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Article – Two Reasons Military Professionals Must Write – Education & Humility

 

United States Secretary of State, retired General James Mattis, USMC, encapsulated why we must educate ourselves as military professionals when he said:

We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. “Winging it” and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.[1]


While General Mattis was specifically referring to reading, this author believes the same applies to writing. Reading is important as it provides a safe and risk-free environment to expand our professional knowledge, experience and ideas. Writing, which also enhances our knowledge, does involve some risk to reputation, pride and intellectual thinking.

Following a short definition on requirements of the military profession, this paper articulates two reasons military professionals must write. These reasons are: education and humility.

The military profession

The requirements of the military profession are unique. For example, the Australian Army is a professional ‘entity that threatens and when necessary applies violence to achieve national objectives’.[2] In turn, the Australian nation ‘must trust the standing army to respect the law of the land and be capable of restraint and prudence in the use of appropriate and sanctioned violence’.[3]

Eliot Cohen argues that although the military is a profession, in four respects ‘it does not, in fact, resemble [professions such as] medicine, [engineering] or the law’.[4] Unlike medicine, engineering or law, the military profession includes:

~       one employer in the form of a national government.

~       ambiguous purpose in ‘the achievement of political ends designated by [government]’… ‘but because political objectives are just that – political – they are often ambiguous, contradictory and uncertain’.[5]

~       adaptation of the ‘conception of professionalism to the war before them’.[6]

~       applying violence although many military professionals ‘very rarely manage violence, or at least not large-scale violence’…and even military professionals who do apply violence in war … ‘do so for a very small portion of their careers, and rarely occupy the same position in more than one conflict’.[7]

Therefore, as military professionals our education, as noted by General Mattis, should take advantage of 5000 years of fighting. We must learn from our predecessors’ experience, success and failures.

Writing, complements General Mattis’ views on reading and enhancing military professionals, by placing our personal analysis of our unique profession in public view. When writing, our ideas, thoughts and statements are open for debate, criticism and often enhancement by other military and non-military professionals. This means that military writing, in small measures, contributes to contemporary military discussions and thinking.

Education

As an Australian Army officer, I attended the United States Marine Corps (USMC) Command and Staff Collage and School of Advanced Warfighting in 2000-2002. Prior to that seminal experience, my education accorded to standard Australian Army officer requirements. I completed infantry and all corps education and training, gained undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, and served in regimental, training, peacekeeping and combat appointments.

Despite receiving a ‘standard Australian Army officer education, training and experience’, compared to my USMC peers, in the summer of 2000 I felt intellectually underprepared for USMC Command and Staff College. In particular, my USMC peers’ reading and understanding of military theorists, including Jomini, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Mao, Mahan, Corbett, Thucydides, Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard was far superior to mine. I was behind and had to catch up fast or fail.

My paramount lesson from the USMC Command and Staff College experience was: never lose your military professional edge. As Dr Gordon Rudd, Professor at the USMC School of Advanced Warfighting said to us in the summer of 2002: ‘just as you undertake physical training each day; so should you read each day’.[8] Sixteen years after graduating from USMC Command and Staff College, my view is that ‘standard officer training, education and experience’ is not enough. As military professionals we must do more. Doing more is a personal responsibility. This means reading and ideally writing.

Like General Mattis, Dr Rudd emphasised reading. My view is that reading is not enough for a military professional to test themselves and expand their thinking and ideas. Writing challenges our intellectual understanding of the military profession. Military writing requires originality of thoughts and time management to enable opportunities to write. Writing also keeps authors practiced in writing beyond the limitations of modern military power-point and structured staff papers.

Humility

A military professional who writes will know the pain of rejection from editors, the sting of criticism and ridicule from peers and seniors. We must write for professional development, to contribute to the military debate and to remain intellectually agile. Most of us have rarely enjoyed a low-tempo appointment as a military officer to ensure we have time to write. Writing is always an extra. Late at night. At airports. On planes. On weekends and holidays.

