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The Retransformation of Soldiers’ Identities

Ever since Russia openly escalated its war of aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the term “Zeitenwende” has been on everyone’s lips.[1] The new normality has shaken Western societies’ supposed certainties of the past thirty years. Policymakers and armed forces, along with civilian institutions, are seeking new answers. For example, in a podcast series on the “Zeitenwende in peace ethics”, the Center Faith & Society at the University of Fribourg[2] asks the legitimate question: “Was pacifism a naïve idea?”[3] It therefore seems appropriate to examine the turning point in military ethics too.

According to Dieter Baumann, military ethics can be broken down into four levels pertaining to the relevant actors of responsibility: state, armed forces, military leaders and soldiers.[4] In the following, I will first outline the possible effects of the turning point on each of these actors separately. This will reveal shear forces between the individual levels. To consider the imminent transformation simultaneously on all levels requires an integrative approach and therefore necessarily a certain simplification. This is where Charles C. Moskos’ I/O model[5] comes in, which shaped the discourse in the 1970s on the transformation of the American armed forces from a conscription to a professional army.[6] By addressing its known conceptual and empirical weaknesses[7] from the outset and incorporating relevant lines of research in other fields, prospects open up for improvements in military ethics education and training, based on empirical findings in today’s armed forces.

Transformation on four levels

On the state level, strategic transformations taking place around the turning point are obvious. NATO has escaped brain death[8] – once again shaking off predictions of its demise. Debates on both sides of the Atlantic about supplying arms to Ukraine attest to a revived interest in military ethics in the public sphere. Military spending is increasing again, compensating at least in part for past neglect. The expected domestic political battles over distribution are already unfolding.

Driven by the primacy of politics and the changed financial framework, it is the armed forces themselves that are seeking an actual retransformation: Germany is boosting its capabilities for national and NATO defense with special funding,[9] Austria is discussing doubling its defense spending by 2027,[10] and in Switzerland, the Armed Forces are seeking to “consistently orient [their] capabilities, organization, training and infrastructure toward defense” with a vision for growth.[11] With this reversion, questions of military ethics are also shifting; the discourse on the “combat force”[12] focused on overseas deployments[13] is receding into the background, while classic issues such as the ethics of urban warfare are once again coming to the fore.[14]

Justified doubts prevail as to how consistently Western policymakers will back up their words with action.[15] However, for military leaders at all levels there is no question that the transformation on the Ukrainian battlefield is a reality today – and would be inevitable in any war with Western military participation. Massive air strikes[16] and fierce infantry fighting[17] bear little resemblance to what Western observers had become accustomed to militarily since the last turning point, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Regaining the lost combined arms knowledge of Western NCOs and officers, however, will take years.

In reality, the abandonment of conventional warfare[18] and its replacement by cyber war[19] have not materialized. At the same time, current developments represent more than a mere return to Cold War patterns. What Ukraine is suffering in 2023 is more reminiscent of World War I. This was certainly foreshadowed as early as 2015, in a French video report where a young Ukrainian soldier commented: “I don’t think life in these trenches is much different than during the First World War.”[20] Those who are directly affected – or more specifically, shelled – quickly learn this. But the transformation of the soldier’s perspective in Western armed forces is still ongoing. As a professional ethics, military ethics must address this transformation in order to place personality development training on an appropriate foundation.

This overview can, of necessity, only be superficial given the space available. But it is sufficient to show two things. First, on each level, there is a counter-movement compared to the preceding three decades. Second, these movements are happening at different speeds.

Table 1: Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western armed forces have faced changes that have given rise to military ethics debates.


Changing context

Examples of military ethics debates


Return of power politics

  • Type and amount of arms deliveries
  • Reconsideration of NATO membership options, questioning of neutral positions (Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, …)
  • Increasing military spending (“guns vs. butter”)

Armed forces

Reversion to national and NATO defense

  • Collateral damage in own country (population, protection of cultural assets)
  • Return to original raison d’être

Military leaders

Refocusing on conventional battle (with hybrid components)

  • Urban warfare on own territory
  • Widespread use of armed drones


Return to original task of defending own country

  • Training for national defense instead of deployment as an armed development aid worker
  • Conscription and reservist system
  • (Extrinsic and intrinsic) motivation (“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”)

Table 1 provides examples of some military ethics debates which, while following from these developments, must be conducted elsewhere.[21] Our focus here will be on the shear forces posited earlier. The Institution/Occupation Model (I/O model), introduced by Charles C. Moskos to describe the American transformation from conscription to an all-volunteer-force in the 1970s, will serve as a suitable starting point. It is briefly explained below.[22]

