Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to the farewell remarks of a senior Marine officer. Many of his thoughts were the sorts of things one might expect of a departing officer—some advice, a little retrospective on his command, and the like. What colored his remarks the most, though, was nostalgia. Nostalgia for Marines of 20 years ago who did what they were told without question. Nostalgia for days of moral clarity in the military. Nostalgia for a time that the Corps and the military were better.
Nostalgia isn’t an uncommon feeling among Marines or sailors of any generation. There’s an old joke about the first two Marines at Tun Tavern. Captain Samuel Nicholas offered a free beer to the first recruit who signed up for the newly-created Corps. Soon a man signed on the dotted line. Seeing no other recruits, Captain Nicholas offered two beers to the Corps’ second recruit. Soon enough, another man signed up and rightfully took his two beers. The first recruit sneered at him, ”In the old Corps, we only got one beer.”
Of late, though, it seems that nostalgia is the order of the day. The view of today’s young troops as being the problem seems to be more insidious than in the past. Whether it’s hazing, juvenile social-media posts, or the statistically dubious “epidemic” of sexual assault, senior leaders tend to look at junior Marines and sailors as if they are somehow engaging in unprecedented levels of poor conduct.1
Regardless of the reason, every embarrassing headline leads senior military leadership to issue a storm of statements either exhorting junior leadership to start doing their jobs as small-unit leaders or blaming modern culture for military problems. Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Michael Barrett stated, “We are taking an aggressive stance toward all the disgusting societal issues that plague our services . . . drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, criminal mischief, sexual misconduct, hazing and suicide.”2 Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh even blamed the much-ballyhooed sexual assault problem on “. . . the hookup mentality of junior high even and high school students now. . . .”3 At some point, one almost expects senior leaders to start yelling at those damn kids to get off their lawns.
The More Things Change . . .
This generation of Marines and sailors is indeed different from its predecessors, just as those of the 1990s were different from those of the 1970s, who were in turn different from those of the 1950s. That does not mean better or worse, just different. The junior soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen of today do have something unique about them that we haven’t seen in modern history. They have all volunteered for the military during a time of extended conflict, with no threat of compulsory service. That alone speaks to the continuing high quality of American military personnel.
By most objective standards, modern military personnel of all branches are of the highest caliber we’ve ever seen. With the exception of the period from 2005 to 2007, both the numbers of high school graduates and the aptitude scores among new enlistees have been higher than those of the American population as a whole and higher than those of preceding generations of American service members.4
So what is the problem that many senior officers and enlisted leaders have with junior enlisted and officers? We often hear references to the conduct issues the military has experienced. Younger sailors and Marines are said to be undisciplined. Often, one hears of chief petty officers or staff noncommissioned officers wishing that they still had the authority to use corporal punishment, or alternatively, saying that younger enlisted are soft because their parents never administered same.
One answer to this is simply that young troops are young and intrinsically more likely to have discipline problems. Senior leaders naturally perceive their juniors as being less disciplined than themselves—because they are. Those troops are ten or more years younger. The brains of those under 25 have not even reached physiological maturity.5 In days gone by, their natural disregard for consequences was what made them desirable troops, exhibiting great bravery in battle with little thought of the future. Today, that immaturity is perceived as only a liability.
When was this mythical age of perfectly disciplined young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, enthusiastically obeying orders and displaying upright moral compasses? The Tailhook era of the 1990s? The drug-riddled Vietnam era? Even the “Greatest Generation” had its problems amidst the oft-mythologized World War II, a conflict where 50,000 Americans deserted. The desertion problem was so bad that there were actually firefights between military police and the gangs of deserters in Paris who ran the black markets at the time.6 For that matter, some issues never change—desecration of enemy dead was a serious problem with Marines serving in the Pacific, and it wasn’t merely urination on corpses. It included the taking of body parts as souvenirs.7 People are people. They are fallible. Only the particular issues change.
