Perspectives From a Civilian Navalist
Several days ago, Tyrell Mayfield asked me, and a number of other lawyers to comment on “The Military #Profession: Lawyers, Ethics and the Profession of Arms,” in response to several questions posed by Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin regarding whether the military is a profession. I reviewed the post and basically agreed with the writer’s position but did take exception to his assessment that “the law is easy” and Mayfield graciously invited me to respond. I argued I’m not in a position to respond since I’m a civilian with no military service but a number of my military “followers” pointed out the flaws in my reasoning and requested that I share a civilian view, so if you don’t like what’s below, blame those guys.
Dr. Shanks Kaurin posed three questions: (1) Is the military a profession, (2) What does that mean for you, (3) What are the ethical responsibilities of military members, if any? She then invites comment on one or all three. In a sense, the Good Dr.—as any effective professor is apt to do — has deployed an intellectual minefield for the unsuspecting responder because, as naval historian Ronald Spector puts it, “social scientist are far from agreement about the precise definition of ‘profession’ and ‘professionalization’ or even about the utility and meaningfulness of such concepts for social research.” 
In other words, whether the military is a profession depends on definitions that remain moving targets. An overly-inclusive definition would classify a street gang with rudimentary training and a code of conduct as professional while a strict definition produces essays like Jill Sargent Russell’s “Why You’re Not #Professionals,” where, as others have pointed out, if applied to other professions (like my own) renders a lawyer that specializes in employment discrimination unprofessional because he wouldn’t know how to provide effective estate planning, no matter how successful his record in the courtroom. I hope to chart a middle course that focuses more on process, since I believe it illustrates that professionalism depends more on recognition than definition.
I believe the Navy’s officer corps gained professional recognition in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century by solving many of the same problems that threaten American sea power today.
Having witnessed an abundance of ground-pounders submit pieces, I will focus my attention on the Navy. I do this for several reasons. First, I have more experience studying the Navy but more importantly, I believe the Navy’s officer corps gained professional recognition in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century by solving many of the same problems that threaten American sea power today, through thoughtful debate and the creation of the Naval War College, which allowed the Navy’s officers to research and refine their ideas. Many in the Navy have forgotten these lessons and are surrendering their professional reputations because they no longer take professional theory and education seriously, which has stifled strategic thinking and debate within the officer corps.
The Golden Age of Professionalization
Most professions came of age in the United States between 1880–1890. During these years most occupations, from public health to teaching, laid the foundation for their modern forms, which, according to Herbert Wilensky, is a five-stage process:
The first stage is marked by the emergence of an occupational group engaged in full-time work on a particular set of problems. The second stage is characterized by the establishment of training and selection procedures for the specific occupational group, while the third stage sees the development of a professional association. The fourth is marked by a determined and often arduous fight for public and legal recognition, and the final stage sees the adoption of a formal code of ethics.
In the 1880s no professional group had advanced through all five phases but scientific discoveries in the medical field and standardized education in law and medicine, controlled admission to institutions of higher learning and the founding of the American Bar Association in the field of law had doctors and lawyers well on their way to professional recognition. Much of the same could be said for the Navy’s officer corps in 1880 since the US Naval Academy, founded in 1845, with its entrance exam and standardized curriculum, provided a formal system of selection and training. However the Navy still lacked a “specialized, theoretical body of knowledge” befitting a true profession, military or civilian. However, several interrelated-problems appeared during the age of professionalization and merged into a perfect storm, which threatened the naval officer corps’ acceptance as a professional organization, if not the Navy’s very existence.
Sailing in Shoal Waters
Most of these difficulties stemmed from the vast technological changes that occurred during the period. Vessels long subservient to the wind and built from wood that fired a broad-sides of smooth-bore cannon were replaced with fleets of self-propelled ships driven by steam-powered screws at 20 knots in any direction. Advances in heavy armor hoped to protect these vessels from exploding shells fired through rifled barrels but offered little security from the steadily-advancing self-propelled torpedoes, which rendered the largest of ships vulnerable to anything that could get a torpedo in the water. In response to these technological developments, engineering officers argued for greater influence within the Navy and naval education placed a heavier emphasis on engineering courses at the expense of the humanities. Line officers pushed back and spawned a civil war within the officer corps that set back integration for years.
Traditional American values and an ignorance of “what navies do” also set up hurdles. The descendants of minutemen and privateers were suspicious of a professional officer corps leading permanent standing armies and navies. Americans were citizen soldiers who defended liberty in time of emergency and returned home after the threat had passed. They desired no Napoleons or Nelsons and held permanent soldiers and sailors in low regard. Furthermore, while a maritime nation from birth, the United States preferred to free-ride on the Pax Britannica and allowed the Royal Navy to protect its seaborne-commerce, now carried almost exclusively in foreign bottoms, thanks to a highly-effective commerce raiding campaign waged by the Confederate Navy that drove American-flagged merchant shipping from the sea.
