still containing a wealth of guiding leadership principles applicable to leaders in the current civil-military environment.  The Armed Forces Officer and subsequent revisions, except for the 1988 revision, ranged from just under 200 pages to over 250. Revisions prior to 1988 maintained the same chapter headings as the original, and S.L.A. Marshall even stated in the 1975 revision that “the object at hand is to update the writing and not to reflect on lessons learned.” (p. ii) The writers of the 1988 version took a very different stance by attempting to hold to the original outline and principles established by Marshall while also condensing the revision to less than 100 pages and taking into account the vast experiences and challenges of the 38 years since the original publication. They eloquently noted the nation had “experienced triumph and disaster” and “moved from a naïve optimism . . . to a more mature reality.” (p. ii) The authors of the 1988 version wrote with the very recent lessons of Vietnam in mind, not unlike our current situation as we reflect on lessons learned following the cessation of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 1988 revision became available for military officers to read shortly before the controversy concerning Marshall’s authenticity and credibility as an historian came into question in 1989. Whatever the merits of Marshall as a scholar, his writing was engaging and readable. The plain, conversational style first implemented by Marshall remained evident in the 1988 version, which could easily be read in a single sitting. More importantly, that edition avoided the academic complexity and length of the later 2007 and 2017 editions. The style of the editions up to 1988 was more akin to a mentorship session from a leader who wants to see you succeed rather than a manual with directives that must be followed written by someone not personally invested in future leaders’ success.

The Armed Forces Officer (1988) proffers three points on leadership: make use of available opportunities and training, encourage and promote honor and integrity, and provide simple and direct solutions to problems even if they are difficult or complex. Considering recent declines in public trust of the military, this book offers a very direct and simple approach to allow Army leaders to learn and reestablish trust by acknowledging the importance of fidelity and integrity, implementing those principles in their daily lives, and recognizing the dire impact on the entire officer corps that transpires when officers violate the sacred nature of their oath and spurn the trust of the public they are to serve.

The Armed Forces Officer inspires leaders to continuously seek knowledge, accept responsibility commensurate with their rank and position, and, above all, practice self-discipline while exhibiting high moral standards.

The publication encourages officers to engage in an internal journey to examine their dedication to the profession of arms. Simply stated, the writers seek to encourage self-awareness. In 90 pages, The Armed Forces Officer covers a broad range of topics in an engaging and entertaining way. Each chapter could serve as a stand-alone lesson in and of itself, and we would suggest reading them as such with subsequent consideration of how to apply the lessons and suggestions provided. However, when reviewed in its entirety, several important themes come to light. The Armed Forces Officer inspires leaders to continuously seek knowledge, accept responsibility commensurate with their rank and position, and, above all, practice self-discipline while exhibiting high moral standards.

In fact, the authors focus intensely on high moral standards as the foundation for all success as a military officer and leader. The Armed Forces Officer neither selected nor advocated for a creed or religion, simply that one display characteristics of integrity, courage, self-denial, self-discipline, and common sense in the face of a non-military society advocating the right to seek out self-indulgence. The Armed Forces Officer takes unabashed steps to convince military officers to adopt and cultivate the belief they serve within a truly great organization deserving and worthy of their greatest effort.

The authors identify good officers and leaders as those who maintain a high level of competence, sustain a level of comfort in dealing with vagary, and possess the discipline and motivation to pursue knowledge and self-development. The Armed Forces Officer encourages and demands officers to read voraciously, study previous military engagements and current doctrine, and subsequently use that knowledge to write, write, and write some more, thus honing much needed and often underutilized communication skills. Thirty years removed from the present, the authors noted the need for clear, articulate communication, a skill they worried would slowly degrade among officers. Given the advent of smart phones and increasing access to digital technology, current researchers express similar worries in our ability to communicate formally and effectively.  Many of the issues and concerns raised indicate, despite the passage of time, that challenges facing military officers remain unchanged, potentially due to our propensity to search for newer and more technological solutions when we may already have the answers in front of us.

Another theme visited repeatedly in the publication is the need for accepting responsibility for one’s actions and performance as an officer. Again, it seems like a statement few would question, but The Armed Forces Officer reinforces this lesson with several very pertinent vignettes and the clear distinction between what is required to lead people and to manage things. The authors identify and clearly communicate a difference that exists between leading and managing. Officers receive strong reminders of their purpose to teach their subordinates, intercede on their behalf, and offer them protection. Using plain common sense and often blunt language, The Armed Forces Officer dissuades officers from the “stupid practice” of group punishment (p. 54) and reinforces the importance of critical, impartial judgment as an officer when dispensing punishment and doling out rewards. The lessons included in The Armed Forces Officer would go a long way to combatting the inefficacy of micromanagement and the corrosiveness of present-day toxic leadership. Nowhere will the reader find a focus on font size or slide uniformity. Instead, officers are encouraged to use humor where appropriate to facilitate learning and esprit de corps. They find instruction to engage in conversations with subordinates versus lecturing them in counseling sessions and to recognize the differences in human character while making no distinction in the color of skin, race, or religious beliefs. In a time where change seems to accelerate at the speed of an internet connection, The Armed Forces Officer provides a nice and refreshing step back to the influence and reflection of another post-war period where the military struggled to find itself and maintain the appeal necessary to recruit the next generation of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. From time to time, in a busy world where information flows so quickly, officers of all ranks would do well to remember the basic maxims of our profession. Our new officers must know their every action will serve as an example to those around them, and our more senior officers may benefit from a reminder that things are managed and only people are led. Generation Z seeks leadership, not management. The Armed Forces Officer, brilliant in its simplicity, provides timeless leadership principles especially applicable to the current environment. Maybe the time has come to dust off the cover and give it another look.

