What defines the Profession of Arms?

The Professional Standards Councils suggest that ‘a profession positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills… [and] is prepared to apply this… in the interest of others’. When considering many professions, the uniting principle that defines them is relatively easy to discern. For medical practitioners it is understanding the human body; for lawyers, a nation’s law codes – these provide a unifying start point for the development of more specialised expertise. However, what is the specialist knowledge that defines the profession of arms? I would contend that understanding of the nature and character of war should be the specialist knowledge that underpins the profession of arms, enabling it to deliver the military effects required by Government. In the Australian context, however, a coherent, unified view is missing of what the profession of arms actually is. This lack of clear definition must be addressed as part of Army’s ongoing review into the intellectual component of fighting power.

Much of the literature surrounding the profession of arms refers to Lieutenant General Hackett’s lectures on the topic. Hackett states that ‘the function of the profession of arms is the ordered application of force’ (p3); critically, however, he also discusses the importance of understanding war itself. It is unfortunate that selective readings of Hackett’s lectures have provided too much focus on the concept of unlimited liability, and with it, associated codes of conduct (p24); rather than emphasising why understanding war’s nature and character must be the profession’s primary competency.

A 2011 ADF report on this important topic sought to define the profession of arms specifically in terms of codes of conduct and behaviours. It acknowledges that Australia’s profession of arms has ‘exclusive responsibility [for] applying military force in the pursuit of national interests’ (p62), but fails to articulate what defines the profession itself. This was a missed opportunity, as discussion of a code of conduct is incongruous if the reader is unable to discern what special knowledge and skills set the profession of arms apart. This in turn reduces the understanding at all levels of the policy instrument – war – that only the profession of arms is authorised to provide for Government (p244).

The recent Ryan Review acknowledges this point when it states that ‘it is not clear that Army has adequately defined what it means by professional mastery’ (p54). I would suggest that this is because no foundation document makes it clear what defines or underpins the profession of arms in the Australian context. Indeed, LWD-1 makes it clear that it is an individual responsibility to study the profession of arms, but still fails to outline exactly what the profession is (p49). This is a topic that the US Army has spent considerable time reflecting upon, yet Australian documents seem to take the definition of the profession of arms as an implied understanding. Unfortunately, the absence of a definition and underpinning concepts ensure misunderstanding and a lack of organisational alignment by failing to provide the bedrock upon which all military education, training and doctrine is then based. Put another way, how can you have professional mastery, when it is unclear what you are seeking to master?

Militaries are designed to prosecute wars. This is the trait that differentiates the profession of arms from all other professions – the state-sanctioned monopolisation of violence to achieve a political objective. It is the ability to appreciate the difference between war’s unchanging nature and emergent character that should define a professional in this field. Similar to doctors and lawyers, the detailed understanding of war provides the unifying start point that allows for further specialisation into the Services and trades that deliver specific warfighting effects. Indeed, understanding of the nature and character of war is what distinguishes activities such as leadership and command, sustainment and planning as distinct from their non-military equivalents and as fundamental aspects of the profession of arms. Furthermore, the understanding of war’s nature vs character provides the framework from which learning and adaptation – the hallmark of successful military organisations – can occur.

Clausewitz highlighted the continuities (nature) and discontinuities (character) of war, providing context for the profession of arms. This insight enables military professionals to identify what is unique about a particular conflict – so as to tailor appropriate strategy that aligns operational concepts and tactical actions with the overarching political objective (p99). Comprehension of this dynamic has been missing in the conduct of more recent wars. The failure to appreciate the character of the wars in which the West has become involved has led to a corresponding inability to achieve victory (pp2-5). In part this reflects a failure to set clear political objectives. However, it is also highlights the profession of arms’ ineffective application of military force in pursuit of national interests. Arguably this is due to the inability of military professionals to comprehend the changing character of war, and without understanding a war’s context, it is impossible to be expert in its application. 

This cognitive malady perhaps reflects the current focus on codes of conduct, at the expense of serious consideration of what defines the profession of arms.  The profession exists to, and should be measured by, its ability to provide tailored military advice and execute military options that satisfy a State’s political objective in a given circumstance. As such, the nature and character of war is not only the most important concept for the profession of arms, it also the central understanding upon which the profession thrives or fails.