Commentary: Are We Professionals'

By Kevin M. BondAugust 31, 2010

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In recent years, there has been growing interest within the U.S. Army in identifying, defining, categorizing, promoting, and developing professionalism in all members of the military. This interest is laudable and receives support from both within and outside. As the U.S. Army confronts the changing modes of modern warfare, it faces several challenges as it seeks to increase military professionalism. These include the need to promulgate professional military identity throughout the force, promote a coherent view of a professional military ethic, and provide a sustained program for character development that allows officers and enlisted members to meet today's ever-changing environment. As irregular warfare becomes more prevalent through persistent, evolving, never-ending conflict, official and unofficial doctrines that define professionalism and provide clear guidelines for it will benefit the U.S. Army. In this article, I examine how the U.S. Army, the military in general, and society as a whole view the professional status of Soldiers.

Army doctrine is often promulgated through Army Field Manuals (FMs). FM 1, The Army, claims that "a final aspect that distinguishes the American profession of arms is the professionalism of its officers and noncommissioned officers."1 Unfortunately, this implies that some of the enlisted ranks, E-1 through E-4, are not known for their professionalism. Yet according to FM 6-22, Army Leadership: Competent, Confident, and Agile, Army leaders are encouraged to promulgate "The Soldier's Creed" as both the "Warrior Ethos" and "the professional attitudes and beliefs that characterize the American Soldier." The Warrior Ethos includes the phrase, "I am an expert and I am a professional." When presented with doctrine or guidance that may appear contradictory, as the above example may show (as well as a careful consideration of the "Seven Army Values"), Soldiers at any level of the Army risk uncertainty of their professional identity. Moreover, without a clear professional military identity, a coherent, visible, and accessible view of professional military ethics, and sustained character development programs, it becomes questionable whether all Soldiers really are professionals.

Army Doctrine and Attitudes

Contemporary doctrine and philosophy regarding U.S. Army professionalism stands upon Samuel P. Huntington's seminal work The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Civil and military interests come into conflict in a classically liberal society due to tension between the needs of security and the needs of individual liberty. Although all citizens may experience this conflict, it is citizen-soldiers who are often charged with the responsibility of maintaining the balance between the two. A critical reading of Huntington's work suggests that the success or failure of maintaining this balance depends on an "officership" that is a profession. One of Huntington's legacies derives from his claims that military officers are professionals.

Following common notions of professionalism, Huntington identifies a profession as "a peculiar type of functional group with highly specialized characteristics," which he identifies as "expertise, responsibility, and corporateness." Professionals are experts with social responsibilities, such as physicians or lawyers, who have specialized knowledge and skills acquired through prolonged education and experience. Professional knowledge is intellectual in nature, as "the professional man can successfully apply his skill only when he is aware of this broader tradition of which he is a part. . . . Professional education consists of two phases: the first imparting a broad, liberal, cultural background, and the second imparting the specialized skills and knowledge of the profession." Military officers are professional, according to Huntington, insofar as their activities approach the professional level of applying their specialized skills and professional knowledge ("the management of violence") for the essential functioning of society.

Huntington also claims:

The enlisted men subordinate to the officer corps are a part of the organizational bureaucracy but not of the professional bureaucracy. The enlisted personnel have neither the intellectual skills nor the professional responsibility of the officer. They are specialists in the application of violence not the management of violence. Their vocation is a trade not a profession . . . the education and training necessary for officership are normally incompatible with prolonged service as an enlisted man.

It is at this point that contemporary Army doctrine diverges from its roots in Huntington's analysis. Contemporary doctrine suggests that all members of the military should be considered, and should act as, professionals. In the Army's capstone document FM 1, previous Chief of Staff of the Army, Peter J. Schoomaker, states that central to the discussion of what it means to be a professional Soldier is the discussion of the Soldier's Creed, Warrior Ethos, and Army Values. The seriousness of professionalism within the Army is demonstrated in that the first chapter of FM 1 lays the foundation for "The Army and the Profession of Arms." The first figure in FM 1 establishes the core professional identity the Army seeks to instill in its Soldiers (see textbox).