Travis L. Eddleman is an officer with the Arkansas Army National Guard currently assigned as a targeting officer to Joint Task Force North and a Deputy United States Marshal assigned to the Western District of Missouri. He holds a D.Sc. in Civil Security Leadership, Management, and Policy (New Jersey City University, 2021). His interests include criminal investigative studies, leadership studies, and issues impacting the traditional, drilling guardsman.

Meagan van Harte is the Senior Agency Emergency Management Coordinator, New York State Department of Financial Services.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Cover of the 1988 revision of The Armed Forces Officer


  1. Good to see you covering this! I was a 3rd generation Army officer (1967-1997) and knew much about traditions, obligations, and duty. Still, I used the current editions of The Armed Forces Officer often during my service and agree today’s officer faces a more complex challange and should have such a guide.
    Ray E. Porter III
    Colonel USA (Ret)

  2. If we were to change the first part of the first sentence of our article above:

    From: “The United States now faces multiple threats from state actors including Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran”

    To: “The United States now faces multiple threats from state actors including Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran — and from non-state actors both here at home and there abroad — all of who feel threatened by, and who accordingly have reacted to, the political, economic, social and/or value changes that the U.S./the West has sought to achieve throughout the world post-the Old Cold War”

    Then, how might this such change have effected (if at all):

    a. The way that the rest of this such article might have been written? And:

    b. Our post-Cold War ideas and guidance relating to the Armed Forces Officer?

    1. If U.S./Western populations see the problems that the U.S./the West faces today — both here at home and there elsewhere — these, as being caused by the U.S./the West’s post-Cold War effort to achieve political, economic, social and/or value change more both here at home and there elsewhere, then, in circumstances such as these, should the guidance found in such publications as the Armed Forces Officer really be expected to help us deal with (a) this such specific situation and (b) its adverse effects (for example, on recruiting)?

      Asked in possibly a different way: If U.S./Western militaries and/or U.S./Western military officers are seen today as being (a) examples of unwanted change, as being (b) agents of unwanted change, as being (c) proponents of and/or supporters of unwanted change and/or as being (d) potential enforces of unwanted change, then — in scenarios such as these — might not one’s militaries/one’s military officers’ concepts of honor, integrity and trust (wrongfully or rightfully but certainly understandably) become questioned in these such scenarios?

      Thus, the need to take special care, today, to “frame” many/most of our contemporary questions and issues (ex: great power and/or small problems, state and/or non-state actor problems, here at home and/or there elsewhere problems); these, more along the lines of (a) the U.S./the Western effort, post-the Cold War, to achieve political, economic, social and/or value change more throughout the world and (b) the near-universal/both at home and abroad adverse effects that have resulted from this such effort? Within this such specific context, thus, to ask if such things as The Armed Forces Officer should really be expected to help, for example, with recruiting? (As to that such specific question, see such things as the “obstacles” presented in my second paragraph immediately above.)

  3. Outstanding primer for military officers which contains vitally relevant and timeless information for leaders.

    Julie T. Manta
    COL USA (Ret)

  4. A well written primer on officer leadership. Over the course of my 30 year military career I have experienced good and some not so good leaders. I have learned from both and did my best to lead by example. I am grateful for the leadership lessons I learned early on from my senior non-commissioned officers. There is not enough said about the impact seasoned NCOs have on the officer corps. Young lieutenants need good, ethical, and seasoned NCOs to guide them and help them lead and manage. I know it made me a better leader and highly contributed to my success as an officer. There needs to be more camaraderie between the officer and NCO corps. Young soldiers need to see this dynamic in the day to day operations in terms of how the Army runs. In other words, they need to see cohesion among the both corps. Officers who disregard the NCO corps as a vital component of leadership and management do it at their own peril. This contributes to a toxic environment. It was the NCO corps that taught me humility, competency, and accountability. These leadership values are enduring. It is largely in part to my dedicated years of service in the Army that I continue to learn, achieve, work, and serve!

    Michael Arizmendi
    COL (Ret) USA

  5. As a cold war veteran and a former Army officer, I agree that SLA Marshals leadership guidance is excellent. I still have my copy of “The Soldiers Load and the Mobility of a Nation.” However, great leadership will not resolve the Army’s recruiting short falls. The embracing of critical race theory, DEI and other socialist concepts by the DoD, and the Army, have alienated the potential recruit base. The unnecessary witch-hunts for “extremists,” to satisfy the political whims of the Administration drove the wedge deeper. The military sent a signal to the potential base, “patriots need not apply!” Well, you got what you wanted!

    Dr. Charles T. Bowen Jr., DSL

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