Who Is a Member of the Military Profession?

By Moten, Matthew | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Who Is a Member of the Military Profession?


Moten, Matthew, Joint Force Quarterly


From time to time in the United States, a clearly defined word will find itself dragooned by popular culture to serve the common lexicon. Before long, that proud old word will get bandied about so much that it changes and morphs into something that is at once broader and less than its former self. The term professional is such a word. Today, everyone wants to be a professional. All sorts of trades, skilled and unskilled, bill themselves as professional. The sides of many 18 wheelers advertise that their firms are "the professionals." Gargantuan human beings entertain us at sporting events, insisting that they are professional. The toilet paper dispenser in the latrine near my office proudly declares that it is a "Kimberly-Clark Professional."

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We should applaud the efforts of the Armed Forces to commence a debate about the profession of arms. I will argue, however, that the effort is only worthwhile if we manage to establish some rigor in the terms profession and professional. We must have clear standards about what we mean by those terms. We need to understand what professions are and who professionals are before we try to define the profession of arms. Moreover, to be meaningful and useful, these definitions have to have some measure of historical consistency. We have to understand the history of the military profession if we are to attempt to guide its future. Making policy absent a thorough understanding of history is akin to planting cut flowers, and it will yield a similar result.

Some writers loosely use the term professional when describing the Armed Forces, meaning that the Services are a standing force or that its members serve for long periods of time. Such imprecision conflates "professional" with "regular" and a "professional military" with a "standing army." Those terms are not synonymous, largely because they demand too little of military professionalism.

Over the past half-century, scholars have studied the nature of professions quite rigorously. Thus, we may stand on their shoulders as we attempt to define ourselves. Samuel P. Huntington started the debate with The Soldier and the State. His first chapter begins: "The modern officer corps is a professional body, and the modern military officer, a professional man. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental thesis of this book." For Huntington, the military profession and officer corps are synonymous and exclusive. He then defines professionalism in terms of three attributes--responsibility, corporateness, and expertise--and locates military professionalism within those categories.

Responsibility: military forces are an obedient arm of the state strictly subordinate to civilian authority; professional officers use their expertise only for society's benefit; and society is the profession's client.

Corporateness: the profession restricts entrance and controls promotion; complex vocational institutions define an autonomous subculture; and journals, associations, schools, customs, traditions, uniforms, insignia of rank.

Expertise: attaining professional expertise requires a lengthy period of formal education; and professional knowledge is intellectual and capable of preservation in writing. (1)

Sociologist James Burk has derived his own triad. He argues that a profession is:

a relatively high status occupation whose members apply abstract knowledge to solve problems in a particular field of endeavor.... My definition identifies three prescriptive factors that, when found together, mark an occupation as a profession. One is mastery of abstract knowledge, which occurs through a system of higher education. Another is control--almost always contested--over jurisdiction within which expert knowledge is applied. Finally is the match between the form of professional knowledge and the prevailing cultural belief or bias about the legitimacy of that form compared to others, which is the source of professional status. …

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