The Rise of Professionalism II

Détachement du régiment de Picardie, vers 1680
Rousselot Lucien (1900-1992)

The role played by ordnance, particularly heavy ordnance, in promoting military professionalism is brought out in yet another way. Guns required powder and ammunition, classes of supplies that could neither be gathered in the fields nor plucked from trees. Consequently, nothing was more natural than to make artillerymen responsible for supply, maintenance, and transport. Hand-in-hand with transport went engineering, particularly fortification and the construction of pontoons for crossing rivers. From these activities, engineers—the very word stems from the medieval war engine, hence is of military origin—spread into related activities such as building roads and constructing bridges. All these were skilled activities. Not infrequently they demanded very considerable mathematical knowledge, which could only be acquired from the mouth of experts instructing people who themselves wanted to become experts. No wonder, therefore, that it was precisely the artillery and the engineering branches of armed forces which were among the first to acquire a professional outlook. During the period under consideration, the importance of these branches grew and grew. As it did so, their outlook, based on knowledge and skill, clashed head-on with the traditional aristocratic approach which was rooted in breeding, honor, and social status. What was more, war itself was brought down from the high pedestal on which it had been put by feudal civilization. Increasingly, as technology and professionalization advanced, war tended to shed its supposedly ennobling characteristics and turn into a mere tool of policy, regrettable but sometimes necessary.

As one would suspect, the same factors that tied military technology to the rise of professionalism also applied to nonmilitary technology as used in war. Often, indeed, the two were inseparable, and frequently the same personnel were involved. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the same men—one cannot find a title sufficiently wide to embrace all the various skills that they possessed or claimed to possess—who built windmills and lathes and pumps and waterwheels also erected fortifications and designed engines of war. An interesting, if little-known, case in point is that of Antoine Andreossy, who for many years served as Napoleon’s chief of artillery and as such was responsible not only for the guns themselves but also for the various activities outlined in the previous paragraph. Andreossy, a professional engineer himself, was descended from a family of such engineers. Among them was an Andreossy who, during the reign of Louis XIV, had served as de facto constructor-in-chief of the Canal du Midi, which was the largest single engineering project undertaken in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire.

If increasingly complex technology helped military professionalism develop on land, a fortiori this was true at sea. As Plato pointed out in The Republic, since technology is vital at sea not only for efficient work but for sheer survival, a captain’s knowledge and competence count for everything. In fifteenth-century Venice, naval officers along with clerks and, for some reason, barbers, were among the most literate groups in the population. Later, those vast, complicated, wind-driven machines, the eighteenth-century men-of-war, required tremendous amounts of skill and science to operate, let alone to fight successfully. Naval warfare now covered much of the globe and frequently involved very extensive voyages. These could not be carried out except on the basis of professionally-acquired mathematical and navigational techniques. To cope with these demands, naval officers became distinguished from civilian sailors and acquired an identity of their own. The French and British navies in particular served as nurseries for an intellectual elite of a new type. Among the members of this elite, it was expert knowledge that counted. As time went on and different technologies leapfrogged each other in their successive advances, shifts occurred in the relative status of the technicians aboard. Until the middle of the seventeenth century it was the gunners who commanded the highest wages, but subsequently primacy shifted to the deck officers whose task was to sail the ship while coordinating and integrating the work of everybody else.

With complex technology demanding high skills, and at the same time helping make available textbooks to teach those skills, military training was gradually turned into a formal affair comprising courses and examinations. The first modern military schools were established in sixteenth-century Spain and taught the art of gunnery. Later the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the founding of cadet schools and officer schools and, after 1763, military academies for staff officers. Even a brief list of these schools would include the Écoles Militaires at Paris, Mézières, and St. Petersburg; the equivalent institutions at Berlin, Munich, Wiener Neustadt, and Woolwich, all of which specialized in the production of junior officers; the naval colleges of Dartmouth, Toulon, Le Havre, and Brest; and junior academies such as at Potsdam and Brienne le Château, the latter primarily a school for artillery specialists where Napoleon received his initial training. Towards the very end of the period we are dealing with here, two of the most celebrated institutions offering military instruction opened their doors, the Berlin Kriegsakademie and West Point. Of these, the Kriegsakademie owed everything to the desire to raise professional standards, whereas West Point was an engineering school first and foremost, and to some extent has retained that character down to the present day.

During the early modern age the growth of technology in general, and of military technology in particular, acted as a spur to the rise of military professionalism, though it did not constitute its sole cause. The process was neither smooth nor easy. One need only recall the reluctance of Louis XIV to make Vauban, a commoner whose military-professional credentials were as good as those of any other man, into a maréchal de France to realize how far this was from being the case. Throughout the eighteenth century, and much of the nineteenth, the most important armed forces failed to adopt a system under which officers and commanders would be appointed and dismissed solely by their professional merit. Everywhere, social standing and seniority continued to play a large role, though a case might be made to show that the seniority system itself tended to foster a corporate identity and hence a professional outlook among the officer corps. During the early years of the Revolution in France, and in most countries during the Restoration that followed, appointments went not to professionals but to men considered politically reliable by those in power, a system which has by no means disappeared even in the most advanced twentieth-century armies. Naturally, different countries have at different times adopted different attitudes towards professionalism, some regarding it with favor, others opposing it, others still resigning themselves to it.

