Andrew A. Hill, Leonard Wong & Stephen J. Gerras
ANDREW A. HILL is Professor of Organization
Studies in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army
LEONARD WONG is Research Professor of Military Strategy in the Strategic Studies
Institute of the U.S. Army War College.
STEPHEN J. GERRAS is the General Matthew
B. Ridgway Chair of Leadership in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management
at the U.S. Army War College.
Abstract: In recent decades, the U.S. military has enjoyed high levels of public
confidence. We argue that the rise (and sustainment) of public confidence in the military
reflects two phenomena. First, the public has a high regard for the military and
its mission, arising from a shift to a professional (nonconscript) force that is
perceived to be competent, fair, and accountable. Second, the public has little
fear of military abuses in the domestic arena, owing chiefly to the reduced domestic
presence of the military in the post–World War II era, with less emphasis on the
physical defense of the homeland; and to the military’s careful cultivation of an
apolitical culture since Vietnam. We conclude with a brief discussion of the military’s
efforts to develop and encourage public-mindedness among its members, and the challenges
to replicating the military approach in other institutional settings.
(*See endnotes for complete contributor biographies.)
The U.S. military continues to be America’s most admired public institution, held
in high esteem despite a broader decline in the public’s regard for American institutions.1
Indeed, many see the military as the exemplary American institution, from which
the nation should derive lessons for application to myriad aspects of public and
private life, including developing citizenship and civic engagement among America’s
youth. Yet the relationship between the American people and its defense establishment
has historically been anchored in two opposing sentiments: on one side, Americans
see a large, standing military as a potential threat to liberty; on the other, they
revere the U.S. military for its role in establishing the nation in revolution,
preserving it against rebellion, and defending it from foreign aggression. In this
essay, we examine the sources and implications of public trust in the military.
We argue that the rise and sustainment of public confidence in the military reflects
the ascendance of the latter view (reverence for the military and its mission) and
the subsidence of the former (fear of military abuses in the domestic arena); and
we explore the possible causes of these changes.
In recent decades, Americans’ confidence in the military and its leaders has risen
(see Figures 1 and 2, and Table 1). This increasing trust in and regard for the
armed forces has been the notable exception to a general decline or stagnation in
Americans’ regard for other key institutions. The judiciary, organized religion,
public schools, universities, the executive and legislative branches of government,
the press, corporations, banks, organized labor – all have suffered to some extent.
Why not the military? What accounts for this divergence?
Percentage of Respondents Expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of
Confidence in American Institutions, 1973–2011
Note that no survey was conducted in 1992. Source: Figure created by authors based
on Gallup poll data.
Percentage of Respondents Expressing “a great deal” of Confidence in the
“people in charge of running” American Institutions, 1971–2011
Source: Figure created by authors based on Harris poll data.
Twenty-Year Change (between 1981 and 2011) in Percentage of Respondents Expressing
“a great deal” or “quite a lot” of Confidence in American Institutions
The Church/Organized Religion
U.S. Supreme Court
Source: Table created by authors based on Gallup poll data.
One possible explanation is that the country is becoming more militaristic, but
little evidence supports this view. Fewer and fewer Americans serve in the military.
As of 2010, active-duty military personnel made up less than 1 percent of the labor
force; adding the National Guard and Reserve Component raises the total to about
1.5 percent (see Figure 3). Indeed, some are concerned that the men and women of
the armed services are becoming increasingly isolated from the nation they serve.
In a speech at Duke University in September 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates observed, “There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders
that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with
the people they have sworn to defend.” Such was the gist of a recent Time magazine
cover story as well.2
The Military as a Percentage of the Labor Force, 1950–2010
Source: Figure created by authors with data provided courtesy of the Bureau of Labor
Statistics and the Congressional Research Service.
What about the defense industry? Are public sympathies driven by economic ties to
the military? It appears unlikely. Since 1981, defense spending has declined relative
to GDP and has been relatively stable as a percentage of total government outlays.
Thus, America’s personal and economic ties to its armed services have weakened in
Suspicion of military power is rooted in the revolutionary ideals of the early American
republic. The founders’ fear of an unchecked military reflected both their personal
experience of abuse at the hands of the British soldiery and their knowledge of
history, particularly that of the Roman republic. In the military rule of Sulla,
Julius Caesar, and other Romans, the American revolutionaries and framers of the
Constitution perceived archetypes for what happens when too much power is entrusted
to a charismatic leader of an army. Though agrarian democrats (Thomas Jefferson)
disagreed with federalists (Alexander Hamilton and James Madison) in many fundamental
questions of government, both groups believed that a standing army could endanger
freedom. In a speech to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison expressed
In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive
Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head
too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive,
will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign
danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.
Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution lays out civilian control of the armed
forces. More limitations (direct and indirect) on the powers of the military were
enumerated in the Bill of Rights: notably, in the right to bear arms, the protection
from quartering troops, and the protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
The Posse Comitatus Act (1878) further limited the military’s role in the domestic
sphere. Reacting against Reconstruction, the Congress forbade the use of the Army
for the enforcement of domestic laws, except by another act of Congress or a modification of the Constitution.
Although one may still find fears of the domestic abuses of a too-powerful military
in works of fiction, and in the paranoid fantasies of the political fringes, recent
history has given Americans little cause for worry in this regard. As a result,
Americans’ historical fears of a too-powerful military have faded. Three changes
have driven this trend.
First, the domestic footprint of the military has been dramatically reduced in recent
decades. Through five rounds of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) from 1989 to
2005, 350 military installations have been closed. The number of active-duty military
personnel has declined as well, from around 3 million in 1970, to 2 million in 1980,
to slightly fewer than 1.5 million today. Relative to the U.S. population, this
downsizing has been large: active-duty military personnel accounted for 1.5 percent
of the population in 1970, 0.9 percent in 1980, and just 0.48 percent in 2010.
Second, the U.S. military’s role of national defense (the physical garrisoning and
defense of the United States itself ) has had little significance in military planning
and deployment since 1945. Ostensibly, all American military actions are in defense
of the U.S. Constitution. The oath taken by the men and women of the armed services
names “all enemies, foreign and domestic” (emphasis added); but in recent
U.S. history, foreign enemies operating on foreign soil have predominated. The 9/11
attacks are a notable exception, although their unconventional character and brief
duration precluded any significant U.S. military involvement in combating them. U.S.
military power is projected across the globe but is barely noticeable at home. Since
1970, federal forces have been used only once in the domestic enforcement of law
and order, when Marine and Army units were sent to rioting areas of Los Angeles
Third, the military has generally detached itself from domestic politics. In the
first century of U.S. presidential politics, the boundary between military and political
high office was porous. Military accomplishments figured largely in the political
rise of numerous American presidents, including thirteen of the first twenty-five,
from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt. Yet the current culture of the U.S.
armed services frowns on overt political activity by senior military leaders – active
or retired – despite the conservative leanings of the majority of officers. If the
spectrum of politicization ranges from the apolitical model espoused by General
George Marshall to the highly politicized maneuverings of General Douglas MacArthur,
the current military leans strongly in the direction of Marshall.
The political community is also increasingly detached from the military. While numerous
veterans (primarily from World War II) have sought and obtained the presidency,4
the last senior military officer to obtain his party’s nomination for the presidency
is also the last one to win the office: General Eisenhower, who served as NATO commander
prior to the 1952 election. Of the nation’s 541 Senators and Representatives in
the 112th Congress (2011–2013), 118 served or currently serve in the military (9
served in the National Guard or the Reserve), approximately 22 percent of the membership.5
Although this figure is considerably higher than the proportion of veterans in the
general U.S. population, Congress is more male (83 percent) and older (an average
age of 57.8) than the general population, so a greater proportion became adults
during the conscription era, skewing the probability of military service. Perhaps
more significant is the strong downward trend in military experience in Congress,
demonstrating how the post–conscription era population is now occupying a greater
proportion of government positions. According to the Congressional Research Service:
The number of veterans in the [current] Congress reflects the trend of a steady
decline in recent decades in the number of Members who have served in the military.
For example, there were 298 veterans (240 Representatives, 58 Senators) in the 96th
Congress (1979–1981); and 398 veterans (329 Representatives, 69 Senators) in the
91st Congress (1969–1971).6
Thus, through the military’s shrinking footprint, its far-flung activities, and
its maintenance of an apolitical culture (at least when viewed from the outside),
it has become less relevant to the daily life of the average citizen. It may be
that a crucial element to preserving and increasing public trust in the military
is maintaining a distance between the preparation, conduct, and control of military
operations and the domestic lives of Americans. In this way, the nation’s traditional
wariness toward military power has to some extent receded in recent decades. At
the inception of the all-volunteer military four decades ago, some observers worried
that it would emerge as a modern Praetorian Guard or a potent political menace.
