By Matthew Wadler:
Last week, I was speaking to a friend of mine who has never served in the military (I am embarrassed to say that it was not until this very moment that I saw the comic irony in his statement given his lack of service) and we were musing about the current state of the millennial generation. Specific to this conversation was the overwhelming entitlement mentality, obsession (almost fetish like) with technology, lack of direction, unrealistic life expectations, and total and complete lack of patriotism. He told me that the fix was easy– simply enact compulsory military service onto everyone.
Ah, if only it were that simple.
As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”
So, why does it matter if someone volunteers or is voluntold (i.e.: mandated to join)? It comes down to our modern structure of leadership. The military of the past was one that was held with an iron fist. This can best and most easily be seen in the leadership style of General Patton, who was both a tactical genius and crazy. General Patton believed himself to be the reincarnation of generals throughout history and would often have his staff stop at spots throughout Europe and explain the battle that had taken place at that spot during his prior lifetimes.
He was also a true and violent warrior. Although it is questionable whether he actually made this statement or if it was just a quote from the movie Patton, it is clear he lived and demanded from his troops that, “No [soldier] ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor dumb [soldier] die for his country.” His fame at the time, though, was for his actions while visiting a hospital where American soldiers were being cared for. In one bed, there was a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or “battle fatigue” as it was known then. When he discovered that the man was not suffering from a physical wound, Patton became enraged and began to slap the soldier. This action was essentially overlooked by his superiors until a reporter found out and broke the story. Yet, even with this revelation he continued in his command (albeit he was superseded by one of his officers, General Omar Bradley, who became a 5-star general). This sort of assault today would have landed a leader in jail, relieved of command at a minimum, especially if the actions had been broadcast to the public. It was the strength of force that the military relied on for adherence to military order and discipline.
So, why do we not have that leadership model anymore? What has changed that dictates a departure from such heavy-handed disciplinarians? In one word – everything.
In today’s modern battlefield, we operate in teams as small as four or five individuals. Yet these modern-day Spartans often make decisions that can shape foreign policy for an entire region. In the past, wars were fought with masses of troops, where the officers were either in the actual fight or immediately behind overseeing the entire shape of the battle unfold. With multiple missions being run concurrently through multiple areas, commanders no longer have the ability to lead with an iron fist, where the slightest disobedience can be visually seen and corrected.
In the movie Office Space, Peter Gibbons stated it best when he concluded, “That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”
I learned this lesson painfully myself as a young lieutenant.
Before deploying to Afghanistan, I designated one Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) to stay in the US. His job was to be my liaison for anything I needed done stateside. He had failed on a few occasions to get me some information I needed in what I felt was a timely manner. Instead of finding out why he was unable to carry out my directives, I immediately became irate and stated I was going to essentially give him a bad evaluation.
A friend of mine at the time heard about this and decided to give me some exceptional professional development. He asked me how hard I thought that soldier was going to work for me now that he knew it was all for naught. He also inquired how I was going to actually enforce any real or immediate punishment on him from another country. He was absolutely correct– my heavy-handed response only tied the hands of this good NCO and caused him to become less responsive to my needs and the needs of the unit.
It is for this reason that leadership is no longer enacted by strength. Understand that in no way am I stating that today’s leaders are not strong, nor am I saying that leadership cannot or should not be direct and brutal at times. What I am saying is that leadership is about those qualities that inspire those around you to accomplish their mission with or without your presence, and to do so in a way that embraces the core values of the military.
So, what does any of this have to do with volunteers over a coerced military? It first must be understood that only 1 in 10 people between the ages of 18 and 32 can even qualify to get into the armed forces. That means that 90% of the millennials simply can’t pass the initial qualifications. As for the 1% that can gain acceptance, the process is all about teamwork.
Although basic training has become a mere shadow of what it once was, the purpose is the same as it was 25 years ago when I first joined. People always talk about how the drill sergeants break you and then remold you into something stronger. This is a ridiculous statement– nothing that is ever broken can be remade. There are two main purposes of basic training. The first is to push you as an individual until you come to the realization that the limits you have are really only limits you set for yourself, and that your body, mind, and spirit are actually capable of amazing feats when you free yourself of self-doubt. The second is that it teaches the principles of teamwork.
A system will always break down where it is weakest. So, in basic, the drill sergeants will find the weak link and place the success or failure on that individual. Whether the task is physical fitness, marksmanship, marching, etc., the point is to highlight the weakness in that individual. The lesson is that no matter what the operation or team, there will always be a weak link. No one is ever perfect, nor is any mission accomplished without mistakes being made. The question is this: are you and your teammates smart enough to assess your own strengths and weaknesses, to know when to lean on others, and when to give a hand?
This is the reason that you cannot force someone into a volunteer force without having to completely reassess leadership at all levels.
Our current soldiers complete their mission, even when facing possible and even sometimes unquestionable demise, because they cannot let down their team. It is a bond that is formed by knowing that the person next to you is willing to lay down their life if necessary for you and you are willing to do the same. This bond cannot be formed from people forced to do their job out of fear of retribution, but is instead forged in the fear that they will be the link that lets down their brother and sisters in arms.
Matthew Wadler is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran. Wadler served admirably for twenty years before retiring. His service included time as a paratrooper and two deployments to Afghanistan.