The italicized portion of the Soldier's Creed is the "Warrior Ethos" as promulgated by the U.S. Army. Soldiers are asked to internalize the Warrior Ethos and live by the Soldier's Creed, while upholding the Seven Army Values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.

There is much to be admired in Huntington's claim that officers are professionals and in the Army's attempt to professionalize its force. Yet Huntington may overstate the professionalism of officers and miss the possibility for the professionalization of the enlisted ranks while, concurrently, current Army doctrine may overstate the professionalism of its junior officers and enlisted ranks.

Understanding "Professionalism"

To understand challenges in the professionalization of the Army, we must first consider and understand the conventional features of professionalism. Traditionally, this understanding is accomplished by first identifying professionals and professions. This initially appears to be a relatively easy task. Popular accounts of professionalism suggest that "white-collar" workers such as physicians, lawyers, veterinarians, and teachers are professionals. Likewise, popular accounts of professionalism suggest that "blue-collar" workers such as janitors, lifeguards, factory workers, and sales clerks are not.

The Soldier's Creed

I am an American Soldier.

I am a Warrior and a member of a team.

I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values.

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my Warrior tasks and drills.

I will always maintain my arms, my equipment, and myself.

I am an expert and I am a professional.

I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

I am an American Soldier.

Yet these popular accounts are not without controversy. Some activities, although they may not normally be associated with professional status, nonetheless include people characterized as professionals. Examples are professional musicians, professional athletes, professional poker players, or even people who compete in eating competitions "professionally." Furthermore, the literature of professionalism debates whether some jobs should properly be characterized as professional, such as paralegals, paramedics, nurses, or soldiers.

Nurses have somewhat successfully conducted a campaign to meet the standards of professionalism and to become recognized as professionals within the past 20-30 years. They have accomplished this through aggressive initiatives to establish codes of conduct, "professional" education, and social awareness and endorsement of their services as "professionals." The military, by comparison, has not been as successful at meeting the challenges of establishing professional criteria for all ranks and for promoting the recognition of the Soldier as a professional.

To understand professionalism, it is necessary to extract its characteristics. There are two ways this is done: a mostly descriptive approach and a somewhat normative approach. The descriptive approach I will call essentialism, which relies on identifying the necessary conditions that must be obtained for an activity to qualify as a profession or that an individual must meet to be properly identified as a professional. The normative approach I will call functionalism, which relies on identifying the appropriate function or role of an activity as it relates to society's needs. Professional norms are then defined to ensure that these needs are met in morally appropriate ways. In either case, both essentialism and functionalism seek to answer two related questions for identifying professionalism: What characteristics are necessary for an activity to be considered a profession, and what characteristics are necessary for a person to be considered a professional' After establishing the necessary characteristics of a profession and a professional, the final requirement of professionalism is for the individual, as well as society, to accept and acknowledge the profession as legitimate.


As the name suggests, essentialism seeks to answer the previous questions by identifying the essential features of professionalism. To this end, Michael Bayles, Bernard Barber, and Lisa Newton offer overlapping accounts of essentialism.

According to Bayles, almost every author in professionalism literature identifies three necessary features that characterize professionals:

Aca,!Ac a professional has acquired extensive training of a particular activity

Aca,!Ac the activity of a professional emphasizes intellectual powers over physical ability

Aca,!Ac the professional performs an activity that is an important service to society.

Along with these essential characteristics, Bayles offers the following characteristics as common, but not necessary, to most professionals. They:

Aca,!Ac are certified or licensed to practice

Aca,!Ac organize special memberships to promote the interests of their profession

Aca,!Ac are autonomous in their work.