These fears have thus far been unfounded.
Societal trust in the military has not always been as high as it is today. The American
people have a long-standing respect for the principles of duty and sacrifice embodied
by the nation’s armed forces, as well as a belief that the conduct of war has a
rightful place in establishing and protecting the nation. The United States may
have been “conceived in liberty,” but it was birthed, and preserved, in blood: in
the rebellion against England; in the Civil War; in wars of expansion against Mexico,
Native Americans, and Spain; and in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Indeed, from the viewpoint of the American people, the great lesson of the twentieth
century was that American military power accompanied by the spread of Anglo-Saxon
models of government and economy wrought widespread peace and prosperity.
This triumph, however, was not without setbacks. The Vietnam War was a traumatic
experience for the U.S. military, and it damaged public confidence in the armed services.
In 1966, a Harris survey found that 61 percent of respondents had “a great deal
of confidence” in the military’s leadership; five years later, just 27 percent felt
that way.7 Yet these effects of the war were not restricted to the leadership of
the armed services. The events surrounding the war undermined trust in the leadership
of virtually all major American institutions (see Table 2). What is notable is that
only the military has recovered the confidence that it lost.8
Percentage of Respondents Expressing “a great deal” of Confidence
in the “people in charge of running” American Institutions (bold indicates decline
from prior survey)
U.S. Supreme Court
Major Educational Institutions
*Figure is an average of nearest adjacent data because no response was provided
for 1991. Source: Harris, Index of Confidence, May 18, 2011, http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/780/Default.aspx.
As discussed above, part of this recovery may stem from a decline in public fears
of military interference in civic life. But a purely negative explanation for the
rise in confidence in the military is incomplete. Institutions also derive public
support from other factors: namely, competence and a concern for society’s best
interests. Thus, has the military become more competent and more public-minded since
the Vietnam War?
The consensus within the military is that the force has achieved a high level of
readiness and effectiveness. Yet the transition from a conscript to an all-volunteer
force initially resulted in a decline in competence – what then - Army Chief of Staff
General Edward Meyer called “the hollow force.”9 (The term still has great resonance in the defense community; it has been invoked, for example, in current
discussions of the effects of defense budget cuts.) By the mid-1970s, significant
changes were under way in the Army (and in the military more broadly) that would
result in the professional, effective force that executed U.S. policy in Grenada,
Panama, Kuwait, the Balkans, and elsewhere.10
Certainly, there have been struggles and failures. For the sake of this analysis,
we distinguish operational/tactical problems (the result of poor military
planning or execution, or of effective enemy action) from scandal (the result of
personal or institutional failure). Operational struggles include the failed
rescue of hostages in Iran in 1980 (Operation Eagle Claw); the 1983 bombing
of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut; Task Force Ranger (“Black Hawk Down”) in
Somalia in 1993; and most recently, the military’s slow response to the development
of the insurgency in Iraq. In the wake of these setbacks, the U.S. military has
demonstrated remarkable resilience and strength, and the American public has been
forgiving. Indeed, the blame for operational or tactical military failures tends
to rest with the political leadership of the military: the president and
the secretary of defense, among others. Consider, for instance, the repudiation
of the conduct of the Iraq War as demonstrated in the 2006 U.S. midterm elections.
This pattern is supported by the civil-military relations model described above:
U.S. military leaders have assumed a largely instrumental role in the formulation
of national security and military policy. Thus, they advise but defer final judgment
to their civilian leaders and, perhaps more significant, avoid public dissent once
a policy decision is made. As General Colin Powell describes it: “When we are debating
an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like
it or not. Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once a decision has been
made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision
as if it were your own.”11
The military’s ability to avoid blame for its recent
operational or tactical struggles may be partly rooted in its current approach to
civil-military relations. While loyalty in response to criticism of policy may seem
an obvious behavior for military professionals, there are legal alternatives available
to them. Indeed, a standard question asked of service chiefs in their confirmation
hearings is whether they will express their personal views of executive policy when
questioned by Congress. The answer given is yes; but in recent memory there have
been few instances of such candor. We would do well to remember that an officer’s
oath is to support and defend the Constitution – not the policies of an administration.
