The military is a profession that, given the nature of its work, often puts professionalism on the back burner out of necessity. Certainly our leaders want us all to be professionals — publishing white papers such as the Army’s “A Profession of Arms” — much like all lawyers or doctors belong to their respective professional guild. But professions are commonly understood to require specialized skills acquired and maintained through training. The military meets that standard, with soldiers going through a selective admissions process followed by initial training and continuous education throughout their careers. But the armed forces have more responsibility than doctors and lawyers and when engaged in a war (or two), the ivory tower goal of being a “profession” is sacrificed to the operational realities of combat. The military is most like a profession in times of peace (relative as that may be) and least like one when we are engaged in combat.
The military is most like a profession in times of peace (relative as that may be) and least like one when we are engaged in combat.
Examples from the last 13 years are numerous. Standards for entry into the profession of arms were lowered and waivers were widely available to recruits that the military would turn away today. NCOs and officers postponed their Senior Leader or Captain Career Courses, important methods of development, so that they could deploy. A demanding deployment rotation serviced by an all-volunteer military led to higher turnover. The need for manpower was more important than the tenets of professionalism, as would be expected.
As the military’s manpower requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq have been reduced, the emphasis on being a profession has returned. Two examples are the recent separation boards for officers and changes to the AR 670–1. Alcohol related incidents, Non-Judicial Punishments, and General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand that had been ignored or tolerated for a decade have now made Captains and Majors “high risk” for separation. A Major wrotean open letter on Thomas Ricks’ blog detailing how he got a DUI in 2006, after which he was allowed to continue serving and earned a Ranger Tab and an Army Commendation Medal w/ Valor, only to be selected for separation last year because of the same DUI. The military profession needed those with derogatory information in their files when there were two wars to fight and it was all hands on deck. Today the profession shows them the door.
The military is a profession that adjusts its level of professionalism according to how much it is being used.
Tattoos are the clearest example of how being a profession has changed from war to “peace.” On the day the updated AR 670–1 was released a Sergeant Major of the Army Chandler wrote that “The Army is a profession, and one of the ways our leaders and the American people measure our professionalism is by our appearance.” I would argue that the appearance of being a professional is less important than actually being one, but again the point remains, when the Army was able to be more selective, when it did not need soldiers with neck or hand tattoos, it moved to exclude them. What allowed this change? The reduction in military responsibility in Iraq and Afghanistan. A tattoo on your calf or forearm gives no indication of your ability to shoot, move, or communicate nor did it stop anyone from serving honorably in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, in some cases multiple times.
The military is a profession that adjusts its level of professionalism according to how much it is being used. When wars are being fought, professionalism moves aside for necessity. When peace is in the air the profession returns to a focus on education and the enforcement of standards.
The author is an Infantry Captain currently serving at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and a previous member of the 82nd Airborne Division. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.
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