The Military is not the Sole #Profession on the Battlefield

Over the past decade, Iraq and Afghanistan have become two of the most dangerous locations for humanitarian aid workers. So we have that in common with our military counterparts. My experience as an aid worker, and as one who has made the nontraditional decision to support civil-military coordination, has absolutely led me to see the military as a profession.[1]

“I want to tell you about a friend of mine, a guy named Jason. Jason is a service member, a guy who served his country over the past ten years and was proud to do so. He served in both in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, he spent over a year in Iraq and two years in Afghanistan. His life was constantly under threat and sometimes he faced direct fire. Thankfully, Jason is now safely home. But he’s had some challenges since he got back.”

That is how I opened a recent lecture to a group of college students studying “macro” social work, or how grass roots actions can lead to large scale, change. At this point, I paused and asked, “Can anyone guess what some of those challenges are?” Their responses reflected a sensitivity and awareness of what many veterans have faced on return from the past thirteen years of war and included symptoms of PTSD such as heightened alertness, finding employment, and the challenge of re-integrating back into a society that does not understand his or her experience of war.

Next, I asked, “Do you have any ideas of how he could get some help?” Again, their responses demonstrated constructive knowledge about the resources available, such as seeking existing services from the government and private sector, including counseling available through veterans’ benefits, and the GI Bill to study or train for a new work.

I paused to let their interpretation sink in before continuing.

“The only problem is that Jason isn’t a combat soldier or a marine. He is not even in the military. He is a humanitarian aid worker. In Iraq in 2003, he was in charge of emergency response for an international non-governmental organization (NGO). In Afghanistan, from 2009–2011, he was an NGO country director, in charge of several other expatriates and hundreds of national staff. They all worked unarmed, and under the constant threat of insurgents and opportunistic criminals who often targeted anyone partnering with the Afghan or Iraqi governments or international aid organizations. He lost colleagues in both countries, at times when he was in charge. In between Afghanistan and Iraq, Jason worked in Darfur, the 2006 war in Lebanon and then several years in Eastern Congo, the deadliest war since WWII.”

The classroom was quiet. Certainly they did not mean to presume Jason was in the military at the expense of considering that unarmed, civilian humanitarian aid workers also respond in times of war. I explained these responders include nurses, doctors, logisticians, rapid response teams and project managers who are charged with the organization and delivery of lifesaving assistance to populations trapped or displaced by conflict. With diametrically opposite postures both military and civilian responders have a protection mandate: lethal force to reinstate security vs. principled action responding to the essential needs of populations affected by humanitarian crisis.

What is a Profession?

Roget’s Thesaurus offers several synonyms for profession. Most commonly used are: occupation, business, and work. All of these apply to the military but also to any particular line of work as a profession. More interestingly, the list includes “way,” “vocation,” “calling,” and “mission.” These words suggest an existential component to the decision for a profession and all echo themes of service, which the military upholds as its foremost raison d’être.

What is different about the decision for the military way is the motivation that these skills might serve a broader, overarching mission or goal.

While most Americans join the military for a combination of reasons, training, reputation, GI bill, family tradition or peer pressure, none are presently conscripted. Regardless of position or rank, each is required to make a sacrifice. By sublimating individual choices they surrender significant personal freedoms for the opportunity to serve as part of a team dedicated to higher cause. In this way, the military is not only a profession but also a technical occupation. After all, there are civilian opportunities for any of the specific components of military operations. What is different about the decision for the military way is the motivation that these skills might serve a broader, overarching mission or goal.

This interpretation of the military as a profession does not apply to all its members. After all, not everyone in the military conceives of their role as a vocation or calling. And not all that conceive of their service as a vocation and calling do so with honorable intent. As framed here, the military is a profession in the sense of an individual pursuit, a conscious journey beyond one’s inherited circumstances, willfully offering one’s skills, courage and potentially life, for the sake of strangers in harm’s way.

This framework of the military as a profession heightens the existential nature of the identity and therefore presents a heightened challenge when eventually the uniform is retired. Now the individual must answer to his or her self as one. Who am I post my profession? The military is not alone in this challenge. It has a most unlikely counterpart: the humanitarian aid worker who also serves in war.

No one has forced a soldier into combat. He or she volunteered. No one forced my friend Jason or myself to work in combat zones. We volunteered. In parallel, the members of the military and aid community have made the decision that there is something higher and more important than who they are and what they can achieve in their own self-interest. Humanitarian aid and military organizations have fundamentally opposite tactics, techniques and procedures; we do not have comparable assets, resources, or chains of command. We also have mutually enviable qualities and assets.

