Hint: values of honesty, integrity, accountability, innovation, and self-sacrifice
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in “The Prince” that it is better to be feared than loved. Interestingly the United States military is both. Feared by its adversaries across the globe, but universally admired at home.
In fact polls undertaken by Pew Research have found that the military has been universally popular for a cross-section of Americans since at least 1990. It is also rare to hear of a politician openly critical of the military, and while pockets of opposition might exist over a particular military action, these are accompanied by claims that the complainant is “supportive of our troops.”
In an age where no institution or organization, private, public or something in between, is above scathing criticism, it is intriguing that the United States military is almost universally admired. Why is this so?
The military promotes values like honesty, accountability, and self-sacrifice
Ask people on the street what the military stands for and they will say: honesty, integrity, accountability, innovation, and self-sacrifice.
The self-sacrifice part of the answer is self-evident. The military is an organization which expects people to put their lives on the line for their country. And its members do that on a daily basis. Many Americans find that a remarkable thing.
But beyond that, Americans believe that the military is about honesty, integrity and accountability. The military is the only secular institution in the country that can fire an individual simply for infidelity. That would be unheard of in a corporate board room. And although much has been written about how general officers do not suffer the consequences of failed military campaigns, the military is a pretty unforgiving place for mistakes. If a ship has a collision, that ship’s commanding officer can kiss his/her promotion good bye. The military takes accountability seriously.
The military is about two more things which endears it in the hearts of most Americans. While the institution stands for honesty, courage, and self-sacrifice, values which appeal to most Americans, particularly to older Americans — it is also about innovation and learning.
Of all of the institutions in the country, the one institution which cannot afford to be complacent, is the military. The military has to consistently evaluate a changing security environment and it has to apply new technologies in order to continue to be effective. This is appealing to young Americans, especially millennials. Finally, the military is universally admired because of what it symbolizes. The military reminds Americans of great moments in American history. Who cannot be for an organization which fought the Second World War?
Popular culture show military in positive light
The second reason the military is universally admired is its image. Today most Americans do not personally know anyone serving. What the public knows of the military is limited to only a few channels of information. And these channels of information have largely been positive.
Hollywood is where most Americans get their understanding of the military, and the industry largely makes movies, and television shows which show it in a positive light; not only because that is what sells, but because compelling stories about the military also happen to show the military’s true colors, which also, I argue, is positive.
The same can be said of the second channel Americans get their information on the military: journalism. Embedded reporters make compelling journalism. These reports also humanize the soldier in very difficult combat situations. Good journalism, which shows the unvarnished truth about a subject, also happens to show ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things under very difficult circumstances. And who can’t admire that?
Military people don’t brag — they act
Finally, there is the simple positive effect of military people themselves. Most Americans may not know a lot of people who served; of those that they do know here is what they usually see.
First, veterans never seem to brag about their service. They may have been in the most famous battles of American history, but one has to drag it out of them. That is noteworthy.
Second military people rarely criticize other military people. With one exception. If people who have served do brag about their service, publish an expose of their time in uniform and bust their agreement to not reveal classified information. Take note that military people tend to only criticize each other when they violate some norm or code about one’s service.
Third, when they leave service, military people disproportionately take up jobs which have an oversized impact on a community: policeman, fireman, school teacher. Retired military people also seem to gravitate to leadership positions in civic and religious organizations.
Finally, if one has a neighbor who is a retired or active duty member of the military, that person is often a “can do” person, always with the chain saw ready to help chop up your fallen tree. Military people are “can do” people, an admirable trait.
Military learns from its mistakes
These factors which I argue explain why the American public has such admiration for the military flies in the face of some ugly realities, however. There is no question that the United States military has a serious sexual harassment problem. Senior Department of Defense officials and the service chiefs have been pretty blunt in acknowledging that female service members have over an extended period of time undergone unacceptable behavior from fellow service members. The military’s wrestling match with its transgender and homosexual service member policies can also be considered a black eye for some in the general public.
Additionally, not even the staunchest defenders of the military as an institution would claim that it is without its flaws and shortcomings. The terms SNAFU and FUBAR, not spelled out here for obvious reasons, were terms invented in the Second World War to convey how the day to day life in the military, both in peacetime and in war, could sink into the surreal and ridiculous. Hollywood despite its tendency to portray the military in positive light and embedded journalists have not shied away from exposing the American public to these shortcomings.
The military’s ability to turn around a truly poor image following the Vietnam War might serve as the beginnings of an explanation as to why the American public still admires the military despite awareness of these ugly realities.
First the military went from a conscripted military to an All-Volunteer Force, which meant that everyone serving for the most part, wanted to be there. That eliminated a whole host of psychological and personal problems from American service members which were apparent in Vietnam. That vastly reduced, if not eliminated, poor and questionable behavior out in the field, during conflicts and in interactions with foreign populations and with the press. That also means that every service member who interacts with the public today is generally a good ambassador for the uniform.
Second, one of the major lessons the Department of Defense took away from the Vietnam conflict was its mismanagement of information associated with the war. This subsequently led to more enlightened policies related to embedding journalists with combat units, a closer scrutiny of the military’s image in Hollywood scripts, and a focused effort on recruitment of the right individuals for military service.
Third, that the military took serious its shortcomings and failures during Vietnam and then appeared to overcome these problems in subsequent conflicts has given the military a reputation as a learning organization which seeks to address its shortcomings. This made the military, in the eyes of the American public, an organization which can be trusted to fix such serious problems as sexual harassment and a whole host of discrimination issues. In short, the military’s record on fixing itself may have bought it sufficient trust for the American public who believe that the military can and will over time fix shortcomings.
What the military can teach institutions suffering lack of trust
What can other institutions, particularly the media, learn from the military’s ability to build trust? The lessons don’t all translate. While most journalists see themselves as committed to a mission — protecting democracy by reporting accurate information — the public won’t ever equate that with risking life defending national security. The media, like the military, can consult with Hollywood to ensure accurate portrayal in films, but there just aren’t that many movies about journalism. The military has work policies that allow soldiers to count civic engagement — e.g. volunteering to lead a scout troop — as “work;” many journalists already consider their jobs to be round-the-clock civic engagement. However, promoting expectations of honesty, integrity and accountability is possible and can be reinforced if an organization or an industry so chooses.