Should Military Members Really Call Themselves “Professionals”?

By: Dr. Bradley J. Strawser

In today's military, the word "professional" has become a catchall for anything good or worthy of praise. You'll hear it used by a commander who, one suspects, is simply reaching for something—anything— positive to say. "Very professionally handled," the commander may intone with the utmost gravity, or, "Tom is a real professional in everything he does," for want of a more artful compliment. Conversely, "unprofessional" has become the go-to term for any negative appraisal of, well, just about anything for any reason at all.

That's not to say the term is meaningless. The idea of being a "professional" certainly gets at something in the collective consciousness of the military. But if, like me, you've noticed that it has become overused to the point of banality, you probably aren't interested in thinking seriously about the term. If you are in the military, the concept may have had little direct impact on how you think of your military duties and service, despite the fact that most training or education you'll undertake throughout your career will be what we call "professional military education."

Humor me then on a modest proposal. I think a better understanding of what the concept "professional" and its derivatives actually mean could affect our thinking on military service in a real and substantive way. Moreover, I think that the notion of being a professional—when properly understood—can provide some level of normative guidance on the ethical challenges facing military operators.

Classically, there were only three vocations that were considered professions. I used to tell my students this when I taught at the Air Force Academy, and then have the cadets guess what the three occupations were. For some reason they would at first invariably guess "blacksmith" or some other antiquated vocation. But eventually they'd hit upon the three "original" professions: medicine, law, and clergy. It's worth exploring why this was the case. Why were only doctors, lawyers, and "men of the cloth" traditionally called professionals?

Society trusts each sub-group [of professionals] to act on behalf of everyone else in the society.

To begin, notice that each of these activities does something very important for an individual's well-being. Doctors are entrusted by society to take care of physical health; lawyers are entrusted to uphold rights and legal standing; priests, rabbis, or pastors, and the like are entrusted with our spiritual well-being. Imagine you are an average person living several hundred years ago. You have a tremendous self-interest in assuring that these three critical aspects of life—your physical, legal, and spiritual health—are in good condition. Yet, the average human being, then or now, has no time to master the requisite specialized knowledge and skills that are needed to properly care for each of these aspects of life.

We see the idea of a profession born out of this societal need for some members to take on these particular, specialized roles that are necessary for the well-being of all. Society trusts each of these sub-groups to be the guardian of its particular domain of expertise, and then to act on behalf of everyone else in the society. With that societal trust comes a heightened respect and dignity for these classic professions. But each also comes with special obligations and correlating special permissions.

For each of the three classic professions, there is a special kind of bargain between its members and the society they serve.

For example, since I am not a medical doctor, I am not entrusted by society to prescribe medications. That's a unique permission that we give to doctors who have met specified standards of training and expertise. Similarly, lawyers are trusted with the special permission of lawyer-client privilege. They can also argue in a court of law before a judge "past the bar"—that is, in the front portion of a courtroom past the small fence or piece of furniture (the bar) that traditionally divides the court between its working areas and areas where the public can sit and observe. (Hence, the term still used for admission into the profession of law is to "pass the bar.") Clergy are given special permission to perform a wide variety of important rites according to their faith, that an average citizen generally cannot, such as marriages and funerals.

These permissions are granted to each profession for the purpose of carrying out that specific area of human activity with which that given profession is entrusted. But with each of these permissions also come distinct duties and obligations. If a doctor fails to meet the standard expected of her in carrying out her professional duties, she can be held liable for malpractice. If a lawyer is negligent in his counsel, he can be disbarred and himself prosecuted. Clergy take on a wide range of special restrictions depending on the particulars of each religion, but they are almost always expected to put the well-being of their lay adherents ahead of their own. So we see that for each of the three classic professions, there is a special kind of bargain between its members and the society they serve. Each bargain comes with these special privileges that only the members of the given profession enjoy, and each also brings with it distinct duties that hold only for them.

Each bargain comes with special privileges that only the members of the given profession enjoy, and each also brings distinct duties that hold only for them.

As we look closer, we discover other similar characteristics between the three classic professions. For example, notice that each is, in some sense, internally self-regulated. They have their own unique ethical codes and sets of rules that society trusts them to enforce upon themselves. Doctors in some countries, including the United States, are "board certified" by an association made up of other doctors. Clergy members are typically ordained in some manner by their respective faith. U.S. lawyers, as noted, must pass a bar examination, which is administered by other attorneys in the state where they wish to practice. In all cases, this certification can be revoked by their peers within the profession. We also expect the three professions to continually improve the knowledge of their particular profession and to use it responsibly for the benefit of the society. We all rightly presume, for example, that our family physician is at least reasonably up-to-date on the latest medical studies as they relate to our care.