The Institution/Occupation Model and its reversal

Charles C. Moskos, who can be regarded as the father of military sociology, proposed the I/O model to describe the transformation of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1973 from a conscript army to an “all-volunteer force”. In his view, the armed forces were changing from a sui generis institution into an organization that functioned according to market principles. Moskos chose the term occupation for this pole of development. There is a fuzziness about this terminology which later drew criticism: While institution relates to the macro level, occupation focuses on the micro level – specifically individual soldiers’ relations to their work. Moskos elaborated this in his essay “The all-volunteer military: Calling, profession or occupation?”[23] Nevertheless, the I/O model has had a lasting impact on debates in military sociology, mainly in the United States.

A comparison with the actors of Baumann’s approach reveals that the I/O model simultaneously addresses the second level “armed forces” and the fourth level “soldier”. But it is precisely the interconnectedness of these two levels that seems to be Moskos’ core message: As a staunch advocate of conscription, he believed that its abolition was the main factor driving the diminishing role of the armed forces in the state and society,[24] which also touches on Baumann’s first level “state” (see Figure 1). Finally, the “military leader” as the actor on the third level can be regarded as a link between the main actors, who is particularly called upon when shear forces arise between the organization and the individual.

Figure 1: Charles C. Moskos’ I/O model describes the transition from an institution (left) to an occupation (right). Ultimately, however, this involves a change at both the armed forces level (bottom) and at the level of the soldier (top), which Moskos did not explicitly distinguish.

Although Moskos later refined his ideas into the model of the post-modern armed forces,[25] the appeal of his simplification endures. In 2012, for example, Nina Leonhard and Heiko Biehl referred to the I/O model during the debate on the suspension of conscription in Germany.[26] However, this should not lead us to apply the model only to the transition into a professional army. Developments in Switzerland, where conscription has never been abolished, can also be regarded as a movement from a normative institution to a purely functional organization. In 1988, in its message on the initiative to abolish the armed forces, the Swiss Federal Council wrote: “Switzerland does not have an army, it is an army.”[27] Twenty years later, in its 2010 security policy report, it listed the armed forces as only the second of a total of eight security policy instruments. The following example of the shear forces already mentioned is taken from this context: When the Swiss Armed Forces began to focus on “subsidiary domestic tasks” in 2004, it prompted resignations by military professionals who could not reconcile this development with their self-image in the service of national defense.[28]

Of course, such anecdotal evidence cannot make up for the greatest weakness of Moskos’ concept: Like its successor concept of the post-modern armed forces, the I/O model lacks a theoretical foundation, conceptual acuity and ultimately empirical verification. Nevertheless, both models “met with a broad response in the discussion of military sociology”[29] and have accordingly been used to describe the transformations of European armed forces after the fall of communism in 1989 up until the turning point of 2022.

With due regard to this justified criticism, the question now arises as to whether we are witnessing a reverse transformation since Russia’s open invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Let us first attempt to discuss this in terms of an O/I model, i.e. in Moskos’ terms from occupation back to institution, in order then to suggest the appropriate theoretical foundation and a possible empirical approach to avoid the mistakes of the previous discussion.

To correct for the apparent lack of precision in Moskos’ conceptual levels, two hypotheses are proposed:

  1. The reversion of Western armed forces to national (and NATO) defense is accompanied by a retransformation from intervention armies to defense armies.
  2. This implies a parallel retransformation of the soldier’s identity from the current, functional self-image of being a soldier as an occupation to the normative role as a guarantor of state sovereignty.

The first hypothesis should not be understood as a tautology; rather, it is intended to describe a reversal of the transformation of armed forces observed over the past thirty years at the macro and meso levels.[30] In the same way, the second hypothesis addresses the reversal at the micro level.

Figure 2: The O/I model postulates a transition from organization (right) to institution (left), accompanied by a corresponding change in the soldier’s identity. In contrast to Moskos’ I/O model, the levels “soldier” (vertical) and “armed forces” (horizontal) are distinguished from the outset, and the definition of the ideal identity is still open, as it is the subject of empirical research.

Anecdotally again, it can be noted that the number of conscientious objectors in Germany quintupled in 2022 compared to the previous year from 209 to 951,[31] even though the Bundeswehr today constitutes an “all-volunteer force” with volunteer military service personnel as well as longer and shorter-service professional soldiers and reservists. This can certainly be interpreted as a shear force between the armed forces and soldier levels, indicating by way of example that the approach can be helpful in highlighting upcoming challenges in military ethics. Volunteer soldiers who refuse to serve are probably only an extreme example on the lowest level of Baumann’s model. At the uppermost level, the fundamental question arises of the relationship between democracy and the military system[32] after the turning point; this question is independent of military operational considerations.

