Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

A New Way of Understanding (Military) Professionalism

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

A New Way of Understanding (Military) Professionalism

Article excerpt


In a previous edition of Joint Force Quarterly, Kevin Bond drew needed attention to the dialogue on the nature of professionalism within the U.S. Armed Forces. (1) In his article "Are We Professionals?" he raised important questions concerning our professional identity and addressed them in a fashion that begins useful dialogue.

This question has interested me since my time as an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet nearly 30 years ago. There, I attended the required briefings and seminars promoting the U.S. military's status as a profession and answering criticisms by others that it was not. Ever since, the same themes expressed on both sides surfaced in one way or another, but it always seemed that the dialogue was disjointed and never led to a conclusion. Some observations follow.

First, some of the terminology used is ambiguous and needs clarification. For example, terms such as society and the public are used as though their meanings were assumed to be that of a single collective. Rather, there are multiple societies that are served (or not served) by professionals at global, national, local, and other levels. These relationships need to be well defined as they could impact how one might weigh professional behaviors.

Another ambiguous term is profession. It could mean lines of work, such as doctors, lawyers, and nurses. Field Manual (FM) 1, The Army, describes the concept more as a field of knowledge, such as "medicine" and "law," and this description is found under the subject heading of "The American Profession of Arms." (2) Unfortunately, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary accepts both interpretations, each of which can potentially lead to different analyses about professionals.

Another challenge concerns how determination of professional status, whether yes/ no or to some "degree," could be affected by cultural choices rather than be a reflection of professional necessity. The successful efforts of nurses to achieve professional status bear this out. Physicians and nurses are both practitioners of the field of medicine, so why was one but not the other professional until now? Was the division of labor professionally necessary, such that the application of knowledge between the two vocations was utterly incompatible, or did it reflect a cultural choice that caused physicians to perform certain tasks and nurses others? Certainly, some nurses exercise better professional behavior than some physicians. This should be explored in light of presumptions that professional activities tend to be white-collar or intellectual in nature. These characterizations may not be correct, which then sheds new light on vocations that have a heavier physical component, such as the military.

The third challenge concerned the promotion of military professionalism in FM 1, which promotes the profession of arms by describing it as "unlike other professions" such as medicine and law. This can be seen as an uncompelling apples-to-oranges comparison. A stronger argument would include fields whose functions have some overlap with those of the military or that currently perform roles previously belonging to the military. For example, militaries and police forces both exercise lethal force, and the U.S. military historically performed some functions now done by police.

These three challenges stem from a common root--that the approach to defining what is and is not professional has been based on an evaluation of what is generally considered professional, as opposed to what should be. This article proposes an alternative approach that centers professionalism in the context of fields of knowledge rather than lines of work. From this, we can look systematically at how such fields of knowledge are applied by professionals for the benefit of particular societies and the roles of the communities to which professionals belong. This approach addresses the ambiguities, provides a rational model for determining professionalism in general, and permits an apples-to-apples reevaluation of the fundamental question about the presence and nature of professionalism in the U. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.