Conflicting Identities In the U.S. Armed Forces

Monday, July 27, 2015

My time on Navy active duty being long past, my insights into how the social changes imposed on the armed forces impact their capacity for combat flow from my acquaintance with former students who are now serving. My insights into how the ethos of civilian elites affects senior officers come from my experience on the Board of Visitors of the U.S. Army War College.

A young Marine officer tells me that, during Officer Candidate School, the candidates are asked to evaluate each other weekly and that these evaluations are then used to cull the class. This strikes me as adopting the techniques of reality TV and of pop-psych group dynamics. I can’t think of anything more conducive to conformity to the lowest common denominator or more subversive of character.

Sex. Well remembering that after being at sea for a few weeks, the ships on which I served fairly throbbed with sexual tension, I have no difficulty believing my ex-protégé junior officers tell me about their units that “it’s high school out there!” Mixing the sexes during a time of life when the hormones are in full flow has made the armed forces a sexual emporium for young people already part of the hookup culture. There is no alternative to tolerating it. Fortunately, even in Iraq and Afghanistan, most troops most of the time are not under enemy pressure. Stateside, military life scarcely differs from civilian. We can only hope what might happen under such pressure.

Homosexuality in the military is a kindred issue, but on a numerically smaller scale. Yet homosexuals’ preferences for one another cannot but create a set of loyalties that transcends and subverts the chain of command.

The War Colleges take the best 0-5s out of the active force. To prepare them for 0-6, what do they teach? Alas, they do not teach them how to win wars. Instead, they acculturate them to the culture of civilian elites: their language, their assumptions, their values. If they want to get ahead, this is how they must adapt. Leadership means conformity. Victory means compromise (remember Schelling’s matrix?). Success means satisfying the mission requirements and getting that bump in rank. They might have come in as warriors. They leave as bureaucrats.