A possible conceptualization

Empirical support for observations about soldierly identities is a necessity, because the topic is susceptible to narratives, social desirability and other distortions.[33] Critical examination of the conceptual forerunner also reveals that it was a long time before an evidence-based review of the I/O model was conducted, which then found glaring differences between individual countries that required specific explanations.[34]

Thus an empirical examination of the identities in question requires a clean conceptualization. In this regard, research in different fields has produced different but overlapping typologies. While Moskos distinguished calling,profession and occupation,[35] occupational and organizational psychology has established the triad of calling, career and job.[36] By contrast, occupational sociology had earlier distinguished the missionary,professional and careerist.[37] The overlaps are depicted in Figure 3; corresponding items have been checked and are available in English, French, German and Italian.[38]

Figure 3: Different typologies of people’s work orientations (relations to their work) at a glance. † The inner circle shows the relations to work according to Wrzesniewski et al. ‡ The middle ring shows the model according to Moskos. § The outer ring shows Wilensky’s role orientations. A dash indicates that there is no corresponding item in the respective typology. The background colors represent matching content.

A survey of over 2600 leaders in the Swiss Armed Forces refutes various narratives common within their ranks, such as that the work of the career officer is still a calling for the older generations, but is now “just a job” for the younger ones. In keeping with the narrative, the idea that the career officer’s occupation must once again become a calling is omnipresent.[39] Yet across all age groups, the percentage of those who view their work as a calling varies only insignificantly, between 5.6% and 7.3%. The same is true for those who see their work as a job, with variation between 1.8% and 3.3%.[40] At the same time, with 54.7% of military professionals, 33.7% of senior active reservists and 46.0% of civilian employees, the profession orientation predominates in all groups. Other assumptions were also refuted, such as common prejudices about different branches. According to Moskos, the more technical, more “civilian” branches of the armed forces, such as the air force or logistics, should tend toward the job, and combat troops toward the calling; at least in the Swiss Armed Forces, this is not the case. Meanwhile, the percentage of those with a career orientation among senior active reservists – i.e. leadership personnel doing military service – is significantly higher (16.2%) than among military professionals (5.2%). This again goes hand in hand with Janowitz’s observations,[41] even though it is the diametric opposite of the common narrative in the Swiss Armed Forces.

The above examples show unequivocally that the discussion about the retransformation of the armed forces, which has only just begun, must be empirically supported from the outset. There is (not least) a military ethics aspect to this, since it is conceivable that job and career-oriented people could adopt different basic attitudes to NATO and national defense than those with a calling or profession orientation. The need for empirical data can already be seen from the fact that even this seemingly obvious correlation has not yet been validated or falsified.

Of course there are also justified objections to the typologization approach in general. But in the armed forces culture, the clichés certainly play a significant role – no matter how accurate they are. This further underlines the need for empirical research so that education and personality development training measures are based on the right assumptions. The four-way typology, based on the military sociology tradition, therefore provides the starting point for more in-depth study. The return to (NATO and) national defense is leading a retransformation not only on the level of state and armed forces. At the end of the day – in the Donbas as on all battlefields before throughout history – the leading actors are still the military leaders and, ultimately, the individual soldiers.

So it is important that we understand our military personnel, because it seems perfectly conceivable that they will react differently to ethical arguments, in the context of teaching values, depending on their soldierly identity. To demand ethical behavior – for example, by appealing to a basic professional attitude – is not likely to be very effective if the soldiers concerned do not see themselves as professionals but rather as “defenders of the motherland” – and are perhaps less receptive to a more factual, sober perspective. Moreover, the identity that is desired from a military operational and ethical point of view can only be fostered and demanded if the relevant facts are known in the first place. Ultimately, then, the aim must be twofold: to establish an empirical basis for teaching meaning, values and discipline in educational contexts;[42] and to correct ethically and strategically unhelpful narratives in the armed forces, as well as military-specific narratives in society. This is likely to involve a struggle for attention, given that both debates in Western countries today are dominated by identitarian ideologies rather than soldierly identities. If the amount of attention currently given to diverse minorities in the armed forces was given to the individual motives of the majority, the ethical question would be much better served.

