Mastering the Profession of Arms, Part I: The Enduring Nature


Two centuries ago, Carl von Clausewitz described the need for able intellects to lead armies in his work, On War. He noted that any complex activity, virtuously executed, requires the gifts of intellect and temperament, as well as two other indispensable qualities. First, “an intellect that even in the darkest hour retains some glitterings of the inner light which leads to truth.” And, second, the courage “to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.”

More recently, Williamson Murray wrote in Strategy and Military Effectiveness:

[W]ar is an incredibly complex endeavour. It is…the most demanding intellectually and morally. The cost of slovenly thinking at every level of war can translate into the deaths of innumerable men and women, most of whom deserve better from their leaders.

What Murray describes here is the need for military leaders to seek mastery of the most complex and intellectually challenging of professions — the profession of arms. And it is a profession that is becoming more challenging to master. Technology continues to advance, our societies change, and great power competition once again defines the strategic environment. It is therefore imperative that we evolve our understanding of the profession, how its key competencies are evolving, and how our institutions can remain at the forefront of “professional practice.”

Professionalism is when a person is engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work. A profession requires skills and knowledge, often based on first principles — propositional knowledge. Professions are subject to strict codes of conduct, which in some cases are based on rigorous ethical and moral obligations — such as doctors and the Hippocratic Oath.

Clausewitz describes war as having an enduring nature but constantly changing character. I propose that, like war, the profession of arms reflects this duality. It is a profession that is constantly evolving as society and technology changes, while also being underpinned by enduring features.

Understanding these features provides insights into the culture of military organizations.  More importantly, understanding changes in society, geopolitics, and technology can assist in ensuring the contemporary and future relevance of military education and training continuums. Based on the U.S. and Australian experiences, I offer three propositions in three articles. In this first installment, I propose that there exists an enduring nature of the profession of arms. In the next installment, I propose that there are seven key drivers for contemporary changes in the competencies required in the profession of arms. Finally, in the third installment, I propose that there are seven essential and evolving competencies of the military professional in digital-age warfare.

The Birth and Life of the Profession

One of the best examinations of the birth of the military profession was conducted by a renowned soldier-historian from the British Army, Sir John Hackett. In 1962, Hackett presented a series of lectures at Trinity College in Cambridge that charted the profession’s development. As Hackett argues, the emergence of a modern profession of arms — one built upon notions of the nation-state and the regularization of armed service in Western Europe — can be traced to the early 1800s. The profession was also brought forth by the Prussian disasters at Jena and Auestadt.

Prussia was the first state to institute a complete and well-rounded approach to the profession over the period between 1806 and 1812. As White has described in The Enlightened Soldier, Scharnhorst was particularly influential in the early definition of the profession of arms. He was heavily influenced by the ideas of Immanuel Kant and the German enlightenment idea of bildung, which described the perfection of one’s character and intellect through education. Applying his deep experience as an instructor and his operational experience with the English-Hanoverian Army in the 1790s, Scharnhorst sought to define the profession through the lens of a disciplined intellect and the modernization (or transformation) of warfare. Only through the nurturing the intellect of military officers could a military force sustain a progressive approach to the changing character of warfare.

In his influential examination of the military profession, The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington recognized Scharnhorst’s approach as the start of military professionalism in the West. Describing the founding of the Kriegsakademie in Berlin in 1810, Huntington examined how this underpinned reforms to the Prussian military and how it comprised one of the key drivers of military professionalism in Prussia. Scharnhorst also instituted requirements for general and special entry, promotion exams, advancement on merit, an effective staff system, and a sense of collective unity and responsibility. Together, these defined the profession of arms for the Prussian Army, and this approach to developing its commanders and staff underpinned its success on the battlefield in the 1800s.

Clausewitz also offered a definition for the profession. Although he examined it through the lens of military genius, his conception shared much with Scharnhorst’s. He described the two indispensable qualities as an intellect that retains some glitterings of the inner light which leads to truth even in the darkest hour and the courage to follow this faint light. He examined these qualities through the constructs of coup d’ oeil (the inner eye) and determination. These qualities had to be honed. Determination, however, was beyond those of low intelligence, requiring a special type of mind. Ultimately, the bildung-like blending of these two qualities ensured the military professional could develop an increased capacity to deal with the unexpected.

In The Soldier and the State, Huntington identified what he believed were the central elements of the profession. This provides a foundational definition of the contemporary profession of arms that is tweaked and adapted by different nations accordingly to their distinct national, strategic, and military culture. Huntington identified three core aspects of a profession in general and of the profession of arms specifically: expertise, responsibility, and corporateness.

A well-defined sphere of expertise was identified by Huntington and he noted that it was common to all, or almost all, officers. This was what differentiated them from civilian professionals. Appropriating Lasswell’s term, “the management of violence,” Huntington described the core function of a military force as successful armed combat. The special skill of the military leader — particularly officers — was the direction, operation, and control of organizations with a primary purpose of applying violence.

The second element that Huntington believed defined the military profession was responsibility. The expertise developed by the military professional imposes a special responsibility to society. Society insists that the management of violence be only used for socially approved purposes — this is a manifestation of Clausewitz’s famous dictum of war being a part of politics and subordinate to it. As Huntington noted, while all professions are to some extent regulated by the state, the military profession is monopolized by the state.

The final element that defined the military professional, in Huntington’s view, was that of corporateness. He wrote that the corporate structure of the profession included the official bureaucracy as well as societies, associations, schools, journals, customs, and traditions.  This he defined as the professional world of the military officer. The line between a military officer and a civilian is also publicly symbolized by uniforms and insignia of rank.