Finally, Bayles distinguishes between consulting and scholarly professions. Consulting professions traditionally provide a fee-for-service practice in a client-practitioner relationship in which the professional acts as an agent for a specific client. Scholarly professions tend to operate on a salary with either many clients or no personal clients. These distinctions further demarcate the essential features, as well as generate various ethical issues. Consulting professionals, according to Bayles, possess several salient features that present possible conflicts of interest between the professional and a liberal democratic society. They:

Aca,!Ac provide services related to basic human needs

Aca,!Ac have a virtual monopoly on the services they provide

Aca,!Ac are not subject to much public control.

Barber and Newton have slightly different approaches to essentialism. Whereas Bayles offers a discrete view of professionalism, Barber favors a continuum of rating the relative degree of professionalism.14 According to Barber, there are no absolute differences between professionals and nonprofessionals. Rather, there is a continuum between fully professional (doctors and lawyers), partly professional (paramedics and paralegals), and barely or not at all professional (garbage collectors and lifeguards).15 The degree of professionalism depends on the degree of involvement with four features of professionalism:

Aca,!Ac a high degree of generalized and systemic knowledge

Aca,!Ac oriented toward public interest as opposed to self-interest

Aca,!Ac self-control maintained through codes of ethics, membership in professional organizations, and training

Aca,!Ac a system of monetary and honorary rewards of achievement that reflects the above.

These criteria, according to Barber, are used to classify professional activity in one of three ways. First, they may be used to compare two or more different professions. A doctor is a different kind of professional than a lawyer. Second, they may be used to compare professionals within the same occupation. An experienced physician at a teaching hospital has a different degree of professionalism compared to a newly graduated medical student. And third, they can be used to evaluate with respect to differing criteria. When comparing two teachers at a high school, one may be more professional with respect to classroom teaching, but another may be more professional with respect to maintaining positive parent-teacher relationships.

Newton presents the most complex account of professionalism. First, she suggests that professionals themselves claim that there are two criteria (which, according to Newton, are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions) that justify professionalism: they are maximally competent in a specific area of knowledge, and they are committed to the public good in that area.16 Next, Newton identifies additional features that some professionals claim as justification for their professional status: professionals attend to the welfare and interests of their clients, sometimes at the expense of the public good, and they command large fees.

Together with the first two criteria, I characterize these four criteria as Newton's "internal" characteristics of a profession; that is, these are criteria that professionals often indicate as qualifications that identify professionals. In addition, Newton identifies what I refer to as "external" criteria-ones that involve the historical development of a profession or a description of those criteria that actually appear to exist in a modern profession. There are three external characteristics, any one of which is a necessary component of professionalism: practicing an activity to achieve excellence within that activity, practicing an activity for profit, and practicing an activity to benefit others.17

Although it is difficult to conclude exactly how the external characteristics relate to the internal characteristics, it appears that Newton is claiming that an activity is considered professional when it arises from one of the external criteria and conforms with, at a minimum, the first two internal criteria. This account seems to combine aspects of both Bayles's and Barber's view. There are conditions that must be met to qualify as professionalism. This is consistent with Bayles's discrete view. Once professionalism has been identified, it may be evaluated as a continuum over a range of activity. This aspect is consistent with Barber's continuum view.

Taken together, the three accounts offered by Bayles, Barber, and Newton give a descriptive account of how to identify professionals and professions. One looks for combinations of the following features: providing an important service to either the public or individuals, containing a significant intellectual component, requiring extensive training, having a high degree of specific subject matter knowledge, being oriented toward community interests (not strictly selfserving), having a code of conduct or some instrument of self-regulation, containing rewards and prestige, being very competent, providing a public good, or caring for people in their charge.

As useful as this list is, however, it is mostly a descriptive account of professionalism. Essentialism seems to lack a certain normative element of identifying specifically what professionals ought to do. To capture this normative dimension, I now turn to functionalism.