Most vocations, while valuable in their own right, don't carry these distinctive features of the three classic professions.

These days it seems we wish to call just about every occupation imaginable a "profession." But I think that's ungrounded. Most vocations, while valuable to society in their own right, don't carry these distinctive features of the three classic professions. That is, while being a baker or a carpenter or a used car salesman may be indispensable to the functioning of society, none of those jobs should properly be characterized as a profession according to the classic criteria we just reviewed. So while it would perhaps not sound odd to our modern ears, it would technically be incorrect to call someone a "professional baker" or a "professional salesman."

Does the term "military professional" fit with the concept's classic meaning?

So, then, let's ask ourselves: should serving in the military be considered a profession? By listening to the language of the modern military, one would certainly think that is the default view. But is it an accurate claim based on what military servicemen and women actually do? Does the term "military professional" have the right fit with the concept's classic meaning the way it does for a doctor?

There are many ways that military service appears to have the right fit. The military is entrusted by society to carry out a particular highly skilled and specialized activity for the benefit of all: national defense. Just as with the three classic professions, the job the military is entrusted with generates its own peculiar duties and special permissions. The most striking special permission is obvious: the permission to kill in war. The unique duties military members take on are also clear: to bear the largest burden of risk in war, and to accept a wide-range of restrictions placed on their personal liberty when they join.

The most striking special permission is obvious: the permission to kill in war.

Looking closer, we see other parallels (and some points of disconnect) with the three original professions. Just like doctors, lawyers, and clergy, the U.S. military, for example, has its own set of unique rules (the Uniform Code of Military Justice) and its own ethical code. The UCMJ is internally enforced by the military hierarchy but, interestingly, it is imposed upon the military by an external body: the U.S. Congress. Notice as well that the military has its own unique process for bringing members into its body, just like the classic three professions do. Commissioning (or enlistment) has a parallel with ordination or passing the bar. But, again, it is the U.S. Congress that holds the final decision over who is commissioned as a military officer. So there are points of similarity with the classic professions, but also points of dissimilarity in which the military's autonomy over its own regulation is restricted.

The final commonality I noted was an expectation that members continually improve the knowledge of their particular profession and to use it responsibly for the benefit of the society. This brings us back to that tired military idiom: professional military education. It seems there is good reason to interpret this as consistent with the demand on the classic professions for on-going competence in their given field. And, moreover, I think today there is an expectation from society that its military will be as up-to-date as possible not only on the knowledge of how best to wage war, but also how to conduct it justly.

The society one serves is counting on its military personnel to be competent, skilled experts carrying out their end of the noble bargain.

Do all of these points of commonality with the classic professions mean that military service is properly a "profession"? I'll leave that to the reader to decide. But if we take seriously the notion of military professionalism, then we would do right to remember what that actually means. "Professionalism" is not some catch-all synonym for praise or a job well done, as it is so often used in the military today. Rather, to be a professional means to take the trust that society has given you for this very particular (yet critically important) vocation, and give that trust the proper weight and respect it deserves.

If we do this, we might just return to things like "professional military education" with a new appreciation for the fact that the society one serves is counting on its military personnel to be competent, skilled experts carrying out their end of the noble bargain that being a member of a profession entails. Part of that bargain means our military members bear exceptional hardships. But it also includes being granted the unique and unsettling permission to kill and destroy. That is no small thing with which to be trusted. Society today respects military professionals to a striking degree; one that at times borders on reverence. With that honor comes the responsibility for military members to properly value the trust society gives to the profession of arms.

About the Author(s): Dr. Bradley J. Strawser is an assistant professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is also a Research Associate at Oxford University's Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict. Strawser is a philosopher who specializes in moral and political philosophy, with an emphasis on applied ethics. He has published on issues in just war theory, military ethics, and the ethics of newly emerging military technology, as well as in subfields such as metaphysics, human rights, and ancient philosophy. His work has appeared in the journals Analysis, Philosophia, Journal of Military Ethics, Journal of Human Rights, Epoché, and others. Strawser's newest book is Killing By Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

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