Change is inevitable and typically good. It is a means to remain relevant and improve. But it is also difficult and can be highly detrimental if it is simply “change for change’s sake.” The difficult dichotomy of the military is that it is in continual need of change while also strictly demanding adherence to its customs and traditions. To ignore those traditions is to invite discord, threaten success and risk lives.
A recent doctoral dissertation discussed the differences between collectivism and individualism within the military and civil cultures. It defined collectivism as a cultural value emphasizing cohesiveness among individuals and prioritizing group over self. Individualism, on the other hand, was defined as valuing an individual’s goals, independence and self interests over the group’s best interests. Collectivism is crucial to the military mind. It creates a feeling of oneness among its members, which creates a need for cooperation, similarity of thought and a unified focus on a single goal. Individualism is often discouraged in the military because it challenges the cohesiveness and organizational focus needed to succeed in combat.
The world, as a whole, is becoming more individualistic. There is evidence that this is not simply an American generational shift, but a significant movement worldwide. While many of us may deride this change, there is also strong evidence that nations with the least movement toward individualist values also scored the lowest in socioeconomic development (China being a stark exception to these statistics).
There is no doubt today’s young recruits are different than when I joined — just as I was different than those who joined in the ‘60s, and they were different than those who joined in the ‘40s. But how can we expect them not to be? It was, after all, our generations who made them more selfish and individualistic. We expected less from them, gave them more, praised them continuously, punished them with kindness and never made them wait for anything. Then again, my first platoon sergeant happily labeled my generation as coddled and lazy.
But everyone has gotten softer and more coddled with the ease of today’s life. I would also challenge that we’re no better just because we’ve got more years on this big rock. Doubt me? Call your internet provider and request some of that good ol’ dial-up 2,400-baud modem service. It’ll take three full turns of the spinning wheel of death before you’re begging for some immediate gratification from the Google search functions.
So now we can either continue standing upon our soapboxes to belabor the argument that the military doesn’t change for the individual or we can learn how to change what can be changed while maintaining what must be maintained. Today’s military leaders must learn to balance the youth’s need for autonomy with the military’s need for group dynamics. Leaders must look beyond the military’s leadership doctrines to find better ways to manage them. Google can easily tell us how effective leaders manage millennials, just don’t expect a quick response if you’re still connected to that dial-up internet.
We are currently engaged in the longest war of our nation’s history. In just a few short years, military members who have never served in a ‘peacetime’ military will begin retiring. Many of them will have spent a propensity of their years in hard billets and individual rooms. They will have missed the frozen nights on the muddy flats of Bicycle Lake without that all-important second half of a shelter-half or the true bliss of graduating up to 500 sq ft of musty green canvas communal living. They will have suffered through repeated deployments and spent as much time away as at home. But because of that, they will also have missed out on many of the difficult group lessons that we learned together.
The military should never be an institution of individuals. It is the team that survives battles and wins wars, despite what Hollywood and that horrific ‘Army of One’ slogan would try to sell. We, as the nation’s military, must remain a great collective formed by America’s finest individuals. We must mold a team mentality by accepting the individual while teaching that the group is stronger than the individual. This is nothing new or even specific to military service; older generations have always been responsible for molding and maturing the youth. We will soon be gone and then the young ones will truly be in charge. So be a force for positive change in their lives because, as Johnny Cash sang: “The ones that you’re calling wild; Are going to be the leaders in a little while; This old world’s waking to a new born day; And I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way; You better help the voice of youth find. What is truth?”