Lack of promotions and the raise in pay that came with them, forced officers into the idleness of routine and with a booming private sector calling, many retired in droves.
Congressional legislation reflected these values. After the Civil War, Capital Hill starved the Navy of funding. It sold off vessels or allowed them to rot, permitted American goods to sail under foreign flags and maintained a promotion system, built entirely on seniority, that ensured the officer corps would remain small to curb the Navy’s political influence. As long as an officer remained alive, he would eventually be promoted to admiral, barring commission of a felony. However, a lieutenant could not be promoted until an officer of superior rank vacated a spot, either through promotion, retirement or death. Young recruits swelled during the Civil War and promotion was swift in the War’s early years, but for “mids” graduating after Appomattox, this linear system created a lieutenant logjam. With fewer and fewer ships to sail, officers remained lieutenants into their fifties. Lack of promotions and the raise in pay that came with them, forced officers into the idleness of routine and with a booming private sector calling, many retired in droves.
The Rise of the Young Turks
However, the “Young Turks,” a group of exceptionally bright, public-relations-minded young officers that included Washington Irving Chambers, Bradley A. Fiske and William S. Sims; Stephen B. Luce; and his newly-founded Naval War College, successfully navigated the Navy through its perfect storm and won the Navy professional recognition through sheer force of will and the power of the written word.
It began early. In 1873 fifteen officers of a variety of ranks met in the physics and chemistry building at the Naval Academy. The men discussed a variety of topics including naval history, strategy, policy and technological modernization. Eventually they labelled themselves the United States Naval Institute (USNI) and began to publish a collection of essays on their ideas in a journal that would later become known as Proceedings.
Young Turks utilized the pages of Proceedings and a number of other publications to end the promotion stalemate, ease tensions between engineer and line officers and teach the United States about the value of naval power by debating their ideas publicly.
With the seeds of a professional association planted, the Young Turks utilized the pages of Proceedings and a number of other publications to end the promotion stalemate, ease tensions between engineer and line officers and teach the United States about the value of naval power by debating their ideas publicly. After several unsuccessful attempts to overturn the promotion system by direct lobbying to Congress and filing suit in court, the Turks turned to the pen and targeted their writings on three groups: critical naval industries, such as shipbuilders, steel manufacturers and weapons producers; the business leaders and lobbyists of the merchant marine; and the American public. They argued global naval power would be critical to the protection of American commerce and strategic influence as global business expanded. As one Turk insisted: “Prosperity on land is the handmaiden of power at sea, and whose is the ocean, his also are the lands around and about it.”
Gaining the Weather Gauge at Newport
As the Turks scribbled away, Luce, over stiff opposition, founded the Naval War College in 1884 and convinced Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of his former executive officers, to become professor of naval warfare. Luce and Mahan had long advocated the study of comparative history to teach strategy and tactics, subjects which basically did not exist in naval education at the time, but was a teaching methodology used to perfection by the German general staff. As Mahan later complained “a vague feeling of contempt for the past, supposed to be obsolete, combines with natural indolence to blind men even to those permanent strategic lessons which lie close to the surface of naval history.” Though British historian John Knox Laughton may have been the first naval historian to argue for a comparative historical approach to teach naval strategy, Luce and Mahan were the first to put it to use at an institution devoted solely to its practice.
The first class entered Newport in 1885 and Mahan arrived the next year, lecturing primarily on the strategic lessons taught by the Royal Navy during age of sail. In 1890, Mahan published his lectures as The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 with Little Brown and Company. The book aided the Turks’ public relations campaign tremendously, many having written similar arguments that had gone unread because their publishers failed to reach the mainstream audience of Little Brown and Co.
As Americans and their congressional representatives learned the critical relationship between maritime commerce and a modern navy with over-seas bases to protect the sea lanes, these “principles” alerted them to the critical need for naval power and Secretaries of the Navy, who incorporated these sea-power arguments into their congressional testimony, found securing funds much easier. With larger and modern ships sliding down the ways, more billets opened up for engineer and line officers, who eventually declared an uneasy truce for influence. This growing need for officers, along with reforms to the promotion system that placed greater emphasis on merit, ended the promotion logjam.
As the school matured, the research it produced aided reforms in naval administration, technological innovation and strategic planning…
However, the Naval War College and the education it provided did more to professionalize the Navy than any other development. According to Spector, it transformed “the naval officer [into] a practitioner of a purely naval art” and created a place for officers to refine the arguments that convinced the American people of the Navy’s necessity. Luce’s College introduced the naval officer to strategy and created a place where ideas could be debated and put to the test through war gaming, which came of age during the 1890s and William S. Sims emphasized during his eventual tenure as president. The Young Turks were drawn to its halls because it provided the only place that allowed them to research and discuss the many problems facing their profession. As the school matured, the research it produced aided reforms in naval administration, technological innovation and strategic planning but more importantly it, “ensured that strategy and tactics would occupy a central place in the American officer’s professional outlook so that American line officers avoided the obsession with what Winston Churchill called ‘instrumentalities.’”  After World War II, Chester Nimitz claimed “the classes were so thorough [during the inter-war period] that after the start of WWII nothing in the Pacific was strange or unexpected” due to the strategic planning produced at Newport.