Prior generations of military leaders occasionally interpreted this as an obligation
to resist what they perceived to be the dangerous errors of their civilian leaders.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, the debate on military policy was often both public
and acrimonious. For example, Army Chief of Staff General Matthew Ridgway waged
a long (and futile) campaign against President Eisenhower’s “new look” military
policy.12 The president did not nominate Ridgway to a second term, selecting as
his replacement General Maxwell Taylor, who promised to be more pliant. (He wasn’t,
as it turned out.) At the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military’s leaders understood
well that exercising a firmer hand in the formulation of policy has a cost: shared
responsibility for policy failures. The current model for civil-military relations
pushes much of that responsibility back to civilian leaders. The military has sustained
the public perception of competence through its effective execution of the policies
it is given. Rightly or not, the public therefore understands military failures
as being rooted not in the military’s execution, but in unwise policy.
In addition to valuing competence, society also expects institutions to serve a
greater good. This public-mindedness is grounded in three principles: selflessness,
accountability, and fairness. These factors are highlighted by the other institutions
that enjoy widespread public confidence: small business and the police. According
to a 2011 Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite
a lot” of confidence in the military; 64 percent said the same for small business,
and 56 percent for the police. In contrast, Congress (12 percent), the presidency
(35 percent), and big business (19 percent) are held in relatively low regard by
the American public.
What does the military have in common with the police and small business? In the
case of the former, unselfish service is a common trait. The police (ideally) have
no other purpose than to protect and serve the nation’s communities. In performing
this service, capable men and women make sacrifices. They give up potentially lucrative
and rewarding opportunities in other jobs. They put themselves in danger, sometimes
sacrificing their lives. Small business is perceived to share two key traits with
the military: fairness and accountability. In small business, Americans see the
best qualities of the nation’s economic system (opportunity for those who seek it,
rewards for those who succeed), absent the abuses and corruption that they impute
to big business and banks. Small business owners pursue self-interest, but their
success is deserved because it emerges from their own hard work and not from a manipulation
of the system’s resources. Small businesses create wealth and opportunity; they
are a gateway for immigrants to enter the American middle class, and they evoke
the entrepreneurial spirit and mythos of American economic history – think of Andrew
Carnegie, Bill Gates, the fictional heroes of Horatio Alger stories, and so on. Furthermore,
small business owners are exposed to risk; if a small business fails, it is left
to fail. Thus, fairness works both ways.
Accountability and merit-based rewards are two sides of the same coin: there is
no justice in rewarding success if there are no consequences to failure. In this
regard, we may understand some of what lies behind the military’s resilience in
the face of a second challenge: scandal. Unlike tactical or operational failure,
scandal presents a different problem. It is typically a failure of the institution
itself, and blame therefore must reside within it. One may ask how the military
has sustained the public’s confidence through wrenching institutional failures: for
example, Abu Ghraib, the Walter Reed scandal, and the Pat Tillman friendly-fire cover-up.
This is a complex question that is beyond the scope of this essay. However, the
military’s culture of accountability is a crucial element of the institution’s
The military’s internal processes of self-correction and policing are swift and
generally unambiguous. When wrongdoing occurs, the perpetrators are brought to justice.
Incompetent leaders are removed from their positions; for senior leaders, such removals
are usually career-ending. The Walter Reed scandal, for instance, ended the careers
of two generals (including the surgeon general at the time); the secretary of the
army was fired as well. For men and women who have chosen careers in the military,
honor and reputation are the currency of personal success. To end a career in disgrace
is a powerful symbol and a reminder of personal and institutional accountability.
The public appears to understand this. It does not expect perfection from the military;
it expects consequences for internal failures. The military has generally satisfied these expectations.
In their book The Meritocracy Myth, sociologists Stephen McNamee and Robert Miller
argue that the American dream rests upon the belief that America is a land of limitless
opportunity in which individuals can go as far as their own merit takes them.13
Individuals get out of the system what they put into it, and getting ahead is based
on individual merit – a combination of factors including innate abilities, working
hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character. McNamee and Miller
go on to point out, however, that certain social forces in America can suppress
or negate the effects of merit in the race to get ahead. Such forces include inheritance,
social and cultural advantages, unequal educational opportunity, the decline of
self-employment, and discrimination in all its forms. Yet the military is seen to
be relatively free of these sources of injustice.
