Obstacles to Thought: Men in Groups

The excerpt pasted below from the draft of “How to Think Like an Armed Forces Officer” is from the chapter on obstacles to thought. In this chapter, I frequently cite what might be called the “literature of military incompetence,” but the section below is mostly my own observations. Comments very welcome.


 Men in Groups

Aside from internal, psychological factors, what are some of the external pressures on officer thought? Of course, the two categories are related.  Like all people, officers are shaped by their environment, and like all occupations that of an officer is to a degree self-selecting, although the motives to seek a commission in the armed forces may be very diverse.  Two enduring characteristics of military organizations are that they are hierarchical and mostly male.  The hierarchical nature of the military may impede dissension and the advancement of innovative ideas that go against conventional wisdom of the state or implied preferences of the commander.  To the traditional element of hierarchy has been added in recent times that of careerism, although the desire for favor and advancement are far from new.  Careerism not only tends to reinforce uniformity of ideas, it can encourage officers to value the careers of others over the furtherance of the mission or even the maintaining of important professional and ethical standards. This appears to be a notable trait of the U.S. armed forces since World War II.  Reliefs of senior officers have been few, with most for conduct rather than performance and many impelled by the political leadership, as opposed to the officer ranks policing its own.[i] High-ranking officers may benefit from what has been called preferential attachment or cumulative advantage.[ii]  Senior officers have been successful in negotiating the military hierarchy. In effect they are sometimes seen as exemplars of the virtues most prized in the military, even beyond their desserts.  Although they are supposed to be held to a “higher standard” if the status and reputations of senior officers are threatened, even by their own misconduct, the military hierarchy may seem to close ranks to protect them.

There are understandable reasons why officers tend to protect one another’s careers. Unlike other professionals, the officer has few options in seeking other employment. A doctor or lawyer who finds herself in a practice or firm that is not open to new ideas can move to another organization. An officer might seek a transfer, but her evaluations will follow her from the old command, as will the prevailing service culture. An officer who finds herself really out of step can request a move to another branch, but this is not always possible, and again it may not be a cure.  There is the option of working for a private military contractor, but this may involve a sacrifice of pension, benefits, a loss of esprit de corps and of prestige and idealistic motives associated with the role of commissioned officer as compared to that of a “gun for hire,” even one in the employment of the United States government.

The male dominance over military organizations has been modified somewhat in the past two decades, but men continue to constitute the great majority of military members and of senior military leadership.  More than this, since military service is an activity with close, complex ties to maleness and perceptions of masculinity, hypermasculine or macho attitudes are dominant throughout the armed forces, with even some female members imitating masculine behavior or downplaying or effacing their gender identity in favor of one that is gender-neutral or masculine.  Military forces have arguably benefited from, and even exploited the equation of military service and masculinity.  Testosterone-fueled aggression has its uses on the battlefield as it has on the playing-field, and the instinct for comradeship on the part of young men can also contribute to the unit cohesiveness that wins wars and battles.  Such instincts and tendencies unchecked by discipline and restraint can have dire consequences, even leading to lawlessness and atrocity.  On a cognitive level, the military dominance of men and of male attitudes can further limit the diversity of views, discourage dissent and accountability.  Conformity may come to be the price of cohesiveness.  The “male option” may sometimes default to the course of action that is most violent and direct, deriding and overriding what may be more sensible measures as not so much ineffectual as effeminate.  This behavior may be seen in front-line units, but it can also be seen at the higher headquarters or other scenes of military planning and decision-making far from the battle.  These settings are also prevailed over by men self-consciously directing fighting done by others, and a desire to compensate for a “wimp factor” can have an influence on decisions.  An insecure man may be led to opt for the more bellicose option to allay private feelings of weakness.  Perhaps even more dangerous is the genuinely insensitive man, who has adopted conventional male “toughness” to such a degree that it has become unconscious and habitual.

