The Rise of Professionalism I

Attack of Prussian Infantry, 4 June 1745, by Carl Röchling

From the dawn of recorded history, military organization has assumed many different forms. All of these were ultimately rooted in political, social, and economic structures, but all of them were also partly the product of the technology in use. Little can be learned from archeological evidence about early armed forces. To argue backward from the military organization of primitive tribes which still exist or which existed until recently, however, one can conclude that the first war-making societies probably did not recognize the distinction between civilians and soldiers, let alone professional soldiers. With them it would be more correct to speak of warriors, who were simply adult members of the tribe. Very often the only way to gain recognition as an adult was to assume the role of a warrior, sometimes symbolically but often enough literally by killing an enemy, as among some North-American Indian tribes. As is indicated by the Greek word stratos, which means host, under such conditions armies—in the sense of specialized war-making organizations standing apart from society as a whole—did not exist. Rather, it would be more correct to say that, when hostilities threatened or broke out, the entire tribe was put on a war footing and fought on the basis of the same organization as governed its day-today life.

Naturally, tribal organizations could only survive so long as the military technology in use met a very specific set of requirements. It had to be cheap, or else it would be beyond the reach of every member of the tribe. It had to be simple to make, or else the difficulty of its manufacture would give rise to a specialized class of artisans which might then be able to translate its skills into economic and political power. Either the weapons had to be very simple to use or else they could not be specialized for war; where these conditions were not met, their use would presuppose specialized military training and hence the rise of a warrior class sufficiently well-off economically to be able to take time out for that training. As a result of all these requirements, the weapons employed by tribal societies for war were normally much the same as those employed for games, sport, hunting, and certain types of magical-religious ceremonies. Indeed, those activities themselves were often not clearly differentiated from each other and from war.

We do not know just where and when weapons first reached a stage of development in which they could no longer easily be purchased, or manufactured, or used, by every male member of the tribe. Probably the change did not occur quickly in all places at once. In any case, tribal organization was not compatible with settled life, or perhaps things developed the other way around and it was technological advances which caused the nomadic way of life to be abandoned. The earliest urban civilizations known to us, those of Egypt, Sumer, India, and China, had already reached a stage of development where weapons were not available to the whole population but concentrated in the hands of certain groups.

The organization of these military groups varied greatly from time to time and from place to place. Sometimes, as in the Greek polis and Republican Rome, the system was tymocratic or money-based. A census was held and the citizens were divided into classes according to the amount of property that they owned. Those above a certain minimum were obliged to acquire the arms appropriate to their class, spend a certain amount of time training with them, and fight when necessary. At other times and places, political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of a central government which issued arms—manufactured either in its own shops or by contractors—and hired troops. In some cases the forces at the government’s disposal might be permanent, in which case it is possible to speak of standing armies. In others they were raised only in emergencies, so that the term mercenaries would be more appropriate.

In many cases different types of military organization existed side by side, not merely at different places but within the same civilization, society, and state. Indeed one might argue that the period before 1500 A.D. was characterized precisely by the fact that even quite primitive tribal structures that were centered around the bow remained not only viable but perfectly competitive, as the establishment of the vast Mongol Empire during the thirteenth century shows. The various forms did not necessarily exist in isolation but often gave rise to combinations. The nature of these combinations was not based on the weapons and technology in use, but was most certainly affected by them.

To focus on military professionalism, in one sense it represents a very ancient system indeed. By the time of Christ, if not long before, standing armies had already been maintained by governments in the Far and Middle East, and also in the Mediterranean area. These armies consisted of men who looked on war as their trade and expected regular payment for their services. A good example is the Roman Imperial Army, which survived in recognizable form for several centuries. During the first century B.C., between the time of Marius and that of Augustus, its personnel was transformed into regulars who regarded war as their trade and who soldiered as a living. Not only did these troops develop a strong corporate identity and esprit de corps, but advancement within the army was at least partly by merit. Nevertheless, Roman professionalism was so different from that in our time that the very use of the term may be misleading. Whereas today it is the officers above all who consider themselves military professionals and are so regarded by society at large, in Imperial Rome the situation was just the opposite. There, professionalism was limited to the rank and file and to the centurions, the latter corresponding approximately to the present day NCO. Above the rank of primipilus, or senior legionary NCO, appointments did not go by professional merit but were restricted to members of certain well-defined socio-economic classes, the equites and senators. To them the suggestion that they soldiered for a living would have come as an insult, even if (or particularly when) it was true. Under the Roman army system it was thus the base which contained the expertise, whereas the top consisted, in principle at any rate, of amateurs and political appointees. This is not quite what we would expect in a professional force today.

Feudalism, the foundation of numerous societies during ancient and medieval times, was another very important form of military organization. As a military system, feudalism arose where weapons were not concentrated in the hands of a central government, but were nevertheless so expensive or else so difficult to make and employ that their use was confined to a narrow, normally hereditary, class. The nature of the weapons themselves varied very greatly. In some places it was the chariot, in others the horseand-composite-bow combination, in others still the horse combined with expensive iron armor that formed the military-technological basis of a warrior aristocracy. As a look at many times and places—India during the second millenium B.C., Homeric Greece, Mamluk Egypt, medieval Europe, and Samurai Japan—shows, feudalism as a form of military organization was compatible with any of these weapons. There can be no question of strict technological determinism here. Indeed, all but identical weapons were often used by troops whose military system of organization did not follow feudal principles. These considerations notwithstanding, feudal military organization, like any other, clearly does rest upon certain technological foundations. Take those foundations away, and feudalism itself will crumble into dust, though only someone untouched by the least historical sense would expect the process to be simple, or smooth, or painless.