The military places soldiers,
sailors, marines, and airmen and women in a culture in which advancement and recognition
are based on individual achievement. The social sources of injustice described by
McNamee and Miller are countered by military policies that eliminate nepotism, negate
socioeconomic and cultural differences, and express zero tolerance for any type
of discrimination. Nepotism and inheritance are eliminated by the lack of horizontal
entry into the profession. The only way to move up the hierarchy in the military
is to start at the bottom. Thus, most Americans believe that the military provides
opportunity to all Americans; they have faith that competence is recognized and
rewarded, and that training and educational resources are provided. Simultaneously,
they are reassured by the fact that incompetence and failure have consequences in
the military. Much of the anger toward American corporations today stems from the
feeling that the men and women who lead these firms have escaped the just consequences
of their actions. This offends Americans’ strong sense of fairness.
The military’s embodiment of selflessness, merit, and accountability has led some
to seek broader lessons from the example set by the armed forces. In particular,
the military is offered as an exemplar in instilling the notions of service and
civic responsibility in America’s youth. Calls to reinstate a draft (or at least
a draft as a part of compulsory national service) are indicative of this sentiment.
According to this view, the draft, beyond meeting the manpower requirements of the
military in a way that reflects the society it serves, would draw the country together
through the common experience of national service, would encourage the development
of shared values, and would be a powerful remedy for the individualism that seems
to dominate today’s society. The sociologist Charles Moskos, harkening back to the
draft days in the post–World War II era, has noted:
During the peaceful years of the 1950s – a time not unlike our own, when the threat
of mass destruction hung in the air – most Ivy League men had to spend two years in
uniform, before or after college, working and bunking with others of very different
backgrounds and races (the military, remember, was about the only racially integrated
institution at the time).
This shared experience helped instill in those who served, as in the national culture
generally, a sense of unity and moral seriousness that we would not see again – until
after September 11, 2001. It’s a shame that it has taken terrorist attacks to awaken
us to the reality of our shared national fate. We should use this moment to rebuild
institutions like the draft that will keep us awake to this reality even as the
memory of the attacks fades.14
While a return to the draft seems a remote possibility, there are other ways to
leverage the virtues of the military in promoting good citizenship, and to trans
- late the values engendered through military training, education, and leadership
development. Retired military officers have been summoned to lead troubled school
districts in places such as Washington, D.C., Seattle, Huntsville, and Wake County,
North Carolina. Programs to rehabilitate wayward juveniles via teen boot camps and
junior ROTC detachments have multiplied in schools across the nation in an effort
to instill the values of self-discipline and leadership. Additionally, public school
military academies have emerged in response to the yearning for renewed citizenship.
In Chicago – where more than ten thousand high school students now wear a uniform
to class–retired Army officer and current principal of the Chicago Marine Academy,
Paul Stroh, has stated that the mission of public military schools is simply to
“produce a student that is prepared for post-secondary education and that eventually
will become a leader in their community, at the city, the state, or even the national
Turning to the military model for the education of America’s youth has received
some criticism. Boot camps have been under closer scrutiny after instances of abuse,
junior ROTC and public school military academies have been accused of surreptitiously
serving as recruiting offices, and the pedagogical competence of military officers
serving in positions of educational leadership has been questioned. Nevertheless,
admiration for the role of the military in imbuing the values of citizenship in
young people has endured.
But what exactly is it about the military that takes America’s youth – who are often
in a stage of life more characterized by self-interest and selfishness than sacrifice
and selflessness – and transforms them into soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen
who are willing to set aside self-interest in pursuit of the greater good?16 What
makes them willing to expose themselves to the consequences of their decisions (including
the potential loss of life) when a different career choice would offer a path less
fraught with danger? Is it the stripping away of the individual identity in order
to emphasize uniformity (and uniforms)? Is it the discipline of a hierarchical system
with clearly defined ranks, organizational rituals, customs, and courtesies? While
these aspects of the military are often the most noticeable, they are also the most
superficial. The development of selfless and responsible citizens begins with the
recognition that service members are, above all, Americans; and an acceptance of
the contradiction inherent to American society: the tension between self-interest
and individualism, on the one hand, and commitment to and sacrifice for the common
good, on the other.
Instead of stamping out all vestiges of American individualism in its members, the
U.S. military surrounds its members with a culture that redefines self-interest.
It is a culture that relies on what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest
well understood.” From his travels throughout the United States during the early
1800s, Tocqueville noted:
Americans . . . are pleased to explain almost all the actions of their life with
the aid of self-interest well understood; they complacently show how the enlightened
love of themselves constantly brings them to aid each other and disposes them willingly
to sacrifice a part of their time and their wealth to the good of the state. . .