By devoting their attention to the pressing questions of classical military ethics, the military social sciences can guide the imminent retransformation of Western armed forces. In the best case, military science can thus facilitate and even accelerate these changes. In the worst case, should the retransformation of the armed forces fail to take place for financial or sociopolitical reasons, the armed forces can at least be guided by evidence-based military ethics in leadership, education and training. If it comes to a conventional war with the involvement of Western military personnel, the armed forces would then have done at least the minimum necessary to fulfill their military ethical duty to society and also to the individual soldier.

(This article was first published on December 15, 2023 and updated on December 18, 2023.)


[1] GfdS wählt “Zeitenwende” zum Wort des Jahres 2022. Press release by Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e.V., December 9, 2022. (all internet sources accessed November 20, 2023).

[3] Schliesser, Christine et. al.: Zeitenwende in der Friedensethik (Krieg & Frieden 1).

[4] Baumann, Dieter (2007): Militärethik. Theologische, menschenrechtliche und militärwissenschaftliche Perspektiven. Stuttgart.

[5] Moskos, Charles C. (1988): Institutional and Occupational Trends in Armed Forces. In: Moskos, Charles C. (ed.): The Military – More Than Just a Job? London, pp. 15-26.

[6] Leonhard, Nina and Biehl, Heiko (2023): Soldatsein als Beruf. In: Leonhard, Nina and Werkner, Ines-Jacqueline (eds.): Militärsoziologie – Eine Einführung. 3., aktualisierte und ergänzte Auflage. Wiesbaden, pp. 555-593.

[7] Segal, David R. (1986): Measuring the Institutional/Occupational Change Thesis. Armed Forces & Society, 12(3), pp. 351-375.

[8] Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead. The Economist, November 7, 2019.

[9] Fritz, Philipp and Steckel, Dominik: Mindset LV/BV: Das geistige Rüstzeug für die Bundeswehr in der Landes- und Bündnisverteidigung. Arbeitspapier 9/2022 der Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik.

[10] Heeresbudget soll 2027 auf 1,5 Prozent des BIP steigen. Österreichischer Rundfunk, October 6, 2022.

[11] [Translated from German.] Schweizer Armee (Oktober 2023): Die Verteidigungsfähigkeit stärken – Zielbild und Strategie für den Aufwuchs. Dokumentation 81.298d.

[12] Naumann, Klaus (2014): Politik in Verantwortung für die Einsatzarmee, pp. 141-156. In: Bohrmann, Thomas, Lather, Karl-Heinz and Lohmann, Friedrich (eds.): Handbuch Militärische Berufsethik, Band 2: Anwendungsfelder. Wiesbaden.

[13] Bredow, Wilfried von (2014): Das Mandat der Streitkräfte für den bewaffneten Auslandseinsatz. In Bohrmann, Thomas, Lather, Karl-Heinz and Lohmann, Friedrich (eds.), see endnote 12, pp. 157-176.

[14] Stanar, Dragan and Tonn, Kristina (2022): The Ethics of Urban Warfare: City and War. Leiden.

[15] Hehre Ziele, kaum Ergebnisse: Deutschlands “Zeitenwende” in der Verteidigungspolitik ist steckengeblieben. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, February 26, 2023.

[16] Wucht der Angriffe in Mariupol größer als Atombombe in Hiroshima. Frankfurter Rundschau, May 20, 2022.

[17] Blutige Schlacht um Bachmut: Russland und Ukraine kämpfen “wie in Verdun”. Frankfurter Rundschau, February 16, 2023.

[18] Creveld, Martin van (1991): On Future War. London.

[19] Maschmeyer, Lennart, and Dunn Cavelty, Myriam (2022): Goodbye Cyberwar: Ukraine as Reality Check. CSS Policy Perspectives 10(3).

[20] “I don’t think that life in these trenches is much different than it was during the First World War.” Ukrainian soldier in the video report “Ukraine: la guerre est une pute.”, 0:50–1:02, by L’autre JT. October 16, 2015.

[21] For the higher levels see e.g. Lohmann, Friedrich (2022): A new age in peace ethics? Pacifism faced with the Russian attack on Ukraine. Ethics and Armed Forces 2, pp. 18-25.

[22] For a more detailed overview, cf. Leonhard and Biehl (2023), see endnote 6, pp. 562-566.

[23] Moskos Jr., Charles C. (1977): The all-volunteer military: Calling, profession, or occupation? The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters 7(1), pp. 2-9.

[24] Moskos, Charles C. (1977): From institution to occupation: Trends in military organization.Armed Forces & Society, 4, pp. 41-50.

[25] Moskos, Charles C. and Burk, James (1998): The Postmodern Military. In: Burk, James (ed.): The Military in New Times. Adapting Armed Forces to a Turbulent World. New York/Abingdon, pp. 141-162.