Where feudalism reigns, the establishment of a military organization properly speaking poses special problems. Feudal warriors derive their status in life largely from their ownership of certain expensive weapons which are difficult to use and require much training. Hence, they are apt to regard themselves as the equals of all other warriors equipped in the same manner. Armies made up of such warriors will tend to be impermanent, organizationally unarticulated, and difficult to discipline. Furthermore, they are likely to attempt to turn war itself into a ritual, designed less with “utilitarian” considerations in mind than to preserve their own special status against outsiders. In such societies war itself will often be regarded as the exclusive domain of a single class. People who do not belong may be forbidden to carry weapons altogether, as was the case in Japan under Tokugawa rule. Also, fights between them and the aristocracy (and among themselves) will not count as war but merely as police work, hunting, sport, or entertainment.

Such being the nature of feudalism in general, and of European feudalism during the Middle Ages in particular, its incompatibility with military professionalism will be readily understood, Though kings and great lords frequently did maintain permanent bodies of retainers, these were bound to them by personal ties—either as relatives or as servants—and could not be described as professional soldiers. To feudal knights, on the other hand, war represented not so much a profession as a vocation. They practiced it not in order to earn a salary, but because it was the manifest destiny of the class to which they belonged. Though the training of knights began from the moment they could stay in the saddle, the goal and outcome of this training was less professional expertise as presently understood than an entire way of life. Since there were no permanent units, they could not serve as the basis of a corporate identity, nor did esprit de corps arise except on an ad hoc basis. There were no officers in our sense of the word, or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that the forces consisted exclusively of them. An ordered system of ranks and promotions did not exist. Selection for command was by socio-political status, so that commanders tended to be simply better-sired men than their followers.

Against this rather unpromising background, the rise of military professionalism in early modern Europe was the outcome of many factors, some of them technological and others not. They included the growing power of kings and of centralized states, the tendency to substitute wages or salaries for feudal service, and, from the fifteenth century on, the persistent attempts of great lords to develop the retainers of their households into the nuclei of standing armies. Among the numerous technological factors involved, perhaps the most important were the invention of paper, printing, and related techniques for the storage and dissemination of information. These innovations helped increase the size of armed forces and improve their administration. Ultimately, they also permitted a revolution in military education.

War has always been, and in some ways still remains, a practical affair above all. Therefore, the need for theory was slow to gain recognition, and indeed is by no means universally accepted even today. In many different societies, and at many different times and places, the training received by warriors remained rudimentary for centuries after the instruction of other experts—doctors, lawyers, or priests—had been formalized and entrusted to specialized schools. Specialists in violence—the anachronism is deliberate—were not educated as other professionals were. Though virtually all societies that engaged in armed conflict recognized the need to acclimatize novices to war, and often appointed specialized personnel to supervise the process, in virtually every historical army this acclimatization was limited to instruction in the basics, i.e., physical hardening and weapons drill. Beyond this, specialized training for the higher posts did not exist. Preparation for them, to the extent that it was considered necessary at all, depended primarily on serving a kind of practical apprenticeship either in the units themselves or on what passed for staffs. The scarcity and cost of textbooks was one of the factors that contributed to this situation. Though textbooks did of course exist, and though some are even known to have been written (and sometimes read) by commanders of every epoch, before 1500 their circulation had been too small to permit the education of the majority of officers to be based on them.

During the early modern period, this state of affairs no longer applied. Books on military affairs were by no means the last to come off the printing presses. By the end of the sixteenth century it was possible to read, either in the original or in translation or both, modern editions of Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Caesar, Livius, Onasander, Polynaeus, Frontinus, and Vegetius, as well as printed versions of the Byzantine military classics which were brought to the West after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Simultaneously there arose a vast military and naval literature written in the modern European languages, initially Italian but later also German, French, Dutch, Spanish, English, and Swedish. Side by side with books, military periodicals gradually appeared. By the late eighteenth century, these were well on their way to turning into specialized vehicles for expressing views and exchanging ideas on war. Beginning with siege warfare, the most technical subject of all, the idea began to catch on that war was not merely a practical pursuit but also rested on a substantial theoretical basis. This theoretical basis became the concern of professionals, or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that a professional was increasingly defined not simply as one who cut throats for a living but as somebody who had studied and mastered the theoretical foundations. It would be ridiculous as well as unhistorical to attribute these developments solely to technological factors. Still, for military book-knowledge to be possible and to count for something there must be books, and whether there are books in sufficient numbers and priced sufficiently low depends as much on technology as on anything else.

While printing was contributing to the rise of military professionalism in this way, other technologies were pressing in the same direction. In the fourteenth century, the free companies appeared. These were bands of skilled warriors who rented themselves out to the highest bidder. Often they specialized in some particular weapon, notably the crossbow, which while not regarded as fit for a gentleman nevertheless required some skill to operate. Since these characteristics applied equally well to the first firearms, it was only natural that the troops who used them should be organized in a similar manner. This was all the more true because firearms, particularly cannon, were difficult to make and to use. Often the same personnel was employed on both tasks, and indeed artillerymen very soon came to constitute a kind of international guild with their own patron saint and jealously guarded professional secrets. As time went on and prejudices against the use of the new arms diminished, this personnel tended to be integrated into the structure of armies, thereby becoming regulars like any others. Indeed a turning point was reached when, during the third decade of the sixteenth century, the use of firearms in the attack or defense of fortresses came to be regarded as an honorable and even commendable form of war for which one could be awarded the highest decorations. The net result of the successive technological inventions was to increase the demand for skill. Though skill is not the same as professionalism, where the technology in question was too complex and too expensive to be owned by individuals, professionalism inevitably grew out of increased skills.