In the 1962 Lees Knowles lectures given at Trinity College, Cambridge, and now collected in his classic study, The Profession of Arms, Lt. General Sir John Hackett asserted that the nature of the profession of arms, as a profession, signaled that it is necessarily something more than merely a job. Rather, it’s:
An occupation with a distinguishable corpus of specific technical knowledge and doctrine, a more or less exclusive group coherence, a complex of institutions peculiar to itself, an educational pattern adapted to its own needs, a career structure of its own and a distinct place in the society which has brought it forth.
As with any of the great professions—think here of those such as law, medicine, or holy orders—the profession of arms is not something to which just anyone can belong, but only those who have committed themselves to the training, study, and formal qualification required of a learned profession in which its practioners are students for life.
The function of the profession of arms, in Hackett’s construction, is the “ordered application of force in the resolution of a social problem.” It’s a well-considered phrasing. Hackett appears to intend here something distinct from the—mere—management and application of violence, which he seems, rightly, to find too vague and imprecise.
Following Aristotle, this idea of function is essential, for a thing can be called “better” or “worse” only so far as it discharges its function more or less well. Thinking at least of the United States, the warrior’s function is understood further when you consider the moral contract implicit between the nation and its warriors. This takes us beyond the merely legal contract that spells out such things as pay and benefits to include the relationship and attendant responsibilities of each to the other. From the warrior, the contract of the profession of arms demands the total and nearly unconditional subordination of the interests of the individual if the nation’s interests require it. Further, this contract has an “unlimited liability” clause, which obliges a a nation’s warriors to put their lives at grave risk when love, necessity—or orders—demands it. Not infrequently, as today reminds us, this leads to the surrender not just of self-interests, but of life itself. The well-functioning military professional manifests this commitment.
It’s also true that the profession of arms can be understood in a wider sense as well. Distancing itself, again, from a mere job, a profession carries with it an implicit declaration. The professional is one who professes—like the faithful member of an ecclesiastical community—a particular feeling or quality or commitment to which one is aligned. The military professional is one who has publicly declared that he or she is made up of that kind of material that finds its true function in this kind of profession. They stand on a wall and keep the rest of us safe because, they declare, they are the kinds of creatures who were made to do just that.
This ought to bring to mind something more than simply a profession. A vocation, too, has an implicit dimension. Coming from the Latin vocatio, a vocation is a calling—one who is called to a given profession has been invited—they have been bid—to come and spend a life in a particular way. Of course, to be called implies that there is One who calls.
Christians have not always gotten the idea of calling quite right. In a recent sermon [start at 24:26] at Severn Run Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Pastor Jesse Crutchley observed that too often Christians see vocations in hierarchical ways in which some are perceived as simply better—more Christian—than others. In my own experience, this has registered as a kind of vocational Gnosticism in which the—supposedly—spiritual vocations are superior to the—supposedly—material vocations. So, to be a missionary or pastor is to be at the apogee of spiritual vocation whereas to be a trash collector or businessman is somewhere further down the scale. The “professional Christian” is to be admired—the rest of us are just working secular jobs—maybe to support the professional Christian—and waiting for Christ’s return.
In his sermon, Crutchley properly explodes this idea. “All lawful vocations,” he declares, “are meaningful in service to Jesus Christ.” To be sure, some are called to be missionaries—or pastors. Others, however, are called to be something else—mechanics, plumbers, or doctors maybe. Or warriors.
What would it mean to talk about a vocation of arms?
Well, how do we begin to talk about vocation at all? According to Crutchley, much Christian reflection on vocation begins, reasonably enough, with a contemplation of beauty and the role that the beautiful ought to have in any life also committed to what is good and true. The Christian who has disabused himself of Vocational Gnosticism might suggest that any trade can be valuable in so far as it creates or promotes beautiful things. One might think here of the woodworker, the homemaker, or the pizza maker. Certainly, Crutchley affirms, there is a proper connection being made here, and a valuable one. Having lived in a post-communist society shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union—and witnessing the impact on art and architecture of communism’s decades-long war on aesthetics—I can affirm the imperative of beauty and its criticality in human life and flourishing. But Crutchley also observes that locating the value of vocation in its ability to render aesthetically beautiful things is insufficient.