. Each American knows how to sacrifice a part of his particular interests to save
Tocqueville’s Americans valued their liberty – their ability to choose for themselves
and enjoy the fruits of their labors – yet they also grasped the essential paradox
of liberty: that its maintenance requires collective action. People during that
period understood that citizens who acted to further the interests of society ultimately
served their own interests through the betterment of the society in which they lived.
This could happen only if they subjected themselves to a collective authority of
civic and political groups.
Some have lamented the decline of the civic society Tocqueville observed (notably Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone), but the American military
retains the individualism essential to being an American while also emphasizing
the principle of “self-interest well understood.” Uniforms, jargon, salutes, discipline,
and hierarchy may encourage this principle, but as social psychologist Edgar Schein
points out, these are secondary reinforcing mechanisms – practices that are
visible to outsiders, and therefore likely to be seen as the roots of the organizational
culture.18 They tell us that some sort of culture is present, but they do not tell
us how it came about, what it does, or how it endures.
It is through its leaders – from the lowest level sergeant to the highest ranking
general – that the military passes on its culture of “self-interest well understood.”
In the army, for example, this process begins the first day a new member is introduced
to the military via the drill sergeant, who, along with the noncommissioned officer
(NCO) corps in general, epitomizes the two characteristics that make the military
a well-regarded American institution: competence and selflessness. These two themes
characterize the Noncommissioned Officer Creed (abridged below), which is recited
with pride by every sergeant in the Army:
No one is more professional than I. . . . Competence is my watchword. My two basic
responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind – accomplishment of my mission
and the welfare of my soldiers. . . . All soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership;
I will provide that leadership. I know my soldiers and I will always place their
needs above my own.
For many new soldiers, the NCO is the first adult in their lives whose primary purpose
is to develop them into better men and women, and better leaders. In their NCOs,
soldiers discover a curious mix of high expectations, hard truths, and unexpected
compassion. Soldiers gradually realize that NCOs are drastically underpaid considering
their line of work, spend inordinate time working with soldiers at the expense of
family and personal needs, and are utterly devoted to their soldiers and the Army.
Soldiers learn that NCOs take equal pride in being the “backbone of the Army” and
subordinating their needs and interests to those of the officers over them or the
soldiers under them. Through constant exposure to these role models, each new generation
in every service of the military learns the principle of “self-interest well understood.”
The culture is also embedded through the actions and attitudes of military leaders
at the highest levels. As discussed above, the U.S. military is led by civilians.
The concept of civilian control of the military ensures that the most decorated,
highest ranking officers will still subordinate their views to the civilians appointed
over them. It is the duty of military officers to render their expert military opinion,
but it is the decision of the civilian political leadership that determines the
strategic direction of the military. For the good of the nation, military leaders
are subordinate to their elected political leaders. From President Truman’s firing
of General Douglas MacArthur in 1951, to General Stanley McChrystal’s relief as
commander of forces in Afghanistan in 2010 by President Obama, history provides
numerous examples of this subordination – a fact built on service and accountability.
The men and women of the armed forces, including senior officers, sacrifice a great
deal of personal liberty. They subordinate their wills to the protection of the
U.S. Constitution and, more tangibly, to the will of their superiors and the code
of conduct of the organization. Yet such a commitment must be reinforced by other
organizational practices. In this regard, the reinforcing mechanisms of military
culture establish and guard privileges that are found almost nowhere else in American
society. This is the implicit contract of military service. To the soldier, sailor,
marine, and airman, the nation says, “Give me your liberty, and I will give you
Members of the armed forces live free from many of the fears that daily weigh on
their civilian counterparts. The value of the individual is reinforced in the complete
social safety net (by “complete,” we do not suggest it is without flaws) that surrounds
service members from the day they enter the service until the day they leave, and
in some cases, long after they retire. Individual identity may be diminished by
providing soldiers common uniforms, for example, but the value of individuals is
enhanced. Socioeconomic differences are erased. Personnel of similar rank receive
similar housing, health care, and compensation. They shop in the same department
and grocery stores (the post exchange, or PX, and the commissary). Discrimination
is minimized in a system that emphasizes (and includes in performance evaluations)
equal opportunity, but stops short of using quotas in order to avoid reverse discrimination.