[26] Leonhard, Nina and Biehl, Heiko: Beruf: Soldat. In: Leonhard, Nina and Werkner, Ines-Jacqueline (eds.): Militärsoziologie – Eine Einführung. 2., aktualisierte und ergänzte Auflage. Wiesbaden, pp. 393-427, p. 407.

[27] [Translated from German.] Schweizerischer Bundesrat: Botschaft über die Volksinitiative “für eine Schweiz ohne Armee und für eine umfassende Friedenspolitik” of May 25, 1988. Geschäftsnummer 88.041, published in the Swiss Federal Gazette, vol. 2, no. 24, pp. 967-995, p. 975.

[28] Szvircsev Tresch, Tibor and Merkulova, Natalia (2012): Vorzeitiges Ausscheiden aus dem Berufskader der Schweizer Armee. Allgemeine Schweizerische Militärzeitschrift, 178(12), pp. 42-43. The corresponding statements can be found in the report on which this article is based.

[29] [Translated from German.] Leonhard, Nina and Biehl, Heiko (2023), see endnote 6, p. 565.

[30] Kümmel, Gerhard (2023): Die Hybridisierung des Militärs: Militärische Aufgaben im Wandel. In: Leonhard, Nina and Werkner, Ines-Jacqueline (eds.), see endnote 6, pp. 195-221.

[31] Antwort der Bundesregierung 21.07.2023 auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Żaklin Nastić, Ali Al-Dailami, Andrej Hunko und der Fraktion DIE LINKE. Drucksache 20/7858.

[32] Werkner, Ines: Wehrsysteme. In: Leonhard, Nina and Werkner, Ines-Jacqueline (eds.), see endnote 6, pp. 85-111.

[33] Hofstetter, Patrick (2016): Psychological Contracts and Theoretical Cousins: Promises and Fulfillment, Work Orientations and Commitment in the Swiss Armed Forces. Dissertation at the University of Zurich.

[34] Caforio, Giuseppe and Nuciari, Marina (1994): The Officer Profession: Ideal-Type. Current Sociology, 42(3), pp. 33-56.

[35] Moskos, Charles C. (1977), see endnote 23..

[36] Wrzesniewski, Amy et al.: Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31(1), pp. 21-33.

[37] Wilensky, Harold L. (1964): The professionalization of everyone? American Journal of Sociology, 70(2), pp. 137-158.

[38] Hofstetter, Patrick (2016), see endnote 33, chapter 6.

[39] It may be a specific Swiss feature, but it is a persistent one. Examples: (2019) Hptm Sarah Brunner führt als erste Frau eine Inf Kp. Schweizer Soldat, 94(5), pp. 38-39. (2021) MILAK: Ein Einblick in die Vielfalt. Schweizer Soldat, 96(5), pp. 12-13.

[40] Hofstetter, Patrick (2016), see endnote 33, p. 255.

[41] Janowitz, Morris (1961): The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait. Glencoe.

[42] Hofstetter, Patrick (2023): Command, Leadership, Management: Ein Thesenpapier zur Führung in der Armee und darüber hinaus. In: Stratos, 3(2), pp. 126-135.


Patrick Hofstetter

Dr. oec. Patrick Hofstetter has been a lecturer in leadership and communication at the Military Academy at ETH Zurich since January 1, 2023. Originally a physicist and high-school teacher, he later studied military science. For eleven years, he served as a career officer in the Swiss Armed Forces, mainly in infantry leadership training. In parallel, he gained his doctorate in business administration from the University of Zurich. From 2020 to 2022, he founded the Continuing Education Academy at the University of Lucerne. He currently commands a mountain infantry battalion as a Lieutenant Colonel in the General Staff.

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All articles in this issue

Military Ethics and Military Ethics Education: In Search of a “European Approach”
Lonneke Peperkamp, Kevin van Loon, Deane-Peter Baker, David Evered
Just peace despite war? In defense of a criticized concept
Markus Thurau
Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Not a Bit of the Old Ultraviolence
Arseniy Kumankov
Military Ethics Education – Bridging the Gap or Deepening the Chasm?
Dragan Stanar
The Retransformation of Soldiers’ Identities
Patrick Hofstetter
The Army is No Place for a Warrior
Christopher Ankersen
“Try to get more emotion into the classroom”
Deanna Messervey


Roger Mielke Janne Aalto Michaël Dewyn Patrick Mileham Stefan Gugerel Evaggelia Kiosi Mihály Boda Richard Schoonhoven