If there is any group in the military with a credibility gap in discussing values and ethics, it is senior leadership. Rightly or wrongly, the services have been aggressive in relieving commanders and senior enlisted leaders in recent years. Almost half of the reliefs of commanders were due to personal lapses of some form.8 We can never know for certain whether this is due to more acts of misconduct occurring or to a more critical eye being cast on such behavior. We can say, though, that these senior leaders were raised in a supposedly better era, yet somehow sexual misconduct, driving under the influence, and even petty theft are not unknown among them. Are these officers just leading indicators of America’s societal collapse and the first generation affected by an ongoing long-term American moral decline? Of course not.
Modern Media & The 24-Hour News Cycle
What is the difference, then? Two major things have changed. First, there is the pervasiveness of electronic media in all forms. The sight of Marines urinating on Taliban bodies would never have gone beyond that small group had it not been captured on video. Again, the senior officers who bemoan their juniors’ obsession with electronic social networking are prone to the same lapses of judgment, just in different, slightly less tech-savvy, ways. Retired General David Petraeus would have been saved great personal and professional embarrassment had he not been a prolific email user, for example.
People are doing the same things they have been doing for years. The only difference is that with electronic media, indiscretions are immediately broadcast to the broadest possible audience. A phone call is between two people, and quickly forgotten, or in some cases, denied. A text, an email, or a photo is rapidly circulated around the world. Illicit sex, for example, is hardly a new thing. How long would General Dwight D. Eisenhower have lasted as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe had he been emailing Kay Summersby?
The second issue is an outgrowth of the first. Electronic media has increased the velocity at which news travels. As a result, military leadership is in continuous spin mode. The fact that news, including pictures or video, can be forwarded around the world almost instantaneously has made the military overly image conscious. Whenever a story makes the news, or even has the potential to, one can see the services scramble, and usually stumble, to try to get in front of the story. That includes taking precipitous action against the alleged perpetrators. The well-publicized issues of alleged command influence by senior leadership in proceedings against Marines accused of sexual assault are a product of this.
At some level this is pragmatic. In the United States the military is subordinate to civilian authority. In today’s fiscal environment this is even more apparent, with each service trying to stay on Congress’ good side. Each branch sees its future held hostage to the checkbook that Congress holds. The military services are all too happy to cast some of their people overboard to placate irate, or perhaps camera-hungry, members of Congress. While this has always been the case to some extent, the spin machine works much faster today. While spinning is a valid tactic on Capitol Hill, it is a horrible leadership technique. Today we see policies driven not by military necessity but by the need to feed the 24-hour news cycle.
At the ground level this approach is eroding the confidence of junior officers and enlisted. Luckily only a few unfortunate individuals will ever personally be the subject of a high-profile legal case, but the technique of leadership by spin control has become endemic. Leaders today consider how civilian news outlets and the blogosphere would perceive a military decision before carrying it out. Individual sailors and Marines have come to believe that they are expendable in the service of the military’s spin machine. They can read the headlines and predict the next administrative message or mandatory training coming down the pike. The irony is that in today’s fickle culture, young people joined the military to be part of an organization known for constancy. In recent practice, however, this organization can be seen chasing its own tail in response to every embarrassing news story.
Public Image Trumps Warfighting
All of this would be acceptable if warfighting actually appeared to matter. Tactical and operational failures have been abundantly clear in both Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the only combat reliefs of flag or general officers were due to a single embarrassing failure: the attack on the Camp Bastion flight line. Even that took nearly a year after the incident, following a lengthy investigation, well after both Major Generals Charles Gurganus and Gregg Sturdivant had moved to other billets. That investigation commenced nearly nine months after the attack occurred, and then only after an outcry by the public and elected officials. When the military talks about a “leadership crisis” or an “ethics crisis,” its concern is not primarily about fighting wars, it is about public lapses and the public image of the institution.
Are we really to believe that the Bastion attack was the only substantive leadership failure that has occurred on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan in over 12 years of continuous conflict? These are two wars in which our results can, at best, be described as qualified successes. They could both also easily be described as failures. During this time, only one other senior officer has been publicly relieved for performance in combat, and that was during the initial Marine push into Iraq in 2003.9 This is while literally dozens of Navy and Marine commanders have been relieved for personal misconduct.
