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Posted by on Oct 19, 2013 in Blogs |

Soldiers in Suits (Part 1)

I begin this post with a caveat. For the first week or so of this blog, I’m going to write exclusively on Civil-Military relations theory (cue collective poli-sci groan). The increasingly bizarre world of International Relations as seen through the lens of Civil-Military relations is, I promise, forthcoming. The aim of these early theory posts is to outline why Civil-Military Relations is more complex than simply combining theories of bureaucratic politics with coup-proofing strategies. The military occupies a special role in contemporary society, and the aim of these early theory posts is to flesh out specifically what that means.

Edmond Wells via Flickr

Edmond Wells via Flickr

Among the fundamental tenets of civil-military relations is the observation that the modern officer is not, as M describes James Bond, “a blunt instrument”. In fact, modern officers more closely resemble dentists than they do 007. The modern officer is a disciplined and studied expert. Modern military colleges teach students topics that are as varied as they are dense, encompassing battlefield logistics, military history, global geography, and advanced mathematics (Bond ‘Badassness’ is unfortunately not on any curriculum I could find). Perhaps most importantly military colleges, like medical and dental schools, socialize students into a code of conduct that emphasizes discipline and consistency. In that sense, modern soldiers are professionals much like dentists and physicians; so just as physicians are the professional group tasked to manage society’s health, so too are soldiers a professional group skilled in managing society’s violence.

Yet as Samuel Huntington is keen to observe, expertise alone does not a professional make. Chemists are obviously experts in their field but they do not command the same level of respect reserved for professionals. Though the literature on “professionalism” is exceptionally dense, I shall endeavor to summarize the three seminal features of a ‘profession’ that differentiate them from experts alone.

Professionals, as I’ve mentioned, are first and foremost experts in fields deemed essential to society. Expertise is acquired through prolonged education and is subject to evaluation against an objective standard. For example, a student who cannot accurately read and interpret a blood test is unlikely to succeed in medical school. The difference between an expert in the management of society’s health and an expert in chemistry is that one is deemed essential to maintaining society as a whole.

Second, professionals by nature work in a social context; they interact with society and have a professional responsibility to society either individually or collectively (often enshrined in law or a professional code of ethics). They are accountable to the public as a whole rather than the free market. Thus a chemist may work solely towards profitable ends even if they are detrimental to society (i.e. create pollutants); if a physician violates the principles of the Hippocratic Code (i.e. knowingly harms a patient) they cease to be a physician in the eyes of society.

Finally, professions have an organic unity, a sense of “corporate-ness” that develops from years of training. This is especially pronounced in the military. Notably, soldiers are subject to strict uniform regulations, which immediately distinguish them from laymen. Moreover most soldiers live ‘on base’ and as a result generally cultivate fewer non-professional contacts than lawyers or other professionals. The military, just like physician groups, jealously guards admission into their ranks; one cannot simply don a uniform and walk on base.

Considered in terms of professionalism, questions of Civil-Military Relations change considerably. If soldiers are professionals engaged in the management of violence, how much autonomy ought they to have from their political masters? Should commanders have to “call home” and receive political approval for every tactical operation even when doing so compromises a time sensitive operation? In short, where does one draw the line between the political and professional sphere?

– Greg Frame

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