Functionalism relies on defining professional norms that an activity, organization, or person must meet in order to earn the benefits and obligations of public recognition of being a professional. As the name suggests, functionalism strives to explain professionalism in terms of function within society.

David T. Ozar demarcates nine categories of professional obligation.18 Like Bayles, Barber, and Newton, Ozar understands that there are features commonly associated with professionalism: a public oath, an ethical code, service to others, specialized knowledge, and special moral commitments. These features are, however, based on the collective profession's answers to nine categorical questions that define the norms of a profession:

Aca,!Ac Who is (are) this profession's chief client(s)'

Aca,!Ac What are the central values of this profession'

Aca,!Ac What is the ideal relationship between a member of this profession and a client'

Aca,!Ac What sacrifices are required of members of this profession, and in what respects do the obligations of this profession take priority over other morally relevant considerations affecting its members'

Aca,!Ac What are the norms of competence for this profession'

Aca,!Ac What is the ideal relationship between members of this profession and co-professionals'

Aca,!Ac What is the ideal relationship between members of this profession and the larger community'

Aca,!Ac What ought members of this profession do to make access to the profession's services available to everyone who needs them'

Aca,!Ac What are members of this profession obligated to do to preserve the integrity of their commitment to its values and to educate others about them'

Not every profession needs to answer these questions the same way; however, each profession must identify an acceptable range of answers. Professional norms are arrived at by a profession establishing an agreedupon range of answers to the questions and society's sanctioning of these answers. Thus, for example, defense lawyers may serve very different clients than public works engineers; priests may value sacrifice, while advertising agents may value maximizing profit; and politicians may serve their constituents while minimizing the needs of voters outside of their own districts.

Common usage of the concepts surrounding essentialism and functionalism often seems to follow the convention that the essentialism approach identifies whether or not we are dealing with professionalism while the functionalism approach provides details about a particular profession or professional's ideals, practices, and behaviors. In the former case we are often dealing with more descriptive notions of professionalism, while in the latter we are often dealing with more normative elements. Yet this is not an established rule. Both essentialism and functionalism can be used to identify descriptive and normative features of professionalism.

We Are Not Professionals-Yet

With this understanding of professionalism, it is possible to work through the aspects of essentialism to show how Huntington might overstate the professionalism of officers and overlook the possibility for the professionalization of the enlisted ranks while, concurrently, current Army doctrine might overstate the professionalism of its junior officers and enlisted ranks.

First, to what extent do Soldiers receive extensive training in a professional activity' Nonmilitary professionals typically receive extensive training and education in their field well before entering the ranks of professionals. To maintain their professional status, they continue a lifetime of refinement through continuing education, on-the-job training, professional conferences, and personal development. For example, the typical physician might spend 4 years earning a bachelor's degree, 3 years in medical school, then 4 to 7 years of on-the-job training (commonly called a residency) before really being "a doctor." Lawyers will average 4 years earning a bachelor's degree, then spend 3 years in law school before earning their juris doctor degree. Physicians and lawyers must pass licensure exams before being allowed to legally practice as professionals. In many cases, to maintain their licensure and practice, physicians and lawyers must maintain their professional development through participating in and earning continuing education units. How does this education process compare to that of the military' To some degree, senior officers, junior officers, and career Soldiers mirror this type of formal training, education, and development. Senior officers have earned educational degrees and continually receive training, education, and development related to their military duties. Like medical residents or junior legal associates, junior officers are also at the beginning of a long-term professional path of training, education, and development. I would also claim, possibly contra-Huntington, that "career" Servicemembers in the Army, or those serving for about 12 to 25 years, may accumulate similar extensive training, education, and development that warrant claims that they too are professional in this category.