It’s insufficient if for no other reason than that our conception of beauty is too often mired in the strictly material. It’s hard to see how the vocation of arms—or surgery, or sanitation work, or prison work—results in the cultivation or maintenance of beautiful things. Or perhaps we simply need a more capacious view of what is beautiful.
The beauty of vocation, Crutchley suggests, is found in the understanding that through our vocation—through any vocation—Jesus Christ can minister through us to our neighbor. The epicenter of the beauty of vocation, then, is found not in the beautiful things our vocation produces—for it may or may not produce beautiful things—but in the service and love of neighbor that our vocation can manifest.
If this is right, and I think it is, then the proper function of any practitioner of any vocation is the service and love of those around us. The vocation of the profession of arms can now come into view. For the Christian, at least, the function of the warrior is to protect the innocent, to requite injustice, and to punish evil in order to restore conflicting parties to the harmony of peace. So, to return to Hackett, the “application of force” toward the achievement of these purposes serves as the means through which the members of the vocation of arms serves their neighbor—both its victim as well as its enemy neighbors.
This ought to highlight another truth about vocations. As Crutchley reminds us, vocations are only instrumentally valuable. They are means to an end. This seems especially clear when we consider the vocation of arms. Men and women in uniform are the necessary means to an end because of—and only because of—the conditions of our world. If the application of force were not necessary to protect the innocent, to requite injustices, or to punish evil, then the Christian would never invent it. But because the bearing of arms to fight other men in arms in the cause of justice and peace is necessary, then the bearing of those arms can be the means through which grace begins to heal the fractures in our world. The calling of those in the vocation of arms is, as I’ve asserted elsewhere, to be peacemakers. This peace, the product of the just application of arms, is a beautiful thing indeed. In Jean Elshtain’s words, its quotidian qualities look like:
Mothers and fathers raising their children; men and women going to work; citizens of a great city making their way on streets and subways; ordinary people flying to California to visit their grandchildren or to transact business with colleagues—all of these actions are simple but profound gods made possible by civic peace. They include the faithful attending their churches, synagogues, and mosques without fear, and citizens—men and women, young and old, black, brown, and white—lining up to vote on Election Day.
That such beautiful ends are too often arrived at through killing people and breaking things on fields of battle only shows that love can happen even in the ugliest of places.
None of this is meant to dampen the spirit of adventure that can rightly be detected behind, or within, or grounding the vocation of arms. Just as woodworkers thrill at the tactile beauty of well-made tools, those within the profession of arms can rightly rejoice at the allure of shared and dangerous work, or at getting to practice the ninja-work of special operations, or getting to play with the big toys or armor, and the like. But if such things were the only source of joy in the vocation, what would we do when the buzz wears off?
Ultimately, the motivational basis for the vocation of arms is the devotion to see those we love live free in a society characterized by justice, order, and peace. On this memorial day, we remember that many in the vocation of arms have given the last full measure of this devotion. We are free because they were brave. And so today we recall:
In honor and recognition of all of our fallen service members, the Congress, by a joint resolution approved May 11, 1950, as amended (36 U.S.C. 116), has requested that the President issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace and designating a period on that day when the people of the United States might unite in prayer and reflection. The Congress, by Public Law 106-579, has also designated 3:00 p.m. local time on that day as a time for all Americans to observe, in their own way, the National Moment of Remembrance.
At one point in his disquisition, Hackett quotes with disapproval the fanatical assertion made by Mussolini that “war alone brings all human energies to their highest tension and sets a seal of nobility on the people who have the virtue to face it.” Hackett is right that Mussolini’s sentiment is claptrap—and dangerous claptrap at that—but I do not prefer, as Hackett appears to, Kant’s own sentimental assertion that war makes more bad people than it destroys. But I agree completely with Hackett that if war does not, in fact, ennoble, the preparation of men and women to fight in it almost certainly and very often does.
Observing that truth today is a vocatio to which we are all summoned.