In December 2017, while fielding questions at the Reagan National Library in California, national security adviser H.R. McMaster cautioned that the prospect of war with North Korea is increasing daily. His comments warrant reflection.
Political bickering aside, if diplomacy fails, our troops will not have the luxury of pointing fingers. They will have to fight and win in an environment characterized by Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley as even more grueling than battlefields of the past. Nevertheless, in certain circles there is a growing disquiet over the inherently aggressive culture of our Armed Forces.
Vox News columnist Alex Ward published a Memorial Day 2017 article titled, “The Marine Corps has a Toxic Masculinity Problem,” in which he claims the soul of the Marine Corps is in jeopardy because of a hyper-masculine environment he believes is linked to misconduct.
If Ward’s opinion was a fringe one, his article would not be so concerning – but it isn’t. Many share Ward’s ironic anxiety about the supposed pitfalls of a warlike military culture.
At the request of the U.S. Army Research Institute, the RAND Corporation recently concluded a 2017 study dedicated to fixing “organizational culture and climate” issues within the military. Omitting historical data related to combat effectiveness, including the last 16 years of remarkable tactical victories, the study cited negative workplace behavior as a factor necessitating such institutional change. The term “hypermasculine” made its way into the study.
Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, published a May 2017 article in The Nation suggesting pop star Ariana Grande’s philosophy of open-armed inclusion might deter Islamic State more effectively than Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ pugnacious strategy of envelopment, isolation, and annihilation. Cole describes Mattis, an erudite warrior-scholar, as symptomatic of a reckless military culture that creates terrorists.
This pattern continues as numerous observers scapegoat the military’s culture for just about every problem it has, both real and perceived. Though misguided, such perceptions of the military are neither fresh nor unpredictable.
French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the hazards of an American military isolated from the civilian population as early as 1831 in his brilliant analysis, Democracy in America. His juxtaposition of aristocratic and democratic militaries has aged surprisingly well.
Author Thomas Ricks later touched on the issue by examining the widening gap between military and civilian cultures in his cogent 1997 article in The Atlantic. Ricks wondered if military personnel “see America clearly.” He may have asked the wrong question. After 16 years of war, popular headlines related to the Armed Forces have been restricted almost entirely to the topics of either death or dishonor. In light of this lens, should we not inquire if America sees its military clearly?
Ever the prescient observer, Tocqueville believed a concentration of elites unfamiliar with military affairs could be detrimental to American defense. Sweeping decisions on military culture come quite easily when one remains unaffected by and unaccountable for their consequences.
In 1949, this unfamiliarity with the cruel nature of war prompted certain public officials to tell infantrymen they were obsolete, because the next war would be fought with missiles. Colonel Ralph Puckett, a Ranger commander at the time, describes in his memoirs hearing this less than a year before fighting waves of Chinese troops in Korea.
These assumptions about the changing nature of war provoked a catastrophic disinvestment in our infantry’s ability to energetically meet its enemies, as illustrated so poignantly by veteran author T.R. Fehrenbach in his 1963 masterpiece, This Kind of War. The world had been led to believe that the crass infantryman was an apparition of past wars, his anachronistic culture swallowed up by long-range weapons technology and societal progress. We were wrong.
Subjective notions of social propriety, however well-intentioned, will not change the fixed identity of ground warfare. It is a brutally masculine and inherently violent enterprise. Warrior culture serves as a utilitarian mechanism that not only allows our troops to ignore their instincts of self-preservation and rush toward gunfire, but also steel their minds to the psychological rigors of armed conflict. Stigmatizing this culture by making it a problem to be “fixed” instead of a core principle in the combat conditioning process is, for the men and women who will fight tomorrow’s war, a dangerous game indeed.