Morris Janowitz was another crucial contributor to defining the profession of arms. He established the study of the profession of arms and society as a subfield within sociology, and was the author of numerous studies and articles on the military professional and society. But his classic study of The Professional Soldier, published in 1960, remains a landmark in defining the profession as well as an important study in civil-military relations. He also studied military professionalism through the lens of various models of political-military elites.

Writing in Conflict Resolution in 1957, Janowitz described how military operations, given their growing technical complexity, had passed from the domain of drafted citizens to be the preserve of highly trained professionals. He was of the view that war-making would in the future rely on a highly professionalised and specialised occupation, the professional soldier. Due to technological change, professional soldiers would require longer formal training to acquire mastery, with temporary citizen armies becoming less important and relevant. Further, the needs of the state now dictated that the old periodic model (rapid expansion followed by similarly rapid dismemberment) must give way to more permanent military establishments. This demanded military professionals who were the masters of military operations and who possessed sufficiently intellectual skills to provide advice to government leaders.

In the 1970s, both the U.S. and Australian armies reviewed their professions. In 1970, the U.S. Army Study on Military Professionalism sought to deal with the heart and soul of the Army’s leaders — its ethics, morality and professional competence. It found a strong correlation in the relationship between professional ethics and professional competency. Further, it provided a range of recommendations on the explicit description of the elements of the military professional and the institutional education, training, and cultural requirements to achieve an optimal blend of ethical behavior and excellence in executing the breadth of military duties.

The 1978 Regular Officer Development Study was a detailed study commissioned by the Australian Army to review the profession of arms in the Australian context. A key finding of the committee was that, in comparison to qualifications held by middle managers in the civilian community, mid-ranking army leaders were under qualified and most did not hold an undergraduate tertiary qualification let alone any post-graduate work. The study recommended that an Officer Development Program be established and that this should include a sponsored self-development program of tertiary correspondence studies to complement military training.

Two more recent reviews of the profession round out this examination of the development of the profession of arms. First, an important contribution to understanding the contemporary profession of arms was the work of Maj. Gen. Craig Orme in 2011. His report, Beyond Compliance, proposed an Australian profession of arms concept. In noting that professionalism was a foundational value, it proposed four characteristics of the profession: being an expert, stewardship, being a representative, and service to the state. Finally, and most recently, was the review of the profession of arms conducted by the U.S. Army over the period 2010 to 2013. The result was the 2015 publication, The United States Army Profession. It listed five essential characteristics that defined the Army profession: trust, military expertise, honourable service, espirit de corps, and stewardship of the profession.

The Enduring Nature of the Profession

After reviewing this history, it is clear that the profession of arms could broadly be described as having an enduring nature (what is the profession) and changing competencies (what should the profession and its members be able to do).  Contemporary and future military forces need to appreciate both of these aspects of the profession of arms to ensure their education and training activities remain relevant.

The best guide to identifying the enduring nature of the profession remains the work of Huntington. As noted earlier, he proposed three key characteristics of the profession: expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. The U.S. Army 2013 approach with five elements and Orme’s four characteristics provides a guide to what the characteristics of the military profession might be in a contemporary sense. Using this as foundational material, I propose that there are four elements that comprise the enduring nature of the military profession. These are: expertise, stewardship, corporateness, and service to the state.

Expertise. Huntington wrote that the skill of the officer is neither a craft nor an art. It is instead an extraordinarily complex intellectual skill requiring comprehensive study and training. And as Orme notes, being an expert demands a commitment to constantly excel in individual and collective achievements by mastering the skills and the theoretical knowledge relevant to their role. It requires them to have a working understanding of the context and complimentary activities associated with that role, including to potentially undertake the roles of those immediately above them in the chain of command, for short durations.

Stewardship. Military professionals are stewards of their profession. While it might be simply described as leaving things better than one found them, it is the professional obligation to constantly seek improvement in individuals and teams. It speaks of a professional responsibility to foster and nurture the profession writ large for the future — professional military schools and colleges are an element of this. Stewardship is driven by an imperative to remain at the leading edge of the profession and not “drift away” from best practice due to issues peripheral to the profession. Stewardship also implies the obligation to care for and enhance the assets placed at the disposal of leaders.

Corporateness. The profession of arms retains a corporate character. It possesses its own formal military bureaucracy and organizations as well as associations, schools and training centers, journals, customs, and traditions. This corporate approach includes possessing a strong idea of the mission of the profession and the cultures, policies, and supporting structures that underpin it.  Finally, a critical element of this corporateness is the importance of professional self-identity. This aligns with Huntington’s view of the corporateness of a profession. In particular, Huntington noted, “The functional imperatives of security gives rise to complex vocational institutions which mold members into an autonomous social unit.”

Service to the State. In his classic book on management, Concept of the Corporation, Peter Drucker also wrote that corporate institutions should be instruments for “the organization of human efforts to a common end.” As a member of the profession of arms, personal loyalty must be to the state, the military institution, and the government. Military activities — at least in democracies — are conducted for the advancement of national interests rather than individual or corporate interests. The expertise developed by the military professional imposes a special responsibility. As Huntington notes, the state insists that the management of violence be only used for socially approved purposes. This was also a key theme in Clausewitz’s classic On War, where he wrote that the political object will determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires. At heart, being a servant of the state requires members, as individuals, to be prepared to risk injury or death on lawful, state-directed missions.


Like war, the profession of arms reflects a duality. It is a profession that is constantly evolving as society and technology changes, but it is also a profession that has enduring features. This article, in reviewing the modern development of the profession, has proposed four enduring features of the profession of arms. But, understanding these only provides us with a partial understanding of how we might prepare our people for contemporary and future conflicts. We must also appreciate how the profession changes over time, what that means for military education and training. Importantly, we must understand what is driving changes in the profession of arms.


Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Marine Corps Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning.

Image: U.S. Army Medical Dept.