Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin inflamed anti-slavery sentiment leading up to the American Civil War. When she met President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 during some of the darkest days of that conflict, he remarked:
So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.
Reading The Strategy Bridge #Profession posts touched off by Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin’s tweet brought that famous quote to my mind. There has been no lack of discussion on the topic of military professionalism since that first post, whether it was here, Twitter, Facebook, or various strategy and national security listservs. Since I had the good fortune of getting my opinion in before the fracas started, The Bridge was kind enough to offer me space to pen some overview thoughts. After having a chance to read the excellent series of submissions here on the topic, I find myself still dealing with three nagging questions.
Are we a profession?
Jill Sargent Russell’s piece ruffled a lot of feathers with a flat “no.” In many of the ensuing responses, I noticed a recurring tautology: we’re members of a profession because we say we are; because we have offices with “profession” in their title; or because Dead White Guy said so.* Huntington’s model got invoked a few times in response, which is problematic when you remember that he, a) created his model solely to support a broader position about civil-military relations, and b) didn't consider NCOs and enlisted soldiers to be professionals. Another problematic assertion was a claim of professionalism derived from the military requirement to potentially give one’s life in service to the nation. This strikes me as true, but irrelevant; I cannot think of any profession that has “sacrifice” as a key element of professional identity.
I can’t agree with Russell’s contention that members of the military don’t fit under an overarching rubric of profession because not every servicemember stabs a terrorist in the face before breakfast.
Nevertheless, I can’t agree with Russell’s contention that members of the military don’t fit under an overarching rubric of profession because not every servicemember stabs a terrorist in the face before breakfast.** Although the wielding of violence is not a routine occurrence for most members of the military, we select and train service members with the expectation that they may be called upon to exercise that franchise. No one expects a podiatrist to step in and perform complicated neurosurgery; but the average observer would expect said specialist to perform basic medical procedures in a situation where they were called for.
Is there a difference between “a profession of arms” and “service professions”?
Many of The Bridge authors conflated the original question of military as a profession with the idea of the Army as a profession. Given that the majority of responders were Army officers, this is neither surprising nor inappropriate. “Write what you know” is a recurring tenet in most official and unofficial guides to professional writing (see what I did there?) But it does beg the question of whether we should be looking at the profession of arms as a whole or individual service professions. The difference between the two has implications for everything from shares of the defense budget to concepts of joint warfare.
The difference between the two [profession of arms or individual service professions] has implications for everything from shares of the defense budget to concepts of joint warfare.
A strong argument for the concept of service professions as opposed to a profession of arms comes from @InTheInfantry’s “As Professional as Circumstance Allows.” His piece deftly spells multiple ways that the Army has altered professional standards over the past decade in response to the iron calculus of protracted war. Many of his critiques were familiar to Army officers who read and commented on them; other service officers were less receptive:
When do we become professionals?
If we are a profession, then there must be professionals in it; but simply entering into a professional career field is not enough to confer that title on someone. There has to be a mechanism whereby someone demonstrates professional ability and skill. For doctors, it’s typically board certification; for lawyers, it’s passing the bar. Mike Denny’s piece posits that cutoff point for the Army as occurring “when an individual soldier attains enough knowledge and expertise to demonstrate an ability to act and make decisions autonomously.” But when, exactly, does that happen?
Is it combat? Surely not, as there are generations of Cold War soldiers who we would describe as professional, yet never “saw the elephant”.
Is it completion of a certain level of PME? Given the number of people who reference PME by saying, “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it,” this would seem a dubious milestone.
My insistence on a fixed benchmark for professional status may seem downright Jominian for such a Clausewitzian notion. But it’s also a reflection of our accountability to civilian leadership for our conduct and performance.
My sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to this discussion and made it a model for future conversations!
* I choose not to link to specific instances of any of these because I have no interest in starting a blog/Twitter fight.
* My absurd oversimplification, not hers.
This post is provided by Ray Kimball, an Army strategist who thinks he’s a professional…but how would he know? This post reflects his opinions, not those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or Section 31.
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