If the military is indeed a professional entity, it is useful to ask what threads bind the disparate units that constitute it. Realistically, what does a front line lieutenant in Afghanistan have in common with the chief medical officer on the USS Blue Ridge? They are trained in different institutions (Medical School vs. Military College), are responsible for vastly different aspect of security, and are accountable to different institutional hierarchies (Army vs. Navy). In short, one would be hard-pressed to say that the physician treating midshipmen is a professional in the ‘management of violence’ and functionally similar to a lieutenant.
The simple answer to the above question is that the military is an enormous organization that hires both professionals and laymen in its various branches. In light of this ‘bureaucratic plurality’, it becomes analytically useful to ask how do the professional and non-professional elements of the military interact. More crucially, how do politicians making senior appointments in the National Security Apparatus differentiate between professionals and laymen within the military? As I outlined in my earlier post, three criteria (expertise, responsibility and a corporate character) separate the professional elements of the military from the administrative laymen.
The defining feature of the military professional is the mastery of an exceptionally complex discipline. While any layman can inflict violence, Samuel Huntington describes the ability to ‘manage violence’ as entailing the organization of equipment and the training of regiments and personnel to maximize strategically favorable opportunities both in and out of combat. In short, no individual, regardless of their innate intelligence, can coordinate large-scale amphibious warfare without years of consistent study. (Please do not tell Harrison Ford and the authors of the forthcoming Ender’s Game movie.) Officers that master this discipline are rewarded with promotions, while auxiliary staff (physicians, engineers, weapons technicians, etc.) remain barred from leadership positions in the military (General, Admiral, etc.).
The second key feature of military professionalism concerns the sense of responsibility that officers feel towards the state itself. Professional officers are socialized through the customs and traditions of the profession to only use their skills for purposes approved by society. If officers were to “sell their skill” on the open market, society would collapse, as roaming bands of soldiers loyal only to corporate warlords fight each other for control of the state’s resources (or so science fiction tells us, the more realistic alternative is that soldiers lacking this sense of responsibility would coup). Though the military’s emphasis on deference to superior officers seems odd from the outside looking in, it’s this strict hierarchy that maintains civilian leadership.
The corporate character of the military is in part reflected by rank. Professional soldiers advance in the military hierarchy through internally recognized standards of ability, education and experience. The higher an officer’s rank, the more professional they are vis-à-vis laymen. In an ideal system, an officer’s rank and their position in the military bureaucracy are closely aligned, thereby ensuring that the most qualified professionals always hold the highest military office. The reality is far from the ideal and often the most visible fights between politicians and military officers concern senior appointments. The politics of appointments will comprise a future post.