Disclaimer: What follows are brief conclusions based on some of my own work in the social sciences and 25 years of National Guard and active duty service.
“The military leader who views his oath of office as merely a contractual arrangement with his government sets the stage for a style of leadership critically different from the leader who views that oath as a pledge to contribute to the common good of his society. For the former, “duty, honor, country” is a slogan adopted temporarily until the contract is completed, for the latter, “duty, honor, country” is a way of life adopted for the good of all and accepted as a moral commitment not subject to contractual negotiations (Wakin, 2000).” (Boyd, 2007)
While reading the recent articles regarding military professionalism, I have noted the scarcity of comment on the relationship between the military and larger society. I concluded several years ago that the military meets the standard for a profession; our services may be the largest professional organizations in our nation, yet for a number of reasons they receive little recognition as professional by the wider society. We may imagine and declare ourselves members of the professional class, but absent acceptance of professional status by the larger society, we exist as a profession only within our own lecture halls, thought papers, and mirrors.
There is no doubt that the military teaches and practices activities normally associated with professional occupations. Historians, social scientists, and other writers at this blog have noted many legitimate markers of professionalism in the military services, such as: 1) a highly specialized body of knowledge, 2) application of this knowledge to some societal need, especially a need society cannot provide itself absent those professional specialists, 3) accepted standards of performance, 4) a code of ethical conduct, and a requirement of adherence to that code for both individual members and the profession’s institutions, 5) policing of that code of conduct, including effective enforcement actions when appropriate, by those same individuals and institutions 6) career long, or even life-long continuing education requirements.
So, the military manifests professionalism, but professionalism alone does not make the military a profession; majority opinion of the larger society is required to confer such status. Keep in mind that the bricklayer’s or electrician’s unions can make the same claims to professionalism, yet they are regarded only as trades, and in some cases not even considered “skilled trades.”
Service-members represent only a small percentage of our population; some figures indicate less than 2% of U.S. citizens count a military-member within their extended family. Another way of saying this is that although our military services are a reflection of our larger society, after new military members complete initial entry training the society is no longer a reflection of the military. Further, we are prohibited by law and custom from practicing our profession within our national borders. With the exception of the National Guard arriving to bring relief from natural disasters or civil unrest, the military is largely prohibited from interacting with the larger society, and most especially from practice of its core tasks of force application and management. Constitutional protections against forcibly housing soldiers, and legislative efforts — such as Posse Comitatus — are American traditions that have served us well; individual liberty is the beneficiary. However, few other professions practice in isolation from the larger society, and those that do also possess only marginal recognition of their professional status.
In the case of both military and police institutions, the organizations and the individual members are charged with responsibility for official use of compelling force on behalf of the state.
As recent protest events across the nation have revealed, there is a significant percentage of our population who have little regard for the benefits conferred by state control of violence by the police within our society. Here I am lumping police in the same basket with military, but for purposes of illustrating the presence or absence of a profession, the comparison is appropriate. Much like the military, police institutions are professional, the individual members of those institutions are professionals, and with some exceptions (just like in other professions) the individuals and institutions mostly display professionalism in their behaviors. In the case of both military and police institutions, the organizations and the individual members are charged with responsibility for official use of compelling force on behalf of the state.
This disdain is a cultural phenomenon, one that will be recognized by anthropologists as a widespread popular sentiment that simply is, but is not well understood why it is. I will argue here briefly that this phenomenon exists at the intersection of five interwoven yet opposing normative constructs, 1) historical U.S. norms of individual liberty, 2) conservative social ethics against violence and causing death, 3) a widespread cultural prejudice, even taboo, against individuals who engage in any form of violence, even violence performed in defense of the self, society, or state, 4) gradual distancing of the American mind from dealing with death in all forms, and 5) the volume and depth of specialized of knowledge within the military services.
Number five is of particular importance; the average person in American society does not have a similar depth of understanding about the military, and he may be unwilling to believe that most military service members are required to possess, retain, and continually increase such a knowledge base. Many in the civilian professional classes do possess that kind of broad and deep knowledge, but they too are unwilling to accept that the military shares that characteristic. Rather, military service can be seen as the province of knuckle dragging Neanderthals, and not as an activity of the educated classes.
Military service members need no explanation of U.S. norms of individual liberty, these are pervasive cultural norms, part of what it means to be American; same for those conservative social ethics. Other traditions are welcome, but the U.S. was built on conservative social norms which disparage violence in almost every form. I will not address those circumstances where violence is acceptable; the strictures against violence are most important to this argument.