In the long run, the technologically generated thrust towards military professionalism proved irresistible. Gathering momentum, it turned into one of the cardinal phenomena of warfare not only during the period before 1830 but also in the one succeeding it. The process by which the officer corps of the most advanced countries adapted itself to the new situation worked simultaneously from the bottom up and from the top down. At one end of the scale, officers who were technical specialists—like those responsible for army ordnance, or in charge of the army’s health—demanded, and gradually obtained, status and privileges similar to those of the rest, a good example being the rivalry between “sailors” and “engine men” that divided the British Navy during the second half of the nineteenth century. At the other end, high-ranking commanders from the age of Moltke on were gradually transformed from fighters into military experts whose precise function is perhaps best called the management of violence. Regardless of the position that they took in the hierarchy, more and more officers found themselves unable to function except on the basis of specialized education and expert training in such fields as engineering and business administration. This trend culminated in the second half of the twentieth century when, in West and East alike, perhaps the majority of commanders actually became almost identical with engineers and managers.

The historical development of the rank and file has been somewhat different. Medieval armies had neither file nor rank in our sense of these terms. Sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century common soldiers were mercenaries who served for the duration and, though often quite well trained, possessed an outlook that made them all but indistinguishable from a horde of ruffians. The growing importance of firearms, however, made strict discipline absolutely necessary. Beginning around the time of Gustavus Adolphus and Cromwell, one army after another came to consist of personnel who, since they served for long periods and were regularly paid, could be subjected to strict control. Eighteenth-century soldiers were, in one sense, professionals. Though their skills were not exactly admired by society at large, they did serve for a living (even if the choice of a living was often forced) and on a long-term basis which made thorough training possible. Towards the end of the period there appeared clear signs that the NCO corps of various countries were developing professional attitudes in the modern sense of the word.

With the French Revolution, the drive towards professionalism among the rank and file was interrupted, and some would say reversed. The reason was the institution of the levée-en-masse in 1793, a development which every other country was soon compelled to follow. During the next century and a half, and in spite of post-1815 attempts to put the clock back, other ranks even in the best armies—often, particularly in the best armies—neither could be described as professional soldiers nor regarded themselves as such. A hard core of NCOs, who nevertheless did not normally expect to spend a lifetime in the service, was surrounded by a popular militia, made up of short term conscripts who received intensive training and were then transferred into the various classes of reserves. Mobilization, itself made possible by a series of important technological innovations, enabled these nonprofessional warriors to be recalled to the colors at a moment’s notice.

Thus, the move toward professionalism in the rank and file was delayed by the introduction of short-term universal conscription. Its goal was precisely to enable countries to wage war without turning all their manpower into professionals, and in this they were successful for a while. However, after 1945 a variety of ideological, political, social, and economic factors joined forces against conscription. When these were combined with the pressures brought to bear by a highly sophisticated military technology, the outcome was inevitable. In country after country, short-term service came to be regarded as incompatible with the long period of training required by many modern weapons and military equipment. The conscript army was either abandoned altogether or replaced by a mixed-force structure. A typical example is the German Bundeswehr, 40 percent of which consists of conscripts doing rather simple jobs, and 60 percent of regulars performing the “real” work requiring training and skill.

However, even the armed forces of countries such as the Soviet Union and Israel, which for various reasons held on to the idea of a nation in arms, saw themselves compelled to man such technical services as the navy and air force with a much higher percentage of professionals. The rationale is that professionals are the only people capable of dealing with the complexities involved. At the very least, a professional force will prevent the waste involved in using the extremely expensive machines used by these services for continuous retraining. Elsewhere, the idea that professionalism is the key to warfare has gained hold to such an extent that common soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently graded as specialists rather than privates, corporals, etc. The military in many less-developed countries have been forced to take the same road, even though the technology at their disposal is often much less sophisticated. To be taken at all seriously, it is necessary to adopt at least the semblance of “professional” norms.

Just because a more or less consistent trend towards greater military professionalism has existed for about five centuries, and because this trend was closely linked to the advance of war technology, it does not necessarily follow that the two will continue to march in step indefinitely. In particular, two factors appear noteworthy. First, it has recently been suggested that the latest technological developments diminish rather than increase the demand for military-professional skills on the part of the rank and file. They do this by automating some functions previously reserved for humans, and by transferring much of the work previously involved in repair and maintenance to civilian specialists. Second, since much modern military equipment is simple to use, at present the highest training may be required not for those who drive tanks or operate guns, but for those who specialize in close-in fighting on foot.

Finally, a skill-oriented professional attitude, like anything else, has its price, particularly when it is pursued for its own sake and regardless of everything else. It may undermine the kind of authority and loyalty that are vital to the functioning of any armed force. Given that war remains the province of hardship and fear, of suffering and pain and death, it is dangerous to overemphasize the mastering of technological skills as opposed to maintaining the eternal qualities of the warrior. The combination of professionalism and technology may also result in narrow-minded specialization more suited to a debating society than to an organization whose task it is to cope with, and indeed live in, the dangerous and uncertain environment of war. The price of professionalism may exceed its benefits, and this quite regardless of the nature and quality of the technology at our disposal. Judging by the inability of the Americans to win in Vietnam, and of the Soviets and Israelis to overcome irregular forces in Afghanistan and Lebanon, could it be that this point has already been reached?