The Hidebound Military Mind

We have our issues with the selection of senior leadership in the services. But Chris Hedges, despite apparently never serving a day in uniform, appears to have all the answers.

I had my first experience with the U.S. military when I was a young reporter covering the civil war in El Salvador. We journalists were briefed at the American Embassy each week by a U.S. Army colonel who at the time headed the military group of U.S. advisers to the Salvadoran army. The reality of the war, which lasted from 1979 to 1992, bore little resemblance to the description regurgitated each week for consumption by the press. But what was most evident was not the blatant misinformation—this particular colonel had apparently learned to dissemble to the public during his multiple tours in Vietnam—but the hatred of the press by this man and most other senior officers in the U.S. military. When first told that he would have to meet the press once a week, the colonel reportedly protested against having to waste his time with those “limp-dicked communists.”

For the next 20 years I would go on from war zone to war zone as a foreign correspondent immersed in military culture. Repetitive rote learning and an insistence on blind obedience—similar to the approach used to train a dog—work on the battlefield. The military exerts nearly total control over the lives of its members. Its long-established hierarchy ensures that those who embrace the approved modes of behavior rise and those who do not are belittled, insulted and hazed. Many of the marks of civilian life are stripped away. Personal modes of dress, hairstyle, speech and behavior are heavily regulated. Individuality is physically and then psychologically crushed. Aggressiveness is rewarded. Compassion is demeaned. Violence is the favorite form of communication. These qualities are an asset in war; they are a disaster in civil society.  [Bolding mine-XBrad]

There’s a lot of shopworn tropes in there.

First and foremost, Repetitive rote learning… yes, there is a lot of repetitive learning.  Much as a football team  practices and practices the same play-option hundreds, thousands of times, so to does the military endlessly repeat training, from basic skills to fairly complex battle drills. But it is  by building a solid foundations on the basics, that the professional can begin to improve his ability to  adapt and to successfully complete ever more complex tasks, be it on the battlefield, or the football field. Or in business. Or even the newsroom. Most reporters don’t start out as senior political correspondent. They serve their time doing the police beat, or covering the mundane.

Further, that “rote learning” masks one of the key directives every single person in the service has had pressed upon them almost from the first day of service- “Pull your head out of your ass!” Or as IBM used to famously put it, “THINK!” 

But the insistence on blind obedience is just about the most incredible misconception the public has.   Very, very few institutions allow as much scope for disagreement with one’s boss. In the civilian world, you can easily be fired for capricious reasons. In the military, within a surprisingly wide scope, you can disagree with your boss vehemently, often with no consequence, and at worst with a bad report card, and even there your boss’s boss serves as a backstop to ensure personal chemistry doesn’t unfairly influence your review.

As to intellectual diversity, that’s pretty rich coming from a journalist. Few industries are as overwhelmingly ideologically aligned as journalism, where from 90-95% of people in a newsroom are Democrats.



6 responses to “The Hidebound Military Mind

  1. If he had said “Repetitive rote learning and an insistence on blind dogma” it would have been a devastating critique of his own profession.

    Looks like someone’s been watching too many bad Hollywood movies about soldiers.


  2. Repetative rote time on the 5″/38 loading machine certainly paid off.There were dual mounts that managed to break 40 RPM, for shot periods of time. The IJN believed that we had developed a full auto five incher.


  3. Rote learning? The basics, yes. Blind obedience? Sometimes. The military is not a democracy. But, there are times to argue, and you should argue.


  4. In my experience, the US Navy was one of the least hidebound of institutions. Operating in a dangerous environment means the truth was important.

    Knowing how to instinctively operate in a crisis is the reason for the rote learning (called Policy, Proceedures, or Training). Training leads to motor skills derived from someone’s previously felt pain. Training has a purpose, and it also helps to recognize when blind obedience is vital. At it’s best, the military is a true meritocracy.

    The sea can change quickly, so adaptability was always important. I was able to be much more creative in the Navy. You were given a goal, and could take a number of paths to mission success. By contrast, bureaucrats stive to drive adaptability away, and dictate paths to uncertain success. CYA and winning are often opposites.

    In science, one way to test a truth was to try and falsify the observation. Let’s assume todays journalists are correct, and pbho is doing wonderful things. The economy is great, everyone loves Obamacare, and we are better off under pbho’s benevolant and wise leadership. For the observant, the previous sentence is a lie. Today’s lying, ill-informed propagandists in journalism perpetuate the destruction of America and the American dream.

    Paridoxically academia, science, and education all have much more of a hierachial feel than the Navy, with very little ability to question a superior’s own perception/reality mismatch.


  5. timactual

    Twenty years “immersed in military culture” and yet he learned very little about it. Individuality crushed? I guess it is if your idea of individuality is a hairstyle or a T-shirt with a cool motto on it. Or wearing a hat backwards.


  6. Greentree

    I saw the press in Salvador. They were a bunch of idiots who hunbg out in hotel bars and repeated the hot rumors that were passed from one journalist to another. My favorite involves one noted DC MSM biggie who was set up with a flase rumor he duly reported. He later was made to look a fool because he never bothered to verify or cross check data but acted as media types do, hyping a story to fit their agenda.

    They never understood the nature of the war in Central America, and this man lied about the colonel. Although I have to say his successor was a true cretin who allowed the ambassador, a true foggy bottom professional to stymie almost all requests for reasonable military assistance such as additional choopers and a few gunships. State never changes, it requires a brain removal, spine removal, and the removal of all guts, to be replaced by brown noses, goose stepping, and chorus line reporting. In fact it is much like the MSM.