Thus, contrary to McNamee and Miller’s observations that meritocracy is a myth in
America, individualism via the workings of meritocracy is alive and well in the
This push-pull dynamic of the subordination and protection of individual liberty
is perhaps most powerfully demonstrated in the military’s code of comradeship. Military
men and women take tremendous personal risks for the sake of a fallen or wounded
fellow. Returning to the example of the Army, soldiers are encouraged to strive
for personal advancement, but always within the context of others – whether that be
a buddy, the unit, or the profession. This juxtaposition of the individual with
the obligation toward others is core to the Soldier’s Creed:
I am an American Soldier.
I am a warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people
of the United States, and live the Army Values.
I will always place the mission
first. I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient
in my warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy,
the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.
I am a guardian of
freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American Soldier.
For a soldier to promise never to leave a fallen comrade – even if that means endangering
himself in the process – requires a transformed understanding of individualism. The
individual is of great worth, but it is always the other individual. No soldier
demands special treatment, for he or she knows that such demands are unnecessary.
It is the principle of “self-interest well understood.”
The Soldier’s Creed, though, is merely an artifact of Army culture. We find an organization’s
true values and beliefs not in creeds or published proclamations, but in observing
how rewards and recognition are dispensed within the organization. Corporations
dole out pay raises and bonuses to reinforce and recognize those who exemplify desired
corporate values. Instead of monetary remuneration, the military relies on awards
or medals to applaud those who uphold and exemplify its values. The highest award
in the military is the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded by the president to
a service member who “distinguishes himself or herself conspicuously by gallantry
and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty
while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”19
of the Medal of Honor are so respected by other members of the military that they are customarily saluted, regardless of rank or status. The Medal
of Honor may be the military’s most vivid symbol of the application of the principle
of “self-interest well understood.” Of the servicemen awarded the medal during and
since World War II, almost 60 percent died as a result of their heroism. This extraordinary
standard of self-sacrifice has continued in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan
(see Table 3).
Post–9/11 Medal of Honor Recipients
Killed while holding the nemy at bay
allowing for the wounded to be carried
Fought hand-to-hand with the enemy
and hurled himself on a grenade to
protect fellow Marines
Led a four-man reconnaissance team
in a fight against superior numbers
exposed himself to hostile fire in order
to call for help
Killed while trying to rescue a wounded
soldier from intense small arms and
rocket-propelled grenade fire
Saved the lives of his fellow SEALs
at his sniper position by diving on a
Saved the lives of four soldiers by
diving on a grenade while inside a
For risking his life to save a wounded
solidier from being captured
Fatally shot while diverting gunfire from
Taliban forces so that his fellow solidiers
Picked up and threw a live grenade
away from his fellow soldiers
Rescued 23 Afghans and 13 Americans
in the heat of battle
In a time of cynicism toward public institutions, American society continues to
hold the U.S. military in high esteem. Competence, accountability, and subordination
of the institution’s interests to those of society are the main drivers of societal
confidence. American society has also taken notice of the military’s success in transferring
institutional selflessness to the individual. As a result, many aspects of the military
are being emulated throughout the country in an effort to instill the principles
of citizenship in America’s young people. Yet the symbols of military culture – including
discipline, uniforms, and ceremony – only scratch the surface. While meaningful and
perhaps ennobling to many of today’s youth, these characteristics of the military
are themselves subordinate to the fundamental principle of “self-interest well understood.”
This principle is conveyed through a culture that retains American individualism
and American collective engagement. It strives to maintain and protect a meritocracy
built on accountability, while equally emphasizing the institution’s obligations
to the soldiers and their families, and the soldiers’ obligations to their comrades
and the profession.
U.S. Government Document: No rights reserved
LEONARD WONG is Research Professor
of Military Strategy in the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.
He is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. His publications include The
Effects of Multiple Deployments on Army Adolescents (with Stephen J. Gerras,
2010), Developing Adaptive Leaders: The Crucible Experience of Operation Iraqi Freedom
(2004), and Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War (with
Thomas A. Kolditz, Raymond Millen, and Terrence Potter, 2003).
STEPHEN J. GERRAS
is the General Matthew B. Ridgway Chair of Leadership in the Department of Command,
Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. He is a retired Colonel
in the U.S. Army and an organizational psychologist. He has published numerous articles
and book chapters on leadership, organizational performance, and critical thinking.