However, there is a high turnover rate, with people of all ranks leaving the Service before or around the 12-year mark. Officers, in particular, who find themselves in the Army's "up-or-out" system of employment, experience an incentive for a high rate of turnover. This seems to suggest two aspects of "de-professionalism" within the Army. First, there are institutional practices that, unlike other professions, tend to limit (if not discourage) increasing professionalism within the military occupation. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Soldiers may not always think of themselves as following a "professional calling" that is significantly a part of their identity. Rather, they perceive that they have trained for a job or trade-granted, an important job or trade-but not for a professional career.

Does a Soldier's job represent intellectual powers over physical ability' Not always. There is certainly a significant field of military science that requires study, knowledge, and wisdom to apply effectively. Yet it seems that a significant amount of work in the military is simply "grunt" work-important, necessary, and without which the military would fail. Nonetheless, driving, cooking, digging ditches, and pitching tents suggest something other than professional activities. However, these activities might be providing the foundations for a future professionalism. Certainly as Soldiers rise in the ranks, they acquire and use more intellectual powers than physical ability. It takes thought and consideration to issue orders or lead others, and to meet the needs of the Nation. In today's environment it also takes training, thought, and consideration for any Soldier to respond adequately to changing technology and social and cultural issues. However, when considering the Army as a whole, it is difficult to see how each and every Soldier currently meets the standard, structured, educational, and intellectual components of professionalism.

Do Soldiers provide an important service to society' When acting to shield and protect people from harm, the answer is yes. In this respect, every Soldier may be viewed as a professional.

Are Soldiers certified or licensed to practice their skills' If so, it seems to be unlike the certifications or licenses of other professionals. Soldiers might pass examinations, receive certificates, or otherwise earn the right to practice certain tasks within the military- for example, tank driver, medical corpsman, marksmanship instructor, plumber, cook, or computer expert. Nevertheless, it does not appear that there are certifications or licenses to "defend," "fight," or "wage war" that are comparable to licenses to "practice medicine," "pass the bar," or "wire a house."

Do members of the military organize special groups to promote their interests' Soldiers and civilians establish organizations such as the Association of the United States Army, Military Academy Graduates, and the Special Forces Association. Nevertheless, there do not seem to be organizations equivalent to the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, or other professional organizations that act to set standards for member knowledge and conduct. It appears that military organizations are not organized around professional or personal development of the people they represent.

Are Soldiers autonomous in their work' Most professions are not totally autonomous. Physicians, lawyers, and engineers must follow not only their own professional standards, but also local standards of conduct, guidelines, and laws. The potential power that professionals have, plus the ability to cause great harm to innocent people, is one reason professionals are licensed or certified before they can practice. Society will not grant individuals a legal monopoly to practice without assurances that professionals will perform their duties to at least minimum standards. (This is one reason why most professions have a clear code of ethics.) It is not clear that Soldiers are autonomous in their work even when compared to the restrictions of other professions. An emphasis on command structure, adherence to numerous policies, plans, and procedures, "following any and all legal orders," and control through the civil sector all contribute to a significant reduction in autonomy. Soldiers are acting in a more traditionally understood professional manner when they have autonomy of action in planning and carrying out orders or policies and must make individual judgments to assure successful missions.

From these observations, it appears clear that if we use the characteristics set forth by the essentialism approach to defining professionalism, Soldiers and the military do not meet all the traditional criteria used to establish a profession. In this limited sense, it is fair to claim that not all Soldiers are considered to be professionals-yet. However, the "all or nothing" account of professionalism is not how we should think about it. Barber's views of professionalism on a continuum are much more appropriate to our experiences and understanding of many professionals and professions. Clearly, some Soldiers at every rank are exemplars in professionalism. Just as clearly, some Soldiers are in positions that lack certain characteristics of professionalism. They may not be lacking in professionalism because of anything inadequate or missing within them. Rather, the structure of military service-the way they are treated, trained, educated, and developed-prohibits many Soldiers from being considered professional.