The situational awareness of an unarmed aid worker in a complex operational environment is an intelligence officer’s insider fantasy. This awareness is gained by necessity from one who must be diligent in forming key relationships. Because they are vulnerable and lack the ability to rely on lethal force for protection, aid workers live constantly aware of the most subtle changes in atmospherics.

Equally, the military’s air assets and lift capacity to move literally tons of lifesaving supplies in a natural or man made disaster are an aid worker’s counterpart fantasy. The sensitivities surrounding how we mutually operate in harm’s way is used as justification for dismissing dialogue between our professions. However, the gap created by our principled, constitutional and methodological differences is being rapidly narrowed by the growing number of complex environments in which we find ourselves. The world’s greatest humanitarian crises overlap with national security threats, and both conventional war and humanitarian response is replaced and challenged by irregular warfare.

…neither civilian nor military organizations can operate in isolation.

The traditional battlefield with uniformed combatants and lines drawn along national borders fostered a clear line of demarcation between military and humanitarian response. However, security in the modern world is increasingly defined as a combination of characteristics and broader based concerns, rather than traditional measurements construed along national or geographical lines. The operational environment in which non-state actors are able function is increasingly fractured along highly fluid lines of identities and allegiances. Persistent success for both civilian and military operators in their respective missions now involves a wide range of participants and authorities with complimentary resources. In this context, neither civilian nor military organizations can operate in isolation. Rather, our operations can be complimentary where they overlap, where there is a mutually sought outcome of safety and security for the population. In locations of high insecurity, we cannot be fully effective without a dialogue involving all operators on the ground, including civilian and military organizations.

We have seen this complimentary action most recently demonstrated in both the Philippines and Northern Iraq, where military assets were utilized to provide lifesaving assistance in response to a rapid, mass displacement of civilians threatened by both natural and man-made insecurity. Military aircraft delivered lifesaving equipment, supplies and food where UN and humanitarian organizations did not have secure access or sufficient logistical capacity to meet life-threatening needs.

For humanitarian aid workers the operational environment has unquestionably changed. According to a recent report, 2013 set a new record for violence against civilian aid operations, with a 66% increase in the number of victims from 2012. Not surprisingly, this dramatic increase has occurred in locations where there has been a rapid deterioration of effective governance: Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan.

Aid workers respond on the basis of need, where lifesaving assistance is required. In complex emergencies, livelihoods have been disrupted and lives are threatened by warfare, civil disturbance, disruption to basic services and large-scale movements of people. Complex emergencies are increasingly what trigger the consideration for a military response. Throughout their professions, the military responder and aid worker can expect to operate in difficult political and security environments. Both risk their lives because the lives of innocent non-combatants are threatened.

With very different tools and approaches to conflict both the aid worker and combat soldier accept vulnerability in their willingness to take the risk to leave the relative safety of their home with a mission to serve and protect strangers. Whether the goal is countering a specific terrorist threat through direct military action or through providing humanitarian assistance on the same ground, the objective is shared in the long term: a safe, stable community that poses no threat abroad or to itself.

Both actors seek the near and long term protection of civilians, yet in places with weak or failed governance, contested by non-state actors neither military or humanitarian objectives can be achieved in isolation. Failure at one disrupts the other. Persistent success in complex conflicts can only be achieved through a nuanced understanding of the operational realities we both face. This understanding is enhanced by the symbiotic relationship of our respective professions

I have focused on what the military and aid workers share for the sake of illustrating my understanding of the military as a profession. A key difference revealed on our mutual return home, is the public’s reaction. With few exceptions, the military veteran is thanked for his or her service. When most people hear where I have worked, nine times out of ten, the response is tinged with alarm and some suspicion: why would you ever go to those places? Because just like the military professional, it’s my profession, it’s my way and my response.

Holly Hughson is a humanitarian aid worker with an extensive background in rapid assessment, program design, management and monitoring of operations in both humanitarian emergencies and post-conflict settings. Her experience includes work in Kosovo, Sudan, Iraq, Russian Federation and Afghanistan. Presently she is writing a personal history of war from the perspective of a Western female living and working in Muslim countries.

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All images courtesy of Holly Hughson


[1] My perspective on the military as a profession is informed by my firsthand experience of working with light infantry and marines both in and training for combat. As “boots on the ground” they are the counterparts I reference in this article but this is not to discount that the principles underlying my case apply equally to all military branches.