However, the importance of Newport and the other War Colleges that sprang up in its wake collapsed after World War II, as did professional military education on the whole. According military historian Williamson Murray, post-war officers viewed assignments to Newport as an opportunity to play golf rather than engage in serious research on strategic problems. As a result, academics at civilian institutions filled the void. Stansfield Turner implemented serious reforms to the Naval War College in the 1970s but these reforms had little impact on the service as the Navy refused to send many of its best officers to study there and, according to Murray, still does.
Due to Hyman Rickover’s influence on naval education in the Cold War and the technical expertise required for modern seafaring, the Navy frowns on the study of history, especially among its NROTC graduates, which, as Luce and Mahan proved, forms the very foundation upon which a strategic education is built. The Navy also discourages its officers from obtaining advanced degrees, especially doctorates, from civilian institutions, which, for the few that still teach military history and specialize in strategic studies, are far more effective educators at this point because their programs last longer and are far more demanding. Murray offers a dire assessment of military education: “It . . . largely remains an arena that the services merely tolerate; for the most part, it neither challenges the students nor employs first-class intellectuals from within or outside of the military.” These developments may have been in former-State-Department-official John Tkacik’s mind when he recently claimed the Navy has no professional maritime strategists.
Luce designed the Naval War College as an institution of personal study where strategic problems could be researched and debated. The students took few classes. The faculty expected officers to produce work independently and lectures formed a small part of their education, typical of modern-day graduate work.
For this civilian, the above changes, articles like Matthew Cavanaugh’s assessment of military professionalism, hearsay claims from officers inside the Pentagon that the military “needs to stop talking about old dead guys,” and accusations like Tkacik’s, lead me to conclude the Navy’s professionalism may be on the wane. While I’m sure this view is not shared by my reality-television-enthralled civilian brethren, the Navy consistently ranks as the least-important service in public opinion polls, which suggests the same problems facing Luce, Mahan and their Young Turks, like a shrinking fleet, a broken promotion and retention system, and an American public that does not understand sea power, have returned.
A New Generation Seizes the Helm?
Yet all may not be lost. Luce designed the Naval War College as an institution of personal study where strategic problems could be researched and debated. The students took few classes. The faculty expected officers to produce work independently and lectures formed a small part of their education, typical of modern-day graduate work. With today’s modern communications and the availability of professional reading lists, one does not have to be located at Newport to engage in the study of strategy.
Roger Misso and Chris O’Keefe’s recent piece on USNI’s Blog is an excellent challenge to today’s junior officers to engage in professional debate and may indicate that a new generation of Young Turks is on the rise to tackle the many strategic problems facing American sea power. As others have pointed out, the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), The Bridge, War Council, and more formal publications like Proceedings and Naval War College Review combined with social media provide excellent forums to share arguments and debate ideas. Let us hope that a new generation of officers heeds the call of Misso and O’Keefe because while Luce and Mahan receive the most credit, they could not have saved the US Navy without their Young Turks, many of whom disagreed with them vehemently on technical issues but defended their positions in the pages of Proceedings unafraid. While today’s junior officers may fear criticism, ostracization, or even dismissal, they must remember the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a long-time supporter of Newport and civilian navalist:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
To preserve the naval profession and American sea power, the civilians of the United States need their Young Turks in the arena.
Will Beasley is an attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Mississippi with a BA and MA in history and a JD from the University of Mississippi School of Law, where he served on the editorial board of the Mississippi Law Journal. Prior to joining Phelps Dunbar, Mr. Beasley worked as a research consultant with the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
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 The writer’s conclusion that “the law is easy” downplays any attorney engaged in criminal law, especially public defenders and organizations like The Innocence Project that are engaged in seeking release of the wrongly-convicted facing the death penalty. For an excellent review of the difficulties facing attorneys engaged in establishing national security policy, see Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).
 Ronald Spector, Professors of War: The Naval War College and the Development of the Naval Profession (Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2005) p. 3.  As cited in ibid., n.11 p. 152 Ibid., pp. 3–4.  Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (Annapolis, MD: 1972) pp 277–86  Spector,Professors of War, pp..3–4  Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy, pp 277–86.  Benjamin F. Armstrong, ed., 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013) p. 79  Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy, pp. 286–317.  As quoted in ibid., p. 308.  Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (New York: Little Brown and Co. 1890)  Spector, Professors of War, pp. 11, 149–50  As quoted in Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919–1941(Newport, RI: The Naval War College Press 1980) p. 119.  Williamson Murray, “Professionalism and Professional Military Education in the Twenty-first Century,” in Suzanne C. Nielsen and Don M. Snider, eds., American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era (Washington DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), pp 141–42.  Ibid., p. 143.