What has become clear over the last several years is that in all the services maintaining the military’s public image is far more likely to lead to career success than trying to win wars. As Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki was ostracized after embarrassing the defense establishment by speaking the truth before Congress about Iraq, yet General George Casey ascended to that position after a disaster-filled tenure leading America’s war effort there. What is obvious from these incidents and others is that fighting wars is secondary to making the institution look good.
How does this tie in to leading 20-somethings? One of the biggest sins any leader can commit is hypocrisy. As any parent knows, young people have long been attuned to that particular failing more than any other, since before Holden Caulfield made a point of identifying “phonies.” Young officers and enlisted see that operational success is secondary to maintaining an upright public image. Today’s sailors and Marines joined the military for the same reasons young people have joined since the beginning of time: adventure and the chance to be part of something bigger than themselves. Once they join, though, the message conveyed is that the most important thing is staying out of trouble, and more important, not making mistakes in public.
Warfighting has been subordinated to public relations. The media—and Congress—do not understand the nuances of either maneuver warfare or counterinsurgency, but they do understand affairs, misused expense accounts, and drunken parties. A Tweet or Facebook post about a failure on the battlefield will never go viral. A post about a service member, especially one in a leadership position, getting drunk and out of control almost certainly will. This has inverted the relative importance of those events. It is up to the military’s leadership to live up to its own values and remain constant amidst the media chaos.
Stop Dancing to the Media’s Tune
Misconduct is misconduct and should be treated as such. However, it needs to be handled based on the actual severity of the offense, and not the public-relations optics of the situation. Otherwise, military justice will be seen as just another public-relations tool, instead of the enforcement of good order and discipline, and thus lose any credibility it may have had. When senior military leaders always dance to the media’s tune, the media will seize the opportunity and continue to pick the music. Given the speed of today’s media cycle, especially in conjunction with social media, this means that senior leadership will never stop dancing.
There will always be another social-media driven brushfire for military leadership to put out. If each one forces new rules, new training, and new public statements up and down the chain, the message becomes clear that not embarrassing the institution is the most important thing, not fighting wars. In a world moving at an ever-faster pace, where nothing lasts longer than a news cycle, there is little point in trying to keep up. The military needs constancy and must enforce the rules and standards as they exist—not create new ones.
As the senior leadership clamps down ever more tightly on both conduct and social media, junior enlisted and officers see themselves as being subject to standards higher than those of the senior leaders they are supposed to emulate. They are consistently talked to as if they are inferior to those who came before them, even as they live up to ever-increasing standards, almost without exception.
Most important, the standard to which all others need to be subordinated to is that of tactical and operational success in training and combat. The reason moral and ethical standards exist in the military is not only because of their inherent worth, but because good order and discipline helps win battles. Unlike children’s sports leagues, in war winning is actually everything. Losing sight of that is a sure ticket to both a disaffected military and lost wars. That, unfortunately, is the road we’re on today. We are headed down the path to a military that no longer cares about winning battles, yet has a very good spin machine.
But at least Congress will be temporarily placated, so there’s that.
2. Jared Serbu, “Military Leaders Assert Zero-Tolerance for Hazing,” Federal News Radio, 26 March 2013.
3. Ruth Marcus, “Military Leaders’ Wrongheaded Victim-Blaming,” The Washington Post, 10 May 2013.
4. Lawrence Kapp, “Recruiting and Retention: An Overview of FY2011 and FY2012 Results for Active and Reserve Component Enlisted Personnel,” Congressional Research Service, 10 May 2013.
5. “Brain Maturity Extends Well Beyond Teen Years” National Public Radio, transcript, 10 October 2011.
6. Charles Glass, The Deserters (New York: Penguin Group, 2013).
7. Jack Shafer, “Sadly, human trophies are as old as war itself,” Reuters, 18 April 2012.
8. Lolita C. Baldor, “Sex is Major Reason Military Commanders are Fired,” Associated Press, 21 January 2013.
9. Thomas Ricks, The Generals (New York: Penguin Press, 2012).