Trust Me, I’m a Military Professional

Review of Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics, Nathan K. Finney and Tyrell O. Mayfield (eds.) Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.


Deane Baker is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra, and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Military Ethics at Kings College London. You can follow him at @DPBEthics

The online journal The Strategy Bridge has very quickly become a go-to source of quality analysis for scholars and practitioners of military affairs. More than just a journal, The Strategy Bridge is also a community and network, with energetic and enthusiastic volunteers arranging and hosting strategy focused ‘Drink & Think’ and similar get-togethers in a growing number of cities across the world. All of these activities highlight a shared passion for intellectual engagement by military leaders and a willingness to challenge stale assumptions and even slaughter a few sacred cows.

That same spirit is evident in this book, co-edited by The Strategy Bridge founder Nathan Finney and Editorial Board member Tyrell Mayfield. Where most edited volumes on similar topics are made up of contributions by academics with – perhaps – a a smattering of practitioners, this book is the reverse: just five of the fourteen contributors to this volume hold academic appointments, and most of those work within the professional military education orbit. Finney and Mayfield are themselves military officers (US Army and USAF respectively), and this book is very much an ‘inside out’ look at the military profession, rather than the ‘outside in’ perspective that characterises so much scholarly work on military topics.

In their acknowledgements Finney and Mayfield thank the book’s anonymous reviewers and also apologise that they ‘could not come up with a better title.’ I am inclined to agree with the reviewers – the title is not a great fit for the content. Readers coming to the volume in the hope of seeing the modern military redefined will be disappointed. Instead, this book offers a fascinating window into a range of diverse and sometimes conflicting conceptions of the military profession held by serving military officers and academics engaged in professional military education (plus a handful of others). Army officer Mike Denny’s coalface view – that ‘soldiers become professionals when they make the best available decision even when it contradicts the textbook answer’ – is deeply individualised, and hard to reconcile with traditional notions of what constitutes a profession. In what other profession would it be a defining characteristic that its members ‘know when to break the rules’? Steven Foster also individualises the profession in his argument that, in the U.S. Army at least, it is individual effort that is most important. Pauline Shanks Kaurin offers an academic’s view that is similar in locating the profession at the level of particular decision making. Acknowledging that the military fits awkwardly with notions of military professionalism put forward by Huntington and the like, she contends that the idea of a military profession is always ‘aspirational.’

Samuel Huntington (and to a lesser extent his contemporaries Janowitz and Hackett) looms large throughout the book (though Casey Landru’s overview of the evolution of the idea of professionalism in the US Army also gives due acknowledgement to the more recent influence of Don Snider). Some of the contributors largely accept Huntington’s view, or at least side-step what is controversial. Royal Australian Air Force Legal Officer Jo Brick offers a well-considered and thoughtful account of the relationship between the military and the state in terms of fiduciary responsibilities, but doesn’t remark on the fact that it is not only professions and professionals which find themselves in a fiduciary relationship with the society they serve.  Likewise, Simon Anglim’s helpful overview of the development of Professional Military Education takes the notion of the military profession more or less as a given, as does Raymond Kimball’s excellent chapter on mentoring as a means to develop military professionals. Rebecca Johnson uses a fairly standard account of the profession to outline the ethical responsibilities of both parties, presenting an important and timely corrective to the general lack of focus on the ethical responsibilities that the ‘client’ (the state and its agents) holds towards the military.

Many of the book’s contributors, however, struggle with Huntington in particular – several authors, for example, wrestle with the problem of Huntington’s officer-centric notion of the profession in an era in which the ‘strategic corporal’ has come to the fore. William Beasley Jr. rejects as overly simplistic Huntington’s view that the military as a whole is a profession, arguing instead that the U.S. Navy is a distinct profession in its own right, defined less by its role in ‘managing violence’ than its diplomatic, peacekeeping and maritime policing functions. Brian Laslie’s account of culture, professionalism and identity in the US Air Force is akin to Denny’s chapter in its emphasis on autonomy – both are individualised in a way that sits uncomfortably with Huntington’s model. Holly Hughson struggles valiantly but awkwardly to make the case that humanitarian aid workers also constitute a Huntingtonian-style profession, one that is parallel with, and shares the battlefield with, the military profession.

This broad discomfort with the standard accounts of the military profession is tackled head on by Lund University’s Tony Ingesson in what is, in my view, the standout contribution to the volume. Ingesson (who, remarkably, has served in all three branches of the Swedish military) observes that “… the concept of the military profession (in the universal sense) is subject to considerable conceptual stretching.” Against this stretching, Ingesson presents a thorough argument to show that the fit between the notion of a profession is poor, and contends that the military profession ‘isn’t’. Instead he proposes that military personnel might better be seen as similar to what Michael Lipsky calls ‘street level bureaucrats’. Though the term seems unflattering, it isn’t – Ingesson’s main point (which seems to me to be exactly right) is that what is expected of military personnel is so much more than what we expect from members of other professions that applying the ‘professional’ construct to the military is in an important sense a significant disservice.

