The discussion began with a tweet encouraging deliberation of the question, “Is the Military a Profession?” Scores of comments later, it ended with another that opined a prospective article title, “Why You’re Neither Professionals, Nor Warriors.” For all said in between, an answer to the essential question remained elusive. As an academic, this lack of resolution does not create discomfort, as there is rarely a correct or final answer to much in the humanities and social sciences. But for matters related to the military establishment, the matter of why an answer is impossible and what this means — and does not mean — for the military and its people is important.
Ultimately, I find that the original question is moot, or at the very least a hard no, because there is no single or correct thing to evaluate. I cannot help but conclude that such a label as “professional” should not survive even the most routine scrutiny. In response to the original query I suggested that the issue of disaggregation was critical, and it is here that this thought piece will direct its focus. That is, I am concerned here with what is the correct unit or level of analysis to discern this status. I take this as the natural and necessary beginning, because before we can even contemplate whether the identity pertains, we must be clear about exactly what we are judging is a profession.*
I am concerned here with what is the correct unit or level of analysis to discern this status [of “professional”].
To consider the military — or more artfully, the profession of arms — as a single, whole thing presents problems. At this lofty but quite nebulous level, there is simply no single thing that “it” does or is which defines “it”. The work or essence of the military is ultimately not, as Ray Kimball suggested, violence. In his blog, “#Profession in One Tweet,” Kimball sets himself the challenge to describe the essence of the thing with brevity. His attempt, that it is “the skilled management of the state franchise of violence,” seems on its surface to be about right. Except that at the very best his description is limited to only a small portion of the institution’s activities, not the actual work of the bulk of the “profession” or its people. If we’re very honest, by the numbers, the preponderant work done by the most people in “the profession of arms” in the U.S. and other modern forces, is the skilled management of enabling activities like logistics and administration. But what does this mean for professionalism? I would argue that even if we take this as its core function there are simply too many subordinate areas of work even within logistics or administration to consider a militarily-defined professional whole. Perhaps individual accountants, lawyers, medics, and so forth might be professionals insofar as their specialties are considered, but that would not be what anyone had in mind when they contemplated a military profession.
If we break down the subject of assessment further, to consider separate services, is it possible that, say, the Army or the Navy can lay claim to the requisite shared focus of effort to justify the term? A landpower professional? A profession of seapower? While the services have a theme that unifies the totality of their efforts, this is the aggregation of many efforts but not the sum of the identity of any given participant. And the same weight of the “tooth-to-tail” ratio skews that focus again to support functions which are broadly agnostic to the particular objectives of the institution. For the military as a whole or the individual services, this is the problem of the difference between an institution and a field. It is, to look at another area where professionalism is discussed, the comparison of a hospital and the medical profession. We do not necessarily judge the latter by the terms of the former, and the former encompasses far more work and effort beyond the terms of the medical profession.
Continuing with this comparative model of the hospital and the medics, perhaps it makes sense to look to the branch specialties as areas in which it is possible to divine professionalism. At this level it may in fact be fair to suggest that an artillery professional, for example, is possible.** However, if that were the case I still do not think this is what we currently have within our armed forces, save perhaps amongst the senior NCOs who have made their MOS their professional track — as in the much coveted position of an artillery Master Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps. This is a small fraction of any given community of specialization, however, and is not what anyone has in mind when they are considering the professional status of the armed forces or individuals.
Finally, it is worth assessing whether military officership is a useful category of examination. There is, again, a plausibly strong argument that the modern military officer corps can be argued to be a profession. It is a properly focused group whose qualifications are relatively standard across services and specialties. Of course, it is arguable that the rest of the terms required for professional status would be met. And whether the status ought to be pursued at the risk of widening the divide between officers and enlisted is even more problematic.
In the end, I think the desire to find professionalism in the military is an effort to sustain the quality of the institutions and its people.
In the end, I think the desire to find professionalism in the military is an effort to sustain the quality of the institutions and its people. But we do not need to torture a term in order to recognize this. The term’s lack of relevance does not mean, for example, that the armed forces cannot prosper from the adoption of professional approaches to their work, as in the institutionalization of professional education. Nor does it prevent personnel deny claim to a standard of ethics or values. Finally, it is not critique of the warfighting competence of the armed forces or its members. It is only the matter of the correct understanding and application of a term.
* This begs the question of what counts as “professional” or a “profession.” However, that is a far murkier and more complicated discussion than can possibly be covered in this blog. However, for your perusal and these purposes I think this piece does a good job explaining the term and the issues. I specifically chose an article unrelated to the military. Stan Lester, “Professions and Being Professional.”
* With respect to whether these branches of the military services can count as professions runs afoul, as far as I think, other requirements of the category, such as a closed accession to the status. There is nothing, for example, that prevents me becoming an expert self-taught artillerist. On the other hand, we do not allow self-instruction without examination in other professions.
This post was provided by Jill Sargent Russell, a PhD student at the King’s College London. Her dissertation is an ambitious look at subsistence, logistics, and strategic culture in the American military tradition, from the Revolutionary War to WWII. Her professional background includes work in defence consultancy and professional military education and research. She holds an MPhil in Military History from George Washington University, an MA from Johns Hopkins SAIS, and was a West Point Fellow in 2004. Find her on Kings of War, Strife, Small Wars, and CCLKOW blogs.
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