Despite my lofty professional aims and high demands of work, military writing keeps me humble and grounded. In approximately 150 published papers, I have experienced failure in at least another 20 papers. Of those 20, I have been variously criticised for inadequate writing, incomplete thinking, misaligned ideas, poor explanations and weak research. As a military professional, it is a levelling experience to return from a busy day at work and to open up an email stating: ‘thank you for your submission…however, the editors believe your paper does not meet X, Y or Z standards’.

Regardless of these challenges, as military professionals we must keep writing. Frequently we will get our writing wrong. Our families may suffer from us taking time away to write, when we should be caring for them at home. But, General Mattis is right when he says “Winging it” and ‘filling body bags as we sort out what works’ is unacceptable. To keep our military professional edge and to defeat our enemies, we must write.

In failure, a military professional can learn. We can learn that we are not the smartest person in the room. We can learn that the world holds differing views that we need to appreciate and understand. We learn that if we seek to write and share our knowledge, then we must write often and write well.

 Conclusion

 Like many military professionals, I have no hobbies. Military writing is as close to a hobby as I may ever achieve. However, this hobby has purpose. As military professionals we must know our trade. To know is to learn. To learn is to educate. For me, the action of writing enhances the act of reading and gives me confidence to serve and lead as a military professional.


About the author: Major General Chris Field is Vice Director of Operations at United States Central Command.


 

[1] Geoffrey Ingersoll, General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Email About Being ‘Too Busy To Read’ Is A Must-Read, Business Insider, 09 May 2013 <www.businessinsider.com/viral-james-mattis-email-reading-marines-2013-5> [Accessed 14 January 2018]

[2] Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Army, Land Warfare Doctrine – 1, The Fundamentals of Land Power, 2017, Canberra, 2017, p. 18

[3] Ibid., p. 51

[4] Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command, Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, Free Press, New York, 2002, p. 241

[5] Ibid., pp. 241-42

[6] Ibid., p. 243

[7] Ibid., p. 246

[8] Dr Gordon Rudd to the USMC School of Advanced Warfighting Graduates June 2002, Quantico, Virginia.

5 thoughts on “Article – Two Reasons Military Professionals Must Write – Education & Humility

  1. Sir, at what level should you consider starting to write? As a junior LT, I definitely don’t feel like I have anything valuable to contribute yet.

    1. Perhaps think about it from a different perspective Bella. I have only recently started to share my writing, but I have always written. I find that it helps to clarify my thoughts, identify gaps in my reasoning, and give direction to where I need to go next. You can write without publishing, or write and share with a smaller audience. In many ways it’s the process that’s important, not the output.

      But on the flip side, don’t sell yourself short. Being junior doesn’t mean that you have nothing of value to to contribute.

    2. Hi Bella,
      Thank you for your message.
      As a beginning, I recommend considering writing book reviews. This achieves three outcomes:
      1. Reading with purpose and then synthesising the ideas from the book.
      2. Gaining confidence in writing.
      3. Engaging with organisations, such as The Cove, to publish your work.
      I hope that this helps.
      Keep learning.
      Regards,
      Chris Field

  2. I agree with the sentiments contained in this article. One difficulty that has to be hard to overcome is that so much military writing,( by definition), is from inside the military bubble. Very hard for long serving military personnel to be able to see things from the civilian point of view?

  3. I served years ago in the U.S. Army as an enlisted soldier. Today I’m an executive at a $100M+ company. I assure you there are strong parallels between military and civilian businesses. From org structures to project briefs, the missions have goals and objectives with high consequences. Civilians typically are not working under the “filling body bags” type of scenario, but understand that corporate leadership’s decisions truly affect the livelihoods of many people, from direct employees and their families, to shareholders and investors. Business decisions have real impact. Get them wrong and you own part of the blame for what befalls others, unemployment, loss of life savings, poverty, etc.

    I could go on and on, but two final thoughts: 1) Don’t worry about being in a “military bubble” since it’s not that far removed; 2) Thinking critically is one of the most important skills of military or civilian life. Serious study of whatever cannons of literature you truck, and writing will help you in what should be a lifelong pursuit of decision preparedness.

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