The cult of toughness can have more subtle effects, creating an internal, unofficial hierarchy that can be divisive. This tendency is at the center of retired officer James R. McDonough’s The Defense of Hill 781: An Allegory of Modern Mechanized Combat.[iii]   In McDonough’s ingenious allegory, a deceased lieutenant colonel is given the chance to redeem himself and exchange purgatory for heaven by correcting his past leadership failures. The colonel had been a highly qualified airborne infantryman who had neglected and even mocked those he considered less soldierly than himself. In a series of exercises, he learns to value the contributions of all in the unit, to include support personnel, the less fit and experienced, and to show his appreciation openly.

The male tendency to suppress emotions may be intensified in the military environment.  There is some justification for this, given the strong, and perhaps debilitating and distracting emotions that war and combat can bring. As I’ve already noted, George C. Marshall reminded officers that they could not be people who felt deeply but who thought only on the surface.  A theme of the John Ford Western Rio Grande (1950) is the emotional austerity cultivated by the officers. Sentiment and song are left to the enlisted men and the very few women on a frontier army post. On the other hand, it might be noted that the maintenance of health and housekeeping and other “maternal” practices are part of an officer’s duties. Bullying, negative managerial practices for example satirized in the David Mamet play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), are out of place in a military setting. In the Mamet play, the members of a real estate sales department are visited by a mysterious, abusive emissary and faced with summary dismissal if they do not abide by the rule of ABC (“Always be Closing”) and make sales on a single rain-swept night.  Officers can relieve subordinates from positions or of specific responsibilities, but soldiers cannot be summarily “fired” from the armed forces. Their rights as citizens are given emphasis by the fact that they serve the nation, and by the Constitutional oaths sworn by officers and enlisted members. Members of the armed forces possess the dignity of those who bear arms; their training and weaponry give them a last resort to treatment which they might come to consider as intolerable. Many a military bully has changed his ways when faced with the prospect of going into combat with soldiers whom he has given cause to hate him.         

Another potential obstacle to clear and creative thought, and to a sense of proportion, is the military concern for minutiae. Junior officers are taught to cultivate an “attention to detail.” This necessary habit may become fetishized by the rituals of dress and drill: ribbons placed one-eighth of an inch above the pocket, every soldier in a file pivoting on the exact same point on the ground.  This is another example, like the “tactical mindset,” of the habits formed in youth sometimes impeding mental development.  The path to becoming an officer, and the service itself, are demanding on many levels. The aspiring officer is taught to ignore pain and fatigue, and this can develop into a callous disregard for the suffering of others, if the officer does not make a conscious effort to overcome this tendency.  If there is a philosophy at large among officers in general, it is stoicism.[iv] This can be helpful in overcoming adversity, in enabling the individual to surpass personal limits, but if is projected excessively and habitually onto others, subordinates and the victims of war especially, it can lead to the officer becoming what he beholds, even losing a vital element of the humanity and compassion that fit him to be a leader. The challenges and sacrifices of military service may contribute to the self-righteousness that Anton’s Myrer’s General Caldwell in Once An Eagle, protagonist Sam Damon’s father-in-law and mentor, calls “the occupational disease of the soldier…and the worst sin in all the world,” one that “spawns arrogance, selfishness, indifference.”[v]

[i] This trend is discussed at length in Thomas Ricks’ The Generals: American Military  Command From World War II to Today (Penguin Press: New York, 2012)See also “The Crimes of Seal Team 6” by Matthew Cole, The Intercept, 18 January 2017 for examples of Navy Special Warfare officers promoted despite their failure to halt of prosecute war crimes that included mutilation of the dead.

[ii] “Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (113 Models Explained),” Farnum Street blog. Accessed 12 February 2018.

[iii] James R. McDonough, The Defense of Hill 781: An Allegory of Modern Mechanized Combat (New York: Presidio-Ballantine, 1988).

[iv] See Nancy Sherman, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[v] Anton Myrer, Once An Eagle. 1968 (New York: HarperTorch-HarperCollins, 2001), p. 306.


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