A discussion on the military profession in 140 characters or less.
“How would you define the art and science of our profession in one tweet?”
That was the challenge staring me in the face from my Twitter feed, courtesy of Gary Klein, an Army colleague from the CompanyCommand /PlatoonLeader forums and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. It should have slid by me as I was immersed in a couple of different other projects at the time. But for some reason, it resonated with me and sat there, mocking me.
On its face, it’s an absurd challenge. On War (the Howard edition) weighs in at 732 pages. History of the Peloponnesian War describes the complex interplay of war, peace, and the struggles in between with 784 pages of dense text. Even the comparatively lightweight The Art of War requires 68 pages to hold forth on strategy and tactics in the service of the state. Summing all of those requirements up in 140 characters would seem to be the worst sort of modernist hubris.
And yet, there is value in trying to get to the core of a thing with no extraneous fluff. We’ve all suffered through a memo or a briefing that could have been half as long or less and still gotten the essential elements across. It often takes more work to trim away the fat and leave only the prime cuts on the plate; or, as Pascal memorably put it, “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Nor should it be thought that such an exercise is an end unto itself. Just because you arrive at the heart of a matter does not mean that the problem is solved, brought down from the mountain engraved upon stone tablets. The infinite variety of human practice means there will always be questions abouthow to go about a thing, even once the thing itself is known.
Enough dithering, then. Here was my answer to the above challenge (with 80 characters to spare!):
“The skilled management of the state franchise of violence.”
There were two essential elements that I wanted to capture:
- The profession of arms exists only when it is in the service of a state. There are certainly any number of warriors who function outside of a state construct, but a military professional is someone who has been given responsibility for the state’s exclusive use of force. At some point in my studies, I heard that exclusivity referred to as “the franchise of violence,” and it has stuck with me ever since.
- Because the exclusive use of force is so important to the identity of the state, it must be carefully applied and skillfully employed. The high stakes of this requirement imbue an inherent conservatism to the profession of arms, but paradoxically require an agility and willingness to adapt to changing circumstances that impact the viability of the state.
By this point, many readers have probably already identified multiple omissions that they perceive as fatally undermining my case. Let me try and address a few of them:
- “Killing and breaking things.” The obvious critique of my one tweet is that it fails to mention the most visceral task of the military professional: taking lives and destroying property. It is certainly true that no military can consider itself competent if it does not possess the capacity to carry out this vital task, preferably in multiple domains under challenging conditions. But the equally hard truth is that militaries actually spend relatively little time actually carrying out this act, or even preparing to carry out such an act. Heinlein’s vision of a military where “everybody drops, everybody fights” is a seductive one, but no state military in history has ever come close to realizing it.
- “Victory/Defeat.” The omission of these beloved words will no doubt enrage some readers, who will argue that their absence contributes to a willingness to expend military power towards futile, ill-defined aims. But the pursuit of national objectives often requires outcomes that fall short of a clearly defined “win” in order to preserve decision space. A few such successful examples just in the years following World War II include the naval quarantine of Cuba, the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, and the peace enforcement operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In each case, military power was applied not to achieve the defeat of another state or victory over a foreign power, but the achievement of a specific national objective short of those means. In the case of Cuba, a clear-cut victory could have even been catastrophic by encouraging the use of tactical nuclear weapons already in place.
- “Objectives of the state.” The tweet notably leaves out an imperative to execute the orders of the state, which seems curious for an organization that exists only because of the state. The inherent limitation here is the capacity of the state to abuse its franchise of violence. Therefore, the military professional has an obligation to recognize when he/she has a requirement to carry out their duties by refusing to obey the orders of the state. The capacity and/or responsibility of the military professional to disobey illegal or immoral orders is the obverse of the ability of civilian authority to disregard best military advice; both carry risks and require a great deal of confidence in one’s own judgement.
Try the “One Tweet” challenge on your own.
Try the “One Tweet” challenge on your own (and add #CCLKOW). Capture what you perceive as the essential elements of your own profession or organization, and challenge your peers and subordinates to do the same. Keep in mind that challenges like this often reveal more in what they exclude than what they include. Compare the results and use the similarities and differences to drive a conversation that leads to actions like a “stop doing” list. You might be surprised by the results.
Ray Kimball is a U.S. Army Strategist. The author would like to credit the #CCLKOW discussion space on Twitter for inspiring the tweet that kicked all this off, as well as three reviewers who provided feedback that significantly improved the piece. The opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
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