Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Military professionalism in 150 words or less: A first round of contest results

Vote for your favorites in the comments.


This is in order of arrival. Vote for your favorites in the comments. It’s not too late to submit your own effort.

Colonel Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Retired)

To be the best student of “things military.” From history to contemporary issues — learn the most valuable. To note the good and bad of leadership to model when in a leadership position. To develop subordinates to take your position and to progress to the best of their abilities. To understand that some of your people are brighter/dumber than you and to treat each according to organizational needs. Nurture the best and manage the worst. One size does not fit all. To be honest in opinions and observations both above and below. To seek and take input from all directions. To understand that combat is chaos and that only the people on the spot can adequately decide a course of action. Control does not equal success at the cutting edge. Love your soldiers. They are tools for success.

Steve Kachilla

The basis for my understanding of what defines a military professional can be found here. Replace the word “profess” with the word “understand,” since the former has implications of duplicity. 

Required but not sufficient qualities include leadership, obedience, teamwork, and discipline. These will get you invited. Beyond that, a military professional must demonstrate understanding of:

— Military history and philosophy

— National Strategy

— Weapon systems, capabilities, and the domains of warfare

— The configuration and content of a systematic code of military knowledge that includes the organizational functions covered under the Napoleonic code, the six war-fighting functions used for planning and executing operations, operational design elements, and how they all work together in the varying structural levels of warfare to achieve political end states.

— An understanding of technology in terms of the science, trends, and application.

— The funding and acquisition processes.

— Finally, a professional must always move forward intellectually.


Military professionals should profess to remain as apolitical as possible, to approach our current political climate in an unbiased manner, recognizing the good and bad regardless of political leanings, and to never seek to achieve personal gain from our military service.


An absolute dedication to reality, both the brutal reality of war (Willie and Joe: “sometimes I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages”) and what the military can and cannot do on the strategic level whether the political leadership wants to hear it or not: “No, Mr. President, the Pashtun will not trade their sense of honor for dubstep no matter how many bales of cash or bombs we throw at them.”


Military should cultivate self-awareness. The loss of SA is their professional deformation.

Mark von Wahlde

Efficient, morally governed, killing.


And I’m going with: A Military Professional should profess protecting the Constitution of the United States.

2nd Lieutenant Liam Parker, U.S. Army:

In a word, uncertainty. Embracing controlled uncertainty is one of the most daunting tasks of all military leaders, but it is an exceedingly necessary task on the battlefield where everything is of a fluid and ever-changing state.

However, military professionals, or “stewards of the profession” as we are so often informed we are, must learn to embrace uncertainty of the intellectual and studious variety as well as that which is found in the presence of the enemy. Doctrine can prove unrealistic, long-enshrined tactical and strategic conclusions can come crashing down, and seemingly watertight lessons drawn from previous conflicts can prove very leaky indeed. Added to this constant ambiguity is the possibility, now seemingly more possible than ever, that illegal orders may stem from a very legal source. A military professional would be well-served to adopt Russia Today’s mantra of “question more,” but hopefully live by it more truthfully than its propagators.


In their first decade, military professionals needs to profess tactical and technical competence, the ability to communicate and inspire, and courage (moral and physical). 

In their second decade they additionally need to profess an understanding of logistics; an earnest desire to understand the strategies of their country, that of its allies, and that of its adversaries (active and potential), so that in their third decade they can effectively prosecute, shape, assist, or counter said strategies; and an ability to plan and execute training (and coach subordinates on same).

In his third decade he additionally must profess an understanding of acquisition and development of the future force so that he can effectively participate in both. 

Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Guimarin, U.S. Air Force:

The military professional should understand how the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war dovetail into objectives set forth in national security strategy. Clearly understanding the “why” and the “how,” by connecting the dots from objectives to capabilities, as well as the desired effects required to meet those objectives. By grasping and explaining this “big to little” picture, military professionals can adequately advise civilian decision-makers of the best courses of action, as well as inform the chain of command about relevant facts, to depict accurately the progress and status of military operations. Key to this is remaining apolitical, which drives the need for military professionals to not profess opinions about political issues and controversies in or outside the circles of the government. Ultimately, the military professional should profess the need to maintain a quiet presence, ready to spring when needed.

Major Vincent Dueñas, U.S. Army:

The military professional personifies the philosophical and scientific journey in the tradecraft of warfare:

— He or she must openly profess the necessity of courage in the face of adversity. Challenges are the rungs on the ascendant ladder to the mastery of oneself. 

— He or she should speak of the criticality of resolve during uncertainty. The fog of war requires that one make decisions and realize their fulfillment.

— Fundamental is the communication of his or her passion for a cause. A military professional cannot fully commit without a deeper sense of purpose.

— He or she must convey a curiosity for all things. The search for knowledge is the only way to assure proficiency in craft and cope with adversity and uncertainty.

— Finally, he or she must affirm empathy for the human condition. War is the most difficult of human endeavors and the most critical factor is the capacity to lead people. 

Major Vincent Dueñas is a U.S. Army foreign area officer and associate member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The views represented are his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. government or any of its agencies.

Lieutenant Commander J. D. Shell, U.S. Navy:

Oath of Office:

I, (name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Oath of Enlistment:

I, (name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military JusticeSo help me God.

Tim Mathews

A commitment to conducting military operations within the limits imposed by laws of armed conflict. And a reflective belt.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1