Military Art and Science: An Academic Discipline

By Atkeson, Edward B. | Army, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Military Art and Science: An Academic Discipline


Atkeson, Edward B., Army


Almost three decades ago Professor Samuel Huntington published his landmark treatise, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. In the five hundred (plus) pages, he argued strongly for recognition of the military career field as a profession. Relying heavily on Karl von Clausewitz, he remarked:

The fact that war has its own grammar requires that military professionals be permitted to develop their expertise without extraneous interference. The "military virtue of an army" (Clausewitz's term) is not found in the nature of the cause for which it fights any more than the skill of the lawyer is judged by the persons of his clients. The inherent value of a military body can only be evaluated in terms of independent military standards.

While Huntington expressed cognizance of the wide variations of duties within the totality of land, air and naval services, he based his case on the stronger similarities and commonalities, which he suggested characterize the duties of all participants. While conceding that "the captain of a cruiser and the commander of an infantry division appear to be faced with highly different problems requiring highly different abilities," he went on to point out that there is a common "sphere of military competence" which includes the organizing, equipping and training of forces; the planning of their activities; and the direction of their operations in and out of combat. The skills with which these tasks are discharged, he averred, constitute the essence of military professionalism, regardless of the service or branch with which an officer might be identified.

Quoting Harold Lasswell's memorable phrase, Huntington crowned his case with the assertion that the military profession is unique and derives intellectual value from its focus upon "the management of violence."

As satisfactory as many observers may find Huntington's argument, it must also be noted that the second step-that of the identification of an academic discipline underlying the profession-has been slow to gain substantial recognition. Some have dismissed the effort as unworthy, preferring to view military service as a trade, rather closer to plumbing or electrical repair than to the more respectable fields of law, medicine or the clergy. And such views have not been limited to officials in academia. Prominent figures in uniform have, from time to time, argued against such recognition, expressing a fear of losing much of the spirit of physical achievement in military life to competitive requirements for study and writing, and, perhaps even further, to the point of losing a sense of service and subordination to the national political leadership.

But the Huntington school has not been without support from leading figures in the military services. Outstanding among important proponents was Lt. Gen. DeWitt C. Smith, commandant of the U.S. Army War College in 1975, who made a strong case for military art and science (MA&S) in an address to a distinguished group of visitors at the 21st Annual National security Seminar. He remarked:

The Army War College is dedicated to the highest professional military education of carefully selected, highly individual human beings. The academic discipline underlying our programs derives from our purpose and mission. It incorporates studies in those fields of academic and practical endeavor which constitute the military profession. This body of knowledge, a wide one, can be called "military art and science."

Another prominent spokesman in favor of broader recognition of military service as a professional pursuit with its own underlying discipline is Col. Lloyd J. Matthews, U.S. Army retired. Matthews contributed an important and detailed examination of the matter in ARMY Magazine in January 1994-perhaps one of the best yet by a member of the field.

He balanced his work with a summary of the arguments of opponents, but he persuasively led the reader through the debates to convincing conclusions. …

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