The cultural prejudices that manifest in the U.S. against those required to use and manage violence (such as police and military) are descendant from those conservative social traditions, but they have also assumed a separate secular form, one in which all incidents of violence are abhorrent, and the realities of violence are not well understood. I argue that this phenomenon is most obviously manifested in the U.S. in the form of “the gun debate,” (based on some of my own unpublished social psychology work) where people on either side of the issue largely approach it from differing cultural traditions originating in generations past, and are either exposed to an “anti-gun” cultural norm that teaches “…the gun is evil and will take your life,” or a “pro-gun” norm that teaches “…the gun is a tool and will save your life.” The short version of this dichotomy is both sides associate firearms with their death or survival, and experience crippling cognitive dissonance at the prospect that the other side might be correct (If the notion that the other side might be right just hurt your brain, I suggest you invest further reading on the concept of cognitive dissonance, as proffered by Leon Festinger in 1957). Civilian professional classes do not want to be compared with military members because they feel the comparison demeans them. For more on this I recommend Dave Grossman, LTC, Ret., On Killing, (1995) and in particular his essay, “On sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.”
…both sides associate firearms with their death or survival, and experience crippling cognitive dissonance at the prospect that the other side might be correct.
As to American’s distance from all forms of death, one needs only look at the migration from farms to cities that has happened over the past 150 years, as the specializations and better lifestyles offered by the industrial revolution drew most of us to the urban centers. On the farm, death was part of daily life, from slaughtering animals for food, to observing their deaths from disease, harsh weather, or other causes. Today all such incidents are managed by agricultural or veterinary specialists, isolated from the regular experience of average Americans. Even the Darwinian natural selection of car accidents that happen on our densely traveled roadways in urban centers are quickly covered from viewing by the general public, and cleaned up by specialists with priority over all other activity on those roadways. The lights and sirens of emergency vehicles must be yielded to, on pain of a very expensive fine, and the human remains are whisked away under covers, to be attended behind closed doors by another echelon of specialists. With the exception of those unfortunate few who happen to be proximate the accident at the moment of its occurrence, no one but the specialists are exposed to the harsh realities of the torn humans in the wreckage. The average American is isolated from the messy aspects of death by battalions of specialists.
Finally, and contrary to popular public opinion, the U.S. military services provide some of the finest education and training available. Our warrior-scholars are among the most engaged and active citizens America produces, both in terms of their contributions to defense of the realm, and their contributions to scholarship. This is incomprehensible to the average civilian; largely ignorant of the military experience, they simply do not believe it.
When we combine, 1) the “off putting” sense of offense to personal liberty some Americans feel toward the police and the military, with 2) the conservative social ethic against violence, 3) the cultural taboo against those who must manage violence, 4) the gradual distancing of Americans from all forms of death, and finally, 5) the volume and depth of specialized of knowledge within the military services, it is not difficult to see that in spite of the military maintaining the highest standards of individual and institutional professionalism, the popular mind in the U.S. is unwilling to admit military members into the class of professionals. It is simply unbearable to the civilian professional classes that they should be subjected to comparison with people who are, by some civilian definitions, beasts.
So, while many in uniform have earned the title of “professional” through commitment to excellence, high ethical standards, and service in defense of the nation, more work has to be done to convince those outside the service. As professionals, we must teach children, friends, and other Americans about military professionalism. We should continue to walk the path of the warrior-scholar and adopt an attitude of excellence in this profession. Many people will not comprehend what we do, how much we know, how hard we work, or the value we provide to society. We cannot imply expect society to recognize us as professionals. The dissonance they would experience in facing their own prejudices, and we would experience in ours, would be psychologically difficult to overcome. That is the challenge.
Master Sergeant Jay Kirstein retired from the Air National Guard in 2013, after 25 years of combined Army and Air National Guard and active duty service, having served in specialty areas in the combat arms and supporting roles, including numerous deployments. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, The U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Two A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft fly a flight training mission March 16, 2010, over Moody Air Force Base, Ga. (A1C Benjamin Wiseman/U.S. Air Force Photo)
 Boyd, Edward K. (2007). Professionalism in the Air Force: A Comparative Analysis of Commissioned Officers with Non-Commissioned Officers. Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Air Force Institute of Technology, Graduate School of Engineering and Management (AFIT/EN). Master’s Thesis. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCAQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.dtic.mil%2Fget-tr-doc%2Fpdf%3FAD%3DADA464138&ei=SGK5VNupKYq0yASL2IGYDA&usg=AFQjCNHCZWCQ_llQ3EpsAojLFmWELovD9Q&bvm=bv.83829542,d.aWw on 16 Jan 2015.
 Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, IL. Row & Peterson.
 Grossman, D. (1995). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York, NY. Little, Brown and Co.
 Grossman, D. (1995). “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs.” Extracted from On Killing, referenced above, and retrieved from http://www.killology.com/sheep_dog.htm on 16 Jan 2015.
 Wakin, M. M. (2000). Integrity First: Reflections of a Military Philosopher (1st ed.). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
 Wikipedia. (n.d.). Cognitive Dissonance. Article at Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance on 16 Jan 2015