The military is a vast organization of interrelated duties, responsibilities, functions, goals, and spheres of influence. Soldiers are classified into distinct ranks: "nonprofessionals" (E-1 through E-4), noncommissioned officers (E-5 through E-9), warrant officers (W-1 through W-5), and officers (O-1 through O-9). The various ranks have distinct ranges of expertise in military science and different levels of autonomy to act within their assigned sphere. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask which of these groups is made up of professionals. Should only selected Soldiers be considered professionals' Should all Soldiers be required to meet certain standards of professionalism' How can military professionalism and ethics be defined within the complexities of the U.S. Army'

Professional Military Ethics

Given that there are degrees of differences in professionalism within the ranks of Soldiers, the issue arises as to whether there is one professional military code of ethics or several. The most popular view seems to be that there is one-"The Professional Military Ethic." Once again, when compared to other professions, this seems a departure from traditional notions of professional ethics. There is no universal "The Professional Medical Ethic," no "The Professional Legal Ethic," and no "The Professional Engineering Ethic." Each field is comprised of various practitioners who may or may not subscribe to a particular code of ethics relevant to their subject matter expertise. For example, within the medical field, physicians might follow the American Medical Association's code of ethics, nurses might follow the American Nursing Association's code of ethics, and pharmacists might follow the American Pharmacists Association's Code of Ethics for Pharmacists.

There simply is not (which is not to say there cannot be or never will be) a field of practice that can claim that all of its members are professionals and these professionals follow "The Professional (insert profession here) Ethic." Moreover, even considering traditional fields of practice, such as medicine, law, or engineering, not every member of that field has a code of ethics. If there is no overarching "The Professional Medical Ethic," "The Professional Legal Ethic," or "The Professional Engineering Ethic," why Professional Military Ethic" for everyone in the military' Until we understand what makes up professionalism within the military, which Soldiers are to be considered professional, and to what degree they are professional, reference to "The Professional Military Ethic" may be premature. Until we are able to understand and justify the need for "The Professional Military Ethic," we might want to reconsider the idea that only one ethic has to exist.

It does a disservice to the very ideals of professionalism, and what it means to be a professional, to declare that by virtue of membership in an organization a person is a professional. More importantly, declaring that all Soldiers are professionals ignores the need to train, educate, and develop Soldiers both professionally and personally. By understanding professionalism as existing on a continuum, it is possible to focus on Soldiers at all levels as deserving the opportunity to grow and develop within their own spheres of authority and responsibility.

As the Army struggles with its changing role, it will need to strive to reach an understanding of professionalism as applied to Soldiers and to itself. Is there one professional military ethic or multiple ethics' Does a professional military ethic apply only to officers' Are officers the only Soldiers who should be held to professional standards' Or should all Soldiers be committed to professional standards and functions utilizing specific professional ethics appropriate to their duties'

To help answer these considerations, we can reconceptualize Ozar's nine questions as they apply specifically to the Army:

Aca,!Ac Who are the Army's chief clients'

Aca,!Ac What are the central values held by the Army'

Aca,!Ac What is the ideal relationship between Soldiers and their clients'

Aca,!Ac What sacrifices are required of Soldiers, and in what respects do the obligations of this profession take priority over other morally relevant considerations affecting Soldiers'

Aca,!Ac What are the norms of competence for this profession'

Aca,!Ac What is the ideal relationship between Soldiers and co-professionals'

Aca,!Ac What is the ideal relationship between Soldiers and the larger community'

Aca,!Ac What should Soldiers do to make access to the profession's services available to everyone who needs them'

Aca,!Ac What are Soldiers obligated to do to preserve the integrity of their commitment to the profession's values and to educate others about them'

As the Army answers these questions, it can better develop initiatives to establish codes of conduct and professional education within the military that allow it to more fully meet standards of professionalism. By identifying and achieving professional standards, the Army can campaign to develop social awareness and encourage endorsement of the Army's unique service to our country, an endorsement that recognizes the professionalism of the U.S. Soldier.