The Profession of Arms

by Dr. Rebecca Johnson

The Command and Staff College is a ten-month in-resident Professional Military Education (PME) opportunity. As we start the academic year, it makes sense to take a moment to reflect on what it means to be a military professional.

While there are many professional militaries in the world, the profession of arms has specific characteristics in the American context. As we read the Federalist Papers and trace the evolution of the U.S. political system, you should be able to see the origins of the professionalization of the U.S. military and the connections between you as a military professional and the nation you serve.

What do we mean by Marines as military professionals? As members of the profession of arms, Marines are both individuals (with individual consciences and moral convictions) and agents of the state (with professional ethical obligations to act on behalf of the state).

The textbook articulation of the military profession comes from Samuel Huntington’s, The Soldier and the State:

The military profession exists to serve the state. To render the highest possible service the entire profession and the military force which it leads must be constituted as an effective instrument of state policy. Since the political direction comes from the top, this means that the profession has to be organized into a hierarchy of obedience. For the profession to perform its function, each level within it must be able to command the instantaneous and loyal obedience of subordinate levels. Without these relationships, military professionalism is impossible. Consequently, loyalty and obedience are the highest military virtues.[1]

For Huntington, the professional military ethic resides in loyal, obedient service to the State and one’s superiors. Contemporary conflict’s requirement for increasingly distributed operations and independent small unit decision making have challenged this traditional construct to a degree, but the belief that military professionals follow their political and military leadership is fundamental to the American understanding of civil-military relations.

Building from this foundation, the Army has undertaken a service-wide exploration of what it means to be a military professional in a period of protracted conflict.  The White Paper that resulted, The Profession of Arms, identifies five key attributes or “guideposts” of the military profession: expertise, trust, development, values, and service.[2]  Dr. Johnson will develop each of these components in later posts.

These attributes derive from the military’s constitutionally grounded purpose and composition as articulated in Title 10 of the U.S. Code, Section 3062 (a):

It is the intent of Congress to provide an Army that is capable, in conjunction with the other armed forces, of:

(1)  preserving the peace and security, and providing for the defense, of the United States, the Commonwealths and possessions, and any areas occupied by the United States;
(2)  supporting the national policies;
(3)  implementing the national objectives; and
(4)  overcoming any nations responsible for aggressive acts that imperil the peace and security of the United States.

In order to execute Congress’ intent for the services, military professionals must demonstrate expertise not only in the disciplined application of lethal force, but also the entire range of skills required to secure the United States and its interests.  This expertise is gained through an unwavering commitment to professional development of self and subordinates and is manifest in the professional’s commitment to core values and service to the Nation.

The combination of continually improving expertise, values, and subordinated service provide the bedrock for the American people to trust the military profession to possess and wield an overwhelming capacity for violence on its behalf. When any of these attributes waiver – service members lack essential proficiency, engage in unethical or immoral behavior, or undermine their civilian leadership – the public loses trust in the profession and takes steps to limit the wide discretion provided the military to execute its responsibilities.

This is your purpose at Command and Staff College – to continue to refine your professionalism as your span of control and authority expands from direct, tactical level leadership to indirect, operational level leadership. We assume your tactical excellence; we will provide opportunities for you to cultivate operational and organizational expertise and strategic familiarity.

The responsibility rests with you; we provide the resources and controlled environment. If you’d like to learn more about extending your development beyond formal PME, check out CG MCU’s thoughts in the Marine Corps Gazette.

Want to know more?

Swain, Richard. The Obligations of Military Professionalism: Service Unsullied by Partisanship, (Institute for National Security Ethics and Leadership, 2010).

Center for the Army Profession and Ethic, White Paper: The Profession of Arms (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, December 2010).

Linn, Brian McAllister. Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Coffman, Edward. “The Long Shadow of the Soldier and the State,” Journal of Military History, 55, no. 1 (1991): 69-82.

Janowitz, Morris. The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait, (New York: Free Press, 1971).

Weigley, Russell F. “The American Civil-Military Cultural Gap: A Historical Perspective, Colonial Times to the Present,” in Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn (eds.), Soldiers and Civilians: The Civil-Military Gap and American National Security, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.


[1] Huntington, Samuel. The Soldier and the State: Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1985), 73.

[2] Center for the Army Profession and Ethic, White Paper: The Profession of Arms (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, December 2010), 5-6.

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