I said at the beginning of this review that Redefining the Modern Military is very much an ‘inside out’ view of the military as a profession. That is the book’s glory – the perspectives from within that it provides are invaluable. And beyond the chapters’ contents the book is doubly important for what it represents: a strong and growing movement within the US military and allied western forces that is agitating for a fresh evaluation of what, exactly, it is to be part of this ‘profession of arms’. This valuable perspective is also, however (and necessarily), the book’s main limitation. For there are broad questions about whether the profession construct is relevant to the military at all, and to society in general, which remain unanswered but which account for the slipperiness of the ground on which the authors are seeking to build. That almost all of the book’s contributors had to go back to the likes of Huntington, Janowitz and Hackett is telling – though there has been valuable work in this field by scholars in the intervening half century (such as Peter Feaver’s excellent Armed Servants), it has not been enough and it clearly has not penetrated sufficiently.

In his review of Eliott Krause’s Death of the Guilds: Professions, States and the Advance of Capitalism, 1930 to the Present, sociologist Robert Zussman contends that (in the Anglo-American sphere at least) “professionalism was a means of protecting certain core values – health, justice, knowledge, and, to a much lesser extent, technology – from the uncertainties of the market and the dangers of a state that was, in any event, probably inadequate to safeguard them.”[1] Krause, for his part, argues that the professions evolved out of the protections and power that had been achieved by their monopoly predecessors, the guilds, but that the state and capitalism has now largely eroded the vigour and strength of the professions. The idea of the military as a profession arose alongside the emergence of the all-volunteer force, and the image of a professional both seemed to capture what was hoped for from this change and, perhaps more importantly, conferred a desirable level of social status on the leaders who were being recruited into the new all-volunteer force. But considered in the light of accounts of professions like those put forward by Krause and Zussman, or even less radical evaluations like that developed by Andrew Abbott (who argues that the military shares some, but not all, of the characteristics of a profession[2]), it might be worth asking whether the label was ever a particularly good fit for the military.

Even if the notion of the military as a profession was perhaps at some point a valuable one, looking to the future should make us wonder. In an era in which the military faces societal, demographic and particularly technological shifts that hold the potential for massive change, the relevance of the profession construct comes under even more pressure. In their bestselling book The Future of The Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts father and son team Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind argue that technological progress is already eroding the specialist expertise that defines professions like law, medicine, accountancy and teaching, and predicts their ultimate design. Even if their predictions are only partially true, the implications for the future of the military are enormous. How will we make sense of the military as a profession when the specialist technical knowledge necessary for the efficient and effective application of force is largely embedded in algorithms? Will we really think of the uniformed part-time direct-entry ‘cyber warrior’ as a military professional? And what constitutes the ‘profession of arms’ when it becomes commonplace that robotic autonomous platforms are carrying and employing those arms?

In an era in which overpaid sports entertainers are ‘professional footballers’ and ‘professional tennis players’, and beauticians proclaim themselves to be members of the ‘beauty profession’, the ‘professional’ label arguably does not have the status or value it once had. And as this book shows us, it’s a construct which fits at best awkwardly with the modern military. Tony Ingesson, it seems to me, is exactly right in pointing out that the responsibilities entailed by contemporary and future military service go well beyond mere professionalism, so perhaps we need to disentangle our thinking about the military from these confines if we really want to start redefining the military for our times. In her book The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare, Pauline Shanks Kaurin argues that the representation of the contemporary service man or woman as a ‘warrior’ is too narrow, and nor is ‘peacekeeper’ an adequate description. She proposes instead that we adopt ‘Guardian’ as the conceptual model for military service. It seems to me that this is an excellent suggestion, and one which seems likely to stand firm regardless of the technological and societal shifts that will shape and redefine tomorrow’s military. Perhaps we could take that proposal a step further and say that ‘professional’ is also too narrow, but what we want from that old and ill-fitting construct could also be incorporated into the Guardian model if that model were fully and thoroughly articulated. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that the authors of Redefining the Modern Military have begun to do exactly that, and have challenged the rest of us to join in. So perhaps I am wrong after all, perhaps Redefining the Modern Military really is a good title for this book.

Image: U.S. Army Soldiers participate in a Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP) training scenario at the New Jersey National Guard Training and Training Technology Battle Lab at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., March 11, 2015, via the US DOD.

[1] Review of Death of the Guilds: Professions, States and the Advance of Capitalism, 1930 to the Present by Elliott A. Krause. Review by Robert Zussman, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 560, The Future of Fact (Nov., 1998), p. 223

[2] “The Army and the Theory of Professions” Pp. 523-536 in Don Snider and Gayle Watkins, eds., The Future of the Army Profession. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 2002.

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