Concentric Circles Around Your Own Desk

It took the Secretary of Defense less than a month to issue a force-wide stand down to “address extremism in the ranks,” after news broke that several of the U.S. Capitol arrestees were current or former military members.  Article after article came out by retired fleet and general officers that decried radicalism and accused the department of permitting extremism to grow and thrive in the force.  There is no evidence of it mind you, merely anecdotes and correlation between military service and, I guess, Trump support (??).  Nevertheless, we now have service branch orders, video statements, white letters, and of course, PowerPoint presentations.

To my knowledge, while many of our senior leaders have been quick to go after Tucker Carlson for his crude remarks about the force, I have not seen any come out and defend the integrity of our force and challenge the assertions that we breed violent extremists.

It took weeks before anyone at Fort Hood undertook a meaningful effort to locate Vanessa Guillen.  Commands secure leave and liberty to find replaceable night vision goggles, but business as usual when it is an actual human being.  It took months after her body was located for anyone in her chain of command to be relieved.  To my knowledge, there have been no white letters or stand downs about accountability or looking after our people.

Nine Marines and Sailors were killed in a preventable training accident when their amphibious assault vehicle sank to the bottom of the ocean.  Where was the operational pause to discuss whether tempo is sustainable given maintenance cycles and resource shortfalls?  Where were the social media posts imploring Congress to rectify budget issues and make sure maintainers can maintain?

It is painfully obvious that when commanders make mistakes, they are insulated by the bureaucracy.  People want stars and once they get them, they do not want to lose them.  Mistakes and risks are transferred and passed down to the lowest levels.  However, when the rank and file make mistakes, commanders are quick to act and, if it becomes national news, we are force-fed PowerPoint presentations and given patronizing lectures.

Fast forward to today, all across the force, small unit leaders are being lectured about their oaths and beaten over the head about political activities policy.  Nevermind that veterans are not beholden to any oath and we just had political activities lectures in the wake of the George Floyd protests.  Also, kudos to the cubicle dweller at the Pentagon who is surely getting a medal for that slide deck.  I am sure that this stand down has nothing to do with people having a certain political ideology, and nobody has factored in the chilling effect that this stand down will have on the troops’ First Amendment rights.  As an aside, those zealots who were identified as current or former military members are being held accountable; they are in jail cells awaiting trial.  The system identified and addressed the problem.

If the military thinks that extremism is a bigger issue than a few bad actors, maybe take a page out of General Clark’s playbook and start “wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.”  Put another way, the department should take a closer look at where its priorities are right now and where they should be.  For example, enough of this transparent “cover your ass” mindset that has become almost default since COVID.  Senior leaders have spent the better part of a year covering up for their own lack of preparation and deficit of common sense in responding to the pandemic.  The most potent example was the Secretary of the Navy flying from Washington to Guam to scream at the crew of the USS Roosevelt for simply loving their skipper.

Stop focusing on optics and begin focusing on caring for your own people.  Civilian oversight does not mean that we placate and pander when there is media scrutiny.  Bad press is not accountability.  Have the moral courage to stand up for us and tell the media, the public, and civilian officials that you believe in and trust us.  You seem more than willing to do so when it is aligned with one political narrative.

The approach to “addressing extremism” is fundamentally flawed.  Accepting that it exists, it cannot be eliminated with lectures and punishment.  Extremism is uncompromising by its very nature.

Its precursor is helplessness, desperation, fear and loneliness—people feeling that they lack control over the most important aspects of their lives.  A sustained lack of control predicated on those feelings will lead someone to feeling angry and resentful, prone to outburst.  These people start to believe that they have no choice; their behavior and associations become more extreme and finally—logically—the individual becomes an extremist.

Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Soldiers:  You always have a choice—a choice to make the best decision you can, to fight back against adversity, and to ask for help.  Leaders should inspire and foster trust so that you never feel hopelessness.  If they are not doing a good enough job, you need to address it.  Never give up on trying to make your command better because others will come to the unit after you.  Think of who follows even if your experience was poor.

Leaders:  Going back to General Clark’s concentric circles, you have an obligation to make those choices mean something.  If you care about your people and you care about what drives them to do extreme things in their lives, make an effort to show them that you actually take their needs and worries seriously.  Do not let anxiety and uncertainty turn into fear and hopelessness.  Promote an inviting command climate; do not pay lip service to caring for your people.

We cannot say that we care about the mission if we do not care about our people.  People are the mission because people accomplish the mission.  We owe it to them to do all we can to positively influence their lives.  We need to take care of them and each other while under contract and after we get out.  This is what mitigates the risk of people becoming hopeless and becoming extremists.  This is especially the case after people get out.  There is no excuse for the way we treat our veterans who disproportionately experience the hopelessness and lack of control that drives people to extreme views.

We do not need to be reminded of our oaths.  We do not need a lecture about restricted political activities.  If the department is serious about wanting to shape and influence the minds of service members, try actually leading them; show us that you care as much about missing soldiers and vehicle mishaps as you do bad press. 

Stick up for us when it is politically inconvenient and when people unfairly question the integrity and fidelity of the force.  Be honest about the real problems facing the military, namely, how the military treats its own people—past and present—and how that informs and impacts their mental health and behavior.  Above all, remember that you serve us, not the other way around.

Also, a lot of E9s need to re-read their own social media policies and orders.

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