[Views expressed are mine only and do not represent those of the Department of Defense]
Several days ago I graduated from the last parts of my Army officer direct commission training and will soon be sent out into the force of the greatest fighting organization the world has ever known.
Coming from the ease and splendor of media, government, and political life in Washington, D.C., the military was initially a major culture shock in nearly every way. The rigidity, discipline, and rugged conditions quickly reminded one that the luxuries, or even seeming necessities, of civilian life were a thing of the past. Indeed the only remnants of “swamp” life were traversing around actual swamps. Despite the lack of physical pleasure I found that others and I received our energy from a different source – one on the inside, coming from spiritual virtue.
Our Army training consisted of innumerable physical and mental tasks. However one theme consistently emphasized during every part of it all were the “Army Values.” They are listed officially as: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. From our first days of initial entry training to our final officer graduation they, and the essential character elements they represented, were drilled into us again and again.
Military life seems contradictory to the ordinary rationales people face in the civilian world, particularly in our modern wealth, glamor, and pleasure driven society. To defend freedom, our men and women in uniform give up freedom. To ensure peace, we are trained to be as effective in violence as possible. Personal gain is put down in favor of the team and unit. Straightforwardness and bluntness are favored over the “kumbaya” and niceties of modern corporate environments. Sacrifice and looking out for one’s fellow man are expected, not exceptional. Duty, in all its shapes and forms, does not ever reward with money but with honor and a truly higher sense of satisfaction.
Throughout the decades, centuries, and even millennia militaries have constantly changed in terms of composition, organization, technology, and strategy. However even as far back as ancient Rome certain moral ideals have always been particularly emphasized, such as brotherhood, loyalty, sacrifice, and discipline.
The imperial Roman “sacramentum” oath emphasized that these values were not mere empty words but a most sacred contract between one’s life and divine eternity. While our modern oaths do not use as extraordinary language, the sense of fidelity and piety remain remarkably consistent despite the time and distance.
Our modern military faces extraordinary new challenges. These range from the still-constant threat of non-state actors to increasingly hostile and powerful large state actors. The new threats range from those posed in the realm of information and cyber to new technologies across a realm of aeronautical, biotech, hardware, and other fields. They include complex cultural and economic webs that require innovative coalition building and legal navigation.
However there also are unique domestic challenges that appear to be straining our armed forces too. Prior to my time in service, I had spoken of the military-civilian divide and how it was increasingly making our military an unknown and almost mystical entity to many Americans. This trend has had negative effects in civilian feedback to government concerning defense strategy as well as on veterans transitioning back to the civilian society.
Leaders at the Department of Defense have in the past publicly discussed this not only as a moral issue but as one with serious impact on our nation’s readiness and defense as it affects manpower, recruiting, and retention. It appears we are going further from the “citizen-soldier” norms and ideals of the Founding Fathers or even a time when military service was not seen as exceptional but almost as a duty to the cause of freedom.
My own brief time now in the service of our nation has opened my eyes further to our country’s defense strategy and operations, as well as the people who comprise it, in a way I didn’t fully understand as a civilian. I believe that needs to change, as our nation’s readiness and community have shown such resilience and accomplishment throughout our centuries due in large part to a close and intertwined bond between our nation’s guardians and its citizens.
As then-actor Ronald Reagan said in his 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, the defense of freedom requires constant national vigilance, dedication, and commitment. While we are in a different world from the depths of the Cold War our modern challenges still are serious and immense. If we wish to maximize our prosperity and security, I believe it would benefit us to look at how to reinvigorate military-civilian connections – such as through broadened reserve and National Guard programs - that would strength our country’s readiness across the board.